Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

Family, part 1

In Tangents, writing on July 28, 2016 at 12:35 am


dance.JPGwritten in early August 2015

Last weekend, I was on a dance floor for the first time in years.

I was at a close friend’s 50th birthday bash, dancing to music played by a cover band we had loved 25-plus years before.

A few of us had been among the band’s first fans, there for their earliest performances in the late 80s in the college town where we were struggling to get used to being employed college graduates.

Back then, we loved the band because they were immensely talented musicians; because they were hot (of course), and because they could pull off playing an odd, excellent mix of covers with ease—Elvis Costello, Squeeze, Earth, Wind and Fire, Bruce Springsteen and the Jackson Five are the ones I can think of off the top of my head. We mostly went to hear them play at an upstairs bar called La Terazza, where you could feel the floor shaking underneath you as they reeled from one song to the next until the bar closed.

They were serious musicians who worked on other ventures on their own, and a few years after starting their bread-winning cover band, their non-cover band got a recording contract that led to a lot of respect and a bit of fame, if not a huge fortune.

Later, they started doing their cover band thing again here and there in addition to whatever else they were doing to make a living, and when the time came for my friend’s milestone birthday, they were available to make us dance into the early morning hours again.


2015 looked a little different on the dance floor than 1989, no doubt; I’m sure that if we had invited our kids to the party, they might have posted “Vines” or Instagram photos of us with hashtags along the lines of #groovymiddleagedpeopletrytodance. And, speaking for myself, anyway, they might have been on the mark.

But groovy or not, what I felt on the dance floor along with the nostalgia was a bit of awe and a lot of grace. Around me was a network of people not unlike a family tree — and our connections to each other were a bit like the rings you see when you cut down a tree. (I’m mixing my tree metaphors, but bear with me.)

There was that original small ring of close friends I danced with in the dive bar 25 years ago. Then there was another layer of friends I got to know through those dive-bar-dancing friends over the course of my twenties.

Then there was another circle of acquaintances I don’t know well, but feel connected to nevertheless because I have heard their names so often and because I know they are important in the lives of my old friends.

And finally there was another small circle — the older brother and sister of my friend the birthday girl, who I’ve been able to spend pockets of time with over the decades of our friendship.

At the end of the night, the band played a song in honor of my friend – a song that they had never played back in the day because we were all 20-something and ageless and timeless then:

We’ve been through

Some things together

With trunks of memories

Still to come

We found things to do

In stormy weather

Long may you run.

Long may you run.

Long may you run.

Although these changes

Have come

With your chrome heart shining

In the sun

Long may you run.

As they played, I ended up on the dance floor in a cluster with the birthday girl and two of friends from those outer rings on the family tree. Spontaneously, one of them grabbed the hand of the friend next to her and soon all four of us had done the same, making a circle as if we were small children again.

At this age, I don’t see gestures like this among friends too often, and it was a lovely, genuine thing — sparked from nostalgia and music and the many things the women in that circle had been through together and what they had been to each other in varying combinations over many, many years.


Later, after the band finished loading up, they lingered with a small group of us from the dive bar days.  This time, we talked about our kids – or in one case, our dogs, who were for all intents and purposes much-loved kids, if not offspring. I thought later about the fact that they probably had come to feel like a family of sorts, too.


In the middle of a hard summer, that night was a powerful reminder of just how large my family is at 50.

There is my given family, as well as the families I have been fortunate enough to gather over the years — the one I was on the dance floor with last week; my best friend from third grade on, who died in 2008 but will always be a part of my life; the other friends I grew up with in my earliest years, riding bikes and playing Kick the Can after dark; the high school friends and college roommates I go on long weekend trips with once a year (as well as other high school and college friends I stay in touch with); the crowd I ran with in my 20-something days in Washington, DC; friends from my time in Prague in my early thirties; and friends I made in my late 30s and into my 40s while navigating marriage, divorce and parenthood.

As I write this, I’m sitting on the porch of one of my dearest high school friends (we bonded instantly in 9th-grade health class), enjoying some much-needed solo time and the peace and quiet of her home in the mountains.

I am listening to crickets and having a beer and enjoying some much-needed solo time while she and her husband are treating my daughter to a picnic at the pool with their two daughters; the three girls have never lived in the same town, but they have known each other all of their lives, and I can only hope that like my friend and me, they will be family to each other for decades to come.

I took two of the girls to Carl Sandburg’s home in Flat Rock, NC, today, and our guide, an earnest college intern, took great pleasure in sharing Sandburg’s idea of a good life:

“ … to be out of jail … to eat regular … to get what I write printed … a little love at home and a little nice affection hither and yon over the American landscape … [and] to sing every day.”

For my daughter, who is already a writer as well as a lover of music, I would wish all of these things (that first one is a given, of course) and a family as big and big-hearted as mine.


Postscript: When I wrote this a year ago, I had no idea just how much this idea of “family” – those we gather around us and not just those we are born with connections to – would take on more and deeper meaning than I would ever have imagined, so there will now have to be another post, a ‘part 2,’ one day.


Sometimes a writer just needs a little moral support.

In books, Tangents, writing on March 3, 2014 at 12:31 am

With great empathy (expressed via purring and delicate grunts), Hermione joined me in staring into the abyss of the blank page late last night.



best-loved words, turns of phrase ~ first installment

In miscellany, words on August 18, 2013 at 3:04 pm








prekvapeni (Czech word for surprise)


character (as in, ‘she’s a real character’)

fetching (as in, ‘doesn’t Tom look fetching today…’)








piece of work (as in, ‘That Sadie is a real piece of work…’)









Of mountains and mothers.

In Tangents, writing on May 12, 2013 at 12:19 am


I shot this photo of Mount Rainier from the back of a Bainbridge Island ferry on Sunday morning.

I’ve been to Seattle about six or seven times since my first visit during a cross-country trip in 1994, and I’ve never forgotten how the locals talk about “The Mountain” (it’s capitalized that way in my head) with a mixture of reverence and familiarity. The weather – and locals’ psyches – seems to be measured by how clearly you can see The Mountain.

I spent six days in Seattle at the beginning of this month, and I can’t imagine six more perfect weather days in the Pacific Northwest, especially given that my friends who live there insist that summer warmth doesn’t truly arrive until July.

The Mountain was truly spectacular during my stay, and I don’t use that word lightly or often. I told the friend I was traveling with that we must have been “living right,” as some Southern relative used to say, to get such perfection.

One night, I got together with a book club friend who moved to Seattle grudgingly two years ago when her husband’s job took them there. Now, she said, she was struggling with the idea of moving back to North Carolina; she reeled off a list of things she loved about Seattle, naming most of the things I would expect (natural beauty, endless things to do, schools, attitudes, etc.).

She finished the list with The Mountain. “I have this sort of odd connection to it,” she said. “I can’t really explain it…”  She trailed off, seeming a little embarrassed.

But I understood, and I’d likely feel the same way.

I’ve been wanting to post this photo of The Mountain everywhere and was trying to figure out how to shoehorn it into this blog. I decided that Mother’s Day was just the right day to post it here, as my personal “Mountain” for 48-plus years has been my mom.

It may sound over-the-top hokey as metaphors go, but whether I can see her or not, knowing my mom is at the other end of a phone line or a road trip has given me the sort of strength and calm my Seattle transplant friend seems to draw from The Mountain.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

Amy Hempel, on writing

In lines worth underlining, quotes about writing, reading, storytelling, words, writing on January 27, 2013 at 4:23 pm

Not so much a piece of advice as a question to keep in mind, which is the most basic of questions: Why are you telling me this? Someone out there will be asking, and you better have a very compelling answer, or reason.

There are people who have been raised by loving parents to believe that the world awaits their every thought and sentence, and I’m not one of them. So I respond to that. Is this essential?

The question might be, Is this something only you can say—or, only you can say it this way? Is this going to make anyone’s life better, or make anyone’s day better? And I don’t mean the writer’s day.

~ Wise words from an interview with Amy Hempel that I came across online years ago

#writerspace ~ Hemingway’s Key West studio

‘At its worst, it feels like alligator wrestling…’

In quotes about writing, writing on January 2, 2013 at 4:44 pm

Many years ago, I stumbled across an archive of essays written for the New York Times by a series of revered writers; I printed one by Annie Dillard that I especially loved and put it in a writing notebook.

I made a decision in the final days of 2012 to finally polish up my children’s novel manuscript and see if it has ‘legs.’ Coming across the essay again on the first “work day” of 2013 somehow seems meant to be.

A few excerpts of the Dillard essay:

The sensation of writing a book is the sensation of spinning, blinded by love and daring. It is the sensation of a stunt pilot’s turning barrel rolls, or an inchworm’s blind rearing from a stem in search of a route. At its worst, it feels like alligator wrestling, at the level of the sentence.


Why do you never find anything written about that idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands? Because it is up to you. There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain. It is hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin. You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.


Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?


Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.

‘Maybe stories are just data with a soul.’

In storytelling, words, writing on September 27, 2012 at 2:18 pm

In 25 years of writing for a wildly varying assortment of for-profit and non-profit organizations, I’ve seen the same battle over perception playing out over and over again.

Nearly everywhere, I’ve encountered people who were convinced that if their story was told … well, as a story, with anecdotes or examples and in a conversational style, it would instantly lose credibility. Years apart, colleagues in two very different nonprofits expressed their deep-seated fear that an overhaul of their publication to a more magazine-like format would turn it into People. One mention of the word “magazine,” and all they could conjure up was a celebrity glossy. They were genuinely alarmed and not easily convinced.

These and other intelligent, highly educated colleagues over the years would hold tight to their academic or scientific or industry jargon, their way-down-in-the-weeds, eye-glazing detail and their “just-the-facts, ma’am” approach as credentials of a sort. One academic protested that his work didn’t need examples or more approachable language and explanations because there were only a few people in the world who followed his area of specialty, and they didn’t care about that sort of thing.

If there has been a common thread in my career, it has been this uphill battle to convince people that taking something complex and making it colorful and engaging is a good thing … that everyone, no matter how brilliant or credentialed, likes to be entertained when they read.

I’ve seen stellar short- and long-form writing (from ad campaigns to magazine articles) numbed-down after too many people in too many meetings gave in to this kind of insecurity – to the notion that it is more important to impress than it is to engage.

It’s always heartening to see businesses and nonprofits where the truly creative stuff makes it out into the world, unfiltered by “the committee” – where the creatives are allowed to live up to their job description. (After all, it does seem like a colossal waste of money to hire people with skills you have no intention of using.)


I watched a TED talk by Brene Brown a few weeks after writing this, and I was struck by the story she told at the beginning. An event planner was struggling with how to describe Brown in promoting an upcoming speaking engagement. She thought calling Brown a researcher would lead people to assume that her presentation would be boring, so she suggested calling her a “storyteller.” Brown recoiled at the description. “The academic, insecure part of me was like, ‘What?’” But she came around to the idea. “Maybe,” she thought, “stories are just data with a soul.” She told the woman to bill her as a researcher-storyteller – at which point the event planner laughed and told Brown there was no such thing. “…Stories are just data with a soul” is one of my favorite quotations now.

(“re-blogging” this post from my former business web site) 

Fear. (Alternate title: ‘the day I berated a vacuum cleaner’)

In words, writing on September 10, 2012 at 11:30 pm

In 1972, when I had just started second grade, my 48-year-old father went to the emergency room with chest pain on the evening of Labor Day, had a massive heart attack in the hospital Tuesday and died early the next morning. What this planted in the back of my seven-year-old mind was the notion that big, terrible, unpredictable things may be lurking around the next corner.

At age 47, that message hasn’t gone away (it tends to be bolstered over time as you see more big, terrible things happen to other people you love), but age and parenthood have made me try to think differently.

(The star of this tale.)

These days, when I think of both my father, frozen in time at 48, with whom I shared  just seven years, and my own daughter and feel that familiar forboding, I can usually stop myself and shake it off. The flip side of losing a parent so young is that you really do understand all too well how stupid it is to waste valuable time in the here and now. But I haven’t exactly reached the fully enlightened stage in this cerebral battle, which brings me to the vacuuming story.


At my house, the home of two writer/readers, we love words, and we have ended up with quite a collection of tiny Magnetic Poetry tiles. They’re supposed to live on the refrigerator and our purple metal bulletin board and the metal surround of our ancient built-in medicine cabinet, but over time, they’ve ended up scattered all over the house.

On those rare occasions when I feel ambitious enough to launch into a vacuuming frenzy, venturing under furniture and into all sorts of unseen spots I usually zoom past (after all, visitors will never see that dust!), it’s not unusual to come across magnetic words in unusual places.

During one frenzy,  I spotted a tile wedged between the slats of a basket and pried it out, doing a double-take when I saw what it was.

“Fear” had become stuck in the basket where we keep our games … those things you do for  “fun.” I laughed, put the tile aside and turned the vacuum cleaner back on. A couple of minutes later, forgetting about it, I accidentally sucked “fear” up into the vacuum.

I would never have predicted how unhinged this would make me.

“You can’t take my ‘fear’!” I shrieked (no lie), pulling the canister open and carrying the nearly full bag to the back yard, where I poked a letter opener around in the dusty innards until I recovered my “fear.”


A therapist could obviously have a field day with this story; clearly I needed to do just a little more work on that “fear of the  unknown” problem.

But as I thought about my over-the-top reaction, I decided there was probably another layer to the Vacuum Cleaner Incident that is more rooted in what I am – writer, editor, lifelong journal keeper – than in my psychological junk.

Words are powerful for me. I keep a list of favorite words. I’m not very good at meditation and breathing exercises, but when I go for a run when I’m stressed out or busy, I’ve gotten in the habit of thinking of good words as I breathe in and bad ones as I breathe out (‘fear’ is a big one on the exhaling list). And I’m picky/proprietary about our magnetic poetry words; the ones that speak to me get strung together into weird or inspirational or semi-racy phrases or sentences. The ones that bore me become outcasts, pushed down into the word ghetto at the bottom of the refrigerator door.

So I think my nutty visceral reaction was partly due to feeling a certain horror at seeing that small but forceful word – one that’s obviously deeply embedded in my life’s vocabulary – being taken away from me in such a literal way.

I’ve thought about sticking “fear” back in the bottom of the game basket, where it could take on a more laidback life … Fear of losing one’s empire in Monopoly. Fear of getting sent back to ‘home base’ in Trouble over and over again, just when you have your last peg ready to go into the home base row. And so on. Much more doable fears than the ones that tend to scroll through your head on sleepless nights.

But I think I’ll put it back into circulation on the refrigerator and see what poetic things I can do with “fear” to lessen its magnetism.

Love letters

In writing on July 13, 2012 at 1:23 am

Last weekend, my mother handed me this box of letters written by my grandmother to my grandfather in the days of their courtship in the mid-1920s. He was away for weeks or months at a time, working as a bookkeeper for tobacco warehouses, and she wrote to him faithfully, sometimes every other day.

I was almost disbelieving when my mother told me about the letters not long ago; in all the years I knew my grandmother – she lived with us for most of the years before I went off to college – she betrayed little emotion and, to be frank, little affection and warmth. The idea of her writing courtship letters was hard for me to wrap my head around.

So of course, I began reading to see what the young Mary Lee was like.

Her love letters are quiet and reserved, but caring and tender; she talks of the simple things that fill her days (canning preserves, cooking, visiting friends) and several times waxes poetic about the sweet watermelon she is sorry he is missing.

Now I wish I had read them long ago so I might have been able to look past the tiny, curmudgeonly old woman and catch a glimpse of that shy, kind girl lurking underneath.

‘Every book is a miracle.’

In lines worth underlining, quotes about writing, reading on July 1, 2012 at 1:37 am

‘Every book is a miracle,’ Bill said. ‘Every book represents a moment when someone sat quietly – and that quiet is part of the miracle, make no mistake – and tried to tell the rest of us a story.’

Bud could talk ceaselessly  about the hope of books, the promise of books. He said it was no accident that a book opened like a door. Also, he said, intuiting one of my neuroses, I could use books to put order to chaos. 

~ from The Tender Bar, by JR Moehringer

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