Friday, December 29, 2006

100,000 CARS, 99 RIVERS and the existential question of the week

Foggy Morning.., originally uploaded by TR.iPod.

Yesterday we spent seven hours driving from Ted's family home in the mountains of Pennsylvania to Cape Cod.

I saw 100,000 cars, and one man walking down the highway.

I wondered what it would be like if we were all walking--or even half of us. How long would it take to travel from Pennsylvania? How many people would I meet along the way? How often would we travel, and what would our lives be like at home?

I saw 9 deer grazing in a field near the highway. I had never seen so many deer in one place at one time. After an hour or two, Ted had to ask me kindly if I would please stop talking about them.

I saw a blinking sign that said YOU'RE ARRESTED

I wondered what I had done, but then the sign blinked again and it said DRINKING AND DRIVING IS A SERIOUS CRIME. I wasn't arrested after all. Phew.

I saw billboards that wanted me to drink Coors Beer and have my eyes checked.

I wondered when doctors started advertising on billboards.

I saw a million winter trees, stripped and broken or standing tall like arrows announcing the clouds.

I wondered when snow would come and cover them with its glitter and light.

I saw 99 rivers, 42 mountains, 36 cities, and 356 towns.

I saw factories where no one's worked for fifty years, and the tenements where the workers used to live.

I wondered who lived in them now and what they do for work.

I saw four cars that had been stopped by the police, two fender benders, and seventeen vehicles broken down on the road.

I saw one man's soft white belly, as he lay on the ground, working on his car.

I wondered at how vulnerable we all are.

I saw one boat on the Hudson River; and I saw the sun parting the water for it.

I opened the window to feel what the boat rider must feel, and wondered why there was only one.

I saw two and a half tons of trash spread along the side of the road, and 50,000 empty pick-up trucks.

I saw 99 McDonald's, 9 Starbucks and 103 Dunkin Donuts. I saw the Hibernian Diner where they have the best lentil soup I've ever had, and Di Mare's Pastry Shop where everything looks so good that choice is almost impossible.

Guess where we stopped?

I saw docked naval ships and tugboats, and Ted says I even saw a submarine, though I didn't much notice it.

I wondered how you can drive past a submarine and fail to see it.

I saw a stack of CDs we used to entertain ourselves on our way home, and I listened to Woody Guthrie singing "This land was made for you and me."

I joined in, wondering what Woody would sing now.

I saw road signs that announced New England and then Cape Cod, then our town, our street, our animals in the window.

I saw my own fatigue in the mirror inside the door. Ted said I shouldn't be tired; I hadn't even driven.

I wondered how anyone could take in 100,000 cars, 99 rivers and a million winter trees without wanting to sleep for a week when they were done.

I went to bed early and dreamed of the highway.

What about you? What did you see? What did you wonder?

Saturday, December 23, 2006

10 Things I Want for Christmas

1. There's a guy who's lived down the street from us for over ten years. Though Ted always greets him when we see him in the neighborhood, he steadfastly refuses to respond. At this point, Ted has turned it into a campaign. Someday, he's sure of it, the neighbor will give in and say hello. So this year I'm putting it on my Christmas list...may grumpy neighbors everywhere crack a smile and maybe even wave.

2. Laughter and lots of it.

3. Imperfection. Let's face it; it's coming down the chimney whether we like it or not. Just because it's a holiday doesn't mean we'll be less lonely, that the mashed potatoes will be lump free, the relatives will be less annoying or that the gift inside the prettily wrapped box won't be an exact replica of the ugly sweater we got last year. So instead of fighting it or getting depressed over it, why not celebrate it? Why not set a special place at the table for life's messiness and disappointments and serve it a glass of wine? Who wants a Norman Rockwell Christmas anyway?

4. Snow!

5. Some watercolors so I can play with art in 2007

6. Time for spiritual reflection

7. A book of poetry with one line in it that transforms the way I see the world.

8. An amazing friend who died a few years ago was remembered in a eulogy as someone who said "Yes!" whenever he opened a gift--even before he saw what was inside. I want the attitude that permeated his life.

9. If peace on earth and goodwill to men seems like too much to ask this year, then at least a sincere and overwhelming desire for those things, and a renewed commitment to living them in every encounter, every thought, every action. If we tried it just for one day, who knows what we might begin?

10. Good things for all of you who have been kind enough to visit here, and to share your insights and your lives with me throughout the year.
Happiness, serenity, blessings to all.

Anyone have a number eleven?

Sunday, December 17, 2006


Vintage Christmas Postcard, originally uploaded by riptheskull.

My mother grew up as one of seven children in the Depression. Hers was one of those rare families in which the children were raised with so much love, and intelligence and respect that everyone who's ever known them has felt its benevolent influence.

Though my grandfather was fortunate enough to keep a job throughout those years, many family members weren't, and his earnings were stretched thin. My mother remembers being rationed one third of a cup of milk a day. She can still remember how she savored it.

She was about six when her Christmas story occurred. A week before, she and her siblings were playing hide and seek in the house when she discovered a cache of Christmas gifts in the attic, one for each child.

While her brothers and sisters scurried through the rooms below calling her name, she peered into each forbidden box until she found her heart's desire.

She describes it as "a doll that rolled its eyes and squeaked its legs". Note the active verbs; that's how alive the doll was to the little girl my mother once was; it's also how she describes it to this day. Months earlier, she had admired it in the window of the toy store, but hadn't even dared to dream that it could ever be hers.

However, in that moment, she began to dream and wildly. Every day of the ensuing week, she slipped up to the attic to visit "her" doll. She even gave it a secret name. Her anticipation grew by the day. In the evenings, when my grandmother lined the children up to say their prayers, my mother prayed that the doll with the secret name would be hers.

But on Christmas morning, as soon as she saw the shape of the package and the tag on it, she knew that her doll had been chosen for her sister Elizabeth. Not wanting to spoil Elizabeth's happiness or to hurt her parents' feelings, my mother hid her disappointment, and accepted her gift with gratitude.

She saved her grief until later that night when Elizabeth clutched the doll she had renamed in her bed. Convinced everyone was asleep, my mother cried quietly. Not quietly enough, however, to elude her father who was still awake and listening.

When he asked what was wrong, my mother said she had a leg ache, as she often did. My grandfather lifted her out of bed and carried her to a chair in the darkened living room, where he held her for a long time. My mother says she can still remember the brightness of the moon outside the window; the warmth and safety she felt that night in her father's arms have never left her.

"Does it feel better?" my grandfather said as he massaged her calf muscle with lineament.

And to this day, my mother swears that it did.

That Christmas when my mother did not get the thing she most longed for happened seventy-five years ago. My grandparents are long dead, as are two of my mother's siblings, and the doll with the secret name is probably dust and ash. But I like to think that the gift my grandfather gave her that night--and the one she gave him in return--still remain. They have been silently passed from one generation to another; they have enriched many lives.

One unanswerable question has always haunted me: Did my grandfather, wise and loving and shrewd in equal measure, ever know the real reason for her tears?

Friday, December 15, 2006

WHAT ARE YOU SEARCHING FOR? The Existential Question of the Week

, originally uploaded by Gianni D..

Today I searched for my credit card. I handle that thing way too carelessly, frequently jamming it in a pocket or tossing it loose into my purse to avoid taking more than my fair share of time at the cash register after a purchase. This time, I found it between the pages of Suite Francaise. Nice book mark.

I also searched for the end of my new novel, which I was due to forward to my agent yesterday. I found it, too (!) which makes this some kind of banner day. I made myself cry at least three times when I was reading the final draft which may be a good sign...or may just mean that a surfeit of holiday music has brought out my inner schmalz.

Later, Lexi and Emma and I went out and stood in the middle of the street and looked for snow. Though there was none forecasted, we thought if we looked really hard, we might see a sign. But all we saw was our own longing.

I said that I wanted snow so high it came up to their waists, but Emma thought I was getting a little greedy.

"Just ask for enough to make a snowman, and go sledding," she said, espousing a philosophy I've always admired: Never take more than you need.

I also searched for the perfect birthday card for my mother and my son, Josh, who are both celebrating the amazing and mysterious thing that is existence today.

Then I went to Technorati to see what the world was searching for, and found some interesting results:

As it has been almost constantly for the past several years, the world is madly searching for Britney. Still, no one has told me why. As far as I can tell, she hasn't done much of interest beside marry some dopey guy, get drunk in public, and get pregnant. And while those things may be fascinating in their own way, couldn't just about anyone do them as well?

The madding crowd is also on the look out for "Tara O'Connor" who I, living here in my happy cave, had never heard of. The first blog where her name turned up was one that listed its subject as "Hollywood, Rumors, and Breasts." Hmm, I was beginning to understand....Turns out Tara O'Connor is Miss USA, and has become an object of fascination by, of all things, acting like Britney. Maybe if I want to build the all-important buzz for my novel, I should try it. On second thought, or maybe even first, I don't think the Hollywood, Rumors, and Breasts crowd would find me a very good candidate. I'd probably just get arrested.

Another unfamiliar name on the list was Leslie Harpold, who apparently died this week of bronchitis. Though I had never heard of her, she was apparently a trailblazing blogger, writer and media person, who probably effected what what many of us do in ways I never knew. I got lost both in her archives, and in the tributes to this remarkable woman, writer, and friend.

I liked this quote:

"My advice to you is this: make something you love. You love to make things, feel best when you're creating something you feel has value, even if only to you. Tap into the vein again, as many tries as it takes. Find that place where the world blurs by, and it's just you and and your project in pure creation mode." --Leslie Harpold's advice to herself in a difficult time

So maybe I, too, was searching for Leslie Harpold; I just didn't know it.

What did you search for today?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

How many steps can I go?

How many steps can I go?, originally uploaded by LeggNet.

Today I'm interviewed by the fabulous Susan Henderson at Lit Park on the subject of balancing work and family.

Some days I feel like I know a little bit about the subject...other days, not so much. Anyway, it's not so much an interview as a discussion. If anyone has any special insights or even some ordinary every day ones like mine, feel free to jump in!

Looking at this photo makes me realize that one secret to keeping your balance is to keep on walking and to stay focused. (I guess that's two.)

Monday, December 11, 2006


beach walk 1, originally uploaded by patryfrancis.

When winter's not white, it's frequently silver. That's what I discovered while walking on the marsh with Ted and the dogs. It was extremely windy, and I tried to take a picture of what the wind does to grass and water and sand, but instead I came home with winter's silver trapped inside my camera.

silver 2

I also wrote a little poem yesterday. Not a real official poem on paper, just a string of words I said in my head while lying in bed in the morning. But it's so short and simple, maybe I can repeat it here:

When she was twenty, she asked:
Do you love me?

The world took in her sinew and flash and smiled:
Always and forever.

When she was fifty she asked:
Do you love me?

The world hesitated:
I find you useful. Is that love?

When she was eighty, she asked:
Do you love me?

The world appeared confused:
I'm sorry; have we met?


beach walk 3

I also found out yesterday that there's this thing called Twitter. Have you heard of it?

The point seems to be quite simple. You log in and announce to the vast impervious world what you're doing. And then maybe you even do it. Or maybe you just keep checking back to see if anyone cares, and in the process never have time to actually do anything.


And then I found out that you don't have to do things the way you've always done them. After we'd set our Christmas tree in its stand and woven our little hopeful lights throughout the branches, I went down to get the usual decorations. But before I put them on, I noticed the berry-laden twigs I'd brought back from the marsh, and decided that maybe I would stick some of them among the tree branches. Turns out, they looked so pretty that it seemed a travesty to add another thing.


silver 5

And the final thing I found out yesterday was the Blog Discovery of the Week: Aphra Behn: the danger of eclectic shock. All I can say is that it lives up to it's marvelous name.

Friday, December 08, 2006

from Orhan Pamuk's Nobel Lecture

pamuk, uncopywrited

Many of you know how much I admire the work of Turkish writer, Orhan Pamuk, particularly the multi-layered Snow. His Nobel lecture, with the enticingly mysterious title "My Fahter's Suitcase didn't disappoint. All of it is wonderful, but this, in particular, left me as struck and bedazzled as certain passages in his novels:

"The writer's secret is not inspiration – for it is never clear where it comes from – it is his stubbornness, his patience. That lovely Turkish saying – to dig a well with a needle – seems to me to have been said with writers in mind. In the old stories, I love the patience of Ferhat, who digs through mountains for his love – and I understand it, too. In my novel, My Name is Red, when I wrote about the old Persian miniaturists who had drawn the same horse with the same passion for so many years, memorising each stroke, that they could recreate that beautiful horse even with their eyes closed, I knew I was talking about the writing profession, and my own life. If a writer is to tell his own story – tell it slowly, and as if it were a story about other people – if he is to feel the power of the story rise up inside him, if he is to sit down at a table and patiently give himself over to this art – this craft – he must first have been given some hope. The angel of inspiration (who pays regular visits to some and rarely calls on others) favours the hopeful and the confident, and it is when a writer feels mostly lonely, when he feels most doubtful about his efforts, his dreams, and the value of his writing – when he thinks his story is only his story – it is at such moments that the angel chooses to reveal to him stories, images and dreams that will draw out the world he wishes to build. If I think back on the books to which I have devoted my entire life, I am most surprised by those moments when I have felt as if the sentences, dreams, and pages that have made me so ecstatically happy have not come from my own imagination – that another power has found them and generously presented them to me."

By the time, I read the last line about the startling gift the angel sometimes brings when you sit in your room long enough, I was almost gasping. Yes, oh yes. Sometimes that really does happen, even for ordinary waitress-writers like me.

This Week's One-line Obits

, originally uploaded by josef.stuefer.

You'll have to forgive me, but I'm very prone to obsession; and since I started collecting one-line obits, I can't stop.

There's more life packed into an obituary than in any other piece of writing in the newspaper. A well-written obituary lets character shine through just like a well-written novel or memoir does.

When my father died, I tried to tell the newspaper who he WAS, not what he did to insure his survival on this planet, where he was born, or who he left behind--though those things are part of the story, but what made his life--and him-- unique. They listened, but in the end, they printed the dry facts. I didn't even bother to clip the obituary. It was only one of many places where I looked and found my father absent.

In the following obituaries, I found that a trace of the spirit remained. Though I didn't know any of these people, I knew a litle bit about their fire, their humor, their compassion:

Paul Ableman, Avant-garde novelist: "He was a rascal, a Bohemian, a lover of women and words, food and drink, argument and debate, a seeker of both truth and the beauty of the English countryside."

Mario Merolo, Italian master of musical melodrama: "His funeral witnessed scenes of mass hysteria normally seen only at religious events."

Wanjiro Kihoro, Kenyan writer who fought corruption from exile: "Her vulnerability was there in her poetry and writings, but she sang a true song." Or maybe just "She sang a true song."

Pietro Rava, World Cup winner with Italy in 1938: "He was always a fiery lad."

Hank Shaw, Exubert bebop trumpeter: "His advanced yoga studies seemed to be largely an excuse for extra sleep."

Leonard Freed, photographer who documented the struggles of ordinary people. "He had an eye for the upbeat, even in the grimmest of circumstances."

Of course, the lives we choose to admire or find worthy of interest, speak about us as well, about what we consider a life well-lived. I think if I had to choose one of these lines to be spoken about me, I would want Freedman's--though I can relate to Shaw's form of "advanced yoga studies," I admire Kihoro more than I can say, and I wouldn't mind just a little bit of "mass hysteria" at my funeral. Or is a little bit of mass hysteria an oxymoron?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

WILL SELF WALKS...And the existential Question

dowse's 2

I come from a family of walkers. When he was young, my grandfather used to walk fifteen miles to his factory job in Boston. Then at the end of the day, he walked back. When I asked him if he was tired, he laughed.

"I was young," he'd say. "Why would I be tired?

Later, when I told that story to people, they said it was impossible. They said no one could fit thirty miles of walking and an eight hour shift at a factory in one day.

I still believe my grandfather though. When he was ninety-six, he got up early every morning, put on a white shirt and tie, and walked six miles.

When I asked him why he got dressed up to take a walk, he said it made him feel good. It made him feel that even though he was retired from the job he got when he left the factory, his day still mattered.

Anyway, I got really excited when I read this piece about Will Self today. Not only is Self a fine (and frequently hilarious) novelist, it turns out he is a mad walker too.

When he came to New York to accept an award at the National Arts Club, he walked twenty-six miles to the airport in London. Then, when he arrived in New York, he hiked from Kennedy International to his hotel, checking out the neighborhoods and stopping for a burrito along the way.

Though his latest novel about a cab driver who invents a religion hadn't really struck me as my kind of book, I think I'm going to have to give it a try.

A man who wants to discover where he is by walking its streets until
he's tired is bound to have something interesting to say.

Now for the Existential Question of the Week: Where did you walk today, and what did you see?

I'll start: I walked mostly around my house. I saw things that needed to be picked up, and occasionally I did. I saw my new art supplies, but I didn't have time to use them. Not today. And I saw the inner lives of my characters. The new novel is zipping right along. My grandfather probably wouldn't think much of my travels; Will Self either, but for me it was a good day.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

10 THINGS I read in the newspaper today...

10 things i read in the newspaper

1. I read that critics are praising Mel Gibson's new film Apocalypto...but they still don't like Mel. I don't know much about the film, but the name sounds kind of goofy to me.

2. I read a letter from a woman who said that we lost the war in Vietnam because of the protesters. According to her, the same people are spoiling our chances for victory in Iraq. I wondered at the different ways people can think.

3. I read the individual stories of four prostitutes who were murdered in Atlantic City. I looked at their faces, too--four bright faces and promising lives that were brought down by crack cocaine, long before they ever encountered their killer. When I I tried to move on to the next article, I kept seeing those faces.

4. I read that scientists have discovered it's not a good idea to talk on your cell phone while crossing the street. Text messaging in traffic isn't advised either.

5. I read that Roz Chast used to entertain herself at age nine by sitting on her bed, reading about scurvy and lockjaw in the Merck Manual. No wonder I like her work so much!

6. I read that more than 1,000 homeless people sleep on the beach in Oahu every night. Who are those people? I wanted to know. And did their numbers grow since last year?

7. I read the obituaries. People continue to die every day; and though we can say we're they've been, nobody, nobody is telling us where they've gone. I keep looking for clues though.

8. I read that crime is down in New York City, but the rat population is up.. maybe it's related?

9. I read that one person is five is affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder. Some days that one in five is me. Other days I produce enough seasonal light for three people.

10. I read that Babel is "a towering achievement"; Happy Feet is "America's #1 movie"; and The Queen is "the best picture of the year!" Those were ads, so they don't count. But since I adore Helen Mirren, I still want to see The Queen; and how can you go wrong with a movie about penguins with happy feet?

11. What did you read today? And what did it make you think about?


In other news, The Third Day Book Club has spoken. We will be reading Irene Nemirovsky's much praised, Suite Francaise for January 3rd.

Sunday, December 03, 2006



Winter's Bone, which the Third Day Book Club read this month, is perfectly titled. The world portrayed so starkly here is stripped, hard, and cold. In a strange way, it reminded me of Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel, The Road. Civilization, as we know it, isn't much in evidence in the landscape where Ree Dolly "sixteen years old...with abrupt green eyes" finds herself. As a member of a fractious and savage clan, she has never known anything else. And yet, Woodrell succeeds in making us feel her longing for more. For better.

When the novel, opens Ree stands in the doorway of her home, looking at the meat that hangs from trees. It's a visceral image of the family hunger that drives her throughout the novel. Left to care for her two brothers and her mentally ill mother, she can never forget how close they are to "living in the field like dogs." She fears that her little brothers will be "dead to wonder by the age of 12." The only escape she can imagine for herself is to join the army.

Like countless fictional heroes and heroines before her, Ree undertakes a journey that leads her both deeper into the harsh reality that surrounds her and deeper into herself. If it weren't for the fierce courage and fragile hope that self contains, Ree's life, and Winter's Bone would be utterly without redemption--and for this reader, at least, nearly unreadable.

But despite Ree's strength, deliverance of any kind for Ree and her family isn't likely. Her journey is described this way:

"She became ice as she walked. White wads broke on her head and dripped to her shoulders to freeze and thicken. The green hood had become an ice hat and her shoulders a hard cold yoke."

In prose that is spare, laconic and darkly poetic, Woodrell leads Ree through a mystery that grows with every step she takes. Ree has left home to search for her father, who "cooks crank" and who has imperiled the family by posting their home as bail. With every harsh encounter, the sense of menace--and the suspense--grows.

I cannot say I enjoyed this novel. But Winter's Bone was clearly not fashioned to be enjoyed; it was fashioned to haunt. With its taut plotline, its unswerving adherence to its own savage truth, and its remarkable heroine, it has succeeded at that.


If everyone who's read this month's selection hasn't done so, hie thee hence to Paris Parfait's blog and post your link!

Meanwhile, I'm looking for a volunteer to host next month's meeting on January 3rd. Someone? Anyone?

THIRD DAY BOOKS: Vote for Next Month's Selection

red peppers

Can I just say that I love the way The Third Day Book Club has flourished and mutated and grown new branches in just two short months? Much thanks are owed to Tara at Paris Parfait, who has proven to be an energetic advocate and a gracious host to this month's selection, Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell. As a result of her enthusiasm, the book club has added many new members; and the original band of readers have discovered new blogs, and gained entry to a host of new and fascinating minds--all peering into the same fictional hearts that the well-written novel makes real.

It has been gratifying to me to see the friendships that Olanna and Ugwe in Half of a Yellow Sun helped to generate, many of which have continued and deepened over the month. Books have such power!

A quote I read this week in Forbes seems like a perfect motto for our book club:

"Books are humanity in print."

--Barbara Tuchman

This month I would like to try a couple of new things. Rather than choosing the selection myself, I have taken nominations, so we all can vote for next month's choice. Most of us will then go on to read the chosen book. However, those who don't find the main selection to their taste can will read and report on one of the alternates on the third. Maybe they can even make the case why their choice was the better one.

Geez, I'm beginning to sound a little like The Literary Guild here with all this highly official talk of Main Selections and Alternates. I think that means it's time for me to get out of the way and let you cast your vote:

1. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (Recommended by Tish Cohen)


2. The Ruins by Scott Smith (Recommended by Jordan Rosenfeld)

3. The Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky (recommended by this month's host, Tara Bradford)


Everyone welcome! If you read the first, but didn't find the second appealing or have time in November, now's the time to jump back in. And if you've never read with us yet before, next month's meeting takes place in a whole new year. What better way to begin it than with a great book?

No dues, no obligations; in fact, you don't even have to get out of your pajamas! All you have to do is read!

Saturday, December 02, 2006


spaghetti di ettore

So you already know I've been inspired to make art, to hunt for acorns, shells and rocks, to start a book club, to challenge my assumptions, and just today--to buy a set of colored pencils so beautiful in hue and so perfect in their lovely tin box that I don't ever want to use them.

And I've also been inspired to try new recipes. The first, which I found on P.A. Moed's site was called Spaghetti di Ettore. It sounded like the kind of food my family lives on these days--simple, easy to prepare, and healthy. No small part of its allure was that it involved not just pasta, but that staple of childhood, spaghetti. I could practically taste the spaghetti and meatballs my parents and I used to enjoy, ensconsed in a red naugahyde booth every Sunday night at Lena's in Brockton, Mass.

I thought I might even try my new recipe that very night--if I got to the store for the red peppers and capers it demanded. But before I had a to roast a single peper, it showed up in a scene I was writing. Turns out my characters not only liked Spaghetti di Ettore, they swooned over it. It was such a favorite that they ate it every Friday night.

As soon as I finished my daily writing, I had no choice but to get in the car, (still wearing my socially unacceptable "writing clothes" and a pair of ballet flats) and head for Shaw's Market where I picked up the necessary ingredients.

The results turned out to be well worth it--worth even my embarrassment when I ran into a guy I knew from my waitressing days in the supermarket. (How could I explain that my outfit wasn't really pajamas--as much as it might resemble them, but actually, my official writing uniform? I didn't even try.)

And yes, I would certainly make this again--though next time I might substitute a couple of plum tomatoes for one of the red peppers. (But that's just me; I'm one of those people who think that the tomato has divine properties and should be included in almost every recipe.)


And now for the BLOG DISCOVERY OF THE WEEK or make it THREE--because I missed the last two Saturdays, and because sometimes it's just too hard to make a choice...

Following a link on Kirsten's elegant new blog, I was led to Summer Pierre, who tried to type, "I live in Brooklyn, but ended up writing, "I love in Brooklyn." Immediately, I knew I'd made a blog discovery.

I also fell in love with Momster because Irene Nam knows how to do so many things that I can't--like editing movies, knitting amazing sweaters, and designing a child's room that not only looks great, it's practically mess-proof.

Ascender Rises Above led me to Making a Mark, a blog that's all about getting out your colored pencils, your watercolors, or your charcoal, and doing exactly that. How could I resist?

Thursday, November 30, 2006

LIFE TEACHES ME A LESSON, DEATH, TOO...and then there's the BOOK news

Coming home Thanksgiving weekend, we saw him on the side of the road. A skinny kid, maybe around my son's age, with a serious flat tire.
If there's anything more desolate than being beached on the side of the road while the whole uncaring world soars past, I don't know what it is.

We. Have. To. Stop. I said. Unfortunately, it's not really like me to stop
and help someone with car trouble. Since I'm about the most useless person on the planet when it comes to lug nuts and jacks, I don't have much to offer. And then I'm always mindful of the tabloid tales about good samaritans who were lured into a serial killer's trap. Clearly, I spend too much time in the supermarket line.

But this was a kid, staring into the trunk of his car, looking as mystified by the spare as I would be. A kid my son's age. And I could practically read his sweetness in the slope of his shoulder, the way he brushed his longish hair out of his eyes. (Did I mention my son also has long hair?)

So we stopped. And it turned out the boy, the young man with the lanky build had something to offer us, not vice versa.

He was playing some kind of indie rock on the car radio and kind of rolling his shoulders to the rhythm. Leisurely, he opened a vitamin water, like he was having his own little picnic all by himself on the side of the road.

"You all didn't have to stop," he said. I noticed the Southern accent and the North Carolina plates at the same time. "I got this under control. Least I think I do."

"Have you ever changed a tire before?" my husband asked dubiously.

"No, but looks like I'm gonna learn." He smiled widely, and gave the lugnuts an ineffectual turn. When they didn't move, he shrugged, then allowed his shoulders to do one of those shimmy things as he picked up a snatch of music.

This had to be the most relaxed motorist in distress that I'd ever seen. I told him I was impressed by his equanimity. I would have been in flat out hair tearing, why-me-god cortisone-releasing mode by then.

"The way I look at it; this is just what I'm doing now," he said, as if reading my mind. It's not good or bad unless I think it is."

And so we laughed and chatted as we helped him change the tire. Well, okay, I mostly chatted and held the flashlight and listened to the music from the radio. And he was right. It wasn't good or bad. It was just what we were doing at the moment.

Imagine if I started thinking of everything in my life that way! What a revolution that would be.


PEOPLE I WISH I'D KNOWN: The Weekly One-line Obituaries

Nancy Wynne Jones, a painter: "It was her desire to possess and be possessed by the bogs of County Mayo."

The Rev. Ian Musgrave: "He delighted in words, numbers, jigsaw puzzles, gadgets and unusual tools."

Stephen Benbow: "He never lost his passion for music, but he was reluctant to travel far from home because of his large collection of animals, including goats, chickens and a donkey."

Mark Purdy, a campaigning farmer who fought the use of pesticides in cattle: "He was incapable of harming any living thing.


In LIT NEWS, Todd makes a case against book snobbery.

And David Thayer writes eloquently, as always, about the writer's singular need for solitude.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


Luminous, originally uploaded by Lilclair.

This week's existential of the week was provided for me by an interviewer who threw me for a loop with this one:

What's your favorite word?

Lately, it's been difficult enough to choose a favorite color. When I was young, I was so enamored of RED that the answer felt automatic. But
the older I get, the more difficult it is to turn my back on blue or to deny the splendor of yellow. And where in the world would we be without green, orange, pink or silver? I'm sorry, RED. We've been together for a long time, but it seems my heart is a faithless creature.

Choosing a favorite book has also felt like an act of base disloyalty to the many that have nurtured me in my lifetime. Would anyone ask me to name my most beloved child? And what would we think of a mother who could?

A favorite word, however, takes things too far. As a writer, I am intoxicated and bedazzled by words. I love their sounds, their infinite shadings, their taste in my mouth and their shape on a page. I love their shy introductions and their muscular power. I love it when the writing is going really well and they stream and ripple and bend on command. I love it when words transform themselves into characters who feel so real that I care passionately about their fate.

Is it possible that I could love one word better than all the others? Could morning supersede night? Is a red poppy better than a yellow daisy?

Clearly, I can't say such things to an interviewer who just wants a simple answer. One word to fill a column, not a diatribe about the impossibility of choice.

So I chose luminous. Not because it's really my favorite, but because when I was editing the manuscript of my novel, it was the one that appeared so frequently, it made me wince.

In fact, my novel was so infused with excesses of luminosity that I vowed I wouldn't use the word for at least a year.

So what about you? Do you have a favorite word--either one you particularly love, or one that you use so much it might as well be blinking above your head when you enter a room.

Hi, I'm LUMINOUS. Who are you?

P.S. If anyone catches me using that word in the next month, call me on it and I'll send you a free copy of my high wattage, "light emitting" book.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

10 WAYS BLOGGING WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE and a quote about ice-cream

Flying letters, originally uploaded by magic fly paula.

1. You will know yourself more deeply than you ever did before. No matter how old you are, or how much time you spent on your analyst's couch, blogging will teach you something about yourself that you never knew. And it will do so on a daily basis.

2. You will meet amazing people who live in wonderful places; and you will grow hungry for travel. You will want to see faces, and hear voices,
and sit across tables. But even if you never do, you will see and hear and know these people in a particularly meaningful way anyway.

3. You will try new things. You may find yourself writing poetry in previously unknown forms, or make collages, entering contests, or hosting festivals. You may even go outside and conduct science experiments in your back yard.

4. You will be challenged by people who don't agree with you.

5. You will thank those who challenge you for making you think more deeply, and consider another point of view--even if you still don't agree with them.

6. Your friends and family may grow envious; the word "blog" may sound like an accusation in their mouths, ie, "What are you thinking about? Your BLOG?" "No, honestly I was thinking of you, dear," you'll reply. And you'll be lying.

7. You may experience a burst of "blog ambition," in which you grow greedy for hits, links, and other ephemeral data that indicate your worth in the world. The first sign you have a problem? Checking your site meter more than eleven times a day.

8. Eventually, you will realize that you're not getting paid by the head--or by any other measure, and you will return to your original reason for blogging: for the joy of it.

9. You will spend too much time at it; you will want to quit, or take a sabbatical. You may even do it. But if you're anything like my blog friends and me, you will be back sooner than you expected.

10. If you use photographs on your blog, you will start to see "pictures"
everywhere. Amazing pictures. Miraculous pictures. Pictures in startling colors, pictures in black and white with a splash of red (Thanks to Sara for noticing). And incredibly, the world will grow more alive to you. All because you have a blog.

T, L, & E. at Steve Herrell's

Now for the quote about ice-cream that I promised. I saw this advice from Thornton Wilder in the window of Steve Herrell's in Northampton this summer, and immediately, the notebook came out:

"My advice to you is not to inquire why or whither, but just to enjoy your ice-cream while it's on your plate."

What's this got to do with blogging? I'm not sure, but something...definitely something.

As always, I love to hear your number elevens...


Reminder to all members of the Third Day Book Club: We will be meeting at Paris Parfait's blog on December 3rd to discuss Daniel Woodrell's taut little masterpiece, Winter's Bone. Tara posted links to an impressive list of new members today. If you're reading along this month, stop over and add your name to the list.

This month we will also be choosing January's book from three selections so make sure you're around to cast your vote.

And if you haven't started reading yet, the novel is short and compelling enough that it's not to late to jump in.

Third Day also earned a mention on Dan Wickett's Emerging Writer's Network this month. The idea is spreading...

Monday, November 27, 2006

THE FACE IN THE NEWSPAPER: A short true story


There are certain places where you just feel good. Where the governing spirit is goodwill, where laughter is abundant and easy, where workers like their jobs, employers like their staff, and anyone fortunate enough to enter their orbit has no choice but to inhale good fellowship, and exhale whatever stress you may have carried to their doorstep.

There aren't a lot of them, but they're out there. The kindergarten class where every piece of art work, every level of ability, every personality is celebrated, the home where all the kids want to hang out because they feel welcomed, listened to, comfortable enough to go into the fridge and help themselves. I can't say what magic formula creates these little zones of affirmation and contentment, but you know it when you enter one.

Oddly enough, my accountant's office, the place we visit once a year, carrying a battered and miserable shoe box crammed with miscellaneous receipts, the W-2 forms that have been misplaced at least 3 times in preparation for the visit, and profuse apologies for the confused state of my finances and my life.

In my back pocket, reserved for later, is the chagrined promise that next year I will keep better records and schedule my appointment before April 14th. My accountant, "Tim," sees through my good intentions, but he humors me. He is an exceedingly patient man.

And even though he pretty much works around the clock as tax time rolls around, he schedule an extra long appointments with all his clients. An appointment with time enough to discuss the kids and the writing, to philosophize a bit over the state of the community and the state of the world, all sandwiched between the usual fare of deductions, exemptions, and tax tables. There's also time for his pretty wife, who exudes her own joie de vivre, to poke her head into the office and say she's heading over to the coffee shop. Would anybody like a cup?

Everything in his office, from the tasteful decor to the photographs of his fine children, his golden retriever, and the little league team he sponsors, seems to attest to a life that's rich in love, community and professional success.

Tim greets me every year as I slide into the chair clutching my miserable Shoe box like a favorite cousin who he hasn't seen since the last family wedding. The smile is that wide. It doesn't fade--even after I dump the contents of the miserable shoe box on his desk.

"Okay, let's start sorting," he says amiably, too kind to mention the obvious--that it would have been nice if I started signing before I left home. Or maybe back in January.

Tim's life was a happy story that turned abruptly dark last week.

On Wednesday, I gasped when I opened the newspaper and saw his photo under the headline, "Motorist killed in collision." I'm not sure whether I reeled more on seeing his face beneath those incongruous and incomprehensible words--or on learning that he was not the the victim in the accident. Tim had been cited with Driving while intoxicated and vehicular homicide.

I do not know the victim, but from the paper I've learned he was a relatively young man, an itinerant carpenter, a good son, and a single father who was raising am adolescent boy. He died in the middle of a cold highway on an ordinary Tuesday afternoon--probably on his way home from work.

I was reluctant to write about this because it involves the immense sorrow of two very real families. But it haunted me; it seemed to demand something from me. In the end, I felt compelled to write about it because it's so easy to make Tim's fatal error in judgment--especially at this time of year. That fatal error is not making prior transportation arrangements before you drink. As we all know, once you've imbibed, it's often too late for prudence and planning.

Could I have made a similar error at certain times in my life? Yes.

This case remains untried. Right now I'm still hoping that the paper got it wrong, that Tim is not responsible for a man's death. What I do know is that if he's guilty, this good man will serve prison time. But I also know that no matter how long Tim is sentenced to serve, it will not come close to being his greatest punishment.

Nothing will erase the memory of what happened on that road. Nothing can alter its finality.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006



1. GIVE THANKS. GET FED. It's the one and only requirement of the day--though when you think of it, you could live a lifetime on that solitary rule. It's also one holiday that hasn't been infiltrated and drained of zest by consumerism.

2. The happy noise of arrivals.

3. Vegetables! Lots of them, and in some of my favorite colors, too.

4. Traditions. In our family, we all write down one thing we're thankful for and put them into a cup. Just before dinner, we take turns drawing one out, reading it aloud, and guessing who said it. One rule: you can't say anything you used in a previous year. (That prevents boring people like me from saying "my family" every time.)

5. You can eat pie, pecan or pumpkin, apple or even the dreaded mince (my mother's favorite) without an ounce of guilt. In fact, it's practically a duty.

6. The naps. Take the deadly combination of wine, tryptophan laden turkey, and heavy desserts, mix with the drone of an endless football game, add a grey November day and what do you get? The best naps of the year.

7. The little white onions. I don't know about you, but Thanksgiving is the only occasion that would ever persuade me to undertake the laborious task of peeling those things. But on that one day, they're indispensible.

8. Memory. Holidays are frequently minefields of remembering, of feeling the absence of those whose presence once colored the day, but who have now left behind a colorless void.

That's when you have to hold fast to the Thanksgiving rule. Remember? "Give thanks. Get fed." On every other day of the year, you can think about loss, but not on Thanksgiving. This is a day to be grateful for all the ways the absent enriched our lives, and continue to enrich it.

9. Leftovers! Cook enough and you may not have to prepare another meal for a week or until no one ever wants to see another mound of stuffing as long as they live--or for at least another year.

10. The entire family around the table at one time. Whether it's just like it used to be, or just like it never was, whether it's a party of two or a crowd of twenty-two, whether you're seated next to your favorite aunt, or the cousin you never could stand, Thanksgiving is a chance to embrace each other and be grateful for one another-- in our joy and in our lack, in our abundance, and in all our glorious imperfections.

A happy one to all!

Now does anyone have a number 11?

Monday, November 20, 2006

FREUD ON THE IRISH...and the failures of November


It started off as just a doodle, inspired by my friend, tinker, who led me to this exercise in Sacred Doodling. But once I'd completed my doodle, I started wondering what Freud might say it revealed about me. Then I remembered my favorite quote from the founder of psychoanalysis. Speaking of the Irish, he said:

"This is one race for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever."

Though I'm a born yank, by race I'm one of Freud's incurables. Whether he meant to infer that the Irish were too crazy , too complex, or too smart to be successfully analyzed, I'm not sure--though, of course, I have my opinion.

Or maybe it's just that the Irish are too imaginative to ever get their stories straight. Get someone like me on the couch, and I may spin tales for years--some as true and clear as a spring lake, others shall we say "embellished" by metaphorical fancy and my own love of the dramatic. Who can cure someone like that?

Anyway, from now on, my artmaking will be markedly improved because--(drumroll, please!) my copy of The Artist's Manual has arrived at last! Now that I have a little in-house instruction, I'm going back to the post where several of you kindly suggested some art supplies a novice like me might enjoy.

artist's manual

From now on, the computer paper, the black magic marker, and the glue stick will no longer be my weapons of choice!

I also have a few November confessions to make:

1. I've failed utterly at NaNoWriMo. Though my absurdly optimistic nature would normally tell me that yes (!) I could still make it from the 3,436 words I wrote to the holy grail of 50,000, every now and then even we cockeyed visitors from fantasy land must face reality. And reality is this: I've only got ten days left, including Thanksgiving, a two day trip to New Hampshire, and my cousin's wedding day--all days when I won't be writing. And given that I've never written more than 2,500 words in a day, the hard mathematical facts are against me. Has anyone got a white flag handy?

2. I've also failed at NaNoBloMo--the campaign to post every day. In fact, I've failed so miserably that I can't even get the acronym right. However, I love cheering from the sidelines as several of my blog friends have kept posting through colds and sick cats, bad relationships and bad weather. I'm in awe of you!

3. And what about Make Art Every Day? Well, as you can see, around here, it's been more like "make something that vaguely resembles art some days."

4. Even my own November posting schedule, in which I enthusiastically announced that I would impose structure on my unruly blog was what George Bush would call a rout.

Sometimes I adhered to the schedule; other times life and laziness (my two guiding principles) intervened, and I didn't.

But wait! There's another way to look at it:

1. It wasn't time for me to write a new novel right now. It was time to return to the first draft of one I'd already written and begin the serious process of flogging it into shape--which I did and with a joyful vengence. Thus, my nano failure was a writing success.

2. I didn't post every day. But then again, I didn't have something to say every day, so consider yourself spared.

3. No, I didn't make art every day, but I made it more than I have in years. I did it with family. I did it with friends. And now with my new Artist's Manual, I plan to continue the fun long after the last of the leftover Thanksgiving turkey has been consumed and the last brown leaf has fallen. It's an unqualified triumph!

4. I tried something new with the blog, and some of it worked! I love writing about Ten Things every Tuesday, and the existential question on Wednesday. I also love going out and hunting down a new blog discovery of the week. (Surfing with a purpose! What could be more divine?)

Sharing the best links I can find has been great, too, but I think I'd rather post them as I come upon them. Collecting and putting them up all at once seemed a bit like, well, work, and committed lazy person that I am, I don't come to the blog to work.

So how's that for a fabulous self-justification? I fail at absolutely every single goal I set myself for the month, then I declare it some kind of crazy success. Maybe Dr. Freud was right, after all...

Thursday, November 16, 2006

MORE ONE LINE OBITUARIES & The Existential Question

shevonne's art

No art today, but I do have this photo of something Shevonne made and sent from LA.

I also found a few one-line obituaries by gleaning the long version for the single sentence that seems to distill the essence of a life. These people particularly inspired me this week:

Christabel Burniston, professional Educationist:

"Still elegant, immaculately dressed and tiny waisted at age ninety, she published a novel.

Ioan Ivancea, Gypsy leader of a Romanian village band:

"Only days before his death, he was still reaching for his clarinet."

And of the marvelously dramatic poet, Francis Berry:

"He was happy to seem a foolish, passionate man."

Now for the infamous existential question: What inspired you this week?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


what publication was supposed to bring

A year ago today, something incredible happened to me. Let me set the scene: It was around eleven in the morning, and I was in my study writing when the phone rang. I shambled toward the kitchen, coffee cup in hand, a defiant bunch of characters still carrying on a spirited dialogue in my head. I was still wearing my pajamas.

My first thought? Maybe it was my agent calling to say she'd sold my book! An amazing coincidence maybe? A sign that that I possessed the gift of prophecy? Nope.

Actually, that thought has passed through my mind every time the phone rang for years--even before I had an agent. In fact, I've probably been dreaming about that phone call since I was nine years old and I first started writing stories instead of multiplication problems on my papers during math class.

The only difference was that this time I was right. This time it was my agent. And this time she wasn't calling to say hello, or to suggest a revision or to tell me that we'd gotten a pass. This time she began the conversation with the words, "I have some very exciting news..."

What happened next, I recorded in detail last year. This year I want to talk about the expectations those words carried for me. (The illustration above may give you some idea of my modest hopes.)

While I waited tables and dreamed and scribbled by moonlight, I'd come to believe that if I ever sold a novel, I'd never have another moment of self-doubt, the grouchy old man in the deli would smile when he saw me and toss in an extra quarter pound of smoked turkey, and it would never rain on my birthday. Slowly, in the course of the past year, I've been disabused of nearly all my out-sized expectations.

In actuality life has both changed immensely--and not at all.

Ten Things That have Changed:

1. I eased my way out of my waitress job--with baffling reluctance, I might add.

2. When I told people I was a writer, they didn't do that funny thing with their eyebrows, or sneak each other sidelong glances, like they had in the past.

3. On my tax form, I wrote WRITER all in caps, instead of waitress. I wonder what the IRS thought about the row of exclamation points at the end.

4. I worked more hours than I ever have in my life and I loved every minute of it.

5. I learned that in today's market, the success of any given book depends as much on the writer's efforts as it does on the publisher's.

6. I became an enthusiastic promoter.

7. I threw around strange terms like "my publicist," "my editor," "my galleys," like I'd been doing it all my life.

8. I made some amazing new friends.

9. I went to New York for only the fourth time in my life--and this time I went "on business."

10. I realized that self-doubts, rainy birthdays, and grouchy guys at the deli never go away. And what's more, I wouldn't have it any other way. If life was perfect, what would we write about?

And the one thing that hasn't changed? This morning, around eleven O'clock I was in my study, talking back to a troublesome character, and sucking on a cold cup of coffee. And yes, I was still in my pajamas. In the end, that's still what it's all about.

Saturday, November 11, 2006


eagle pond 1

We have been walking at Eagle Pond for twenty years. We walked with the kids when they were small. We walked with our dog, Sadie, when she was young enough to race down to the pond, and obey her lab blood when it told her to swim whenever you get the chance, then to emerge from the water, shaking darts of sparkling light everywhere.

We also walked with her when she was so old that only fierce dog loyalty and the memory of her former joy in the place kept her going till the end, when she looked at the pond with nostalgia, but knew she could never navigate the steep hill that led to it.

Now that the kids have better things to do than hike with their parents and Sadie is buried in the front yard, we walk with other dogs, and with each other, still disbelieving that there will come a day when one of us will walk alone. Or that one day Eagle Pond will belong entirely to other hikers--their families, their dogs, their solitary dreams.

But not yet! Today I particularly enjoyed my walk because I was avidly stalking the perfect November leaf. At first, Ted made fun of me, but then he started his own collection, proving once again that art is elemental, contagious and everywhere.

eagle pond 2

Now for the links of the week:

Fiona Robin shares a poem called Seeing William in a Photo on Qarrtsiluni that one commenter calls "beautiful, memorable, hot." I agree. (You'll have to scroll down because I couldn't get the direct link to work, but scroll slowly; there's plenty of other fine things to read and see along the way.)

Dating God offers some excellent tips on building your blog, but as always, Kate's unique sassy voice is the best part.

Dave, whose photography grows more remarkable by the day, goes beneath the surface with his images of shallow leaves in water.

Thanks are owed to Sara who pointed me in the direction of Women that Meddle in Physick, a most informative post and for me, a great new blog.

And for those whose life is lacking in adventure, Zhoen suggests an anti-dote.

Natalie humbly reminded us that her own biography continues this week. Those who've been following this sporadic retelling of an extraordinary life in art and travel have been waiting for this installment for a long time. And to those who have yet to make Natalie and her friend Blaugustine's acquaintance, you're in for a treat.

And after all my searching, I did come back with the pearl I promised you. Awfully Serious is my Blog Discovery of the Week, chosen for its fresh perspective, its energy and above all its fine writing.

Friday, November 10, 2006


10 red peppers

Tomorrow I will share links to the best posts I read this week, a practice I'm trying to establish every Friday.

In the past seven days, however, I've traveled mostly to familiar and favorite blog outposts. Thus I haven't yet made a Blog Discovery of the Week. But give me time! I intend to get on the search first thing tomorrow and and I won't be back till I've found you a pearl.

Meanwhile, if anyone has read anything truly wonderful this week, don't keep it to yourself! Leave a comment. It might contain the exact word, or image or line that someone out there desperately needs to read.

Thursday, November 09, 2006


DSCN1956, originally uploaded by patryfrancis.

Not since I was hoping for responses to my agent query letters
have I waited for the postman so avidly. But every day, Michael comes without the copy of The Artist's Manual I ordered a week ago.

"Sorry, no package today," he says when he sees the disappointed slump of my shoulders

I also have yet to acquire my *real* art supplies. So for today, inspired by One Deep Breath, I decided to try a haibun for the very first time.

I knew I took this photograph for a reason!

For those of you, like me, who are unfamiliar with the form, it is a combination of prose and haiku. For a better and more complete description or to read more Haibun, visit One Deep Breath.

First chill of autumn. I traipse into the yard in my old boots and pin sheets to the line. Small satisfactions. The wind, fierce today and rising, will dry the fluttering cloth smooth. In one corner of the yard, the spot where the children used to dig. In another, our fallow garden.

Two shovels and a hoe
lean against the autumn tree
What will we dig for now?

And just in case you thought I forgot my blogging schedule, the best thing that happened to me today was that my website went live. Check it out and let me know what you think!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


november, originally uploaded by patryfrancis.

The truth is we write it every day. Not the one that appears in the newspaper, but the real one. The one we write with our words and with our gestures, with every step we take to every place we go, the one we think and breathe and read on the faces of those who love
us. And yes, on the faces of those who don't.

The obituary that changes every day.

The one we write every time we say yes, and perhaps even more clearly with our stubborn refusals. The one that is wide enough and long enough to encompass what we see--and also what we turn our faces from. The one that records all that we know and also takes note of what we never allow ourselves to imagine.

No newspaper piece has ever captured the truth of a life. That truth is not found in who we married, where we were born, or where and how we did our work, or who stood at the funeral and mourned us. At least not completely.

Still, I continue to read newspaper obituaries. In today's New York Times, there was an obituary of a man named J.J. Servan-Schreiber. The headline called him a "French man of ideas." If one must be forced to wear a title in death, I rather like that one.

The obituary spoke of Servan-Schreiber's "many careers in many countries: Writer in France, teacher in the U.S., hotelier in Brazil. He started a controversial magazine, wrote a book on the torture he saw in Algeria; won and lost elective offices..."

But I especially liked President Jacques Chirac summation:

"One life wasn't enough to contain his energy, crativity and enthusiasm so he forged multiple destinies."

So here is your existential question of the week. If you were only allowed a one line obituary, what would you want it to say?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

10 Wellfleet Oysters and 10 Ways to Stay Young

10 wellfleet oysters

These oysters, which my friend Jake gathered from the bay in the middle of a heavy storm for his and Laura's annual oyster party are my art of the day. I thought of painting over them, collaging them, adding quotes or pasting shells around the edges. But when it comes right down to it, there's absolutely nothing you can do to improve on a Wellfleet oyster. Except maybe adding a little hot sauce and sucking them down right out of the shell!

For Part 2 of 10 Things, I decided to tackle a topic that has probably inspired more snake oil salemen and self-help books and magazine articles than any other. Since youth looks good and feels good and sometimes even provides the illusion that we will never die, how do we stay young?

10 Ways to Stay Young

And no, I'm not talking about merely looking the part. Or dressing up in leggings and a long sweater that barely covers your butt if you're a woman, or spiking your hair up like a rock star and buying the coolest sunglasses on the block if you're a man. I don't mean finding a younger spouse or undergoing fertility treatments just before the AARP card arrives. Nor am I advocating that you become such an expert on hot trends that you know more about them than you do about yourself.

Many of us who are over thirty -- and some even younger -- have already bought the potions, hired the personal trainer, and seen the hair colorist. And don't get me wrong, I'm not against those things -- as long as they don't consume your life. As long as they don't make you forget that your time here really is limited, and maybe you ought to be using it.

Ironically, the more we worship youth, the more we market it and exalt it and mock it by imitation, the more we deaden its spirit.

How do you define youth beyond its obvious smooth skin and raging hormones and washboard abs? Here's my definition:

1. Being young is discovering that you've just inherited the world and that it's a marvelous one. It's also flawed, woefully mismanaged and seriously imperilled. It means setting out with all the idealistic fervor of Don Quixote to rescue it, to change it, to polish it till its new again.

1 1/2.It's not caring that you are probably destined to fail in all the big ways. It's doing it anyway, and discovering that maybe the "small way" matters more than you think.

2. Being young means its your job to fall in love, and you do it extravagantly and often. You fall in love not only with potential romantic partners, but with trees, with the dark and shiny streets where you walk with your friends at midnight, with the color of the sky when you rise from your bed at five a.m., with a snatch of music that you heard once and never forgot.

3. Being young means you are perfectly beautiful and beautifully perfect. You are not too fat, too pimply, too large of nose or legs or teeth, nor too small of breasts or eyes or height--though some may tell you that you are. But believe me, there will come a day when you gaze at a photograph of your young self and be absolutely stunned by its beauty. And you will wonder how you could have failed to see it, to inhabit it, to celebrate it every day.

4. Being young means you make mistakes. Glorious mistakes. Dumb mistakes. Sometimes even the kind of wild mistakes that will cause you to wonder what you were thinking. It's crying and regretting and bemoaning those mistakes until you realize they weren't distractions from the road after all. They were the road.

5.Being young means your body is meant for movement. It's a time for dancing, for running, for being able to do prodigious amounts of work, then collapsing in exhaustion, only to get up the next day and do it again.

6. Being young means you have very little time and less patience for sitting on the couch, watching other people live their lives on TV. You're far too busy with your own.

7. Being young means you ask the big questions.

8. It means you stay up half the night with your friends formulating answers, and then go to bed deliriously tired, intoxicated with possibilities. Even though you know no more than you did before you started. And it means continuing the conversation in your dreams where maybe--just maybe--the real answers lie.

9. Being young means that you see really well, and you hear really well and so you look with all your heart. And you listen the same way.

10. Being young means that you're capable of surprising and rattling and inspiring your world. And so you do! Whether the world likes it or not, whether it listens or not, whether it cares or not. Because this is your time and you're going to seize it.

*And no, it isn't all about age. In fact, some of the youngest people I know had enough candles on their last birthday cake to ignite a wildfire.

Monday, November 06, 2006

"bittersweet love"

bittersweet love, originally uploaded by patryfrancis.

*Thanks to Left-Handed Trees for the inspiration.

Speaking of bittersweet love, I got a laugh out of this list of 30 Ways Not to Write a Novel. Those who are deeply immersed in the joyful madness known as Nano should check it out. But don't take it too seriously. I indulged in an American variation of at least 27 out of 30 of these "Don'ts" when I wrote my novel, and still managed to do a victory dance at the finish line.

(The ones I didn't do? #2, #6, and #12.)

And despite my almost daily resolutions to apply the proverbial bum glue writers are always yapping about, I'm still walking the dogs on the beach or making art when I should be cranking out that extra page.

What's more, I'm not buying the assertion that the demi-gods who win the Booker Prize or the Nobel or the Edgar aren't masters of procrastination at times as well. John Banville may be more brilliant and prolific than you and me, but I'd be willing to wager he slips off for a cup of tea or three when Marla--or is it Roshni? refuses to cooperate with his plot.

Rule #1? There are no rules...except maybe when it comes to #2. Do that and you may write and sell a novel; you may even make a pile of money; but it won't matter much, because nothing you ever write will ever be worth a damn. And that's the bittersweet truth.

Sunday, November 05, 2006


piping plovers, originally uploaded by patryfrancis.

Though I didn't get a chance to post yesterday, I did make art. I also saw art. Everywhere. In the leaves that remain on the trees, browning yes, but still containing the last mysterious traces of summer's light, in the rust patterns on the my son's first car, in the cottony whiteness of my mother's hair.


Yesterday we trooped to the beach, kids, dogs, all of us, and found we had entered one of life's perfect and perfectly enigmatic hours. The tide was out; the light was pink and gold; and the piping plovers (one of my personal obsessions) were doing their delicate dance up and down the beach.

The kids and I played detective, following their arrow-like prints until they converged in an almost indecipherable mass. Usually there was a tell-tale clamshell or a sucked out crab leg to explain why the plovers had themselves a little party in that particular spot.

We also noticed the way the tides had etched treelike images on the sand as they tugged the seaweed onto the shore. Art was everywhere!

The dogs chased each other to the sandbars and then took a swim in the icy water. When they emerged, hey seemed to shake even more triumphantly than usual--as if they knew this might be their last swim of the year, and they wanted to enjoy it to the hilt.

Someday I will go to the beach without feeling the need to bring back a treasure, but yesterday was not that day.

Collectively we found:

*a perfectly flat rock that was shaped like an irregular heart

*some dried black seaweed that looked enough like my impossible hair that I saved it for a possible self portrait

*sea roses that were still in bloom which we admired, but did not take home

*pine branches both living and dead

*three pieces of sea glass

*an amazing shell that bore an exotic brown and white design.

On the ride back home, the kids pulled their treasures from their pockets and held them up to the changing light. I couldn't wait to look at mine either--though I waited till we hit a stop light.

Then we went home and made art! The kids set up the art space and made us a banner.

make art every day

Then the women joined in. Though the men were preoccupied by football, they proved to be a most appreciative audience when we held our "exhibit" later on.

the family makes art

Friday, November 03, 2006


third day

First, a confession: there weren't many ground rules to this book club. You read the book, you write about it on the third of the month, and you don't read anyone else's reviews or thoughts before you do. That's it.

You'd think I could have kept them, especially since I'm the one who made them up. But once I saw comments indicating some of the reviews were only a click away, I got so excited I forgot all about the rules. (And yes, I've been known to regularly eat dessert before dinner, too--especially if it's something chocolate.)

Now it looks as if I'm probably not going to get this up before the midnight deadline either. Oy.

I'd like to say your views didn't influence me, but they did. I even understand the reservations some of you expressed, though I still think this was one fine book.

Half of a Yellow Sun, though it shed light on history, was above all a story, deftly plotted with enough plot twists and suspense to keep the pages turning effortlessly. I could almost taste Ugwu's pepper soup, and smell the scent of Baby's skin when she emerged from the bath.

I believed in Richard's almost desparate love for the remote Kainene and for the Biafran people; I was seared by his lingering sense of himself as an outsider, both in his native country and his adopted land. In the early parts of the novel when both Olanna were captivated by Ogdenigbo's fiery idealism and charisma, so was I. I also shared Olanna's disaffection when her "revolutionary" crumbled as his ideals were tested.

I particularly loved Ugwu, who we first meet as a naive village boy, dazzled by his new master's refrigerator full of food, eager for knowledge, self-improvement and life. Though he recovers from the physical wound he sustains in the war, Ugwu has travelled far from that eager boy by the end of the novel. His altered spirit bespoke the horrors of war as much as the swollen bellies of the children or the slaughtered villagers Olanna finds when she attempts to visit her aunt and uncle.

There was not a character in the novel who wasn't flawed in some way, which added to their humanity. We come to care about them, not because they are mythological heroes, but because they make mistakes, sometimes tragic ones, but Adichie never seems to judge them. Nor do they, in the end, judge one another.

A story that concerns itself with the most depraved human conduct imaginable might be unremittingly dark, but the mercy, generosity, and compassion that the characters show one another were for me, the true yellow sun in the novel.

As a writer, thinking about Half of a Yellow Sun made me consider what elements comprise a great book. A compulsively readable plot and fully developed characters are essential; but many novels that quickly fade from memory possess those.

What makes this one exceptional for me was that it made me think more deeply about what it means to be human. In the end, no one is spared the horrors of war in this novel. Not the ravaged land where it takes place, and not a single one of the characters we've come to know is left unchanged. And yet, the final image is of Olanna and Ogdenigbo holding one another. Holding one another and going on.

A huge thank you to all who shared the reading of this book with me. Whenever I finish a book, I always want to talk about it. I want to tell someone why I loved it or why I felt like throwing it at the wall. I can't tell you how much fun it was to wander from link to link today and do exactly that.

Others who have reviews up:

Gerry Rosser
Tinker(Includes an illustration of Ugwu!)
Sustenance Scout
Left-Handed Trees

As others share their musings, let me know so I can add you to the list! And if anyone would like to host next month's book club, when we will be reading Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone, I'm looking for a volunteer.

Dennis Lehane has said that Woodrell is the least appreciated great writer in America; and an impressive list of writers from Kaye Gibbons to Thomas McGuane concur. Next month the Third Day Book Club will decide whether they're right!

As for my distinguished career as an artist, I almost hung it up when my family mistook my chili peppers for strawberries. But then I saw my daughter working on her own art project as she talked on the phone. Her smile persuaded me to continue to subject you to my least for a few more days.


Thursday, November 02, 2006

A Photograph...and a New Book Club Choice and the best thing I did all day

eccentric # 1

The woman in the photograph being forced to sit still and participate in my experiments with collage is not Edith Sitwell, but my great-grandmother. On seeing her photograph, people have often commented that I resemble her. Whether the resemblance went beyond the physical is only one of the things I don't know about her.

Neither I, nor anyone living, knows her name or anything about her life. I suspect, but do not know, that it was neither an easy one, nor a long one. In a final affront, time has conspired to erase, not only her name and her story, but this last vestige of her face.

Was she an eccentric? Did she make art or write poems? I suspect but do not know that such things were luxuries a young woman of her time and place and class had little opportunity to explore.

But whether she wrote them down or drew them or pasted them onto a piece of old wallpaper or made them rhyme, I know she walked through the streets of her town and the surrounding woods, and dreamed abundant and astonishing dreams.

How do I know that? Because looking at her face, really looking, was the best thing I did all day.


In other news, it's 11:40 on the second of November, which can only mean one thing.
In exactly forty minutes until it becomes the third!

That's right, in forty minutes, amazing bloggers from far and wide will begin to post their thoughts on The Third Day Book Club's first selection, Half of a Yellow Sun. Okay, maybe not in EXACTLY forty minutes. Some of you do sleep.

Twenty something people signed on to read and blog Adichie's novel, but I know many were tentative and busy, oh so busy, and Yellow Sun is a 400+ page book. Thus, I have no idea exactly how many people actually went read it. But I've heard enough from several of you to know there is a solid group of us. A real book club!

So how to proceed? Today, Jordan asked if I would link the other readers, and I definitely will. I also suggest that you all link to one another so we can form a chain. Or a circle. On second thought, a circle is much better than a chain.

I've thought of starting a separate book blog for third day where we all could post our thoughts--another good point Jordan brought up--but at least initially, I think it might be more fun to post our thoughts on our own blogs.


1. It will attract new readers to our blogs, where they will undoubtedly find many other amazing things to fascinate and seduce them.

2. It could also draw some of the readers from our individual blogs into the book club.

Gerry wondered what we were supposed to blog about the book. To that end, I'm posting a few discussion questions. Use them or devise your own, review the book as if you were writing for the New York Times, or respond to it with a poem, a piece of art, or however you're inspired to do. Around here, we're nothing if not flexible.

Possible Discussion Questions:

1. The thing that struck me most about this novel was how war transformed the characters in surprising ways. The strong became weak; the good committed horrific acts; a character who seemed cold and somewhat harsh in the beginning revealed herself to be capable of the greatest generosity and courage. Did this feel like a true assessment of how war changes people?

2. Over the course of the novel, Olanna and Ogdenigbo's relationship, which seems strong and vibrant in the beginning, deteriorates to a near complete alienation. And yet, the final scene if a loving one. Do you believe that when the war ended a couple and a family who had seen and endured all that they had could ever be the same?

3. One thing I admired most about the novel was that it was more than a platform to express Achichie's feelings about war. It was a rich and deftly plotted story. What were some of the ways that the author rewarded her readers for their time?

4. Reading this novel makes us confront some uncomfortable subjects: hunger, forced conscription, and the violence that ethnic hatred so often breeds. Did any of those subjects particularly rattle your sleep--and why?

5. Throughout the horrors they endure, Olanna and Kainene never give in to the madness or despair around them. What do you think was the source of their strength?

6. There were a number of vivid and appealing characters in this novel. Which one did you relate to most and why?

This month, inspired by a rave on Myfanwy Collins' blog, I've chosen Daniel Woodrell's novel, Winter's Bone as our next read. The line in Myfanwy's review that most convinced me: "One part coming of age story, one part mystery, one part thriller, one part literary, this book truly defies classification." As all the best stories do!

winter's bone

When I picked it up at the library tonight, I was surprised by its slenderness and by the sparse number of words per page. At less than 200 pages, it should not place too heavy a burden on those who are doing Nano or involved in major preparations for the holidays.

This will be the last selection I make alone. In the coming months, as Third Day grows and hopefully takes its own direction, I'm hoping we can make nominations and then vote on upcoming books.

It would also be great if we we could take turns hosting Third Day, providing discussion questions and the voting forum on our blogs, festival style.

See you all tomorrow!