Friday, December 25, 2015


"I am thinking of you today because it is Christmas, and I wish you happiness. And tomorrow, because it will be the day after Christmas, I shall still wish you happiness. I may not be able to tell you about it every day, because I may be far away or we may be very busy. But that makes no difference -- my thoughts and my wishes will be with you just the same. Whatever joy or success comes to you will make me glad. Clear through the year...I wish you the spirit of Christmas."
                                                                                 ....Henry van Dyke

My cousins Pete and Pat sent this message with their Christmas card. Though not everyone celebrate Christmas, the sentiments still resonate.

Happy Holidays!
May your days be joyful and fun-filled.

Cheers, Martha Slavin

Friday, December 18, 2015


Samuel towers over me as we walk down the school's hallway. I am his Writer's Coach and he is in seventh grade. The first time we met, he spoke with a strong, confident voice. Today -- a few days before the holiday break -- his mind is elsewhere. The night before I read the last of Jan Karon's books about the small town of Mitford.  The main character, Tim, is struggling to reach a young teenager who grew up in a dysfunctional family. Tim makes the decision to just love the young man.

I think of that solution as I sit across from Samuel, who I know from our previous session, to be bright and insightful. I spent 17 years teaching students who were Samuel's age. Next to parenting, I  found teaching middle school kids to be the hardest thing I've done. Now as a tutor, I need to let go of my ego, my own perceptions, my desire to be liked, and my own agendas, and just be present with the students I work with. Today, no matter how fidgety Samuel is, I've decided just to love him and let him take from me what he needs to get. I listen to his essay. I ask him questions to help him include more details of the story he is analyzing. I point out the parts where he has done well. In the end, Samuel walks away with an  essay he is satisfied with, and I walk away without feeling the frustration of failure because I put 'just love' in my day with him.

Would you like to tutor as a Writers Coach?  Check out the Writers Coach Connection at their website:  It's a great program that should be nationwide.

Friday, December 11, 2015


I sit in my favorite chair. The pages of Norton Book of Nature Writing catch between my fingers. Each page is so thin it is like lifting a spider web. In my hands, the pages stick together repeatedly. I remember books from my childhood with similar pages. I would spend hours leafing through our dictionary and the family Bible. I enjoyed the delicate feel of the pages, which made me slow down so that I didn't tear them.

Other books drew me in with their illustrations. I especially loved black and white wood engravings. My family acquired a special edition of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights that contained prints by Fritz Eichenberg. The engravings evoked such tension, emotion, and mystery that I dived right into the story of Jane Eyre and read the book over and over again.

Looking at this illustration again, I could easily put myself in Jane's place as she stands facing those who are judging her.

This year I've hunted for illustrated books. They are hard to find, but I discovered several books with wood engravings, which is a process that is time consuming yet in skilled hands such as Eichenberg can intensive the mood of the story. I treasure these books:

Rainbows are Made by Carl Sandburg with wood engravings by Fritz Eichenberg

Two volumes of Thoreau, both with wood engravings by Michael McCurdy:

The Winged Life: The Poetic Voice of Henry David Thoreau, edited by Robert Bly, and Walden, the 150th Edition

Barry Moser, another wood engraver, illustrates another book with images of the poets inside, The Light Within the Light: Portraits of Donald Hall, Richard Wilbur, Maxine Kumin, and Stanley Kunitz by Jeanne Braham.

I have also looked for artists' sketchbooks and found two small colorful volumes. Both are extraordinarily detailed with careful pictorial observations by the artists.

The last book is one I carried with me through college: Orestes, or the Art of Smiling by Domenico Gnoli. The pen and ink drawings create an imaginary world full of humor and delightful details.  Take a look!

What books have you been reading this year?

Friday, December 4, 2015


Do you take online classes?

 Online classes give me time on my own to work. I can then share my pieces and receive critiques from people who don't know me. Classroom classes give me the chance to mingle with other creative people. We stimulate each other, share techniques, and work without competing.

Once my classes this fall were complete, I started working on a watercolor that was inspired by a mushroom I found hidden under one of our camellia bushes. Water had pooled inside the bowl of the golden mushroom.

I imagined a little forest sprite fishing from the edge. I've been trying to paint that scene ever since. I am reminded of Albert Einstein's definition of insanity:

"Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

He wasn't talking about artists, I don't think. I often paint something over and over.  Sometimes the experimenting creates interesting, improved results. Other times, I overwork the piece and the painting loses its liveliness. Sometimes, I needed to stay with the original piece. Sometimes, if I can get through the experimenting and the tightly wound stages, I come out with something that is better than my original.

I started the sprite painting by using a Zig Artist Sketch Pen, which is waterproof, instead of my usual pencil, to outline the image on a piece of cold press paper. I could erase pencil lines, but the marker was permanent. I wanted to keep as much detail visible as I could.

I didn't like my final painting so I tried another set using a different kind of watercolor paper. This piece demonstrates the value of marking on the back what type of paper it is.  I used a pencil this time to draw the image, but I still didn't like the results.

Many watercolorists use cold press paper because of the texture of the paper, which grabs the watercolor paint. I decided for the sprite image to try hot press paper with its smoother surface, which might help to show the details. I used pencil again to outline the shapes.

As I painted the last example, I realized that long ago in a class at the Academy of Art in San Francisco, I worked on a painting with a similar theme. I pulled out my old portfolio and stared at the painting. I remembered the teacher's critique. She told me to study the work of another student, whose figures were joyously animated, full of life and emotion. At the time, I found the comparison discouraging, not understanding that I needed to work hard to accomplish similar results. But now I am back at practice. I remind myself again, "This is the best I can do right now."

My original painting from an Academy of Art class.

Cold weather blew in last week, which has encouraged me to spend more time in my workroom. I gaze out the window at the leaves blowing by or watch rain drop on our thirsty yard. I turn back to work table I enjoy the painting practice and try to reach beyond what I can do now.

If you are interested in online art classes, here are two that I have enjoyed:

Jacqueline Newbold's watercolor classes through the Artful Gathering website. http://atozinnia.org

She also gives workshops around the country.

Chris Berdoll's watercolor class through the Artists' Network University.

Friday, November 27, 2015


Thanks to Bill for this holiday photo!

Did you sit at the Children's Table?  

When I was small our family wasn't big enough to need a children's table at holiday dinners. We all fit around the country-style maple table in the living room. The grown-ups all had a creative, child-like attitude towards life. Sometimes it was hard to tell the grown-ups from the children.

When I was eight, my sister LaVerne married her sweetheart. Two years later, I was an aunt and the pink wooden tea table that my other sister, Linda, and I used for play, became the first of a series of extra holiday tables. LaVerne's family grew to four children, and we soon outgrew the two tables. Grampy made a card table out of piece of compressed wood that he found at the dump. Sometimes Grampy would sit at the table with the youngest kids, sometimes Linda or I would. Eventually as Linda married and had two children, we all moved to several card tables snuggled together in the living room.

After dessert, we cleared the tables of the embroidered tablecloths that Mimi made and played cards: Gin Rummy, Pit, or Blackjack. We played for fun not for competition, and laughed our way through the day.

Other times, we just packed up the card tables, the kids ran outside to play, the men played darts against one of the towering maple trees in the backyard, and the women spent the afternoon in the kitchen cleaning and talking. When the women were done, they came outside to join the rest of the family. Dad brought out the horseshoes, and we all tried for that satisfactory clang when the horseshoe landed around the metal target. We played ping pong at the table set up on the lawn, or we played a raucous game of Hide and Seek.

When I married Bill, he joined right in with the play. He could make the kids laugh till they couldn't stop. He cheated at board games so that we never finished a game because of the pretend fights we had, and he easily fit at the tables in the living room. He had the right kind of quirkiness, so he stayed.

By the time our son Theo came along, my nieces and nephews were having children of their own, my dad and grandparents had passed away, all three sisters lived in different parts of California. Our gatherings in the living room were more and more infrequent.  We realized at Mom's funeral that all twenty-two of us who were left had not been together for a decade. We missed those days of sitting around card tables on holidays.

After her graveside service, we went to my niece Kim's community clubhouse and ate pizza, played card games around tables, and laughed about the days of holiday dinners in my parents' living room sitting at the tables that we never called Children's Tables.


Friday, November 20, 2015


I walk the Iron Horse Trail that follows an old railway line from Pleasanton to Martinez. I am always surprised by the cleanliness of the trail. I don't see the detritus that we humans usual throw randomly about (think of the trails up Mt. Everest). What I notice are items that have been left accidentally:  children's toys, shoes and a few dog toys. They have been placed so that the original owner might collect them. When I look at a lost piece, I wonder if that shoe or toy was special to someone and is now sorely missed. The lost object represents a child's first break from innocence, the first realization that nothing is permanent in our lives.

I think of all the things that people must leave behind when they risk the migration from war torn countries in the Middle East and Africa or from places in Central and South America. How hard it must be to trust someone else with your family's lives and to step on a boat or a truck that may or may not arrive safely. What did they have to leave behind along the way?

My family's various branches came to the United States very early, fled the French Revolution, or came because of economic opportunity in the last century. I have never experienced the devastation of a war, which offers a question about myself:  how would I react if forced to flee?

With the horrific events that have taken place in Paris, Lebanon, Egypt, and parts of Africa in the last few weeks, I begin to feel overwhelmed. What keeps me going is to think small. I do my daily chores, I sweep the back deck of leaves, I walk our neighborhood, I talk to friends and family, I paint, I go to the gym, I cook meals. I do what I can to contribute. Right now I am tutoring middle school kids in Berkeley with the Writer Coach Connection. I'm collecting extra sweaters, blankets, and jackets to give to the One Warm Coat Project. I'm trying to find some normalcy in the midst of chaotic news.

What are you doing to maintain peace in your life?

Friday, November 13, 2015


When I meet other people in the last few days, we all express the same joy, "Rain!"

Two inches of rain in one 24-hour period doesn't break our drought. Today, a week later, the rain drips down again. This rain won't end the drought either. There is hope: the storms are coming from Alaska, which is the first time in a couple of years that they have pushed through the high pressure zone off the Pacific Coast. It is chilly outside, which means that the rain has turned to snow in the Sierra. Because of the cold, today is a good day to get things done at home, to read in front of a fire, and to dream of abundance.

The drought has knocked us on our heels. When I am with friends, we talk about the drought and our worries about water. We take Navy showers, we collect buckets of water, we do myriad things to conserve each drop, and we worry about the trees as they wilt in the heat.  Long ago we bought into the idea of green lawns and gardens. Now we look at pictures of homes with green landscaping that back up to a more natural California and wonder why we thought we could overcome Nature. We all did. When water was abundant, we squandered it.

During the drought we have checked for leaks, done less laundry, installed water-saving appliances and devices, caught extra water from the tap -- actions that conserve. It has been easy to turn off the sprinklers that water the lawn.  It is harder to watch 30-year old plants and trees begin to die. So we did what we could to pinpoint a need, changed to drip irrigation or soaker hoses, and kept our fingers crossed for healing rain.

With the rain, we have hope. We watch for reports of snow in the Sierra and hope that the snow will cling to the ground. We hope that the rain will come in December and continue through winter. We hope we will not have a repeat of last year when we had good rains in December than nothing except a little in February and April. In the meantime, we dried up. Now we have hope.

With the rain, I find I have to catch myself so that I am not running the faucet, not reverting to old bad habits that slipped back into my life even after experiencing two serious droughts in previous years when we put bricks in toilets and were limited to 75 gallons per person a day. Right now we all know that water is a luxury, and that we don't have the right to use as much as we want. I hope we, meaning me, will continue to remember that when the inevitable rains return.

Friday, November 6, 2015


      All Photos by Theo Slavin

I ride BART to my eye doctor's office in San Francisco. I have glaucoma, which has stabilized after numerous treatments. Because I ride the train and walk to the doctor's office, I have time to be an observer of people along the way.

I love being in San Francisco, or any city, but just for a visit. The quirkiness, the bustle, the surges of people all become a cacophony of jumbled noises and sights. It is then that I begin to notice the waste paper, the general dirtiness of the streets, and the homeless, some of them with wild eyes, long grizzled beards, shivering bodies, and incoherent speech.

          Theo Slavin

On my way home one day, I heard a young woman behind me talking with great urgency on her cell phone.

"Can you pick me up at the BART station? I don't want to go inside that house. I want to go see Granma."

The young woman stopped talking on her phone. I wondered what the other person said back to her because she sighed. I continued to read my magazine half-expecting the young woman to jump off at the next stop, but the passenger behind me was silent. At Walnut Creek, I rose out of my seat and walked towards the exit. I looked back. The young woman was sound asleep.

       Theo Slavin

Her pleas made me think of other women who find themselves in situations where they are afraid. At least, the young woman was speaking up and asking for help. My tendency would be to remain silent and find my own way through a problem.

       Theo Slavin

Another young woman caught my eye as I was walking down Market Street. She was a Latina with long, dark, curly hair and a beautiful face that was turned towards me as she and her partner brushed by me. He was small, but tough looking. He reminded me of the gang members I had seen as a juror on a murder trial several years ago. The couple were as close together as physics would allow two objects to be. They were not aware of anyone else around them, but there was something wrong in the way they walked. As the three of us neared the BART station at Montgomery, the woman suddenly veered to the left and ran down the steps to the station below. The man, in a fury, dashed after her, wheeling from one side of the stairs to the other until he stopped in front of her, face touching face.

He growled, "You know I don't like to act this way."

My heart cringed at the statement and I wondered what he was prepared to do.

"Stop and come back with me, " he demanded.

They stood still, pushing with their hands close to their chests, one against the other, as I walked cautiously by them. I thought: I could do something. I could yell at him to leave her alone. But he was intense and scary and I walked on by -- another human afraid to interfere where help could be needed. I walked through the station to the turnstile and looked back at the couple. They were still in the same position.

       Theo Slavin

I was back in the City for another doctor's appointment. I arrived at the New Montgomery station just as the escalator closed down and the trains stopped. Smoke had surfaced on another escalator so all of them had been turned off. Everyone in the station had to climb the two flights to the ground level, which reminded me of living in Tokyo and the older stations there that had no escalators. We had to climb two or three flights of stairs to exit. Today I felt smug as I passed younger people on the stairs. I was still fit to climb.

As I came up the Montgomery Station steps, my mind went back to the couple. I thought again: I could have talked with the station agent. I could have asked the couple a question, "Could you help me? I'm lost." Maybe that interruption could have defused the anger that was building on the steps, but I will never know.

As I came up to the street, a few drops of rain hit me. I saw a young woman with wild, red curly hair, partly secure in a snood at the top of her head. The rest cascaded down her shoulders like steel wool, contrasting with the bright green of her wool coat and dark orange socks that were pulled up to her knees. She rushed by as I continued to my doctor's office.

        Theo Slavin

Later as I left his office, I clung to the sides of the buildings, hoping to miss the raindrops that began to fall. It was cold and wet and I was not prepared for rain. It had been warm and mild the day before. I left my umbrella in the car and wore my coat without a hood. I liked walking in the City, so I didn't really care if I got wet, but the cold was swiftly going through me.

When I turned the corner, I saw a middle-aged man sitting on a tarp on the sidewalk. His face was weathered, but he looked at me with sympathy on his face. I guessed he expected me to have rain gear. He was more prepared than I was. Besides the tarp, he had a wide-brimmed hat and a voluminous coat. We nodded and I crossed to Walgreen's to buy an umbrella. I thought of the 500 Yen (about a $5 at the time) umbrellas in Japan that popped up outside every store as soon as it started to rain in Tokyo. The umbrellas were one of the few cheap items in Tokyo and I collected several each summer.

     Theo Slavin

As I stepped outside the door and opened my umbrella, I looked around the corner for the man. I thought of buying him some soup, but he was already gone from his spot. I hurried across the street to Postino, a little cafe I found on my last trip, which served delicious, warming soup and thin-crusted pizza -- just perfect for a cold, rainy day in the City.

        Theo Slavin

Theo Slavin created the photos that illustrate my essay. If you would like to see more of Theo's work, check out

Thank you for reading this longer than usual essay today.  Stay warm and dry.

Friday, October 30, 2015


A couple of weeks ago I wrote about making lists and received many interesting responses. Lists are more profound than we think. Even a simple grocery list can tells something about the person who wrote it. The process of list making touches a nerve in many.

One person, who has a Taskmaster sitting on their shoulders, stopped making lists and enjoys the freedom that has ensued.

One person keeps her list in a journal, crosses out items that have been done, but continues to have a record of all that she has accomplished, or not. Those that are 'or not' on the list give her something to dream or plan about for the future.

One person, in her twenties, made a list of all that she wanted to do in her life, tucked away the list, found it in her 60s, and realized that most of what she listed she had achieved.

One of my aunts kept a daily record of the weather,  which showed many, many years worth of living on a secluded farm in Minnesota.

Another friend started her day with a list of calls she needed to make. She was a networker and loved by those she contacted frequently.

One person makes a list that includes items she needs to do, but also rewrites past entries to make her realize how much she has done.

My sister laughs at the number of lists I make, which can be found all over our house. They bring order to my life (I have a list on the door leading to the garage of all of our daily, weekly, monthly, yearly chores). They spark my imagination: I have a list of unusual names that I've gathered, which includes Twyla Tharp and my mother's dad, Elzeor Jean Bellefeuille de poire (shortened to Belfi when his ancestors moved to Canada from France). I've even made a book of lists. Here is the Table of Contents (another list, of course!)

The book includes the lists for the preparations for a New Year's Eve party:

and a list of random things about me:

I like what  Steve Maraboli said about lists:

“Rename your “To-Do” list to your “Opportunities” list. Each day is a treasure chest 
filled with limitless opportunities; take joy in checking many off your list.” 

I hope this Inktober has been a fruitful way for you to make a daily practice of what you decided to do!

Friday, October 23, 2015

Inktober Third Week of Drawings

Inktober is the perfect month to share with you some of the work by my cousin, Todd Heimdahl. He is an artist who creates ink drawings like these on this page. They are spare and quiet and set us right into the empty prairie that he loves to draw.

Can't you just feel the chill of the snow and the stillness in the air? 
Todd's work can be found at Prairie Edge Trading Co. & Galleries        

I've been working hard at some drawings for a printmaking class at Kala Institute in Berkeley. The instructor is Kazuko Watanabe, a terrific teacher. I'm saving my next batch of Inktober drawings for next week.

Enjoy Todd's work instead!

Check out Kala Institute at  They offer classes in printmaking and digital arts. Great place for artists to get together! And right next to Berkeley Bowl, a visual food treat.