Since being bitten by the photo bug, I’ve gained a fascination for benches. It began as a way to anchor a picture—something I’m learning as I explore things like perspective. But there is something to be said for a bench or a chair placed outside. It seems to say “come sit and stay awhile, enjoy the scenery.” This is very much in keeping with my own goal of slowing down, feeling the pulse of my life, noticing what is around me. The richness of life continues to astound me.
Most Tuesday mornings, I get up early to walk with two good friends in the forests near my home. The walks are a combination of exercise and lively conversation and something more profound—a sort of renewal, a freshening, a boost to the spirit
Until very recently, I didn’t have a good name for this third element. But then I heard a podcast in NPR. Forest bathing, they said, is a new concept in the US. It’s an idea that comes from Japan, where they practice ‘shinrin-yoku’ which, loosely translated, means ‘taking in the forest atmosphere’. The Japanese are staunch believers that spending a little time outdoors and soaking up the smells, sounds, and sights in a natural setting is good for your health and wellbeing.
It turns out they are right. Studies have found that spending time out in nature reduces stress, helps working memory, and increases positive outlook, among other things.
Sadly, we are not a nation of outdoors people. Most of us only spend seven percent of our day in the elements. But forest bathing is beginning to take off, classes in shinrin-yoku are springing up all over the country. Some people have taken to calling it the new yoga.
I’ve never taken a formal class in forest appreciation, but I do know that my Tuesday excursions provide a good elixir for both my body and my soul. I guess my friends and I have been forest bathers for a long time.
Even though I recently finished the draft of my latest novel, I’ve been having a hard time staying focused on my writing lately. This is twice as true in the early stages of writing.
For me, creating a story or a poem requires opening the faucet up wide. Images, ideas, words, need to pour forward so I can cup my hands and catch them. Even if it’s wet and messy at first, this is where I begin. Lately, my creativity has slowed. The faucet isn’t entirely shut, but the output is dripping instead of streaming.It’s become painful and slow to put anything on the page. Writer’s block does not describe this accurately. Better to call it writer’s anemia.
There are a lot of things I could point to as the cause of this anemic state: the divisive political climate in my country and it’s currently misguided leadership has me worried for our future. Social media often feels like one big room filled with people who are shouting at one another. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that people ought to have the right to express their opinions, but we aren’t doing a lot of give and take. We aren’t listening. The news doesn’t help. Everyday, it seems, the ugliness in the world is brought into our conscious. Senseless shootings that lead to arguments, natural disaster that are answered with tone deafness to the suffering they cause. I’d like to turn away, but find I can no more do it than I could turn away from my own sick child.
The divisiveness makes me uneasy. It makes offering up my own opinion feel dangerous—and my work, as an extension of who I am and what I value, feels unsafe as well. The dark of all this distrust, chaos, and uneasiness colors my existence. But there is another side. Love and beauty do exist in my life. My family, my friends, the wonderful people who have helped me along my writing journey. The natural beauty of the world outside my door, woodlands alive with color, an hour's ride away is an ocean that is vast and awe-inspiring. It’s not a big life that I lead, but it is a rich one.
I had, I realized, fallen out of love with my life. And love of my life, love of the world, is what has always inspired me to put words to page. In a larger sense, it is also what keeps me putting one foot in front of the other as I walk through this life of mine. I needed an antidote, a cure for my malaise.
Help often comes in unexpected ways. For me, this time, it’s come in pictures. Take a new phone that can take decent photos easily, add a friend who is takes fabulous pictures and is willing to act as mentor, and a good photo editing program that is easy to use, and you have—creativity returned. I’ve started photographing my ordinary life, walks through the woods, time spent with grandchildren, days at the beach. I’ve rediscovered that this earthly heartbeat of mine is extraordinary. Miracles unfold everywhere.
I’ve fallen in love again.
It was the last weekend of the summer. A balmy, warm day perfect for a beach chair and a good book. My husband and I packed a picnic lunch and off we went to the ocean beach an hour’s drive from our door. We drove along, sun peeking in and out of puffy clouds, looking forward to this last of summer outing.
As we approached route 1A, the road that curves along New Hampshire’s short sixteen miles of ocean front, things got a bit hazy. By the time we’d turned onto the road, we were socked in a thick fog. The drive along this road is usually beautiful, the ocean to one side, stately beachside mansions on the other, the beach hamlets with their ice cream stands and surf shops and lobster restaurants. Last Sunday, you could see none of those things. You could barely see the car ahead of you.
The fog nearly made us turn around and go back home. But it was the last weekend day of summer, we’d driven an hour. We live in New Hampshire, where live free or die is the state motto. So we journeyed on, carefully and slowly, to the beach.
We discovered that going to the beach on a foggy warm day has a lot to recommend it. It was cooler than it might have been, the breeze off the ocean keeping the temperatures comfortable. And it was beautiful, in a haunting end-of-summer kind of way. I took a lot of pictures and I’m sharing some of them with you as I wish you all good beach days and a happy end to summer.
I’ve finished the draft of a book I’ve (tentatively) titled “Between these Worlds”. It’s a love story painted on a large canvas—Afghanistan and New York and Haiti. I’ve dubbed it an ‘almost historical’, in that it’s set in the not too distant past, some ten years back.
This story has been a hard one to birth. It’s longer than my other books, weighing in at just over 100,000 words, which is somewhere around 400 pages, give or take, in a finished book. I’ve been working on it, off and on and off again, for the last five years or so.
I love this story. It’s big, it’s romantic and it’s more than that, too. It represents my best effort at storytelling. All I know how to do. Still, I got stuck towards the end. Life, what’s happening around the world, kept me in a state of anxiety and made it difficult to sit down and write. So, finishing the draft feels like a huge victory, even if it will be a short celebration.
Short, because I know this is just the start. Having cobbled this story together, I’ll have to polish it, rework parts of it, make it as shiny as I can before I offer it up to agents and editors. And then, if I’m lucky and someone takes a chance on it, it will be edited and polished again.
I’d like to share this moment with you none-the-less. Here’s hoping for more great moments. And here is a small taste, is the very beginning of the draft of Between these Worlds.
It wasn’t the burka that had upset Nora Jankowski. Burkas were hardly unusual in Kandahar, although this hospital ward, with a large double door labeled 'Pediatrics' and another sign in both Pashto and English that read 'Women and Children Only' was an oasis of sorts, a small island of comfort where women could be shed of restrictive garb to walk around and work freely. So it wasn’t the burka, but had Nora given it any thought, she might have said that the head to toe covering made the woman look like the angel of death, the crosshatch pattern covering the woman’s face a reminder of the confessionals her grandmother had insisted they visit each Saturday of her childhood.
Nora had been explaining the IV in Jaamal's pencil thin arm to his mother, Alia, all the while hoping the Afghani woman understood the mix of English and the handful of Pashto words Nora had picked up. Hassan was severely understaffed and Alia would be charged with acting as Jaamal's nurse, so it was imperative she grasped what Nora was saying.
Alia had shifted attention from the IV to the foot of the crib as Nora regulated the drip. Nora had looked up, noticed the burka-clad woman who seemed to come out of nowhere, and for one heart stopping moment all Nora could feel was foreboding, the portent of some terrible doom. Before Nora could stop herself, she asked "What do you want?" more stridently than she'd intended.
The woman took a step backward, as if Nora had hit her with a rock. Clearly, she was just an ordinary woman and no apparition at all. “Sorry,’ said Nora in Pashto, wishing again that she was a better student of language. She wasn’t sure if she’d said ‘sorry’ or hurled an insult at the woman as a follow up to shouting her down
The woman, seemingly unoffended, pulled a note from somewhere out of the burka and held it out to Nora while saying what sounded like “win”
The note was from Aimal; the Afghani interpreter Nora had met on her first day at Hassan. She’d flown endless hours in increasingly smaller aircraft to land, finally, at the Kandahar military base. A young marine had driven her past the bombed-out skeletons of buildings, the Humvee bouncing over streets in a way that made her feel she’d lost a good two inches of height by the time they reached the hospital. Aimal, dressed in salwar kameez with a gold medal around his neck, had met the Humvee at the hospital gate holding up a sign with her name on it.
“Doctor so happy to see you finally,” he had said with a huge smile pinned to his face.
He had taken her over to the relief workers quarters, to a dorm room on the second floor. The room was bare-bones sparse, cinderblock walls painted grey, a narrow bed with several army issue blankets. A blue tarp was tacked over the glassless window. “Sweet is the home,” said Aimal, looking as pleased as if he’d bought her to a room in the Ritz. “Anything you need it.” She gave him a few Afghani coins, unsure of whether tipping was something she ought to do, but the money caused Aimal’s smile to broaden and he repeated “Anything you need it,” and added “I can get.”
I wrote this poem years ago. When my son, Matt, was a little boy, I would catch glimpses of my own father in my son. I see it now, too, in both my boys grown to men, and in my grandbabies. Something that remains, I suppose. It was a comfort in the years after my dad passed away. It still is.
He is in your eyes, my child--
sapphire pools wide with wonder
reflecting the sun--a thousand fleeting torches
as he must have danced in the days before
a you or a me.
Arms reaching to embrace each diminutive
ray filtering through the branches--
to weave forever into ebony
to sparkle again
in your eyes.
TI have always prided myself on trying to see the other person’s point, even if I don’t agree. I believe in the give and take of ideas, I believe in the debate. This is what democracy is all about, the hammering out of ideas. It should also be about compromise and the choice of the best and brightest ideas, but that’s a post for another day.
Sometimes, though, there is a clear right and clear wrong. Sometimes things really are as simple as good versus evil. What happened in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend wasn’t two sides equally culpable. One side carried torches, and marched while shouting slogans like ‘Jew won’t replace me’. They were accompanied by a heavily armed militia, they chased a black man into a parking lot and nearly beat him to death, they surrounded a black church and terrorized the occupants who were praying inside. One of them hit the accelerator on his car and plowed into a group of people, killing one young woman and injuring 19 others, a few of them children. The other side? The worst you can say about them is that some of them had sticks, baseball bats, and bottle rockets and stood their ground. And yes, they were angry and ready to take a stand. The same stand that was taken by our military in 1942, when Americans fought alongside the allied forces to expunge the Third Reich from the face of the earth. The same stand any decent human being should take when confronted by those who would celebrate the genocide of six million Jews and call monuments to the enslavement of countless black Americans a cherished part of their history.
To suggest these two are equivalent, that the side that committed murder and terrorized people, the side that believes that anyone who is not white and Christian should be expelled from the country or, worse, destroyed, is equivalent to those who tried to stop them, is a moral outrage. It is like saying the Jews are in part responsible for the holocaust, or that the people in the twin towers are responsible for the attacks on 9/11. They are not. To suggest otherwise is to give credence to hate. It is giving respectability to evil.
When the President of the United States, the man who is supposed to be the moral compass of our country, stands up and suggests that both sides are at fault, we have lost our moral compass. We have lost our right to say we are a great and moral country, we have lost our standing as the shining city on the hill.
There are many good people in America. Most of us are appalled by the actions of the so-called ‘Alt-right’ neo-Nazis and white supremacists. We need to stand up to this evil. We cannot be still. If the president cannot join in the fight, if he cannot lead us to the moral high ground, then he must be taken down. It really is that simple.
I began working on this poem last week. It seems appropriate after the events in Charlotteville, Va, this weekend. It's a bit rough, still. And it's not enough. I don't think words will ever be enough. But, sometimes, they are all we have.
The stranger at the crossroads
So unlike you--
skin brown as chestnuts,
hair braided into dreadlocks,
His lilting language an unfamiliar jumble of sound.
You stand in anticipation of catastrophe;
He’ll wash away your face, your true name, you say.
The fear so strong it makes you yell
“Mine. Mine.” until, hoarse with hatred, your throat is sore.
Red faced, panting,
you have forgotten what came before,
forgotten the only thing that will endure long after your fisted rage is done:
Love fearless and undaunted by the color of skin
Love that knows your hands, his hands reach the same
Love that understands fire and flame
Love that unites us, binds us, holds us
Love that can bring us to our knees, and stand us up again.
Love that sings out in lilting language, "You are me."
No jumble of sound, the message is clear--
How is it that your fail to hear?
I've been thinking, lately, of the meaning of home and the nostalgic memories we have of childhood. This poem, like the picture, is a reflection.
The geography of home
holds the soft topography of undulating hills,
is reflected in clouds playing hide and seek with sun
in water so blue it strikes the heart.
The smell of pine is sweet in the green yard where you skipped rope
and the treehouse where you told your secrets to the wind.
There is the doorway where your mother called your name,
the garden where daisies and roses grew in midday sun.
At least, this is what you remember.
The maps of your memory have been washed over by the salt of your life
until they are diaphanous and shiny.
You’ve packed and unpacked a thousand suitcases to find that country again,
a place that says to you, ‘this is what you are looking for’
The land that eludes you is fragile as the scent of winter.
it wafts past like the ghost of those you knew--
those red warm faces gathered by a fire,
their bell like laughter an echo.
You’ll go all the way to where the landscape dissolves to a vanishing point
to find it again.
And all the while it remains just beyond the reach of your feet,
the impossible light you search.
Henry David Thoreau was born this day, July 12, two hundred years ago. America was a newborn place then, still learning to walk with freshly formed independence. There was no mass media, no cars, no electricity, no airplanes. There were no superhighways, no skyscrapers, no noisy honking cities. I imagine Concord, Massachusetts as pastoral, farms whose boundaries were marked by stone walls, wood lots alongside fields, a dot of houses on a country lane, horses snorting as they hauled hay wagons from field to barnyard.
And yet, Henry David sought escape from the hustle of everyday life, sought the refuge of the wild and natural world for solace, for the reflection of his own soul. His words, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world,” might have been written for today. In fact today, we need to remember those words more than ever precisely because our world has gotten so much busier, so much nosier, so much faster than it was in the days when Thoreau wandered alongside the banks of Walden Pond.
We have disconnected from the wildness of the world. Thinking, wrongly, that we have conquered nature we divorce ourselves from it. If Henry David were here, I believe he’d tell us we are making a devastating mistake. We are nature. It is in our bones, in our blood. We cannot cut ourselves off from the natural world and survive.
The dunes of Cape Cod, the canyons of Utah, the green hills of Cumberland Gap, are more than just pretty places to take selfies. They are our refuge, the place where we can find solace, the reflection of our beautiful and immortal souls. Let’s listen to Thoreau. Let’s preserve these wild places. Because in preserving them, we preserve the world.
This writing journey, this life, is a long road full of pitfalls and wrong turns. Also, incredible beauty, kindness and friendship with those I've met along the way.I'm so glad you're here to share the road..
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