Ghosts and Saints

Isabel’s friend Pia, who lives in Chile, has always been a powerful force. I have met her several times and each time I felt…unnerved, maybe? I am not sure how to describe it. Maybe it was more a feeling of awe, since Isabel has told me years ago that Pia can see ghosts.

Here are a few ghost stories I got Isabel to repeat:

My grandmother was a crazy-crazy and beautiful and wonderful woman, who spent her life experimenting with the paranormal. She would, for example, train herself and her friends to use telepathy instead of the phone. It didn’t always work but at least they tried. They also had seances. So I grew up in a house where the idea of spirits visiting was familiar in a way. So when I use that in my books people think that it is a literary device. Or they think I really see ghosts. It is something different—it is the idea that I am open to the possibility of other dimensions of reality, as my grandmother would say, and I know that some people can see extraordinary things. 

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Isabel and Pia

My friend Pia can see when someone is going to die; she feels it. It is a very strong feeling that almost never fails, so she is very scared of it. We keep in touch always and I adore her. Pia once told me that she was very worried about her husband Gerardo. She said, “He is going crazy, you know he says that at night these tall Africans come to visit. Masai warriors, two of them, and a child. The child always sits on the night table. I don’t know what he is talking about. I have not seen anybody like that. I only see the British ladies that walk through the walls.” 

Pia lives in a very old farmhouse with very thick walls and she has a huge collection of beautiful old saints, life-size, carved in wood with wigs and clothes and glass eyes, very realistic and beautiful. She has one, Saint Anthony, and according to everyone, not just Pia, St. Anthony walks around the house at night. And so they have had to tie him to the wall with a chain. Houses all around get broken into but no one would dare break into Pia’s house because they all know there is a saint protecting it. 

Anthony

Once Pia and my mother were visiting us from Chile and we took them to a winery in Napa Valley as a treat. The drive was long and by the time we got to the vineyard we all needed to use the loo. The bathroom was located on the second floor of the estate but Pia would not go up the stairs. She would not go near the pool either. My mother and I, who were used to Pia’s idiosyncrasies, decided to go on with the day. Lunch was provided for us by the owner of the estate, who proceeded to tell us the story of how the place was haunted. According to the owner, a woman haunted the winery and wandered the estate at all hours. Although Pia does not speak any English, with my help she was able to make out a little of the story. Pia said it was a young woman in a pink dress haunting the estate, and the owner said yes, that is her! She was the daughter of the former owner and she committed suicide after her son drowned in the pool. And so Pia, who didn’t know anything about this story, had seen both ghosts. She told us that the woman was standing on the stairs and that is why she would not go up the stairs. As for the boy, Pia saw him outside by the pool. 

PiaSaints

So, do they exist? I don’t know. Maybe it is all in our minds but the possibility is nice—that there is a connection of some kind. I often feel, very vividly, my daughter. I don’t see her but I feel her presence. 

The photo above is one I found of a wooden Saint Anthony that I imagine is similar to the one in Pia’s house. I briefly researched the winery in Napa Valley but could not find any story about a child’s drowning or his mother’s suicide. There are several wineries that claim to be haunted, however, and a few are linked to a suicide on the premises. You never know. I like hearing these tales, much like I enjoy reading a good Ray Bradbury story or even stories by Edith Wharton, who wrote some very spooky ghost tales. Hmmmm, Maybe Isabel should write a ghost story?

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El Huevito (The Little Egg)

Isabel has told me the following story several times. In my mind I have added a few details: Isabel dangling in the little car–above Santiago, from a long line attached to a crane, applying lipstick in the askew rearview mirror, completely calm and rather beautiful.

Here is the story as she tells it:

I admit that I am a terrible driver. It took me a long time to get a driver’s license. I eventually got my license in Chile only because the guy did not want to take the test with me. He was that scared.

In the 60’s in Chile it was a big, big deal to have a car. Cars were very expensive and many people did not have them. My first car was a Fiat Topolino. It was very small and very old. My second car was very small as well; it had three wheels and the door opened from the front. You had to get in the car from the front, which made it sort of crazy when you parked too close the car in front because you couldn’t get out or in. We called a car like this “huevito”, or little egg.  

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I have had more than 30 minor crashes in my life and a few that were more serious. One of the more serious ones was when I was in el huevito. I had stopped behind a military truck, and of course my car didn’t have an automatic gear and when I turned around and took my foot off the brake, the little car rolled slowly under the truck. Before I realized it, I was stuck. People were screaming and fortunately the driver realized what was going on because if he hadn’t he would have dragged me with him when he drove off. The soldiers got out and tried to pull me out from under the big truck. After a while they were able to do that but the front of the car was smashed and I was trapped inside. I was towed to a garage with the car hanging by a crane, which lifted the whole car up, with me inside. I had to call my husband and tell him there had been a “minor incident.” The car was completely crushed.

Really, the car was so small it was like a scooter with a shell around it. Actually, if you bumped the car, you could fix the dent with a hairdryer. The shell was made of plastic of some kind and heat would pop the dent back out. Not that time, though.

The good thing is that I have never had an accident here in the States. The traffic is so organized and people stay in their lanes, which helps. I am older and a better driver now, and I drive a safer car. Much safer.

Isabel

For the record, Isabel drives a hybrid Lexus that looks a lot like my hybrid Prius. The day I recorded her telling me this story I had seen her in the next lane over as I was driving to work. I could clearly see her at the wheel, the dogs dancing around the front seat, Isabel holding a container of coffee; to her credit, no cell phone was visible. I recently bought Isabel a net barrier to keep the dogs in the back seat, but she says it doesn’t work. Instead, Dulcinea, Isabel’s scruffy mutt, uses it as a hammock, living a life of reclining comfort as she is chauffeured around town.

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Advice From a Traveler

 

Isabel arriving in Madrid on a recent book tour with her carry-on bag and a smile.

Isabel arriving in Madrid on a recent book tour with her carry-on bag and a smile. Sure that bag looks big BUT you have to understand, Isabel is tiny.

I always wonder how Isabel travels the world with such seeming effortlessness. For example, I once took care of Isabel’s dogs when she was in Chile. My goal was to be out of sight before she arrived home. I had just taken the dogs for a walk and there were leaves in my hair and my clothes were covered in paw prints; I was completely disheveled and Isabel, as you know, is never disheveled. I didn’t want her to see me, so my goal was to be gone before she got back. Of course, she arrived home just as I was leaving. But after a long flight, Isabel should be disheveled, too, right? Um…no. She arrived straight from the airport looking refreshed—in fact, she looked stunning, with perfect makeup and her clothes magically unwrinkled. She even looked well rested. I was flummoxed.

How can anyone look so good after a long trip? Especially given how little Isabel takes with her when she is on the road. I’m not kidding. Her travel bag is practically the size of my purse! I asked her for some advice on travel and here is what she had to say:

I travel a lot. Mostly I travel for work. The worst traveling is the book tours, because then you are in 14 cities in 17 days and there is different weather and different audiences and different times of the day and it is just very hard. The good thing about a book tour is that you can repeat the same clothes. Each day is a different audience, which is an advantage. I always travel with a small carry-on, very small, because I am so short that I cannot put my piece of luggage in the overhead compartment and I am embarrassed to ask for help, so it has to be something that I can lift easily. I have prepared (and it is always ready) a bag with all my makeup and cream and soap in little containers, very light and flexible, so I can tuck it between things. Then everything is rolled up, which it keeps my clothes smooth, not wrinkled. I choose one color, mostly black, because I will bring only one extra pair of decent shoes. And one bag, one purse. I also carry one little embroidered bag, one that my friend Pia made, where I keep my passport and money and glasses and essentials, and that is always on my body. All my clothes, as I said, are one color and are made of silk so they are always layered. Most of the time I am indoors so I don’t have to worry about packing warm clothes. Finally, I lighten things up with bits of color, an array of pretty scarves, light and bright, that I can wear with black. When I travel for pleasure, it is a totally different matter. But I still bring very few clothes. 

Someday I will ask Isabel’s advice on dressing for day-to-day living because I am pretty sure I am doing something wrong. Isabel always looks completely put together. Come to think of it, I have never once seen her in anything that is not silk. NEVER in anything like a casual T-shirt and jeans, or, horror of horrors, sweat pants. I have even seen her walk her dogs dressed head-to-toe in Eileen Fisher and wearing heels that should never be worn by any woman—they’re much too high—and Prada sunglasses. (In all fairness, that was just one time.)

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Writing Assignments

Isabel's vintage Underwood typewriter. Isabel says it is what she wrote "The House of the Spirits" on!

Isabel’s vintage Underwood typewriter. Isabel says it is what she wrote “The House of the Spirits” on, but I don’t quite believe her!

Just for fun, I asked Isabel to play professor and come up with an assignment that she would give an aspiring writer. As an example, I told her that once, while working on a book about the photographer Ruth Bernhard with Lori (Isabel’s daughter-in-law), we were happy to receive a list of photography assignments that Ruth would give her students. One, for example, was to photograph a white shirt against a white wall.

Here is what Isabel told me about her teaching days:

I don’t teach anymore, but I did teach a couple of creative writing courses. Usually in a writing class not everybody has the same knowledge of the language, and they don’t have the same level of creativity or discipline. So the homework that is turned in is very uneven, and because the class is maybe only an hour you don’t have much time. I wanted the students to write under pressure because my training is as a journalist. I was a journalist in a huge newsroom full of people, manual typewriters and NOISE, phones ringing and people walking by and so much pressure, tight deadlines, and you really had to tune everyone out. Actually, having a deadline really helps. And although I start all of my books on January 8, I also give myself deadlines throughout the writing of the book. That helps me also. 

I would give my students a variety of assignments. For example, we would pick a sentence from any book—just open a random book and not read the story, just that sentence—and then create a story around that one line in five pages, let’s say, or during the class even, so there is more pressure. People are always scared of writer’s block because they can’t come up with an idea. Well, how do you get an idea? By forcing yourself to think of something that is unusual. That would be one thing, one idea. Or I would say: write a violent scene. When I did that, almost always the men in the class would write about a fight or something that happened in a bar, maybe. Women almost invariably spoke about being assaulted, even if it had not happened to them. That was the most violent thing they could think of.

Once I got an extraordinary piece that was written by a woman who had been a Catholic nun for 12 years. Her piece was about how they would gather for the evening meal in this big dining room. The meal was eaten in silence, although one person was assigned to read from the Scriptures. In the piece she writes about one young nun who forgets to bring the book to the meal. When it is her turn to read, the nun falls to her knees and says, “Please forgive me, I have forgotten to bring the book.” The Mother Superior says, “It is not for us to forgive, only for God. But we cannot eat without hearing the words of the Lord, so there will be no dinner tonight, no one can eat.” The nun sinks into despair and falls to the floor prostrate, her arms open, and cries. And so the tension, the violence of that scene was so incredible, and at the same time there was no hitting, no screaming, just mental stress—very harsh.

I have also asked students for love scenes or to write about someone looking at a love scene. There is a twist there that creates a tone for the story.

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When people ask me to write their stories or to coach them, which of course I cannot, I always tell them what has worked for me, as well as something that I once heard from Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love. What I say is that writing is like training for sports. If you want to play the game you train and train and train, and while no one sees the training, a muscle is being built. The same is true of writing. You write and write and write, and everything you see you write it down. And sometimes writing TO someone is very helpful; I write to my mother every day. You are all the time thinking and training and you write thousands of pages before there is one page that deserves to be shown.

Here is what I heard from Gilbert when she was asked the same question: “Do not expect your writing to support you or give you fame, you write because you love the process. The result is not the point, what is important is that you really love the process.” I know that is true for me—for every word you don’t write it weighs on you.

Ps. Here is a link to a talk that Isabel did with Elizabeth Gilbert last year at the 92t Y in NYC. It’s fun to see them together, they have a nice back and forth.

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A Whim of Steel

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“A Whim of Steel” is how Olga Murray’s husband described her way back when. Olga, who has been featured before on this blog (check out a past story here), is the founder of the Nepali Youth Foundation, which provides many life-saving programs to the beautiful people of Nepal; programs include Nutritional Rehabilitation, the Indentured Daughters Program and the shelter J&K House. Recently the organization has been involved in disaster relief following the devastating earthquake and aftershocks that hit Nepal in April. See Olga interviewed on CNN about the situation on the ground and her experience during the first round of quakes.

Last week we celebrated Olga’s 90th birthday. It was an honor to sit at a table with her and hear stories from her long life of service to the people of Nepal. Olga is one of our heroes here at the Isabel Allende Foundation. She describes the work she does today as her “failed” retirement. After retiring from her 37-year stint as a staff attorney to the Chief Justice of California, Phil Gibson and Stanley Mosk, and further work with the State Supreme Court, Olga set off in 1984 for an adventure in Nepal. That adventure would change her life and mark the beginning of her love affair with the country and people of Nepal. Read more about Olga here, and if you want to help the children of Nepal, particularly now, post-earthquake, here is a link to Olga’s beloved Nepali Youth Foundation, a group we know will use the money for the very best good.

Happy Birthday Olga!

The whole party, Olga is in the middle wearing one of her birthday presents: She Needed a Hero, So She Became One t-shirt.

The whole party, Olga is in the middle wearing one of her birthday presents: She Needed a Hero, So She Became One t-shirt.

Ps. The donation page of the Nepali Youth Foundation asks you to: Spend a little. Give a lot.  That is the theme of a recent speech Isabel gave in Baltimore where she addressed the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Here is a clip about Olga and Nepali Youth Foundation from that speech.

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Mary Ellen

Isabel asked me to post this on the blog about her friend Mary Ellen Mark.

Lori Barra, Mary Ellen Mark, Isabel Allende & Ina Bernstein in New York Christmas 2014 © Nicole Frias

Lori Barra, Mary Ellen Mark, Isabel Allende & Ina Bernstein in New York Christmas 2014
© Nicole Frias

Today I say goodbye to a beloved friend, and extraordinary artist, the renowned photographer Mary Ellen Mark. In the short time we knew each other, I came to love her deeply and now I regret that I never told her so.

Mary Ellen was a force. And I admired every breath of that strong, courageous, gutsy energy she had.  She demanded  much of  her friends and her students, but she demanded of herself much more.  She expected nothing less than perfection from her work every single day. And she achieved that.

She believed deeply in the humanity in each of us and in the ever-loving healing power of all dogs, big and small. I still wish I could have brought my high-maintenance pup, Dulce, to meet her in NY. They would have loved each other.

She observed and listened with her whole being. Through her work, Mary Ellen Mark taught her students and friends to pay attention to the world with an open heart. She gave each person she photographed back the precious gift of seeing themselves with compassion. The photographs she took of my family in December are among my greatest treasures. We were unaware of it that day in the studio but she saw something in each of us and in our relationship to each other that is only now becoming clear to me. She saw and touched our souls. Not to mention we all look like movie stars; I don’t know how she achieved that miracle. In a decade or so my grandchildren will appreciate these pictures as an important part of their legacy, something to cherish forever. I am sure they will remember that Sunday photo shoot with much gratitude. And in two decades or so, when Willie and I will not be in this world, my descendants will look at Mary Ellen’s photographs and think that they had very interesting grandparents.

Family Portrait and Isabel Allende ©Mary Ellen Mark

Family Portrait and Isabel Allende ©Mary Ellen Mark 2015

I so often hear Lori, my daughter-in-law, say that Mary Ellen believed in her and through her generous teachings gave her back her creative voice. For Lori, who attended Mary Ellen’s workshops every year, that has been one of the greatest gifts of her life.

Mary Ellen Mark  lived fully with passion and humor and grace until her last day on earth. We, the privileged ones that got to participate in her unique world of images and stories, will love her forever.

Isabel

MEMISABELINA

Mary Ellen, Isabel and Ina

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Lori, Ina, Mary Ellen and Jodi

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Ina, Isabel and Mary Ellen in New York October 2012

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The Japanese Lover

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We are excited about the Spanish release of Isabel’s new book El Amante Japonés, or The Japanese Lover, soon to be released in English. We already have dates for the US tour schedule.

Reporters are coming from all over the world to our little office to talk to Isabel. Today there were folks from Korea and Italy; last week we had visitors from Spain and Chile. And this is just the beginning! It’s fun to meet people, even briefly, from all parts of the globe.

I just now snapped this photo of Isabel holding her lovely new book. Plaza & Janés designed it beautifully and you can see more details here.

You can preorder the book in English here.

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Shooting the Yak

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I admit I had to research the title of this blog just to make sure I wasn’t inadvertently using an illicit term for…well, anyway, you just can’t be too careful.

Let me explain. Recently Lori was asked to do a photo shoot for an upcoming American Craft magazine article that features the Tail of the Yak, a small shop in my second hometown of Berkeley, California, which sells an eclectic selection of jewelry, stationary, soaps and more. The magazine editor and art director asked Lori if, prior to the shoot, she would handle hair and makeup for the owners of the store, Lauren McIntosh and Alice Erb.

But here’s the thing: Lori doesn’t know much about makeup, and she knows even less about hair (although she does take stunning photos). So there we were, one day prior to the photo shoot, discussing the problem. Overhearing us, Isabel offered up her talents, and volunteered to do the makeovers for the photos. How sweet is that?

Here are some pictures I took that day (including of Lori—above—taking photos of her own). In the photo above you can see Isabel holding a light reflector and working her magic in the wonderful little space that is the Tail of the Yak.

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Oaxaca Notes

This week’s blog post comes courtesy of Lori, who has been doing a lot of traveling lately, both with Isabel and on her own. Here she talks about her recent visit to Mexico, where for the last few years she has visited and photographed an extraordinary group of children and their caretakers.

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Isabel and I recently traveled to Baltimore, where she addressed the Association of Fundraising Professionals. The part of her speech that really struck me was when she quoted Khalil Gibrain: “Generosity is giving more than you can.” I love that line, particularly because it feels like the mantra of so many of the organizations we support in Mexico.

I just returned from a moving trip to Oaxaca, where I had the opportunity to study photography for the fifth year in a row with my mentor and hero, Mary Ellen Mark. The first year I attended Mary Ellen’s Oaxaca workshop, she quickly put together my love of photography with the work I do at the Foundation on behalf of women and children and assigned me to photograph several children’s homes and centers throughout the area. I have been photographing these precious children every year since, and all of the organizations have become Foundation grantees. Each year these visits both tear at my heart and renew my faith in humankind.

The organizations (listed below) are called “homes” rather than “orphanages” because the children all have at least one parent. Due to a myriad of reasons—including a single mom living without extended family, extreme poverty, abusive homes, mental illness and physical disabilities—the children have nowhere to live. Parents and other family members visit as often as possible—sometimes once a month and sometimes just every few years. It was hard for me to imagine this at first, but one day while I was visiting one of the homes I met a man who had come to see his granddaughter. It had taken him all year to save up enough money for the bus fare to make the three-day trip over the mountains to see her. The scene when he had to leave at the end of the day left me in a puddle of tears.

Another day, I saw a young girl of about 18 months wearing a cotton shirt with the words “Mommy’s Little Girl” inscribed across the front. Given that the motto was in English, that the shirt wasn’t actually hers (all clothes are communal) and that the little girl hadn’t seen her mother in months, the irony of the words was not lost on me.

Most of the children who end up at Casa Hogar Hijos de la Luna (Children of the Moon), one of the homes I always visit and photograph, are “night active” when they arrive—that is, they remain wide awake at night and sleep during the day, having matched their rhythms to the night-time work schedules of their mothers. In addition, many of the children arrive with serious health issues due to malnutrition, nervous disorders and various forms of trauma. They may also have have speech problems, learning disabilities and display anti-social behavior. But all improve dramatically thanks to the love and care they receive at Casa Hogar Hijos de la Luna. The other homes I visit take in children suffering perhaps less in the way of overt trauma and disability, but they are no less in need of love, compassion, empathy and a good meal each day.

These children and the women that run the organizations that house them have blessed my life beyond measure. In my opinion, María Socorro Ramirez González (Casa Hogar Hijos de la Luna), Carol Marin (Casa Hogar Benito Juarez), Dr.Rosa Maria Gonzalez Ruiz (Centro de Apoyo Para La Integracion del Nino Down, A.C.) and the Sisters at Albergue Infantil are the true unsung heroes of our time.

Casa Hogar Hijos de la Luna de Oaxaca, A. C.

Casa Hogar Benito Juarez A.C.  Facebook: www.facebook.com/CasaHogarBenitoJuarezAC

Albergue Infantil Josefino, A.C.

Centro de Apoyo Para La Integracion del Nino Down, A.C.

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Raindrops on Roses

This is a little list of Isabel’s favorite things. I asked her to provide it for me the other day at lunch—we were eating crackers with Bellwether Farms’ divine Basket Ricotta cheese, which is produced locally—and she rattled these off in such a rapid-fire way I was barely able to keep up.

•   Bellwether’s Basket Ricotta—either sheep or cow milk, you choose

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•   Watching movies with my husband (currently Willie) and my dogs (Olivia and Dulce)
•   Being with the few people I love
•   Intimate conversations
•   Reading and writing
•   Researching
•   Beading
•   Wine, cheese, bread
•   Textures, colors and clothes—selective!
•   Flirting
•   Being noticed by certain men
•   Dark chocolate

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•   Something that only happens in Español: witty conversations that make use of my colloquialisms
•   Makeup
•   Women friends: my prayer group, Pia, the women I work with
•   Babies—little ones!

 

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things
— From “My Favorite Things,” The Sound of Music

 

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