Posts Tagged ‘#writing’

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.


NC Literary Festival: A reader’s feast, with a Southern flavor

In books, reading, storytelling, Tangents on May 1, 2014 at 5:35 pm

I’m on a roll with writing 3/4 of a blog post that’s intended to be timely and never is by the time I get to the final 1/4.  But in my parenting/work-juggling life, it’s too painful to toss out 3/4 of a blog post, so I hope this one falls into the Old But Not Yet Stale news category.


I spent many hours over two days at the NC Literary Festival, which was put on in early April at my new favorite place — the wildly colorful and inviting James B. Hunt, Jr. Library at NC State. (If you aren’t familiar with the namesake of the library, look up the former governor and education advocate; he is one of North Carolina’s finest people.)


checking out the funky chairs and stylish vibe at the Hunt Library


I’m sure there are many detailed, lofty and insightful accounts of the festival that you can find.

I’m afraid this is not one of them. But if you like stream-of-consciousness coverage, my festival take might be just your speed.

Writers talking

As a writer/editor sort and as a lover of stories, hearing writers talk about their work and tell their personal stories never gets old for me. I steal away to Quail Ridge Books for author appearances whenever I can, sometimes bringing my daughter and her homework along if a big favorite is coming to town on a school night.

The literary festival brought a two-day feast of writer talks to town — so many great ones were on the schedule that I was a little depressed that I have not yet found the holy grail I wish for often in my single working parent life: The ability to be in multiple places at once.

I wasn’t willing to give up on seeing everyone I wanted to see, so I decided to be strategic; I would take in the first 2/3 of one session and then slip out to take in the final 2/3 of the one that started later. This borders on rudeness, but I hope the writers forgive those of us who have a hard time choosing.

A good plenty

There were some big names on the marquee for the festival, but I did not end up hearing any of the ticketed event speakers, which included Lev Grossman, Junot Diaz and Richard Ford. This was due in part to the timing of the talks and in part to the fact that I didn’t make it by Quail Ridge Books to get the advance tickets (which were free).

Meaning no disrespect to these authors, I don’t feel as if my festival experience was diminished in the least, which is a testament to the lineup.

Here’s the menu I ended up with:

  • James McBride, National Book Award Winner, The Good Lord Bird
James McBride

James McBride


  • Frances Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun and the new memoir Under Magnolia
  • Wiley Cash, A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy
  • Lee Smith, Guests on Earth and too many others to list
  • Allan Gurganus, Local Souls and too many others to list
  • Michael Parker, The Watery Part of the World and All I Have in This World

And here are a few random notes and fragments I scrawled in a notebook because they resonated with me in some way — these are not verbatim quotes, as my reporter’s note-taking skills are not that sharp these days, and I often have trouble reading my loose handwriting.

~ Frances Mayes, in conversation with Elizabeth Hudson, Editor-in-Chief, Our State magazine

photo 1

  • We all carry stories and details … how do we mine ourselves for those details to tell a story? 
  • The light in the South is powerfully evocative, as is the fragrance (nothing like a Southern night) 
  • If you lose a parent when you (and they) are young, it makes you fatalistic … afraid you will lose someone else (like Mayes, I lost my father when I was 7 and he was 48, and I could very much relate to this)

~Lee Smith in conversation with Wiley Cash

  • The two read from their latest novels, and Smith noted that they both like to write in first-person — adding that 85 percent of first novels are written in first-person, which I found fascinating.  
  • First-person means you aren’t responsible for knowing all of the other characters’ thoughts. 
  • Smith recalled growing up around storytellers … trying not to fall asleep too early as a child so she wouldn’t miss the end of a story. Now, her stories always come to her in a human voice —  often that first-person voice of the character telling the story.
  • Cash said his stories start by knowing the characters before knowing what the plot will be. 
  • The voices of his characters are borrowed from people in his childhood – or, as he warned the audience, from anyone he happens to be sitting within earshot of …  given the excellent things I have … overheard … at coffee shops, etc., I was glad to hear this.  It makes me feel slightly less ‘Gladys Kravitz’ (if you don’t know what that means, don’t run to Google it; you’re too young and a Wikipedia explanation won’t do.

~Allan Gurganus and Michael Parker

photo 1

This was a great conversation, with many quotes from each of these NC writers that were keepers — I’m not going to try to make sense of which of my scrawled notes should be attributed to each writer, or I will never finish this post.

Gurganus was probably the source of more of them simply because Parker had prepared a lot of thoughtful, interesting questions for him.

  • Everyone is eloquent on one topic — their lives
  • Gurganus: My job is finding the genius in every character
  • We care about the music of the prose
  • Today people think of prose as the means to an end; in fiction, we think prose is an end.
  • Novellas: Gurganus loves the form and wants people to believe in it; tells a story about his Hillsborough, NC, neighbor, the above-mentioned Lee Smith, going to talk to a third-grade class and fielding a question from a child: “Is a novella a novel written by a girl?” 
  • The length of a novella is perfect – you can start it at dinner time and finish by bedtime
  • Gurganus pointed out that Parker now splits time between Greensboro and Austin, and the two talked about how landscape affects prose … NC is “vernal, crazy, green.”
  • Singing the praises of writers Mavis Gallant (who they noted had not gotten the credit/attention she deserved) and Alice Munro; Gurganus says he will pick a Munro short story arbitrarily and read it when he is feeling stuck.
  • Gurganus pointed out that the word ‘empathy’ did not exist until the 20th century, which I found interesting, as I have always found this to be a powerful word/concept … but unfortunately,  I failed to write down the context this fact 
  • ‘honoring the buried song in someone’ – this tied in with the discussion of empathy … somehow. 
  • Fiction is a force of memory
  • We are all walking around with encoded stories inside of us.
  • Another random note, I believe from a sidetrack about place and changes in place/surroundings: Gurganus discussing how mobile homes that were once modest and actually were “mobile” have now ‘swelled up like giant ticks’ … huge and immovable. Instant mental picture.
  • Both spoke of re-reading books a lot

And for any avid reader parents who are despairing that their kid may never develop a love of reading, Gurganus and Parker should give you hope: when my 12-year-old daughter, an avid reader, worked up the nerve to ask them a question, it was “What did you read when you were growing up?”

The answer? They didn’t really read when they were growing up.  Gurganus said he was too busy running around outside and playing in the woods (something he thinks kids today have missed out on) and only became a reader when he was stationed on the USS Yorktown during the Vietnam War.

Parker recalled how the first books that drew him in when he was a teenager were rock star biographies, something that gave him brownie points with my 12-year-old music lover.

Parker’s novel, The Watery Part of the World, is the only book I bought at the festival. I’ve wanted to read it for a long time, so I broke my vow to stop adding to my embarrassing “TBR” pile until I start making more progress.

You can catch Parker in a “solo” appearance at Quail Ridge Books, my favorite bookstore, today, May 1st:


In short, this year’s festival was a great event in a beautiful space: Well-done.

Read a kid’s take on the Festival. 

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.



victory on the playground (for Alice)

In storytelling, Tangents on November 5, 2013 at 11:59 pm
width="295"In fifth or sixth grade, my best friend  and I trained for the Field Day Three-Legged Race.
Yes, trained – we wanted to win that sucker, so we practiced our three-legged stride faithfully … at recess every day and probably at home, too.
Our training paid off: Sporting our long, stringy hair, glasses and very best 1970s lack of fashion, we won the Three-Legged Race that day.

 And we loved winning it.

10287040_10202947238614961_8936849695838270406_oNot in a ‘Chariots of Fire’/serious sort of way — probably more because it was a funny sort of thing to win and because we had invested serious effort in that funny thing, and our plan worked

Fast-forward a few decades, and she had to be just as methodical in dealing the biggest challenge of her life –  MS. Years into it, when the disease became relentless, she tried every option available to her, including experimental stem cell treatments. This time, when the stakes were so much higher, all the drugs and treatments and research did not slow that progression.

But she was never going to let the MS take control, and she wrote the end of her story, which was lousy, but on her own terms; I take a lot of comfort in that. I hope one day our society will come around to understanding/respecting the wishes of people we love who have terrible diseases and zero quality of life and are ready to let go.

Today marks five years since she left, and I miss her every day. But I hope that my posting photos and stories on Facebook and elsewhere doesn’t make it seem as if I am continuing to mourn her death. I’m really just continuing to celebrate her life; it is still making mine richer.

Thanks, Al.

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.

‘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.

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.

Finding the right time for a story that hits home: ‘The Tender Bar’

In book group, lines worth underlining, reading on July 1, 2012 at 2:10 am

Years ago, a friend asked me to drive to Durham (NC) to see JR Moehringer do a reading at The Regulator bookshop during his Tender Bar book tour.

I knew nothing about the book going in, but Moehringer was funny and engaging, and the more I listened, the more I saw the broad strokes of my own childhood in his. Strong single mother carrying a heavy load. Absent father (his disappeared; mine died young) shrouded in mystery and fascination and frustration. An explosive relative in and out of our lives (I didn’t learn the term ‘verbally abusive’ until I was much older).

I bought the book, of course, and asked him to sign to my daughter and me, in honor of my mother.

At the time, I was in the middle of a book I needed to finish for my book group, but I put it aside that night and began reading The Tender Bar, recognizing myself over and over again in the first few chapters. When someone has written what seems to be a description of your own young fears and heartaches, it’s a bittersweet thing – on the one hand, relief (misery sort of loves company?); on the other, old sadnesses, drifting back up to the surface.

Soon, I had to stop reading and rush to finish my abandoned book club book. I put The Tender Bar on the ‘to read’ bookshelf, but years went by, and I didn’t finish. In my own single parenthood, I have a terrible track record of skipping around between books, finishing a half or three-quarters of many fine books, always swearing I will finish one day. With this one, it wasn’t a lack of interest that kept me from picking it up again; in fact, I can’t count all the times I recommended The Tender Bar to friends.

Now that I’m reading it again – I went back and started from the beginning in late May – I’ve thought about why it took so long. I can only guess that it had something to do with that familiarity I felt at the bookshop that night; I did see so much of my growing-up story in his beautiful but real and painful passages, and that story isn’t always easy to revisit.

And I was just beginning my own story as a single mother at the point that I tagged along to Moehringer’s reading; I was in the midst of divorcing and was sad to see history repeating itself for the third generation (my mother’s father died when she was only six, so my mother and her mother were on their own, too).

Maybe it was just a little too early; a little too much to take.

But right now, this summer, the story feels … well, I’m afraid all that’s coming to mind after a 105-degree heat wave day is Goldilocks, of all things, so I’ll go there, with apologies: The timing now feels ‘just right.’


Like nothing else, words organized my world, put order to chaos, divided things neatly into black and white. Words even helped me organize my parents. My mother was the printed word – tangible, present, real – while my father was the spoken word – invisible, ephemeral, instantly part of memory. There was something comforting about this rigid symmetry.

~The Tender Bar

‘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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