April, In Like a Lion?

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No, wait, that was March….in like a lion, out like a lamb, right? I don’t know, this year it feels like March roared most of the month, so maybe it’s the story for April….though April is looking pretty lion-like:

It’s National Letter Writing Month! Well, the folks at Egg Press say it is, and have thrown down the gauntlet for a 30-letters-in-30-days challenge. Yeah, I have made my letter recipient list, accumulated all my letter writing supplies (yes, post cards count!) and I am going for it. You should too. It’s a creative act of resistance against all the boring, senseless pieces of paper that end up in our mailboxes. Remember how exciting it is to get a handwritten letter? As much as I appreciate the immediacy of text and messages and email, nothing beats the delight and sweet anticipation of seeing an envelope bearing the handwriting of someone near or far, who took the time to sit and write a letter. It is slower, more deliberate, more intentional. I love to write letters and receive them, and as my friend (and letter writer extraordinaire) Miss P says, “to get mail, send mail.”

So I am taking up the challenge, and hopefully my mailbox, too, will be full of tasty bits from friends near and far over the course of the next thirty days.

And, it’s also National Poetry Month. With everything else going on, I’m not sure I can manage writing much poetry this month, but I am going to attempt to read a poem a day.

 

And then, there is the first-of-the-month excerpt of the novel-in-progress (which will be leaving my hands in the next few days to go under the experienced eye of a trusted reader and developmental editor, to help me see what I have amassed and suggest how to move it forward. (I am both excited and nervous, I confess.)

I hope you enjoy it, and find things to celebrate this month!

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Bea wandered amongst the stalls of the market in the staccato of sunlight through the trees. She liked the midweek farmers market because it was always less crowded than on Saturday mornings. Often she could find things that weren’t available in large enough quantities to bring out on the weekends; odds and ends left over from restaurant orders and yet still a decent supply of the usual seasonal offerings. She liked to walk slowly and take her time, picking up and smelling the stem end of heirloom tomatoes, so large that only one would fill her entire hand; admiring the abundant assortment of vegetables, the myriad shades of green; the less familiar curiosities like bitter melon and opo squash, the contorted yellow citron known as Buddha Hand that came from the greenhouses of a local specialty citrus grower.

Bea had bought one of these once and took it home, placing it in the center of her butcher block and admiring its strangeness. She had searched through cookbooks but finally resorted to the internet to learn what to do with it. She ended up grating a bit of the intensely tart-sweet scented rind into a small jar of sea salt, which she put away in the cupboard to infuse for several days. She later used the aromatic, flavored salt to season black cod fillets. The pale flesh (the fruit was nearly devoid of the usual citrus-like pulpy sections), she sliced thinly and tossed in a salad of soft  lettuces and peppery arugula, grating the rind into a nice, citrusy vinaigrette dressing. She also blended some minced rind and flesh into softened butter, shaped it into a log and put in the freezer – later to be sliced into yellow flecked citrus-heady compound butter that was delicious on hot cornbread.

Bea picked up a large fist-size Buddha’s Hand from a small basketful under a large red umbrella, along with some succulent looking pac choi and daikon radishes; she gave her money to the gray-haired woman sitting at the table, nodded her thanks, and went in search of other ingredients.

She knew who would have leeks for the terrine. She specifically wanted those delicious, small first thinnings from the field, no more than an inch wide, tender and almost sweet. A little bit like scallions on steroids. She scanned the market tents for the telltale orange and green stripes that meant Andy and Gail McKenzie were in attendance. Spotting it in the middle distance, Bea made her way toward it, making a mental note to stop back at the booth of her favorite cheesemaker next for the fresh feta she needed.

Andy McKenzie, his bright red hair moving in several unruly directions at once, was a good head taller than everyone else in the vicinity. He was talking intently with a customer, holding a small yellow apple in one hand that he expertly cut with an ancient looking paring knife, removing a thin slice that he handed to the customer to try, not breaking his concentration from whatever he was saying, whatever point he was making.

He caught Bea out of the corner of his eye as she walked up and stood at what she hoped was a polite and appropriate distance; he cut another slice of apple and extended it in her direction without looking directly at her nor interrupting his conversation. The customer nodded appreciatively as she chewed then, thanking Andy, filled a paper bag with apples, moving to where Andy’s wife Gail was standing at the ready to weigh and take money. Gail too, spotted Bea and waved with a big smile, then place the bag of apples on the scale.

“It’s Yellow Transparent,” said Andy in response to Bea’s raised eyebrows. “Will make some of the best applesauce you’ll ever taste.” He smiled and crow’s feet shot from the corner of his eyes like happy lightning bolts. “I’m surprised you didn’t recognize it.” He teased, winking at her.

“I know, I always forget about the early varieties, except for Gravensteins,” Bea replied. “They’re so early, before I start thinking seriously about apples. Besides,” she added, as Andy handed her another slice, balanced delicately on the flat of the knife blade, “you don’t see these very often. So delicious, too.”

Andy saw Bea’s glance casting around his tables. “What are you looking for?” He asked.

“Baby leeks. Got any thinnings this early?” Bea was starting to be anxious that she wouldn’t find them in time. But she knew Andy made a habit of planting earlier in the year than other farmers, starting them in his large greenhouse to give them a head start when the February countryside was still overlaid with cold, gray drizzle, occasionally a frost or light snow. He wanted to have a good supply of the increasingly popular small leeks for customers like Bea and for local restaurants.

“You’re in luck,” Andy smiled at her, “I harvested the first batch yesterday.” He pointed the hand still holding the apple toward a flat basket that was on a table next to where Gail was standing. “What are you going to do with them this time?” He asked as he ran a large-boned, well-tanned hand through his unruly hair.

“I’m going to make a leek and feta terrine,” said Bea. “I’m thinking of serving it for a dinner party but want to try the recipe first. I’m thinking of roasting a whole salmon, or baking fillets in parchment paper. Which do you think?” Bea knew Andy had spent time working in restaurants before deciding he wanted to get his hands in the soil at the other end of the supply chain.

“Hmm,” Andy considered, rubbed his stubbled chin. “I think I would go with the parchment paper. The fish will be more tender, more delicate, which might be a better match with the subtle flavor of the leeks?” His voice went up at the end in question.

“That was my thought too,” said Bea. “Thanks, Andy. I’ll grab a few pounds, oh and a bag of Yellow Transparents, too.” She smiled.

Bea put her purchases in her deep canvas bag and the bag over her shoulder. She sighed, feeling a sense of wealth at even the slight weight of it. Then, waving a last goodbye to Andy and Gail, she stepped back out into the slow, trickling stream of market goers and made her way back to see her friend Martha. Bea realized she didn’t know Martha’s last name. She was just Martha-of-Blue-Waters-Creamery. Bea had been buying cheese from Martha for about a year, after she had gotten her first taste of the creamiest feta she had ever experienced, tossed in a simple green salad at a potluck at work. She’d had to ask around for a while to find out it was Marilyn in the Design Department who had brought the salad. Which had then led Bea to Martha, her goats, her devotion to making great cheese. Bea and Martha hit it off immediately at that first meeting across the table in Martha’s small booth. After tasting an array of cheeses and purchasing several, Bea had signed up on the spot for the wintertime subscription – November through February, a monthly delivery of three different cheese, waiting to be picked up from a cooler on the front porch of one of Martha’s grown daughters.

Bea was sorry to see it wasn’t Martha behind the table today.

“She’s at home with the flu,” said the lanky twenty-something who carried enough of a trace of Martha in his features that Bea guessed this was probably her youngest, Eddie. Bea said she was sorry to hear Martha was sick, and to please tell her that Bea said hello and get well soon. “And could I have a pound of fresh feta?”

Adding the cheese to her bag, wedging it in between the leeks and the bouquet of lavender, white scabiosa and tiny yellow asters she had bought from Gail McKenzie, Bea perused the fringe of the market for anything else that caught her eye. She added a fragrant loaf of dense rye bread and some late season tomatoes to her cache before turning her back on the vendors and heading down toward the waterfront and the fish markets, to see about that salmon.

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Learning to Discern

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I have always been curious, always loved learning new things. Was able to read from a very early age, and in high school and college inevitably opted to do a research paper over a final exam when the choice presented itself.

It took me five years to get my undergraduate degree, for goodness’ sake! I discovered when I examined my transcript at the end of my junior year that my credit hours were evenly split between four departments (as I recall, English was one in this grouping, no surprise). “Your problem – and it’s not really a problem – is that you have too many interests.” This, from my college advisor and mentor. He was right, and I ended up graduating with some enormous number of credit hours; a major (Art) and a double minor (Psychology and Social Science).

What happened to English, you may be asking? An unfortunate experience with one of my professors who (falsely) accused me of plagiarism, turned me away from that path (he has since passed away and it’s of no use to speak ill of the dead so I will let it lie) – but in truth I turned away, no one made me. It is almost laughable now, to think I could be so swayed by one person’s action or opinion. I often wonder how my personal movie would have played out had I put English at the top of the academic roster. Not a regret, but a definite curiosity, as I learn many years later about things like story arc, etc., that are probably the bread and butter of English majors, certainly of MFA students. (My beloved mentor at the time said that with an MFA and a quarter you could get a cup of coffee – tells you how long ago this was – so I opted to not pursue an advanced degree. What would have happened if I had?)

I am a bright-shiny-thing magpie when it comes to information and books.

I am a big fan of webinars, seminars, podcasts, workshops, classes, downloadable PDFs. My capacity is nearly endless, to the point of near-overwhelm. A free webinar? Sign me up! Generative writing workshops? Love them.  In my most recent attempts at decluttering, I took myself seriously to task over the accumulated paper file folders stuffed with information and things I was sure I want to keep for reference and referral. My inbox and computer files are abundant with articles, ebooks, interviews, essays, blog posts about one thing or another, much of it about writing. Or much of it good writing that I want to read.

I am an information hoarder. There, I’ve said it. And I can justify it any number of ways, especially being a writer; like I used to be able to justify pack-ratting all sorts of odds and ends and ephemera when I was actively doing collage. But seriously, it is past time for me to learn and apply the gentle art of discernment a bit more.

I have been writing one thing or another since I first could take a pencil and ride the waves of those cursive loops on those cardboard strip running along the upper edge of the blackboard in  every elementary school class of my childhood. And before I could write? I dictated stories to a willing parent, who dutifully transcribed it onto a piece of newsprint that had been stapled into pages, which I would then illustrate. I claim that now as my first foray into the world of self-publishing. So precocious.

In 2008, after having had a story about a local youth farming project published in a local magazine, I caught the bug to turn my attention again in a more directed way toward writing. What followed was a series of workshops and classes – both in person and online – that generated a cornucopia of snippets and bits for larger pieces, and put me more determinedly on the path of being a writer. It all started with a food-themed series with Cultivate Clarity (originally Ibex Studios), out of which spawned a monthly writing group that has morphed and changed members, self-published an anthology and still amazingly continues to meet monthly in a smaller, more focused version of itself nine years later. I have explored and added more workshops of all sorts, both in person and online. Two (so far) ten-day, 1000 words/day “boot camps” and some private coaching from creative firebrand (and I mean that in the best possible way) Max Regan;  an intense weekend of writing with Ariel Gore; two out-of-town multi-day intensives – one with Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, and one with Jeffrey Davis; most recently an ongoing series of poetry workshops with my good friend Claudia Savage. IMG_2906

It is a trajectory that has barely slowed, once it started in earnest; though there have been no extended out-of-town workshops this year, but I have made up for it with multiple (and sometimes simultaneous) online and local ones. And now I am enmeshed in an accumulation of generated rough draft bits and pieces that could keep me busy for years, questions and “assignments” barely completed or not-yet approached. And still, I am thinking about future out of town forays – including the Amherst Writers and Artists (AWA) workshop facilitator training – and some personal retreats.

Magpie, like I said.

I am in need of some serious discernment.

And yet, I have absolutely no regrets about how I have done all this so far. Quite the contrary: I have not only stepped out of my comfort zone, I kicked down a lot of the walls along the way. But kicking down the walls has meant I had almost no boundaries, no door I could close when I’d had enough for awhile. It was a classic pendulum swing. So now I need to discern what I do and do not need for this next chapter (writing pun intended). I don’t need more. I need more focused. I need to slow down and stay with a story, a poem, the book, and delve more into the gristle and meat of it. Even the scary heart of it. But I long for that now. It’s time for that now. Hence, the personal retreats. I am finding a certain lack of time to circle around and settle into that flow (an adolescent puppy is a lot like a human toddler, and my appreciation for those moms who are also trying to maintain a creative life has once again grown ten-fold. I bow deeply to you). I am astounded, week after week, what can be gleaned from an uninterrupted two-hour poetry class, with eye- opening, mind-opening, heart-opening inspiration and prompts, what juicy and evocative bits and launching-off points can be discovered. What if I could bring that presence to my desk every day? I am on the threshold of 150 days into #continuouspractice – which astounds me no end – but it is time to make even that more mindful, more specific, more directed.

I have thrown down the gauntlet for myself. Pretty exciting stuff, because it’s time. If I have learned anything, it’s that timing is everything.

I have started learning more about the characters in my book. I like them. And the more I know, the deeper the story becomes. I like that too. So stay tuned. More will come. And for those of you who are wrestling with creative projects of one sort or another, stay with it – it is the most important work you can do.

But I think discernment is the key.

100 Days of Discovering Continuous Practice (and counting)

IMG_5364 A few months ago I accepted Saundra Goldman’s invitation to join her #continuouspractice project. It is a group whose members strive to post a photo each day that reflects a dedicated ongoing practice; for most it is about writing, but there are also photographers and a runner, and still others who simply make a point to be present to the world around them and document that practice with a photo. We are a supportive community of like-minded strangers; we come together on the pages of Facebook from all over the globe, aligned in the determination to mindfully establish a disciple of regular attention to our chosen activity.

Do some of us miss the occasional day? Do I? Oh hell yes. But this is not another rigid taskmaster exercise that becomes an easy set-up for failure and self-recrimination – every day is a new day. There is something, however, about the intention of posting a daily photo of one’s work that lends itself to a certain accountability. Not a bad thing.

I have missed the occasional day, but less often than I would have thought. You see, the momentum and practice of showing up every day becomes sort of self-perpetuating. I miss writing if a day goes by without it. Sitting down to the desk with pen and paper or keyboard has become a sort of coming home, one that deeply satisfies (even as I sometimes wrestle mightily with the muses of fiction and poetry, not to mention my own internal critics). And that is the point really. The showing up, come hell or high water. A sink of dirty dishes, lack of sleep, requests from family and friends, to be given their due, but not given all. It doesn’t have to be a lot. Twenty minutes is the suggested minimum, but truly, even ten minutes a day, every day – and like the birds who somehow know the feeder is full of seed, the muses will come by and pay a visit. It is a creative anchor upon which we can hinge our days. It is no small thing, even though perhaps a small amount of time. It is a stand for our own creative worth.

Some days I write a little, some days a lot. Sometimes it is a letter to a friend (yes, I do write letters, on paper and in envelopes with stamps), journal entries to myself, work for a freelance client, work on my own creative projects. Or some combination of these. It just has to be something. 

Earlier this month I  up-ed the ante and took part in Max Regan’s online “Boot Camp” (actually for the second time). Daily prompts, lessons and encouragement; writing 1000 words/day. For ten days. Put my head up after that marathon and lo and behold, I had cranked out 10,000 words! All rougher-than-rough draft, the point is to establish the practice of showing up. Every day. It’s frankly exhilarating. Some of it is well worth keeping, some of it’s pretty much drivel, but a lot is in between, and has potential.  But again, the point is the Practice. In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott has a lot to say about the reality, if not the value, of shitty first drafts. I still struggle with scheduling time to write. I still find ways to procrastinate, derail myself. It’s why they call it Practice. But. With very few days missed, today I posted the photo for Day 134 in #continuouspractice. That is something.

Oh, and the photo above includes a bowl of some sort of salad creation of the day. Not 134 days of cooking necessarily, but creating dishes with an assortment of ingredients on a regular basis satisfies me in similar ways to creating bodies of written work with an assortment of words.

Creativity taking several paths, in my life.

(no accident that the protagonist in the ongoing book project loves to cook, and that the entire story is interwoven through a multi-course meal that she is asked to create. Curious? Stay tuned.)