The Tumult of Time

 

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Well, the month of June has come and gone without any mention from me, here.

I always swear I am not going to let the days smoosh together unrecognizably, or get caught up in a current of activity that is moving so quickly I am merely carried along, not noticing or marking the unique (and therefore precious) moments along the way. But sometimes it happens anyway.

Summer solstice brought us the longest day; the charcoal grill got uncovered and cleaned and put into action. The weather warmed and the garden has started to grow in earnest. A good portion of my time has been spent there.

So, in truth there have been markers along the way.

The last couple months have been full of the emotional distractions and energy-absorption of canine health issues and crisis that kept our household on edge much of the time. I am familiar with that blur that can happen with the act of caregiving (and the worry and lousy nights’ sleep that accompany it). So I am neither apologizing nor judging — merely noting and now am finally starting to pick up the threads that I had set down a while ago.

My birthday was in there too, somewhere (well-marked by an avalanche of birthday wishes via social media), but that day found me in bed with the flu.

Some years are more celebratory than others.

 

But there is some good news to this story.

I now have renewed energy for the novel-in-progress, thanks to the wise insights, suggestions and genuine enthusiasm from editor and mentor Max Regan. I have started plowing back in, rethinking and reshaping some of the characters, time lines and sequencing. It is an exciting prospect, but I am feeling a little tentative and shy and new about the whole thing, so for now am going to suspend the monthly excerpts here, and focus on the writing itself as I move ever closer to a finished first draft. It hardly seems possible from here!

And short story has been accepted by Spadina Literary Review, to be published online in the fall! So stay tuned.

So okay, it has not been a complete blur, after all.

 

But then at the end of May, Brian Doyle died.

 

Those of us who knew about his cancer diagnosis knew that day would be coming sooner than later, but it was still a shock to the system. One of those shocks that momentarily stop all awareness of the outside world, filling the senses and mind and heart and body with the roaring silence of the Awareness of Absence. Something irrevocable. As certain as it is mysterious. It’s one of those human mortal things that are difficult to explain but as tangible as a metallic taste in the mouth or the hairs rising up on the back of your neck.

A teacher and someone I consider a mentor, Jeffrey Davis, says there are different kinds of mentors: people we encounter live and face-to-face, those we connect with at a distance and online, and those whose writing inspires and informs, our mentors-on-the-page.

Brian Doyle was a prolific writer, compelling storyteller and illuminator of the marvel and grace in life’s smallest moments, but not everyone is able to love his style of writing: He had a deft hand with run-on sentences and had an amazing knack of putting punctuation-less, stream-of-consciousness prose on a page that, if you stopped and thought about it, reflects exactly how the active and curious mind actually thinks. (He told a funny story in an interview once, that after the publication of the novel Mink River his brother sent him a page full of nothing but commas, and an attached note to the effect that he seemed to have lost his supply, so here were some he could use.) For some people this makes for difficult reading. I totally get it. But, if you’re able to settle back and unhinge something in the conscious mind, wade into the stream of his writing and be able to ride its ebb and flow, it can be rich and lush, abundant in the wonders of the world.

I received one of the most gracious and encouraging rejections ever from Brian, in response to a piece I had submitted for consideration to Portland Magazine – the quarterly University of Portland publication of which he was Editor – the turnaround time was next to immediate (which, for any of you who have experience with submitting know this occurrence is on the far side of unlikely and unusual). His explanation was that he respected writers and the courage it took to submit, and he wanted to honor both with a timely response; and besides which, he knew himself well enough to know that if he waited to respond the submission would likely get lost in the vastness of his inbox and he was afraid to lose track and not respond in a timely fashion. I had never felt so respected as a writer.

 Above my desk sits a framed “self-portrait” with the inscription “with laughter and prayers, Brian Doyle.” It was his response when I handed him my notebook open to a blank page to sign; after a wonderful talk about some of his favorite writers and the imperative we should all feel to tell stories (as being the warp and weft and grist of our lives, of where we intersect as human beings), others had thought to bring a copy of one of his books to sign, but I hadn’t had that forethought. So, feeling slightly foolish but sincere, I handed him the blank page to sign. What I received instead, was this: 

Brian Doyle self-portait

It is apparently something he sometimes did – I recently saw one tacked up next to a shelf of his books in a local independent bookstore where he had done a reading in the past – and I was thrilled to have one of my own.

As he was thus autographing my notebook page, I told him of the nephew of a friend of mine who had recently suffered a near-fatal bicycle accident. My friend would sit by his bedside in the hospital while he was still in a coma and read out loud from Mink River, which was one of his favorite books. He later told her he remembered hearing her reading from the book, and how important that was. Brian’s response was to ask for both my friend’s and her nephew’s email address; I don’t know what he wrote but he made a point to write to both of them. That was the kind of person he was.

I want to say we are truly gifted by the richness of his spirit as well as the many stories and “promes” (his word for his particular prose/poems) full of rich language and wonder that remain even in his absence. (If you would like to read more – tributes and reflections as well as some of his words in essay and interview – the links are below.)

So my return to my own creativity, as well as to the desire to live fully into each day, comes in part from this latest reminder of how precious and fleeting is this gift of time we have here on this planet, in this life.

 

Brian Doyle’s essays published in Brevity.com

Brian Doyle’s interview on Brevity podcast

Brian Doyle and Orion Magazine

An open letter from one of Brian Doyle’s students

Brian Doyle’s last poem

 

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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!

###

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.

The Latest Excerpt and an Announcement!

The first of February already – time to post another excerpt from the first draft of One Dish at a Time: A Story of Family, Forgiveness and Finding One’s Place at the Table.

And speaking of first drafts….I have committed to the deadline of March 1 (as in a month from today!) to have a messy first draft in the hands of Max Regan, a mentor and Development Editor who is going to give the manuscript its first full read!  I am nervous and excited and looking forward to his wise words and guidance.

So, I still have a lot of writing to do, which is where you’ll find me for most of this month. For now, here is the latest excerpt to share, a deeper introduction into the story’s protagonist, Bea. I hope you enjoy it.

Night's treasures

The problem with time, Bea thought, leaning back in her chair and looking up at the deep blue-black sky peppered with stars, is that one always thought there would be enough of it. But the opposite seemed to be true: There seemed to never be enough time. How could one ever avoid wanting just one more conversation; one more afternoon sitting in the sun; one more smile and hug from a loved one; one more chance to ask all the questions left burning inside.

Had Bea ever felt like she’d had enough time? Why hadn’t she learned the lesson, but instead continued to be surprised when Time was up, over? Would she end her life with the wide-eyed sense of surprise and her last words be “but I thought there would be more time?”

She took a sip of wine, squinting up into the night, and tried to sketch out the pictures of constellations that her father had shown her when she was only six or seven, standing together in their darkened back yard in small-town Minnesota; kitchen lights off, standing still long enough that the motion-detection spotlight on the garage stood down from its duty. They would stand there at different times of the year, to be able to see the different characters and pictures that arced overhead through the seasons. Bundled in down coats and scarves in the winter, sweaters in spring and fall, or trying to stay cool in shorts and tee shirts in the thick, humid Midwestern summer, when sleep was elusive and they might as well be outside looking at the stars. Cassiopeia, Sagittarius, the dippers both big and little, Ursa both major and minor; Bea couldn’t remember them all, and now she was half a continent away, under a slightly different sky – the lights of the city prohibitively bright. She sighed. When her father had left time had abruptly stopped, then jerkily started again for the three of them, but in an out of sync rhythm like trying to walk with the heel of one shoe broken off. As a child she hadn’t considered an end-point to the time with her father. Thought there would be more time, enough time.

Her mother’s stroke. Another time thief. Bea had thought there would be plenty of time to finish the program at culinary school and then propel herself on a long and satisfying career path. But suddenly that time was suspended – or over, at the time she didn’t know for sure – as she moved back home (alone, without Alice; Bea took a sip of wine to wash the acrid bitterness of that fact off her palate). She had imagined a future time possibly spent in the process of care-taking her mother, but imagined it many years in the future; thought she had more time, enough time, before then. Time for those talks, those holiday visits, those occasional letters and packages in the mail.

But, is there ever “enough?” What is enough and who decides? Don’t we always, like selfish children, want more? Bea had wanted more time with her mother, had tried to squeeze every bit of what was left to them and be achingly present, to somehow store each memory, the sound of her voice (what was left of it), and after that, the feel of her hand, the deep amber color of her eyes. But there was never enough time for it all, for all that Bea imagined she would have.

Then there was an estate to close, a house to sell. Thoughts about moving away somewhere that maybe the clock could be started again and Bea could once again have enough time.

 And then she had met Peter, at the home of a mutual friend. A relaxed evening and quiet dinner of scallops and roasted asparagus, fresh strawberries, creamy farmers cheese and almonds for dessert, and a few bottles of crisp white wine (yes, Bea remembered the meal, as well as the company); and through him time stretched out again – the dream of having enough of it was like a sweet balm of refuge from the ache of time having been snatched away what felt like over and over again.

     They had married that autumn – the day before the first Minnesota snowfall of the season – and for the first year or two she was so happy that she would lay awake at night listening to Peter’s even, peaceful breathing, trying to memorize it, just in case this time would get stolen from her, too. But finally, she relaxed in the rhythm of their days, of their life together. Peter was a constant – like the Northern Star that Bea now found overhead in the night sky – a star so bright that all the artificial lights couldn’t dissipate its brightness. That was Peter, for Bea.

     The years went on and she thought herself happy; was happy, truly. But as she crested the hill of her life and stumbled upon sight of the threshold of forty years around the sun, she felt once again that shadow of impending…something…that kept her awake at night.

     She disliked the idea of a midlife crisis, it seemed so cliché, though menopause was going to be real and upon her, soon enough. Ah. At one point in her life she thought she had time enough to have a child, though was undecided whether or not she wanted one. Peter and she had talked about it with no great enthusiasm or driving need, but no real aversion either. They both danced with their fears and tender memories of family gone awry, enough so that they could push away decision about a child of their own until it either happened or didn’t. Well, the “enough time” for that event was coming closer to an end.  And how did she feel about it? She didn’t know for sure. It was all muddled up with the rest of her emotions about her life, another grain of sand flowing through the hourglass.

A New Year, a New Excerpt

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Happy New Year! No resolutions here, but a Word For the Year (“Imagine”) and the continuation of my intention to post an excerpt of the novel-in-progress on the first of each month.

If you haven’t seen the others I posted, you can find them here, here, here , here and here. (Not in any particular order).

This one is from early-on in the book; a glimpse into the day-to-day life and the seeds of disruption for the protagonist…a little long, but I hope you like it.

* * * 

Bea decided to not eat at her desk for a change, and took the empty chair across from Dennis Murphy, the only copy editor who had worked here longer than she had, and one of her favorite co-workers, next to Felicia.

“Hey Murphy,” she said, “Care for some company?”

“Please, sit.” He gestured to the chair across from him. She set down her plate and pulled back the chair.

“Damn that smells good Bea, what is it?” 
“Just some leftovers.”

“Seriously? Your leftovers look like a page from a magazine. Come on, what is it?”

“Slow-braised pork with red wine reduction, polenta with parmesan, and a root vegetable ragout.”

Murphy shakes his head. “How do you do all that after working here all day?”

“Practice, and that marvelous invention, the slow-cooker. It’s also what I do instead of watching television.”

“Humph. You do so watch TV. Peter told me you watch the Cooking Channel like it was the only station on the air,” He smiled and winked at her. “Doesn’t that count?”

Bea laughed. “Busted! Yes, I suppose that counts. I was serious about the slow-cooker, though. You and Meg should get one, it really does make all the difference.” She wanted to chide him for his daily sandwiches, but didn’t know if they were personal favorites, if it would come across as condescending instead of kidding. She liked Murphy and didn’t want to offend him, or make herself look like a pompous bitch. So instead she changed the subject, and they talked about the current projects they were working on (he was finishing the final mark ups on the latest natural history book about the Galapagos Islands. She had just started working on a memoir of a woman who had grown up in a traveling circus in Europe in the 1940s); the movies they last saw; the latest adventures of Murphy’s now four-year-old son, Gabriel.

“Murphy, what would you do if you didn’t work here?”

“Work somewhere else, of course, why? You know something I don’t?” He winked at her.

“No!” Bea laughed. “I was just thinking about what I would do if I weren’t working here. Don’t you ever at least think about it?”

Murphy took another bite of his cheese and tomato sandwich, chewed for a moment and swallowed. “I used to think about it, but I haven’t for a long time. Once Gabriel came along I stopped thinking about changing anything other than diapers. But don’t get me wrong, I lucked out – this is the best copy-editing gig I have ever had, and it beats the hell out of freelancing. Seriously, I am not cut out for the self-employed life. But, why do you ask?” He leans forward, conspiratorially. “You casting around for something new?”

“No, well, I don’t know. I have been feeling restless or something lately.” She took a bite of food as she considered. “So, did you always want to be a copy editor?”

Murphy laughs. “Oh hell no! I graduated from college with a degree in History, and was all set to become a professor and submerge myself in the great cocoon of academia for the rest of my life. But then Iraq happened, and I enlisted. My dad had been a Colonel, and it was always expected that if the opportunity came up and Uncle Sam said Jump, the Colonel’s two sons would immediately ask How High?” Murphy smiled. “And when I got back – thankfully in one piece – I really wasn’t sure what to do with myself. While I was trying to figure it out I helped my kid brother by editing his thesis; next thing I knew I was being hired by a dozen grad students to look over their papers, and all of a sudden I am using my English minor more than my History major. But turned out I really liked it. The rest, as they say, is history – sorry, I couldn’t resist,” he said, smiling at Bea’s grimace. “And now here I am – about to be promoted to Assistant Editor.” He smiled at Bea’s surprised expression.

“Really? That’s great news, Murphy! Congratulations! When did that happen?”

“This morning,” Murphy nodded. “Thanks, I’m pretty stoked about it, and the extra money will come in handy. But what about you? What was the thing you thought you wanted to do before you ended up here?”

Bea didn’t hesitate. “Cook,” she said, taking a bite of meat.

“Really? Well I’m not surprised, but where, like at a restaurant?”

“No, not interested in restaurant work. I did a brief stint at culinary school after college – English major, by the way, so yes I am using my liberal arts degree,” Bea laughs. “But I had to drop out before the program ended to take care of my mom after she had a stroke, and I never got around to going back. But I hadn’t really decided where I might end up. I doubted I had the stamina or interest in being a line cook, for one thing. Something more backstage like pastry chef, maybe. Mostly I think I wanted something potentially more varied, like catering or being a private chef of some sort. But I never went far enough to find out.” Murphy accepted Bea’s offer of a bite of food. “Oh damn, that’s really good.” He chewed and swallowed. “So, couldn’t you pick up where you left off?” Bea paused before replying. The lunch room was fairly small, and by now they were surrounded with the buzz of conversation and the clinking of silverware on dishes. The atmosphere was convivial and relaxed, and Bea tried to imagine what it would be like, cooking a meal for a roomful of people like this. “I don’t know,” she said slowly. “I don’t want to say ‘I’m too old,’ but it feels a little bit like that. For one thing I have been here long enough that it would likely be a gruesome cut in pay to cook for a living, and I don’t know if I have the physical stamina to cook full-time. Does that sound weird, or like I’m making excuses?”

“No, especially not with restaurant work – Meg’s younger brother has worked as a line cook for the past couple years, and it sounds pretty grueling – but catering or freelance private chef would be different, wouldn’t it?” Murphy pressed.

Bea uncrossed and recrossed her legs, ran a hand through her hair. “Maybe. Probably. I don’t know. That all feels so long ago, I don’t know if I could switch careers like that now. It feels a little overwhelming.” She looked down at her plate and focused her attention on eating.

Murphy, aware that Bea was suddenly uncomfortable, changed the subject. “So how did you end up here?”

Bea looked visibly relieved, Murphy noticed, like she had stepped back onto solid ground.

“After mom died I didn’t really know what to do with myself,” she explained. “There was all the paperwork and legal stuff to do, and mom had left me a little money so I didn’t have to scramble for work right away. While I was in college I had, like you, done some work editing graduate theses – except not in the Art History department because mom taught there, and they figured there might be some conflict of interest,” Bea motioned with her hand to wave that idea away. “I got in touch with some of mom’s colleagues and they helped get the word out for me to their students; a couple of professors who were working on papers for publication hired me to edit for them, too. That was really when I realized I liked doing it. There is something tidy and orderly about it that appeals to me. Couldn’t ever see myself writing,” Bea laughed. “I actually had applied for a job with a small press in Minneapolis at one point, but then Peter got the job here with the Marine Conservation Coalition. One of the professors I had worked for suggested I hit up publishing houses here too, offered to write me a reference. And yes, as they say, the rest is history.” Bea looked at her watch. “Okay, back to the circus.” She smiled at Murphy. “Thanks for the company. Say hi to Meg for me.”

“Will do. Say hi to Peter. And I’ll talk with Meg about a slow cooker.” He smiled as he got up from the table with his now empty paper bag and walked toward the door, stopping to talk with a man at a nearby table. Bea heard the sound of his laughter over her shoulder as she left the break room.

Bea walked slowly back to her office, her steps muffled by the dark green carpet. The hallway was lined with framed book covers, but Bea had long since quit noticing them as anything more than a blur of color and text that could in truth have been in any language. At the moment, she was thinking about her lunch conversation. Why hadn’t she gone back to culinary school? She’d had money enough, and even a bit of time; though maybe not an entire year and a half, which she figured would have been how much was left, what with time as an extern somewhere. No, she wouldn’t have been able to afford both the tuition and the living expenses for that long. Or, was that just what she told herself at the time, and so many times that she came to believe it?

As she rounded the corner to the stairwell to go up a floor to her office, memories bubbled up: Big, open, spotless and brightly lit commercial kitchens, equally bright with white walls and miles of stainless steel in the form of tables, sinks, shelves and racks; bright with the while chef coats and toques on all the eager students, all carrying their rolled bundles of knives, the leather new and unworn by years of use, all with pens and thermometers in their allotted slots on the arm of their white chef’s jackets. Bea still had hers, folded up in the bottom of a dresser drawer. Bea had been one of the older students in her class, even then. Was that it? Was she afraid of holding down the far end of the age bell curve and being one of if not the oldest student there if she went back? Well, she certainly would be now, wouldn’t she? And so what? If she wasn’t interested in restaurant work, she wouldn’t have to fear competition with the younger, more energetically driven students. But wasn’t that what the program was mostly gearing their students for, except those who were on the front of the house “hospitality” track, destined to be restaurant managers and owners? Bea honestly didn’t know. Hadn’t gotten that far in the program. Hadn’t asked.

Then a friend introduced her to Peter, and she got the copy editing jobs, and time went on….culinary school became a distant memory, almost like another life. She had continued to cook and to learn on her own, and that had seemed to be enough. Wasn’t it?

Wasn’t it?

* * *

 

I just finished an amazing, invigorating and incredibly valuable eight-month writing mentorship program with Jeffrey Davis and Tracking Wonder that was truly for me the right thing at the right time – I am well on my way to having a finished first draft!

(In three days’ time – January 4th – Jeffrey is offering an introductory FREE two-hour webinar that will be chock full of great information and enthusiasm about crafting your year ahead, and will be an introduction to the man I have been so fortunate to study with off and on for the last two years.

If this has you at all curious, I think it will be a good use of your time, check it out and register here.)

Amuse Bouche

 

Tapas

In keeping with my intention to share the writerly process and occasionally post an excerpt from the novel-in-process, still tentatively titled One Dish at a Time: a Story of Family, Forgiveness, and Finding One’s Place at the Table, I decided it was time to post another one. (The first two are here and here.)

The question of what to choose was answered for me when recently assigned by Jeffrey Davis to share the first five hundred words of our book with the other participants in his eight month long author’s mentorship program.

This was the first declaration of the beginning of the actual container that will hold this story, and was the first step in being able to start assembling the many pieces and scenes and conversations – both past and present – into what I hope will eventually be a coherent and captivating whole.

So in the spirit of writerly courage, here you have the first draft of the first five hundred words:

 

 

Amuse-bouche

 

 

Amuse-bouche: noun \ˈä-ˌmüz-ˈbüsh, from the French meaning “entertaining the mouth.” A single-bite appetizer or hors d’oeuvre that sets the tone or theme for the meal that will follow.

 

 

Bea’s grandmother made bread every Wednesday. After school, when she and Alice walked – or more typically ran, bursting through the kitchen door with the slap of the screen door behind them – into the house, it was to be enveloped by the heady aromas of baking and heat. Bea would sit on a tall stool by the massive butcher block, watching the choreography of her grandmother’s hands and the moving ball of dough. “You just get a feel for it in time,” she’d say.

 

* * *

 

Every time Tyler smelled freshly baked croissants he thought about Octavia.

As the years went by, he got to know the shape and texture of his grief in such a way that he could almost feel it, pliable and soft, but ever-present with a tenacious solidity.

 

* * *

 

Alice breathed deeply and caught a whiff of the Plumaria blossoms near the steps – that faintly spicy, faintly sweet combination that brought her comfort. The scent that welcomed her home after a long day or occasional week or more away for a photo shoot. It was the scent she had first encountered when she stepped off the plane at the Honolulu airport; the woman walking ahead of her was greeted by a group of friends, one of whom placed a lei of creamy white flowers around their returning friend’s neck. When she later saw the Plumaria tree growing next to the porch of a cottage she was looking to rent, she knew she had found her new home.

 

* * *

 

Michael eased himself down onto the step of his airstream as the sun was just beginning to dip down and color the western horizon of the far hills. He groaned slightly and then coughed. It had been a long day of pulling a stubborn engine out of a Studebaker, and he wasn’t as young as he used to be. He coughed again, ran a hand through his graying hair. He took a long drink from the cold beer and sighed with satisfaction. He never got tired of this view, of so much sky that held so many stars to look at in the middle of the night when he couldn’t sleep. He was glad he found this place on the periphery of town and beyond the reach of the lights that obscured the stars.

He coughed again.

 

* * *

 

Bea sits at table on the deck, overlooking the greenway and beyond it the river, with stacks of recipe books and her laptop and an indulgent mid-afternoon glass of wine. She picks up a fawn-colored file folder with long-ago notes and scribbling on food-stained pages; the remnants of her months in culinary school. She slowly turns over page after page, looking for a clue, an idea, an inspiration from these ghosts from her past.

     Goddamn it, she thinks. I need a plan.

 

Learning to Discern

ArtMark - office floor 1

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.)