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.

 

Holding Space

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This month marks Tracking Wonder’s #Quest2017, where Jeffrey Davis assembles a dozen visionaries from many directions, offering prompts for our reflection and exploration as we stand on the threshold of a new year. It is an invigorating and enlightening undertaking (this is my third year participating) and here you can read #WhyIQuest
And, by the way, it is free – it’s not too late to join in!


The first prompt comes from someone I much admire: OnBeings own Krista Tippett:

“What is your vocation, your sense of callings as a human being at this point in your life, both in and beyond job and title?

Practice internalizing a more spacious, generous sense of what animates you and why you are here (e.g. as a human being, partner, child, neighbor, friend, citizen, maker, yogi, volunteer, as well as a professional). Honor the creative value of ‘how’ you are present as much as in ‘what’ you are doing in the everyday at work and in the world.” #yourtruecalling

 

***

Sitting with this question, my first inclination was to talk about my calling as a storyteller. But I hesitated, wondered if there wasn’t something more fundamental, more elemental, underneath that; something that encompassed storytelling but wasn’t limited to it.

What kept whispering in the periphery of my thoughts was “holding space.”

There is a mindfulness and careful, sharp sense of presence that is required to holding a space. It is something I realize I practice and have consciously tried to cultivate, but that the deliberateness often follows behind a more intuitive recognition.

I emailed a Quaker friend of mine and asked her if “holding space” could be considered a vocation. She replied, “I would say yes.”

***

I think about how often, and for how long in my life – as far back as high school if not farther – friends seek me out to share confidences and heart-concerns. They trusted me to hold space for them.

I think about the years I worked as a dinner waiter at a neighborhood Italian restaurant (actually, one of my favorite jobs), and the importance I placed on welcoming the diners at my tables and giving enjoyable experience along with the nourishment of a good meal. It was a type of holding space.

I remember when I worked at a group home for pregnant teenagers, and volunteered as a birth coach to some of the girls. Getting the phone call in the middle of the night and driving to the hospital to be there as they traveled that amazing and powerful liminal journey through labor and delivery. I held space for them. They gave me their trust.

I think about the weddings and memorials I have officiated as a Life-Cycle Celebrant; of how people have come up to me, complimenting me on how well I “held space” for the ceremony and those attending. It was the confirmation of that, at the first wedding I ever officiated; I knew that something very real existed there for me.

I wonder at the job I held for more than two decades, the bulk of which involved getting needed supplies and support to multiple school and low-income community gardens. I often considered this work to be Right Livelihood. I would like to think I was able to help others hold space – gardens that can be as sacred as they are common.

I have interviewed numerous makers, told their stories in print. I have been called specifically a “good listener.” To me, that means I have done a good job of holding space for the person’s story.

Even as a fiction writer, I feel my task is to hold space for the book’s characters; to tell their story, or let them tell their own. I’m not sure how that works, but it feels like a kind of holding space. Poetry is definitely a holding space activity. Writing is an act of holding space, period.

holding-figs

This photograph hangs in my kitchen, near the stove and tucked in next to the spice racks. It came from a magazine, and it is one of my favorite possessions. I thought about it when I started to respond to this prompt. It strikes me as the visual embodiment of what I have been trying to explain, here.

***

Within this prompt is a wonderful, compassionate invitation that feels like a gift:

“Practice internalizing a more spacious, generous sense of what animates you and why you are here…”

Krista Tippett, thank you.

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.

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.

 

Autumn Equinox

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So, here in the Pacific Northwest, autumn is starting to make itself known – in the cool mornings, bright sunny days without the scorching heat, the coloring of leaves, the winding down of the garden. The mornings will soon start to occasionally be blanketed in fall.

The equinox is that liminal tipping point that comes twice a year, when day and night are in equal balance on the teeter-totter of the year. It is that moment’s pause before the balance shifts toward the light in spring or toward the dark in fall. It signifies the ending of the harvest season, the time to take stock of the abundance we have received and the remnants of which we will carry into and through the winter; likewise what we leave behind to feed the soil for next year’s planting.

And it is also the time of year for reflecting on the personal seeds we planted earlier in the year, and what those seeds yielded. It is the time of year when we begin to take stock of what we have been able to harvest – what we have achieved, accomplished, realized – and what seeds never managed to sprout or thrive, maybe even despite our best efforts.  It is time to celebrate what we have been able to produce and glean, as well as release our grip on what didn’t come to fruition.

So, with that in mind, I offer up a writing prompt:

Reflect on the seeds you planted earlier in the year – which of them bore fruit and which lay fallow? What do you celebrate from this year’s harvest, and what must you simply release?

 

“In holding these two in tension we are reminded that in our letting go we also find abundance.” – Christine Valtners Paintner

 

(I have written more and have shared others’ wise and inspiring words about the autumn and its equinox here.)

 

 

 

 

One (more) Dish at a Time

Raw coriander, garlic and flax on vintage desk

The first excerpt of the novel-in-process was published last spring (with much thanks to  Marisa Goudy for giving me the nudge and the venue). It was anxious-making and exciting to see it out in the world as a Real Thing, even virtually, and I decided I would post more bits and pieces as I went along.

Since that first excerpt, I have doubled my page count (up to over two hundred pages, though I know there’s still quite a ways more to go on a first draft that has yet to be subjected to the editing and shaping process), and have added to the working title. For now at least, it’s:

One Dish at a Time: A Story of Family, Forgiveness, and Finding One’s Place at the Table

And now I am in the midst of a several-month online mentorship program with Jeffrey Davis and Tracking Wonder which is helping propel me through this process. Their encouragement, too, reminds me that I said to myself I would share more of the process with you, too.

So, here is another draft excerpt. Hope you like it.

     “Did you know that if you hold the end of a piece of string to your nose with one hand and take the string in the other hand and stretch it out straight to your side, that piece of string will measure one yard?” Michael Smithson’s face held a grin and look that made Bea think of a magician that once did an assembly in her school. “Although you’re still a little small, you might have to turn your head and stretch the other arm back some,” he added. “Shall we see?”

     Bea’s father just happened to have a small ball of string in his jacket pocket (of course), and demonstrated how it was done.

     “How do you know that’s a yard?” asked Bea with small-child skepticism.

     “Hah! I tried it once and then measured the piece of string,” her father replied. “I don’t have a measuring tape on me, I don’t think,” patting his pockets to be sure, “but look, remember how I showed you once that the tiles here in the kitchen were twelve inches across? How many feet is twelve inches?”

     “One.”

     “Good. And how many feet in a yard?”

     Bea squinted in concentration. “Three?”

     “Yes ma’am. Good work. Any chance you know how many inches in a yard, then?”

     Bea squinted her eyes almost closed, trying to make a number appear in her mind. She opened her eyes and shook her head.

     Her father laughed, “That’s okay, sweetie, that’s a hard question and more math than you’ve done yet. I’ll show you on paper later, draw it out for you so you can see it. For now, though, let’s measure. See? This is how it’s done. Now take this end – hold onto the string right where my fingers were so we get it right – and put it at the corner of the tile there at your feet. Now don’t let it move.” Bea squatted down and did as instructed, being small-child-careful to be precise. She watched as her father took the other end and, laying it along the edges of the tiles, until it was a straight line, just past the corner of the (one, two, three) third tile. Bea’s eyes opened wide like she’d seen a magic trick, was waiting for the string to suddenly change into a strand of knotted, colorful scarves.

     Her Father smiled, triumphant. “See? Pretty neat, isn’t it?”

     “But it’s more than three feet….well, just a little” she hurried to add, seeing her father’s eyebrows raise and not wanting to hurt his feelings.

     “Right you are. Using a body ruler – that’s what they call it – is good for approximate measurements. You know what approximate means, right?”

     “Almost?” Bea answered, her voice raising into a question with uncertainty.

     “Yes! Almost, or more-or-less, or close enough to count. You couldn’t build kitchen cabinets that way I don’t think – we could try it though. Think your mother would mind?” Bea giggled. “Now, let’s check your body ruler.” He handed her the string and she copied what she’d watched him do. The results were a little short of three feet.

     “Try again, and this time turn your head toward the side of the hand that’s on your nose, and stretch your other hand back as far as you can.”

     This time the measurement was almost three feet.

     “Approximately,” said Bea, smiling.

     “Exactly right. Now, no matter where you are, you’ll be able to measure a yard of anything you can hold like that in your hands. Back in the olden days, women used to measure fabric that way for the clothes they made. I remember watching your grandmother do it when I was about your age.” He wound the string back into its ball and returned it to his pocket. “There’s lots of these kinds of measurements. I’ll teach you more of them if you’d like sometime.” Bea nodded enthusiastically. It felt like she and her father now shared some kind of important secret. She could hardly wait get home to show her sister.

***

     Bea hadn’t thought about that afternoon in years. But she realized she had committed all the “body ruler” measurements her father had taught her to memory and used them often. Just now, she had unwound a length of kitchen twine and, knowing from experience that to tie a pork shoulder roast of this size required about three feet of string, put the end to her nose and reached her other arm out, reaching back and turning her head to give her a bit of extra to work with, then cutting it with her kitchen shears. She bound the piece of meat into a nice, even cylinder; she recalled as she was tying the ends together that it had been her father who had also taught her a lot about knot tying. That was the summer before he left. It was a lesson that had been left unfinished, for he knew more knots than he had shown her. It had been hard for Bea to make her seven-year-old fingers work together right, but he had said it just took practice, that she had good slender knot-tying fingers and when her hands got a little bigger and stronger she could probably even enter knot-tying competitions. What a bullshitter, Bea thought to herself, shaking her head.

     But she realized she loved knowing practical things like tying knots and being able to measure things without having to first stop and scrounge in a drawer or toolbox for a ruler or tape measure. For example, she knew the span between her thumb and little finger, when she opened her palm wide, was eight inches. Handy (no pun intended) to know when picking a pie or cake pan out of the cupboard and wanting to be sure whether or not it was eight or nine inches (or ten, for that matter. She could determine an inch or two beyond her hand span).

     Bea placed the roast in the oven, wondering what more her father would have taught her if he’d stayed.

Finding Words

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I am a writer. Words and stories are the internal thrumming of much of my life. Yet in the face of still more acts of unthinkable physical and spiritual destruction, an accumulation  to our collective pool of anger, divisiveness, hatred and violence, I have been at a loss for words.

I, like many people  – of all skin colors, nationalities, backgrounds, religions and occupations – search to find a way toward a sort of equilibrium. A place from which we can finally have the long-overdue conversations, and correctly demand the needed changes to help heal the broken parts of our world.

Fortunately, there are many who are finding words and giving voice to this deep need. Some I know personally, many I have never met; all help buoy my aching heart a little, and I am extremely grateful to them all. Here are two:

  • Krista Tippett, who is thoughtful and wise and is never afraid to look at the hard questions with a heart full of compassion.
  • My friend Suzy Banks Baum, who has the ability to bring forth things that are important with a laser-sharp, deep-hearted elegance.

And there are so many more.

I invite you to find those voices that speak to our best selves, not those that try to keep us hamstrung and hopeless with fear; that challenge us to look deeply into our own hearts and ask the hard questions – with compassion – that will lead us toward real and lasting change, into a healthier world in which we all have a place.

One Dish at a Time

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So, today (thanks to the generosity of Marisa Goudy) marks the publishing of the first excerpt of my novel!  There, I’ve said it out loud – I have called it a “big hot mess of a fiction piece” as recently as a year and half ago, but not too long after, at the end of a five day intensive workshop with Jeffrey Davis and Tracking Wonder, I found myself willing to say that yes, I was actually working on a novel. In the time since then there have been scenes sketched, characters poked and prodded to see who they were and what they were about; there was a blooming of sorts, like a picture coming gradually into focus. You can read this short excerpt here.

I have carried this story in fits and starts for a long time, but haven’t ever been able to simply walk away from it: This story of family, of the struggle to understand and forgive; of the connections and anchors that come through food; the physicality of cooking, of the stories and shared experiences that get passed down through the generations, that weave family members together whether they like it or not; of finding one’s own place in the world. For some reason this story has captivated me, so I have to think that there are readers who might likewise be captivated by it. I hope so anyway.

I printed it out the other day, and yowza, I had a stack of a bit over a hundred pages of text! Well what the hell…. that’s not huge, but it means I am definitely a good way into a first draft; further than I’d anticipated, more substantial in its still-growing parts than I’d thought. A good thing.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I have set myself the goal of having the first draft done by the end of the year. It is time for me to settle in and write this. Seriously. I have just signed on for an eight-month mentorship program with Jeffrey Davis and Tracking Wonder, which will help me focus and direct my trajectory toward that goal.

Last week I  finished a five week “hammer & nails” novel workshop with Jennifer Springsteen and PDX Writers, and there were some significant breakthrough moments – including  A WORKING TITLE! Even though the title may change and change again before it’s in print (note the optimism, there?), for now One Dish at a Time suits me just fine. A title makes it real, right?

I’ve decided I am going to post snippets and scenes every so often here, just to keep the tease and hopefully the interest (of you, dear readers) sparked and alive. Also to keep me accountable, for this is a fairly daunting project. But it needs to be written. I really believe that. I like and have stake in these characters, so I need to tell their stories. So, here’s the first published bit. Thank you very much to Marisa Goudy and #365StrongStories for honoring me with a place at their table.

I hope you come back and read more as it’s posted, here. And leave me your thoughts down there in the comments box.