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Good morning. We’re traveling the timelines today for a visit with Saturnino Herrán.
A Mexican painter and muralist from the late 19th and early 20th century, he is among those of the indigenismo movement who worked to celebrate Latino culture as the precursor to the revolutionary spirit of mid-century Mexican art, including having taught greats such as Diego Rivera.
The piece I share with you today, La Ofrenda, hangs in Museo Nacional de Arte INBA in Mexico City.
Painted in 1913, it exemplifies Mexican modernism with its allegorical allusion to life’s journey. A punt boat in a canal is filled with zempasúchitl flowers (a marigold that is traditionally associated with death) meant as offerings for the dead. This is a reference to ofrenda, a tradition deeply connected to Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos. Each character is represents a different stage of life.
Of course, your interpretation doesn’t need to follow Herrán’s intention.
Instructions: Allow the mood and colours of the painting to influence your writing today. What is the story of those in the boat? Is there one character through which you can convey all of that rich emotion? Do they ponder? Or is this a quiet moment before the business of the city? Let whatever comes flow from your emotional reaction to the painting and write that. Don’t edit.
Amidst all of the revelations brought about by my trip to the Loire Valley, there were some lovely scenes that simply stole my breath.
The grounds of Château Royal d’Amboise near the hunting lodge proved simple for the most part.
It was, however, the ramparts which provoked majestic ooooos and ahhhhhhs.
One of the most remarkable qualities of the royal residence is only about a fifth of what it once remains intact. Imagine what it must have been like, its towering presence over Amboise and the Loire River, five-hundred years ago.
I like to imagine that da Vinci and Melzi sat in a tower long the victim of time and treachery painting elegant women with the Loire in the background.
Meanwhile, the tiny town of Amboise bustles below:
“I’ve been walking for like an hour and I’m exhausted. I’m going to sit on this bench over here for about two days,” I told my ephemeral guide.
“Perfect. Right over there. Nope, one more bench over. There, you got it.”
There, at a tiny grove of trees just above the marked remains of where the Château Royal d’Amboise used to extend into a far greater complex than what remains today, I could see what she offered up.
A new whispering in my ears began to shift from mere chatter to a conversation overheard and a vision of an old man alongside two others stationed at wooden easels. Amongst the shady plane trees and Gary oak, he guided their hands to sketch and capture the scene in front of them.
I stepped forward to take a closer look, and a young woman stretched her neck around the closest easel to make sure I saw her.
A quiet wave.
A knowing, modest smile.
The old man waived a gentle finger at her and everyone returned to their work. Something pricking me on the shoulder forced me out of the vision and around staring back at the river.
An arched bridge.
A wild river.
Rugged hills and shifting light.
I caught a glimpse of the landscape they had been painting in the background.
By the time I turned back around, the group of painters had vanished from view, but not from my own knowing of who I’d had the chance to watch at work that day—Melzi, Salaí, and their Master. Who was their muse? What else had they learned to paint on that hill in the magical light of Amboise?
Just beyond it on the trail, it would seem others may have a bit of a sense as I dd that something truly remarkable took place there.
My guide pointed out that it is marked in plain sight, for those of us who know to use as a guide.
I nodded and acknowledged her gift, then suddenly stood.
My attention redirected itself by force, and I moved toward what appeared to be the remains of a moat or battlement at the top of the castle where I was offered another vision.
This time men and women fled a burning castle, but it was too late. The bodies piled up, filling the space, the screams and panic swarming my senses until my mind snapped back and I stood in the sunshine shaking.
It would take a week for me to understand the final message of that time at the top of the world with da Vinci.
My guide spoke in a solemn tone, offering up an explanation of what I’d seen.
So, there we were—the long-dead woman whose pronouncement shook me to the core and my trembling core.
Now that she’d offered to introduce me to the crew, I had to forgive her for so unabashedly revealing her death to me without my consent.
Apparently, when you are a novelist who’s come to tell their stories, those who’ve waited all of those centuries for you to get it together already know your storyline.
I knew what I wanted: to plot out what Elijah would find in the modern timeline of the novel when she made her way to Amboise. Streetscapes and entry points to the castle made it into the massive journal I’d imagined long before the journey would be an epic record of what showed up. I walked and walked the empty roadways, alleys, dark corners, and abandoned ancient doorways of town as if all other human activity was pushed in some alternative direction while my new friend showed me this path.
In my everyday life, my willingness to push through a half-open metal gate or get down on my hands and knees to see inside a partially sealed-off doorway almost guaranteed unpleasant, if not downright dangerous consequences.
In Amboise, it meant finding myself delivered into new realms of imagination and opportunities for crafting the stories I came to tell. This place, it seemed, welcomed those who sought its secrets. Those who might have otherwise dissented knew better than to silence the spirits that day.
Château Royal d’Amboise today is a mere ruin of the extravagant palace that towered above the banks of the Loire at the beginning of the 16th century. As I traced the base of the ramparts back father and father from the tower where I began, I stumbled across Le Choiseul, and extraordinary site, now a hotel meant to draw in the wealthy traveler. It instead drew me to its courtyard goddess, who sent me up into the hills behind the property to discover the first of several novel locations in the ruins of what I later discovered must have been the enormous halls of the main castle.
Deep inside the base of the tufa structures carved right out of the hillside, the stories called. What would this complex in stone reveal?
No signage or historical markers hampered my imagination as I stepped inside the gates of the lowest corridors. Nerves firing, I explored and they vibrated with the hum of wanting to be discovered.
Cells? Storage? Ancient homes? Something more? I followed the trail as it moved upward. Within minutes, I stood at the entrance to vast subterranean vaults known as Les Greniers de César. The sunbaked printout clumsily tacked to one of the old wooden doors told a version of what these carved-out silos might have been.
My liminal guide decided to download a whole different version for me.
Perched upon a bench near a cut in the stone for the better half of two hours, I waited for the visions to drop in, and they did so with expressive clarity.
My guide introduced me to those with whom I’d long sought to make the acquaintance. Up from the docks where the gabare boats of traders and cabanée boats of fisherman delivered goods, the king’s sister Marguerite made her way to what I deemed The Treasury with little notice from the menagerie dealing in salt, spices, wheat, and coin.
Here, in this place, she bargained for the security of a kingdom we now know nothing of, a kingdom she pledged to serve in the halls of Fontevraud long before she bore the name Queen, as her mother did, and a dozen generations of women before them—the Mother Blood of the Anjou.
Deep within the caverns of The Treasury, men such as da Vinci and Francesco Melzi greeted her upon arrival, and those who traveled at the queen’s side proved the most notable guests ever to have to be ushered onto the grounds of the royal residence in secret through the caves at the base of it.
The Treasury showed itself as a rich, effusive secondary story location where women such as Marguerite and Aesmeh bargained to usher in the return of a civilization thought wiped off the Earth nearly two-thousand years earlier. It showed itself as a place where men and women gathered to commit a worthy sort of treason.
Its existence and mysterious origins left me room for my own bargain, allowing me to imagine within the complex the potential for a passage leading to and from the castle existed. I needed it to serve as the means through which Elijah might discover that world for herself. The clarity with which this site settled in my mind as a novel location drove all sorts of other questions. Was the Loire navigable from places such as Saumur? What would boat transportation have looked like? So much more. I wanted confirmation that I should move ahead with including it, although I already knew I would.
As I made my way back down onto the grounds of Le Choiseul, the grove just beyond yet another Greek statue glistened in the afternoon light. Behind it, the remains of an old silo shown, and within it stood a cistern marked with a single patch of cyclamen.
For those familiar with plant lore, the cyclamen as a truly powerful protective flower which blooms in the cooler months and is affiliated with the Dark Mother Hecate. I found it everywhere in Amboise, particularly in location where evidence of the Sibylline rose up.
Confirmation. The Treasury was in.
My new friends weren’t even close to being done with me that day. We had one more stop at the very top of a hill overlooking the royal residence. it was there I discovered how the relationship between Melzi and Aesmeh blossomed, and what would lead us all to the true identity of the Mona Lisa.
I found myself staring into the remains of a place I didn’t know existed.
A grotesque, morbid sensation settled across my shoulders, then a pressure leaned in against my right arm and I stiffened.
“I died here,” a voice whispered.
Throughout that morning, while I bought roses and baguettes at Le Marché and began my winding procession through the cobblestone streets, the same voice drew me closer.
Having arrived in Amboise less than twenty-four hours earlier, my first walk through town led me to the base of the castle ramparts at Château Royale d’Amboise.
The moment I found myself at the locked gate leading across the small moat, I heard her again: “I died here.”
My mind fickered and scenes of a woman tossed from the tower above, crashing against the pavement, played out over and over. The water stains of rust or wear streaming down from the window tuned to blood and the air bristled with the scent of lilies and life violently exiting.
The woman who spoke pulled me back into her time and showed me, then nodded, took my hand, and asked me to remember.
“Do not leave me here again,” she said.
At that moment, I’d convinced myself I’d gone crazy, watched too much Outlander, had slipped into some delusional state brought on by jet lag and the ongoing series of serendipitous events leaving me without time to recover from the last.
Whatever it was, Amboise and its royal heritage had long called to me without me listening. In the works for years, The Woman On The Wall only ever had one major setting. This tiny town on the banks of the Loire River drove me right to its edge and there I stood, clear in every way that I returned to a place I’d known in not just one lifetime, but many.
“I died here.”
Did this woman speak of my death or her own? I will never truly know. However, she stayed with me for a long while, weaving me in and out of abandoned space, requesting that I listen and remember them, remember how I used to know them.
An unnatural urge to rip open the gates of passageways and throw myself into the spaces leading up into the castle took hold and I fought her stories, her words, the places she revealed to me.
I knew who spoke. I knew the voice of Aesmeh. I knew she needed me to know where her life played out. It was as if she’d waited five-hundred years for someone to finally hear her and not run.
Oh, how I wanted to run.
My own urge to get the hell out of there took over, and I released myself into the street where I wandered, grateful for the lack of interest that anyone else in Amboise seemed to have for those quiet, abandoned places which carried with them the deep resonance of stories much more difficult to hear than one of royal pageantry, art, and afternoons in the garden.
As my head cleared and the voice faded, I relished the accomplishment of breaking free when there she was.
I told myself it was just a window, one which I’m sure the owner had specially made with the gentle face of a striking ancient woman visible when the sun caught it just right. Maybe she appeared because someone thought it appropriate for this historic royal hamlet. Maybe, she wasn’t done with me.
Her eyes followed me as I moved up and down the row of houses until finally, I collapsed across the street from her and just listened.
“So,” she said. “Let me introduce you to everyone else.”
“Is this the line for the Mona Lisa?” the older woman behind me asked as her husband moved up and down the snaking procession of people asking anyone who looked like an official Louvre employee if they’d actually made it to their destination.
There we stood, eyes alighting upon the gorgeous glass Pyramide du Louvre that is the iconic “You are here” sign for the magnificent museum. It was 8:52 a.m. and the line tripled, then quadrupled, then trickled well past the initial security screen and out into the rainy morning.
We had arrived, nearly ten minutes early in fact, for our 9 a.m. appointment. We’d done everything in our power to ensure such a meeting took place—bought our tickets in advance, made reservations online, left nothing to chance.
However, I. M. Pei’s architectural wonder could not convince those of us who had another sort of iconic masterpiece in mind that we’d not screwed this all up and would be stuck in a line that led to, well, not what we came to see.
It turned out that EVERYONE was in line for a visit with La Gioconda, and we’d totally done the right thing. Those of us with advance tickets and reservations for the very first slot of the day trotted right through, up the stairs, up more stairs, and then some more, and one more flight just to make sure.
The museum docent that I stopped to talk to at the top of the stairs said that in half an hour those stairs would be packed with people waiting, waiting, waiting. Some might wait for three hours for a glimpse at the beauty beyond the doorway.
So, I stopped talking and scurried toward the magnificent Galerie Médicis where she stood, glassed-in, amongst some of the most spectacular paintings in the history of art.
Dwarfed by the size and absolute divinity of the 24-panel Marie de’ Medici Cycle painted by Rubens 400 years ago, there she sat, roped off, barely visible. Visitors, fifty or so at a time, were let past the ropes that kept them penned back from her as well.
With that, the stopwatch began.
That was all the time you had in her presence.
Time enough to click a selfie, take a picture or two, and then—poof—all the anticipation and work put in to stand even in her vicinity was over.
It was the most magnificent moment of my life.
No woman on this Earth is more mysterious and sought-after than the Mona Lisa. From obscurity to utter obsession, the world has latched itself upon this simple portrait. Everyone seems willing to speculate on her identity and nobody really knows who she is.
I spent far more time with her in other places—hours and hours at Clos Lucé and in da Vinci’s gardens at Amboise.
However, that one minute proved one thing to me—that this glorious goddess with whom women crave a moment and men desire with the greatest of passion is a vessel for immeasurable power.
While men wage war on the Earth, she conquers the mind. Her territory, her imperialism, lies within.
And so, Woman On The Wall seeks to explore the true identity of La Gioconda, this woman who has inexplicably captured our hearts, as she watches over the world.
Just about every writer who submits their work to agents knows that there is one month every year when nothing happens.
Don’t prep a manuscript, write a query letter, reach out on Twitter, or check in with an agent who has your partial. It’s not gonna work out for you because everyone is at least pretending to lounge on a New England beach.
The rest of the year is stupid crazy busy. August means time for a bit of radio silence.
For me, it has traditionally proven the month to hunker down and log big hours in the writer’s studio, plotting and crafting.
This year, however, my brain took a break along with everyone else. You can read about my angst surrounding this unplanned standstill HERE.
Today, after a long chat with an editor who just returned from vacation herself, I found myself breathing a bit easier. The conversation revealed her own startling loss of an entire month and her shock at how often lately this similar chat has played out. Apparently, August was a wash for at least half the known universe, and we are all scrambling to realign priorities, carve out time, and make tangible progress on writing projects.
For me, this is all about removal of external distractions.
I’ve planned the hell out of my research trip to France and refuse to plan even a minute more.
Classes and curriculum, mapped out.
Coaching training, done.
Now, to snuggle in and get the love letters between Francesco and Aesmeh mapped out.
Then, to make sure my modern-era antagonist is fully formed and well-rounded. I actually quite love him, such a provocative character motivated by what he is convinced is the only possible road to truth.
Finally, before I get on the plane to start the research and writing marathon in France, I’m going to nail the sequence of the story down and finish the plotting. That way I can move through my time there with exceptionally focused purpose instead of scrambling to figure out story foundations.
I’m coming out of the Augustine black hole, people.
It may still be 15C out in the middle of August here in Vancouver (we’ve had what amounts to five days of truly hot weather this season), but the kids are out of school, the pool is open, and we are in full summer mode for a few more weeks.
That also means that my creative writing classes were PACKED (and I mean packed) with young authors who knew they need to keep reading and writing during the long break but also didn’t really want comma worksheets and book summaries.
My secret plan to keep them going was to bribe them with pizza. They received long reading lists and daily writing tasks at the beginning of the term. The pizza at the end of the Summer Reading Challenge Rainbow proved the key to getting them to read more than 100 novels this summer.
The way we kept track of it all was a bit sentimental, a bit creative, and a bit old-school community building.
We made a Summer Reading Story Quilt.
Over the course of eight weeks, the kids got to make a quilt square every time the read a new book. Around the edges, they had to come up with symbols that stood for the theme, the characters, or a literary device used in the novel. Then, in the middle, they drew their favourite scene and captioned it.
Admittedly, there was a wide range of engagement, but they had fun using their brains in a different way, setting reading goals, and achieving them.
For me, this was also a demonstration of how much can be accomplished by taking learning one step at a time. When we started, the wall looked pretty sorry and everyone wondered if we could ever fill it.
Within a couple of weeks, the quilt started to take shape.
Kids would pile in to see what others had read. They named their teams in order to identify which squares belonged to them and counted to make sure they were in the race for the pizza at the end.
Yesterday, the final square made it up onto the wall.
The kids couldn’t believe how much they accomplished and we all marveled at the 100+ books read over the course of the Summer.