Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Standing Still Sun

Here it comes—the winter solstice. I can already sense the shift from the lingering darkness, the failing light, the incremental tilting toward more sun.

My personal hemisphere is about to shift.

Done with the MFA (except for a few lingering details—a seminar to conduct, a reading to give, a ceremony).

Done with the semester—grades in, goodbyes to certain students with whom I felt a connection.

Amid the relief, I feel sad about both things.  I'm not great with endings, I often fail to remember that they are actually beginnings.

Now what?

Nothing is set, yet there are possibilities.

Perhaps more teaching; a thing I hope for because I found a joy in teaching that surprised me.

Definitely more writing. There is much to do, in spite of having finished my creative thesis—now I need to turn that promising beginning into a truly finished thing (as much as any "thing" of this sort can be considered finished).

I suppose what's next is really this: to take the steps necessary to have the life I want. Fortunately I know the elements of that life; even more fortunate, many of the elements are already in place.

Today, however, I am going to stand still and consider which way to turn.

Today I take heart in knowing that the daylight will soon last a little longer.

I hope you like this cool photo I found at www.freefoto.com.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Cool Thing for Writers (And Readers)

So, I was perusing the Interwebs as I sometimes do and came across this very interesting project by Peter Selgin—a writer who also edits and teaches (because how many writers only have one job, right?). It's called "Your First Page" and, as the homepage states, it "is a craft forum to which authors are invited to submit the first pages of a works-in-progress (fiction or memoir) and get free critical feedback" from Peter and also get comments from followers of the blog.

I figured it would be an interesting exercise to submit my first page, the current beginning of my memoir-in-progress. Check it out here.

This enterprise seems like a remarkably generous and potentially compelling way of opening up the conversation about craft. I wish I'd thought of it myself, though the last thing I need right now is another project. Writer friends, let me know if you try it with your first page.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Robert G. Hilts

Late on the afternoon of Oct. 21, 1991, the phone on my desk at work rang. I worked as a secretary in a law firm in those days and calls were announced. My desk was, basically, in the hallway; I shared a space with another secretary and we were positioned for rapid response to any demands issuing forth from the lawyers' offices on the other side of that hall. When my phone rang, my boss and I would make eye contact while I announced who was calling—he'd shake his head yes or no to taking the call.
"Your dad is calling," the receptionist said and put the call through; before I could form the thought that this was odd, there he was.
"Hi, Dad." My boss turned back to the work on his desk.
"Just calling to say hello, ask how you're doing."
Even though I knew, we chatted for a while because that's what he wanted. I told him about the hearing we were preparing for, the amount of work required to get the paperwork in order, the endless typing of motions and copying of pages and faxing of documents. "Dad?"
"Are you okay?"
"Well, Button, I don't know if you've heard, but I've got cancer. But I'm fine. I'm okay."
"Yeah, Dad. Listen...."
"Honey, I've got to go now. Just wanted to say hello. You be good. Oh! And, um, thank you for your letter. It means the world."
I told him I was leaving work in an hour and would be at his house as soon as I could be. He told me no. He ordered me not to come. "I love you. Okay?"
"Okay, then. Bye bye, now."
"Bye, Dad. I love you."
My cubicle mate had gotten up when I said hellp, closed the doors of all the lawyers' offices then disappeared down the hall.
After I'd cried and sobbed and cried some more, I stood up and opened my boss's door. But I stayed at work, very late, because I am my father's daughter and work has always been a kind of haven. Then I went home and got in bed and waited for the call that came at 4:30 the next morning.

Today is the 19th anniversary of my father's death.
I miss him, of course; it doesn't take the anniversary for that happen.

The Week of The Heavy Hits

The first signs of a cold I mentioned in my previous post turned into a fully blown assault on my general well-being; I spent a day in bed, feverish, aching, too sick to do much besides watch television. My voice went from raspy to non-existent—a challenge in the classroom.

More difficult was getting some feedback on my work that seemed designed to stop me dead in my tracks. Which it has done, though I'm rallying now.

I never thought that being a writer would be easy. When I quit my perfectly good job as a legal secretary to devote myself to writing, I expected that there would be plenty of moments of panic and doubt and...well, I was right. But I was also right in believing that if I didn't do this thing I would regret it for the rest of my life.

I've been blessed in many ways. The trick, it seems to me, is to remember those blessings, and acknowledge how lucky I've been. So, a gratitude list. Here goes:
  • My husband's belief in me buoys me when my own doubts seem to be winning, as does the support of my friends. 
  • My daughter continues to tolerate me. And we laugh together. A lot. 
  • The Inner Bitch has been very, very good to me.
  • The Universe keeps sending messages that I was right to make this choice.
  • Today the sun is shining and the changing leaves provide moments of breath-taking beauty. 
  • Against all odds, I still have a roof over my head and a room of my own in which to write.
What are you grateful for today? 

Monday, October 18, 2010

Signs and Portents

I knew it would happen, I just wasn't sure when.


Today is the day when the various demands on my time, energy and capacity collided. I have no one to blame but myself, of course; I wanted to teach, I wanted to do what I could to make it possible to teach more in the future, I wanted to figure out a way to make enough money.

Of course I have the first signs of a cold.

Of course I rushed home from my morning gig to do an interview at 12:30—an interview that is scheduled for next Monday.

The good news is, now I can just write for the rest of the day. Except there's no food in the house, no milk, no half and half, no...the list of what isn't here that should be is long. 

So. Now I know that it's time to pay attention. Make some soup, have a little lie down, enjoy a cup of tea, then write.


Sunday, October 10, 2010

A little glass-blowing, again

There is an apple cake baking and a pot of minestrone simmering. My house smells of cinnamon, tomato, sugar, oregano, the particular crispness of early fall night. Outside my window I hear a few cicadas; their summertime Phil Spector "Wall of Sound" music has begun to fade so it's possible to focus on the steady chirp of a single cicada nearby, the rest are just in the background.

Soon they will all fall silent.

Things are shutting down. Yet the Montauk daisies and the sedum are in full bloom.

Friday, October 8, 2010



Ten years ago I married the man I call "The Total Package." My steadfast, my love, my true best friend.

I am so grateful he is in my life. I am so proud to say he is my husband.

God only knows what I'd be without you, Neil Swanson. 

Saturday, October 2, 2010


I just finished reading a few entries in Peter Terzian's blog on the Paris Review website, A Week in Culture: Peter Terzian, Writer, and am feeling...well, inadequate. The man is reading "Ulysses," for crying out loud. Not just reading it, he's parsing it; a little bit each morning. And he and his husband read poetry each morning at breakfast. That's after his daily dose of Joyce. Then he reads even more while commuting to his job.

I, on the other hand, am struggling with my self-appointed task of reading something—anything—of quality each day.

Of course, I must remember that I am writing (500 words a day, minimum); teaching (which includes quite a bit of reading); freelancing and dealing with the effects of whiplash. Oh, and then there's all this life to deal with.

Still. Come on. Can't I do just a little more, a little something to improve my mind, deepen my knowledge of classic literature, learn (finally) to appreciate poetry even if I don't fully understand it?

This is a beautiful day and I had a complicated dream that seems full of meaning—my father was in it (though I didn't see him, I knew he was there), Frank Conroy was in it and we had a joyous reunion that was way out of proportion relative to my actual interactions with that great writer/teacher, an old boyfriend or two, an acquaintance of mine who I wish was an actual close friend, and I lived (in this dream) in an odd little place with a front door I had to remove completely.

"Take down the barricade," I think is the meaning of that door. Or perhaps it is that, once I've opened the portal, it will take a large effort to close it again.

But haven't I already opened that door? And why was this dream populated by nothing but men (and me)? 

Friday, September 24, 2010

The View From Here

We'd had a lovely time at the party—met new people, had interesting conversations, laughed, enjoyed. The night had turned cool enough that I shivered, just a little bit, and pulled my shawl close as we walked to the car, commenting on how dark and quiet it was—so unlike our part of the world.

Of course the kid who hit us from behind was drunk, but we didn't know that for certain at the time. All we knew was that the car was damaged, that we'd sustained a shock. And my neck hurt, my back hurt, my fingers were tingling. When the dispatcher asked if we needed an ambulance, I said we did.

There's something odd about having a stranger holding your head stable from behind—faceless, bodiless (except for those hands with their firm grip), yet intimate. There's something odder about being strapped to a body board, head now stabilized by a neck brace and some sort of blocks; odder still, being able to only look straight ahead which means "up," into the faces of firefighters in full regalia.

This is the week when my capacity for remaining positive, for acceptance, for patience has been sorely tested. There's good news, of course. If marks were being given, I'm fairly certain I'd get a "C," at best.

But there's good news, right? We are both still here. No one died or lost a limb or use of a limb. So why do I feel as if some essential thing was lost? Why is looking up so hard now that the neck brace is gone, I'm no longer strapped in, that moment has passed?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


So, I was interviewed on a radio show recently. You can listen to that here: Interview.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


I wish I were always the kind of writer who writes every day. Sometimes I am (though the lie of that statement is contained in that one word "sometimes") and I have to admit that those are the times when I am...happiest? No, most content or most at ease with myself.

Between teaching and freelance and life, there was no writing at all this week. Which is why I am so pleased to have spent the first part of today absorbed in my own work, even though my toes have been cold because I neglected to put on socks (so eager to get to my desk!) and I kept thinking, "There are socks, warm, cozy, in the very next room." But I didn't go get them.

I'm inching toward what I believe is a complete first draft, filling in gaps, realizing that some things I've left out need to be put in. I'm not fooled into thinking this thing is "done"—I know myself well enough to understand it will never be done, really. Yet the idea of having made something whole out of nothing but air and memory and words and (oh yes) tears is satisfying and I can't wait to have done just that.

For now, though, I'm teaching and freelancing and life is happening. And I am trusting that this whole will be done and done soon.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Oh, If Only

There are, on the route I sometimes take driving home from errands or work, fourteen houses for sale. In some cases—quite a few, actually—the realtor signs were planted at the edge of the yards months ago. Three of them were for sale when we were looking to buy seven years ago; they were all priced just out of reach or not chosen for good reason, I can conjure the floor plans, the way the light streamed in a certain window, the one detail that made me think, "Oh, if only..."

That place with the dinky little kitchen has been remodeled and I wonder if there are now granite counters, was the w.c. sacrificed for a better flow, did they simply gut the entire downstairs to create a great room as we would have done had money not been such an object?

Seven years ago houses were, of course, being bought and flipped regularly; the wisdom of the day held that one might as well take the A.R.M. so you could get as much house as possible, then refinance before the balloon expanded. I felt like something of a coward because I couldn't bring myself to do it; if I were going to have a constant home I wanted a constant nut to cover each month, though I wondered at the time when I had become such a wimp. Why not buy the Cape and expand it? Why not consider a tear-down or a house that was too big, too luxe, too much—had I never heard of resale?

But I was looking for a home.

As I drive by—remembering that one had to pass through the bedroom at the top of the stairs to get to the expansive master suite that had been built on the back of that Cape on the dangerous curve, remembering how much I coveted the kitchen that opened on to the family room in the house with the sinking foundation, remembering the stench of mold in that house with the amazing yard (the one that has new windows, new siding, has expanded exponentially to cover the patch of irises a purple so dark it seemed almost black)—I think, "But what about the people? What's happened that they are trying to sell now?"

Divorce—perhaps brought on by the stress of remodeling, bad timing, an affair?

Relocation (I hope with corporate support)?

Are they simply cutting their losses? Or is there something more hopeful going on—someone got promoted, the business took off, that large inheritance softening the blow of loss?

But there's this: seven years is a long time, relatively. A lot of living has happened in those houses. They were homes. And even when it's time to leave, even when there are countless good reasons to go, "home" is hard to let go of.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Touch Them Only Gently

By happenstance, I took myself out to lunch today; the planned meeting at the diner waylaid, me without my cellphone, the timing of communications off. When I realized my friend wasn't coming, I wavered before deciding to order anyway, to sit and listen to snippets of conversations amplified in the specific way of diners that makes it almost impossible to know who is saying what.

"...so she had to, you know, totally disinfect the whole thing and I was, like, eeeewww! But, you know, what else..."

"I can't believe he said that! Can you? Can you believe he said that?"

Then this, from the booth next to mine: "You need to be careful with them because they're very fragile. So you have to touch them only gently, okay?"

It was the older of two brothers, a boy of maybe 6 or 7, at most.

Did I even know the word "fragile" when I was that age? It's a word I rarely use without casting some kind of judgment, usually harsh.

But fragile is exactly the right word for right now. So much time spent opening memory boxes, casting around in hope of finding what's hidden inside. So many of those I love suffering, managing, coping as best they can. So many blue sky September days resonating with what happened on that one particular blue sky September day.

The boys left with their mom and grandmother. I dipped my spoon into a bowl of split pea soup and thought about how good each sip tasted.

Sunday, September 5, 2010


A breeze verging on "chill" is blowing, making music of the leaves and branches. Blue sky, sunshine--is there anything more lovely than these days when summer and autumn align in near-perfect tension?

My neighbors next door are leveling off a strip of their back yard, preparing to put down grass seed; there is also a small boulder that was just one of many they extracted from that patch--while she moves soil around with a shovel, he whacks at the stone with a sledge hammer. The whole yard is being tamed to within an inch of its life.

The people across the street are having their usual Sunday brunch gathering--yes, every Sunday. So someone is cooking (or at least putting out food).

The cats have been busy shedding so I ought to be busy vacuuming. And Nature knows there's plenty to do in the garden right now (the next door neighbors have been looking pointedly in the direction of my unkempt flowers and shrubs and rose bushes--the other day there was a not-so-friendly, "Wow! That's really going wild!" aimed my way).

But I'm writing and later I'll be grading papers and at some point dinner will happen. The fruits of my labors will not be immediately obvious to anyone other than me.

Monday, August 23, 2010

For Tom

Tom is my "agent provocateur" and the other day he wondered out loud about why I don't post any of my work here on this blog.

I thought what I posted here was some of my work, but he meant—quite specifically—things I've published and sections of the memoir I'm working on.

So here's a little something for him. It's actually a section I'm debating whether or not to include in the memoir. If you're so inspired, let me know what you think.

All This Lovely Stillness

This house is so quiet. It is full of the rhythms of calm habits, of a certain messy order designed to make things possible. Walls of muted colors, furniture chosen for its clean-lined simplicity or a certain funky charm, the beds piled with pillows and topped with comforters that live up to their name. Here the only disruption comes in the form of play—two cats (what were we thinking?) tumbling and batting and leaping up.

All this lovely stillness. I can’t believe it is mine.

Yet there is something completely familiar to this. Look carefully and the past asserts itself in small ways. Leather chairs in the living room, almost like those in the house on Covewood Drive. White linen curtains in the master bedroom, longer than those in my parents’ room, but still…white linen. The importance of coffee first thing in the morning, throughout the day. Even those things hidden from sight are placed where they have always been placed—the milk goes on the right top shelf of the refrigerator, every day dishes are stored in the cabinet above the dishwasher, the broiler pan lives on the top rack of the oven. A teakettle stays on the right rear burner of the stove, “where it belongs.”

There are even relics carried through all the years of chaos, brought along in every move, just waiting waiting waiting to be placed in specific spots. My portrait, the one I sat for when I was five, wearing that dress of polished cotton bought just for the occasion. The leather jewelry cases, hand-tooled, gold-embossed, are on my dresser and still hold the mysterious Mason’s pin, the coral necklace and earrings, the carved lapis necklace, my great-great-grandmother’s gold pocket watch. A photo of the farmhouse in Illinois, sepia-toned. My grandmother’s wedding crystal is in the cabinet, her silver in a felt-lined drawer; I use them for dinner parties and holidays and, sometimes, just to feel their history, at lunchtime when I eat alone.

All of my pots and pans and skillets hang from a rack, out in plain sight, but tucked inside a cabinet there is a single small Revereware pot, its copper bottom mottled, handle faded to a dusty charcoal—the perfect size for heating a can of Campbell’s Vegetable Beef soup to be eaten right out of the pot with a round soup spoon I have to search for every time. My father’s pot, his spoon, a certain comfort in the ritual of standing at the counter repeating his habit. On a shelf at the back of my closet is where I keep his last blue-plaid bathrobe; soft, full of holes, the belt frayed.

There is nothing of my mother here in this house. No talismans, no objects, not even a photo on display. Nothing.

That is a lie, of course. Everything here refers to my mother. Particularly the quiet. The echo of her insists on this quiet. I insist on this calm stillness. I want it. I need it to give me, finally, the chance to heal that still-raw wound inflicted by the loss of her, that endless incremental losing. I miss my mother, my irreplaceable beloved.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Plan B

So now comes rain—a blessing, surely, though the timing of it is maddening. After a steady diet of sunny Sundays today I wake to a sodden landscape and realize I have to seriously consider instituting Plan B.

The dinner for 14 may actually have to be served inside. Good thing we bought that pop-up shelter. Good thing I drove across the Tappan Zee Bridge for those tables to set up inside that shelter. Good thing Neil spent hours coaxing the parched yard look "presentable."

I've checked my weather site, noted the green bars predicting rainfall for the hours between 3 p.m. and midnight (oh, if they are right it will rain!), watched the radar stagger through the spectrum of orange (heavy) to blue (light). "Damn," I think. "And damn."

Good thing we had the foresight to buy a dining table that expands into the living room to accommodate a crowd. Good thing the living room has so little furniture in it.

Good thing life has taught me to always have a Plan B (and C and D).

And this: the point is not the perfection of the setting. The point is to gather together 14 for a celebration of all the unpredictable joy Life delivers.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


According to a weather website I visit more often than seems reasonable for someone who is not a meteorologist, it has been seven days since the last rain fell in my town. According to my memory, when there has been no rain worth mentioning in far longer. We need a good soaking rain, the kind of rain that makes an obvious difference for the garden and, less obviously, for the spirit.

A washout of a day forces us to confront the fact of weather and can, if we allow it, force us into a kind of acceptance in a way blue skies, sunshine and a freshening breeze never will. "What are you going to do? You can't stop the rain," we say.

This site also tells me that there has not been a lightning strike since July 21 at 21:29:50 (approximately 9:30 pm). As I am currently considering lightning from different angles—lightning as metaphor, lightning as a natural phenomena with the hope of understanding the mechanics of them (if "mechanics" is even the right phrase—my shaky grasp of science comes into play, again), lightning as transforming energy—this seems significant to me. Not that I wish for lightning; I fear electrical storms even though I am fascinated by them. But there is a part of me that is hoping for a good long thunderstorm with a light show worth watching so I can pay closer attention, bear witness to the awesome spectacle of that white-blue flash knowing as I do now that it is hotter than the surface of the sun.

I want to see what effect knowledge has on my fear.

So while I certainly have been enjoying some elements of these rainfree days—the swimming, the grilling, the sitting outside in the gloaming watching the bats dance for their meals—I've also been scanning the skies for the storm that I know is coming.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Small Cakes

Perhaps it's because I've just come back from the 10-day summer residency for my MFA program—with what feels like a burgeoning summer cold—and the reality of the final semester looms large.

Perhaps it's because the Wondergrandchild is halfway around the world in South Africa, a trip she left on while I was gone, a trip I envy and which thrills me because just imagine that!

Perhaps it's the heat and humidity and the cicadas buzzing.

Perhaps it's that my mother-in-law is in the hospital, admitted for kidney stones and an infection, and is now dealing with sepsis.

Perhaps it is all of that, though I'm willing to consider that the underlying issue for my malaise is that I'm working on completing a first draft of The Memoir and I realize how much there is yet to do. No matter the reason, there is this: I am edgy, on edge, feeling as if my center is not quite holding.

But there is also this: Mr. Handsome Man has taken position on the section of desk I've designated "the editing room." He's sprawled out, appearing deep in sleep until I begin marking up the pages at which point he maneuvers his upper body onto the paper, wanting only to be as close as he can. His closeness is designed to keep me seated, available, working.

He needs me to stay with him as much as I need to stay with the work. But there are cicadas and there is the summer heat and there is the idea of one I love so dearly being so far away and there is the fact that one I love in a different way is in pain and there is the fear that I am not quite up to the task at hand.

Is it any wonder, therefore, that I keep thinking that operating a cupcake truck would be an easier way to live?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Articles of Faith

I've just returned from the 10-day summer residency for my MFA program—an experience that is always exhilarating and exhausting in almost equal parts. Just imagine the energy of over 100 writers—whose work is done in isolation—contained on a small island where every meal is shared, every morning is spent examining and discussing and defending our work, every afternoon is devoted to seminars on some element of our craft, every night is given over to socializing. It's a wonder that cinderblock dormitory is still standing on the 11th day.

One thing is certain: few of us leave that island without having shifted in some way. Another thing is certain: when many are gathered for a condensed period of time to grapple with the bare difficulties of writing, it is inevitable that conflict will erupt, feelings will get hurt, tempers will flare.

The centerpiece of every evening on that island are the readings by our faculty. They are held in the largest space on the island, the chapel with its crucifix, its religious icons—the Stations of the Cross, carvings of saints, some I cannot name because I'm not Catholic—its hard wooden pews designed to make one confront the bare difficulties of faith. Because I am not Catholic, because the closest thing I have to a religion is the craft of writing, I spend some certain part of each reading considering my faith—the quality of it, the mysteries of it, the challenges, the rewards.

Four times I have been to the island and four times I have been changed. Four times I have received some blessing that informs my writing and transforms me as a writer.

This time is was this: "Achieve Excellence Daily. Create."

Thus spake Da Chen—who I am proud to claim as my mentor and friend. It was one line from his seminar on memoir...could it be just two days ago? Yes, two days ago.

Achieve Excellence Daily. Create.

And so, to work.

Friday, June 4, 2010

"So What?"

I had dinner with some friends the other night—writers, all—and one of them admitted that the thing that is scariest about writing is the idea that the response will be, "So what?"


Perhaps the safer thing to do is make desserts.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


The air today drapes over everything, impossible to ignore. There are some interesting things going on in the sky, things that command my attention when I really ought to be writing.

When I went out to the back deck for a smoke* the clear blue was giving way to clouds; pristine, wispy, the kind of clouds children lay on their backs in the grass to study and name. I gave in to the curve of the chair, let my head rest—for a change—on the long swoop of seat back, and stared at the passing white. “What do you see?”

It took me a while to let my mind shape those clouds into images; it was stunning to realize how hard it is for me to allow myself that kind of play. But then, suddenly, I could see them: a woman dancing, the joy of movement and twirl; an old man relaxing in a bathtub, mouth agape, feet bobbing on the bubbled surface; a horse galloping, front hooves raised, a rider hanging on, hair streaming just like the horse’s mane.

The white clouds gave way to darker, denser gray overcast; a thunderhead formed.
For the past hour or so a thunderstorm has been lumbering through the neighborhood, asserting itself once in a while with a sort of absent-minded rumble. “I’m here,” the rumble seems to say. “I could wreak havoc if I felt like it.”

The cats are taking refuge in sleep—Mr. Handsome Man is stretched out along my laptop. How can that be more comfortable? The heat coming off the casing is making my palms sweat. But he also has his paws wrapped around my left forearm; I can’t move without disturbing him. “I’m here,” his paws seem to say. “Are you here, too?”

* I don’t need any lectures about this. Honestly. I’m well aware of how awful this is.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


I've mentioned, I think, that I sometimes work onsite writing copy about "consumer goods." One of the benefits other than the money, of course, is that there is a certain social aspect of being on site; not that it's a cocktail party, but...one talks, you know?

Another benefit is that the company provides lunch; most of the time we go to the cafeteria, get our food and bring it back to eat at our desks. For a change of pace, a group of us decided to sit together instead. At one point in the conversation, one of my co-workers asked if I'd read Isabel Allende's memoir. I have; in fact, I've read both "Paula" and "The Sum of Our Days," both lovely pieces of work. And how nice, I thought, to talk about books.


"Now, I understand why Isabel Allende would write a memoir that everyone would read," the coworker said. "But why would someone want to read your memoir?"

I ask myself the same thing every day. In part I'm asking in hopes that the answer will be a clear, "There is no reason, so you don't have to write it. Go do something else, for pity's sake."

As a result, I didn't take offense (and I believe none was intended—it's an honest question, after all). Instead I muttered some catch phrase that I've been practicing in preparation for developing my "elevator pitch."

"Mostly, though, I guess that will be the test of how well I've written it. People will only care if the writing moves them in some way."

Which is the truest thing I had said all day.

Friday, May 14, 2010


This afternoon as I drove around the curve in the road I glanced toward the gorgeous flowering tree in my neighbor's yard and espied a female Mallard strutting across the lawn. It became clear that she had no intention of stopping at the curb, looking both ways, waiting for a crossing guide or any human intervention.

I was already going slow so I eased to a complete stop to witness this mama lead her seven ducklings across the road at a pace that broadcast a certain urgency. Those babies were running, keeping up, their little webbed feet tearing up the pavement. Through the open window I heard them calling to one another, maintaining some sort of ducky conversation amongst themselves. Their mother appeared to take no notice, head pivoting as she hurried along, keeping an eye out for danger (or opportunity?).

They paraded across the other neighbor's grass, making a beeline for the broad expanse of pachysandra that rings the front of yet another neighbor's house. I drove on, pulled into my driveway and jumped out of the car, sat on my front steps and watched to see what happened next.

The mother slowed once she had her babies safely under cover, though she kept moving. She maneuvered along the foundation and, a few feet short of the front stoop, emerged through the greenery which was, subtly yet distinctly, quivering with the movement of those seven little feathered bodies. She paused at the edge of the pachysandra, gave one short, decisive "quack" and, one by one, the babies tumbled out, gave themselves a little shake and off they went again, into the small wooded patch in that final neighbor's backyard.

And I sat in the sun for a few minutes longer, wondering how long it had been since I'd taken the time to simply watch ducks.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

At This Point

I'm back to working on the memoir and realizing once again that I truly have no idea how to pull this off.

How am I going to avoid telling this story without appearing to whine about all that happened, without making myself out to be a victim of circumstance? Because while things happened—awful things, painful things, confusing things—and I was, of course, affected by those things, I was not (am not) a victim. The fact is I made my choices about how to respond to what life presented and I want that to get on the page.

The section I'm writing now is pivotal in that sense so I am slowing down, coaxing memory to reveal myself—the self I was at that point—to me so I can see how the person I was, the child I was really reacted to the events of the time.

How do I do justice to the story? How do I make art out of the stuff of life?

The only thing to do, I suppose, is to keep writing.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

So, about Morocco...

I was, ostensibly, in Morocco to “cover” Earth Day-related subjects. My expectation was that I would be ferried around to see…environmental things like houses sporting solar panels or backyard windmills or community gardens irrigated by rain barrels. I expected that my mode of transportation would be biofuel-powered buses or maybe a camel.

Instead I spent a lot of time in the back seats of top-of-the-line Mercedes-Benz sedans (though there was one trip in a tour bus). Which was fine with me—I like life’s luxuries and embrace them with enthusiasm whenever I get the chance—though it was also a little befuddling, because the things I saw were fascinating, but not directly related to, you know, “the environment.” (Again, this is not a complaint, I’m just sayin’.)

For instance, at one point I piled into a car with two of my new friends, The Famous Guy and The Diplomat. Of course, these people have names, but that doesn’t really matter—trust me when I say The Famous Guy was famous and The Diplomat was just that; both are delightful and I count myself lucky to have made their acquaintance. We were heading to “see the horses.” I had no idea why the horses were worth seeing but, what the hell, I was in Morocco, The Diplomat said this would be interesting and life’s an adventure, right?

As soon as we got in the car, the driver reached over to turn down the stereo. The Famous Guy told him that wasn’t necessary. “Play your music,” he said. And so the CD spun as we drove through city streets which gave way, almost immediately, to posh suburbs and then even more posh “country” homes. Our soundtrack? The Dixie Chicks “Taking the Long Way.”

There’s a kind of vertigo that takes over when one is in a completely foreign place. In Morocco I often felt invisible, without language, without connection, without the ease of knowing how to proceed.

When I needed a lighter, for instance, I wandered through the lobby of the hotel looking for the usual little shop where one buys such things. Finding it, I used a kind of sign language to communicate my need to the proprietor—I pulled a cigarette out of my pack and mimed lighting it. He pulled out a case of Bic lighters (Bic lighters?), I chose one and he said, “10.”I retrieved a bill from my stash of Moroccan money. He looked at it and said, “All you have, Madame?”

Was it not enough? Too much? The denomination meant nothing to me. But I dug out the coins I’d been given, offered them up. He moved them around and pulled out one clearly marked with a 10. “Merci, Madame.”

“Merci, Monsieur.”

Now here I was in this car with three people I didn’t really know, heading for a destination unknown to me, in a country where I didn’t know the language. This situation felt familiar, though not in that comforting way familiarity ideally works.

Except here were the Dixie Chicks singing songs I knew and the scenery slipping by looked sort of like parts of California and The Famous Guy and The Diplomat were funny and sweet and kind and I thought, “Well, now. Here I am.”

“The horses,” by the way, were amazing.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


There's so much more to say about Morocco, but since I got home I've been working on some assignments that are due this week (for which I am grateful). As a result I've been experiencing a certain sort of whiplash—emotional, psychic, intellectual—which reached critical mass during an interview for one of those assignments.

I'd sent an email interview request to Danielle Dimovski, a Canadian barbecue competitor (and champ) whose nom de 'que is Diva Q and when we got on the phone, she said, "Hey, are you the Elizabeth Hilts who wrote 'Getting In Touch With Your Inner Bitch?'" When I admitted I am that same Elizabeth Hilts, she told me she's a fan then asked me why, if I'd written that book, I was doing this piece (for which, again, I am grateful).

This is, of course, a question I ask myself fairly often. I ask this in spite of knowing that having published a book does not magically transform a writer's life, does not translate into financial stability, does not usher one through the automatic door to writing for "the big guys" (Vanity Fair has never called). When that book came out I had no idea how to parlay its existence into a big successful career, and I'm pretty sure I wouldn't know how to do that now.

So I take these assignments (for which, let me just reiterate, I am very grateful) and I do the best I can with them. And every once in a while someone knows my name because they've read one of the books or another article and I have to say, it's weird and it's wonderful and I guess the point is...I'm glad that life offers up these little surprises.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Moroccan Surprise

There are peepers on Rabat. A sound that changes the landscape in the moment of hearing—and recognizing—something familiar.

I Didn't Go To Rick's Cafe

Of course I didn’t sleep on the plane. I never can, in spite of having had a beer with “dinner,” such a nonevent all I remember for certain is a slab of Tilamook cheddar and a stunningly bland chicken cutlet. Oh, I made a good try at it—closing my book, shutting off the light, practicing deep breathing, even placing the complementary sleep mask over my eyes until they started to water at an alarming rate. So no sleep, which I’m regretting now, but at the time there was a gift involved.

The stars over the Atlantic were astonishing. Unsullied by manmade light (as long as I used the book to block out the strobing wing beacons), they sequined the sky. I couldn’t stop looking.

Traveling at well over 500 mph with a steady tailwind, by about 2 a.m. on my body clock the stars gave way to gray dawn and glimpses of the ocean under the clouds. Then a ship—red hulled, I think, the superstructure painted white, a plume of wake—and the first pinks and golds and blue of dawn and then, suddenly, there was the coast.

“Africa,” I said to the Danish doctor sitting beside me. After four days spent at JFK and a sleep tablet-induced nap he was…gratified, I think, to be a little bit closer to home. I watched as the dunes gave way to flatlands patchworked in shades of green.

It looks like nowhere else I’ve ever seen. As we descended I could make out adobe (is that right?) buildings, palm trees, trucks, cars, cows, cactus, people and then the runway. Down the portable staircase on to the tarmac and, during the short wait for the bus that would carry us to the terminal, I watched the wind toss the fronds of a stand of palm trees—they look like elegant pineapples. It’s humid in Casablanca, even when the wind is 7 a.m.-cool.

I won’t bother to describe waiting at the baggage claim—this is one universal hassle. I did get to witness the arrival of some sports team (I think it might have been…no, I have no idea which team it was) and the frenzied papparazi waiting for them as I sat with another member of the group drinking a benign cup of tea in the airport lounge

Because I am a guest, I settled into the back seat of a waiting Mercedes sedan and watched Morocco reveal absolutely nothing but these things:

A tractor on the airport service road towing a flat-bed on which sat seven men dressed in boots, long blue pants, sweatshirts or jackets

A donkey tethered in the shade of a small grove of stunted trees

A young man on a magnificent horse, cantering along the side of the road at the roundabout exit of the airport

Cows grazing just on the other side of the culvert as large trucks hauled payloads along the highway at 100kph—some of the trucks carried cattle; a smaller pickup was loaded with crates of remarkably scrawny live chickens.

Women in djelabas and head scarves walking over bridges that seemed to transit from one area of complete desolation to another.

Broad carpets of bright red poppies waving up and over gentle hillocks alongside some kind of grain and the unmistakable unfurling of corn stalks (way higher than an elephant’s eye on this April day).

Structures that looked like ruins until I realized each unit was topped with a satellite dish. There were also lines of laundry drying and I caught flashes of people (children? men? not women) on the roofs.

We drove through an orderly and gorgeous greenbelt (established in the 1980s by Morocco’s ruling monarch—I’ll have to look up his name because I’ve had no sleep). Then, suddenly, Rabat—the parts of which I saw remind me, somehow of Queens, but this is so NOT Queens.

The bottom line, so far (and I’ve only been here seven hours) is that Morocco is “sudden,” it’s beautiful and I don’t know a thing about it except that I like it pretty well.

More to come after I’ve slept.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Bon Voyage?

I'm preparing for a trip to Morocco. This is, of course, exciting. It is also, for me, somewhat fraught because I have what can only be called "a history" with leaving for unknown places with no control over...well, anything beyond my response to whatever happens.

Is there something meaningful about the fact that all I know for certain about this trip is that I have to be at the airport on Tuesday? My flight number, time of departure and destination is all the information I have; no idea of where I'll be staying, how I'm going to get from the airport to whatever hotel has been chosen for me, what I'll be doing for the four days I'll be in Rabat. All of this feels familiar in the worst possible way—for reasons I've recently been writing about.

The timing is significant because what could be better for a memoirist than having to confront a dynamic that vibrates on an emotional level?

I plan on posting during the trip. Because the writing is, always, the way I work things out.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Poll

Here's something I've been wondering: would you all hate it if there were ads on this blog? Would an attempt to "monetize" these random musings of mine offend you, would that cheapen the process?

Because, honestly, I've been thinking about it. But I thought I'd ask. So, let me know:

__ Yes, ads would destroy the purity of this endeavor to blow glass in public

__ No, I wouldn't mind because (a) I could ignore the ads and/or (b) what the heck, why not earn some money from your writing?

__ Really? You think I pay that much attention to your blog?


Friday, April 9, 2010

Lost Hunting

The sign—made of dusky orange oak tag, large enough to catch the eye, sturdy enough to keep its shape in spite of the wind—was attached to the utility pole directly across from the intersection.

“Lost: One gray plastic bin, filled with hunting clothes.”

Not what one expects of a handmade sign displayed in this neighborhood, a residential area in a small Connecticut city 50 miles from Manhattan. The public notices around here are usually about missing pets or tag sales or offerings of firewood. Which is probably why I wondered about the story behind that sign all day.

Did the hunter meet up with his buddies— wait,why do I assume it is a “he?” Didn’t my great aunt Thelma love hunting, wasn’t she considered an ace shot? Have I bought in to the stereotype of hunter/gatherer roles so deeply that even in my imagination, those hunting clothes have been lost by a man? Perhaps. To be given ongoing consideration, but now, back to the hunter. Let us assume he was a man.

Did the hunter meet up with his buddies at the commuter lot around the corner, gathering before dawn to make the drive (north? upstate? further afield?) in one large vehicle, an SUV probably, or one of those pickup trucks with extended cab. They would have stowed the guns first, setting them into the cargo space carefully, practicing an abundance of caution in completing this task. Then they piled in, balancing their styrofoam vats of steaming hot coffee, one of them managing the bag of egg-cheese-meat-on-a-hard-roll sandwiches damp with steam and grease. They would wait just until they were pulling out of the commuter lot before distributing those sandwiches.

“Didn’t you want the sausage, Frank?”

“No, I’m ham.”

“Damn, there’s two sausage, one bacon, no ham.”

"I’ll take the sausage, but don’t tell my wife.”

"What happens in hunting, stays in hunting.”

“Hahahahaha, yeah.”

And the sandwich with the taboo sausage was passed over. In the confusion none of them would have cast a look back, noticed the gray plastic box left at the side of the now-empty parking space. (This is what makes me think the hunter was not a woman. A woman would have looked back. Of course, there’s a new layer of stereotype to consider.) On the damp morning pavement, the specific grayness melting into all the gray surrounding it.

Of course he would realize that his hunting clothes had been left behind when they got to the pulloff on the side of the road, just wide enough for two pickups. “Damn it!”

But why wasn’t he wearing his gear already?

Maybe that gray plastic bin, filled with hunting clothes, was lost during a move. One could imagine that it had been forgotten somehow in the turmoil of his moving out of the home he shared with his wife, on that last Saturday when they put asunder what God had made whole.

Or there’s a more benign explanation—it happened in one of the parking lots that line Route 1, as the purchases from one big box store or another was being loaded into the trunk of the car. He moved the bin (or she did) to make room, stowed the groceries, or new sheets and towels, or pet food; then he got into the car while she rolled the shopping cart to the corral, making her way back to the car through the narrow path between the rows of parking spaces. There was no car in the space before them, so he pulled ahead instead of backing out and the bin remained, obstructing access to the space until the some shopper with the patience (or desperate need to park) came long and moved the bin out of the way.

Perhaps he had put it on the roof of the car while he installed the child seat securely in the back seat then drove off. At some point—on a curve, as he made a turn, at a stop sign—the bin slid off, but he was distracted by a cranky child, or something on the radio, or a pretty young girl driving in the other direction.

There are so many ways to lose things.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Witnessing Life Its Own Self

One of the joys of Facebook is that one sometimes reconnects with a special person from the past. This happened recently and, in addition to the particular pleasure of finding a friend again, I learned about an incredible project.

Richard Howe, artist and photographer—and truly great company in this great adventure of Life Its Own Self—has been working on "New York In Plain Sight," which is described as "a large-scale photographic survey of everyday life on Manhattan's great public commons—its streets and sidewalks."

It is magnificent in scope. It is fascinating. I highly recommend that anyone who loves NY, is interested in "the captured moment," or is simply interested in...well, life check it out.

Here's the link:


Friday, April 2, 2010

Seasonably Happy

Earlier this afternoon I took a break from writing (or, more accurately, reading the manuscript) to do some errands. Just the ordinary things from the ordinary places — Staples for paper and more ink; Penzy's for herbs and more vanilla; Party City for some truly random stuff; the super supermarket — making my usual rounds through the regular stomping grounds.

I was riding the slipstream of I-95 when it suddenly occurred to me that I felt...joyful.

Maybe it was the sunshine (so strange, so welcome).

Perhaps it was the music — my friend Mikey recently gifted us with the remastered Beatles' "Revolver;" listening to it felt like sitting with an old friend recently returned from a long journey far away.

It could be the fresh green of trees whose buds glow lemon and chartreuse, unleashing a sort of mouth-watering hope in my winter-logged soul.

I don't know what sparked this, but I do know this: I am grateful.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

That Creaking Noise You Hear...

is me opening the door and stepping back into this empty space.

There is no excuse for my not having blogged lately, but there is a reason: I'm working on a semester-long project for my MFA project. This requirement is, clearly, one of the things that separates the Masters of Fine Arts from the writing workshop. Well, this and the tuition.

Tonight, however, I was with my MFA friends, my fellow writers, and one of them—James M. Chesbro—suggested that I might be well-served by...blogging. Having read one of his posts that left me with goosebumps, I thought, "Well, right."

I'm going to suggest that you run right over and read Jamie's piece. I can call him Jamie because we're friends and fellow writers, something I'm proud to claim. Read it and you'll see why. Here's the link: http://jamesmchesbro.blogspot.com/2010/02/stranger-at-gas-station.html

Duly inspired, I'll be stopping in more often. Hope you'll still be here.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Speed of Write

So, I'm sure that Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy are lovely people, and I'm sure they have much to say. After all, they are the people who adopted Michael Oher and thus inspired "The Blind Side." News that they are writing a book to be published by Henry Holt this summer makes me think, "What?"

This isn't because I doubt the commercial value of such a book—I understand that it's the best-selling blockbusters that help make more literary books possible. It's the time involved.

I'm already been working on my memoir for a year; writing, shaping, thinking, revising, deleting, inserting, reconsidering, etc., etc. It's a little disheartening to realize that a book which will take about two months to write (maybe) has already secured a publisher, will probably get a huge advertising push, and is almost guaranteed to hit the best-seller list.

Oddly, all of this makes me understand, again, the reasons I write.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

World Famous Writer (or Poet)

At least once a day I receive an email with the subject line, “Do you have a story to tell?”

“Yes,” I think. “Yes I do have a story to tell.” Then I delete the email, along with those offering free motorized wheelchairs, amorous liaisons, and vacations in Cincinnati and Niagara Falls.

This morning I decided to open the “story” email, just to see if there was something I should do about having a story to tell. Other than what I do every day, I mean.

Am I ever glad I did! Because here’s what I found: an offer to learn how to be a world famous writer or poet. But wait, there’s more! With a simple click, I would learn how to be an author and get published—which I always thought was the first step in becoming a world famous writer or poet, though based on the design of the email it is apparently secondary. .

I’ve been wondering how to go about doing this. So I clicked. Turns out one becomes a world famous writer or poet by self-publishing. One learns how to be an author and get published by paying for book packaging services.

What a wondrous thing to consider. Instead of writing and revising in hopes of creating a piece of work that might inspire an agent to take me as a client, instead of that same piece of work being deemed worthy of publication by a publisher, instead of the resulting book finding an audience through the usual channels, it turns out that the path to success as a writer (or poet) is actually straight and relatively flat. If I just play my cards right, I could be as lucky as Fede Alvarez, who parlayed his $300 YouTube video into a $30 million Hollywood movie deal.

The truth is, however, that either way I have to finish the memoir. So I guess I’ll go back to work now.

Friday, January 22, 2010

A little glass-blowing

That was when we lived in that cottage perched at the crest of a steep hill on the grounds of a small defunct summer camp, when we were biding time.

Halfway down the hill a rope swing dangled from the branch of a shagbark hickory. Three knots studded the waxen surface—the first in just the right spot for feet, the second placed for the hands of children of middling height, the third for boys nearly men.

The way it worked best was this: You ran down the incline, grabbed hold just above your knot as you passed down then hoisted yourself up, slamming your soles against the bottom knot as you swung out, the arc carrying you high enough to see the bay glittering by on the far side of the house at the bottom of the hill. Gravity pulled you back just when it seemed you’d go flying over the rooftop, past the seawall, alongside the wooden dock.

But as you were soaring up, just before the Earth forced you to be human again, you believed—almost—that you could perform a swan dive into that diamond-paved water.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


It’s taken me way too long to understand that, in order to have the stamina to write, I need to spend some part of my day moving. Which is why I’m grateful to my family for the gift of Wii, a device that makes “exercising” feel like play (another thing I’m beginning to understand is essential).

The details would be too boring to write about, much less read about, though I may decide to do just that the next time I need to stretch the writing a little. For now, however, it’s challenging enough to actually sit down to the assignments I’ve given myself. My body conspires against it, as does my mind. There are so many reasons to not write: laundry, a crossword to complete, some TV show, the swarf of everyday life. There are so many reasons to not write this specific thing: fear of exposure, fear of not getting it right, fear of not discovering the essential truth that will raise my memoir over the swamp of solipsism. Plus, who cares?

So many reasons not to write, and only one reason to write—I simply must.

Yet there are days when settling into the words is challenging and I must exercise that most flabby of muscles, my resolve.

My friend Jamie Cat Callan—whose books include the charming French Women Don’t Sleep Alone—developed a wonderful thing called The Writer’s Toolbox. It’s full of first line prompts, non sequesters and these cool little spinning wheels, all designed to help writers exercise the “write” side of their brains.

It makes me wish I were focusing on fiction right now. As I’m putting most of my energy into writing my memoir, I don’t have a lot of time left over for fiction but I’m warning you: it may happen and it may happen here. This is, after all, a thing I’m doing to help me get the words out—an exercise, much like the games I played with the Wii this morning.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Okay, I'm blogging

It's one of those blue-sky January days, designed for hope. Who can doubt that winter will pass, that spring will come? The days are already lasting longer, sunset hesitating before giving way to the gloaming, though the nights are just as sharply dark now as they were in December and will be until...oh, July?

Perhaps this environmental optimism explains why I've decided, at last, to create a blog with my very own name as its title? Though it's also possible that I've realized it's time to put some work out there and let people read that work in whatever form of "completion" it takes. I guess blogging is akin to thinking aloud on the page, to working in public like the glass-blowers practicing their art before the crucible at the Sandwich Glass Museum or that guy who makes those amazing 3-D sidewalk chalk drawings. Why not risk revealing the mistakes I make in my writing, and the just-right choices, too?

So, here I am. Blogging.

Just a little something

by Elizabeth Hilts

Okay, sit back. Get comfortable. I want to tell you a love story.

One pound sweet butter.

Two cups confectioner’s sugar.

One tablespoon vanilla extract—I use the double-strength for this.

Four cups all-purpose flour.

One teaspoon kosher salt. If you use table salt instead, cut it back to half a teaspoon.

Your grandmother taught you how to make shortbread. She did not use confectioner’s sugar, she used granulated. Granulated sugar has the texture of sand. If that is what you have on hand, go ahead and use it. The cookies will turn out a little sweeter, but they will be crisp. Shortbread made with confectioner’s sugar is a gentler thing, which you learned one day when forced to substitute—a happy accident of timing.

Preheat your oven to three hundred and twenty five degrees. Get out your large baking dish, the one made of Pyrex, the one you thought would be okay for lasagna. Which it is, but it’s not great for lasagna because you can only fit four thin layers of pasta, sauce, cheese and if you want a big meaty lasagna, that baking dish will accommodate, what, three layers at most? That baking dish turned out to be a mistake when it comes to lasagna, but it’s just right for shortbread.

Now grab that pottery bowl you bought at the Shaker village in New Hampshire where you and Bernie and Mike spent the day while your husband was at the racetrack. Of course, he wasn’t your husband then and you were uncertain if he ever would be. That was one of the things you and Bernie discussed when Mike wandered off to look at the barn or something. That was, in fact, something you and she talked about often. Practically her last words to you in that hospital room were “He’ll never give you what you want.” But that day, at the Shaker village, she urged patience. So you bought this bowl, with its two blue stripes.

Put the butter in the bowl and beat it with a wooden spoon, the way your grandmother taught you, until creamy. Of course you could do this in a stand mixer or even with a handheld mixer, but then you would miss the moment when the butter submits to your touch and begins to transform, going pale and lovely as you introduce it to air. Add in the sugar and vanilla, mix well, now add the flour and salt. The dough will be incredibly crumbly, so willfully crumbly that you may doubt that it will ever become anything more than this ragged, unmanageable mess of a thing. But believe me, your faith will be rewarded.

Turn the dough into the pan and press it firmly with your hands until it is evenly distributed. Now take a fork and poke the tines into the dough in as straight lines as you can manage. Place the pan in the oven and bake until the shortbread is firm and lightly browned, about 25 minutes. Your home will be filled with the aroma of happiness.

Remove the pan and let the shortbread cool for five minutes or so, slice it into small squares and let it cool completely in the pan. Trust me when I tell you that trying to remove the shortbread from the pan before it has set completely will break. Your. Heart.

This shortbread is best when it has aged for a few days. The cookies soften slightly and the butter, sugar and vanilla settle and merge, the sum of the parts transformed through the everyday alchemy of heat and time. When you pop one of those small squares into your mouth and bite, the cookie will resist for just a moment before it shatters over your tongue into velvet sweet.

And you will remember everything that went into its making.