The Night After the Wedding...

...she slept with an old lover. They did not sleep. He was not actually in her bed, but present in her dreams, the entire night it seemed.  He was softer natured than he had been, older, and the voice she had liked so much had become a little weaker, with regret, perhaps. Skin still freckled, hair still curly, though decades had passed. He was guiding her somewhere, hand at her elbow, like the polite fellow he had sometimes been. They talked and talked, and the conversation did not end but only stopped when she woke. Dreams are dreams and you cannot will them back.

It had been a perfect wedding. Two people so sure of themselves and each other, more than happy to be taking this next step. Already planning children, for whom they are also excited. And a dog.

Everyone beautifully dressed. The couple, the parents of the bride, the parents of the groom. In random rooms all over the site of the wedding weekend, people were sponging, ironing, straightening, hanging out to air. Clothes are an important part of the wedding culture. The white dress, of course, which is common in cultures other than western. It is rare for a first time bride not to choose one, no matter the state of her virginity. In China, though, traditional weddings start with the bride in red, for luck. Only later may she change into white. Or not. In some countries, it is the tradition for men to wear white, too, such as in the Phillipines and Yemen. And shoes come into it. In Pakistan, men have to pay up if they want to keep their shoes. After a Pakistani wedding, the couple returns home for a ceremony called the "showing of the face." Family and friends hold a green shawl over the couple's heads and a mirror as the bride removes the veil she wears throughout the wedding ceremony. While the newlyweds are busy gazing at one another, the bride's female relatives make off with the groom's shoes.

Nothing like that happened at the wedding the dreamer attended. But, shortly after she had arrived for the weekend's festivities, while chatting with the father of the bride, a few drops of red wine splashed onto her good white shirt. Everyone had theories. Salt, soda water, white wine. Blot it, soak it. She tried everything, with some degree of success, but the stain remained visible. This is what happens. She changed into a darker shirt, yet the stain removal conversation continued each time a new arrival heard the story. By the next day, the long awaited day itself, people were no longer offering theories, but only remarking on how funny it was that there had been so many theories. Then attention turned to the main event.

Get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged...

Late night, reading Edna O'Brien's A Pagan Place, it returned. The
glimmer that tells me I am soon going back to writing. Not FB promos for my new book, The Reason for Time, not podcast scripts and website updates, not emails to friends and associates to inform them of events and appearances, and ask them to share, share, share. But real writing. The next novel.

The first episode of the podcast, "This is the Reason for Time," is almost ready to upload. The script writing part of it was interesting because it wakened a style I used when I wrote radio dramas, which I loved doing when CBC still had a radio drama department. The recording part was more of a challenge. How to read and at the same time sound as if I was speaking directly to listeners. The wonderful Ethel Whitty, who agreed to read my character's voice through the ten episodes --chunks I had selected for her -- is more of a pro. She simply sat down and started to read, and when she knew she was drifting, reading the words without buying into them, she shut off the mike and started over. Even more challenging, the edit, carried out by my 16 year old buddy Harris Dixson, supervised by a retired recording engineer who lives in the neighbourhood. We finished a day or two ago, and while a few minor glitches remain, the episode is going to upload next week. Only nine more episodes to go, but all the pieces - my voice, Ethel's, the music, the sound effects -  are recorded. And editing will be easier the second time, my buddy and I feel.

This is truly diy book promotion, and it always feels like I'm moonlighting when I do something other than what I am meant to do. But since I explored the writing itself in the script, the why and how of it, the podcast is genuine in that I had not thought of those things in a formal, ie, communicable sense, before -- at least in relation to The Reason for Time. With luck, the podcast will grow legs that can walk to all the places my publisher cannot afford to send me.

Theoretically, I will then be free to reach for my notebook, or move to the computer when I feel the urging of inspiration in my mind, really my entire self, reading phrases like this, from O'Brien, at night: "Emma begged to be let make pies to pass the time. Your mother went and picked rhubarb. The stalks were young and the skins came off in shreds. When she chopped it a pink juice oozed from it..."

And this, from my daytime reading of James Joyce: "Stephen Dedalus watched through the webbed window the lapidary's fingers prove a timedulled chain. Dust webbed the window and the showtrays. Dust darkened the toiling fingers with the their vulture nails. Dust slept on dull coils of bronze and silver, lozenges of cinnabar, on rubies, leprous and winedark stones."

Words that create a thousand pictures...

"Family is our vernacular.."

At an event in Toronto in April, the brilliant Junot Diaz said, "Family is our vernacular." He said a lot of other quotable things, too, but that phrase stuck with me. And now that summer is hurrying to bunch us up with warm days before it ends, reunions small and large are happening everywhere. August weekends started with an extended family get together chez moi, three generations. The next week, the extended family of close friends, some of whom spilled over to my house. Last week a wedding. Just before the season turns, another wedding.

While they can sometimes be an oasis, others a swamp, families are nevertheless where we learn to talk in the first place, and family becomes perhaps the most common subject of conversations for the rest of our lives. Where are you from? What did your parents do? How many siblings? Are you the oldest? The youngest?

Over potato salad and beer, bar-b-qued salmon at one place, pulled pork at the next, older siblings reveal secrets to and about one another. Views shift to encompass new knowledge. Are we the same people we used to be when we were teenagers? Of course not, and yet... Individual identity is subsumed by the group identity for a day, a weekend or more of dutiful or sincere hugs. At a certain age, everyone learns to skirt potentially explosive issues. Politics? No. Body art? No, at least not when the younger set is present, as they are more and more, some already parents themselves, of those little ones jumping on the trampoline, swinging from the rope swing, putting on a play in a shed near the beach, where the unreliability of the makeshift scenery produces a tantrum that drives less patient family members of the audience to the pebbly beach from where the view is of cloudless sky and blue water.

Despite best intentions, promises made, some kind of explosion is bound to occur, and not only just among the kids. A relationship broke at one event. At another, a man proposed to his longtime partner and they were spontaneously married a day later, since the family was already there, in one place, which seldom happens these days, except in summer, when the common language is indeed family, and the dialects are as different as there are family groups, though that observation gives the lie to at least the first part of what another great writer, Leo Tolstoy, said: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

New in the old, old in the new

 One man is almost 90, racing the hearse, he likes to say, as he works to complete his newest work, on the invisible geometry in the drawings of Piero della Francesca (1415-1492).  Geoffrey Smedley has been occupied with Piero for decades, and he has discovered lines and angles that are more than simply illustrations to accompany Piero's treatise on perspective, De Persceptiva Pingendi, which scholars previously took them for. In the introduction to his work-in-progress, Beneath Appearances, Geoffrey quotes Plato: "...when the Creator had framed the soul.. he formed within her the corporate universe and brought them together and united them centre to centre. The body of heaven is visible, but the soul is invisible and partakes of reason and harmony."

Geoffrey asserts that his unearthing of the buried geometry in Piero's work offers an insight into the attunement between sight, geometry and being.

The other man is a young playwright, not yet 30,  a mad reader who steeped himself in old stories of revolutionary movements to create a work that captures the essence of the energies involved in making change. I love the way his protagonist, Olivia, grabs the microphone when she has something important to say to her partner Jeremy. Strangely, when it comes to delivering the "message," she can only stare at the audience and promise that she will never do anything her heart doesn't tell her to do. A lot of followers are attracted to her non-message, and the numbers seduce Jeremy. He thinks the movement should have a name. Maybe the Olivians. He thinks they should lay out their specific ideas for change.

I couldn't decide which of the characters' views I favoured. Then I realized it didn't matter. James Gordon King and director Marie Farsi present the classic conflict between the heart and the intellect. Into the battle comes a most charming shit disturber, who tells Jeremy he's being noticed. This gives Jeremy the confidence to take the microphone himself. The lure of power, so hard to resist. Even Olivia is tempted by the devilishly likeable fellow who keeps changing his name, the fellow who might well be saying...this, all this, it could be yours....

In the end, all three characters are lying on the dirt floor of the pop-up theatre. But they do rise again, like every generation that aims to create the wheel, only to realize they are part of an endless circle. Age and youth, old and new.

Finding Quincy

When the girl at the tourism office in Mieussy, France asked if I would like to meet John Berger, I blushed.  It wasn't about fandom. I had too much respect for his work to meet the man. It would be like
Trail from Ley to Mieussy
meeting John Lennon. On the other hand, I had already spent a day wandering the wrong Quincy. I had already taken a bus, wandered up the wrong road, strode back to my starting point, considered the directions again, and eventually reached a hamlet that is in the midst of change from rural to suburban. A theme of Berger's Into Their Labours trilogy -- the work that attracted me to the area -- so it might have been the right place. But it did seem rather accessible, and not as high in elevation as I had imagined. Back at my computer I looked up Quincy again and found the second one, listed in Wikipedia in connection with John Berger. Of course. Further, higher. Remote enough that the bus switch in Annemasse didn't happen on my first try because I didn't know I was supposed to have made a reservation for the second bus from Annemasse to the commune of Mieussy. Consequently, the six hours I hoped to spend in Quincy immediately dwindled to four, because I had to catch the last bus back to my connection at Annemasse, a dreadful place, said an Irish friend, soulless, grey. Maybe so, but a girl at the A tourism office was kind enough to call Mieussy tourism and explain my situation. I had planned to walk from Mieussy to Quincy and had written walking directions in my notebook, but with so little time...No, there wasn't a bus to take me from Mieussy to Quincy. However, the Mieussy tourism officer was going home for lunch and would pass through Quincy, if I wanted a ride, if the bus reached Mieussy in time. It did and she first drove me to the town's only boulangerie to buy a sandwich, because there are no restaurants in Quincy, she said. This second tourism officer, the helpful Delphine, was the one who asked if I wanted to meet John Berger. He is friendly and open, she said, he would be happy to meet you. But when she called a friend of his, it turned out that the aging writer, thinker, artist, art critic was in Paris. Which was a real relief. For what would I have said to him? I love your books? I've read the Trilogy several times? I've longed to see the Alpine settings you described? I'd like to tap the truth of people the way you tapped the truth of your characters?

The question has come up before, on other trips to the neighbourhoods of writers I admire. New Orleans for Walker Percy, the actual version of his fictional intersection, Elysian Fields and Bons Enfants; the pool where Tennessee Williams swam; the NY East Village doorway that bears a plaque commemorating Allan Ginsberg, who wrote Howl there. Joyce's Martello tower in Dun Laghoire out of Dublin. It has to be fandom to some extent, yet if I could meet the writers who drew me to those places, it might ruin it for me. As Henri Matisse said, it's not the artist it's the art. The work. Celebrity, while it gets one's works known, is not the point at all. So what is the it that might be ruined?

I looked around the quiet hamlet of houses, gardens, farms. Feeling a bit the sneak thief, I took some pictures of the oldest house, which belongs to the Bergers, and then I continued down the road to Ley, where I followed Delphine's directions to the chapel, then followed a partially wooded trail through just the sort of setting I had pictured, took a wrong turn down a steep path, climbed back up using the long, silky green grass in the meadow alongside for a handhold, and finally made it back to Mieussy, in plenty of time for the last bus.

Another Reason for Time

 In my new book, The Reason for Time, I quote Albert Einstein, who said: "The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once." A joke, with significance, and readers will learn that it is not the only justification for the title. But another reason for time is that it encourages reflection.

About eight weeks since the book was released by Allium Press of Chicago and introduced to readers in Gibsons, Vancouver, Toronto and Chicago. Reactions have been positive, enthusiastic. How a writer itches to hear, "I loved that book...," and readers I know, and don't know, as well as early reviews have outright said or indicated just that. At a book club group of young women readers in Chicago, I was particularly touched by how they related to the main character, Maeve, who lived 100 years ago yet had some of the same problems these 30-something's have today. It was also encouraging to meet readers at Chicago's Printer's Row Literary Festival whose ancestors had stories similar to Maeve, who even lived in her old (imagined) neighbourhood.

In this increasingly categorized world of books, I'm known as a writer of literary fiction. The Reason for Time is my first, and may be my only, novel that can also be described as historical. Inspired by the pure fluid voice of Fabian Bas in The Bird Artist, by Howard Norman, and the historical sweep and narrative invention of John Dos Passos, in his U.S.A Trilogy, I hope I've achieved the truth of my character Maeve Curragh, who lived through that one crazy week in Chicago that started with a dirigible crashing into a downtown bank building and ended with the worst of 25 race riots in the "Red Summer of 1919."

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In Deshimaru's zen practice, the walking is barely walking. A breath, a step. One foot just ahead of the other. Attention to the bend of the ankle, the meeting of floor and toes.

The pace of the walk on the trail from Vernazza to Monterossa al Mare, on the Ligurian Coast of Italy, is quicker, but almost as deliberate. The stones have barely been worn by all the feet that have passed over them, in boots, in all kinds of shoes, perhaps the crudest kind of foot coverings, even bare feet since the first people settled here just a few hundred years after the birth of Christ. Steep yes, the climb up and the pause to look back at the tower on the breakwater. Then up, up, high above the turquoise Ligurian sea and its white ruffle along the bottom of the cliff. More up, sometimes via steps that have been made from the stones, at other points by root-held earth. Thoughts arise as they do in any kind of meditation. The image of a clock whose hands turn from point to point, all labelled now. The memory of a sister's stern yet loving face, and of an elderly friend who says she hasn't the energy to do as much as she used to do, and so she takes pleasure in the moment. Clouds passing, for example. A flower. There are flowers here. Honeysuckle? Something so sweet smelling you search for the blossoms, but this trail is more forested than the trail between Corniglia and Vernazza. Above, in the clearings between tree tops, there are vineyards seemingly impossible to reach. Here a stone bridge, and, now that the morning's older, people coming from the other direction.

Pick up your feet, he said, once when you stumbled on the lip of an uneven sidewalk and fell. Pick up your feet. Recalling those words and the clock whose pointer moves from now to now to now. The path is so narrow at points, you have to paste yourself against the cliffside to let others pass, those who may have started at the same early hour, but from the other end. All the stairs you've heard about. Go towards what you fear. When the steps down begin, a couple coming towards you stops for a breath and the woman says, there's a town down there, believe it or not. Counting as you plant your foot, one hundred, two hundred finally four hundred steps descend to the shack where the national park controller waits to see the required passes. The town is still twenty to thirty minutes ahead, but it's about the journey, not the destination, and you're not there yet.

Tourism 101, Italy

Duomo, Milan
There will be many people - often too many - from all over the world. Nearly 49 million of them a year. You are one of them, you are part of the problem. Who does not want to visit the terraces of the Duomo in Milan? The galleries in Florence? Should you leave? Find a quieter place? Is there a quieter place?

No matter where it is, chances are you will wish you could stay longer. Just when you are getting the hang of a place, it will be time to pull out.

Never mind, in Italian cities, such as Venice, instincts are more reliable than maps. It's better to keep the agenda non-demanding.

The hotel will sometimes be less than what you expect, but really, what can you expect from budget accommodations in a place as popular as the Cinque Terre? Hot water when you step into the shower? Soap for more than one day?

Hikers, many with sticks that awkwardly search for purpose among the stones, locals lugging Ikea shopping-size bags of espresso coffee up the hill to serve the terrace restaurant above Vernazza, where the price of a cappuccino is the same as it is in cities that have not been chipped out of the side of an almost vertical mountain slope. In Manarola, where fishing boats are lined up on either side of the main street, between the bars and trattorias, there are oversize black and white portraits of smiling peasants carrying baskets of wine grapes on their heads. Still, it cannot always have been fun.

"The very nature of the land has forced farmers to adopt an architectural kind of order; its narrowness has begotten quite a formal harmony.That's how things stand in the Cinque Terre. Different wines are produced there. A famous one is the Sciacchetrà, a name that is strait as a die." Corrado Alvaro

The wine Alvaro wrote about ranges from 29 Euro in a small grocery, to 40 E, beautifully boxed, in a shop in Manarola. In the same village,  a pony-tailed waiter delivers plates of olives and fresh pesto on brown bread to the drinkers gathered at the bar high above the town and the blue sea. Should we blame Rick Steeves, who attracted so many people and assures that most of them will try Nessun Dorma, perhaps even read further about Sarah, whose mother made a memorial for her rogue-wave swept away daughter just outside the entrance to the popular spot? Steeves encourages travellers to become "temporary locals," and to visit towns off the typical tourist trail. Yet, as soon as he discovers some place, his fans do too, and then it becomes another stop on the trail he encourages people to sidestep. They check out the walks he recommends, the restaurants. Try to adopt the attitude, while still keeping an eye on their wallets. Pop quiz: Who wrote, Wherever You Go, There You Are? Hint: Not Rick Steeves.

The Reason for Time

Whole minutes passed when I didn’t think of my man and the swimming lesson set up for the next day, if no one was murdered before then, or the cars stopped, or a bomb go off somewhere…

On a hot, humid Monday afternoon in July 1919, Maeve
Curragh watches as a blimp plunges from the sky and
smashes into a downtown Chicago bank building. It is the
first of ten extraordinary days in Chicago that will
forever change her life.

Racial tensions mount as soldiers return from the
battlefields of Europe and the Great Migration brings new
faces to the city, culminating in violent race riots.

Each day the young Irish immigrant, a catalogue order
clerk for the Chicago Magic Company, devours the news of
a metropolis where cultural pressures are every bit as febrile
as the weather. But her interest in the headlines wanes when she catches the eye of a charming streetcar conductor.

Maeve’s singular voice captures the spirit of a young woman living through one of Chicago’s most turbulent periods. Seamlessly blending fact with fiction, Mary Burns weaves a compelling and evocative tale of how an ordinary life can became inextricably linked with history.

Available at all the usual on-line outlets or at your favourite independent bookstore.

Vancouver, B.C. launch, Saturday, April 23, 3:30 PM, 1220 East Pender

Toronto launch, Saturday, April 30, 3:30 PM, Victory Café, 581 Markham

In the spring...

"In the Spring a fuller crimson comes upon the robin's breast; 
In the Spring the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest;

In the Spring a livelier iris changes on the burnish'd dove; 
In the Spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love." 

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Lockley Hall

They must sense light just as it creeps up, or see more alertly with their round bright eyes, those small birds that bring such an exuberant start to the morning. The crows come soon after, cawing in their complaining way. Then the gulls waking up and calling as the charcoal sky expires in the pale ash dregs of night.

Everything is reproducing. A new, thicker layer of yellow pollen on the neighbourhood cars each day. Seeds fall onto the patio from the broad leafed maples, arbutus. Seeds, seed casings, something. Tree garbage to be swept, swept away. Oh, there's more.

Everything bursting forth, springing up, unfurling, greening.

Gone the first pleasure of crocus and snow drop, even daffodil. Now bluebells crowd the slopes and Mexican jasmine flowers white, and the petals of dogwood like little platforms displaying the light the sun spills onto the thawing earth, coaxing open lilacs, that comforting lilac-colour and also white. Their fragrance blesses ivory legged passers-by wearing sandals and shorts.

Dandelions along every ditch, every path. Puffy grey heads of seed stars. Early cherry and plum blossoms fade as apple flowers take the stage.

How it's Going... now

The Reason for Time delivered, officially released by Allium Press today.

Friends and family who know of it have been very kind in their acknowledgements, the first review is favorable, three launches arranged in Canada - Gibsons, Vancouver, Toronto - as yet indefinite plans for a launch in Chicago, near the time of the Printer's Row literary fest. Interacting with other writers, and a few actors, as I plan to present the book with readings in different voices, including mine. Excited to see how that works with two poets (David Zieroth and Paddy McCallum) and an actor (Earl Pastko) reading the opening Carl Sandburg poem; two young actresses (Pippa Johnson and Chala Hunter) and a generous fellow writer, poet/novelist Karen Connelly, reading the main character, Maeve. Hoping for an audience, especially in Toronto, where I have few personal contacts. Searching my memory for potentially friendly faces there, I thought of the man who published my first book, Suburbs of the Arctic Circle, thirty years ago. We have never met in person. With literary presses, especially those a long distance away, communication was primarily by letter and the rare phone call. John Flood and I did not use email then, but I used it today to reconnect. While there is not a lot of traffic on the title, it is still listed in Penumbra Press's catalogue.

Busy head, hard to concentrate on other things. Thinking of words, punctuation I would change in the book. It never ends. Discovering ideas I subconsciously developed in the text. Love that part. And there are parts to the process... from the idea generation, to the struggle to give it form, to the ventures out to the world. Does anybody want to publish it?  Acceptance. Then work,  many emails back and forth between publisher and writer. Finally the finished product arrives. Beautiful. Making a book, the process itself, another reason for time.

"For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business. "  T.S. Eliot, East Coker

Trouble in Chicago, almost 100 years ago

(From The Reason for Time, from Allium Press of Chicago)

Tuesday, July 29, 1919

The answer didn’t come like magic, but not much work got done at the almost empty office of The Chicago Magic Company, neither. No Billy, still no Florence. Eveline, of course, gone to her cousin’s. Mr. R himself missing for half the day left me free to search the directory for the location of Provident Hospital. It would be a long walk and not a safe one, sure, not for someone skin light as mine in a neighborhood belonged to all those people at the heart of the trouble. Oh, what to do? But safe not even around us in the Loop when a colored man could be attacked and shot on his way home from work, something I learned when I took the elevator down and stepped outside and saw the story in another paper, all the papers plastered up to the board at the corner and me not the only one crowding in to read.





Happened two blocks from where I stood with the others, and me having to angle in from the side, since there were few shoulders low enough for me to see above. Two blocks away only, the poor fella’d run from the mob chasing him. And he’d not been the only one hounded, though he was the only one killed.

One hundred whites, led by five sailors, marched through the Loop early this morning in search of Negro employees. The mob was dispersed by a squad of policemen from the central station, but there was no violence. A Negro employed at Weeghman’s restaurant on Madison, near Dearborn, was driven into the kitchen. He escaped by jumping through a window and running down the alley. Later the mob chased a Negro busboy into a restaurant in the McVickers building. He took refuge in an ice box.

(Above excerpt from reports of the Chicago Race Riot in the Chicago Tribune, July 29, 1919)

"The dirigible fell that fast..."

(From, The Reason for Time, Allium Press of Chicago)

"The dirigible fell that fast gusts of pushed out air rustled my skirt around my ankles, and wasn’t I across Jackson Boulevard by then, not knowing whether to tilt back my head to look or duck for cover? First the spreading shadow, then the odd shout sprung up from here and there, bunching into a roar when that big silver egg dropped flaming from the sky right onto the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank. And one of the parachutes meant for escape? Didn’t that fall flaming too, a candle soon snuffed on the ground barely a block beyond. Others floated through the billows so thick you couldn’t see what was attached to them, but you hoped it was someone made it out alive. “Look!” But where to aim your eyes first? The Wingfoot Express. Looked so impressive on the ground, it had, over there at the Grant Park field, but knowing how flimsy it turned out to be had me wondering what fools’d wanted to go along for what the papers called a joy ride. No joy for them that day, maybe never again.

The screaming started with the plunging made it more terrifying. A great boiling soup of sound, roar of fire, shattering glass, clanging bells, keening voices, clattering metal. Then an unholy minute, sure not even as long as a minute after the explosion, when them gas tanks fuelled the airship went up and I might a been deaf. It was that still I thought I’d been killed, like all them in the bank and the fellows crashed into it. But I was not about to die then, no, not killed, only bleeding, and just a dab of blood it was on my neck, like something’d bit me."

An Irish Girl in Chicago, July, 1919

(From, The Reason for Time, from Allium Press of Chicago, April, 2016)

      "I could tell Margaret he’d stood me up—she didn’t have to know who—and, feeling sorry for me, she’d ply me with something, as our mammy used to do. Let me cook you an egg, she’d say, for we had eggs for comfort more than anything else. A nice soft-boiled egg with the skin clinging to the rounded knob at the end I’d pop in my mouth while she salted the rest, scooped it into a cup. Two mouthfuls and gone. Something so delicious coming out of that button-eyed hen clucked at the back stoop and wouldn’t lay in a proper nest, but wherever she felt like it, so some went wasted even though we thought we knew all her hidey places.

"Thinking of home, more than eight years after I squeaked open the wicket gate and crossed into the single room housed us all. Even though I could buy myself eggs and eat them every day, they never tasted savory as that surprise Mammy would find for one of us. To think she might find only one, too, while there in the shops along Halsted were dozens displayed, creamy white, fawn, brown, and speckled.

"I crossed the street, right past the policeman winked at me as I went, must a been he’d decided me an honest woman. I tried to look up and admire the buildings and thought I might even stroll into the Palmer House a few blocks away, as once I’d done, venturing past the liveried boys, onto the marble walkway, up the stairs into the grand lobby with the ceiling painted like a cathedral, angels and cherubs and gold leaf. The same year we arrived in Chicago, me just turned sixteen, and one of them in livery thinking me there to pick up the laundry or polish the silver. The gilt, the marvelous designs in the plaster, the chandeliers with lights Bridey never would have believed, bright, yet spreading gently onto the seating area as if breathed down from the ceiling by one of them broad-winged angels. The liveried one took my arm and tried steering me over to the housekeeping department, thinking I wanted a job.

"But my bold words saved me, me who doesn’t talk much, something made me different from the start at home where, if talk were money, we’d all a given Potter Palmer and his kind a run for theirs. I lifted my chin and said, 'No, I am not here for work, but to meet my father.' Did he believe me, the bell captain? If not, he pretended to and escorted me to a straight chair, velvet, in my favorite blue, color of twilight. I rested from the outside bustle, imagining my da limping up them marble stairs in his cap and his black jacket going orange with age, collarless shirt, stubble on his cheek, the way he’d come through the door at home some days, smiling, smiling, like he’d a secret when he was only imagining something and how he would be reaching for his book to describe every thought."


If I were not a writer, I would want to be a composer. Musical language has been a mystery to me, and still mostly is, but I'm learning, and Leonard Bernstein is an inspiring teacher. In his Harvard lecture series of 1973  he uses Noam Chomsky's linguistic theories to explore phonology, syntax and semantics in music, and you want to pay close attention.

Because I am a writer, certain words and phrases of Bernstein and Chomsky stick with me as possibilities to consider in my own workshop. An aspect of Chomsky's transformational grammar, for example, is transformation by deletion. This applies across the arts. Something actual can be transformed by deleting parts of it. I think of that apparently facile brush stroke that Georgia O' Keeffe used to recreate the curving highway at the bottom of her property in Abiquiu. I think of wordiness and how one should be careful not to say "it", whatever "it" is, in too many words. But couldn't that leave a sense of ambiguity? That same sort of ambiguity Bernstein defines as that which arises from "twoness," this and that, a bit of each? LB would throw up his arms and smile and shake his wonderful grey hair, eyes open wide, encouraging. That's just the point, he might shout, instead of say, because he would be excited to see I'd learned that ambiguity is what gives a piece its poetry.

Patterns, patterns, and how they all seem to conform to a story shape... initiate, complicate, resolve. The word melisma that describes the ornamentation of a single musical note and may have its counterpart in overly lyrical writing. At least in my view.

Interesting also to learn that ambiguity in music, at least before the 20th century, was reined in by diatonic "fences," as Bernstein calls them. Chromaticism held in check by diatonicism. Using the example of Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, which was inspired by Mallarmé's poem, Bernstein shows how the poet reined in his tumbling words with rhyme, how Debussy reined in his whole tone scale by returning to comfortable consonance. In other words, by all means go for it, but give the listener, the reader, something to grab hold of, something familiar.

Listening to these lectures fertilizes my awareness of music composition techniques and, with luck, my prose writing will grow. Listen, I tell myself. There's more than what you first hear.

Without a Compass

Jacques Cartier used an astrolabe to guide him from northwest France to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River in the early 1500's. Odysseus sailed by the stars, though the Gods had a very big influence over where he went and what happened to him at each of the stopping stones that led him back to Ithaca. Athena did all she could to speed Odysseus home, Poseidon equalled her efforts, but to foil the man.

Undoubtedly romantic to use sailing as a metaphor for novel writing, yet it can feel like that. While the seas are not treacherous in a physical way, it's just as risky psychologically to leave port for a journey of unknown length, that may have to be aborted, that will end somewhere, eventually, but where? You've stocked your ship with all you think you may need, cast away with the inner breathlessness that accompanies any new venture. In the beginning you may use charts, perhaps an outline. The weather is calm, you bob up and down on wave after predictable wave that are the days you come and go from your desk. Some are like the doldrums, when you put in the time but get nowhere. Then a sudden brisk wind of inspiration forces you to adjust your sails, to set out on a different tack. At first, happily, excitedly occupied, you soon realize that you have no idea where this tack is leading you.

At an AWP conference one year, it was maybe the American novelist Ron Carlsen who said, when in doubt, trust your fingers. Let your fingers do the writing.  Sounds like an old advertisement for the Yellow Pages, but it is good advice. Thinking too much can lead to confusion, inertia. So you give into the fresh breeze, which cools your face as you think - but not too much - of all the writers who have been in this position before you.  Jack Kerouac, for example, who advised...

"Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better."

Yet even he must have had days when word pairs such as these came in from under, 
                                  failures, sailors
an imperfect rhyme poets use to create an inharmonious feeling, like dissonance in music. "Somethin's happenin here. What it is ain't exactly clear," as Stephen Stills of the Buffalo Springfield wrote, about a different kind of troublesome situation.

An island up ahead, a sheltered cove. With luck the clouds will clear and some Calypso will appear with advice similar to what she gave to Odysseus, to keep the Bear (Ursa Major) on his left hand side and at the same time to observe the position of the Pleiades, and Orion as he sailed eastward, traversing the Ocean. Or perhaps you will discover an astrolabe left behind on the beach.


She was in the garden outside her ground floor condo one day when she lost her footing and went down. Late spring, mild temperature, the smell of wisteria, still some tulips, bluebells lingering, nicotiana beginning, tall stalks of delphinium with nubs that would bloom blue.
It's a corner building and her large garden was bordered on two sides by public spaces, a sidewalk leading up from the beach on the west side; an alley on the north. Turning to her right, then her left, getting on her hands and knees, she tried to raise herself. There was going to be bruising, she knew, but nothing important seemed to be broken. Still, she is 92, and while more or less healthy and fully cognizant, she could not get up. She heard people walking by and hollered for help. There is a gate a potential rescuer could have come through, or just talk through, but, at eight feet, the fence was too high, any cracks too crowded with bright vegetation for anyone to see her. She lay back thinking. This could be it. She might die here in the garden and that might not be too bad. Already she had lost a daughter to cancer, other family members in other cruel ways. Still, she is a social person and to die like this, hidden from everyone's view, lying among the paving stones and flowers. Help! she called again.

On the other side of the country, about the same time of year, a man a little older, 94, a music lover who lived with his cat and his bird, and who listened to Saturday Afternoon at the Opera religiously, this man also fell and couldn't get up. In his case it was un accident vasculaire cérébral, as is said in Québec, and it immediately paralyzed his left side. He went down by the door to the balcony of the third floor apartment where had lived some thirty-four years. Perhaps about to open the balcony door to admire the newly green trees, the flowers beginning to blossom on the front lawns of the old houses one street over from the Plains of Abraham. The bird continued to chirp, the cat curled around his head, as it liked to do, and when rescue finally came the next day, the cat hid somewhere in the back store room among sacs of last year's applies and a barrel of organic oats. Perhaps the man lay there thirty hours before his neighbour became curious. The walls in that old building are thin and she was used to his sounds. But she had just returned from abroad. Nothing was as usual that day. How did he find the pencil, the paper that stated she, the neighbour, was to have all his unused food? That directed her to the place where he'd left a set of instructions that began, "If it appears that I may have died, please make no heroic efforts to resuscitate me..." and ended with a P.S. about the location of the cat and bird food. His will was attached.

Did he sleep for a few of the thirty hours? If only he had been able to reach the radio. He loved music. But his neighbour, hearing music, might not have eventually wondered why she wasn't hearing it and thus might not have gone to check. Instead of thirty hours, he might have lain there longer and eventually breathed his last on the floor, with his cat by his side and the bird chirping its displeasure at the lack of food. Instead he died in the hospital where no heroic measures were taken, as he wished.

As for the woman in the garden, she slid herself on her bottom, inch by inch, from the garden to the patio door. Perhaps three hours after she hit the ground she hefted herself over the doorsill, and continued inching across the carpet --- oh, the burns! she'll tell you --- toward the phone, by which she immediately called 911.

She doesn't recount all that passed through her mind as she lay among the flowers in her garden, only small details, such as the thought that it wouldn't be such a bad place to die. The old man never said what was going through his thoughts. For one thing, he couldn't actually speak, and his eyes, when he opened them for the final time, revealed nothing at all.

Stranger than Fiction

True Crime stories have always found a curious audience. Truman Capote's In Cold Blood is considered a classic. Ann Rule's The Stranger Beside Me, about serial killer Ted Bundy, Helter Skelter, about Charles Manson, plus many other examples of the type, are entrenched in contemporary popular literature.  Many takes on the subject try to match the crime with the person who either definitely did, or is accused of having done it, whatever "it" is. Two recent examples, the podcast "Serial, "and Netflix's "Making a Murderer" follow that same trend.

Both tease listeners and viewers with a high-stakes question -- did he, Adnan Syed, or Stephen Avery, really do it? Are the two men in question capable of having done it? The first season of "Serial" filled twelve episodes. "Making a Murderer," ten, and those who have listened to or watched them will know that the answers to both questions are more or less inconclusive. Does it make them any less satisfying to listen to or watch? Not to me, because I found myself thinking about the medium as much as the message. As a former documentary filmmaker, I appreciated the "let them tell it themselves" approach of the filmmakers who made the Avery story. A strength of that series was the interviews with the characters involved, the picture of life in that Wisconsin town. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, who wrote and directed the series, first noticed the case when they were journalism students at Columbia. Good foresight, and I think they did a terrific job.  But anyone who has worked as a journalist or documentarian will know that even if you don't see them, the people who deliver the story are present in their choices of what and what not to film, or record; their choices and style of edits. Anonymous narration is a convention of journalism that began with a desire to present facts objectively. Common sense says that goal is impossible to reach. Communication is human, and humans are by nature subjective. Despite their intentions, the filmmakers can't help being who they are.

"Serial," on the other hand, didn't even try for that illusion. Sarah Koenig got interested in the story, decided to pursue it, and narrates every single episode, most of which include her ongoing thoughts about the case, about Adnan, the other characters, and conversations between Koenig and her producer and co-workers about the case. At first I found it annoying. I didn't think I would get through the series so dominated by a single voice. The makers of "Serial" fit what was called in the 60's "new" journalism, by writers such as Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion and others, who published long, rambling pieces that included themselves as characters.

In fiction classes I used to tell students that if they're going to have a first person narrator, the story narrated better have something to do with her or him. Otherwise, the narrator is just a reporter of distant events, and who cares, really? Sarah Koenig is not creating fiction, but I found I wanted more of her.  More context. Why is she asking all those questions, making assumptions about Adnan? Where is she coming from? Interestingly, the voice I found so personal was fully scripted, not spontaneous after all, as she revealed in an interview with David Remnick. Instead of answering my questions, this behind-the-scenes interview only made me want to ask more.

Now Comes the Hard Part

The book is almost ready. It took years. Though it is a small novel, my smallest, a two-foot-high stack of some of the books I consulted, then kept, and boxes of catalogues, newspaper clippings, website print outs and archival photographs testify to its density. It was fun, too. Not as in sex, drugs and rock and roll fun, but the good deep fun of discovery, then wrestling with imagination, and in this case, putting imagination together with facts I hoped would disappear in the narrative. My first historical novel.
Worth a thousand words

I feel lucky to have found an enthusiastic and careful publisher, who has created a handsome book. While she suggested changes that at first seemed difficult to make without compromising my ideas, the work I put into trying them stimulated my understanding of what I was writing. When I resisted a change and explained why, she almost always accepted my view. "It's your book."

The Reason for Time will be released by Allium Press of Chicago in April. But now comes the hard part.  Nobody is going to buy and read the book unless they know about it. That means promotion and marketing, things literary folks resist because they are, from the writer's point of view, the opposite of sitting in a room by yourself, and from the publisher's standpoint, a lot of effort for questionable results. And yet, books are made to be read, and to choose one over another in the ever-expanding universe of books, you have to be aware of its existence.

Since my first book was published, this end of the business has changed big time. Most new books, including mine, are simultaneously published as print and ebooks, and the eworld must be covered as part of the promotion effort. Authors are advised to have a website, to interact on social media like Facebook and Google plus, all of which I have and do, to some extent. I've avoided Twitter because of its extreme temporariness and I haven't done much with Linked in or my Goodreads author page since I signed up.  Will it make a difference if I do? In the literary eworld,  promotion is frenetic, I found when I first dipped into it a few years ago. Lots of cleverness going on, bright, insistent voices.

It used to be that publishers depended on newspaper reviewers and columnists to spread the word about books.  In fact, sending out review copies might have been a small publisher's main, even sole, promotion effort. It was always a gamble, because editors received so many books. The stacks around reviewers' desks must be growing even higher because there are few book sections left in printed North American papers. Few printed papers period. Even the well regarded Chicago Tribune's Printers Row Journal went completely digital as of last week.

So, well, we'll see. While it might not be testing oneself against angry bears and arrows from enemies, icy rivers and ruthless companions, publishing a book these days is still a survival challenge.

Planetary News

Joshua Thomas, via Earthweek
An earthquake jolted me awake and rocked the house for less than a minute, but still... Long-standing warnings predict that the "big one" could pry open the west coast of North America like a sharp knife thrust into a thick slab of chocolate. Who knew that the little one of December 29 was not a precursor? The next day we were teased with the possibility of glimpsing the Aurora Borealis all the way down here at the 49th parallel. That we didn't see the lights was not too disappointing, for word of an unusually strong solar storm had displaced headlines that usually focus on warring factions in the Middle East and Africa, murder, politics, financial crises. Reports of wonders in the sky reminded me of the Earth Week diary I used to see in the newspaper. Planetary news of import. A sense of the bigger picture. Impersonal, apolitical, yet, in another sense, deeply personal because major natural events demonstrate connections that affect individuals all over the globe.

Melting glaciers leave more open -- dark -- water, which attracts sunlight, which means more ice melts, etc. Same thing happens when permafrost thaws and all the carbon it contains is released to the atmosphere in the form of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. This process leads to more climate change and is an example of a positive feedback loop, which happens when warming causes changes that lead to even more warming. It's all about relationships, connections, and they include us. Earthquakes, frozen land that is melting, and floods mean big changes in human habitation. These too are covered in the Diary of the Planet, under the sub-category, animal and human activity. Though I haven't seen it in a paper in years, I was happy to find an online version of the Earth Week map that used to fascinate me, and which still features icons that indicate where an earthquake has occurred, a cyclone, an antelope tragedy.

IFL Science, 12/29/14
Bad news about rising temperatures and ground water loss share the page with links to stunning photos of natural phenomena. The picture (above) that Texas photographer Joshua Thomas captured about this time last year in New Mexico suggests another connection, how planetary events inspire artists. How the abstract paintings of someone like Georgia O'Keeffe, for example, were probably inspired by celestial images. Come to think of it, an entire religion was founded on the epiphany of a child in the light of a brilliant star, or so it is said. I wonder how the Earth Week map would have represented that.