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.