All posts by lenleatherwood

I am a native Texan who has lived for the past 21 years in Los Angeles. I am a published author of both short memoir and fiction, a 2015 Pushcart nominee, a nationally award-winning writing teacher, an editor, as well as a Licensed Professional Counselor in the state of Texas. In addition, I am the mother of three grown daughters of whom I am extremely proud, a grandmother of two darling children and the wife of a man I still love after 35 years.

The Mixed Blessings of California Rain

When Ray and I first moved to Los Angeles twenty-five years ago, we made fun of the TV weather coverage of rain. A reporter, decked out in a yellow slicker and matching boots, appeared on the television screen and spoke in cataclysmic terms about the threat of 1-2 inches of precipitation. Ray and I shook our heads. “They should see a Texas rain,” Ray’d say. “They wouldn’t know what to do with a tornado,” I’d add. 

Having grown up in North Central Texas, part of tornado alley. I knew the fear of gray-green clouds and high winds and the sight of a funnel cloud off in the distance.  And yet, as a general rule, I had always thought of rain as comforting, soothing, a blessing so crops and plants could grow, lakes could fill and groundwater levels could stay well-replenish. I had never associated rain with anxiety or outright fear. Now, having lived in SoCal for this long, I am aware that those news reporters knew something I did not. It only takes a few inches of rain here to produce mudslides, particularly on parched land or burn areas and with mudslides, rocks and houses can slip down a hillside, causing not only physical damage but also death. 

Two days ago, when the rain started, I read that due to flash flood warnings, mandatory evacuation orders had been issued in parts of LA, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. After the wild fires earlier this year and last, the vegetation-free hillsides are dangerously prone to mudslides. Last January after the Thomas fire, Montecito had a devastating mudslide that resulted in 23 deaths and the loss of 100 homes. Over the past two days, residents of those same areas have been told by county authorities to “Gather family members, pets, and essential items” since debris flow could make roads impassable. Malibu, ravaged by the Woolsey fire this past November, has closed all schools in anticipation of flash floods and mud slides.

Ironically, Southern California has been suffering from a severe drought for several years now and we are badly in need of rain. However, rain brings mudslides; no rain brings wild fires. Nature’s balance is clearly off. Experts say the higher temperatures from global warming are contributing to the flammable conditions that create brush fires. We have much work to do to help Mother Nature.

As a now seasoned Californian, I have learned that different parts of the country have unique perils. A few inches of rain on fire-damaged hillsides can be as dangerous as a small tornado skipping across the prairie. Both are unpredictable and can produce heartbreaking consequences. 

I am hopeful these next few days will be safe ones for all those folks who have evacuated from their homes. Hopefully, the showers will be gentle enough to give us much-needed moisture without bringing unnecessary pain. 

Happy 33rd Birthday, Liz!

Elizabeth Beaty, my middle daughter, is 33 years old today, the exact age I was when I had her. She and I went to a wedding last week together and this is a photo taken of us:

Liz is smart, funny and opinionated. She is also devoted and dedicated to people who are lucky enough to have her in their lives. She works hard, loves hard and laughs hard. She can make the worst curmudgeon break out in a grin with that laugh of hers.

Happy birthday, sweet Liz. I look forward to our celebration this upcoming weekend. Here’s to a great upcoming year. Keep up the fun, adventure and living life on your own terms, honey. You’re on a roll.

Hoping to Stave Off the Flu

Ray has been sick for the past several days with a high fever, deep chest cough and general flu symptoms. He is on the mend as of today with normal temperature (at least so far) and an occasional cough that is still deep, but far from the wrenching hack that he had been experiencing. I’m glad to see him with a little life back in him. He’s spent the last few days dozing on and off in a dark room with no desire even to watch tv. Occasionally, he has looked up at me and said with a resigned tone, “This is what you’re going to look like in just a few days.”

Of course, I’m hoping he’s wrong for the obvious reason. Nobody wants to be sick and especially that sick. (I will admit that a little tiny bit of illness can sometimes be nice since it gives you the perfect excuse to just rest for a day.) However, this has not been a little cold or a mild headache. He had had what can only be described as the bona fide flu. Therein lies the rub: influenza is notoriously contagious and I have definitely been exposed.

The real problem – beyond just not wanting to be sick – is that this weekend is grandson Nico’s 3rd birthday and we have a big birthday celebration planned at a beach house in Ensenada, Mexico. Our family will be joined there by Nico’s other grandparents along with his aunt, uncle and first cousin for a cookout and party on Sunday afternoon. Clearly, I do not want to miss this event or be laid up in a bedroom with the flu while everyone else is outside on the beach having fun. (Ray will surely be completely fine by then.) So, with that in mind, I am doubly motivated to add a few preventative measures to my day.

First, I made a turkey and vegetable stew packed full of fresh vegetables so I could get as many vitamins in my body as possible. Second, I’ve been scrubbing my hands with lots of soap as if I’m going in to perform surgery on some poor soul. Third, I’ve been drinking lots and lots of liquids to flush out any pesky germs that might be hanging around hoping to wander to my chest and get started multiplying down there.

I usually think I’m going to make it through flu season unscathed, only to find myself suddenly jumping out of our car and throwing up in a nearby bush because my temperature just spiked. Alas, let’s hope that is not the case this time.

Wish me luck. Send Ray a few good thoughts too. He is not quite out of the woods yet. I can hear him coughing upstairs right now and I suspect, since it’s the end of the day, his temperature may be edging back up. Tomorrow surely he will be well. As for me, I will keep the preventative measures rolling.

After all, we have a three-year-old’s birthday to celebrate. That is all the motivation I need.

Moving Forward, One Student at a Time

We are back home in LA and today has been a student day for me. I worked all morning with one of my longstanding students, Elijah, who is now applying to law school. He and I go back to his high school days when I helped him with his English term papers. Since then, he’s gone off to college, graduated, worked a couple of years and is now back with me.

Today, we were in our final edit of his law school personal statement and finally got it right after a slow and frustrating revision of one lone paragraph. When we finally got it just the way we wanted and then made corresponding minor adjustments throughout the paper, Elijah read the essay one last time for me. I started tearing up in the middle and let out a good long sob there at the end. It’s true, the essay is exceptional (I am a decent judge even if I had my hand in helping with it), but that sob may have also been an expression of my love/pride/connection with this boy who is now a young man. He will go to law school with the help of this fine essay and then he’ll go on to build a life for himself. We will have fewer and fewer occasions to work together, which makes me a bit sad, but I will always carry this sweet relationship with me.

Elijah, like so many before him, represents the best of my time with students. We have worked long hours together, dissolved into laughing fits together and even cried together. One of our most poignant moments was when I helped him compose the speech he was to deliver in his role as the captain of his high school soccer team after the untimely death of his beloved assistant coach. We cried that day indeed. And we both shed a tear or two again today in sheer relief that this piece we’ve crafted with such care has evolved from a jumble of disjointed paragraphs to a living, breathing statement of how Elijah has dealt with past difficulties and how those challenges inform his life today. Hallelujah.

I understand how wonderful it is that I have had the opportunity to share in the lives of a series of teenagers over the years. Many of these teens are now full-fledge adults, finished with college and/or graduate school and out in the world working. That certainly is an indicator of my longevity in this odd little niche I stumbled upon almost twenty years ago. I am also exceptionally fortunate because some of these “kids” have become real friends rather than simply students. We have stayed in touch over the years and rendezvous for catch-up visits when we can. That is when I understand that my job has been more than helping with the grammar or structure or the content of a paper. Instead, that paper has been the vehicle by which that student and I could push beyond the conventional barriers that would normally divide us and instead come together as two human beings with shared thoughts, feelings and experiences.

I know for certain that Elijah will soon step into a new phase of his life. I wish him well and will keep him close to my heart. Here’s to the goodness of human connection.

Heading Back to LA

After an idyllic week up at the orange grove in Ojai, Ray and I are headed back to LA this evening. I have students all day tomorrow and then a wedding on Friday before more students on Saturday.

Life is good. We are both rested and relaxed and looking forward to the adventures 2019 promises to bring.

I am very happy we had the chance to spend this much time at the orange grove. Usually we are only here for a day or two before heading back to LA. This much time has been a real treat.

We are headed to a restaurant to have dinner with Liz and Ron before making the trek. We will get to hear all about their recent trip to Mexico.

That’s a nice way to say adios to our stay here.

Off we go!

Fighting Fires

How will I remember 2018?  Fighting fires…

The Thomas fire circled around Ojai, CA and our orange grove in December of 2017 and the aftermath, which went well into early 2018, was soot and smoke and heartbreak for many who lost their homes. We were very lucky in that we only experienced soot and smoke. However, everyone in Upper and Lower Ojai was affected either directly or indirectly by the ferocity of the Thomas fire, and at a few points in time it seemed as though the entire Ojai Valley was burning. After the evacuation order was lifted, we drove onto our land and saw live fires on hillsides on three sides with multiple plumes of black smoke snaking up into the sky. The air was still so filled with ash and smoke that we all had to wear respirators just to walk on our land. However, despite the terrible air quality and a thick layer of ash on every surface, we came away unscathed.  We felt guilty to be so lucky when so many others suffered major property losses.  Still, we were grateful.

In mid-January, we had our second bout with fire.  I received a call from our tenant in Fort Worth who informed me that there had been a fire in the laundry room of our condo there. The good news was that no one was hurt and the firemen had put out the fire before too much damage was done. The bad news was that there was smoke damage in almost every room and the laundry room itself was completely destroyed.  Ray and I spent the next three months flying back and forth from CA to Texas hauling out fire-damaged appliances and furniture; scrubbing down walls, closets, drawers and blinds; and checking in on the progress of our friend, who has worked for us for years, as he tackled the laundry room and repainted the whole condo. The laundry room was rebuilt, the whole place was painted and, thank you, God, the insurance company paid for it. They didn’t compensate us, however, for our time and our travel expenses. Those were on us. Still, we were happy we had a good policy that helped get everything back into shape.  We were also proud that the condo turned out so well.  Nothing like the satisfaction that comes from hard work. 

But the toughest part of 2018 was that our beloved orange grove had the threat of a forced sale looming over it for the entire year. Because of the price and availability of land in Southern California, joint ownership is a typical option and we own a tract of agricultural land with two partners. Unfortunately, one of our partners got mad at the other and decided to enact a provision in our contract that was considered a nuclear option. At the end of 2017, she called for a forced sale of the entire property rather than just sell off her acreage. Ray and I were collateral damage in this dispute though we had to join the fight since we had no desire to sell the place that is a refuge for our entire family here in Southern CA.

As a result, we spent much of 2018 in lawyers’ offices or looking for other property to buy, and/or strategizing how we were going to move to a new location our cash crop of 65 oak trees, many over 30 feet tall and 30 feet wide. After endless communications with lawyers, the disgruntled partner finally agreed to sell her part to one specific buyer rather than force the rest of us to sell. But that sale didn’t close until Christmas Eve, 2018, which means that we have spent the entire year not knowing from one day to the next if that buyer was going to work out or fall out and send the entire process back to square one. Waiting is tough, no matter what you’re waiting for. In our case, we were waiting to see if we were going to continue to enjoy our favorite spot in California. The finalization of a sale on Christmas Eve was the best gift we could have asked for. Ray and I have been pinching ourselves since that day, hardly able to compute that this fight is over and our land is now safe. We also made sure in the future there can never be another forced sale. Consequently, for the first time in our 14 years of ownership of the orange grove, we can now settle in and know we are truly home. Hallelujah!

The theme of 2018 appears to be dealing with issues beyond our sphere of influence. We didn’t expect those two fires or the forced sale order. Forces outside ourselves put those situations into motion. All I can say is that we did our best.  We worked hard, stayed on task, problem-solved as well as we could and kept moving forward. All with the help of Sarah, Gregorio, Liz, Ron and Rachael along with lots of snuggles from Luna, Nico, Cordelia, Frankie and, recently, little Hazel. One baby step at a time. And now we’re on the other side and can breathe a sigh of relief.

On a scale of 1-10, these problems were not in the upper third. We had no major illnesses, no deaths, no circumstances that were life-shattering.  Yet, these three very different situations made me aware of how fragile life-as-we-know-it can be.  

I am grateful that we have made it through 2018.  I am happy that we now know that our orange grove will continue to be a refuge for us, our kids and our grandkids. Hooray, hooray and hooray again. 

As for wildfires and house fires, well, I’m hoping we get a serious reprieve on those. However, I now understand more than ever how one little spark can change life as we know it very quickly.

Here’s to peace, hope and love in the new year along with health, and prosperity. We could do with calmness on the national and international fronts as well, if we’re wishing.

If all else fails, settle in to fight fires. It will shake you out of any complacency you may have fallen into, and also remind you to truly appreciate all that you have in this transitory life.


In Ventura on Grandma Duty

I am sitting in the car with a sleeping Nico while Ray, Sarah, Gregorio and Luna make a quick stop into the various thrift shops in downtown Ventura. Afterward, we will head to the movies for Spider-Man or Bumblebee, whichever wins out.

Nico is snoring in the back seat. At almost three, he is a force of nature all day long until sleep overcomes him. The admonition, “Never wake a sleeping baby” is especially true for little Nico since he will not necessarily go to sleep early once we get home but rather run on extra energy until long after his parents are ready to go to bed. I am happy to sit with him. He is such a sweet boy. All heart with an extra dose of kindness thrown in for good measure. He pats Cordelia and Frankie and sometimes kisses them as well. If he sees a baby, his automatic response is always, “Aw.” He’s going to be a very good big brother when his little sister arrives in March.

Ventura is filled with end of the year tourists since it is right on the ocean and the downtown area is loaded with charming shops and restaurants. We will, no doubt, go to dinner after the movie in one of those restaurants.

I better wrap up. I expect the family will arrive shortly.

Have a lovely evening, my friends. We have a new year to bring in soon.