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QUINTESSENCE

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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I Don't Know What It Is

 

In a little over a month, SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER, my fourth book and third novel, will be published. I am excited for the novel's release as this story feels exceptional and special. It has been several years for me between books, yet always the work of writing remains cyclic—the process of a project culminates in either a celebration of publication or a failed manuscript's wake and burial, then resumes quietly where it began, back at the beginning. Any number of years can accumulate like potholes, lean-tos, or wildflower fields between these beginnings and endings. In the experience accumulated in the years from my first published book, nearly twenty years ago, to SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER this September, I have learned that for me, the day of publication is a minor movement in the overall symphony.


 
Publication marks the moment we let our story out into the world. Publication represents the culmination of the draft and edit steps that have come before, plus the expertise and faith of industry professionals who believe that what you have to say has value and commercial worth. A book, a play, a poem: Writing shaped from a private inner artistic struggle to become an object of a stranger's consideration and pleasure. The greatest sense of accomplishment for me, however, lies not in publication but in completion of the final manuscript. The creative journey from its original idea through endless drafts to that last period. That final paragraph and final sentence. The knowledge that the work is done and as good as I can make it.
 
What lies ahead after publication? The measure of a creative work's success. Success is not the work. Success for an artist or writer is generally defined as the critical and/or sales impact of one's work in the world: a transactional value in the commercial markets of public domain. Michael Cunningham addressed the subject of success by saying, "I don't talk about success. I don't know what it is. Wait until I'm dead."
 
What happens to art in the market may be a matter of positive or negative timing, of circumstance, serendipity, or chance. A book may garner critical applause and tank in sales, another may leave not so much as a ripple in the critical world and yet gain great traction in sales and audience appeal. Sometimes the two things go hand in hand. But the author in truth has no control over these things and releasing the work into the world is therefore foremost a prayer that the book will find a path of good will. It is also a personal surrender of expectation. The work the author wrote, the painting the artist painted, is never the book or painting the public sees and receives. Every artist's private vision is translated by the understanding of others. Only the reader or the viewer knows what the work means to them.
 
Authors are expected by the publishing industry to play a role in the marketing and sales of their work. To hand-sell their published work at the expense of creating new work, more so if the publisher is a small press and resources are scarce. When we ask a writer or artist to promote their work, we ask them to market their private point of view, to hawk their inner creative, knowing the market is, finally, largely indifferent to these things. To that end, most writers self-promote with deep discomfort, and, rather badly. Our turf is the library group, the book club, the book panel. Despite notable exceptions, writers are not generally natural celebrities in the way, say, film stars are—willing promoters of the cult of the persona. For most writers and artists, the inner creative is fragile and unpredictable, and dies in harsh light. This vulnerability can destroy the walls between the process and the finished work, walls that protect the genesis of creativity from overt commercial motivation or critical concern. Pablo Picasso put it this way, "Success is dangerous. One begins to copy oneself, and to copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others."
 
The book publication date is a moment of great pride. It is the finish of an endurance race. When a book goes out into the world, my hope is always that others will appreciate what I created, resonate to its meter and melody. Pleasing a reader is forever the purest joy. That comment in the book signing line when a stranger confesses how moved they are by what you've written, and shares with you, like a friend, all the reasons why? That is the truest feeling of success.
 
As to that other success, I'm hopeful but I've learned to be wise. Who knows. Ed Ruscha perhaps said it best, "That's me, the twenty-five-year overnight sensation."

 

 

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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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Choosing Voice or When Voice Chooses You

 
From the Start
 
Who did I think was listening
when I wrote down the words
in pencil at the beginning
words for singing
to music I did not know
and people I did not know
would read them and stand to sing them
already knowing them
while they sing they have no names
 
W. S. Merwin
 
 
How does any story tell its tale? Does the narrative speak in a voice that is distant and measured, addressing a full universe of characters and events as though we are that curious fly on the narrative wall? Or does the story speak in the diarist's voice, in a direct first person voice free with its secrets, private thoughts, and sometimes blissful lack of awareness? 
 
Point of view is the way we tell a story. The choice of a first person, second person, or third person narrative shapes the underlying structure and craft. When we talk about character voice, we shift to the perspective of character thoughts, feelings, and actions. In other words, attitude. In my experience, landing on the right point of view for a narrative often follows a sense of voice. Voice may be known to a writer from the first word she hears in her head­—before she's even put pen to paper. Voice may grab the plot outline or the rough beginning and shake new perspective into it, entirely flip the planned point of view. A writer may not see the right voice coming, but always knows when it's arrived.

 

The immediacy and intimacy that accompany a first person point of view closely connect a reader to the narrator. It may then become deceptively easy for a reader to confuse character with author. To entangle fictional first person narrative with the reading of autobiography or memoir—a confusion that illustrates both the power of a first person "I" point of view and its chief drawback. The narrative is story, not confession, and it is the writer's work to make that distinction. I recall a comment made by an editor who declared that he "never read first person if he could help it." I was puzzled by his vehemence. Was it a particular dislike of close voice, or action filtered through the perspective of a primary character? A reader would miss out on centuries of marvelous literary characters as a result of such an edict.
 
Second person point of view, with its curious, distant use of "you" to refer both to a self and subjective other, can at times feel standoffish to a reader who craves the straight heart of the story without the effort of figuring out who the "you" is in each instance. You as in me, or you as in all of us? The language can be intimate or distancing, depending on how the writer intends it.
 
Finally, there is third person point of view—distant and close, as well as the omniscient third—often thought of as the wide "stage direction" point of view. The writer unveils the story from the viewpoint of many characters, and the narrative may be perceived by readers as more objective, layered, or multifaceted, the way a film is. 
 
I began SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER, my novel of twin sisters growing up on the road and finding their way into country music, with an omniscient (third person) perspective. I saw the sisters, Andi and Marley Stone, and their mother, Donna, in a universe of their own. I shook the narrative and watched how pieces swirled apart and bumped back together. I didn't yet sense the core of these characters, however. It wasn't until Marley jumped out—and for the "quiet sister" took a rather unruly attitude—that I understood this novel belonged to her. The moment I yielded to this first person point of view, the novel unspooled itself without a hitch. The twin with a voice of her own had something to say. Marley Stone had found her footing in the narrative and took the story places I never anticipated. 
 
All points of view available to the writer are valid and interesting ways for characters to tell us their stories. None are bad. All require craft and skill. In the end, I believe the characters eventually gravitate to the right voice and we are wise writers and happy readers to let them. 
 

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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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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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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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