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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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!

4.21+Nicole+Gulotta

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.

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.

 

What Do You Read and Why?

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What do you read and why?

I posted that question on my Facebook page recently. A similar question had been posed to me by Jeffrey Davis during one of the weeks of ArtMark , in response to my frustration at trying to articulate what “elixir” I have to offer people as a writer. Offering-articulation seemed to me to be more obvious and easy to determine for those providing a service, like creativity and life coaches, workshop facilitators, even writers of trade nonfiction that give specific answers and solutions to many of life’s questions and problems. I mean, I could “get” what needs I might serve in writing personalized ceremonies or conducting writing workshops. But as a fiction writer? That’s just writing stories, not answering a need (except my own need to write), right?

Wrong. (Fortunately)

Jeffrey responded with a simple, palm-slap-to-forehead question that nearly made me laugh out loud it was so obvious (but so often that’s how it works, me making something more complicated than it needs to be):

“Why do you read fiction?”

Oh, for what a myriad of reasons do I read fiction!…I love language, a good story, the imagery and emotions that can be evoked by the arranging of words. Twenty-six letters in an infinite number of combinations that can at any given time make one laugh, cry, feel anger, humility, awe, wonder, connection.

I like stories that transport me out of my day-to-day life into the lives of others, not as a voyeur, but as a witness; alternately, I like stories that hold up a mirror to my own life and life’s questions with characters who feel to me like real people; people I might like to know and spend time witha, who deal with some of the same struggles that I have known. I learn more about myself as I watch them navigate their lives, or allow me, gratefully, to simply say, yeah, me too….

And it’s not just about fiction, really: I look for similar things in every genre I read. With non-fiction, I am often looking to learn something new or understand something that has otherwise eluded me. Sometimes I simply want to be inspired when the world seems too heavy and burdened beyond repair.

When I posted this question on Facebook I received similar answers – many of them so eloquent and heartfelt, I was blown away. There is a whole legion of readers out there! And the responses were not only about fiction, but also about memoir and creative non-fiction. The common thread? The telling of a good story with  supreme expressiveness of language; something that could reach off the page and touch the reader at his or her core.

That’s why I read.

That’s why I write.

Maybe there are readers who will want to read what I have written, who will hopefully be touched across the markings on the page.

Okay. I get it now.

And you? What do you read and why? 

I would love to know.