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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Exciting News and a Playlist

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I’m a day late on my monthly excerpt, but in fact I decided to not post one this month, because (drumroll in anticipation of Exciting News) the messy manuscript is in the hands of a mentor and development director! Max has read it over and made his notes, and one week from today we will have a lengthy conversation about characters and story arcs, scenes and sequencing. Some good, expert guidance to help launch me into the next round of writing (I had definitely lost my way and needed another set of eyes on the thing, some help to get myself out of the holes I had written myself into).

I wanted to let the story stay quiet and simmer a bit on your back burner as well as mine – with hopes that next month I will have an excerpt that will be from an invigorated new sense of direction and energy – I am so looking forward to next week’s conversation, and to getting back into the kitchen with Bea…

…Speaking of which, that’s the “playlist” part of the title of this post. I have been in the process of creating Bea’s Kitchen Playlist; still in progress, I often listen to it while I work on the book. I find it helps to drop me into the story more readily. Who knew?

I decided in lieu of an excerpt, this month I would share with you a sampling from Bea’s Kitchen Playlist. Because of legalities and copyright issues, I may never get to share the playlist in any kind of physical form – but here is a list of a portion of it for you to sample.  Hope you enjoy it – take it with you to your own kitchen?

“Pacing the Cage” – Bruce Cockburn

“Last Night of the World” – Bruce Cockburn

“Ladies Night” – Preston Reed

“Concerto for Two Cellos in G Minor” – Antonio Vivaldi (performed by Julian and Jiaxin Lloyd Webber)

“Chain of Fools” – Aretha Franklin

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.

Eat This Poem – Interview

eatthispoem_nicolegulottaphoto,
 Nicole Gulotta is the author of the new cookbook Eat This Poem: A Literary Feast of Recipes Inspired by Poetrywhich is out on the shelves today (I got the notification that my pre-ordered copy has shipped so I am anxiously watching and listening for the mail truck’s arrival).

A long time writer and recipe developer, Nicole is the creator of a delicious and widely popular blog of the same name as her new book. The blog is a feast for the senses, and the book is the very much the same, with beautiful illustrations by artist and designer Cat Grishaver highlighting the pages filled with poems paired with the recipes they inspired, and infused with personal stories.

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I had the opportunity to be an official recipe tester along the way; it was fun to get to experience this part of the process of making a cookbook from the “inside.” I have a huge respect for the amount of time, work and love go into a project like this one, and am grateful that she gave me some of her time to answer a few questions about the process:

Peggy Acott: How did the idea for this book come about, or how did it evolve?

Nicole Gulotta: I was initially approached by an editor about pursuing a cookbook (I think someone at her office read my blog and passed it along as something to watch), but it took about a year to put together a proposal, then go back and restructure the book a bit and develop the concept more. Once the idea felt more concrete, I spent the next two years writing the manuscript and creating recipes, so the entire book really evolved over an extended period of time.

PA: What is the connection for you, between poetry and food?

NG: With both poetry and food, I see similarities in the creation process. Poets and cooks each begin with ingredients—words, a pen, and memories, for example, or a knife, herbs, and spices—and in the end we’ve created a finished poem or a finished dish. Something from nothing, really.

PA: How did you decide on poems, recipes and especially in pairing them for the book?

NG: The first thing I did was make a pile of all the poems I liked and thought might be a good fit, photocopied from my own books and a few titles I picked up from the library. Then I read each poem more closely, underlined phrases, and brainstormed a few recipes in the margins. At that point I was able to remove a handful of poems I just didn’t feel strongly about, and for what remained, it was a matter of starting to test recipes, as well as writing some of my reflections to see how the narrative around each poem evolved. I never really finished anything all at once. There was a lot of thinking, drafting, and moving things around before settling on the 25 poems that ultimately made it into the book.

PA: The illustrations in the book are really lovely. Today it seems like cooking is very photo-centric, thinking of the popularity of Instagram, Pinterest, food blogs, and “coffee table” books; was there a particular reason you chose to use illustrations instead?

NG: My publisher and I both loved the idea of illustrations, because it felt really timeless to pair a sketch with poetry. A kind of intimacy is created when someone hand-draws an onion or an eggplant, inspired by both the recipes and the poem, and we hope that translates to the readers, too.

PA: Do you see Eat This Poem attracting mostly poets who like to cook, cooks who read poetry, or maybe both?

NG: Both! I see this book as being a bridge for people to experience the other topic in a deeper way. When I started the Eat This Poem blog, people wrote to me saying they didn’t always connect with poetry, but adding a food element made it seem approachable. And for people who already loved food and might have only experienced poetry in school, poems can help bring deeper meaning to the meals, and encourage a bit more mindfulness in the kitchen. That’s my hope, at least!

PA: Does this experience give you ideas for a “next book” or project?

NG: I’m definitely thinking about what might come next. I haven’t made any firm decisions just yet, but hope to get started on a new project soon!

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Ready to get this book for yourself, or to give to your favorite cook / poetry lover as a gift?
Check with your local bookstore, or order online:

Amazon: http://amzn.to/2iZvCoC
Barnes & Noble: http://bit.ly/2emGhq4
IndieBound: http://bit.ly/2dRLtX4
Powell’s: http://bit.ly/2f3XhBC

City of the Dead – Novel Excerpt

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I don’t really know if this will make it into the finished manuscript or not, but I do like it, and if it gets cut, may find its way into a short story or another novel someday; Octavia may be a larger, more interesting character than the current space for her allows. Who knows? For now, hers is the story-excerpt for the month. I hope you enjoy.

Every two or three months, Octavia would visit the cemetery. New Orleans St. Louis Cemetary 2, to be precise. There were three of them now, all within a few blocks of each other near the French Quarter. A mixture of city settlers, dignitaries, jazz musicians, a voodoo queen, and some just plain folks – generations of them – all sleeping side by side through eternity.

“The City of the Dead” they called it. Because of the high water table and occasional flooding, no one could be buried in the ground, so the practical alternative was  building family vaults above ground, varying in height and breadth and numbers, but all lined up with paths in between like a strange cityscape in miniature. Some were painted, usually in pastel colors; others were whitewashed and glowed in the moonlight; some had a short wrought-iron fence that ran around a large family plot, while others had a thin strip of grass; some had flowers or shrubs, either planted directly in the ground or in pots.

Octavia liked it here. Even though many warned her about coming, especially alone, she found solace in visiting her relatives and ancestors, tending the graves. Well, grave actually, since there was only one long rectangle of cement that held her lineage. It was longer than it was tall, which gave her a wide horizontal surface on which to place her offerings when she came. The only people she ever encountered were others who were doing as she was, respectful and understanding, a sort of unspoken kinship of grief, wonder and devotion.

The one exception to the rule of not coming here at night was on All Souls’ eve. Everyone came out on this night of the year when it was believed the veil between the worlds was thinnest; a time of remembrance, of celebration, of community. On that night – the first of November – the City of the Dead was very much alive with the living. The cemetery glowed in the dark from hundreds of votive candles  placed on the tombs, casting long, slanting shadows and illuminating the faces of those paying tribute and tending the graves. There were flowers and food for honoring and sustenance, shots of rum or rye or sazerac, and maybe a few cigarettes, depending on the predilections of those entombed there.

Octavia always started out by kneeling by the tomb of her family, pressing her hands against the cool surface of the whitewashed cement, and silently saying the old prayers and greetings to the dead in French Creole. Then she would lay out her offerings: No less than a dozen votive candles, evenly spaced around the edge of the box-like tomb. She worked her rosary and said a Hail Mary with each candle lit. Then she set the vase of flowers from her garden, the cosmos and dahlias and snapdragons that held on late – this, especially for her grandmother, who had always loved her garden. It was still warm enough this time of year that there was always ample in bloom.

Octavia took a flask from the canvas bag she’d packed and brought to this night, along with a small shot glass. She carefully poured a small measure of rye and set the glass at one end of the arrangement. For Uncle Philippe, who had always been fond of his after-dinner drink by the fire, this time of year.

She set out a bowl of red beans and rice, a small plate of sliced sausages and tomatoes. A small bowl of late season plums and one with tangerines, a special favorite of her great-aunt Tilly, who had died just this last year at age ninety-eight. It was thought that the spirits on this night were hungry for some of their earthly favorites and it gave Octavia pleasure to be able to provide for them these small tokens of the lives they had enjoyed here on earth.

Octavia reached into the bag and brought out photographs of some of those buried here, placing them around on the tomb, securing them with the votive glasses, protecting them from the breeze that was starting to stir.

She placed several sprigs of rosemary from her garden in the middle of the tomb’s surface. For remembrance. Octavia smiled and stood up, looking at the finished makeshift altar. For her it glowed and hummed with the swirling memories of her childhood and of stories about her relatives that had come and gone before she was born. She felt a part of a stream of life that was as tangible as the flowing of the nearby Mississippi river. She crossed herself instinctively, with reverence.

She turned and looked at the rest of the cemetery. It had come alive with the twinkling of votive-candle lights and the movement of people and the soft cadence of voices that carried on the breeze; combinations of French, English, African and Arcadian dialects. There were traces of song and soft laughter. It reminded Octavia of Christmas. The chill of the tombs, the evening air, balanced with the warmth of the candle light, the warmth of the voices as people prayed out loud and told family stories to the children they brought with them. Octavia hoped that someday she would have a son or daughter that she could bring here, to teach the prayers and the predilections of their ancestors, to pass on the lineage and responsibility of honoring and celebrating those no longer present.

It never felt morbid to Octavia, though both her parents were still alive, and she wondered if it might be different for her, years from now. But she felt that even then, they would be somehow at home, protected and at peace here. She would help see to it, she thought to herself.

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.)

Food and Memory, a Friend’s Story

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Now, those of you who have been following along here, or who know me nearly at all, know that I am in the throes of a novel that is based, among other things, on memories of family and food.

So in that vein, I am thrilled to share the latest post on Thousand Bites of Bread, written by a dear friend of mine, Claudia Savage. It is a touching story of her mother, and of making bread, and oh so much more – you can find it here and I strongly suggest you settle in for a few heartfelt minutes of stunning writing.

The lyricism in Claudia’s writing comes from her being a poet – a published, award-winning, kick-ass poet, by the way – oh and a fabulous teacher besides. And mother to a most intense and creative little girl (no surprise there).

There is nothing like good writing. It is inspiring and enlarging to read. Claudia always makes me want to write more and better. The latest essay is but one example of that amazing quality.

 

One Dish at a Time (excerpt): Fireflies

(It is the first of the month, and so here is another excerpt from the novel-in-process – this time a fond childhood memory of the book’s antagonist.)

Fireflies or lightning bugs light up a meadow in Arkansas during the spring.

There must have been a million fireflies. Dancing dots and flashes of light in the dark, some blinking slow, some fast. Swimming through the deep blue-washed night, they made Alice think of music. She felt like she could almost hear the music, sweet and rhythmic, with different instruments for the different speeds of blinking. Sort of like her “Peter and the Wolf” record, with different instruments for the different characters.  Maybe she would grow up and compose a Firefly Symphony.  She started humming in time to their movement.

Well okay, she couldn’t actually count to a million, but she thought there must be at least a million of them. Maybe two. Or, maybe there were only a million, and their reflection in the pond made it seem like two million (this, one of the wonderful illusions that came with the warm summer evenings of childhood).

Her father had asked Alice if she wanted to catch some and put them in a jar for a while, so she could see them up close. “Could I?”she asked with delight, amazed that such a thing would be possible, like catching magic and holding it fast with a canning jar lid. He had smiled at her expression, and said sure you can do that. You just have to be sure to keep them for only a little while, and then let them go back to their homes.

He had brought everything they needed: From a back pocket of his khakis he produced a flashlight with a piece of blue paper taped to the lens so it cast a light blue light. “It’s so we don’t disturb them, so they don’t think our flashlight is the biggest firefly they’ve ever seen and get scared and fly away,” he told her. He had a jar with a piece of wet paper towel inside – “because they like air that’s not too dry. It’s why they like to be out here in the summertime when it’s so humid, right?” Alice had nodded, not sure she completely understood, but had wanted to impress him with her knowledge and understanding of such important, worldly matters. He said he would hold the flashlight and the jar. He demonstrated the arm movement, easy and gentle so as not to hurt the insects, then solemnly handed her the small net with the long handle (Like a wand, Alice thought. I am Queen of the Fireflies!).

They went off into the middle of the field, and he told her to stand still for a minute, “let them get used to you being here.” She barely breathed. Slowly, like the movement of water, the twinkling gradually surrounded them and twirling of what now she was certain was at least a million fireflies. It was like standing in the sky among the stars, Alice thought. It was like the fairies in the movie Fantasia that they all went to see the summer she turned six, only this was way better, like being in the movie. Alice forgot about the plan to capture a few of them, until she felt her father’s hand softly on her shoulder. She looked up at him and smiled, then got her net ready.

firelies in a jar on a dark background

Alice went into the house, holding the jar with its tiny blinking lights out in front of her with both hands, eyes wide. She didn’t see the smile that her parents exchanged over the top of her head. Bea came running from the kitchen, where she had been helping their mother make dinner, eager to see Alice’s treasure. The sisters took off for their room, to look at the captive insects with the lights out so to see them better, followed by the sound of their father’s laughter and their mother’s call that dinner would be ready soon.

* * *

Alice missed fireflies, living in Hawaii. She had read somewhere they had tried to introduce them at one point, for some reason or another that seemed logical at the time, but the environment wasn’t conducive and the experiment failed. You can’t always just put something (or someone) where you want it to be. Not that she would dream of moving back to Minnesota – not for them, or for anything else, for that matter. Alice wondered if there were fireflies in Seattle. She doubted it. The lights of the city were so many and bright that, even if the insects were there, would obliterate the firefly’s blinking like they probably did the twinkling of the stars. Alice looked up from where she sat on her porch. Above her was suspended an assortment of constellations that she recognized by sight, if not by name. Here on the quieter side of the Big Island, one could still see stars, at least more than were ever possible in the lights of Honolulu. She loved the verve of the city, though she tended to stay closer to home in the height of the tourist season. It was a decent trade-off for living here in paradise. No Minnesota winters. Shorts or short skirts, tee shirts and flip-flops almost all year round, if she wanted. Mosquitos followed her here from the Midwest, true, but not in great numbers. No, she was certain the benefits of living here far outweighed the brief wonder of firefly season back home. Still, she smiled at the memory and faintly wished she could have a firefly summer evening again, just once.

Latest Excerpt from “One Dish at a Time: A Story of Family, Forgiveness, and Finding One’s Place at the Table”

Reserved II

     In the spirit of staying true to my intention to regularly post excerpts from the novel-in-progress, here is this month’s offering. I hope you are intrigued.

Bea brought the pale green towel down from drying her face and paused, considering her reflection in the mirror; thinking how odd it was that no one ever gets to see their own face, but others could view it, could stare at it as long as they liked, taking that fact for granted.

Your only view was from inside it. For the exterior, one was limited to photographs and this backward mirror image. How could it be? Nothing closer to you than your own skin, but never getting to actually see your own face, not ever. You could look down at your hands, your feet, your knobby knees, and there they were, live and in real-time. But not your face.

How much was the reflection in the mirror like a mask you wore?  And if so, where was the real you and who really gets to see it?

Bea frowned and her reflection frowned back. “Where did all that come from?” She wondered. “Middle of the night musings agitated by spicy food too soon before bedtime – philosophy driven by a slight case of heartburn?” Probably it came from all her recent thinking about the nature of Truth, about some of the people in her life and who the hell were they, really?  A mother, dead all these years, who had held a wound and secret alone and close in her heart nearly all the way to her grave, and not shared with Bea; a sister who she had thought was a whole-sister but turns out was only a half-sister (and is that a matter of blood and DNA, anyway, determining who gets to be “whole” and who gets to be “half?”); a father who had been absent most of her life and was now dropping back inside the frame of the picture – but only briefly – as it turns out, just as a cameo appearance before moving back into the turnstile out of her life. Out of life itself, in fact.  Bea felt sure she knew Peter well, but she felt the queasy wavering of doubt. What did she know to be true, after all, even about her husband? And who was she, for that matter? Could she trust a face that she never really got to see with her own eyes?  Bea closed her eyes and shook her head slightly, trying to stop this Möbius strip of thought, but without much success.

People identify who they are, their place in the family, by who they look like, right? Bea contemplated who was present in her features: She peered intently, turning her face slightly left, and then right (or right and then left, depending on how you wanted to look at it). Her thick chestnut hair was definitely her mother’s; likewise the pale color and somewhat dry texture of her skin. Her height and her general build – tall, slender except for a tendency toward heaviness in the hips if left to their own devices – were also her mother’s. Her blue-gray eyes and slightly too-large nose came from her father (though only known through photographs, Bea made a point to note). She shared her maternal grandmother’s name – but also her hands, Bea suddenly realized. They were not her mother’s hands; they had skipped a generation and became hers instead. She held up her hands in the mirror, palms facing her, and gazed at them through the distance of the mirror to make sure. Yes, there it was – she hadn’t ever quite seen it before – how had she missed it? Fingers long, slender but strong. Hands slightly larger than average. Not yet as wrinkled as she remembered her grandmother’s, but hers unmistakably. A duplicate of the hands Bea had grown up watching kneading bread, stirring sauces, tying roasts, peeling potatoes. Bea was suddenly washed over with happiness. Giddy almost, like she had just been given a gift. She had loved watching her grandmother’s hands, and it felt like through them a part of her was still alive in Bea.

Could knowledge be transmitted and carried forward in such a way? If so, what was Bea’s responsibility to her grandmother, if anything? Had her grandmother entrusted her with those indispensable tools for cooking? Was she obliged to use the gift, fully and completely, to the best of her ability?

Her grandmother had smiled at Bea when she’d heard about Bea’s wanting to go to culinary school – something Bea had not yet told anyone else – the summer between high school and college, while they were sitting together on the cool, shady porch, shelling peas into matching bright yellow bowls (had Bea really held that dream for so long?). It was one of the last times she had seen her grandmother, whose eyesight was failing gradually and the rest of her fading away more quickly. She had just celebrated her 90th birthday, and it was uncertain whether or not she would see ninety-one (she fooled them all and lived another three and a half years, dying peacefully one windy autumn afternoon in her sleep).

Bea remembered those last few visits vividly, all the more so for knowing they were numbered: The smells of spring lilacs and old age; chicken soup and eucalyptus ointment. Nearer the end, Bea trying to fill the empty, unknown silent spaces with talk – about college, trips to the lake, things she had been cooking –  almost desperately trying to bring the world to her grandmother, who was by then steadily withdrawing from it. Her hands, that Bea remembered still so clearly as active and precise in their movements, now lying still on the soft blue cotton blanket.