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QUINTESSENCE

Landscape As Character

In the Same Space
 
House, coffeehouses, neighborhood: setting
That I see and where I walk; year after year.
 
I crafted you amid joy and amid sorrows:
Out of so much that happened, out of so many things.
 
And you've been wholly remade into feeling; for me.
 
–– C.P. Cavafy, 1929
 
When it comes to writing, geography––the physical surrounds and locale of our real or fictional story––is more than just placement. Geography is also environment, history, belonging, experience, metaphor. When a writer uses geography as more than part of the setting, or the physical grounding of the story, it is because the landscape the story is set in, or draws from, is a character of the narrative.
 
How is that, you might ask. A character?
 
How does a writer bring the hills, trees, or the wide flooding river into the story as a participant? Can the setting interact or influence our characters? Yes, it can. The poet understands, for example, the way the language of the river may be the language of loss. Or adventure. Or memory. A film might translate a script description of a moor into the brooding moments before a fatal encounter and the unspoken dread of our hero. We become engrossed in a book that is more about the secrets of a mountain than the adventurers who climbed it; or a memoir in which the four timbered walls of a house become a terrifying presence or a psychological mirror. Geography is landscape. From the weather, dwellings or structures, to the seasons at play. Writers turn these nonhuman elements, imagined or drawn from real life, into challenges and setbacks; pathways to feelings and decisions their characters face. The story of a final trip back home may begin with turning onto that familiar curve of the road, catching a glimpse of the faded paint on the door, the For Sale sign in the yard. The sea is as much a combatant or ally to the captain as the wind or the whale or the unreliable first mate.
 
As readers we understand more about characters from their relationship to their environment than we might perhaps garner from only their physical description. The farmer stands in the dry field in the dusty wind, legs splayed and arms crossed, searching the sky for a rain cloud. The rain falls but evaporates before it hits the thirsty earth. What do we feel if in desperation he waters a limp seedling with the sweat of his neckerchief?  What if he silently turns his back and walks away? The young girl on a stoop on the garbage-strewn street, drawing. What changes if we place this same girl, carrying a white fur muff, on a train traveling away from home, rocketing through a strange countryside? What if we place her instead at dusk in the kitchen of her grandparents' cottage and the kettle is whistling? Setting is all these details and geography is the landscape of these details. Geography in writing has a great pull on both the reader's memory and sentiment, and writers use this to bring vibrancy to their stories. Even a story that occurs in a single room, a cell over the course of a few hours, has geography. As readers we imagine everything beyond the cell that we do not see, we experience in this harrowing landscape of white walls all the emotions the character does.
 
When I began writing So Long As We're Together, I knew there were going to be three important landscapes in my story: a ramshackle lake cabin in the northern woods, a solitary late-night studio, and the stage––the performance venue of music. I felt all three landscapes had distinct qualities that uniquely impacted my singing twin sisters. These landscapes were vessels, like Greek amphora of old, gathering history, memory, and desire. I knew these landscapes would interact and interweave with the main characters, carrying voices of the past. Particularly their absent mother and a difficult history that was anything but forgotten. At one point I thought I might name the novel after the cabin, so significant was its role in the story. I soon understood it was the relationship between the sisters that framed everything, from the first night of rain in Seattle to the last sunset in northern Idaho. So Long As We're Together is a narrative of the ways we are and are not our shared experience and history. And ultimately, this is the landscape in which Andi and Marley find their footing.
 

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The Music in Narrative

 

Alone he is a solo for piano that never comes to an end,

a small plane that keeps flying away from the earth.

He is the last line of a poem that continues off the page

and down to a river to drag there in the cool flow,

 

questioning the still pools with its silver hook.

 

––from "Going Out for Cigarettes," Billy Collins
 
This is the first post in a series of personal "notes from the author" as we head toward the publication of my newest novel, SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER, from Black Opal Books in September of this year. In my books I have frequently written about artists and the drive to produce creative work. A confluence of passion and obsession, and at times sacrifice, that cuts deep to the bone and may be as ruinous as it is successful. In previous novels I have written about sculptors (Loose Threads), and classical cellists and photographers (Exposures). In the process of writing each book I learned something about our fierce and brilliant, if fragile, humanity. In my new novel I delve into the performance world of country music, telling the story of the Stone twins, Andi and Marley Stone, and their rise from the singing kid stars on collapsible fairground stages across the west to complex seasoned performers taking the stage at the Country Music Awards.

 

In researching this book, I delved into the professional and technical aspects of songwriting and vocal performance, the thrill and disappointments of a life on stage, and the ways music like a balm may bring healing to the human heart. I held an image in my mind of an out-of-luck family living on the road; of an eccentric and erratic single mother hellbent to survive. Donna Stone lived on caffeine, her wits, and sheer ambition. She relentlessly promoted the musical talent of her girls –– yet Donna would stop at nothing to protect her daughters from harm. This idea grew to become a story of the bond between sisters, a mother's fierce love, and the dark power of secrets.

 

A story of love and what might break it.

 

In my novel, writing and composing country music lyrics anchor the life of one sister in particular. The synergy––even the synesthesia between words and music––and the transformational power of lyric vocals was very much on my mind as I developed the characters of Andi and Marley Stone. 

 

A few months back, as some of you may have read, I spoke with New York Times bestselling novelist Caroline Leavitt –– This is You, Cruel Beautiful World –– on her blog about SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER, exploring the interconnected power of music and writing. [Link: carolineleavittville.blogspot.com/Burgess]  Here is what I wrote about music and writing:
 
Debussy was said to have painted music, Sibelius heard compositions as a symphony of color. As I worked on my country music novel, SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER, I realized I was beginning to hear unspoken words within the music, not just the music of words. Language has always possessed musicality—and naturally and effortlessly transforms into the lyric, the song—but for me it was a unique experience to think about songwriting, melody, and a novel's narrative all from the point of view of a musician. What story does a line of notes tell when there are as yet no lyrics, when the song says nothing at all?
 
When words do partner with a melody there is a dance between meaning and feeling. We understand words, however we feel music. What becomes important? What is said, or left unsaid? Conveyed through language or simply through the notes of the song? 
 
I determined to make a deliberate effort in my narrative to infuse in the landscape, scenes, and in dialog, echoes of the musical performances of my country music duo, Marley and Andi Stone. I felt the twin sisters' music was as much a character in their story as the lake in the novel, or Donna, their mother. That for some characters, what they seek speaks their piece in the world.  Marley leaves heartbreak at the keyboard, finds hope in an inspired melody. Andi defines a world for herself by singing it into being. Donna pushes back a hard and disappointing life listening to the jubilation in the notes and verses of others. I considered the novel's narrative as a musical composition between all the parts of the story and an original melody took root in the pages, from the opening note to the last.
 
Many writers read their work aloud in draft to catch a lagging clause or repetitive word, dull sections, or run-on sentences. I read this entire novel aloud, by scene and section, and in a series of chapters at a time. Multiple times. Listening to the narrative was quite literal for me. I paced my small study as I read, attuned to the music in the words. The lake country as well as country music defined the Stone girls and I listened for that thread on every page. My hope is that when you read this novel, it will sing for you too.

 

I'm so looking forward to sharing this novel with you. Until then, here's to that "last line of a poem that continues off the page." 

 

May the music of your own words carry you through. 

 


 

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Last Year's Words

"Solitude" by David Lorenz Winston

 

For last year's words belong to last year's language. And next year's words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.

 

- T. S. Eliot, "Little Giddings," THE FOUR QUARTETS

 

This quote from T.S. Eliot is my way of marking the end of the old year and welcoming in the new. In three beautiful sentences, Eliot expresses the truth about why we must change with the passage of time. Not only leave a part of ourselves behind in the history of the year ended, but define a new perspective for ourselves going forward. Or at least try to, else find ourselves mired in the past, chewing over the husks of old experiences, the things shelved and ended. Perhaps that is the wisdom Eliot wishes to impart: Be fresh. Live forward. The past has put its flame out. In ending, embrace a beginning.

 

Endings are concrete. Beginnings are powerful. Most of us feel the New Year is a time for breaking old patterns and for making fresh resolutions: to set new and better goals for ourselves. Perhaps this sense of opportunity is why we take pen to paper and reflect on what the old year wrought. What we wish to keep going forward, and what is essential to release and finish. There are burning bowl ceremonies and resolution lists, pledges and secret vows, pages tossed in the fire, so intense is our desire to begin anew. A new language, a new voice. We seek a different context and expression for ourselves.

  

What do we need? Confidence and well being light the fires of personal energy. Brianna Wiest wrote a very cognizant essay for Thought Catalog on this topic, "Next Year Let Go of the People Who Aren't Ready to Love You." [ https://thoughtcatalog.com/brianna-wiest/2018/12/next-year-let-go-of-the-people-who-arent-ready-to-love-you/ ] Follow the link and read for yourself what Brianna has to say. It's a short essay, to the point. Brianna writes, What you give time to is what will define your existence. She adds, "...the foremost thing you can do for your life and yourself and everyone you know is to protect your energy more fiercely than anything else." And what is good energy but positive mindset and confidence? A fresh language and a strong voice rising from within; rising stronger from what has come before. We learn by living. We become happier by acting on what we learn. Show up for you.

 

In the past I have shared here the resolutions or changes I seek to embrace in a given New Year. Everything from changing specific habits to expressing grand hopes for the world. But this year my thoughts are simple:

 

To move toward freedom of spirit and joy

To live in an attitude of gratitude

To limit the things that dim my optimism and embrace the things that fill my heart

 

Happy New Year. Please enjoy this beautiful image by David Lorenz Winston beside Eliot's poetry. You deserve the beautiful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Notes in the Margins: Recipes and Love

A cookbook story. Every family has a beloved cookbook. A family collection of recipes that over time has become a much loved, stained, dog-eared treasure. Ours is Fannie Farmer, the 1980 edition. My daughter's late father taught himself to cook from it (with handwritten annotated notes in pencil throughout, such as "Never make this!"), and he taught our girl to cook with it. Our daughter then made the recipes just hers with inspired touches like the addition of Madagascar-Bourbon Vanilla to this delicious banana bread we made. This beloved cookbook was her wedding gift in late October this year. This book, and 38 years of family cooking.

 

From our hearts to bless theirs. A new family. New traditions, and a few of the old.

 

Remembering kitchens, I hope you enjoy this beautiful poem by Jeanne Marie Beaumont:

 

WHEN I AM IN THE KITCHEN

I think about the past. I empty the ice-cube trays
crack crack cracking like bones, and I think
of decades of ice cubes and of John Cheever,
of Anne Sexton making cocktails, of decades
of cocktail parties, and it feels suddenly far
too lonely at my counter. Although I have on hooks
nearby the embroidered apron of my friend's
grandmother and one my mother made for me
for Christmas 30 years ago with gingham I had
coveted through my childhood. In my kitchen
I wield my great aunt's sturdy black-handled
soup ladle and spatula, and when I pull out
the drawer, like one in a morgue, I visit
the silverware of my husband's grandparents.
We never met, but I place this in my mouth
every day and keep it polished out of duty.
In the cabinets I find my godmother's
teapot, my mother's Cambridge glass goblets,
my mother-in-law's Franciscan plates, and here
is the cutting board my first husband parqueted
and two potholders I wove in grade school.

 

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IN THE CENTER OF IT


ONE LIFE TO LIVE
by Billy Collins

 

This is the only life I have, this one in my head,
the one that travels along the surface of my body
singing the low voltage song of the ego,

the one that feels like a ball between my ears
sometimes, and other times feels absolutely galactic,

the life that my feet carry around like two blind
scholars working together on a troublesome manuscript.

This is the only life I have, and I am standing
dead in the center of it like a man doing a rope trick
in a rodeo, passing the lasso over his body,
smiling inside a twirling of ovals and ellipses.

This is the only life I have and I never step out of it
except to follow a character down the alleys of a novel
or when love makes me want to remove my clothes
and sail classical records off a cliff.

Otherwise you can always find me within this hoop of
myself,
the rope flying around me, moving up to encircle my head
like the equator or a halo or a zero.


What a dazzling sketch of imagery. The mundane wrestling the extraordinary. What are we breaking, what are we taming? Our wants, our transgressions? Collins's poem breaks open a nugget of strange truth. To be human is both small and "absolutely galactic." Days and thoughts loop in continuous gyration. As if this one life were a tilting, dizzying ticket to ride.

 

We soon will end one year and begin another and I imagine that lasso tossed through time, whirling, whirling, circling over our heads. Is this the the year of mastery? Will the lasso sail around with ease? What is past is finished, and what is yet to come a thing of both hope and dream. 

 

I wish for you in this new year the deep belly joy of belting out your own song. Let life be that tune you hum in your head, the beat that carries you along. The sweet spot of this one life.

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Savory Lessons

 

 

AND…TIS THE SEASON OF FEASTS & CELEBRATIONS!! To kick off the season here is a recipe for a holiday family favorite, an English-inspired savory cranberry conserve. This cranberry conserve is a robust recipe that balances sweet and tart (and can be made into a dessert tart if you wish). This conserve is so popular in lieu of a standard cranberry sauce in my clan that it is often given as a gift, the beautiful conserve spooned into a festive jar and decorated with a bow on top.

 

THE SILVER PALATE GOOD TIMES COOKBOOK (1984):
CRANBERRY CONSERVE


1 thin-skinned orange (or two clementines*), seeds removed, cut into eights
1 pound fresh cranberries
1/2 cup dried currants
2 cups packed dark brown sugar
1 1/2 cups raspberry vinegar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

 

* The substitution of clementines is my edit to the recipe.

 

1. Process the orange in a food processor until coarsely chopped.


2. Combine the chopped orange with all the remaining ingredients except the walnuts in a heavy saucepan. Simmer, uncovered, until all the cranberries have popped open, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the walnuts.


3. After cooling, pack conserve not immediately for serving into airtight containers and freeze, or refrigerate for up to two weeks.

 

Makes 6 half pints.

  

I usually double this recipe and cook in one large heavy saucepan; the simmer time is closer to 30 minutes in that case. The vinegar taste will be too intense if you use a raspberry balsamic, so be sure to look for the raspberry vinegar. (Silver Palate now produces a bottled raspberry vinegar you can find in most gourmet grocery stores around the holidays. A doubled recipe will use most of three bottles.) After simmering, I use a wooden spoon to pop open any remaining stubborn cranberries against the side of the pan. A savory tart taste can be shifted toward the sweet with the addition of slightly more brown sugar and currants, but everyone seems to love it quite bold and the chutney-like consistency and tartness of the blend as is.

 

Served best with one or two of Mr. Snell's fabulous "life lessons." Also delicious on turkey sandwiches and on toasted bagels with a cream cheese spread. Hope you love it!  

 

 

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Carried You Everywhere


Today I remember an extraordinary poet, Galway Kinnell. This Irish-American poet's work was awarded both a Pulitzer (for "Selected Poems," 1983) and an American Book Award. An ardent individualist, Kinnell stood apart from his peers and the literary influences of the Twentieth century. He immersed himself in the gritty issues of his day and was a passionate advocate for freedom of expression. A poet of almost photographic sensitivity, his words pulse with an exuberant love of language, a lyrical style distinctly his own and possessing a rare and gorgeous musicality.

 

RUINS UNDER THE STARS
by Galway Kinnell


1

All day under acrobat
Swallows I have sat, beside ruins
Of a plank house sunk to its windows
In burdock and raspberry canes,
The roof dropped, the foundation broken in,
Nothing left perfect but the axe-marks on the beams.

A paper in a cupboard talks about "Mugwumps",
In a V-letter a farmboy in the Marines has "tasted battle…"
The apples are pure acid on the tangle of boughs
The pasture has gone to popple and bush.
Here on this perch of ruins
I listen for the crunch of the porcupines.

 

 2

Overhead the skull-hill rises
Crossed on top by the stunted apple.
Infinitely beyond it, older than love or guilt,
Lie the stars ready to jump and sprinkle out of space.

Every night under the millions of stars
An owl dies or a snake sloughs its skin,
But what if a man feels the dark
Homesickness for the inconceivable realm?

 

 3

Sometimes I see them,
The south-going Canada geese,
At evening, coming down
In pink light, over the pond, in great,
Loose, always dissolving V's-
I go out into the field,
Amazed and moved, and listen
To the cold, lonely yelping
Of those tranced bodies in the sky,
Until I feel on the point
Of breaking to a sacred, bloodier speech.

 

 4

This morning I watched
Milton Norway's sky blue Ford
Dragging its ass down the dirt road
On the other side of the valley.

Later, off in the woods, I heard
A chainsaw agonizing across the top of some stump
A while ago the tracks of a little, snowy,
SAC bomber went crawling across heaven.

What of that little hairstreak
That was flopping and batting about
Deep in the goldenrod,
Did she not know, either, where she was going?

 

 5

Just now I had a funny sensation

As if some angel, or winged star,
Had been perched nearby watching, maybe speaking,
I whirled, and in the chokecherry bush
There was a twig just ceasing to tremble.

Now the bats come spelling the swallows,
In the smoking heap of old antiques
The porcupine-crackle starts up again,
The bone-saw, the pure music of our sphere,
And up there the old stars rustling and whispering.

 

 

The imperceptible balance of image with emotion. Never too much, always exactly enough. Poet, translator, essayist, teacher. Galway Kinnell wrote about life, death, and the fragility of beauty. His obituary in the New York Times (October 29, 2014) concluded, "Through it all, he held that it was the job of poets to bear witness," ending on these words of the poet, ''To me,' he said, 'poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.'"

 

I invite you to explore the wrok of the late Galway Kinnell. To close, from "Trust the Hours (Wait)":

 

Wait, for now.
Distrust everything, if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven't they
carried you everywhere, up to now?

 

 

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The Last Passerby

ODE AND ELEGY OF THE STREETS

by C.P. Cavafy

 

The footfalls of the first passerby;

the first peddler's lively shouting;

the first windows opening,

the first door--these are the song

of the streets in the morning.

 

The steps of the last passerby;

the last of the peddlers shouting;

the doors and windows shutting--

are the elegiac sound

of the streets in the evening.

 

I am recently back from travel. Hiking and exploring in the Alps of Switzerland and the lakes of northern Italy. There is a rhythm to a faraway journey. First the excitement of planning the journey, then the taking leave and letting go. There is disorientation, a solitude, the opening of heart and mind. Finally, the thoughtful return. In chapters of travel we lose and find and redefine ourselves, along with our sense of the world we live in.

 

Travel gives us our definition of home. In strangeness are found the outlines of self and belonging. Where we are and where we are not. Yet what lingers of our explorations resets the familiar. We are somehow bigger in spirit, more generous, less partisan about our niche in place and time. We have come to know something of the larger world, the connected community of peoples and histories, and the unturned stones and sweet curiosities still to discover. 

 

When I was young, I traveled with my family in the military life of my father's career. I also traveled in books, reading voraciously across history and geography. In my early career I explored every corner of the planet, curious to know it all. To understand new things and to see the places I had only read of in books come to colorful life. Their grandeur, their ruin, their romance. The worn footprints of human history. The bold direction of change.

 

I travel now to understand myself and humanity. Pursuing what connects us to this earth and to each other. Translating the past. How will we engage with the future and our collective presence in the here and now? The Alexandrian Greek poet C. P. Cavafy (1963-1933) was himself a lifelong traveler. His poems of the Mediterranean and its history lead us from fabled Ithaca into the dusty streets of late afternoon in the medina. If you have not read much of Cavafy's work, I encourage you to do so. His is a way of seeing and writing about strangers and strangeness, the sensuality of unfamiliar places, and of the inscrutability of history in a way that, like storytelling, becomes the song of a journey.

 

Journeys are our own, very personal, human myth-making. In our curiosity we find our connectedness. In our solitude we make friends with ourselves. In reaching toward the unfamiliar we find home.

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The Ordinary Hours

Only connect.

- E.M. Forster

 

I think, to a poet, the human community is like the community of birds to a bird, singing to each other. Love is one of the reasons we are singing to one another, love of language itself, love of sound, love of singing itself, and love of other birds.
- Sharon Olds

 

Hello friends. The autumnal equinox is almost upon us, that great shifting of light across the world that heralds the dip toward winter here in the northern hemisphere. The equinox is also my birthday, the beginning of my personal new year. A perfect time to take stock, plan and dream, and celebrate another year on this incredible planet. Let us gather in the apples of hard work and sheaves of lessons learned. There's much about life we hurry past and neglect to notice, challenges and accomplishments eclipsed by newer goals and growing to-do lists. Acknowledging the work of the year and the fruits of our labors entails more than just a pause for applause. Giving attention to our efforts consolidates the foundation of goal-setting and confidence. It's good to take a compass reading now and then, don't you agree?

 

There is wry truth in what Helen Frankenthaler once observed, The price for living the life I have - for any serious, devoted person, is that at times one must live alone, or feel alone. So as fall draws us inward, let me remind you not to forget community, your people. Your friends, loved ones, peers. As we work and plan and create, we must remember to balance our focused hours alone with playful and gentle hours together. To give ourselves to others in their time of need, even as they support us in ours.

 

My birthday wish is probably an easy one to guess. I wish for all of us a new year of joy and connection. Faith in ourselves and in others to remember life is not ultimately about success, power, or fame, but about finding, nurturing, and celebrating love. The value of life lies in the meaning we give to the ordinary hours. May they be golden.

 

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The Last Flower

 

The last flower has opened on the stem,

the first two mostly done by now: call home.

 

I slipped my skin

walked off & left myself & left

 

feeling the first snow of the season falling

cold on my face running to catch that downtown bus leving

 

my life behind & abandoned my whole self, was I

a colt or a fresh coal afire with each chain of nerve

 

alive naked & loving the feeling of feeling

my heart beating feeling my blood too feeling

 

- Lightsey Darst, from "Thousands"

 

 

Lightsey Darst's quiet revolutionary poems, THOUSANDS, are written in journal form, in a notation of private thought that rages across the page. The above poem is taken from "Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2012."  A mysterious shift of awareness powers Darst's poem. I am drawn by the element of recovery. As though the shape of some unvoiced loss has only just revealed itself. The line "I walked off & left myself & left" traces the poet's slip from the familiar into the unexpected. Chasing her bus, a first cold snow swirling in her face, Darst surroundings dissolve on a wave of raw sensation. A transformation of presence. As if tasting a bite of watermelon we remember a summer in Kansas, a particular garden bothered by horseflies and dust. 

 

The daily self has met the deeper dreamer. 

 

I thought of this poem today and that opening, The last flower..., noting an unmistakable mark of fall color, of rust, crimson, and dry brown, in the wilderness foliage. Trees standing silent in a stagnant haze of wildfire smoke and heat. No breeze rustles the leaves, there is no murmur of birdsong or insect life. It has been a difficult, burning summer in the Northwest. Yet the turn toward a changing season is unmistakable here. The downshift. Letting go after a fierce season of difficult growth. This transition in seasons feels equally personal. As though I, too, will turn a corner. That I will have "left myself & left," rediscovering what is lost as though new again, experience what is hidden as seen.

 

Autumn can be a rest or a beginning. Perhaps both.

I am ready for my heart beating feeling my blood too feeling. Aren't you?

 

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