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

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

The Link Between Poetry and Cooking

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Okay, I know I have already mentioned this book that is hitting the shelves next week – and that I am especially excited because I got to be one of the official recipe testers, have my name in the acknowledgements…

Okay, enough about me. Actually, I am unabashedly a fan of the author, Nicole Gulotta and her blog that shares the name of the book.

Recently, she very generously let me interview her about this book – and that interview will appear here later next week, shortly after the book is released – so stay tuned!

For now, I want to leave you with this tidbit that she offered up in today’s newsletter (hint: you can sign up to get her inspiring newsletter in your own mailbox here):

“But here’s what the book is really about:

Eat This Poem is a call for more stillness. Reading a poem and cooking a meal are, quite simply, acts of self-care in lives that are often busy, rushed, and filled with to-do lists.

We have three opportunities each day to pause, savor, eat.

Poetry forces us to slow down. Food does too, when we let it.

The combination of the two is, I hope, is permission to take a few minutes out of your day and enjoy the spiritual and physical nourishment of food and poetry.

Next Tuesday, the book arrives. And if you’re ready to bring poetry to life in your kitchen, you know what to do. “

Go take a look at the book, and I hope you’ll stop by for the interview next week!

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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.

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.

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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.

 

Writing Time Do-Si-Does With Nap Time

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This is Moe. At fourteen weeks he is all teeth and wiggle, vacillating between running and chewing and sleeping, back and forth and back again,  in a glorious display of life-loving, open-ended sense of wonder at the world  – something that is so much the province of small animals, humans included. He reminds me to delight in the simplest of pleasures, and calls upon my deepest reserves of patience and compassion (especially at the end of a busy, tiring day, when I want him to go to sleep so I can). He is my teacher in being exquisitely present and discerning of what is and isn’t important, as these days my available time is in small, not always yet predictable, parcels.

Having a puppy reminds me of the attention and prioritizing of time and energy that is required with a baby and toddler. It’s been a lot of years since my son was new in the world, but in these last few days I have been reminded of that particular juggling act: The need to try to get things done in those periods during the day known as Nap Time. Sometimes utter exhaustion demands I take a simultaneous nap; or the siren’s call of the sheer pleasure of being able to sit, unencumbered, basking in the peaceful quiet of the house or porch is not to be denied. But there quickly evolves a fine-tuned sense of importance and the artful streamlining of tasks. My focus becomes more sharp-edged and certain.

I dislike the notion that I work more efficiently when I have a schedule or a deadline, but it is sometimes true.

Last year, after a long life of being employed by others (with a delicious three-year break when my son was born), I was able to leave my day job, and suddenly found my schedule was entirely a product of my own creation. I had a couple regular freelance writing deadlines, chiropractic and acupuncture appointments to hook my new life calendar onto, but that wasn’t much.

I was surprised at how adrift I felt. I who had been for so long craving and dreaming about quiet mornings to myself in the house and garden; not having to get in the car and join the stream of others motoring toward their jobs that took up the bulk of the day. But, I realized, I hadn’t been without a prescribed daily/weekly schedule since I was, what? Six years old, when I started first grade? Yikes. And that was a hell of a long time ago. So that I couldn’t be the master of my daily doings yet wasn’t my fault, I’m out of practice!

I admit I frittered a lot of time in that interim, with the help so many interesting things crossing my screen on the computer; because well, I could. The feeling of open-ended time was divine. But at the same time, in an extreme pendulum swing, I found myself scheduling the hell out of myself, with workshops and seminars; coffee and lunches with friends I no longer saw everyday at work; a sizable freelance writing project that was on a very tight deadline.  It was exhilarating. And exhausting.

My creative learning curve went into a steep trajectory as I put myself in the company of an amazing group of people via Jeffrey Davis and Tracking Wonder, both in person at YBNS and more recently in an intensive online workshop known as ArtMark. I put my butt in the chair in a serious way for an online “boot camp” with Max Regan that proved I could indeed crank out 1000 words a day of decent early first draft material. Wow. Work on the fledgling novel rekindled. Experiments in a poetry class proved fruitful and expansive in rich possibility. I continued to meet monthly with the writing group I have been a part of for several years. I submitted pieces to journals and started amassing the requisite stack of rejections. Posted photographs for an online photography workshop, and a daily posting of a writing (usually) – related photo via #continuouspractice  – as exciting and enriching as all this has been, it was too much. I hit a wall. My attention was too divided, even though with a cornucopia of wonderful experience and new friends and colleagues.  What to do…

And there were all those ongoing distractions, false starts and near misses that come from trying to work/produce at home, that many writers and freelancers have talked and written about at length. Though it was nice to not be alone on this crazy roller coaster, to have the company of so many others that have faced the same challenges.

I freely admit this is a good problem to have. But I still hit the wall.

So I started to discern and be more selective, started saying no to invitations and not having to take every interesting short course that crossed my radar. All with a determination to start to more productively craft and sculpt my time (for in with all the creative work there was also the more temporal matters of a clean house, healthy food, regular exercise, attention paid to partner and dog, friendships maintained). I had some good tools for this in hand: Jeffrey Davis’s time management and prioritizing tools, the Mind Rooms Guide and 7-Minute Prioritizer.  I was set. I was ready to really get into the groove of regular creative work, self-care, life’s practicalities covered, relationships not given the crumbs of what was left. Okay, here I am.

And then along came Moe.

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All of a sudden, I knew I was going to long again for those stretches of totally self-directed time, because it was going to be awhile before I got them. It was funny, in a way, to think that years’ worth of my days being scheduled, followed by months of flailing self-determination, suddenly finding myself back to an almost 24/7 accountability to another being; molding and shaping my time to his needs.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not doing this by myself, I have help – but there is this sense of having to nevertheless be always at the ready. His needs will come before mine, much of the time. He is the one needing shepherding and guiding to find his place in the world. And in this task there is an amazing sense of grace and purpose. I enter into contract with this pup willingly. I have had to learn to parcel time to available slots before; I can do it again for a while. And I have my dog to reassure as to her place in the pack.

Tonight I cooked dinner while the puppy was resting after his dinner. I started this post during an afternoon nap and am working on it more as he is sound asleep after lots of running and playing with my older dog Juno (bless her heart, my special dog helper).

I was still able to attend my final poetry class today. In the coming weeks, when my partner gets home from work, will likely be the time that I will take myself to the pool for a swim and sauna. It will all work out, and it won’t be forever. Puppies grow fast. Faster than human babies.

One day there will be two dogs instead of just mine keeping me company in my office and when I take my laptop out on the back deck as the weather gets warmer. Time will again open out and become more spacious. I have the feeling that the lessons I learn and the priorities I discover in this compressed period of available time will make that time to come more potent and purposeful and directed. I’m keeping hold of all the pieces. Nothing is getting truly lost.

All this makes me think of the wonderful writers and creative people I know who are successfully making their way – and time for their creative work – while in the midst of raising children: Jeffrey Davis is one. Marisa Goudy is another. My good friend and poet Claudia Savage is collaborating with her musician husband John Savage on joint projects and performances (watch for their emerging recording label, THrum), as well as collaborating on the raising of their young daughter, River. Claudia’s blog, aptly named: While River Sleeps.