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QUINTESSENCE

The Holiday Book Drawing is Here

Hurray! My favorite time of the year ~ The holiday season kicks off with a December THREE BOOK GIVEAWAY DRAWING!

All you have to do for a chance to be one of 5 lucky winners is EMAIL me your name and a mailing address via the Contact link here on my website by DECEMBER 10th. Five randomly selected names will win a holiday book package of my personally autographed novels EXPOSURES, LOOSE THREADS, and the critically acclaimed memoir, THE GEOGRAPHY OF LOVE. Books will be mailed out to winners by December 11th, in time for holiday giving!

Support your local bookstore, and support reading this holiday season. From rare first editions to beautiful antiquarian books, easy for travel e-books, bathtub paperbacks, or perfect for a long trip audiobooks - books are a wonderful gift to last forever in the heart. Best of luck!

Is there a more gentle way to go into the night
than to follow an endless rope of sentences
and then to slip drowsily under the surface of a page...


- from "Reading Myself to Sleep," Billy Collins

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Simple Truth

Some things
you know all your life. They are simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter, and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.

- from "The Simple Truth," Philip Levine

The beauty of love is that it is capable of great patience, tremendous tenacity, it stretches, it attaches, it slowly builds like bone in the new body. It has been a journey, for me, this life. And in the coming...the gestating of new forms of connection and partnership, of family. Evolving in new ways of being, new shapes to the lives we lead. It is the simple truth to say that living is a cycle of ever-becoming. And while neither easy, nor pristinely beautiful, not perfect in process, the becoming is perfect in intent. It is perfect in joy, grounded in the earth, heavens, and self. The human heart is a warrior and a monk. And it speaks a simple truth. Belong.
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Be Your Peace

There is a law in psychology that if you form a picture in your mind of what you would like to be, and you keep and hold that picture long enough, you will soon become exactly as you have been thinking.
- William James

It's been a most interesting few months of late. My husband and I, talking about this next phase of life, both together and individually (he is about to become a grandfather through his oldest son), have invoked that old truism, Life is What You Make of It. It feels important to us both to transform "gateway events" - the celebratory, the sorrowful or unexpected, all that is joyful and generational - into meaningful life choices. To remember that each gate we pass through is an opportunity to chose. And in choosing, we make life.

Certainly one can drift hopeless through the days and life will happen, more accidental than desired. But if you believe as William James, the philosopher (brother to Henry James, the well-known novelist), that we all possess the personal authority to invoke and intend the life we most desire, then why toss on the tides instead?

I've been receiving reader email lately on the seemingly unavoidable stress of the holidays, family life, and work. I'm thinking of all the bits of wisdom I might offer, having grown up in a thrifty, financially-challenged military and then later, single parent family; and, in my own life raising two kids through the sorrows, financial and parenting struggles that losing a co-parent and spouse bring. While mulling these challenges over, I realized the bright star on the horizon through everything, in my mother's life and my own, was a vision of survival. Intention. While there was never any way to know how or why we would get the job done, we both adopted constancy, check and check-mate with life on an almost daily basis. My mother leaned heavily on the practical, and her spiritual faith; I leaned more knowingly into the reality that only one person could make any certain difference and that person was me. I took every shot, walked through every open door, left no card unplayed. And at the end of the day, having done my best, I accepted the universe was in charge of the rest.

Interestingly, a side effects of this habit of holding onto a vision, is the dissolution of personal stress. Daily stress arises in part from the cognitive dissonance between what we expect of ourselves and life, and what we can do, or accept. The gulf between expectation and reality can leave us anxious and dissatisfied, worried. Choose a personal "Joy" vision this season. As your family or in-laws arrive in town, or you travel for the holidays, contemplate how delightful these days might be, how you feel about family and its importance to you, what you can do to Be the peace and joy you desire. Even if only you hold to that beautiful tranquility and love, it will be enough. Peace rubs off on others, it always does.

I have heard it said that Peace is Joy sitting still, and Joy is Peace jumping to its feet. We're jumping into new dreams, my hubby and I. And I hope you do too. Find your own perfect constellation in these holidays, my friends.
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The Tech of Friendship

An honest answer is the sign of true friendship.
~ Anonymous

My daughter and I were talking recently about friendship and it struck me how geography and the Internet have changed the nature of communication between friends. The neighborhood pot luck, the regular exchange of letters and once a year visit dominated my grandparents' generation. In my life, letters have gone the way of email and paperless post notifications of everything from meetings to weddings, while getting together is a post-business day get-together at the gym or bar or the once in a decade class reunion. In my daughter's twenty-something generation, the Internet rules: Facebook or Twitter creates an online connection. Friends are available for updates throughout the day, but as my daughter commented, visits grow far and few between once college ends, careers begin, and close friends scatter to distant locations.

So what does all this mean? Are we more or less connected in a meaningful way? Oddly, I think it's a mixed-bag. We are curiously more connected with the professional colleague, the mere acquaintance, the long-distant friend. Yet perhaps less deeply present with immediate family and loved ones, because so much of our relationship gets squeezed into brief status communications throughout the day. Some of my friends speak more to their spouses by text message than at home after dinner. A girlfriend of mine recently remarked that she wasn't surprised she'd broken up with her boyfriend by text massage because it started on a text.

I think that while the convenience and ease of modern communication is a plus, the loss of face to face contact costs us something. As anyone will attest who has met up with a treasured friend at a street corner or a coffee shop - nothing replaces the joy of laughter, the meaning in a glance, the quick touch of a hand, a goodbye hug. As a society we are in danger of becoming overly cerebral: navigating our entire lives through the barrier glass of technology, absent of the importance of presence. This is especially difficult in times of stress or need or disagreement. How do you really read between the lines of a 140 character Tweet? Determine the sarcasm, gentleness, wryness, or anger embedded in a Facebook update, a text? The formality of condensed sentence structure alone can derail a message.

My daughter has observed that a number of disagreements amongst her friends begin on social media, spread like wildfire through their networks, and abruptly finish with a communication "block." Some disagreements resolve only if the friends involved remain on speaking terms, and given a chance encounter. Direct exchanges blow up into hurt feelings. Why? Because tech messages are not couched in the interpersonal. Digital grammar (or its lack) simply hits your smart phone or computer in-box. You read that succinct message and feel a surge of confusion. What are they really saying here?

While a true friend is an honest one, social media communication is without important physical cues; nonverbal signs which allow us to read between the lines and determine the real message in the medium (apologies to Marshall Mcluhan here). And no, emoticons do not count. A gentle scolding might read as a blunt criticism in print. Wry self-deprecation can read bitter; the overwhelmed as indifferent. The answer is to remember we are people. We are feeling beings. By all means let's use technology to keep the connections open - and our voices, hands, and hugs to send voltage down the wire.
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Snow Berry


IN A LANDSCAPE
In a landscape that is nearly totally urban, just by the freeway, a pond, rushes, a wild duck, small trees. Those who pass on the road feel at that sight a kind of relief, though they would not be able to name it.

- Czeslaw Milosz

This is the view out my window this morning as the snow falls and continues falling in utter silence. Peacefulness.

The black-capped chickadees knock seed from the hanging feeder as the stately quail scratch the white earth for fallen bounty. In the tall blue spruce a dark crow bounces gently on a branch. He stretches his iridescent wings, knocking down snow, watching.
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Looking Inside

Available from The Penguin Press, 2012

There is one thing I never compromise on with poetry and that is owning the print edition book. Not the digital or audio version, but the actual book. A book of poems, really quite small and slender, is a talisman. Silken paper, bound with care. An object to handle thoughtfully, to open and dwell on silently, underline in pencil, archive between the pages a late season pansy, aged tea rings across lines of favorite verse. A deeper, more vivid world to tuck in my bag, leave open by the bed, to reread and rethink in the first quiet of morning. Poems are somehow...don't ask me how, but poems are not given to campfire dramatics, to spindling along by chapter or leaving at midpoint as stories are. No, poems entwine. Their briny starfish spines part of the organic elements of print and paper. Poetry's delicate structure speaks a shape on the page: the architecture of font, the empty space married to the singularity of thought the poet gifts to you. Poem need real books to rest within.

All that is good about life blissfully melds together the moment I crack open the work of a beloved poet. In October I discovered Mary Oliver's newest collection, A Thousand Mornings. These weeks have been extraordinarily joyful, reading Oliver's new poems. They skip like stones across my consciousness: reflective, wise. Musings of an internal questioning her past writings on nature have always hinted at, but which she now exposes with utter simplicity. These poems are the work of a poet writing of a mortal life, an end point she feels tucked in at her elbow, and walks with, head bent in intimate discussion.

Here my friends is just one of the treasures within the leaves of A Thousand Mornings ~

ON TRAVELING TO BEAUTIFUL PLACES
Everyday I'm still looking for God
and I'm still finding him everywhere,
in the dust, in the flowerbeds.
certainly in the oceans,
in the islands that lay in the distance
continents of ice, countries of sand
each with its own set of creatures
and God, by whatever name.
How perfect to be aboard a ship with
maybe a hundred years still in my pocket.
But it's late, for all of us,
and in truth the only ship there is
is the ship we are all on
burning the world as we go.

- Mary Oliver
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Folding Chair

MOTHER AT A WRITERS WORKSHOP
Girl with sticks,
tape and two kites, jumping from the back fence
wanting it all
wary of those salt spoons of desire.
Scars mar a grown woman’s knees.

A poet married to a poet
reads of her kitchen window,
her length of view.
O Listen
the boy-man trekking sands of no horizon.
And the pink-cheeked woman,
an affair born of Italian cafes,
one moon in her sky.

Desire the self intact, the self divides.
This is my song I say,
days of mere breathing
falling, in and down,
self and self divided.


- written August, 2002

I was at the Aspen Writers Workshop that hot August, sitting under a granite blue sky. We were writers and professors of writing, and would-be writers, gathered to hear several guest authors read from their work. We sat on white folding chairs in a wild flower garden, warm wine in plastic cups in our hands. At the podium, leaning comfortably on one pale, freckled elbow as she read, her striped cotton dress stuck with heat to the front of her thighs, stood Mary Jo Salter - reading from her newest poetry chapbook, "A Kiss in Space." Perhaps a decade and a half older than me, Salter was reserved, grounded in her success as a writer and her independence as a woman/wife/mother, sure of her coming-of-age as a poet. Her contentment shone through her even cadences, illuminated the garden as though she were a small but brilliant Coleman lantern lit over a picnic table on a late summer's eve. I was mesmerized, and jealous.

She had everything I wanted as a woman and writer - all seemingly attained as an effortless toss-away, as though she believed such good fortune was hers as princes claim their thrones. We spoke after her reading, and I knew then that Salter's struggle, if there was one, might have been with the work but never with the journey. Were some of us just destined to have great and fulfilling lives, while the rest of us struggled? That question birthed the poem above, "Mother at a Writers Workshop," drafted that evening in my hotel room. I ripped the lines out of my notebook and tucked the unfinished poem in the book of poetry Salter had signed for me. I found it today, strangely, reading in Salter's book.

I vividly remember the feelings of hunger and displacement I felt that day. Of wanting the view of the world Salter so effortlessly possessed, standing there, complacent at the podium - not mine, the frustrated writer perched on the edge of a folding chair, staring at the gnats drowning in my wine. My world was young children, career upheavals, uncertainties, moves... Why couldn't I have that, to provenance born? It's an interesting thing, envy. It can burn right through bullshit; and if it doesn't leave your heart in cinders, if you sift through what is real, that hunger can light a pilot light of honest ambition that will never again sputter out. That moment listening to Mary Jo Salter read her poems of distant streets in Paris became a turning point for me. I would fiercely, determinedly create my life as a writer, or step away. In Yoda-ese it was my "Do, not try" ah-ha moment.

I dug in, and I wrote/dreamed/cried my way through a marathon of writing and rejections until, finally, I stood at my own podium. I stand in gratitude. And continual amazement. To this day, I feel lucky. And when I meet other struggling writers who remind me of me, I do not, as Salter did, stand guardedly apart in the unspoken separation of public success. I step down and sit in the folding chair. Dear writer, it's a journey. Every book for me is as hard as the first, as difficult to sell, as likely or unlikely to succeed. This life is not about "following my bliss," or expressing a special talent. What we have here is the klutz-that-needs-to-dance - a nine year old kid, me, paid a dollar for a poem published in the hometown newspaper. If I could do something else, better or not much worse, trust me, I would.
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Gathering

GATHERING LEAVES
Spades take up leaves
No better than spoons,
And bags full of leaves
Are light as balloons.

I make a great noise
Of rustling all day
Like rabbit and deer
Running away.

But the mountains I raise
Elude my embrace,
Flowing over my arms
And into my face.

I may load and unload
Again and again
Till I fill the whole shed,
And what have I then?

Next to nothing for weight;
And since they grew duller
From contact with earth,
Next to nothing for color.

Next to nothing for use.
But a crop is a crop,
And who's to say where
The harvest shall stop?

- Robert Frost

And on I go, the third weekend in a row. Harvesting, harvesting what the trees grow. (Apologies to Frost)
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