Christmas at Mission City Coffee

I’m writing a book! Or actually, I’ve compiled and refined some of my favorite HOLIDAILIES posts from the ten years I’ve been participating, and created a book from them. Look for The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the (Holiday) Tub for Kindle and Paperback sometime in the next ten days. Meanwhile, today’s piece was written just for the book (and for Holidailies, of course).

There is a cold rain trying its best to soak us as my mother and I dash from the car to the back door of our favorite café, the Mission City Coffee Roasting Company. It is the week before Christmas and we are having a late lunch while we wrap up the last few loans scheduled to fund before the new year.

Boston, the owner’s son, is working the bar and he waves to us as we step inside. Mom heads off to use the restroom, and I go to order our food – artichoke penne, maybe or the vegetarian lasagna that is so deliciously spicy – and coffee, before I take a seat at my favorite table, the one in the window.

We were among the very first customers when the café had opened, and we remained loyal over the years, getting to know the baristas – the regulars who often hung their art on the brick walls, and the rotating collection of students from nearby Santa Clara University.

Because we both lived and worked in the neighborhood, we got to know a lot of the regular customers, as well, like the frail old man with the bushy white beard and the quiet, solid presence. He was a Quaker, my mother told me, and a deserter from World War II. He was strongly anti-war, and when Women Opposed to War held demonstrations, he would always be there, supporting the cause.

That old man always struck me as possessing both great wisdom and great sadness, but I never really knew him well enough to learn the truth.

It seems fitting that he should be there, spending the rainy December day surrounded by the familiar faces of people he recognizes doesn’t really know.

Imagine the scene: the café in its afternoon lull; most of the staff is finishing the cleanup from the lunch rush. Cold rain outside meeting the warm coffee and pastry-infused air inside has fogged all the windows, and in one corner, a young woman, one of that year’s crop of students, is singing to herself as she wipes down tables.

“You’re really good,” someone tells her. “Sing more?”

She glances to Boston, a combination of fear and delight on her face. He nods permission, and she opens her mouth, singing an a capella version of “O Holy Night” that has all of us moved nearly to tears.

“Sing more,” one of the other customers says, bringing his latte with him to the piano. “I can play for you, if you want.”

There is a murmur of encouragement from all of us. “Oh, yes, please do. Your voice is so lovely.”

He’s in a button-down shirt and khaki pants – the winter version of the Silicon Valley dress code.

She is wearing jeans and a t-shirt under her café-issued apron. She has blue eyes, strawberry-blonde hair in a choppy version of a pixie cut, and the round cheeks of a person who is both a singer, and not yet out of their late teens.

Boston slings his apron over the counter, then rests his elbows on top of it. “Go ahead,” he says. “It’s not busy.”

And so we are treated to an impromptu concert of holiday music, unrehearsed, but somehow perfect in its imperfection.

The piano playing is a bit uneven, but her voice compensates, soaring above the plunked keys in a pure, operatic soprano that fills the room.

Later we learn that she’s a music major, studying to be an opera singer. She sings pop and folk, as well, and she’ll be one of the acts at the next open mic night.
The piano player’s coffee and pastry are comped.

We all leave big tips in the jar, knowing that Boston will ensure that the singer gets the extra.

Mom and I finish lunch, and leave the café, facing the cold rain, and the busy streets, the drivers who can never seem to use turn signals, the clients who haven’t followed instructions, and the lenders who take forever to make decisions.

But somehow nothing seems quite as dire or urgent as it did before.
Somehow, despite the unrelenting rain, we leave the café with bubbles of sunlight in our hearts.

Holidailies 2015

Every-day Magic

Today, I’m taking prompts from the November/December project “Do You Believe in Magic?” at CafeWriting. It’s a site I started in 2007, and then took a long hiatus from, but it’s back, and you’re all encouraged to participate.

In any case, the prompt of the moment is: Give me seven examples of every-day magic. and as I like lists, I thought I would.

  1. Puppy kisses. None of my dogs are actually puppies any more – even Max will be two in a couple of weeks – but they still give sweet puppy kisses, and cuddle when they know I’m upset about something.
  2. My grandfather’s stuffing recipe. I posted it a few days ago. On the surface, it’s simple – bread, apples, onions, bacon, celery, spices – and yet it’s instant joy when it comes out of the roasted turkey and goes into a serving bowl. Yes, I made extra.
  3. The birds in my back yard. I’m not sure we get the same ones every year, but certainly we get members of the same families. There’s a family of cardinals who come back every winter and spring, for example, and this blue jay that is almost as big as a chicken. I love that they keep coming back, and even when they’re annoying (like the grackles) I feel like I’m being visited by special creatures.
  4. Imagination. I use it to put me inside every book I read, and to help me create everything I write. I feel sorry for people who are so linear, so rigid, that they cannot imagine anything other than what they have.
  5. Music. The right song can bring me out of the deepest funk or calm my nerves, depending on the moment. Most of the time, though, I can’t listen to anything with lyrics while I’m writing.
  6. Bubble Baths. Scented soap suds, toasty-warm water, a rolled towel, soft light – instant relaxation, softer skin, and hey, you come out of it smelling great, as well.
  7. Candlelight. There’s something about flickering flame that changes the dimensions of a room, and the tone of an afternoon. I like electricity as much as anyone else, but I have a special fondness for candlelight.

Scene on a Winter Evening

Kindle the taper like the steadfast star
Ablaze on evening’s forehead o’er the earth,
And add each night a lustre till afar
An eightfold splendor shine above thy hearth.

~Emma Lazarus, “The Feast of Lights”

She holds a single, lit, taper in her hand, and watches the tiny flame dance on the end for a moment before using it to light the rest of the candles on the table. A menorah is glowing in the window, but there’s a Christmas tree sharing the space, neither diminishing the other.

The candles on the table now ablaze, she replaces the taper in one of the mis-matched (on purpose) silver candlesticks she’s had since college, and lifts a hand to brush a stray hair from her forehead.

She hasn’t had time to vacuum the rugs, but the lights are dimmed, the house lit by candle and star, and she knows her steadfast friends are coming for the company, the companionship, not to judge her housekeeping skills.

Her mother taught her well: dinner is warming in the oven, ready, but with no need to rush, hors d’oevres are waiting to be devoured, music just a click away from being played. Her husband comes up behind her in the dining room doorway. “Stop worrying,” he says. “You always worry that no one will show up, and they always do, and they always have a good time.”

She relaxes against him, lets his strength, as solid as the earth itself, kindle confidence within her. “Do you ever feel like you’re just playing at this whole grown-up thing, and that one day you’ll wake up and realize you’re still ten years old?”

He chuckles in her ear. “Trust me, sweetheart, you are no ten year old.”

The innuendo is playful, and she laughs in return. “No, I know. But…do you?”

“Never,” he says.

He turns her, in his arms, so that she is facing him, and seeing the love in his eyes sets her heart ablaze all over again. “Never?” she asks, disbelieving.

“Never. When I was ten, I hated girls.”

They share a laugh that turns into a kiss, and for a fraction of a second they flirt with more, but the doorbell rings, and they pull apart. She heads for the door, but he catches her hand and pulls her back, using his thumb to wipe the smeared lipstick from below her lips. “Later…” he says, and she knows exactly what he means.

“Count on it.”

* * *
Written for the Cafe Writing Holiday Project, Option Two: Pick Three.

Indistinguishable From Magic

A 2008 Best of Holidailies Selection. Thanks, Holidailies Reviewers!

That’s the thing with magic. You’ve got to know it’s still here, all around us, or it just stays invisible for you.
~Charles DeLint

The Cafe Writing Holiday Project asks us to write about seven magical things in our world…

  1. Plastic Christmas Trees: Fresh from the box, they look every inch a fake tree, but once they’re decked in lights and ornaments, positioned in the window in just the right way, wrapped in a skirt, and playing host to presents, they become as real as the trees that grow from the earth. As they age, plastic trees even drop needles.
  2. Crayons: The texture of the paper wrapping, the scent of the wax, the colored strokes across paper, rough or smooth – there’s something so innocent about it all, and so amazing as well, in the possibilities they represent.
  3. New Nightgowns: Whether plain or lacy, cotton or satin, or not a nightgown at all, but brand new flannel pajamas, new nightwear makes you feel sexy or sweet, cozy or carefree, depending on the weather and the style. A new nightgown at Christmas has long been a family tradition. (This year, mine is red and strappy.)
  4. Cookie Dough: Sugar, flour, vanilla, spices, love and magic. Mix it up, roll it into balls, eat half of it raw, and then bake the rest.
  5. Hot Chocolate: There are coffee moments and tea moments, but once the weather turns chilly and the skies turn gray there is nothing more magical than a steaming mug of hot chocolate. Garnish with whipped cream or marshmallows, stir with a candy cane or a chocolate coated spoon. Sip alone while curled up by the fire, or around a table full of conversing friends. It warms your heart as much as your belly.
  6. Fog: This is nature’s soft-focus lens, and it makes everything seem a little less harsh, blurring edges and softening lines. Lights twinkle more in fog, whether they’re traffic lights or holiday lights, and fires seem to crackle more. Fog is a soft cotton blanket, one more layer between yourself and cruel reality.
  7. Laughter: It turns a shy child into a witty conversationalist, a wallflower into a star, and a dull day into an amusing interlude. Best shared with others.


It wasn’t so much a lamplight day, today as it was a firelight day. With the sky a bleak and particularly chilly shade of gray, the temperature hovering around 30 degrees, and my husband of to company headquarters in Florida at dawn, I really wanted nothing more than to declare the day “Pajama Monday,” and never leave bed.

Instead, I caught up on sleep missed because I woke up when Fuzzy did, around four, and then could not get back to sleep until after seven, took a sinfully hot shower, and moved my laptop into the living room, on a snack tray near the big blue chair. I brewed a pot of Caribou Coffee’s Mahogany Blend, set a duraflame log ablaze in the fireplace, and turned on the Lifetime Movie Network, for a day of cheerfully bad Christmas movies and the writing of articles for work.

Sadly, I had no focus. It took me four hours to generate 627 words of text, and then I forgot to incorporate the requested keywords. Seeing Wil Wheaton’s tweet that he’d accomplished roughly twice that in six hours made me feel marginally better, in that at least I wasn’t the only wordslinger struggling with the concept of putting one word in front of another in an orderly (and coherent) fashion, today. (It should be noted that while I follow Wil’s tweets, he does not follow mine, nor do I expect him to. I’ve seen people who follow celebs bitch when they don’t get followed back, and that irks me to no end.)

I made a meatloaf sandwich, finished the tail end of the cranberry sauce leftover (and frozen) from Thanksgiving, drank more coffee, let the dogs out, let the dogs back in, and watched the weather reports. I love that cold weather constitutes a “weather event” here. It amuses me that people get freaked out about the number on the thermometer. I was also amused by the phrase “frozen drizzle” to define the sort of barely-perceptible precipitation we are currently experiencing.

The thing is, “frozen drizzle” seems like something that should be garnishing a frappucino, not falling from the sky, and while I was chilly earlier today, two Duraflame logs and copious amounts of coffee, cocoa, water, and Danish butter cookies (the kind in the blue tin – totally unhealthy but oh-so-addictive) later, my body is tired, and my brain…

It’s still frozen.

Box of Me

Some men’s memory is like a box where a man should mingle his jewels with his old shoes.
~George Savile

Louisa May Alcott wrote, in Jo March’s voice, of the treasure boxes Jo and her sisters kept in the attic. Part real, and part metaphor, these collected the essence of each of the four “Little Women.”

“Jo” on the next lid, scratched and worn,
And within a motley store
Of headless, dolls, of schoolbooks torn,
Birds and beasts that speak no more,
Spoils brought home from the fairy ground
Only trod by youthful feet,
Dreams of a future never found,
Memories of a past still sweet,
Half-writ poems, stories wild,
April letters, warm and cold,
Diaries of a wilful child,
Hints of a woman early old,
A woman in a lonely home,
Hearing, like a sad refrain—
“Be worthy, love, and love will come,”
In the falling summer rain.

– Louisa May Alcott

For Café Writing this month, we are asked to list seven things that would be in our own treasure boxes.

The lid of my keepsake box bears no name; the box itself is made of dark walnut and is very simple. It was hand-made just for me, by my mother’s only brother. At some point over the years, the back piece, which was merely decorative, was lost. Originally a place to store toys, it now sits at the foot of my bed. What does it hold? Here’s a list of what may or may not be inside.

  • Zorro’s paw prints, invisible to most, indelible to me, for he uses this box as his step onto our bed, and sometimes curls up on the blanket draped across it.
  • Letters my grandfather wrote to me during my childhood, painstakingly printed for the eyes of a young girl who had not yet learned to parse cursive writing.
  • Barbie and Chuck (not Ken) and their wedding party, all in couture from my mother’s sewing machine. If you listen carefully, you can hear the echo of her voice cursing the teeny, tiny darts she had to make.
  • Spiral notebooks full of old stories and bad poems, some going back to 1975, which is when I really began writing. (I was five). Some are covered in doodles, some are not.
  • Ballet slippers and tap shoes, all sized for tiny feet, from when I took such lessons. Old leotards, worn tights, and an ice skating costume I inherited from a cousin and wore in a performance of Really Rosie when I was seven.
  • A red binder full of old MUSH code, including the first dragon I ever Impressed in an online game, and the first song Fuzzy ever typed to me, as well as printouts of email from before we were married.
  • Fishing poles and beach hats, from summers spent at the Jersey shore with my grandparents. Old reels, and a favorite beach towel, faded beyond recognition but still scented with sand, surf and Sea & Ski.
  • Suzuki books and crumbled rosin cakes, and the programs from various honor orchestras I was in throughout the years. A t-shirt from the National Cello Institute, ca. 1986.
  • Powder puffs with traces of scented bath powder still clinging to the fibers, and empty lip gloss tins like the ones currently being sold by TINte. (I liked Root Beer best.)
  • Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books, which were always fun to read. The copies from the school library pre-dated the whole “update for a modern audience” trend, but somehow they never seemed horribly dated.
  • Leather pony-tail wraps, and beaded pony-tail holders, from when I wore my hair in tails or braids every day, some with smiley faces instead of beads.
  • Records and tapes ranging from vintage Shaun Cassidy (yes, really, Shaun – and my mother never knew I had that one), to the movie soundtrack of Grease on vinyl (I’ve got it on disc now), to Billy Joel, Erasure, and Voice of the Beehive, this last which was the official soundtrack of the Thursday Nights at Mel’s Diner Ms. Pac-Man Tournaments in 1988 & 89.
  • Vials of sand from Sandy Hook, NJ, Martin’s Beach, CA, and the black sand beach in Baja Sur where we had a very windblown picnic with my parents several Christmases ago, plane tickets from a 2002 trip to France (we both got the flu, but we didn’t care because we were puking in French toilets), and old maps of SFO’s MUNI and the NY subway system.

Written for Café Writing’s November/December Project: Option 6, Seven Things, and also for Thursday Thirteen. Yes, I know, 13 is more than 7. This isn’t a math quiz.

Cafe Writing: Feels Like Fall

No man can taste the fruits of autumn while he is delighting his scent with the flowers of spring.
– Samuel Johnson

In improvisation, one of our exercises is a game called “Seven Things,” in which we go around in a circle giving each other the challenge, “Give me seven things that [whatever].” We are not going to go around in a circle here, but if you’re drawn to lists, this prompt is for you.

So, give me seven tastes or scents that define autumn for you.

  1. Ozone. Autumn rain smells sharper than the rain we get in summer.
  2. Smoke. It’s not quite time yet, here in Texas, but once the evening temperatures dip lower than 63 on a routine basis, fireplaces are put to use once more.
  3. Squash. Fall brings pumpkins into vogue, of course, but it also means a return to hardier squashes: acorn, butternut, spaghetti, instead of crookneck and zucchini. I love both the scent and the flavor of harvest squashes.
  4. Apple cider. Sure, it’s available all year round, but it’s only in autumn that you can visit a fair or festival for freshly pressed cider. Sweetened or not, hard or not, with or without cinnamon, chilled or steamed, cider is the one thing that really means that summer is waning, at least for me.
  5. Soup. I love soup. Once the weather begins to turn, it becomes my habit to make soups and stews on the weekend. There’s nothing like something warm and spicy bubbling on the stove or in the crockput, available whenever either of us takes a break from whatever project we’re puttering with.
  6. Heat. I know heaters and furnaces aren’t supposed to have scents, but after a summer of disuse, there’s still a dusty musty smell the first few times we have the heat on in the mornings. It should trigger allergies, but somehow it smells comforting, instead.
  7. Caramel corn. I don’t eat it very often, but there’s something really warming about the buttery/sweet/salty scent and flavor of caramel corn, especially when it’s combined with a rainy day and a great movie.

Written for the Anniversary Project at

Chasing Shadows

For me, shadows generally come in the form of restlessness and lack of focus, rather than deep depression. Whatever the cause though, there are things I do to chase them away. Here are seven.

  1. Sing. Like a little kid, when no one’s around, if I have the time, I can perform entire musicals in my living room.
  2. Dance. Tap, mainly. Sometimes I use the railing of our upstairs hallway and do barre work – it’s kind of Zen. Other times it’s just mindless grooving to whatever music I hear.
  3. Soak. I’ve always responded to water, and taking a bath is completely comforting. Warm water, scented bubbles, a good book, and NPR for company.
  4. Read. I have a shelves full of “comfort books,” – novels I know as well as I know my closest friends. Re-reading them is like visiting home.
  5. Bake. It’s impossible to feel at all blue when there’s something in the oven – bread, chocolate, cinnamon. Doesn’t matter.
  6. Swim. Bubble baths are good for relaxing, but a swim is refreshing. Invigorating. And involves sunshine. Usually.
  7. Sleep. I used to hate sleeping, but now I find it restorative. Also, a bit of melatonin now and then guarantees deep, restful sleep with lovely dreams.

If writing seems conspicuously absent from this list, it’s only because writing is a constant for me, like breathing. It’s there whether there are shadows or not.

For the July/August editon of CafeWriting

CafeWriting: Helpful

Sometimes, there can be much joy in helping someone else…and since my own prompt at CafeWriting for May and June called on me to list seven ways I’ve helped another person, I thought I’d get this down for those times when I’m feeling useless and stupid.

  1. My Mother: She went back to school in her thirties, and I used to help her by editing her essays, and suggesting stronger word choices. Later, when she had to learn a 100-page flip-chart presentation, I helped her with that as well. I think I can still recite it in my sleep. And she helped me, and continues to help me, all through my life.
  2. Various friends, and Fuzzy: I’ve helped them re-write or tweak their resumes. They’ve helped in return by critiquing my work.
  3. My grandmother: While I never learned to knit, I helped straighten her knitting bag, untangling yarn, and matching pairs of needles, more than once. She helped me by teaching me that a gift of the hand is a gift of the heart.
  4. My friend J. in Colorado: I held her hand when she came out, answered her three AM calls when she first began dating women, and stood by when one of her relationships became abusive. She returned the favor, letting me agonize about Fuzzy, answering MY three AM calls, and always offering a safe haven when I needed to escape.
  5. My friend G who sometimes drops in here. We helped each other survive high school, which sounds petty but really isn’t.
  6. Zorro Dog: He isn’t a person, in the literal sense, but he means the world to me, and we gave him a home and love, and in his name, we’ve driven partial journeys to help other small dogs find their “forever homes” as well.
  7. My grandfather: I baked bread, went fishing, and gardened with him. He helped me with everything from the concept of leverage to understanding negative numbers.

Of course, I’ve also taken friends to lunch, helped them move, sent letters to soldiers overseas, and any number of other supportive things, all of which have been returned many times over.

It’s just…nice to remember, sometimes.