One of us lives on the east coast. One of us lives on the west.

One of us lives in a rural community. One of us lives in a city.

Both of us wander. Both of us witness. Both of us write.

This is a record of what we find.







Friday, March 27, 2015

Reprise: The Landscape In Between

I kinda feel this way again, everyone.  Is it the time of year?  Maybe…


*     *     *     *     

I am in that straddling place.

That place that is one part rocky and one part sand. One part windy and one part heat. The place that is the water between two islands, that long stretch when you can't see land but you know it is behind you and you know it is in front of you and so you contemplate your options, tread water or swim, baby, swim...

I choose to swim, but I am tired. Man, am I tired.

It's an age old place, and an age old murmur in the brain. I know that the straddling place should have its own name. It shouldn't be nameless, those that are nameless don't turn their heads to familiar voices because no one calls to them, no one can call to them. And so they grow more and more aloof, and protective. They grow vines with thorns.

I also know that, truly, the straddling place does have many names. My friend, Kara, who teaches yoga calls it being in the moment. And my son, Luc, who is a cross country runner, calls it the zone.  There are other names too: the process, patience and faith.  Even I have given it names before. My favorite is it is what it is. Kind of catchy, right? Chameleon-like. When I call it that I feel bold and brave. I feel like an explorer who is in it simply for the rocks and the sand and the wind and the sun.

But that name escapes my brain now, and I can't find my compass or my map, and I forgot to bring enough water and nuts. I'm tired. I'm hungry. And I feel like I'm on uneven ground.

Oh my gosh. Pathetic.  I don't mean to be pathetic. I mean to be honest and I mean to put these three questions out to you all:

What do you call this place? What is its landscape?  And how do you find a sense of home here?


*    *    *    *    *    *

Last night I sat on the couch and finished a book. A great book.  One that inspired me as a person and as a writer. The pellet stove was chugging. The room was warm. I had a glass of seltzer on the window sill behind me with just the right amount of fizz because yesterday was pay-day and I went to the store to finally buy a new CO2 canister. The chickens were tucked into their coop, but my middle daughter, Zory, tread down the stairs, too late for her to be awake.

You should be in bed I said.

I can't sleep she said.  She looked at the book face down on my lap.  What book is that?

A really good one I said. Actually I read it to see if you might like it. And I think you will.

She stretched out her hand. I put the book carefully in it. She read a page. She looked at the cover. Is this Maureen or Debbie?* she asked, pointing to the girl riding over a bridge on her bike.

Debbie I said. You need to go to bed. You have school tomorrow. 

But I can't sleep. Don't you ever feel that way?

For some reason the question brought tears to my eyes. I nodded my head in agreement.

So can I read a little more? she asked. Just until the end of the chapter. Please?  I like the book so far.

I nodded again.

Zory leaned back on the other side of the couch. Her knees were bent and the book rested on her thighs. I looked out the window. It was black outside. I felt the glass on the window. And cold. It was cold out there too. The last remnants of winter skulking around in the night. I looked back at Zory. Her brow was furrowed. Her mouth was slightly open. She was unaware of me in that ten-year-old way that she usually was. When had it happened? When had she become the kind of reader that walked inside a book and sat down with girls like Maureen and Debbie and didn't walk out until she was done?  When had she become the kind of reader that I had dreamed I would give birth to, who would sit on the couch with me, warmed by the stove and warmed by the words?

Twice in one night Zory brought tears to my eyes.

I thought about the Zory of before, I thought about where she was going.  And, last night, I felt like I could sit on that couch forever in that place in between, in that straddling place. In that place I call home.

*    *    *    *    *    *

It is what it is.  The zone.  Being in the moment.  The process, patience and faith.

What do you call this place? What is its landscape?  And how do you find a sense of home here?

Gratefully yours,

Tam




*Can you guess what book Zory was reading??

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Rich Landscape Of Travel


I was recently in Mexico—Mexico City, San Miguel De Allende and a day in Guanajuato. The time spent there was sensual, mind-expanding and so rich in images and experience.

Travel has always been important in our family, a priority that trumps most all other discretionary spending and hits the top of the list when we’re budgeting time and resources.

People often ask me, but what do you do when you travel?






Well, we do what we most like to do when we’re home, but more of it. We wander, we consider the landscape, we look at architecture, visit galleries and art museums, listen to music, hang out at side-walk cafés, talk to the dogs, eat locally and drink the local wine. And we always stop in a pharmacy and buy a tube of toothpaste.

I keep a journal. This past trip, I kept two. One to share and one just for me where I jotted down images and experiences and notes for a poem or short story, plus 4 rough-hewn sketches that helped me “see” more detail in an image I’d noted. (A practice I’ve now incorporated into my everyday journaling. Thank you, Lynda Barry!)


I thought I’d share one day from our trip (from the to-share journal):


Wednesday February 25, San Miguel de Allende
 
Breakfast in the lovely courtyard of our hotel.

Then we took a taxi from San Miguel to Guanajuato in a car with no seat belts. Our drivers name was Juan Jose—he spoke no English and had a silver cross on a string of green rosary beads dangling from the rear view mirror. He picked up a friend and then took us to see the mummy museum displaying the people who have been dug up from the cemetery to make room for more people, explaining in Spanish that only the very wealthy stay buried.


Then they took us to a church on top of a mine and showed us the gloppy gilded altars and sent us with a guide, deep, deep, down many flights of steep slippery stairs into the mineshaft. The guide insisted we keep taking pictures of each other posed as miners. Then we drove through the tunnels left over from the old mines into the center of town where we had a nice outdoor lunch on the square; shrimp tacos on a big spinach leaf and a paper thin slice of jicama and then soup. We walked around town holding hands and soaking up the spectrum of heat-soaked colors, then drove back to San Miguel and looked at the cactus and yellow flowers of Saint Mary and the dry hills of the Sierras de Guanajuato. Back in San Miguel, we chilled a little then went back out to see a few more galleries on Bob's recommended list, had some ice cream at Santa Clara creamery, a drink on the roof of Mama Mia.





On our way to find the restaurant where we wanted to eat, we saw a parade come up a quiet dimly-lit narrow street with a motorcycle policeman escort; a decorated donkey, two huge puppets—a lady and a Mexican wrestler with a horn band—maybe for lent? Also a group of tourists riding horses. We had a lovely light dinner at a new modern restaurant, Cumpanio, that had a repeating video of silhouetted white dog images playing on a wall in the bar.

I'd love to hear where you've been and what you've seen...

Take Good Care,

Sharry

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Landscape of Longing Repost

There is a space between man's imagination and man's attainment that may only be traversed by his longing.
                       
                                                                                               ― Kahlil Gibran from Sand and Foam 



I am thinking about longing this week.  I think about it often, and I know I have written about it here before.  It's a complicated thing, longing.  It's a good thing, a great thing, a salvation. To long for something is an affirmation of your very self; a vibrant reminder that you care and you feel and you have a bonfire burning inside. But it is also an ache, isn't it?  A pull outside of yourself – for what you desire is not with you, not yet.  It is your head against the cold of the windowpane, searching, searching through the glass for that thing, that (as of yet) unattainable thing.

I tend to rest, ultimately, not on the dark side of longing, but on the light side.



God speaks to each of us as he makes us, then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall, go to the limits of your longing. Embody me.
Flare up like a flame and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don't let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life. You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
                                                                        — Rainer Maria Rilke, Go to the Limits of Your Longing


I had an epiphany this week though.  Perhaps you all already know this, but for me it was an eye opener.  I realized that, historically, when I feel a longing, I immediately and unconsciously attach it to many, many thoughts or memories or fantasies. Let me explain: I long for something. Nanoseconds later I either have a fantasy about that longing – What would it be like to have this? I can see myself having it, feeling so happy, sitting in my living room basking in its glow… or I have a memory about it – I remember when I wanted this before. I almost had it, and then, in the last moment, it fell through my fingers. It felt awful, I felt like a failure…

See?  In the former, my longing is hitched to a fantasy train, wildly careening down the tracks, and in the latter, it is strapped to a memory bomb, whistling and hurtling at terrifying speeds to the earth.  Both are a ride. Neither will get me anywhere useful.

So my epiphany was this idea that longing is best treated with a buffer of space and reverence. It needs to breathe.  It needs to be – not lonely, perhaps – but solitary.  It deserves to be respected in that way.  We who feel longing deserve to be respected in that way.

I know I have posted this poem before, but May Sarton says it in the very best way:




The phoebe sits on her nest

Hour after hour,

Day after day,

Waiting for life to burst out

From under her warmth.


Can I weave a nest of silence,

Weave it of listening, listening, listening,

Layer upon layer?

But one must first become small,

Nothing but a presence,

Attentive as a nesting bird,

Proffering no slightest wish

Toward anything
that might happen or be given,

Only the warm, faithful waiting,
contained in one’s smallness.


Beyond the question, 
the silence.

Before the answer, 
the silence.


— May Sarton, Can I Weave a Nest of Silence

With gratitude,
Tam

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Landscape of Sarah Tomp's My Best Everything




We’re so thrilled to have our VCFA classmate and dear friend Sarah Tomp with us today to talk about her just released (March 3rd!) debut YA novel, My Best Everything!  We love this book—it’s a beautifully written love letter brimming with electric passion and the longing of characters who take great risks to get what they think they want. (I read it in two long breathless gulps, staying up half the night to find out what happens!)




Sharry: Welcome Sarah! I found the landscape in MY BEST EVERYTHING to be so richly provocative and specific to the story—could you describe it for our readers?


Sarah: MY BEST EVERYTHING takes place in the fictional town of Dale, located in the New River Valley, within Appalachia Virginia. It’s a small impoverished town tucked between two mountains with a river running through its center. There are wild and overgrown woods surrounding the area. And in those woods, not too far from a rushing stream, is the spot where my main character, Lulu Mendez, convinces her friends Roni and Bucky to set up a copper still “borrowed” from the junkyard where she and Roni work. That’s how they start making and selling moonshine.



Sharry: You seem to know the landscape intimately well—you must have spent a good amount of time there, gathering the details that bring it vividly to life?

Sarah: Although Dale is not a real place, it’s based on several of the towns surrounding Blacksburg, Virginia, where I lived as a teen. It’s the kind of place that feels both wild and safe. It’s where I learned to drive—and I spent a ridiculous amount of time driving and/or riding around on little back roads exploring the area. The river was a favorite place to end up. I loved riding inner tubes down The New River as soon as the days turned warm.

Sharry: Wild and safe—I love that! And such evocative memories of your own teenage years. Can you talk a little about how the landscape of and around Dale plays a part in your story? 

Sarah: The setting—the landscape—is integral to the story in just about every way. My main character, Lulu is desperate to leave town. She is eager to head off to college life in sunny California. Although there are things she grudgingly likes about her town, she has never felt like she fits in there. She sees it as a slow and sleepy place, covered with shadows and grit. It’s beautiful, but it’s a rough place too.

This is the way she describes Dale, and the junkyard where she works:
“…that spot coming out of the last long curve, where the silvery beech trees grow all lithe and graceful with the somber, steady hills behind them. That’s a view that feels like hope and goodness, as if the whole world is right and strong. But then, all of a sudden, there it is: Sal’s Salvage. Heaps of rusty cars. Noisy machinery. All of it ugly and old and worn out, and all wrapped up with harsh chain-link fences and barbed wire.”

Over the course of the story, Lulu gets to know her community better. Mason teaches her to drive and they spend hours exploring all the many back roads. She starts to find beauty in unexpected places, and to truly appreciate what it means to be a “Dale girl.”

And then there’s the moonshine. Moonshine is a cultural tradition for this part of the world. It’s something that has always flourished when times get tough. People work hard and do whatever it takes to feed their families. The thick woods and running water make it easier to hide a working still. 

I just don’t think this story couldn’t have taken place anywhere else.

Sharry: I couldn’t agree more—the story and place are so interwoven. And it feels like you have both affection and such a deeply personal connection to this landscape—would you say that’s true?
 
Sarah: I loved living in that part of the country! It was an amazing place to spend my teen years. We hiked in the woods, went camping out under the stars, and swam in the lakes and rivers, and the amazing Cascade waterfalls.

So many of my own firsts happened in that place. Memories are tucked into that landscape. There’s a spot on the highway a little north of here (San Diego) that when I’m driving past, it always looks like the hills of Virginia to me. Paired with the colloquial exit named Gopher Canyon, it always makes me feel a little homesick and wistful. But happy, too.

And yet, I never really thought I’d stay there. A lot of my high school friends had lived there all their lives. I was very aware of being an outsider when we moved the summer I turned twelve. So, even though I loved parts of it, maybe that’s why I knew I wouldn’t be staying there forever. I wasn’t as ambitious or determined as Lulu—I never would have had the tenacity to follow through on creating and sustaining a successful moonshine business—but I always assumed I’d end up somewhere else. Just like Lulu.

Sharry: Exactly! Just like Lulu. Thank you so much Sarah for sharing these insights with us today!


Sarah Tomp's Bio

Sarah is the author of My Best Everything, a novel for young adults and a picture book, Red, White and Blue Good-bye. She earned a MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She teaches creative writing for UCSD Extension and lives in San Diego with her family. Visit her at her website: www.sarahtomp.com


You can order My Best Everything through Little Brown Teen or Barnes and Noble or from your favorite independent bookseller!

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Building A Nest~Reposted from March 2013

In my usual burst of enthusiasm for the things I love and the desire it creates to imitate them (I love to eat—I should learn how to cook! I love to read—I should try and write a novel!) I have been building a bird’s nest. 

Now the root of this passion is two-fold—I have always loved bird’s nests—I have collected obviously (and sometimes barely) abandoned ones for years. (Usually to have them disintegrate on a bookshelf after a time). I also love artist’s books and altered book artwork and recently made a pact with my oldest artist daughter, Ceinwen, that I would make a piece to enter in the annual MOCA (Marin Museum of Contemporary Art) altered book show and auction, if she would.

It’s due in a month.

The first step, for me, was to find a book to alter. So I visited the Reader’s Bookstore in Fort Mason to look for a vintage book that might be the foundation of my piece. I knew I wanted it to be something to do with birds and/or trees. I found an old library book from the 1940’s, a novel titled The Trees. The deckled pages are thick, slightly buckled and yellowed, the cloth cover is a faded blue. I cut a deep hole in the middle with an exacto-blade where my nest could rest.

Now making a bird’s nest is not as easy as it might look (neither is writing a novel!!!) I can definitely say that the slanderous term ‘bird-brain’ is a mislabel—birds are incredibly clever architects of little woven miracles.

After I took a walk in the woods and collected some leaves and twigs, I made an awkward skeleton out of some copper wire. I soaked the twigs, then bent and twisted, snapped and cursed and tucked until I had a funky little bowl of twigs.

What I have created is an imitation of a bird’s nest. It’s a pretty good imitation— there’s little question as to what it’s supposed to be. I think most people would look at it and think, oh, that looks like a bird’s nest. (As opposed to oh,…that’s interesting…what is it?)



It’s the same as when we write and try to create a well-rounded, believable character or a realistic setting—we are creating a plausible imitation. And sometimes we have to distort reality to make what is written work. This is especially the case in writing dialogue—if we as writers were to write a page of dialogue the way we all normally speak, it would be unbearably boring and dull with all of the um’s and uh’s and you know’s—so what we write is an imitation of dialogue.


They say that imitation is the highest form of praise. 

I say, praise be to the birds, to their beautiful nests, to the trees that hold them, to their wood that is made into paper, to the books, to the stories told and written and read. And to all of those who imitate them with love in their hearts.

Take Good Care,

Sharry

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Landscape of Essential Living (and Writing)

My debut middle grade novel, Another Kind of Hurricane was sold on April 3, 2014. On that same day, I got a phone call from our social worker, asking if we would be interested in changing the age range of the child we were willing to adopt. We had been in the process of adopting a child for 3 years, and were approved up to the age of 24 months. She asked if we were interested in, let's say, changing the upward end of the range to 28 months.
Translation of that question: There is a child that the adoption committee wants to match you with. He is slightly older than the age range you requested. If you change your age range you will be matched with your son.
Answer to that question: Yes. And yes and yes and also yes.
growingPlant1My book sold on the same day I found out about our son. Two excruciatingly long processes in the soil, sun and rain, and they flowered on exactly the same day.
Explain that. (Seriously. I'm collecting reasons, magical and logical, for why these two journeys are so intertwined.)
Or I will explain it. Or I will try, at least. But bear with me? I want to finally write a little about my son, who just came to live with us in December. I've been protective of his journey, not wanting to expose him too much in too public a way, but there is a part of it that I want to explore now. Here. With you all. And I'm not sure why, but I think it has something to do with writing. Maybe. We'll see.
Image 15
In Honduras.
My son was born in Honduras and lived his three years there before we adopted him. He lived in the same town, with the same family. His life with his foster mother was secure and full of love. This is evident. He is fully himself wherever, thus far, he has been – in his home town; in Tegucigalpa, the capitol city of Honduras; on Roatan Island; on my parents' farm in very rural Vermont; and now, in my town in Vermont, in our little village, in our house. In all of these places, in all of these landscapes, he is…who he is. Do you know what I mean? He's got a solid sense of self. And he is very comfortable residing there. No need to defend himself, no need to hide himself.
I believe he is like this for two reasons: First, he came into the world this way. He must have. And second, his foster mother nurtured this in him – through her love and gift of security – during those critical early developmental years in his life. (The respect and awe I feel for her, this woman who took in my son with open arms, raised him, and then let him go with those same open arms…that is for another post another day.)
Because he has this innate sense of centeredness, he is very curious about and very comfortable finding the ways that he fits into the landscape of our family. And here is where maybe he and writing overlap? Or are woven together?
flat,550x550,075,f.u5
(from http://www.violinist.com)
My son's first three years were full of the routines and rhythms of household chores. I'm learning this about him. He loves to do the laundry with me, for example, and learned the order of button pushing to start the washing machine by the second time we did it together. He loves to cook too. He sits on the counter, his short legs kicking the wooden drawer underneath him, and he dumps the flour, cracks the eggs, and pours the milk. Stir is one of his first English words. He watched my other 3 kids come home from school for about 3 days before he began taking their lunch boxes out of their backpacks and bringing them to me – because he realized that was what they did, day after day, right after they piled through the door and spilled into the house.
This kid watches routines. He feels rhythms. And then he acts. He finds the places where he can fit himself into the beat, into the music, into the pauses and patterns – and then he inserts himself. The earnestness with which he pursues this breaks my heart wide open. He is so transparent. He is so clearly identifying and claiming his place in the family, and in this new life. But – or maybe and – at the same time, he is so clearly tapping into something that is familiar to him at his core.
Image 1
Trampolining in winter in negative digit temps. Welcome to Vermont, kid.
Rhythms and routines. This is how you write a book too, isn't it? On a meta-level: make a routine for your writing. On a micro-level: find and follow the rhythms of your characters' voices and of the story. But it's deeper than that. And I don't know if I can describe what I am feeling adequately here. (Maybe someone can give me insight after reading this?) There is an essential quality to my son's life right now…as in, he is practically all essence. There is an authenticity that buzzes through and around him that's palpable. Maybe this is because he is, in a way, being re-born right now. And that newborn time is all about essence and core and what-you-see-is-what-you-got, right? Most kids keep this for a while, some for a long while, so I am, by no means, suggesting that my son is unique in this…but I do think that, among the myriad of other reasons I am so lucky to be mothering this kid, I am privileged to be a part of this kind of essentialness in such an intimate way.
Image 7
Yup, he's drinking it all in...
This – this essentialness – is what we strive for in our writing, isn't it? The transparency and truthfulness of the human spirit that breaks open the hearts (and minds) of our readers? That inspires them – in even the smallest ways – to live fully inside of themselves?
I don't know. I think so anyway. What I do know is that my son humbles me every single day.

With gratitude,
Tam