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.

Friday, November 28, 2014

So Much to Be Grateful For~

In this week of giving thanks, it’s hard for me to know where to even start counting the myriad of blessings, the embarrassment of riches in my life~my lovely and expanding family, my dear friends who are also family, my animal companions, good health, good wine, the incredible wealth of locally grown food, my house, my city, the abundance of creature comforts I am lucky enough to enjoy. It goes on and on and on.

I also have deep gratitude for my community of writers and readers, those who share my love of stories and books.

Here is a poem by one of my favorite poets about one of my favorite things:


She is holding the book close to her body,
carrying it home on the cracked sidewalk,
down the tangled hill.
If a dog runs at her again, she will use the book as a shield.

She looked hard among the long lines
of books to find this one.
When they start talking about money,
when the day contains such long and hot places,
she will go inside.
An orange bed is waiting.
Story without corners.
She will have two families.
They will eat at different hours.

She is carrying a book past the fire station
and the five and dime.

What this town has not given her
the book will provide; a sheep,
a wilderness of new solutions.
The book has already lived through its troubles.
The book has a calm cover, a straight spine.

When the step returns to itself,
as the best place for sitting,
and the old men up and down the street
are latching their clippers,

she will not be alone.
She will have a book to open
and open and open.
Her life starts here.
-- Naomi Shihab Nye

Take Good Care,


Thursday, November 20, 2014

New Orleans Landscape

I spend the last 3 days in New Orleans, getting my feet on the exact ground where Henry and Zavion, the two main characters in my middle grade novel, Another Kind of Hurricane, place their feet. Both of them walk very specific streets, and I was able to navigate the same ones, replicating their journeys.

Before this week, I had certainly imagined those journeys.  I researched them like crazy, pouring over maps multiple times, and talking with folks in New Orleans who could confirm that, yes, it was possible to turn this corner and walk down that street. I felt like I had done due diligence to the process. I knew, as best I could, where Henry and Zavion trekked as they went on their adventures.

But it another thing, all together, to actually walk in their footsteps.

Boy oh boy, does it matter…getting your body into the landscape you are trying to describe. It's not always possible, but when you can do it, it is amazing.  And not surprisingly, the details that come from experiencing something first hand are gifts. 

For instance, the wind. 

The approximate location of the Salvation Army
The grocery store

I walked from where I have placed the Salvation Army in my story, to where I have placed a small grocery store. 

These streets are right near the Mississippi River. The wind comes off of the river and, depending on whether you are walking perpendicular to it, or parallel, it whips harsh and sharp…or not.  And even when you walk a few blocks in from the river, you can feel it there. The expanse of it.  The abruptness of the land ending and this enormous body of water beginning.  The cramped feeling of narrow streets.

There are details, too, that are much harder to articulate.  A feeling on a street, or the sense of history that lies thick in walls and sidewalks.  The energy of a place.  The ways a landscape holds stories.  Layers and layers of stories.

Then, of course, the idea is to translate these details to the page. To add our story to those others. We do our best, right?

With gratitude,

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Landscape of Scents and Memory Reposted from September 2012

I have been spending a lot of time lately thinking about smells. Like the familiar smells around the house that wrap around me as I go about my interior day; ginger peach tea, warm toast, ripe bananas, the lanolin in the wool rugs that hang on the wall, oiled wood, pear slices, sunlight through the linen drapes, warm cat, damp dog, a glass of wine, Dr. Brommer’s Peppermint Castile Soap, a closet full of shoes, feather pillows on a cool autumn evening. These are the smells of home, of comfort, familiarity, safety. Calming smells. Secure smells.

In the midst of all this smelling, a link in Tami Lewis Brown’s recent Through The Tollbooth blogpost “Writing A Book That Stinks Or How To Make Scents of Great Writing” led me to Kate McLean, a graphic designer who makes exquisite and evocative sensory maps of towns and specifically what she describes as, “Smell maps as cartographic portraits of sensory perception in the urban environment.”

McLean’s maps and research have inspired me to the point of obsession with making note and keeping track of the myriad of smells in my neighborhood. I have started a map. Well, a list that will soon become a map…

So, today, the first things that hit me when I walked out the door were the smell of salt water, a little fishy, wafting up from the Bay, spliced with burnt chocolate that is actually coffee roasting at Graffeo Coffee three blocks away. Add to that the astringent smell of dry leaves in the gutter. Other marks along the way included wet slate and strong detergent from the scrubbed down entry way of the apartment building down the street, fresh house paint, mown grass at Michelangelo park, dog piddle at most every street tree, the sharp metallic smell of cable turning in the cable car tracks, tomatoes at the corner market, warm sugar from Victoria Bakery, chlorine from the North Beach pool, lavender at the bocce ball court, rosemary from the potted topiaries in front of the Bohemian Hotel. My canine companion, Emma, picked up other smells; she checked her pmial at every tree trunk, trash can and building corner, while always keeping a nose out for forbidden street snacks—cracker crumbs, pizza crust, apple cores, spilled chow fun.

And after Tam’s blogpost last week on how different the world can be at different times of day, I am more keenly aware of the changing smells from morning to afternoon to night.

It was some years ago, when one of my writing teachers had me do a writing exercise using smell to try to access some of my elusive childhood memories, that I discover the incredible power of smell to evoke not only memory but the emotional content of memory. I later learned that scientists, psychologists, poets, novelists and perfumers have long made the indisputable correlation between the sense of smell, memory and emotion.  More than the other senses, it is the sense of smell that instantly conjures up specific memory of place, atmosphere and potent emotion.

For me, the scent of warm sun on a bramble of blackberries immediately transports me back to an afternoon when I was ten years old, standing at the end of a gravel cul-de-sac, wind rattling the leaves in the poplar trees, a September sun low in the sky, worrying that my best friend had a new best friend and that I would have to walk to school by myself now. To this day, blackberry leaves hold the melancholy scent of change and loss, loneliness and exclusion.

The musty smell inside an old book transports me to Shakespeare and Company in Paris in my early twenties; I had a cold, it was raining and there was a huge long-haired tabby dozing on the counter. For me this old book smell still conveys the feeling of safety and refuge, so far away from home.

The smell of wood smoke, damp stone and seawater will catapult me to a beach on the Olympic Peninsula where I was camping with my parents and sister, bringing along the other senses—the sound of the ocean waves rolling and crunching stone on stone, the taste of sticky sweet marshmallow on a willow stick, campfire flames dancing high, sparks popping and jumping in the black sky, the pilled inside of my sweatshirt pouch. The emotion it evokes is a sense of connection with family bound by the experience of nature—a strong sense of belonging.

When I write, I often call on the sense of smell to help me get to an emotion that’s hard to pin down. Need happy? Try thinking of a moment when you were happy and sniff around the memory—is that cake and lemonade, the rubbery smell of balloons, the distinct scent of stretched out crepe paper? Once you can smell it, can you feel it? How about scared? Try scorched pumpkin, damp earth and the glue smell from the inside of a Halloween mask.

What smells evoke vivid memories for you? Or is it the other way around—how do your memories smell?

Take Good Care,


Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Importance of Shadow

This past week, I've been especially aware of the suns daily journey tracing a lower arc in the sky, creating lengthening shadows and shorter days. There is a bit of melancholy surrounding this letting go of the light and spending more and more time in shadow and darkness. These thoughts have reminded me of a post I wrote about this same time three years ago on the importance of shadow:

In Erin Bow’s marvelous and magical Young Adult novel, PLAIN KATE, young Kate sells her shadow to a sorcerer in exchange for the means to escape the town bent on destroying her, only to find that life without a shadow is even more dangerous. It turns out in Kate’s world, owning a shadow is essential to staying alive—it is what separates the living from the dead.

I’ve started noticing shadows a lot more when I’m out wandering. The shadow of a leafing plum tree with the dappled movement of foliage dancing above the slanted trunk. The triangular shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid cast at sunset against a nearby skyscraper. The shadows of clouds traveling across the Bay like amorphous whales. My own shadow growing and shrinking and growing again as the hours of the day pass. Which reminds me of a story I once heard about a small boy, who, when his aunt commented on how big he had gotten, answered with, “Oh, but I’m much bigger than this!” 

I love the particular silence of shadows and the fact that they exist but leave no permanent mark, have no capacity for memory. Shadows cast by moonlight, by streetlight, are the most mysterious. And don’t forget that we sleep in the earth’s shadow, more commonly known as night. 

When I first started to seriously study drawing and learned the essence of shadow for creating an impression of realism, I felt like a window opened. I began looking at everything completely differently. Facial features suddenly rearranged themselves into tonal patterns of light and dark. Shadow is what gives a solid form dimension—it grounds an object or a person to the earth. Without it, we visually float.

Psychologists talk about our shadow selves—the interior shadow where we conceal the darker parts of our personalities. Often these shadows are not the aspects of ourselves that we’re especially proud of. They are the flaws we strive to overcome. But try creating a fictional character without them, and what you have is an unrealistic, one-dimensional character. It turns out, even fictional characters need shadows to bring them to life.

We do want to thank all of the people who stopped by this past week to read and comment on Jennifer Wolf Kam's interview, talking about her debut YA novel Devon Rhodes is Dead. Emma the Sheltie has picked a winner from names written on balls of paper scattered around the room and...drum roll please!...the winner is Sarah Tomp! Congratulations Sarah!

Take Good Care,