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!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Nanowrimo, MakeArtEveryDay and the Existential Question(s) of the Week

clothesline in november

Yes, it's November and I'm participating in Nanowrimo. For those of you living in remote forests who may have never heard of it, Nano is a crazed activity in which participants vow to produce a novel in a month, chaining themselves to their computers late into the night while the rest of the world slurps pumpkin soup or jumps in piles of leaves or enjoys hot mulled cider while watching Ugly Betty on TV.

"Why?" you sane people from the forest might ask. Well, just for the fun of it. Or at least that's the theory--though I for one don't believe it.

For one thing, writing a novel might be satisfying. It might be the culmination of a life's goal. It can even be--oh my god--profitable. But fun? Who do these people think they're kidding?

So okay, I'm not in the heads of the 70,000 other participants. Maybe they are doing it because November tends to be a grey and brown month and they wanted to add some color to it...Or maybe they're doing it because their friends have all signed up, and peer pressure ate their last brain cell. Hey, maybe opening a vein and seeing what color the ink runs is even their idea of a party.

But like I say, I don't buy it. I think that the vast majority madly pounding out novels "for fun" in November are really trying to trick their subconscious into producing the real thing. A serious, someday publishable, amazing story trapped forever between covers. I know I am. Strangely enough, this is the first year when writing novels is what I do for a living. Pinch me, please.

Producing art on the other hand IS fun for me--probably because I know I'll never be a real artist like Laini or Swirly or Marja-leena or several of the other talented people on my blogroll. It's so much fun, in fact, that the first thought I had this morning when I woke up in my bed this morning was, "Today I'm going to glue stuff on paper! Today I'm going to color!"

And I did!


I searched the house until I found my art supplies: a glue stick, a few of the kids' old crayons and black marker. The rest of my inspiration came when I was sitting in a doctor's waiting room for my annual exam, and reading an old copy of Oprah.

When I saw the photo of Stanley Kunitz walking in the garden, and a I knew I had to have that page. I had to have his words inside my pocketbook, in my room, in the drawing I was going to make.

The poem seemed to sum up all the excitment I feel beginning this month of November. Since it blurred a little in the photo and I want you to have it, too, I'll reproduce it here:

"...I pick my notebook up
and I start to read aloud
the still wet words I scribbled
on the blotted page:
'Light splashed...'
I can scarcely wait for tomorrow
when a new life begins for me,
as it does each day,
as it does each day."

On the next page there was another quote from Joseph Campbell that captured my imagination. And well, the magazine was over a year old--and more significantly, no one was looking...which leads me to my existential question of the week, or actually my three questions.

Why three? Because existence is strange and complicated and sometimes can't be encompassed in one question. And besides, as Sara recently noted, I seem to have a thing for the number 3. Since this isn't an exam, you can answer one, or you can answer all, or you can just hang out and read what other people have to say.

1. The trivial: Have you ever stolen a page out of a magazine--and why?

2. The philosophical: What do you think of the Campbell quote about our responsibility toward the world? Agree? Disagree?
Depends what day you're asked?

3. The practical. This one is for you artists out there. If you were a joyful and perpetual beginner like me, whose only art supplies were five crayons and a glue stick, what's the one thing you would purchase? (The Artist's Handbook is already on the way.)