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, September 27, 2012

Landscape and Peter's Theory of Buddha Self

Who is this Peter guy?

I'm late to the Criss Cross party, but I made it. I read Lynne Rae Perkins' book just last week. I love intersecting lives, connections being pulled into relief, multiple points of view weaving themselves together. And Criss Cross satiated these loves. I had heard about the book so I knew this could be the case. But I didn’t know that Lynne Rae Perkins brings landscape into this trio of discoveries.

Peter and Debbie, two of the many central characters in the book, take a trip on a bus out of town. Not far out of town, but far enough that they find themselves in a place neither of them had been before. They find a bakery, buy chocolate milk and a loaf of freshly baked bread, and meander through a neighborhood until they find a bridge on which to sit and eat their meal. 

Then they get back on the bus to go home, and while they travel Peter tells Debbie about a theory he's been making up:

"I think," he said, "that it's a good thing to get out of your usual, you know, surroundings. Because you find things out about yourself that you didn't know, or you forgot. And then you go back to your regular life and you're changed, you're a little bit different because you take those new things with you. Like a Hindu, except all in one life: you sort of get reincarnated depending on what happened and what you figure out. And any one place can make you go forward, or backward, or neither, but gradually you find all your pieces, your important pieces, and they stay with you, so that you're your whole self no matter where you go. Your Buddha self. That's my theory, anyway."

LOVE that.

To my mind and heart, Peter's Buddha Self Theory ties directly and deeply with the ways lives connect and support and enlighten each other. The more we discover about ourselves, the more we know about ourselves, and the more pieces we fit together…well, the more we are whole. And the more we are whole…the more we can connect.* Truly connect. Nothing else brings a wider, more wonderful sense of being alive.

I often write about the joys of returning to a place again and again. Today I urge us—you all and me—to go somewhere brand new. Let's see if we can find some pieces of ourselves there... wherever there happens to be.

With gratitude,

*Apologies for all of the more.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Landscape and Time-of-Day

School has started and my life is upside-down. I know it's a temporary thing, just until we all settle into our new schedule, but this year the transition from summer to school has been more dramatic than in years past. I now have three kids in school, and this addition of one extra person entering the whirlwind of getting ready in the wee hours of the morning has tipped the scale for me. I can no longer hold the home versus school lunch choice in my head anymore. I can no longer remember the deadlines for permission slips, let alone which one goes to which kid. It's lists and revised routines and prepping the night before. It's all hands on deck as soon as the alarm clock goes off.

One of the knock on effects of this new reality is that I can't go out at my usual time for a run in the morning, and so this, too, has been revised to fit into the new schedule. Instead of leaving the house at 7:15AM, I now leave at 6:15AM.

Same river. Same trail. Just one hour earlier. But it feels like a different run.

Mist is rising at a lazy speed off of the water. The sun is lower in the sky and cast different shadows into the trees and flowers, so new spots are illuminated and new spots are hidden. We surprised a juvenile bald eagle last week—and he amazed us by rising up slowly out of a tree so we could really study him as he picked up height and speed as he flew across the river. The air is colder an hour earlier in the morning. I even wore a hat yesterday. And because we are usually the first people of the day to step onto the trail, there are more sticky spider web finish lines strung across the trail for us to break through.

So the landscape is different an hour earlier in the day which, I suppose, is to be expected. But I am different too, an hour earlier, and that has been a surprising discovery. Do you know how some people get up early in the morning to write…sort of before the thinking part of the brain realizes it is awake…and the result is a more loose and creative process? The same is true for me running at 6:15 instead of 7:15. Less time passes between sleep and run. No coffee is involved. And very little, if any, talking.

This state of mind, coupled with the landscape-anew, creates a more meditative, magical run.

I urge you all, if you can, to go somewhere familiar but at a different time of day.  See what's new. Smell and hear and feel what's new.  And maybe ask one of your characters to do the same.

Happy New School Year!


Thursday, September 6, 2012

Interview with debut author Jeannie Mobley

We are thrilled to have debut author Jeannie Mobley here today, along with her brand-new middle grade novel Katerina’s Wish. I couldn’t put Katerina’s Wish down while I was reading it, and about a third of the way through the book I figured out why: the story, more than any other that I can recall, evoked memories of reading as a child…of that very specific phenomenon of feeling a book transport and hug, all at the same time. Jeannie’s writing is magical like that.

I am lucky to be able to call Jeannie my friend. She is truly one of the warmest, funniest, smartest women I know. What I didn’t know, until I interviewed her, was how much landscape resonates for her. I feel even more connected to Jeannie after having this conversation.

KTE: Hi Jeannie!  Thank you for coming on over to Kissing the Earth to chat about Katerina’s Wish. First, what does landscape mean to you?

JM: Landscape is very important to me. I have always been a person who is rejuvenated by quiet space, and nothing does that for me like nature. So not only have I spent a lot of time outside, but I have also always sought out the quiet, peaceful places in the landscape to think, take comfort, relax, and connect. Even as I write this, I am sitting outside, and a breeze is singing thought a cottonwood above me.

KTE: Can you describe how, exactly, landscape is important to you?

JM: Nature is a very visceral experience for me. When I am outside in a beautiful place (and I find many kinds of places beautiful) I feel like my senses are more awake to everything. There is a concept in Buddhism of distracting the senses in order to free the subconscious, and I think that is what nature does for me. I feel hyper-aware of detail in the world around me, and less aware of myself. It is simultaneously calming and exhilarating.

KTE: I love that!  Boy, does that idea of being hyper-aware of details and thus less aware of self really resonates for me.

What does landscape mean to Katerina?  I am thinking, especially, of the juxtaposition of that magical place just over the hill and the coal mine.  As we talked about earlier, there is such a stark difference between the two.

JM: Because I seek solace in the quiet places of nature, that is what I wanted for Katerina too. I don't think it ever occurred to me to have her find comfort in any other way. It seemed very natural to me for her to find a quiet, natural place, away from the frenzy of the world she dislikes. And for me, water and trees are in the places that comfort me most, and so that is what Katerina experiences.  For Katerina, though, I added another layer, one that I haven't experienced. Because she is an immigrant from north-eastern Europe, I think the landscapes of Southern Colorado would be so starkly different, and it would be hard for someone from the green mountains of Bohemia to see beauty there in the best of times.

The tree that Katerina finds is a cottonwood. Cottonwoods have always been a special tree to me, because in the arid landscapes of the southern Colorado, they feel so out of place. They are truly oases, with their huge trunks and their huge, shady rustling leaves.  They seem to shout of something lush and green and cool, right out of the hot, dry, brown world. It was the best way I could think of for Trina to have a poignant reminder of home.


KTE: What does the landscape in Katerina's Wish, especially, mean to you?

three generations of the Mobley family exploring
JM: I grew up camping and traveling in the west, and my family explored many old ghost towns in the Colorado Rockies.

an ancestral Pueblo structure in southwest Colorado,
returning to earth after about 800 years
 When I am in a place where people have lived in the past, whether it is an old cabin, or an archaeological site left behind hundreds of years ago, I find myself listening hard.

It's not something I consciously do, in fact, I didn't realize that was what I was doing for a long time. But when I am exploring a ghost town with family or when I am working on an dig with a whole crew of archaeologists (the 
day job), I find myself seeking out chances to get away from people and to find a quiet place to listen.

KTE: Are you able to articulate what you hear in a place like this?

JM: There is something different about the silence of a space where people have been, and where the memories are slipping back into nature. It is a deeper silence, one that calls me to strain to hear it. The lives lived in a space become part of it somehow, in a collective memory of the ordinary. It's not as if great deeds have been done there. In fact, I often don't have that feeling at a place commemorating great deeds. Great deeds speak for themselves. But landscapes seem to absorb the essence of ordinary lives, the sacred spark of lives lived for the sake of living. That is what I strain to hear, that calls to me. That seems to be a layer of story embedded in the deeper silences of places people once lived. Its as if the living and the dying there has changed the place. Even as nature takes it back into itself, those places never seem to go back to being just nature. They remain different.

None of which exactly answers your question of what the landscape of Katerina's Wish means to me.

KTE: That’s okay!  I am still buzzing with this: The lives lived in a space become part of it somehow, in a collective memory of the ordinary… Its as if the living and the dying there has changed the place. Even as nature takes it back into itself, those places never seem to go back to being just nature. They remain different. Oh man…what a gorgeous, true statement.

JM: I suppose the landscape of the book per se means nothing to me, in that it is a fictional landscape that I have not been in myself. But the reason the landscape exists at all, is because of the time I have spent walking, sitting, and listening in the abandoned coal mine country of southern Colorado, with its ugly coal tips, it's arid, brown landscapes, its empty houses, and its silence, asking to be listened to, with a tangle of ordinary struggles flowing through it.

KTE: So you have, in fact, listened hard enough to hear the voice--in this arid, brown place--of Katerina. An ordinary girl with an ordinary struggle, but then you, Jeannie the writer and artist, have elevated her with this remarkable story.
southeast Colorado

KTE: Katerina's Wish is, of course, historical. How did you manage to create such a rich, true landscape when it is not here today for you to go visit, and research?  How did you gather and then articulate the details of this landscape?

JM: I do quite a bit of browsing through historical photos, because they capture the ordinary details of lives—the laundry, and picket fences, smoke and litter. Also, because I love browsing through old photos and it is a fun way to blow an entire morning when I don't feel like writing. Although I read history books, oral histories, and other primary documents, my greatest inspiration comes from visual sources.

But really, what I try to capture is the feeling that a landscape gives me, and this draws on my years of collected memories in those places, and the wanderings of my imagination.  In the case of Katerina's Wish, I had been in that area not long before I decided to set my story there, so I could draw on the feelings it gave me. I drew on it barren, dry, dead places and the sense of desolation they would give a Czech immigrant. 

The town would have been in an area like this, which once held the town of Ludlow. These are the old company stores and offices…

And these are some of the few miners' houses left standing…

And then there is the mine. The hoists and shaft housing is all gone, but left behind, the piles of waste…

 And shells of unpicturesque concrete buildings.

This row of coke ovens would have kept the air constantly full of coal smoke. Note the black, barren earth in the foreground. Coal dust and debris still leaves it nearly sterile, decades later.

And yet, amidst this all, just a few hundred feet from those coke ovens, a quiet little haven, under a cottonwood tree. (This picture was taken in October, when the stream had dwindled almost to nothing.)

After visiting these places, they stayed with me, but as feelings and impressions as much as visual experiences. So of course, that's what I set about trying to capture in my writing. It is an illusive thing, and I feel like I never quite capture it, which keeps me striving to do better next time. But, one early reader of my ARC told me, "I had to put your book down for a little while. I was so overwhelmed by a sense of homesickness from my childhood when you described that tree and pond, that I couldn't keep reading."  So I guess I got something right.

KTE: Ummm...yeah. You got a lot of somethings right. Thank you thank you thank you, Jeannie, for all of this. 

With gratitude,

Jeannie Mobley is a third generation native of Colorado on her mother’s side, while her father comes from a long line of yarn-spinners out of Arkansas. So really, it was inevitable that she would turn the histories of her home state into stories. In addition to letting her imagination run wild, Jeannie teaches anthropology in northern Colorado, enjoys as much sunshine as she possibly can, and talks in baby talk to her kids and animals, even though they are all grown up. Katerina’s Wish is her first novel. You can learn more about her here