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QUINTESSENCE

Some Things

 

Going into the Quintessence archives, I wanted to repost this essay from three years ago. It feels timeless to me, and appropriate to the season and events of history, both personal and within the world. As we gather at Thanksgiving tables, let us celebrate and cherish what matters here, in our hearts. I send all of you my very warmest blessings and love.

 

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 and tremendous tenacity; it stretches, it attaches, it slowly builds like bone in the body. It has been a journey for me, this life. And in the becoming there is both loss and miracle. The ending of stories and the beginning of new forms of connection and partnership. We are always making family, even within family. Evolving into new ways of being, grafting new shapes onto the lives we lead. It is the simple truth that life is a cycle of ever-becoming. And while neither easy, nor perfect in process, this becoming is beautiful in its grace and sufficiency. All life carries within it the seed of joy. Presence grounded in the earth, the heavens, and the mystery of evolving purpose.

 

The human heart is a warrior and a monk. And it speaks its simple truth. Belong.

 

 

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WHAT I WISH FOR MY BOOK ON ITS PUBLICATION DAY

 

WHAT I WISH FOR MY NOVEL ON ITS PUBLICATION DAY
 
1.    Feel the wonder of your unique birthday.
2.    Enjoy my surprise when I see you on a shelf someday and there you are all bright and complete like you were always a book and not just an idea.
3.    Enjoy being carried out of a bookstore, jostling in a bag with new book friends and fresh bookmarks.
4.    Get to know the other books on the shelf at the bookstore and library. Who sits beside you? What have they got to say?
5.    Take a breath when that stack of library books you're in gets squeezed tight as you get carried home. That's love.
6.    Develop a hobby to pass the time in the To Be Read pile.
7.    Dream about yourself in film and on the television. Any fantasy picks for your actor portrayals?
8.    Be happy you've got reviews and don't be bothered by your critics.
9.    Love the moment someone drops you in the bath, falls asleep with you open on their lap, or closes the last page with a contented, if regretful sigh. You're living your best life.
10.  Be okay when you're left on the subway or the train or a bus. Accidents happen. It's exciting when someone new picks you up and takes you home.
11.  Have fun at the book clubs. It's all about *you* and there's nothing more fun than readers with wine.
12.  Get used to hearing yourself read out loud. [Sorry in advance for the stumbles and missed pronunciations.]
13.  Get in your sassy groove—you'll love ink signatures styled across your title page and someone saying, "Thank you!" as they take you home.
14.  Don't get too vain as your cover is endlessly admired. Your pages will get dog-eared.
15.  Try not to mind the coffee cup and tea mug stains. It means you're real, my tattered book friend.
16.  You will not stay lost under the sofa forever. There are brooms and dogs.
17.  Smile at the strangers from the book kiosk at the airport. You might be heading off to Dallas, or New York, or San Diego!
18.  Keep a positive attitude when you're traded in for someone else to buy. Nothing lasts forever. Get to know your new reader and used bookshop friends.
19.  Enjoy a library "hold." Pretend you're floating in space.
20.  Even a book as modest as you will kinda love the social media likes and retweets and faves. It's okay to enjoy the love.
21.  Be proud you put yourself together. Go out and meet the world. Have your say.
22.  Get used to a mess of margin notes, unusual bookmarks (napkins, paperclips, pencils) and the neon look of highlighted paragraphs and underlined sentences. It's all good.
23.  Fall in love with the voice of your audiobook reader—meet your alter ego!
24.  Be proud of your author. She's your biggest fan.
25.  Don't apologize for the hundreds of pages of drafts that got you into such fine shape. And try not to be bothered by that killer typo we all know is in there, lurking, waiting for someone to find.
26.  Refrain from rewriting yourself in your head every time you glance at a random page. No point.
27.  Take the review with a grain of salt and a tolerance for debate. Never read the comments.
28.  You'll look gorgeous in a holiday bow and wrapping. Preen a little.
29.  Treasure the contentment of simply keeping someone company.
30.  Celebrate your uniqueness! You're forever the story you are and a fabulous one-of-a-kind. Don't be bothered by comparisons or those shouty bestsellers.
31.  This book birthday celebration is all about you. Take it in. Smile, a lot.
32.  How about that whoosh! after a Buy Button purchase. That rocketing mail truck delivery. Who says books can't have fun.
33.  Admire your brand new face. Believe me when I say the creases and stains to come are beautiful too. Oh, a word of advice—try not to bend your spine the wrong way. It hurts.
34.  It's nice to be ordered, it means someone wants you. But if you get picked up and set down, don't cry. Readers and books are a match made in heaven. Your person is coming.
35.  Let them reread you—often and fondly. Nothing better than old friends.

 

 

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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

 

In conversation recently with Marjan Kamali, whose remarkable new novel, THE STATIONERY SHOP was published just this month to great acclaim, Marjan mentioned that part of what she loved about my new novel, SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER, were the distinctions between the truth and the stories the characters tell themselves.
 
Marjan's observation hits the nail on the head: We are our stories and we also are not. All of the characters in my novel are spinning stories out of their pasts. Some because the truth may be what has broken them, or remains impossible to bear; for others, because of the absence of a pathway to healing in the truth. The story is preferable to a more foreboding or nuanced reality.
 
We tell ourselves stories all the time, naturally and without thought. We deliberately construct more livable fictions for ourselves. We edit the memories of our experiences, build happier fantasies for the future. We create myths around things either too difficult, too improbable, or too tragic to live with. Our stories help us survive a dangerous or challenging present, or merely mute the pain and broken places in our lives in a more bearable way. Our myths unconsciously make us larger than life, so that like our heroes, we might rise to whatever monsters or Herculean challenges lie ahead. Stories are powerful ways of shifting borders and identities, and in truth, we may get into trouble when we lose sight of what is real.
 
What interested me in telling the story of the musical Stone family in SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER was the complicated nature of each character's relationship with the truth. For the Stone women, the remaking of the personal had become a way to cope with the unthinkable. Their chosen narratives born of wishful thinking or sheer ambition; a way to dodge an unbearable truth. What omissions, what lies, I wondered, had they felt must be told to protect one another? To move forward. And the origins of their stories—what dark elements of family lore or brute practicality play forward through the generations. Were there impulses of unacknowledged guilt or primitive self-protection? Even genuine ignorance?
 
For the reader threading apart the Stone family tales of omission, truth, and lies, the implications of secrecy—when truth is backed up against survival—raises profound questions. What stories born of misguided intention have nonetheless become a thing of beauty across the grain of old scars—a kind of patina over the past—and what untruths must yet be unraveled for each of these characters to heal and find happiness.
 
I hope as you read SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER you will ponder if perhaps all of our stories are a kind of music of the heart. A melody we weave, singly and together.

 

 

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How Close is Close, Character Twin Dynamics


 Marley and Andi Stone, the singer-songwriter country duo of my novel, SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER, are fraternal twins, as well as Geminis, born in June. Twinned twice, as it were. Why did I choose characters who were twins? To deepen the elements of connection and natural sibling competition. I wanted the main characters of my novel to be sisters, close in age, and bonded by both an unconventional childhood and their conjoined careers as family musicians.
 
Twin statistics are interesting. There are two-thirds more fraternal twins than identical, and in total, twins account for about 23% of births per thousand in the world. And while "identical" is a given for identical twins biologically-speaking, the range of "perceived likeness" is considerable for both groups. Fraternal twins can be quite similar, or as different as normal siblings might be. And identical twins can prove the fact, or it's contrary, for any "nature versus nurture" argument. What interested me about the dynamics between twins, not being one myself but growing up knowing several, was the complex subtlety of always being both close and too close. The tension between the dependency and comfort in having someone in your life who knows you almost as well as you know yourself, and the potential pyschic claustrophobia—the challenge to establish your own independence and uniqueness when there is literally double of everything "you" in your family life. Twins are often quite close as children, and then push apart in late-adolescence and in their twenties, sick of being "the twins" and seeking an independent identity. Most then return to the twin bond as life leads back toward supporting one another in their own special way. Twins often feel they are their own sibling bedrock within fluctuating family dynamics.
 
As Geminis, assuming you don't mind my throwing some astrology into the country music mix, the girls stepped out in full character: expressive, lively, adaptable, humorous, clever, sociable, curious, whimsical, independent, brainy, and charming. But also scattered, moody, shallow, inquisitive, opportunistic, selfish, fragile, inconsistent, and changeable. Marley is my songwriter, and Andi, my singer: two girls who feel as Keith Richards put it, "Music is a language that doesn't speak in particular words. It speaks in emotions, and if it's in the bones, it's in the bones." 
 
And actually, there is some truth to that as it pertains to twins in the music industry. A quick search yields some fascinating examples: Lorretta Lynn's two youngest daughters, the twins Peggy and Patsy Lynn performing as The Lynn Sisters; the Hager Brothers, twins Jim and Jon of Hee Haw fame, Robin and Maurice Gibbs of the Bee Gees; and the Russian Eurovision stars Anastasiya and Maria Andreyevna, to name just a handful. Twins seem to gravitate into musical careers from early childhood over other arts like dance, acting, and writing, or pursuits like politics, modeling, or television. Family bands are not unusual, but is there something in the fluidity between songwriting and vocal and instrument performance that particularly allows twins to express their common gifts and yet create distinct identities within their shared art? I envisioned the Stone sisters' band, The Andi Stone Tour, as a vehicle for setting these characters loose in a setting that would expose talents as well as artistic conflicts.
 
Oftentimes the myths and romance of twinning overshadow the realities. The allusion to "twin radar" for example—one sibling knowing without communicating what the other is thinking or needs; the "two halves make a whole" suggested codependence; even the belief that twin life is sprinkled with "extras" in whatever way one can think of—from the ability to pull pranks to an organ donor match. But what research and experiences with my twin friends taught me is that twins often struggle as they come-of-age—when they are less likely to be alike and more inclined to develop differences, naturally or deliberately. This natural need for self-assertion became the subtle narrative framework for my fictional singer-songwriter duo: Andi and Marley were growing up in the context of professional country music, bound by the constraints of continuously working together; and later as adults, by the complicating reality of one sister becoming more powerful, visible, and wealthy in their shared music life. How this imbalance affected Marley and Andi's personal lives would underscore how the sisters grapple with a sudden and devastating family tragedy.
 
It is my hope that when you read SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER, you will believe that not only do Marley and Andi know the music is "in their bones," but they are—for forever and always—the Stone sisters.

 

 

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Family Dynamics, The Dark and The Light

David Salle, Playing, Dreaming, 2015  [oil, acrylic, crayon, and archival digital print on linen]

 

Tolstoy wrote in his novel Anna Karenina, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." When we think of family dynamics and the poignant mix of affection and dysfunction present in lifelong relationship, we understand why novelists, poets, playwrights, and creatives in general mine the undercurrents of human unhappiness that sometimes transform into resilient joy. This was the case when I began my novel SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER. I knew the themes of the novel would be survival, forgiveness, redemption, secrecy, and the ties that bind. But I wasn't yet certain if the secrets of the Stone family would crumble or shore up the foundation of the love they felt for one another and their shared life in music.
 
I was wrestling with dynamics of light and dark. As the painter David Salle wrote, "The subject exists inside of its shadows. That's part of the way we see the subject. It's not about dragging something out into the light, some glaring gaze. It's about something being developed or caressed by shadows, or revealed within shadows, or just falling onto shadow." Standing before Salle's painting Playing, Dreaming, 2015 on exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Boston a few years back, I understood family dynamics are similarly marked by positive and negative space interactions. My novel could not solely circumscribe complex characters and their long-held secrets but must explore the effect of one upon the other—changes in fortune and changes within, and their subtleties.
 
We have the shadow and we have the light.
 
When plot is taken down a notch, and the narrative becomes voice-driven and language-heavy, the literal and the figurative meet. What is harsh, ugly, or mysterious in the human experience may be illuminated by language. I thought about the power of secrets to drive narrative—the most common of plot points—and about the finer point I wanted to make about human happiness. I made a decision to place the Stone family secrets in the wings, slightly off-stage in the narrative. Yes, we know there is something there, but our priority is getting to know the Stone family­—Marley, Andi, and their mother Donna—rather than reading ahead to tease out plot points. We root for our heroines as they seek their way out of the shadows. And when we finally understand what the family has been dealing with, the revelation is the more profound for our connection to the characters and theirs to one another.
 
The way families connect, as the work of both Tolstoy and Salle observe, that is, despite and through difficulty, underscores a profound human truth. We are each our own unique mix of light and dark. And how we harmonize those aspects (or don't) render what is always a nuanced happiness. Writing family dynamics, the dark elements are where we find a mark in history, a leavening, a moral, the proverbial fork in the road. The Stone women exist, fully and richly, inside their secrets. And we love our characters all the more for what is revealed within those shadows. 

 

 

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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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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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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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Father's Day

Capt. Thomas Kelsey Burgess, Sandia AFB, New Mexico

 

my lost father
by Lucille Clifton

see where he moves
he leaves a wake of tears
see in the path of his going
the banners of regret
see just above him the cloud
of welcome see him rise
see him enter the company
of husbands fathers sons





My father and me.
I lost this lovely man when he was but forty-five, and I was turning twenty. I've missed him all my life.

Happy Father's Day, Daddy.

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Wings

 

WINGS
I saw the heron
poise
like a branch of white petals
in the swamp,

in the mud that lies
like a glaze,
in the water
that swirls its pale panels

of reflected clouds;
I saw the heron shaking
its damp wings -
and then I felt

an explosion -
a pain -
also a happiness
I can hardly mention

as I slid free -
as I saw the world
through those yellow eyes -
as I stood like that, rippling,

under the mottled sky
of the evening
that was beginning to throw
its dense shadows.

No! said my heart, and drew back.
But my bones knew something wonderful
about the darkness-
and they thrashed in their cords,

they fought, they wanted
to lie down in that silky mash
of the swamp, the sooner
to fly.

~ Mary Oliver

There is something about the delicacy of the transitions from spring into early summer and then from summer into late fall that always remind me of the poetry of Mary Oliver. The way in which Oliver captures the voice and imprint of the unseen; the song of living things, the guardian silence of the skies. When I read this poem, it reminds me of my late husband Ken, who passed away in 2003. His presence still among us is the heron at the water's edge below the cliffs where he is buried. For a week after his death, a single gray heron waited there at the river's elbow, braced against the rushing waters. Still and tranquil, it watched us where we stood on the bluff above him, mute with grief. Eventually on the last day, as twilight fell to its deepest hue, our heron spread its feathered wings and rose into the sky. Lost in the dark.

All of us sing an unfamiliar song when it comes to life. We receive, we give. We perhaps only imperfectly hear the melody as we progress through the years. But how important it is that we celebrate life. Cherish family, love, the accomplishment of big dreams. The having of big dreams. The still moments though they become years. The translucent ice newly veined with cracks. The reflecting clouds. The trace of the past like the taste of cold water in an iron cup. The bloom, and the fossil. The liminal presence.

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