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, January 26, 2012


This week was one of the iciest yet this winter. A sequence of rain, then freezing cold temperatures, then a warm spell, then more rain and freezing cold temperatures again is the perfect recipe for ice. We used to live in a house at the top of a long, steep hill and when this kind of weather came sweeping in we would have to literally put on ice climbing shoes and bring out our ice picks in order to sand the driveway. If we lived there this week we would have been in our climbing gear for sure. And I would have been in a state of body-trembling anxiety. I was so afraid of that driveway when it was icy. I will never forget the one morning I went out to start the car to warm it up, went back inside to get the kids ready to go, and when I came back the car was down the driveway, across the road, in a ditch. Thank goodness no cars had come. Thank god I hadn’t put the kids in the car yet. I still shudder thinking about it.

So I don’t have a great relationship with ice.

But yesterday was a run day for me. And Kara and I weren’t going to be deterred by the weather. We donned our yak-traks and headed out onto the trail. Sheer and total ice. It reminded me of one of those old-fashioned ice skating scenes in Holland, maybe, with winding frozen rivers. Kara and I had to run along the side of the trail. Any step on it would have resulted in both of us on our tails. I know this because the dogs did slip and really fell on theirs. And even the sides of the trail were icy. I had to keep my eyes on my feet the entire time I was running.

(We did stop, though, at the part of the trail that winds right on the edge of the river and just looked out at the sparkling wide swath of ice and the blue-pink sky above it. It felt like some other magical landscape just beyond our reach.)

I initially felt that fear that I always feel when I’m worrying about falling; when I am sure, at any moment, I am going to lose control. But as I ran—as I continued to focus on my feet, and as the unusual silence between Kara and me opened itself up to the sound of ice cracking on the river, the clicking of the dogs’ toes on the frozen ground and the rush of the wind—I began to get into a rhythm. My feet, my breathing, and my head all came together in a sort of running meditation. I was fully in the moment, fully in my body, and not afraid at all.

The first thing Kara said to me when we finished the run was, “That was hard but it was kind of like a meditation and I began to love it…” How amazing that we had shared the same experience without ever communicating during it. Did one of us inspire it in the other? Did the landscape inspire it in both of us?

Whoever it was the helped me transform my fear into joy, I thank you.

I hope you all find a transformative moment this week. I don't have a book recommendation this time around but maybe you can find that moment in a book you are reading, or maybe in your own creative work.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Mining the Darkness

I wanted to dove-tail a bit on Tam’s post last week—the weight of the kinds of darkness she described have been tangibly with me these past days despite the extraordinarily lovely weather we have been savoring for most of January here in the Bay Area (many of us feel guilty about enjoying it so much when a great deal of the Northern Hemisphere is steeped in dreariness. Plus we need the rain. Still, it’s hard not to look out the window each morning and cheer; Hooray! Sunshine and blue skies again!)

Yes, light does offer a sense of possibility, of curiosity, of hope and we, as human beings, are drawn to it, even long for it. We wait through the darkest hour for the break of dawn. We feel nourished by light’s myriad of forms and many relative states from sunshine to candle light, from the light promised in the word enlightenment to a lightness of spirit. It also refers to a sense of humor—of not taking ourselves quite so seriously all of the time. Which can be a very good thing, especially when you’re a writer approaching another revision with trepidation. Lighten up! The worst you can do is make a mess!

I have been wondering, then, why I so often find myself drawn to darkness: the darker stories, dark humor, themes of darkness, images that suggest a dark undertone? Perhaps because I move in a landscape filled with light, I sometimes long for the darkness—the yang in the yin. But really, I believe it’s because where light holds possibility, curiosity and hope, darkness cradles mystery, suspense, the unknown. Darkness holds a treasure-trove of riches—secrets live in the shadows, spirits suggest themselves in cool unlit spaces; neither can survive in bright daylight. And transformation most often happens in darkness.

A few days ago, I found myself at SF MOMA, drawn by an image in the newspaper, a photograph by the late Francesca Woodman—a mysterious self-portrait of the artist disappearing between the fireplace mantle and the wall.

The show spans the short life-time of her work, from a teen until she died at age twenty-two. Even if you didn’t know that she had jumped to her death from a Manhattan loft window, you sense that this precocious artist had one foot in another world. Her images are haunted, filled with mystery, mesmerizing. Many defy gravity, evoking a sense of slipping away. Others suggest a melding of the elements. All are infused with a melancholy sense of longing and loneliness that I found recognizable and deeply moving.

As I left the museum and walked back toward my car through the dappled light of the Yerba Buena gardens, I felt changed by the experience. I realized that not only had I been longing for this taste of darkness, but that it needed a stronger presence in the story I have been working on—my story lacked some of the necessary darker tones to balance out the light. Without proper shading, there is no definition, no contrast. Darkness is a rich source of tension, an essential element in all art forms. Without it, we risk a kind of overexposed blindness.

So my assignment over the next few weeks is to seek out pockets of darkness hiding in my story and to mine them for the mysteries and secrets that they horde. 


Thursday, January 12, 2012

In Darkness and In Light

Winter in Vermont is dark. My alarm wakes me up at 5:50 in the morning, and my 4 year old daughter (who has often managed, at some point, to crawl into bed with me) opens her eyes and says, “But it is still night.” And I can’t help but agree with her. It is pitch black outside, and every cell in my body wants to fold back in on itself and sleep.

On many days, it doesn’t get much better even when the sun finally (and technically) comes up. The clouds cover the sky with a dark grey curtain. Even the air seems dark, like you are walking behind the lenses of an enormous pair of sunglasses.

The landscape of darkness is fatiguing. In its vast and seemingly endless sameness—no visible contours, no rises and falls, no shades of color—it is tough to find a sense of possibility. Of curiosity. Of hope.

But of course darkness—like all things—is relative. Vermont may be dark, in my opinion, but I don’t live in the…oh…Arctic Circle, for example, where it is dark for months at a time, and I haven’t been buried beneath the steel and plaster and wood of a hospital that has fallen in an earthquake.

Uh, what?

In Darkness, by Nick Lake, is about just this. A young Haitian boy is trapped beneath the ruins of a hospital after an earthquake. Darkness surrounds him so thoroughly that he can’t tell if his eyes are opened or closed. He is trapped and hurt and unsure whether he will ever be rescued, and it is from this unimaginable place that he tells his confessional story—how he ended up in the hospital, what life is like in brutal Site Soley, and what led him to do the violent things he did—it is also from this out-of-reality place that his life becomes entwined with the life of the revolutionary slave-turned leader Toussaint L’Ouverture, who himself, in the end, wound up in a small, dark, trapped space.

The story of these two—one present day boy and one historical man—is tough to read. Every page is full of pain and despair, lives on the edge of destruction, blood and bones and a relentless, haunting, eye-opening commentary on the world in which we live. Talk about no sense of possibility, or curiosity, or hope. And yet—well, I won’t say. You’ll just have to read the book.

But, what I will say is that this book gently guided me back to the truth about darkness. If there is darkness, there is light. Somewhere. Coming soon. Or just a hint is already visible. Over there. And there. And, look, way over there. Just this morning, I picked up my daughter in my arms and pointed out the kitchen winter at a streak of pink light emerging from the darkness of the early morning. It was gorgeous. It was hope.

Happy New Year.  May it be filled with light.


Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Good Guide

There is a walking meditation I do almost everyday; it begins a block or two into my morning walk. My footsteps keep time with the rhythm of the words as I start with, “Bless this day for me and mine, Great Spirit, Radiant Light of The Universe, Mother of us all, Father of us all, grant me grace.”

There are many parts of this meditation, but the central focus is gratitude—giving thanks for the many, many blessings I have in my life; family, friends, the companionship of animals, health. The teachers and guides, past, present and future who help and have helped me navigate the sometimes rocky shores; without their help, I surely would have lost my way time and time again. Their lessons come in many forms, from hand holding over the long voyage of a big project to simply handing me a book and saying, “Here, read this.”

One such book suggested to me recently was Frank Cottrell Boyce’s THE UNFORGOTTEN COAT, a story not only sweetly charming and highly enjoyable, but thought provoking and meaningful. Two brothers from Mongolia dropped into the foreign world of Liverpool assign Julie, the narrator in Year Six, as their official Good Guide, to show them around their New World and to protect them from the demon they believe is trying to make them vanish. The concept of a Good Guide struck me as an excellent one and set me to thinking in detail about all of the Good Guides I have had in my life; Bishop John who led our questing youth group on numerous backpack trips in the Cascade Mountains when I was a teenager, Carolee Davis who folded me into her life and guided me with her friendship, the amazing mentors at Vermont College who helped me start down the path to being the writer I continually strive to be, the incredible writers in my writing community who teach me patience, courage and tenacity every day, who remind me I am a writer, who help keep me from vanishing. For it’s easy to feel yourself vanishing when you lose faith in or forget who you are.

The story also made me think about my own opportunities to be a Good Guide, as teacher, parent, friend. I have very big shoes to fill and I’m not sure I can ever completely live up to the excellent guidance I have been blessed with, but it feels like it’s a good goal to start out the New Year. We can all be Good Guides, whether it be taking the time to listen to a neighbor’s worries, giving directions to a lost tourist or asking a student the right questions that will help her discover the truths in her own story.  

And as Julie learns in THE UNFORGOTTEN COAT, being a Good Guide can change the way you see your own familiar world, it can give you a new appreciation for what you take for granted.

So, Happy New Year from one aspiring Good Guide to all of you who have inspired me.