One of us lives on the east coast. One of us lives on the west.

One of us lives in a rural community. One of us lives in a city.

Both of us wander. Both of us witness. Both of us write.

This is a record of what we find.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

People Watching

San Francisco is a great place to people watch. Like most fiction writers, I am always on the lookout for interesting characters and often find myself wondering about somebody’s story. Where did they come from? What is their life like? What kinds of decisions have they made that ended them where they are now?

I am especially curious about some of the denizens that frequent North Beach. There is a homeless man who could easily double as Gimli from the film, Lord of the Rings; most days he stands silent and solemn on the corner of Hyde and Union, watching the cable cars go by. There is a girl who shows up in Washington Square Park on sunny days in a rainbow leotard with a dozen hula hoops which she twirls, swirls and tosses in the air for hours. There is a woman with a face of tattoos who speaks only in a high mono-pitched bird shriek. 

And then there is Millie, a small dumpling-like woman who, since the 1950’s, has made nightly rounds to the North Beach restaurants and bars, selling roses and until recently, Polaroid snapshots to romancing couples. Her usual inquiry is to ask the man if  he's behaving himself, and advising him to take good care his companion. If you’re lucky enough to be a familiar face, you might get a wide toothless grin, a soft pinch on the cheek and blown kisses. Nobody seems to know Millie’s whole story; only that she was born in Ohio, came out to San Francisco after World War Two where she married a newspaper vendor who had lost his arm at Pearl Harbor. He passed away some time ago, leaving Millie to live alone above the cutlery shop on Columbus Avenue, watched over by a number of neighborhood angels.

Millie celebrated her 87th birthday last year at Café Divine, where she can often be found sitting under her portrait in “Millie’s Corner.”

Sharry Wright

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Wind Storm

We had an incredible wind storm last week. Wind speeds upward of 60-65 miles per hour, and gusts as high as 110 miles per hour. We took our ritual run in it. At the time I didn’t know the exact speed of the wind, but I sure felt different—it was a sensory cacophony of the auditory and tactile variety. My eardrums were penetrated by this high, loud, constant whistling. My forehead and chest pushed against the wind like it was a heavy piece of furniture I had to move. And my eyes were a broken faucet, dripping a steady stream of tears. All I could think about while I was out in the swirling, pushing, piercing wind was that this was only a fraction of what it must be like to be in a hurricane. Like Hurricane Katrina, which is so beautifully written about in Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Ninth Ward.

We went for another run a few days later. Back at Mud Pond Loop. It is another sensory cacophony—this time a visual and olfactory one. The forest has been turned upside down. Literally. The top branches of many of its trees are touching the ground, and their roots are sticking straight up into the air. One row of trees is precariously balanced on another larger tree like a row of dominoes on their way down. Giant chunks of earth—still attached to tree roots—are ripped up, leaving large, gaping holes. The edges of the woods is the most dramatic. Dozens and dozens of trees are down, because the wind had more force in the treeless fields surrounding them. And the scent—I have never smelled such a thick, deep scent of fresh cut wood and pine needles.

One lone blue jay called to us from a tree—one of the ones that is still standing—perhaps celebrating the fact that his neighborhood is quiet and safe once again.

Tam Smith

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Finding My Place

I have been a walker, a wanderer, for many years. Besides exercising the dog, getting out in the fresh air, and experiencing the world where I live, another reason I walk and wander is to find my place in the world and to continually renew a sense of belonging that easily slips away when I burrow in too much.

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about space; personal space, in conjunction with a sense of belonging. There are times when I’m out walking and find myself feeling a little awkward, a little out of balance; each step is jarring, my shoulders are tense, my spine strains to hold up the rest of my body and my breath is shallow and uneven. I feel “out of place.” It has to do with posture, stride, breathing and something else more elusive which I’ve come to think of as needing to find the “me shaped space” that surrounds me; it’s always a little further back and just a little taller than where I start out. Once I “find” it, I feel my whole being slip comfortably in, like a foot into a custom made shoe. Everything aligns and relaxes; bones, muscles, organs, connective tissue all fall into balance, breathing becomes rhythmic and then movement, both physical and mental, comes almost effortlessly.

I understand, of course, that this is just my imagination. But imagination is a powerful thing. Try it next time you’re out walking and see if it helps you find your place in the world.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Community of Trees

We ran the Mud Pond Loop again this weekend. It is becoming one of my absolute favorite places. I’ve decided it feels like a neighborhood. Truly. There is the block that has the church on the corner (the hushed and magical red pines), the grid of streets filled with houses (the tried and true Vermont maples) and the occasional house with the animal in the backyard (remember those crazy yellow giraffe-birches?) Yeah, it feels like a cozy and vibrant neighborhood. A community, really.

This time, we came upon a stone wall in the middle of our run. It was long, extending the length of a long downhill section of the trail. Although it is probably over eighty years old, all of the stones still fit together like a puzzle, rock shapes complimenting other rock shapes. We ran on one side of the wall and I couldn’t help but wonder: Who had lived here? And who had lived there—on the other side?

It made me think of Dark Water by Laura McNeal. In her incredible story, a boy lives in the forest. And the trees and the river are his neighborhood. It is strange—but not so strange—to think about people living in Mud Pond. Actually, Mud Pond—like much of Vermont’s forest—used to be farmland. Eighty or so years ago, this tree community didn’t exist. Instead, sheep roamed fields. It is kind of amazing to me. Eighty years is not that long ago. And these trees are big, you know? And there are a lot of them.

So strange to think of a landscape changing so drastically.

At that sheep farm time, Vermont was something like eighty percent farmland and twenty percent forest. Now it is the opposite. One neighborhood evolving into another. A community of people and animals evolving into a community of trees. I kind of want to live there with them. Or at least visit for tea.

Tam Smith

Thursday, November 11, 2010

For the Love of Books

For the past two years I have had a monthly Sunday meandering date with my super-smart, all-around-amazing-person friend, Mary Whitten. Each month we pick a new San Francisco neighborhood to explore, always starting at the local neighborhood bookstore, then, when we are satiated, we wander the streets, ending at a café for a latte or a cup of tea. We are incredibly lucky here in San Francisco to still have over 30 small, independent bookstores, at a time when many people are predicting the imminent replacement of books by ebooks.

Mary and I start at a bookstore because we both love books—not only reading and discussing them—but we love the solid, tactile weight of holding them in our hands, love the slick feel of the cover, full of promise and appeal, love the shoosh-shoosh sound of turning the page, the sharp smell of ink on paper. The wonderfully sensual experience of it all.

Last Sunday we spent our usual hour grazing the shelves at Books Inc on Chestnut Street; young adult, middle grade, new adult fiction, classics, pulling out books we have loved, books we’re curious about, books we found disappointing, books we want each other to read so we can really discuss them. We almost always end up talking each other into buying something we’ve recently read and loved. Or a classic we somehow missed. I am about to embark on Jane Eyre at Mary’s urging. And we just realized that neither of us had ever read Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Egypt Game; we vowed to do so before our next walk.

Don’t get me wrong; ebooks are an amazing development in the realm of written words; I think of them in the same way I think of recycled corn to-go cups—they are a good thing, they do the job of holding tea, but I still love drinking my Earl Grey from a beautiful porcelain cup. One does not, and I truly believe will never, replace the other. 

Sharry Wright

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Yellow Birch

Okay, new trail this week. My running partner and I—plus our three dogs—explored Mud Pond Loop, which is a single track mountain bike trail that climbs and curves and descends through forest and river and, yes, a mucky, muddy pond. It is right off a main road, but you would never know it, it only appears just as you reach it.

A short wooden bridge serves as its welcome. You cross it and enter another world. Truly. Think Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia. The trail winds through dense deciduous trees. So many of them that even at this time of year, when the leaves have fallen and cover the dirt like one enormous quilt, the sun still gets trapped on the other side of their tall, thick branches. Only a few lucky rays sneak through the trees, spotlighting a crimson section of the quilt, or a shiny rock, or a spider web. One stretch of the trail is carpeted in pine needles. It is especially hushed there, and I had an overwhelming desire to stop in the middle of this part of the trail and…I’m not sure what. Wait for a minister, or a church choir, or heck, I was in another world, so maybe even an angel to materialize in front of me.

Or maybe a magical birch tree creature?

As we finished our run, Kara—my most excellent running partner who also happens to be a most excellent forester—pointed to a yellow birch that looked somewhat like a strange, sinewy giraffe standing on three legs. The legs, Kara told me, were its roots. Yellow birch seeds sprout on moss covered logs and stumps, and even rocks. Their roots grow on and around these objects, like they are hugging them, until they finally find the dirt and dig down. Many years later, the logs, stumps, and rocks disintegrate, leaving the roots standing partially above the ground.

What should be under, is above. A little magic in the forest.

Tam Smith

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Day of the Dead

One of my favorite neighborhoods to wander is San Francisco’s Mission district, where Indie arts and hip offerings meet the thriving, vibrant Latino culture, creating a sense of energy and magic unlike any other place. This time of year I am especially drawn to the Mission where Day of the Dead is celebrated with a number of events from altar exhibits to a mole sauce contest, to the big candle light parade on All Souls Day.
(For a glimpse of a past year’s parade go to

So Saturday afternoon I headed out on my yearly pilgrimage to see the newly installed exhibit of Day of the Dead altars at The Mission Cultural Center. The main gallery space holds about a dozen altar installations created by local middle school and high school students and several contemporary Latino artists. The student altars vary from the traditional style, honoring ancestors with photos, dried marigolds, paper flowers, sugar skulls, and cheerful, dancing skeletons, to more specific statements as the one displaying 24 pairs of combat boots worn by soldiers killed in Iraq.

But the altar in the side gallery most caught my attention. Created by artist Brett Cook, the installation honors his deceased grandmother with a large, contemporary painted portrait as the background for layers of her personal items on display; an amazing collection of old (really old) cookbooks, jello molds, hotpads, jars of canned applesauce, cookie cutters, tubes of colored sugar sprinkles, handmade valentines, hundreds of bottles of pills, old lipsticks, bottles of perfume, costume jewelry, her Bingo hat, a shower cap and even an old girdle. The piece is called The Grandma Collaborative Altar Project and invites visitors to bring photos to this community altar to honor their deceased grandmothers. What a lovely idea.

That evening, I lit candles on my own small altar at home, where the faded photos of my grandmothers, great grandmothers and great aunts stand with pictures of my father, grandfather and a favorite great uncle, all seeming to whisper remember me. At this time of year, when the veil between worlds draws thin, let us all take time to honor our grandmothers and those who have gone before us by remembering them in some way; whether it is creating an altar, cooking a favorite dish or simply by speaking their names out loud.

Sharry Wright

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Snake in The Tree

There is a tree on the trail that runs along the Winooski River. (Yes, that trail. I promise I won’t always talk about it, but, boy, is it full of treasures…) There are many trees, of course, but this one catches my eye more than the others. It’s a Hackberry tree, and it seems to be the only one of its kind along the trail. It is a beautiful tree—tall and slender, with a cork-like bark and red-purple berries that stay on its branches through the winter. A haven for hungry cedar waxwings, woodpeckers and many other birds.
This is not why it catches my eye though.

The reason I stop and study it is because there is a snake in the tree. Long and thick, it winds its way from the dirt all the way up the trunk and into the branches high above my head. I can’t see its eyes or its tongue, but I imagine they are up there—watching me, sensing me—in the Hackberry’s tallest branches. It has a view of the river, and the road above the trail, and the sky above it all.

The snake is not a real snake, of course. It is a wild grapevine.

The woody vine begins in the ground, its roots just as dug into the earth. And then it climbs. For the first ten feet or so, it is parallel to the tree, and then it circles its way around the tree’s trunk. It is an old vine, so its bark is ragged and is shedding in long strips. The vine slithers further up the tree, around branches, and gets thinner the higher it gets. See how it could look like a snake?

And this morning, as I engaged in my ritual of stopping and studying it, I had the strongest feeling that I was standing beneath Grandmother Moccasin. The Grandmother Moccasin. Kathi Appelt’s mighty and eternal snake from The Underneath.

The muddy earth, the sound of the water rolling by the trail, the occasional splash by a fish or a bird, the deep green of the ferns, the sun filtered through the thick trees, the smell of wood decaying. It could be the Texas Bayou, couldn’t it?

Tam Smith

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Shakespeare on the Bay

Last Friday night, my husband, daughter and I, along with about 40 other sash-draped passengers, boarded a late afternoon ferry for Alcatraz to observe and participate in the We Players’ production of Hamlet on Alcatraz. (The sashes were our ‘tickets’) The performance is a collaboration between the theater troupe and the National Park Service, bringing interactive theater to public spaces. The troupe’s Alcatraz Residency aims to provoke “awareness and conversation around the issues of incarceration, isolation, justice, and redemption,” and what better play to exemplify these issues than Hamlet?

Even before the ferry touched dock, Francisco and Bernardo burst into our midst proclaiming the death of the King and the distress of his son, Hamlet. As we followed them onto the island, the ghost appeared at the top of the guard house as the sentinels tell Horatio what they have seen.

For the next 3 ½ hours, we followed the players and a group of musicians (trumpet, trombone, saxophone, percussion and stand-up bass) over winding paths, up narrow staircases, in and out of the crumbling prison. At one point, we were instructed to divide into four cell blocks, which I knew from a previous visit had once housed the most notorious of Alcatraz’s inmates, including the Birdman of Alcatraz, Robert Stroud. The damp, stark, claustrophobic surroundings served as evocative reminders of the fate of the incarcerated.

Hamlet was played with passion by Andrus Nichols, who lent the intensity of her strong features to convincing us that she was the melancholy, tormented prince. And the mercurial Jack Halton infused the character of Polonius with nuance and heart.

After we watched Ophelia buried in a shallow grave by Halton recast as a penitentiary inmate, the final scene was staged outside in the main prison yard, lit by bonfires and kerosene lamps. As all but Horatio lay dead on the lonely windswept stage, the city twinkled like a jewel box across the Bay, reminding us of the preciousness of freedom and how quickly all is lost.

For a glimpse from the pre-production rehearsals check out:

Sharry Wright 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Flood

This past week the sky ripped a seam and rain poured down on Richmond and its soggy 4000 residents. For almost two days straight we lived with a constant percussion accompaniment. Trrrrrrrrr on the roof tops and streets, ping ping ping ping  on the wood and pellet stove vent pipes, and the stamp stamp of wet boots on mudroom floors. At my house, Winn-Dixie and Fundy went out into the yard only when they absolutely had to, and in less than two minutes they were back in the house, shaking sheets of water onto the walls.

My street is parallel to the Winooski River--the river that Winn, Fundy and I run along. Between our house and the river is our neighborhood park. During the drum solo downpour, the river overflowed and flooded it. The baseball diamond disappeared. The jungle gym, half submerged in water, was an island in the middle of an ocean. Instead of playing soccer, my son went for a swim. The water was cold, he said, and he was joined by fish from the river. I thought about past floods. (We live in a flood plain after neighbors and I talk about this!) I looked them up. There was the great Vermont flood of 1927. And the Johnstown, PA flood of 1889, which fellow writer Jame Richards wrote about in her wonderful debut novel, Three Rivers Rising.

Even after the rain stopped falling, the fierce sound of the rushing water reverberated on our street. A reminder of the...ummmmm....aliveness of our landscape, perhaps. It moves even when we aren't looking. It speaks even when our ears are tuned elsewhere.

Tam Smith

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Sounds of The City

Our City by the Bay pulsates with sound; car brakes squealing to a stop at the bottom of a ridiculously steep hill, horns honking, sirens wailing, motorcycles roaring. On top of this cacophony, we San Franciscans often go about our day to the drone of fog horns and the chatter of wild parrots.

Music also weaves its way through the sounds of the city. On a recent morning outing with my Sheltie walking companion, Emma, we covered a regular route through Russian Hill and down into North Beach. On our first stop at Michelangelo Park, we were serenaded from a nearby open window by a tenor rehearsing his part for the current production of San Francisco's Opera, Aida. Moving on, we passed a boy with a boom box listening to Jay-Z rapping. And then at Washington Square Park, a small group had assembled after their morning tai chi practice to rehearse a Chinese pop song accompanied by a man with an accordion, while in another corner of the park, an elderly man played a simple lullaby on a violin to his grandbaby  fussing in a stroller.

As a final punctuation to our outing, we waited at the corner of Union and Mason while a cable car brakeman rang the bell to a beat that went something like "clang ka-clang kaka clang ka-clang kaka clang kaka clang kaka clang ka-clang."

Returning home, this eclectic and diverse mish-mash of music lingered as the soundtrack to our day. What musical rhythms accompany you through your day?

Sharry Phelan Wright

Thursday, September 23, 2010

First day of autumn....first day of the blog

This time of year, I pull my hat out of the drawer, but leave my gloves behind. My ears get cold first. A sign that autumn is here. This morning--in the early hours of the equinox--I ran with my dogs, Winn-Dixie and Fundy. We were on the 4 mile trail that winds and curves along the Winooski River, which winds and curves through Richmond, the small town in northern Vermont that I call home. One of my favorite places on earth.

Down on the trail, Winn-Dixie took off ahead of me. (Yup, he's named after the Winn-Dixie. He was a stray from down south, after all. And he smiles too!) Winn always cruises, but he seemed to sniff out even more creatures in the cooler air, and put even more distance between us than usual. Fundy trotted behind me, more interested in finding an easy access to the river. She swims like it's summer, no matter what the season is. And me? The water is too cold for me now, but I loved running alongside it, watching the low mist move at the same lazy pace as the current, and I loved the on again-off again smell of wood smoke wafting from the few houses on the road above that make it a rule to start their woodstoves on the first day of fall.

This trail--where the water and the earth meet--always feels magical to me. And today it felt especially so. This is the place where I feel the most whole and the most like me, and at the same time it is where I feel utterly and completely woven into the world.

My feet...the roots of the hands...the unfurled breath...the wind...

...all connected.

Tam Smith

Autumnal Equinox; A Beginning

Autumn is my favorite season. Despite the fact that I've lived with San Francisco's subtle seasonal shifts for over 3 decades, I still associate this time of year with raking scarlet foliage, breathing in the rich smoky aroma of burning leaves, and layering sweaters against the cooling days and crisper evenings. (Something we do all year round in San Francisco!)

But even in a somewhat mono-climate, where the few deciduous trees quietly curl and relinquish their browning leaves only to have them quickly swept away by street cleaners, we West Coast city-dwellers have ways of marking and identifying the changing season. The reminders I have noted over the past week: rust-toned paper leaves strung in the window of a small dress shop in North Beach, roasting peppers and barrels of apples at the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market, the changing demographic of the cable car riders from families to an older crowd that doesn't plan their vacations around the school year, more English and Mandarin, less French, Italian and German spoken on the street as the Europeans head back home.

But what signals autumn most clearly to me is the change in light. Today is the equinox, but for weeks the light has been drifting slowly to a lower angle that stretches shadows of buildings, hills, trees and pedestrians. This shift of light, with its blend of melancholy and fading abundance, is incredibly moving to me; I can imagine my soul leaning into its tangible presence.

What signals the arrival of autumn for you?

Sharry Wright