About Helen

I'm a creative entrepreneur - writer, artist, photographer and digital artist - struggling with long-term unemployment. I'm also a grandmother who has been denied visitation, and I blog to cope and hopefully to help others cope with similar circumstances.

Whale Rain

Water and clouds

Water and cloud castles

I stood atop a high stone wall today, little stars-in-my-sky, looking out over the water and thinking of you. Rain pattered all around, plashing up from the courtyard, patting on my hood, and leaving tiny, icy kisses on my cheeks. There was magic in the air, and in my mind you shared it with me.

Wide water stretches away below our feet, brushed and prickled with the falling rain, the island’s beaches curving away to each side. Curtains of rain drape from the clouds nearby, glowing slightly with the sun that’s almost breaking through. Across the water, the dark trees glow softly in sunlight, misty and insubstantial in the rain, and above it all floats a perfect castle of clouds. White and gray and towering against a blue sky, full of promises of adventure, it shines out, reflecting on the gentle hammered-silver of the water. “Come,” it says, slowly sculpting into new, fantastic shapes. “Come and ride the wind with me.” White cloud bellies edged with gold push out and up, making sail for far-off Japan, ready to journey through sunset and sunrise and sunset again. What would we see? you wonder.

The water is calm, reflecting sky and clouds and sun in shades of silver, pewter, iron, slate, gold, and robin’s-egg blue. Ribbons of bright currents braid the surface, glowing veins of light now reflecting the cloud castle and bright sky, now the westering sun, now the gray rain clouds. And over everything, a breathless expectation. For somewhere before us, beneath the water, beneath the shushing rain that glows in the sun, beneath the castle of clouds, there are whales.

We stand close together, sharing our warmth, laughing at the raindrops when they splatter on your nose, watching, watching, for the magic of the whales. As the tide slips gently out, we watch it reveal scooped-out places where the whales have fed on the bottom, round as coins, shallow enough for Sabrina-Bee to splash in. So very, very close. One fat seagull waddles importantly up the beach, his silly orange feet in odd contrast to his formal gray and white feather tuxedo. Beyond him paces a blue heron, pompously striding through the water, pausing to tip his head to look into the ripples at his feet. Fast as lightning, he spears a tiny fish and flips it into his beak, and your eyes get wide. Ducks in exotic patterns of black and white quarrel with the seagulls over the emerging whale ponds. And just over our heads, one enthusiastic songbird pours a bright melody like a golden thread.

“Are they really out there, grandma?” you ask. “Oh yes, love. Right before us, under the silver rain. Gray as twilight and silent as clouds and big as imagination. Father whales, and young whales making their first journey back to California where they were born. And mother whales, heavy with new babies, journeying together to the warm waters where whale life begins. Can you feel the magic? Where the rain touches the water, can you feel the whale dreams rise up? Can you feel the silky cold water, taste the rich mud of the bottom, hear the far-off surf?”

“Yes,” you say. “Yes, it’s like flying! But it’s nearly night. Where will we sleep?”

“Right here,” I say. “You’ll float close to your mother and listen to her great heart beat, rocked on the rising and falling of the waves and tides. You’ll be comforted by the rough barnacles on her side and the sound of her breathing. You’ll dream dreams of sunlight on the waves, and deep green waters, and crabs and fishes and seagulls. For a day or a week you’ll play right here, raising a whale-baby rumpus and peeping above the water to delight the children on the shore, before moving on to new adventures.”

And so in the rain we stand, little stars-in-my-sky, four hearts together, waiting for magic. And if we never see the whales, we have magic enough. We have a rain-kissed evening, silver water, and a castle of clouds, with mystery swimming silently in the deep.

It’s enough to be here, and know they’re here too.

Fairies and Dilophosaurs

Blue Rose of Sharon

Fairy skirts-to-be

Uncle David has a Rose of Sharon tree in his garden with the most beautiful flowers, little stars-in-my-sky, and I can’t help but think of you when I see it in bloom. It’s heavy with frost now, blossoms long gone, but I remember the crinkly petals, blue and pink, sweeping like ruffled skirts, and think of the fun we could have with them. We’d pick a handful and carefully separate the petals. We’d gather them together, and I’d show you how to use a twist of grass to bind and hold them where we wanted. Maddy and I would make fairies, binding the flaring petals around a single bud, the stem forming a little hat, pink and blue petals mixing to form twirly skirts. Maddy loves swirly, girly skirts, and we’d dance our fairies around. Max would just say “humph!!” He doesn’t think much of fairies. His dinosaur toy would stomp and roar and chase them back up the tree.

“I’ll eat you up!” he’d say.

Pink Rose of Sharon

Longing for summer and fairy skirts

The dinosaur is too fat for a skirt, and far too ill-tempered anyway. But then we’d hold it down and make a ruffle around its  head, and suddenly the chubby dinosaur is a sleek dilophosaur, flaring its blue  ruff and scaring the fairies. They calm it down with dandelion wishes, and coax  it into the tree, where they all climb and dance together (dilophosaurs are amazing climbers) until it’s time for cookies and moo-staches. Carefully, Maddy  and I press one of our fairies in a book, so we can preserve it for always, to enjoy when the Rose of Sharon is covered in ice, and little girls and grandmas have grown up too much for fairy skirts.


If you were here, little stars-in-my-sky, I’d read to you tonight, Maddy’s special storybook, Madeline. We would snuggle together, and I’d begin:

In an old house in Paris
that was covered with vines
lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.

“I wouldn’t do straight lines,” Max would say. “I’m a Wild Thing. I make a rumpus, all over North America!”

“We’ll make a rumpus later, I promise. Now let me read for your sister.” Max growls and giggles, and I go on:

In two straight lines they broke their bread
And brushed their teeth
And went to bed.

“Rumpus!” Max growls. “I’ll eat you up!”

“If you want cookies with your rumpus, Max, you’ll have to wait your turn,” I say, with a tickle.

They smiled at the good
and frowned at the bad
and sometimes they were very sad.

They left the house
at half past nine
in two straight lines
in rain or shine –
the smallest one was Madeline.

“That’s my name!” says Maddy, as though the story were new all over again. “Madeline’s brave, like me.”

She was not afraid of mice –
she loved winter, snow and ice,
to the tiger in the zoo
Madeline just said, “Pooh-pooh,”
and nobody knew so well
how to frighten Miss Clavel.

“Was she afraid of monsters?” Maddy asks. No, we tell her, and she liked to tickle Wild Things. And just to show how it’s done, we pooh-pooh Max and tickle him until he forgets all about his wild rumpus.

In the middle of the night
Miss Clavel turned on her light
and said, “Something is not right!”
Little Madeline sat in bed,
cried and cried; her eyes were red.

“I would give her a hug,” Maddy says. “And so would Max,” she adds firmly, giving him a little push. Then she pulls Sabrina into a big soft hug to show us.

Sitting close together, we read how Madeline got sick and had her appendix out, and all the little girls were sad. Max says he wants to drive the car with the red light, and he’d go very fast so Madeline could get well faster. And so he could make a rumpus. He counts the little girls when they go to visit Madeline in their two straight lines, to make sure there are only eleven. But his favorite part is Madeline’s scar.

“Can I have a scar?” he asks, showing us his scarless tummy. Probably someday, I tell him, but it hurts to get a scar. “I’m brave,” he says stoutly. I know, sweetheart, but let’s wait on the scar. It’s much more fun to have a rumpus.

And so we do. With cookies.


Dragon At My Back


My life has seemed like a perfect storm of chaos much of the past few years, lost in the center of a yowling maelstrom of worry, fear and drama, prowled by monsters of threat and ghosts of loss. Even the ground beneath my feet seems uncertain, sometimes.

Yet, there’s one place the monsters cannot come, where flimsy doors close tight against them, and I can stand in unfailing calm for a time.

Preparation. Shake out and don my gi. Position my obi. Unfold my hakama, press out any wrinkles with my hands, straighten the pleats. My fingers linger on the worn areas over my knees, testament to dedicated hours. Tie the himo to enclose and support my scabbard, my saya. Each step brings a sense of deepening calm, as the student/warrior emerges from chaos.

Feet bare, I step into the dojo, bowing. The door swings gently shut behind me, and a sudden quiet falls that has nothing to do with the sounds of squeaking shoes in the next gym over, boys scuffling in the hall, bleachers rattling. This is one threshold the monsters cannot cross, the ghosts cannot breach. This is refuge.

I leave them outside the door, and with them I leave my own monsters – pride, embarrassment, the need to prove my worth. In here I become simply a student, neither gifted nor slow, where the true values are teachableness and intention.

The sense of safety is a paradox. What we do can be inherently dangerous, each of us wielding a three-foot katana, striving for power and precision in a stylized art of battle. Even our unsharpened practice blades or wooden practice swords can inflict major injury in clumsy or careless hands. We form a network of trust, each of us knowing that a loose blade, ripped hem, or moment of inattention can bring injury to another. We’re forced to be attentive both to our own movements and to those around us, moving in
harmony, always ready to react and modify. Together we bow to the shomen, to each other, to our swords. The formalities focus and bind us, and then we begin.

Kneel in seiza. Breathe. Draw. Cut. Chiburi – clean the blade. Noto– sheath. Stand. Again. Again. And again, kata flowing together. Around me, I can feel my comrades, intent yet open,  weaving an invisible wall against the dark. Ken, gentle and good-natured, with a hidden thread of fire and steel infusing his iai. Mitch, precise and flowing with banked force. Wes, passionate, fast, intent. Sarah, light and efficient and graceful. Sam, rangy, deceptively fast beneath his humor. K, a kindly bear who uses his power carefully. Sensei, quietly teaching, a warrior with smiling eyes. Outside this space, we’re students, engineers, EMTs, artists, techs. Here and now, we’re journeying together seeking something that can never be mastered, opening doors within ourselves, the blades in our hands as much expression as reality.

"Remaining heart"

Faintly, I hear passing echoes of the ghosts and monsters outside the door, then the breeze carries them away again. This door they cannot pass. I will not let them into this space. I am surrounded by a flashing of metal and the ripped-silk sound of air being cut, and I feel safe. I have a dragon at my back.

Never the Same


Never the same river

As the holidays approach, the ache in my heart increases.
Last year the holidays were marked by a thundering silence from my son and his
family. At the last minute I got to see the children and meet my new
granddaughter for a single hour, on Christmas Eve, in a mall at closing time. The
children were already restless from shopping and having their portraits taken
with Santa, so it was impossible to really interact with them much. I never did
learn whether the children were actually given the gifts I sent, whether they
liked them, whether they fit. I’ve seen no pictures. I haven’t seen Christmas
pictures in years. It’s always “someday.”

The months pass like a river in flood, rushing onward,
carrying my babies into a future where I’m nothing more than a shadow at the
edge of their lives. Holidays are carried by like so much flotsam on the
surface, leaving behind ghostly images of distant laughter and warmth I’m not
allowed to glimpse. I can read on their mother’s blog all about the fun they
had with their other grandparents, but that’s as close as I can come.

Young children are such ephemeral creatures, never the same
from one day to the next. Babies are the most fleeting of all. Every day I
wonder what my little stars-in-my-sky are like now, what they’re doing, what
they’re learning. Is Sabrina walking now? Has Max learned to read? Is Maddy
still dancing? And I wonder, too, if their parents really understand what they’re
doing. That this is something that can never be taken back. No do-overs. They
can never give back, to me or to their children, the chance to bond and form a
relationship from their earliest days. The kind of relationship that grounds a
child in love for life and builds an unbreakable safety net for their hearts.
The kind of relationship that soothes a mother’s heart as her world falls apart
around her, lightening the burdens of job loss, home loss, health loss, family
loss. Instead, I’m a paper grandmother, an insubstantial semi-abstract
surrounded by a cloud of quiet, adamant anger.

If hearts were softened tomorrow and things suddenly
normalized, there would still always be an empty place in the relationship
where that early bonding should have been. The ties will always be weaker. For
my part, my love will never be completely free of the pain and uncertainty of
knowing that we can be separated again on a whim, for simply saying one wrong
thing, or failing to say one right one. For being too broke to send a gift on
time. For needing help. For making the children too happy. Even for simply asking
to included.

It’s much like living with someone who is terminally ill.
Every day could be the last. Every day you prepare to say goodbye. Every night
you fall asleep in uncertainty. With each day, my grandchildren become a little
more abstract in my heart, concepts rather than real people. Eventually, the
heart wears out, forever poised between living and loss.

And one day, when you can’t hold on any longer, you have to
let go.