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, August 30, 2012

The Landscape of My Kitchen Window

One of the writing exercises I use to get to know my characters and give to my writing students when we’re working on character development, is an interview where you ask your character all sorts of nosey questions, but my favorite question is “what’s in your pocket?” It can also be framed as: what’s in your backpack, what’s in your purse, what’s in that cigar box under your bed, or what’s on your windowsill? I find this a very telling investigation. I think you can guess a lot about a person, a character, yourself, by not only the practical things carried or stored, but by the less ‘useful’ items chosen to keep close.

Even as an urban dweller, my pockets always have pebbles, seashells, seed pods, feathers—treasures from nature that ground me and remind me who I am, where I’ve been and some of what I love. From time to time, my purse gets so heavy, it feels like it’s full of stones—because it is. When the weight becomes unbearable, I sort through, chose one or two to keep and return the others to the park, the beach, a garden. The keepers go in a pot on my kitchen windowsill along with the other items that have earned this distinguished place of honor. Besides my writing desk, my little kitchen window gets more face time than nearly any other interior view—it’s where I stand to wash and slice fruits and vegetables, fill the tea kettle, trim and feed house plants, sip a cool glass of water after a long walk.

Outside the window, I look at the paper bark trees that line the street, then into my neighbor’s garden, and behind, up to Russian Hill, to buildings beyond buildings. A flock of parrots comes screeching by like a gang of squeaky-break bicycles as a hawk slowly circles above considering its next meal. These are all pieces of my daily exterior landscape.

But inside, the things that line my sill are intimate reminders of parts of me I do not want to lose: a jar of shells and stones; a vase my sister brought me from Czechoslovakia decades ago, since cracked, now filled with feathers, my water color brushes and wish bones (saved up for the day I really need them); a fragment of pottery I found in the gutted foundation of the house my great grandparents built on their homestead in Montana in a previous century; sand dollars from the Washington coast; hand carved spoons (because my husband knows I love spoons); a scrawny aloe vera plant (for kitchen cuts and burns); a candle in a slipper (a fairytale token); a small icon of an angel (because everyone needs an angel watching over them); a rubber stamp of a luna moth (because a real luna moth is too fragile to keep on a window sill). Somehow these things help define me; they are symbols, metaphors, talismans. And like the pebbles in my pocket, they keep me, everyday, from floating away.

So, what I’d like to know (because I’m nosey and because I’d like to know you better) is: what’s in your pocket? Or on your windowsill? And why do you have them there?

Take Good Care, 


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Landscape and my nephew

My family and I just spent the last two weeks at my parents' farm. We swam, ran on the trails (uphill!), played with goats, horses and chicks (the chicks are ours, by the way, and we brought them to the farm in a tupperware on my lap in the jam-packed car...ask me about THAT journey sometime!), and generally had a lovely, relaxing time.

My sister's family lives across the street from the farm, so along with spending time with my folks, we also spent time with my niece and nephew. My nephew is a tough kid. He needs a lot of action; he seems to need to create a lot of action, and if he can't find a positive long-term outlet for that need---like playing a game of baseball or cleaning out his guinea pig cage---he resorts to lots of little, needling actions.  Things like pinching his sister or teasing his cousin or tripping his sister or taunting his cousin. You get the picture. His energy is frenetic. Quick, darting, in to do the job and out again so fast you hardly know what happened.

But...the one place where he is not craving that out in the woods. I have spent the last two months working on an essay about the healing powers of being out in nature, and I got to see this process truly work with my nephew. Life imitating Art imitating Life.  One morning he took me on a four-wheeler ride onto the trails behind his house.  He wanted to show me a view he had recently found. On the way he slowed down to point out the many butterflies perched in the grass and flitting through the air. He slowed the four-wheeler down, yes, but he also slowed down his speech and his breathing (I was sitting behind him with my arms around his waist...I could actually feel this happen) and proceeded to explain butterfly migration to me. We continued on and entered a section of the trail that was lined with pine trees, and again he slowed down to try to articulate how magical the path felt, like the entrance to some fantastical land.  And finally, when we got to the spot with the view, he stopped completely.  We sat together. Quiet. Still. I don't know what my nephew felt, of course, but I felt a sense of connection. To the land, and to him. I felt grounded in that connection. And thus calm. And I really wonder if he did too.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Landscape of Ups And Downs

This morning, I walked out my front door and went down the hill, toward the bay. Then up another hill to get to the little park where I play soccer with my dog. Then up to a winding switchback of stairs that leads up another hill to yet another small hillside park. From there, I headed down two flights of stairs, straight ahead for three blocks, then down, back up and down more stairs to return home.

That’s a lot of hills and stairs.

San Francisco, as everyone knows, is a city of hills. And stairs. There are forty-two hills in San Francisco and more than three hundred and fifty public stairways that make it somewhat easier for people to get up and down these hills. Many of these stairways give access through otherwise impassable retaining walls—without them, you would have to go blocks and blocks out of your way. Some of these stairways are plain, some quaint and charming, some wood, some cement, many are ‘hidden’—visitors need a good guide or guidebook to find these gems. If you’re looking, Adah Bakalinsky has written the epitomic guide, STAIRWAY WALKS IN SAN FRANCISCO.

My own house is at the intersection of three hills; one side slants steeply up, south to Nob Hill, the other rises up to Russian Hill on the west and then down and back up to Telegraph Hill on the east. I cannot leave my house and return without going both up and down; the Macondary Stairs, the Green Street Stairs, The Vallejo Stairs, the Greenwich Stairs, are all part of my daily route. Even fetching the morning paper from the front porch requires going down and back up fifty-two stairs!

I have been thinking a lot about the conversation here at Kissing The Earth over the past few weeks on how our landscapes shape who we are; my lung capacity and leg muscles are both physical testaments to this! I am constantly telling out-of-breath visitors that it gets easier once you earn your ‘hill legs’. But it has also made me wonder if and how hills and stairs might shape character—has the daily up and down helped to prepare me for the ups and downs of life?

I do know that I have grown to be a much more optimistic person over the years that I’ve called San Francisco my home. Could this positive perspective come from knowing, in my body, that a hard climb up is usually followed with the ease of going down—could it be a result of literally walking up and down hills and stairs everyday? Does my daily walking practice inform and remind me that when I’m feeling down, I need to put in the effort to climb back up for a clearer view? I can believe that the landscape of hills and stairs has helped fortify my sense of the ups and downs all being part of the balance of life.

I also think about this in terms of writing (of course, as always), with the first draft as the upward climb (it’s hard work going up!) and then needing to stop and catch my breath at the top of the stairs, while gaining some perspective of the overview, before heading back down in revision. (which can feel more like downhill running than the trudging uphill of first draft work!)

We think of metaphors as being, well…metaphors, not reality. Not to be taken literally. But the good ones hold meaning, truth and at times, a physicality that goes beyond the mere representative.

Talking about hills, here’s a fun, short, colorful video shot in my neighborhood a few years ago:

Take Good Care,

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Landscape as Selfation

I have been thinking a lot about landscape lately. Go figure. But these particular thoughts have been different. And I have been turning them over and over again like a pile of autumn leaves—gathering my thoughts, then jumping into them to see how they fly, then gathering them once again. This in part because I have been given the opportunity to write an essay about landscape and in part because of my recent conversation with Beth Kephart.

Much of what Beth said resonates for me. But especially this: I would suggest that what happens [when we become familiar with a place] relates to a sense of belonging.  When we belong somewhere, we can slow down, take note of receding details, stand there and watch the shadows without having to snatch up the exotica.  Time within a landscape yields a depth of understanding—of the place and of ourselves. Yes! Yes yes yes! I couldn’t agree more—I couldn’t feel the truth of this in my bones more—and I have been wondering why this is true.  I am especially curious about why, out in a landscape we know and love, we are able to gather that greater depth of understanding of ourselves.

My daughter recently reminded me the air we breathe was once inside the leaf of a tree. We inhale as the trees exhale. Such a simple truth, such a simple exchange, and yet—it means everything. It means we are connected.

I feel this connection when I go into my woods, and trek down to my river. I feel my senses—my ears and eyes and nose and skin—open wider and grow stronger. And in that open state, I am able to take in things like a broken egg in a nest, a pattern dug into the bark of a tree, a rock formation, a bee hovering over a flower—those small, amazing details that live in abundance throughout nature. I once spent a morning deciphering the footprints of a red fox along a trail, following it to the river where another fox joined it for a drink, and then back to the trail. By building a relationship with a place and organically allowing my senses to become wildly alive, I am then able to turn my attentions inward, to begin to recognize my own landscape, to take in one tiny detail that is a part of me. My relationship with landscape has been a pathway to my salvation—or my selfation as my husband recently coined. And this, I believe, is why.

We are able to mimic the way we see the details of landscape as we begin to find and name and celebrate the tiny parts of ourselves that make us who we truly are.

I would love to hear how other people find that depth of understanding of themselves…

With thanks and gratitude to you, Beth, and to you all.


Thursday, August 2, 2012

Interview with Beth Kephart

A couple of months ago I was given a list of books to review, as I always am, by my wonderful boss at BookBrowse and I chose Small Damages by Beth Kephart. I was excited to read the book, but by the time I was a few chapters into it, I felt something much more electric than excitement. I felt transported—both out across the ocean to Spain and inside my body into my senses which were popping, buzzing and humming (a Spanish guitar riff…) Small Damages is an intimate, immediate story; filled with breathtakingly drawn characters. One of those characters is landscape. And while it doesn’t have dialogue per se, it does sing and moan and whisper and breathe.

I knew I wanted to interview Beth here, and she couldn’t have been warmer or more enthusiastic about it. It was a complete joy to connect with her. I am thrilled and honored to have Beth Kephart here today.  Welcome Beth!

KTE: Small Damages is so rich in its attention to landscape. It was impossible to NOT feel like I was right there with Kenzie—smelling the saffron, feeling the thick heat, tasting the oranges.  How did you gather and then articulate the details of this landscape?

BK: I am very blessed in that my brother-in-law and his family lived in Seville for years.  I visited a number of times, and often in different seasons.  My relationship to the country changed from tourist to something deeper, for I had the chance to return to favorite places and re-experience them over time.  The cortijo that forms the backdrop to Small Damages is based on the actual cortijo of a man (no longer alive) who raised Spain’s most prized fighting bulls.  He took me out among them one day, in his open jeep.  He let me stand among his horses, his prickly pears, let me stand and look down his long roads.  He spoke English, thankfully, so he answered many questions.

I traveled through southern Spain.  I wrote while I was there.  I took many photographs.  And then I did the kind of research that every writer does, reading the travel diaries of those who knew Spain when my older characters—Estela, Luis, Miguel, and the gypsies—were young.

KTE: What is your personal relationship to Spain?

BK: Spain is where I am very happy.  In addition to my travels there to visit my brother-in-law, I chose Madrid as my honeymoon city.  I’ve always had an interest in the country.  A few years ago we spent many days in Barcelona; I wove some of that into my young adult novel, Nothing but Ghosts.

KTE: You told me that, for you, landscape is a character.  It is for me too. Can you explain that a bit here?  Why is this so?  How do you manifest this belief in your work?

BK: Landscape shapes us.  It defines our legs and lungs as we walk through it.  It shapes the way we see, how we define horizons, what seems impossibly far away and what seems gratifyingly or frighteningly near.  Landscape is proximity, and it is distance.  It is another way of measuring time.  And so, in much of my work—the memoirs (especially my book about marriage and El Salvador), the river book, a YA novel that takes place in Juarez, a YA book that takes place in a garden (and Barcelona and Portugal), another YA novel that takes place in Centennial Philadelphia, and of course Small Damages—I am placing my characters down among very specific places and learning how it shapes them.

KTE: Can you speak more about this shaping process? I wonder what you think about the idea that landscape holds stories. The way a piece of land is, for instance, itself shaped over time (from sheep pasture to forest, for example) and what that means for the people (characters) walking and breathing within it. Do those stories get told?  Or are they felt? It seems to me that landscape taps into some ancient part of us, some part that is connected to what has come before us, and as such it grounds us, or stirs us up. I feel that with Kenzie on the cortijo.  Of course it is tough to separate what she learns from the landscape itself and what she learns from Estela and Esteban as they connect to it…

BK: I am fascinated by changes in place over time.  I like to go all the way back, to molten earth, or to sea-drenched earth.  I read a lot of the naturalists, try to imagine all the ways the earth could have been and what it is and what (a much sadder thought, usually) it will become.  I have been known to stand on the top of a hill, closing my eyes, trying to somehow commune with the wafting ghosts of the past.  I do the same thing in urban locations, for cities are landscapes, too.  Kenzie is connected to the stories southern Spain holds. Estela, Esteban, Miguel, and the gypsies make sure that she is.  Those long dusty roads are not just earth.  They are all the places people went, and all the places they stopped going.

KTE: What does landscape mean for Kenzie?

BK: Southern Spain is, for Kenzie, so many things.  At first it is exile—the place where she is forced to go by a mother who will have nothing to do with her pregnancy.  It is loneliness, it is too much distance, it is everything she doesn’t want.  

But soon southern Spain is teaching her—about other people’s histories and heartaches, about a mysterious young man, about the dreams that are forged in foreign forests, among unusual birds.  Southern Spain releases Kenzie from the myopia of her own troubles.  It gives her perspective, new sun, new distances to travel.  By dislodging Kenzie from her self-centric worries, southern Spain gives her hope and wisdom and, magnificently, color.

KTE: What does landscape, in general, mean for you?

BK: Landscape roots me, and at the same time it surprises me.  I walk the same terrain every afternoon, my neighborhood, and love the familiarity but love, too, the unexpected things (a giant turtle, a snake!).  

KTE: I feel exactly the same thing! I run the same terrain every week, on a river trail near my house, and I can't ever get over the incredible feeling of familiarity and surprise that it always brings me.  There is something powerful about ritual as it relates to landscape.  If you spend enough time SOMEWHERE you both become a part of it and see it anew.  Do you have any other thoughts about that?  Do you feel that this experience (this kind of ritual) is part of the process of coming to know self?  

BK: When you are first entering into a new place, its strangeness is rich and wonderful; that’s when I take the best photographs.  I have a sensual relationship, an ecstatic relationship, an I’ll never capture it all sensation.  But then, in time, something else happens.  I would suggest that what happens relates to a sense of belonging.  When we belong somewhere, we can slow down, take note of receding details, stand there and watch the shadows without having to snatch up the exotica.  Time within a landscape yields a depth of understanding—of the place and of ourselves.  

I travel just to see how the world folds and blends in other places.  Landscape answers so much that is curious in me and about me.  It is the inspiration for my photographs, and for so many books.

KTE: Oh thank you Beth, for all of this!  I could ask you so many more questions on this topic alone, but I will stop here...and offer this instead: a photo montage of images that inspired Small Damages. Beth took the photos (as well as all of the photos here) and her husband played the music. See and listen.

Gratefully yours,

Small Damages, Beth Kephart’s fourteenth book, received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Shelf Awareness and Kirkus and a featured review in the New York Times Book Review. In 2013, Handling the Truth, her book about the making of memoir and its consequences, will be released by Gotham, and in early 2014, Philomel will release a new novel set against the Berlin Wall in 1983.  Her blog, twice nominated as a favorite author blog by the BBAW, can be found here. Beth teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania.