Friday, December 19, 2014
Thursday, December 11, 2014
I have been thinking about, revisiting a fascinating book I read a few years ago—it’s Alexandra Horowitz's ON LOOKING, ELEVEN WALKS WITH EXPERT EYES—her account of walking through familiar territory with someone who has the studied ability to see what is usually passed by unnoticed.
In one of the first chapters, she takes a walk in her own Manhattan neighborhood with geologist Sidney Horenstein who spent forty years working for the American Museum of Natural History coordinating environmental outings. What she learns on this walk radically changed the way I now look and think about my own urban San Francisco neighborhood. Before this enlightening chapter, I thought of the city with all of its man-made structures and miles of asphalt as, well, not exactly natural. But listen to what Horenstein has to say about that—
"…there are only two things on earth: minerals and biomass [plants and animals]. Everything that we have got here has to be natural to begin with—so asphalt is one of those things."
It’s just rocks, sand, and 'sticky stuff,' essentially pure and even recycled.
All right. That's good to know. In fact, it makes me happy knowing that.
The author goes on to talk about how the geology of a place is not just what is under us, but also what surrounds us: how we are actually "inside the geology of the city." That each stone, cement, composite, or brick building is really a big rocky outcropping, each patch of green a grassy plain with scattered trees. She reminds us that each building began with naturally occurring materials-- either forged of stone or hewed from a once living tree—that has been merely recombined into something for our needs and purposes.
I love that concept.
I love the idea that the city is a natural composite of tree and stone—the buildings take in water, are warmed by the sun, are slowly carved away by the steady force of wind, the slough of water and the passing of time. Nature, it seems, sculpts the city just as it does the side of a mountain. In the city, moss covers stone, ivy breaks away brick, sun and rain and snow transforms the color and texture of wood.
My own neighborhood, Russian Hill, is built on a bed of graywackle (a kind of sandstone) and shale with erupted trappean rocks (basalt, greenstone, amygdaloid and dolomite) and serpentine. My house, built out of redwood, sits on a high outcropping of serpentine, which holds it upright when the San Andreas fault slips and the earth shakes.
I have always loved picking up stones as I wander. I often have a pocket full if them, and when asked what someone can bring me from their travels, I always request a stone. To me, somehow, each holds the essence of place. I have a stone from the Egyptian desert, one from a small village in India, some from Chile, Peru, and Bolivia, from a number of beaches in Mexico and California, from the Raging River in Issaquah, Deer Lake in Eastern Washington, Flathead Lake and Glacier Park in Montana. Just to name a few. My house is full of stones—they sit on shelves, keep doors open and grind herbs.
I was in Portland some years ago visiting colleges with my youngest daughter. I picked up the purse I'd been carrying for a week and complained that it was so heavy, it felt like it was full of rocks. (thinking it was probably just a lot of loose change). When I dug into the bottom to clean out the coins, guess what I found? A half a dozen egg-sized rocks I'd picked up on a walk in Spokane the week before! I transferred them from my purse to my suitcase and felt much lighter for it. Until I found the perfect stone on the Reed campus...
So what does this have to do with writing? Hmmm…Let’s go back to asphalt—recycled stones, sand and sticky stuff. The essence of place, the passing of time and the sticky stuff of human emotions—that sounds a lot the basics of a novel to me.
Take Good Care,
Thursday, December 4, 2014
Remember my last post? How I described being in New Orleans? Part of my time there was spent with the powerful and amazing Laura Paul, executive director of lowernine.org, a non-profit dedicated to practically single-handedly rebuilding the Lower Ninth Ward.
I wanted to visit her and have my feet on the ground in the Lower Ninth because a portion of the proceeds for my novel Another Kind of Hurricane (Schwartz and Wade, July 2015) go directly to lowernine.org. I had already researched the organization (after a recommendation by the wonderful children's book author, Phil Bildner, and had been communicating with Laura for a while, but it was another thing altogether to finally go and meet her, meet her wonderful staff and crew of volunteers, meet some of her neighbors and see some of the houses that they have rebuilt.
And to see the houses that have a long way to go…
I could sing on about the great work that lowernine.org does, and rant on about how much should have been done for the Lower Ninth that still hasn't been done, but I will let Laura and her kick ass gang speak for themselves:
And then I will tell you…if you want to find a place where the landscape is rich with history, where you can practically hear the stories of generations of folks in the two by fours and the wind, you should come here…to New Orleans…to the Lower Ninth Ward.
Happy Post Thanksgiving, you all. I am grateful to you for choosing to hang here when you do.
Friday, November 28, 2014
In this week of giving thanks, it’s hard for me to know where to even start counting the myriad of blessings, the embarrassment of riches in my life~my lovely and expanding family, my dear friends who are also family, my animal companions, good health, good wine, the incredible wealth of locally grown food, my house, my city, the abundance of creature comforts I am lucky enough to enjoy. It goes on and on and on.
I also have deep gratitude for my community of writers and readers, those who share my love of stories and books.
Here is a poem by one of my favorite poets about one of my favorite things:
BECAUSE OF LIBRARIES WE CAN SAY THESE THINGS
She is holding the book close to her body,
carrying it home on the cracked sidewalk,
down the tangled hill.
If a dog runs at her again, she will use the book as a shield.
She looked hard among the long lines
of books to find this one.
When they start talking about money,
when the day contains such long and hot places,
she will go inside.
An orange bed is waiting.
Story without corners.
She will have two families.
They will eat at different hours.
She is carrying a book past the fire station
and the five and dime.
What this town has not given her
the book will provide; a sheep,
a wilderness of new solutions.
The book has already lived through its troubles.
The book has a calm cover, a straight spine.
When the step returns to itself,
as the best place for sitting,
and the old men up and down the street
are latching their clippers,
she will not be alone.
She will have a book to open
and open and open.
Her life starts here.
-- Naomi Shihab Nye
Take Good Care,
Thursday, November 20, 2014
I spend the last 3 days in New Orleans, getting my feet on the exact ground where Henry and Zavion, the two main characters in my middle grade novel, Another Kind of Hurricane, place their feet. Both of them walk very specific streets, and I was able to navigate the same ones, replicating their journeys.
Before this week, I had certainly imagined those journeys. I researched them like crazy, pouring over maps multiple times, and talking with folks in New Orleans who could confirm that, yes, it was possible to turn this corner and walk down that street. I felt like I had done due diligence to the process. I knew, as best I could, where Henry and Zavion trekked as they went on their adventures.
But it another thing, all together, to actually walk in their footsteps.
Boy oh boy, does it matter…getting your body into the landscape you are trying to describe. It's not always possible, but when you can do it, it is amazing. And not surprisingly, the details that come from experiencing something first hand are gifts.
For instance, the wind.
|The approximate location of the Salvation Army|
|The grocery store|
I walked from where I have placed the Salvation Army in my story, to where I have placed a small grocery store.
These streets are right near the Mississippi River. The wind comes off of the river and, depending on whether you are walking perpendicular to it, or parallel, it whips harsh and sharp…or not. And even when you walk a few blocks in from the river, you can feel it there. The expanse of it. The abruptness of the land ending and this enormous body of water beginning. The cramped feeling of narrow streets.
There are details, too, that are much harder to articulate. A feeling on a street, or the sense of history that lies thick in walls and sidewalks. The energy of a place. The ways a landscape holds stories. Layers and layers of stories.
Then, of course, the idea is to translate these details to the page. To add our story to those others. We do our best, right?
Thursday, November 13, 2014
I have been spending a lot of time lately thinking about smells. Like the familiar smells around the house that wrap around me as I go about my interior day; ginger peach tea, warm toast, ripe bananas, the lanolin in the wool rugs that hang on the wall, oiled wood, pear slices, sunlight through the linen drapes, warm cat, damp dog, a glass of wine, Dr. Brommer’s Peppermint Castile Soap, a closet full of shoes, feather pillows on a cool autumn evening. These are the smells of home, of comfort, familiarity, safety. Calming smells. Secure smells.
In the midst of all this smelling, a link in Tami Lewis Brown’s recent Through The Tollbooth blogpost “Writing A Book That Stinks Or How To Make Scents of Great Writing” led me to Kate McLean, a graphic designer who makes exquisite and evocative sensory maps of towns and specifically what she describes as, “Smell maps as cartographic portraits of sensory perception in the urban environment.” http://www.sensorymaps.com
McLean’s maps and research have inspired me to the point of obsession with making note and keeping track of the myriad of smells in my neighborhood. I have started a map. Well, a list that will soon become a map…
So, today, the first things that hit me when I walked out the door were the smell of salt water, a little fishy, wafting up from the Bay, spliced with burnt chocolate that is actually coffee roasting at Graffeo Coffee three blocks away. Add to that the astringent smell of dry leaves in the gutter. Other marks along the way included wet slate and strong detergent from the scrubbed down entry way of the apartment building down the street, fresh house paint, mown grass at Michelangelo park, dog piddle at most every street tree, the sharp metallic smell of cable turning in the cable car tracks, tomatoes at the corner market, warm sugar from Victoria Bakery, chlorine from the North Beach pool, lavender at the bocce ball court, rosemary from the potted topiaries in front of the Bohemian Hotel. My canine companion, Emma, picked up other smells; she checked her pmial at every tree trunk, trash can and building corner, while always keeping a nose out for forbidden street snacks—cracker crumbs, pizza crust, apple cores, spilled chow fun.
And after Tam’s blogpost last week on how different the world can be at different times of day, I am more keenly aware of the changing smells from morning to afternoon to night.
It was some years ago, when one of my writing teachers had me do a writing exercise using smell to try to access some of my elusive childhood memories, that I discover the incredible power of smell to evoke not only memory but the emotional content of memory. I later learned that scientists, psychologists, poets, novelists and perfumers have long made the indisputable correlation between the sense of smell, memory and emotion. More than the other senses, it is the sense of smell that instantly conjures up specific memory of place, atmosphere and potent emotion.
For me, the scent of warm sun on a bramble of blackberries immediately transports me back to an afternoon when I was ten years old, standing at the end of a gravel cul-de-sac, wind rattling the leaves in the poplar trees, a September sun low in the sky, worrying that my best friend had a new best friend and that I would have to walk to school by myself now. To this day, blackberry leaves hold the melancholy scent of change and loss, loneliness and exclusion.
The musty smell inside an old book transports me to Shakespeare and Company in Paris in my early twenties; I had a cold, it was raining and there was a huge long-haired tabby dozing on the counter. For me this old book smell still conveys the feeling of safety and refuge, so far away from home.
When I write, I often call on the sense of smell to help me get to an emotion that’s hard to pin down. Need happy? Try thinking of a moment when you were happy and sniff around the memory—is that cake and lemonade, the rubbery smell of balloons, the distinct scent of stretched out crepe paper? Once you can smell it, can you feel it? How about scared? Try scorched pumpkin, damp earth and the glue smell from the inside of a Halloween mask.
What smells evoke vivid memories for you? Or is it the other way around—how do your memories smell?
Take Good Care,