Thursday, December 31, 2009

Encounters/The rituals of our lives

Happy New Year! We are about to depart for our traditional celebration with my mother-in-law, at which we toast the new year as it arrives in her German homeland (six hours ahead of New England). The candles throughout the house will be lit, including those on a wrought-iron pyramid that echoes the shape of a Christmas tree. She will dance a Viennese waltz with her son, my husband. Each of us will choose a candle on the pyramid, hoping it will be the one that lasts the longest. (Once upon a time, the candles were on a real Christmas tree, but she has given up that tradition for a live tree outside on her deck, sprinkled with tiny white lights that glisten through the snow that fell this morning.)

These familiar rituals shape our lives. What are yours?

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Sometimes we need to isolate ourselves from the distractions of daily life. For me, the remoteness of island living has served as both a source of renewal and inspiration.

The lull of waves approaching and then receding
from the beach below our cottage;

the subtle variations in the sky throughout the day
as the winds move over the water;

the simplicity of a home without electricity or internet. . .
. . . all encourage me
to listen and see that I might then write.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Discoveries/The Blue Kimono

One of my earliest memories of my Aunt Kay was a photograph of her, her back to the camera, arms outstretched in a doorway as she looked over her shoulder. She was wearing the most exotic outfit I'd ever seen in my Italian-American childhood--an elaborately embroidered kimono, with flowers and birds spilling across the back and down the elegant sleeves that hung from her graceful arms.

That photograph always intrigued me, and it was only much later that I discovered where it had been taken--the island of Trinidad, a long way from the Yonkers neighborhood where Kay, my mother and their sisters and brothers had grown up. She had sailed there to marry my Uncle Joe, who was building the naval airbase at Chaguaramas.

That kimono, and the stories it led to, became the opening scene of my new novel, Across the Table.

Have you ever discovered something incredibly beautiful but unexplained in a familiar environment?

Monday, December 28, 2009

Craft/Writing Prompts

At my more-or-less monthly dinner with my writer friend Julie this evening, the conversation wandered from movies we'd seen this week to Christmas celebrations with family to evolving friendships. At one point, however, I asked for Julie's thoughts on writing prompts. We met many years ago at a writing retreat and neither one of us is a stranger to the triggers that can spark a flow of words that, like the roots of a wild lily, send out tendrils into unexpected territory.

"What are your sources?" I asked her. One of her answers was intriguing--an example from a workshop leader with whom she'd written for many years. "The first line of a newspaper article," she suggested.

When I got home I pulled a copy of the front section of The New York Times from the mounting pile in a basket in my kitchen. Here are a few sentences from which to choose.

In almost every room people were sleeping, but not like babies.

Raimundo came to this sweltering Amazon outpost 15 years ago, looking for land.

Nelson would be the first to say that he has been favored with many acts of kindness in his 23 years.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Discoveries/Oma's Calendar

I've turned in my manuscript to my editor and have now turned my attention to the final preparations for our Christmas celebrations. My posts this week will revolve around what I'm doing away from the computer--it's the best way I know to keep up with the blog and still keep my sanity.

Tonight I'm in the midst of creating the gift my mother-in-law cherishes--a calendar composed of special photographs of the highlights of the year. As I type, the photos are spilling slowly out of my printer. The whole family gets involved in providing and selecting the pictures--important choices when we can only include twelve. We've been creating this memento for Oma (the German word for "Grandma") for decades.

A few months ago, Oma gathered all the calendars and we spent an evening wandering through their pages. Taken together, they were a striking record of our family history--our lives defined by the changing New England seasons, our growing children, our aging parents. We rediscovered lost moments, captured in images that sparked memories and triggered stories.

Do you have special gifts that hold great meaning for you and your family?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Writer at Work

I'll be buried in the Across the Table manuscript over the next few days, reviewing my editor's line edits and making changes and additions. As a consequence, I won't be posting. I hope to resurface at the end of the week.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Craft/The Golden Sentence

When I taught high school English, my mentor recommended an exercise that I required of my students as a daily practice with every reading assignment. I asked them to identify the "Golden Sentence," the sentence that resonated most with them and captured the essence of the passage; and I asked them to articulate why they had chosen it.

It was a way to get them to pay attention, but also a way for them to discover how words on a page can reach out and grab the reader.

Do your stories have a Golden Sentence?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Food/Rose's Pasta con Piselli e Prosciutto

My forthcoming novel, Across the Table, is set in a restaurant in Boston’s North End run by the Dante family. They call the place “Paradiso,” after the third volume of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.

In Paradiso, Beatrice leads Dante through the spheres of heaven. Early on, believing that she has shown him more than he can comprehend, she tells him “sedere un poco a mensa.” She wants him to sit awhile at her table and digest all that he has seen.

Throughout Across the Table, the Dante family is sustained by Rose’s belief that there is no pain that cannot be eased by a dish of homemade pasta, such as the one below.

As Rose says when she prepares this dish, " I did what I always do when we have something important to discuss. I put care into what we were going to eat.”

1 lb. orecchiette pasta

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 medium onion, chopped into small dice

1 cup baby peas

1 cup diced cooked ham

2 cups heavy cream

Grated Parmeggiano

Salt and pepper

Prepare orecchiette as directed.

Sauté the onion in butter over medium heat until soft.

Add peas and ham, stirring to mix with onions.

Add heavy cream, blending with ham and vegetables until gently bubbling. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Drain pasta. Place in serving bowl and add sauce, stirring to mix. Serve with grated Parmeggiano.

Encounters/Jesper Rosenmeier

A friend of mine once said that every woman should have at least one girlfriend who has known her since they were in high school and one old boyfriend she can still talk to. I would add to that, at least one memorable teacher. Mine was Jesper Rosenmeier, a Danish scholar of early American literature, who influenced my reading and helped me develop both my skill and my faith in myself as a writer.

He pushed me to articulate my ideas in class--a harrowing experience for a shy freshman who had somehow landed in an upper level English class in her second semester. He challenged me to pull together the fragments of ideas jotted down in my journal and follow them into new intellectual territory. He never allowed me to become complacent or lazy.

Rosenmeier was a big man, a towering presence with a dramatic and passionate teaching style. When he read a passage from Jonathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," you could feel the flames of hell lapping at your feet. He was also expansive and generous and funny.

Who has shaped you?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Inspiration/Federigo's Letters

"I go crazy from love. I have never loved with so much loyalty. You are the star that sparkles between the rays and you adorn my poor heart with infinite madness."

"We live incognito, full of love, punished by not being able to give it free expression..."

"How I suffered last night when in your house they made that frenzied din, "Eh, Federigo! Write to me!"

The words were written 100 years ago by my grandfather and cherished by my grandmother for decades after his death. When they were passed on to me, they not only inspired my first novel, Dancing on Sunday Afternoons, but also gave me an understanding of why a fascination with language, in all its beauty and passion and mystery, is in my blood.

Have you ever received a precious gift that changed everything for you?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Discoveries/Growing Things

I do not have a green thumb. More often than not, to place a tender young plant under my care is risky business. But I've recently had success with a seedling that I thought a few weeks ago had succumbed to my neglect. It had not taken kindly to the move from its summer home in a shallow flat in a protected southern corner of our garden. I had moved it inside, thinking that it was too fragile to weather over the winter, but it seemed almost too fragile to survive the change.

Nevertheless, I transplanted it to a deep pot with lots of room to set down roots and continued to water it. It kept dropping leaves, until only two were left. I despaired. Once again, my well-meaning but haphazard attention seemed insufficient.

And then, one sunny morning as I sat down at the table in my kitchen bay window where I had placed the plant, I noticed something. Green. Growing. A revival.

The plant now has several sets of leaves, as you can see in the somewhat fuzzy image above. I take great pleasure in its pushing toward the sun, and I am awed by its ability to reemerge from such a sad state. The life force is an extraordinary thing.

Have you ever nurtured a plant, an idea, a dream, that you almost lost but that survived and flourished?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Craft/Creating a Character Through Setting

Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter collaborated on a wonderful handbook of exercises for writers called What If? that I used as one of the texts when I taught creative writing.

One of my favorite exercises is one that uses setting to describe a character. As the authors put it, "If someone broke into your home or apartment while you were away, chances are he could construct a good profile of who you are." I was reminded of the technique Ducky uses on "NCIS" to understand the psyche of a victim or a killer--he observes and catalogs everything in the character's home.

Choose one of your characters and describe a space that he or she inhabits. It can be an entire home, a single room, an office, a garage...the details will tell us something about who this individual is.

Friday, December 4, 2009


Although the temperatures here in western New England are not quite winter-like, the prediction for tomorrow is snow. With the anticipated change in the weather, I'm starting to think about soups and stews. One of the staples of my childhood and a favorite among my own children is my mother's recipe for lentils. It's aromatic, flavorful and quick!


2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 medium diced onion (1/4 inch)
2 cloves garlic, chopped finely
½ cup diced carrot (1/4 inch)
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 cups dried lentils (rinsed and checked for debris)
2 cubes Knorr vegetable broth, dissolved in 4 cups water

1. Saute onion, garlic, and carrot in olive oil over medium heat until soft (about five minutes). Stir constantly.

2. Add lentils and dried thyme, stirring to blend.

3. Add vegetable broth and heat to boiling.

4. Lower heat and cover, cooking for 20-30 minutes until lentils are tender. If too much liquid remains in the pot, uncover the pot and raise the heat to evaporate excess liquid.

Serve with rice.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Encounters/Meeting My Daughter

We celebrated our daughter's 25th birthday this evening, a raucous dinner during which we overdosed on butter, laughter and gifts that included fuzzy slippers, a pop-up Advent calendar and a spindle with which to spin her own wool.

She is my miracle child. Twenty-five years ago, I faced the prospect that she might not survive the night. Born by emergency C-section, she was whisked away to a neonatal intensive care unit before I had the chance to see or hold her. By the time I was released from recovery and wheeled into the nursery, she was ensconced in an oxygen hood and her tiny body was attached to several monitors. I remember reaching out to stroke her leg, the only accessible part of her body. Still in shock, I couldn't comprehend what the doctors were telling me; I couldn't match the fragile life in front of me with the expectations and longings of the previous nine months.

The next morning, I was able to sit in one of the rocking chairs scattered around the nursery and one of the nurses lifted my daughter into my arms for the first time. Her monitors, which had been registering erratic, jagged patterns when I had entered the room, suddenly smoothed out into luxurious waves rolling across the screen like gentle surf.

"She knows your heartbeat," the nurse told me. "She's home."

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Inspiration/What Inspires You?

I am still absorbing the words of Ken Burns from last night's lecture. Our wild and ancient places are essential to our spirits, and bring us the silence we need to listen and remember.

For many years, I've been privileged to spend an all-too-brief part of the summer in just such a wild place. On a walk last year as sunset approached, the light on the cedars stopped me in my tracks. I was able to capture it with a camera, but even if I hadn't, this image will stay with me, and I know that it will find its way into one of my books.

I savor and save these moments. Do you?

What inspires you?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Discovery/Ken Burns

I've just returned from the Springfield Public Forum, the only free public forum in the country. Every fall, the Forum brings speakers to the city for a series of lectures that "inform, inspire and stimulate."

Tonight's speaker was filmmaker Ken Burns, whose most recent documentary, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," aired on PBS this fall. I wasn't quite sure what to expect of him as a speaker--we are so accustomed to seeing his message, that I thought he might be at a disadvantage on a bare stage with only a podium and a mike. I was mistaken. What I discovered tonight was that Ken Burns is not only an image maker. He is a poet.

His words this evening were rich and textured; his message was one of passion and the discovery of the life within through the "common wealth" of the land without. One of the opening lines of his documentary on the national parks is a quotation from John Muir:

"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul."

I was reminded of one of my own places of healing and cheer, a remote corner of Chappaquiddick Island where I spend part of the summer and where I have set my novel-in-progress, First Light.

It was a special evening, reinforced by a beauty not of incredible vistas and natural wonders, but of words.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Craft/Favorite Words


Every writer has them--favorite words and phrases that find their way into far too many sentences. One of my second-draft tasks is hunting down all my darlings and winnowing them down to one necessary and exact instance. I love words. I play with them. And when I find one I can't live without, I know I have to choose its placement wisely and sparingly. Overuse dulls and diminishes. It also leads editors to draw circles around the offending repetitions and readers to lose their curiosity in what you have to say.

I have created a list that I keep in my notebook. "Linda's Favorite Words" is scrawled across the top of my narrow-ruled tablet and I add to it regularly as I find myself going back again and again to a particular expression. It keeps me honest. One "palpable" is evocative; three hammer the meaning into flatness and imprecision.

Take care with your words, and challenge yourself to continue to find new ones.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thanksgiving Reflections

As we sat at dinner on Thanksgiving and I reflected on all that I was grateful for, I took special pleasure in how much of a collaboration this year's meal was. Starting on Wednesday, our kitchen was a hub of activity, with my children and my daughter's significant other chopping, stirring, kneading and mashing. Each of them took responsibility from start to finish for particular dishes: my daughter for the pumpkin and apple pies, including picking the pumpkin earlier this fall and preparing the puree; her significant other for challah and cranberry walnut bread, which he had "practiced" baking the week before and which he hovered over with care, and brussels sprouts and baby greens that he had grown himself in the community garden he manages; my older son for his favorite dish, sweet-and-sour cabbage, and for the orange-cranberry sauce. It was such a treat for me to watch them, and a rite of passage as I handed over what had been exclusively mine for so many years.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Food/Sweet Potato Casserole

Did you know that the sweet potato is a member of the morning glory family?

It's also another name for the ocarina, a simple wind instrument shaped like an elongated egg.

This is my husband's favorite part of Thanksgiving dinner, a recipe introduced to the family by my sister. Bubbling with melted butter and brown sugar, the nut topping is a crunchy counterpoint to the custard texture of the sweet potatoes. Enjoy!

Sweet Potato Casserole (12 servings)

  • 6 large sweet potatoes
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • ¼ pound butter, cut into small pieces
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla
  • ½ cup milk


  • 1 cup cornflakes
  • ½ cup walnuts
  • ¼ cup brown sugar

Boil sweet potatoes in skins until you can pierce them with a fork.

Drain, cool, and peel potatoes.

Mash potatoes in large bowl.

Add eggs, brown sugar, butter, vanilla, and milk and mix thoroughly.

Spread in large, shallow baking dish that has been buttered.

Bake at 350 º for 45 minutes.

Mix cornflakes, brown sugar, and walnuts for topping. Spread over top of potatoes and bake for 5 more minutes. Watch carefully so that cornflakes do not burn.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Food/Apple Pie

In my latest novel, Across the Table (scheduled for release in June 2010), Rose Dante is a first-generation Italian-American straddling the world of her immigrant parents and the life of an American working woman whose husband is away at war.

Here's a scene from a pivotal Thanksgiving:

I was up to my elbows in pastry dough for the pies. I’d convinced Mama to make an American apple pie in addition to the sweet ricotta pie with ten eggs and grated orange peel she always made for the holidays—not only Thanksgiving, but Christmas and Easter as well. I wanted Al Jr. to grow up an American. It was hard enough, with him spending my workweek with grandparents who only spoke Italian to him. But his father was an American serviceman, fighting for his country. The least we could do was teach Al Jr. to eat apple pie, sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce.

“You spend too much time with those Americans at the bank. What’s wrong with what I cook for the holidays?”

“Nothing’s wrong, Mama. It’s delicious. But we’re Americans too! It’s not such a bad thing. You and Papa chose to come here.”

“I don’t know how to make apple pie and I’m too old to learn. If you want your son to know apple pie, then you make it.”

Which is why I was kneading dough when the doorbell rang. I wiped my hands on my apron and answered the door.

My own recipe for apple pie is a composite of pie crust from Julia Child and filling from The Joy of Cooking. Here it is!

Pie crust (for top and bottom of 9” pie)

  • 1 ¾ cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 ¼ sticks (5 ounces) chilled butter
  • 2 tablespoon chilled shortening (Crisco)
  • 1/3 to ½ cup ice water

Place flour and salt in food processor with regular blade and blend for 1 second. Rapidly cut butter and shortening into ½ -inch bits and drop into machine. Turn on for 3 seconds. Stop. Add all but 2 tablespoons of the ½ cup ice water and turn on the machine. In 2 to 3 seconds the dough should begin to mass on the blade and the pastry is done.

Turn it out onto a work surface and with the heel of your hand, rapidly and roughly smear it out in front of you to make a final blending of butter into the dough.

Form into a cake 5 inches in diameter, flour lightly, wrap in plastic and a plastic bag, and chill for at least 2 hours before using.


  • 5 to 6 cups apples (peeled, cored, and cut into very thin slices)
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons cornstarch
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
  • 2 tablespoons butter

Place apples in a large mixing bowl.

In a small bowl, blend sugar, salt, cornstarch, and spices until well mixed.

Gently stir sugar-spice mix into apples, coating them well.

Making the Pie

Divide the pie dough into two slightly uneven parts, keeping the smaller one for the top. Roll each part into a circle about 1/8 inch thick. The larger circle should be about 2 inches larger than the pan, and the smaller circle should be about 1 inch larger.

Place the larger circle in the pie pan and press it into place. Brush the bottom with egg white.

Fill the pie crust with the apples.

Cut the butter into small bits and place around the apples.

Cover the apples with the smaller circle. Pinch together the top and bottom crusts and press together with a fork.

Cut vent holes in the crust with the point of a sharp knife. If you wish, decorate the center of the crust with scraps of dough (I usually make the shape of a turkey--see above).

Brush the crust with a beaten egg yolk.

Bake the pie for 10 minutes at 450 º. Reduce the heat to 350 º and bake for an additional 45 minutes.

Serve with freshly whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Food/Thanksgiving Menu

Those of you who have been reading my posts for the last several days may have detected a nascent structure to my musings, broadly hinted at by my headings. I can’t help myself—I’m the sort of person who needs some basic order in her life. My daughter used to warn her friends not to be surprised when they went down to our rec room in the basement and caught a glimpse of my pantry. All the cabinets (the original pale green metal cabinets that had been in the kitchen before it was renovated) were labeled with their contents: soups, pasta, canned tomatoes, olive oil, preserves, etc.). It was so much easier to unpack the groceries or find something when I needed it.

So, like my basement pantry, my blog will be labeled. It’s my intention to focus on a different theme each day of the week: Craft, Discoveries, Inspiration, Encounters and Food.

That being said, I’m throwing out the structure for this week because all I’ll be doing between now and Thursday is cooking. As long as I’m focused on food in the real world, I figured I might as well be in the virtual world.

I have always cooked Thanksgiving dinner for my family and assorted guests. When all our parents were alive and our siblings lived close enough, it was a very full table. This year, we are hosting only eight. Although the quantities are smaller than in years past, I’m still making the same variety of dishes.

Here’s my menu for this Thanksgiving:

Assorted Cheeses
Artichoke Pesto
Olive Tapenade

Roast Turkey with Gravy
Quorn Roast with Mushroom Gravy (for the four vegetarians at the table)
Chestnut Stuffing
Mashed Sweet Potatoes with Brown Sugar and Walnut Topping
Sweet and Sour Red Cabbage
Green Beans with Olive Oil and Lemon Dressing
Brussels Sprouts with Maple Syrup
Mushrooms Baked with a Garlic, Parsley, Parmeggiano and Breadcrumb Topping
Cranberry-Orange Sauce
Homemade Breads
Tossed Green Salad

Apple Pie
Pumpkin Pie
Figs, Dates and Nuts
Roasted Chestnuts
Assorted Fresh Fruit Bowl (Apples, Pears, Grapes, Tangerines, Pomegranates and Persimmons)

I’ll be sharing the recipes for some of these dishes later in the week. For now, I’ve got to go check on the homemade chicken stock simmering on the stove—the basis for the gravy.

Happy cooking!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Food/Broccoli Rabe

One of my favorite comfort foods is broccoli rabe. Like dandelion greens and arugula, it’s an acquired taste (as my husband will attest). But I grew up with these dark and distinctly flavored greens and I love them. They grew in both my grandmothers’ gardens (one in the middle of the city and one in rural upstate New York) and I remember eating them often as a child—plucked fresh, rinsed off under the outside faucet and sauteed quickly in olive oil with slivers of garlic.

When my mother was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer and I had flown to Florida on a few hours’ notice to be with her, I returned from the ICU on that first day to her home in Palm Beach Gardens, exhausted, overwhelmed and hungry. Waiting for me was my mother’s sister, Aunt Kay, standing at the stove with wooden spoon in hand. She had cooked up a pot of broccoli rabe—we called them “robbies”—and served them with a loaf of crusty bread. It was exactly what I needed.

Here is how I prepare them:

1 bunch of broccoli rabe
2 large peeled cloves of garlic
Olive oil
1/2 cube of vegetable broth
1 cup water

  • Rinse the broccoli rabe, trim off the stems and chop the leaves and florets into 2-inch pieces.
  • Slice the garlic thinly.
  • Film a heavy saucepan with olive oil and heat on medium high.
  • Add the broccoli rabe and stir, coating the greens with the oil.
  • When the greens are slightly wilted, add the garlic slices and continue to stir for about 1 minute.
  • Add the water and vegetable cube, stirring to dissolve.
  • Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer and cover.
  • Simmer for 5-10 minutes, checking to make sure that liquid does not evaporate.
  • Serve with crusty bread to soak up the juices.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Encounters/Visiting With My Aunts

I have been blessed with many aunts—fourteen to be exact, the sisters and sisters-in-law of my parents. When I was a little girl they took me downtown for ice cream; as I got older, they organized excursions into Manhattan for a Broadway show and lunch at La Fonda del Sol; and when I was a sulking teenager, they rescued me from the boredom at home by whisking me off to their summer places at the Jersey shore or Cape Cod. They celebrated my accomplishments, taught me how to wear make-up and gave me a glimpse of my heritage with the priceless gift of my grandparents’ love letters.

Now that my mother is gone, they take turns filling her shoes.

Last Saturday, I visited with two of them for what seems to be turning into an annual affair. My cousin Lisa brings her mother, Aunt Cathy, from Connecticut to our Aunt Kay and her daughter Kathy, and I drive in from western Massachusetts to join them. We spend hours around the kitchen table, lingering over homemade soup and pumpkin pie and a few glasses of wine. We tell stories and call up memories that link us in our shared history. We talk about our hair—curly—and our children, all trying to make their way in the world.

The conversation, the laughter and the love nourish us all.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Inspiration/The Woman on the Bus

Although I’m writing a book about a muse, I’m not one to sit around waiting for the muse to sit on my shoulder and whisper in my ear. I realized a long time ago that I had to actively seek my inspiration. One of the ways I do that is by being open to possibility. I observe; I listen; and I always carry a small notebook and a pen to capture the fragments of overheard conversations or the tableaus playing out in the lives around me.

Thirty years ago I was riding on a bus along Mass Ave in Cambridge late one winter afternoon, my four-month-old son asleep in the Snuggli on my chest. As babies tend to do, he elicited a comment from the much older woman sitting next to me, and we began a conversation that lasted all the way to Arlington. She was the widow of an Armenian poet, and she shared a few stark memories with me of being a young mother alone with an infant during World War II.

“It is the women who carry the responsibility for civilization,” she told me. “It rests with us.”

I remember what she said, what she looked like (olive-skinned, her hair covered in a scarf, her body small and thin, not bent but held with an elegant strength). I remember, because that night, after my son was asleep, I wrote it all down.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Discovery/Dirt Under My Fingernails

The last leaves are finally wafting from the high branches of the oaks in our New England neighborhood. A few isolated bursts of late fall color punctuate the landscape here and there, but for the most part, the trees are now sharply defined silhouettes against the sky.

Fall cleanup is generally a family affair around here, with my husband and my energetic 87-year-old mother-in-law leading the charge as they vigorously scrub the lawns and flower beds with their broad rakes. Over the years, I’ve taken ownership of one particular patch of garden—a broad sweep of juniper shrubs that flank both sides of our driveway. The shrubs lie directly under the oaks, and by November are covered in a thick blanket of leaves that lie not only on top of the shrubs but get caught in the tangle of spreading limbs. The only way to remove them is by plunging into the hip-high bushes and plucking them by hand. It’s a slow and painstaking process. I wear two layers of gloves, thick socks and my indestructible, 25-year-old Wellingtons, but I still emerge with long red scratches on my arms and legs, a runny nose and flecks of leaf debris in my hair.

Despite the physical assault of unyielding branches that do not want to give up their prisoners, cleaning out those bushes is enormously satisfying. Even after only a few minutes of combing out the leaves with my fingers, I can step back and see progress, which spurs me to keep going. The task is a kind of detangling, teasing out the layers of clutter until the stark, prickly beauty of the juniper is revealed.

I find writing to be a kind of “cleaning out of the bushes.” You have to be willing to get your hands dirty, to get on your knees and scrape around the roots of things.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Craft/Banishing Writer's Block

To make your unknown known — that's the important thing. (Georgia O'Keefe)

Often when I speak about my writing life I’m asked how I cope with writer’s block. In the early days, when I was struggling to begin my first novel, I stumbled upon a few simple techniques that coaxed my paralyzed brain into actually putting words on a page instead of agonizing about it. I still use them, and because of them think of myself as a disciplined writer. In fact, I believe that discipline is one of the defining characteristics of successful writers.

So that you do not have to stumble, but may walk upright, here is what worked for me (and which I hope will work for you).

  1. Set a goal. When my children were small, I managed, with the help of my husband, to commit to an entire day of writing every two weeks. I left the house early and hid out in a remote carel at our community college library. I had eight hours, and I was determined to finish the day with eight pages. Sometimes I’d find myself at 3:00 p.m. with only two or three pages of my notebook filled. But I pushed on, and every time, walked out of the library with my goal fulfilled. I still set a daily goal for myself.
  2. Set a timer. This was a composite of the “timed writing” exercises in various workshops I attended and a housekeeping tip I found on-line. The theory is that we will undertake unpleasant tasks if we think we only have to do them for a short time. I use a small electronic timer (they don’t tick), set it for 20 minutes, turn its face away from me, and don’t do anything else except write until the timer buzzes. The practice has trained me like Pavlov’s dog to ignore everything but the empty page in front of me.
  3. Write by hand. This may not be for everyone, but when I switched from composing on the computer to writing on narrow-ruled pads it freed me to carry my writing with me and use small pockets of time whenever I found them. I also discovered that the visceral activity of moving my hand across a page with a smooth-flowing pen was a more effective way for my brain to get the words out than hovering my hands above a keyboard.

Writers write. Find your own tools for making sure that you do.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Encounters/The Women of the Philoptochos Society

“Love is the doorway through which the human soul passes from selfishness to service and from solitude to kinship with all mankind.”

Georgia Skeadas (President, National Philoptochos Society)

In the last two weeks I was honored to be the guest speaker at separate events hosted by the Philoptochos Society, the women’s groups of Greek Orthodox churches in Springfield and Worcester, Massachusetts.

I discovered in high school that if you put me in front of a group and hand me a microphone, I will find something to say and actually enjoy it. This was a great surprise to me at the age of sixteen, when I was more apt to shrink into a corner and try to disappear if I had to have a conversation with a boy my own age. But a roomful of people? I had no fear. I emceed my school’s hootenanny two years in a row (I know, I’m dating myself)—welcoming the crowd, introducing each singer with amusing anecdotes and finding myself reluctant to leave the stage and the connection I was making with the audience. I may have been compensating for my lack of a singing voice—everyone except me seemed to be in Glee Club or performing in local coffeehouses—but it was the one arena where I felt confident and free to be myself.

It was a serendipitous lesson to learn, and led me to embrace opportunities as a writer to speak to groups whenever I’m invited. I’ve had the good fortune to be welcomed time and again by an amazing community of Greek women in Springfield known as Philoptochos. They meet for fellowship and charitable works, which is how I came to know them. Every year they hold a fundraiser, and three years ago they asked me to speak when my first novel, DANCING ON SUNDAY AFTERNOONS, came out. The book’s focus on the immigrant journey, family and food resonated with women who looked, sounded and acted a lot like my Italian extended family. Since then I’ve been back as each new book came out, and this year, added a visit with the Philoptochos Society in Worcester.

At both events recently, I looked around the room. Every table was filled with beautiful, vibrant and caring women, ranging in age from elegantly coifed matriarchs to busy young mothers. The food and wine were abundant; the conversations touched on celebrations and concerns; the occasions were an opportunity to share both joy and wisdom. I felt as if I were home.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Food/Plum Preserves

When I was a girl, the end of summer was always marked by two events—the week-long feast of the Madonna del’Arco and the canning of the bounty of my grandmother’s garden. My mother and my aunts sat at an oilcloth-covered table under the pergola that supported my grandfather’s grapevines, peeling, slicing and preserving bushels of eggplants and tomatoes that during the winter would become the basis for antipasto and Neapolitan marinara.

It was the memory of my Aunt Susie’s grape jelly that spurred my own initiation into the mysteries of turning ripe produce into preserves. During our sojourn in Germany, one of my husband’s colleagues with an orchard had a bumper crop of plums and shared them with us. I have a wonderful plum tart recipe from my mother-in-law, and made it that night. But I had far too many plums and had to figure out what to do with them before they turned to mush. That is when I remembered Aunt Susie’s paraffin-covered mason jars filled with Grandpa’s grapes and decided one purple fruit was as good as another.

Since that summer twenty years ago I’ve put up plums almost every year, sometimes sharing the weekend-long labor with friends, as my mother and aunts did. My fingers turn purple, my kitchen is sticky and fragrant, and at the end of the day my counter is covered with rows of glistening jars filled with luscious fruit.

Plum Preserves

30 lbs Italian prune plums

12-15 lbs sugar

· Rinse and slice plums into quarters.

· Layer plums with sugar in a crock or large plastic container, in the proportion of ½ cup sugar for every cup of plums.

· Cover and allow to rest for 12-24 hours.

· Bring the sugar-fruit mixture slowly to a boil and simmer until the fruit is a deep purple and translucent. It’s important to cook the fruit in small batches of 4-6 cups at a time to preserve the best flavor.

· Ladle fruit into hot sterile jars.

· Stir the fruit to remove air pockets.

· Wipe the rim, seal and store in a dark, cool place.

Yield: approximately 24 pounds of preserves (48 8-ounce jars)

Plum Tart

2 cups flour

7 ounces butter

½ cup sugar

1 cup ground almonds

1 egg

¼ teaspoon cinnamon

12 Italian prune plums, sliced thinly

· Blend all ingredients except plums in a food processor or mix by hand.

· Press dough into a 10-inch tart form.

· Bake at 350° for 20 minutes, until firm to the touch.

· Arrange sliced plums in concentric circles on tart base, starting at center and moving out to edges.

· Bake for 10 minutes.

· Allow to cool and remove rim.

· Serve with whipped cream.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Inspiration/Die Mauer

Twenty years ago this week, I was driving home from my weekly German class and listening to the news on the radio. Although I’d been living in the country for over a year and had become comfortable in using the language in my daily life, I didn’t always catch the nuances of conversation, especially when I was only hearing a voice coming out of a box instead of face to face with a speaker. And that is why I didn’t trust what I thought I’d heard the newscaster say, although it was a simple declarative sentence of only four words, “Die Mauer ist weg!”

The Wall is gone. It was such an impossible concept that I assumed I had mistakenly translated some idiomatic expression. But the agitation and exuberance of the normally somber German announcer convinced me that something extraordinary had happened.

When I arrived home I immediately turned on the television, seeking in images what I couldn’t believe in words, and understood that my initial grasp of the announcement had been correct. The Berlin Wall had been toppled. That night became etched in my consciousness as it did for the millions of Germans in both the East and the West who experienced it.

Being in the midst of such a moment taught me to pay attention to its meaning on a personal level to the people around me: the friend who was able to baptize her infant daughter in her husband’s ancestral village in the former East Germany; the new family that moved into our neighborhood from East Berlin who became fast friends, sharing meals, life stories and late-night glasses of vodka; the empty field in our village that was transformed nearly overnight into emergency housing for the thousands of East Germans pouring into the West in search of better jobs, a better life.

The emotional impact of that night on those around me became the seed for my novella “The Hand That Gives the Rose.” The political reverberated into the personal, changing lives, and that is what captured my imagination as a writer.

Inspiration/The Painting in the Attic

When my husband and I lived in Germany for several years, we had two memorable encounters with one of his great-great-aunts, the wife of a painter. Twenty years later those memories have become the inspiration for one of my stories.

The first encounter took place on a brilliant fall day in a nursing home where we had gone to visit Tante M. We entered a long, dreary institutional hallway with beige tiled walls and closed doors and knocked at the room belonging to Tante M. The door was flung open by a vibrant and colorfully dressed woman of indeterminate age. Her black hair was pulled back into an artful knot at the nape of her neck. She wore a yellow blazer and white slacks, Birkenstock sandals and long earrings that dangled from her earlobes. Chunky bracelets and a ring or two completed her accessories. It took me a few seconds to comprehend that this was the 90-year-old Tante whom we had come to visit.

She welcomed us effusively into her room, filled with sunlight and lined from floor to ceiling with paintings. Her bed had been transformed into a sofa, draped in a richly patterned throw and piled with embroidered pillows. An oriental rug hid the dun-colored terrazzo floor. Every surface was covered with sculpture and books.

We took Tante M. to lunch at an open-air café and were transported by her vivacious conversation to the salons she used to hold in Berlin, entertaining potential clients whom she charmed into purchasing her husband’s paintings.

The second encounter was a year or so later. We were spending Christmas at my mother-in-law’s home in Bavaria and were rummaging in the attic for the tree decorations that had been stored there. Leaning in a corner, its face to the wall, was a cobwebbed painting. We turned it over and discovered a languorous nude. It didn’t take long to identify who she was—Tante M., muse, manager and, we now understood, model, painted when she was in her twenties. We cleaned up the painting and took it home, where it still hangs above our bed.

Tante M. has been an inspiration to me—not only in shaping the spirit of the heroine of the novel I am writing now, but also in giving me a perspective on defying expectations as I grow older.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Writing from the Heart

Someone pointed out to me that each of my stories has been set in a pivotal historical moment that not only serves as a backdrop for the conflict, but also influences and colors the decisions and actions of my characters. In my latest story, "A Daughter's Journey," in the anthology A Mother's Heart, that pivotal moment is the end of the Vietnam War and the "Babylift" that was organized to evacuate thousands of children in Vietnamese orphanages.

A Mother's Heart will be released in April (just in time for Mother's Day) and I realized that this April will mark the 34th anniversary of the Babylift.

If you participated in the Babylift, or if you were one of the children evacuated, I would love to hear from you--and I hope that you will read A Mother's Heart.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Life has intervened for far too many months, but I've been recently persuaded to return to my random musings on this blog. Since I last wrote I've had another book published, The Valentine Gift, and have completed two more which will appear this year: the novella "A Daughter's Journey" in the anthology A Mother's Heart in April and the novel Across the Table in October. I'm currently at work on a fifth, First Light.

The stories continue to emerge, at first in fragments of dialogue whispered in my ear by half-formed characters or in images that evoke as yet undiscovered worlds. I listen and explore, stepping off the edge to see where I land. The inspiration for my heroine in "A Daughter's Journey," a young journalist writing in Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, was a haunting face in a photograph I stumbled upon a few years ago. A mixture of bravado and vulnerability, it fascinated me and led me to create a character with the tenacity and strength of will to survive in a war zone, yet willing to open herself to unexpected love--for a fragile child and a driven physician guided by Ignatian principles. I hope you'll discover in Melanie Ames a character worth caring about, as I did.