The Girls in the Basement ….now available!

“Life can’t ever really defeat a writer who is in love with writing, for life itself is a writer’s lover until death – fascinating, cruel, lavish, warm, cold, treacherous, constant.” Edna Ferber

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For three years, I wrote a column called The Care and Feeding of the Girls in the Basement. It was a chronicle of my day to day struggles and rewards with the writing life. Much of it was written during an enormous transition in my life.  The column was written for a group of professional, commercial fiction writers. (NINK, for those who might know it.)   To my surprise, the columns were quite popular, and I really enjoyed writing it, but after three years, I’d written plenty and gave it up.

The story might have ended there.  Except that people kept telling me that they had kept the columns to re-read. They gave them to friends who were feeling discouraged.  And because the newsletters are private to the organization, they did not have a wide circulation. Aspiring writers never saw them.

So I decided to collect them for writers–aspiring and published alike–who might find a laugh or inspiration or encouragement in them.  There are two volumes of columns, but my ebook genius and I are collecting three books of the most popular class materials for release in the fall.  (First, the contemporaries to which I’ve regained the rights–stay tuned).

Without further ado, an excerpt from Book #1

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Beginner’s Mind:   Keeping the Faith
from The Girls in the Basement

Talk on one of my email loops has been exploring the changes and ups and downs we all experience after five or ten or thirty years in this business.  Several writers are discouraged by crushing career news and financial setbacks and the challenges of living as a writer.

The discussion led to questions of faith.  How do we keep going? How do we recover that fire?  Where did it come from in the first place?  And how did it get lost?

Writer Raphael Cushnir says the dark night of the soul comes to all of us in different ways, but the emotions we experience during that dark night are all the same. A long-time writer who is struggling with reinvention or renewal is struggling with a disturbing set of questions. Was she wrong, all this time, about her vision? Is he, after all, a fool for loving this work, just as cousin Harry and his mother and Aunt Jane have said? Should any of us try to make this our life?

While this discussion was going on, I was also talking with a friend who is beginning to sell to non-fiction markets.  He’s been in the music business a long time and wants to write for a living so he can stay home with his wife and daughter.  He’s a pretty talented guy.  He’ll probably make it, and the writing life can’t be any worse than the music life. We had lost touch years ago, long before he actually made it into the music world and I made it into the writing world, and through the delights of the Internet, we have been spending many happy hours talking about old times and new.

And writing.  He always understood creativity.  Writing now burns in him the way songs once did.

He sent an email (from Ireland. I love writing that: my friend in Ireland. Very nice of him to end up there) that poured out his desires, his path thus far, what he thinks he might be understanding, what he has yet to figure out.

His longing filled me with a bitter-sweetness, a swift wish to return to the beginning, to the magic.  I find myself feeling cautious in my replies, as if he’s just fallen in love and I’m an old married hag, reluctant to douse his fever.

“So, tell me,” he emailed. “How did it happen? How did you sell your first book?”

My flood of memories may be not unlike yours. I was twenty-nine. It was November 22 (never mind the year), just before Thanksgiving.   It was a category romance I had called The Phantoms of Autumn, about a classical guitarist and a writer who met on a train journey.  My advance was four thousand dollars, which was almost precisely double my annual income as a bowling alley cook and attendant—a job I’d taken to help make sure I stayed focused on writing work—and more than enough to get my phone turned back on.

Beyond the simple facts, of course, are a host of emotions and memories.   The late nights with my headphones on while my very young sons and husband slept in their beds.  The jumble of undone housework that meant I never, ever allowed anyone to “drop by”.  The cloistered life I led during that passionate period when I had no time for anything but the books, the boys, the family.

I remembered, too, how I’d stood in my kitchen a few weeks before that magic phone call, weeping bitterly over a rejection that dashed a very real hope I’d had of making a sale to a literary magazine where the editor liked me.  I didn’t know how much longer I could stand to see yet another SASE with my handwriting on the outside, knowing it meant a rejection.  My fire, my belief in myself, was dwindling, and I didn’t know how I could keep going on like that, believing when no one else did.  When I look back, I’m not sure how I discovered the chutzpah to believe so absolutely that I would sell a book eventually.   But I did believe, with a depth of faith that—

Writing as an act of faith

I noticed yesterday that the new book about Columbine is out.  I’m not going to read it.  I remember enough about the day and the subsequent stories to last me the rest of my life.  Enough to say, “what a wretched day” and go on.  But the anniversary will surely mean more coverage, and there have been many trials since then, so it seemed to me a good time to post a link to a talk I presented at RWA in 2004:

Acts of Faith

Author preface: It’s a dark talk, but remember, I do know how to deliver a happy ending….

It’s an unholy world we’re living in, isn’t it? Over the past five years, it has become an increasingly dangerous place. I sometimes look back and think, “What happened?”

For me, the dark times started on April 20, 1999.

An unholy date. Hitler’s birthday, but more specific to our current situation, it is the day two boys went into a suburban high school and murdered 12 children and themselves.

Those killing happened 100 miles from us, and they hit my eldest son very hard. They hit ME hard. My sense of safety was shattered, and there was no way to put it back together again.

One of the hardest things I’ve ever done was taking my son to school the next morning. Where a cataclysm could happen.

Where he was no longer safe.

I couldn’t sleep for weeks afterward. I thought of the parents of the children who were murdered, and the parents of the children who did the killing, and my soul was torn with unease.

I wanted to fix it. Solve it. Heal it. What could I do? There had to be some way to stop the madness.

It is an unholy world we are living in.

A couple of summers ago, I went to France for a hiking trip with a good friend of mine. It was a personal test-to see if I really had achieved the fitness levels I’d been working toward, and a reward for giving up cigarettes.

I wanted to see if I had the courage to venture into a world where I didn’t know the language, and hike-seriously hike– for seven days with a small group. My life had been changing and I needed time to see where I might be going next. On those hills in Provence, sweating, I found some answers. Or what I thought were answers.

I was buoyed by my discoveries. I was cheered.


Singing the Blues

Here’s a piece originally written for my Girls In The Basement column for Novelist’s Ink. 


(Summer, 04)         

          One of the greatest blues songs of all time has to be the version of Summertime as sung by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.   It starts out floating like chiffon on a soft wind, the orchestra, the band, the simple dance of it. 

          Then comes Ella.  “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy,” she sings, and you know it wasn’t.  Not for her.  Not for anyone who sang that song, at that time and place.

         But there’s that horn—that unbelievably perfect trumpet—and you can almost see a wide, slow, muddy river through a break in thick trees.  The fish are jumping.  The cotton is high.  There’s a sheen of light over the land.  It’s summertime.  What does the rest matter?

         That’s the whole point of blues, singing when the living isn’t easy.  It’s been a season of loss for so many of us, personally, and on a much larger scale, for our nation and our planet.

          Like it or not, our old world shattered with 9/11 and a lot of what has come after has been pretty grim.  I was raised in a military town during Vietnam, and my sense of honor asks me to watch the PBS list of dead soldiers every night, but I’m not as brave as I’d like. Some days, some soldiers go unacknowledged by me.  I’m sure they are acknowledged elsewhere, but it seems the least I can do for them in return for their dying.  Look at their faces, their names, their home towns.  Honor them.

         Summertime, and the living is easy….

          In my community, it’s been no easier.  On an email list to which I’ve subscribed for a decade, there’s a season of  personal trials. Death has trod through us, scooping up one and another and another.  Trouble has been banging a gong, shattering the serenity.   

        And personally, I’m quite melancholy myself this sunny almost-summer morning.  I can’t settle in to write the book so I’m here, writing about life and writing.  It’s been another little dark stretch.  Someone I’ve known for a long, long time died rather suddenly a few weeks ago. It was an anniversary of my aunt’s death.  A few days later, it was my mother-in-law’s birthday, the first one without her, and I missed her all day.  Someone I’ve known a long time has spots on his lungs. 

         Even smaller lesser things: my eldest son broke up with his girlfriend and I’ve been on the phone and on email with both of them, dealing with broken hearts.  Ow.  It’s so much harder to be a mother when they have broken hearts.  What can you possibly say?  It hurts like the dickens and there isn’t anything I can tell you that will make it feel better.   As the mother of only sons, I’m always falling in love with the girlfriends, but this one was really close to my heart.  I’ll miss her wretchedly.   

             My best friend of the past twenty five years, who now only lives 100 miles away, is moving to Atlanta.  Thousands of miles away.  I know I can visit her.  I know it’s a good move for her and she’ll be happier living around her family.

            Even lesser sad things: my other son wrecked his car.  It’s going to be a total loss, though he can’t seem to get his mind around that idea yet.  It’s sad that this great bargain is a loss now. 

          I need to wallow.  That’s the truth.  Wallow and whine and complain and moan and cry.

         Summertime, and the livin’ is easy….

         There is restlessness in me, too.  That stirring of far-away-ness, the hunger for something….else.   I’m living between two cities and can’t make up my mind which one I want, or if I want another one entirely.  Maybe I’d like to go to Mexico City and study Spanish, because I said I was going to from the time I was twenty, and what’s stopping me (except I’d miss my dog desperately)?

           The work seems hard these days.  Not all of it—but the work that’s testing me is really testing me.  I’m not as successful as I’d like in getting things on the page.  Sometimes, I’m falling flat on my face and feel like Jane Fonda in the movie about Lillian Hellman, when she’s typing away on a table by a window, and gets so frustrated with the work that she stands up and shoves the entire typewriter out the window. (Wouldn’t it be so satisfying to do that sometimes?)


            My grandmother is 85 and has been in and out of the hospital.  She’s frail now, and never was before.   I was visiting her at a therapeutic center (nursing home) where she had to go to get her strength back recently.  My mother, her brother, and I were talking to the therapists and social workers, trying to navigate the maze of medical benefits, Medicare, insurance, and balance it with the care she desperately needs.   It was a tiring day, and my grandmother was somewhat querulous, as I suppose she had a right to be.  It wore her out.  My mother was settling her with her magazines and pudding and bottle.  My uncle and I were standing in the doorway, staying out of the way.

         The hallway stretched in institutional blandness in either direction, and from a room not far away came the sound of a woman moaning.  The door to the room across the way was open and I saw the bed, the light, the little television, the accoutrements of illness.  I fell adrift in my thoughts, wishing there was a way to pinpoint the Last Good Day of Life Before the Great Decline so this would never have to be my future. 

         My uncle made a sound and I looked at him.  He’s in his early fifties, still a handsome scoundrel who left behind a wild life to settle in with his children and wife, but he still has a chopped Harley, red, that’s his pride and joy. 

         He wiggled his nose, touched the corner of his eye and said, “The boys want my bike, so I guess I’ll just have to buy me a cheap Yamaha.”

          I’m not brave enough to crash a bike into a wall, but my sister and I have a deal to stock pile drugs we can help each other take at the appropriate time.

          Summertime…and the living is easy….

          An hour or two earlier, my mother and I had to go across the street to the grocery store for a few supplies for Grandma.  The clerk at the grocery store across the street from the nursing home was as kind as morning, chatting about the blouse my mother wore, and her earrings.  I noticed that my mother looked strained, and the clerk had probably looked at the store of odd items that we were buying, and correctly surmised we were visiting someone in the nurs—oops, therapeutic center—and maybe it’s a grim task.  She was so kind she made my heart ache, and there was something about her that made me think she’s always like that.  Spreading joy to customers, day in, day out.  I wonder how many people she sees in a day.  Forty? Sixty? A hundred? 

           Who knows.  It makes me dizzy to think of her little ripples of joy spreading through the summer afternoons, to a house in a little dark neighborhood, and a car that goes to a factory, or a call center, or the Walmart.

          I suspect she has the secret, that grocery store clerk.  It’s not the best of jobs, is it?— though in that blue collar city neighborhood, it probably beats a lot of others.  She’s earning a good hourly wage, no doubt has health insurance and some other benefits, and although she has to be on her feet, it’s not physically demanding in ways that break a body when it gets to be a bit older. 

           But you don’t say at seven, “I want to be a grocery store clerk when I grow up.”

           And yet, there she is, her sturdy self planted by the register, smiling and cheering up everyone who comes through her line.  A single point of light setting other points alight all day long every day.  How many times has that smile had a rippling effect on someone who might have taken the wrong turn later on that day?  Taken a drink or picked a fight or run a red light in fury? 

           Summertime, and the living is easy….

          In the basement of my creative self, where the younger girls are whining about how unfair it all is, and the rebel is out trying to pretend nothing hurts by whistling at boys,  Roberta, the elder with her straight legs and deep bosom puts on a hat and looks at herself in the mirror.  She applies plum lipstick, blots it with a tissue. 

           She says to me, “Child, how do you think you ever get to be wise? By living easy?”


          “Take notes,” she says.

          Oh, it hurts to think of those soldiers, their mothers.  It’s killing me to think of them because I have two sons and all their friends, and most of those kids are that age and it’s terrible.  Terrible.  It’s always terrible.  I hate it.  It makes me cry. 

          And yet, there it is: war and soldiers and loss are always with us.  The opposite of love is hate, or maybe fanaticism.  The opposite of life is death.  Eternal themes.

         I have reached an age where I can’t duck the loss of the elderly ones I’ve loved. But loving means losing sometimes.  How can you choose not to love them anyway?

        Little things go wrong. A good car gets smashed, and the driver might learn to drive more carefully.  A child’s heart is broken and s/he is tattooed, as we all were, by the piercing pain of first love. 

          But….it’s summertime. 

          Summertime….and there is dawn, when the light is soft and the air hasn’t yet heated up.  The roses are heavy with buds, and the grass is long enough to hide a cat, and

life oozes into the world with a scent and headiness that’s almost unbearable.  This is a world where people die, and bombs fall, and doctors are trying to save lives that slip away. 

         But it’s also a world where Ella can sing that song, and Louis can play that horn, and the sound is so perfect and clean and exquisite that your heart can break with the beauty of it. 

          Summertime…and there is a delphinium blooming higher than my head.  Summertime…and there are my sons, lying in bed too late in the quiet mornings, and my dog snoring on the couch because he thinks I can’t see he jumped up there.  Summertime…and there is my grandmother giggling over some joke she remembered my grandfather told her. 

          Singing the blues has always about making something beautiful out of sorrow or trial.  The thing I sometimes forget is that without the trials, the blues would not exist at all.  If not for the oppression, if not for the hungers, if not for the unfairness and the losses, there would be no Ella singing that song. 

           Summertime…..and the livin’ is easy….

          It isn’t, and we all know it.  It’s big and messy and full of tragedy.  It’s hard to understand it.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t fabulous, just as it is.

           Blues and all.



A review I can live with


 A reader (listener) at Amazon had this to say about GODDESSES OF KITCHEN AVENUE:

FIVE STARS!!!!Old Lady Chick Lit – But in a Good Way, October 10, 2005

Reviewer: Tammy Powley – See all my reviews

“With all the rave over Chick Lit lately, I couldn’t help but think about it while listening to the audio of this book. Most of the Chick Lit out there is about a 20 year old girl trying to find herself. As someone a tad (or two or three) over 20, I just can’t get into those books. Samuel’s characters are not 20-something girls but women who have to deal with real life experiences that I couldn’t help but find myself relating to, even though I’m not usually one for most contemporary fiction these days. This was a wonderful “listen” and I’m sure a great read if I had time to read fun literature these days. I’ve already ordered another of her audio books. “


Love that–“old lady chick lit.” Not that I’d consider any of us old ladies, but the journey part, yeah. I get that.


Working the Ascent to Pikes Peak


 The sign at the base of Barr Trail, which leads from Manitou Springs to the top of Pikes Peak, is not for the faint hearted:



My adventure began with an email, as things so often do with Neal, aka Christopher Robin. This time, it was a forwarded note from his running club, asking for volunteers to help man the upcoming Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon.

“Interested?” he wrote.

YES, I wrote in capital letters. Which he knew I would, because I am obsessed with the mountain at the moment. Don’t ask me why it has happened, that I should fall in love now, after decades of looking at it every day. I was born in Colorado Springs (am, in fact, a very rare third-generation native). One of my father’s jobs was driving a tour bus to the summit, so he drove up the twisting road twice or three times a week, keeping up a cheery monologue. In those days, Pikes Peak was just a tourist attraction, something so banal as to be invisible to me, like the sky. I mean, I liked it. I liked the sky and the ground beneath my feet, too, but I certainly didn’t spend much time thinking about them.

Not so these days. As writers are wont to do, I’ve fallen in love, almost to the point of obsession, with this mountain that has marked my horizon nearly every day of my life. I’m not interested in books about it, or the history of it, and please save all the “conqueror” stories. No man or woman will ever really conquer Pikes Peak, not really. It’s not something to be bagged and brought home. You can test yourself all you like against it, but in the end, we are human, and the mountain is eternal.

I’m somewhat interested in other people’s accounts of their connection to it. Friends of mine hiked the back of the mountain last summer (easier than up Barr Trail, which is the classic route) and I decided to set that as a goal, but I honestly didn’t realize people ran to the top until I met Christopher Robin, and one of the reasons I likely fell for him was that he has run it, in just over three hours. An astonishing feat, no matter how he modestly brushes off my admiration.

CR volunteered us to work above timberline, and the note came back that we’d work Cirque, a mile and a half down the mountain’s face at about 13,000 feet. It’s a stark landscape littered with pink granite and stalwart alpine flowers growing close to the ground. The air is thin, and the station is precisely halfway between timberline and the top of the mountain-a mile and a half either direction. I hoped the weather would be good. Lightning is not something one wishes to see under such circumstances, and it’s especially not something I wanted to see. I’m very, very afraid of being in the open during thunderstorms-because I’ve watched them boil in over this very mountain my whole life.

A word about the race: The Ascent is a quirky little road race, limited to 1800 runners because of trail constraints. It’s 13 miles, with an elevation gain of more than 7000 feet. Technically, the distance is a half-marathon, but the recommendation is to add 20 minutes to your average marathon time.

In other words, a tough race. The next day is the actual Marathon, wherein runners go to the top, then turn around and come back down, which seems brutal to me, especially since some of them are “doublers,” people who’ve run the Ascent the day before.

Anyway, since we’d be at a high altitude all day, without access to food or shelter, we prepared carefully. The weather reports were not promising: thunderstorms in the forecast, which meant the weather could be anything from blazing summer to coldest winter. We’d have to bring our food, too. Christopher Robin said, “We’ll need to bring a thermos, and breakfast and elevenses and lunch and tea.”

Elevenses? I asked. Yes, said he. Like tea in the morning. After second breakfast, according to hobbits.

Ah. Of course.

We divided up our chores: CR was sent to find a good, sturdy thermos. I was to find ponchos and gather food. On Friday night, we spread out our loot and our clothes: oranges, bagels, turkey wraps with cheese, trail mix divided into baggies, Cliff Bars just in case. Christopher Robin spread his everything bagels with marmite and butter. I put cream cheese on my single multigrain bagel. We discussed, at length, the merits of coffee or tea in the thermos, and finally decided upon tea, since we could get the sugar to an agreeable level for both of us. This did require a lot of planning, however, since we would be making tea for breakfast, then coffee to bring in the car to wake us up, and more tea in the thermos. Every electric kettle in the house would be boiling for awhile.

The thermos was a marvel from REI, with a vacuum seal. I’d found heavy duty ponchos for $5 each. We spread out our clothes: a sleeveless layer as a base, then a long sleeved shirt, then a wool sweater (me) and a Gortex fleece (CR), then coats, then ponchos as needed. Heavy hiking boots and wool socks for me, though CR wore his running socks.

It seemed a lot of weight. August is summer, after all, even on the top of the mountain. Not a big deal if you’re driving somewhere, but we’d have to pack these clothes in, down a mile and a half, and back up again at the end of a long day. After some thought, I took the liner out of my coat. The sweater was very warm, and would do fine.

We set the alarm for 3:45 am, and I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t wait get back on top of the mountain again. I looked forward to giving water to runners, to seeing who the people were who would do such a thing. I worried about the possibility of bad weather, and what we’d do if lightning started. What would there be to do? Nothing, really-you can’t desert the runners. I wondered if I should take off all my jewelry.

At last we got up, layered on some of our clothes, drank our tea, ate some cereal, filled the thermos with steaming tea and our cups with steaming coffee, and headed out to Manitou in the pre-dawn dark. A giant moon, nearly full, blazed over the mountain, lending a peculiar magic to the scene of a town transformed by pre-race excitement. Cars lined the streets, and PortaPotties were clustered in a parking lot. The park was filled with room-sized tents for food vendors.

Race headquarters were at the Manitou Springs City Hall building, and as we clomped into the wide open, gymnasium-like room at the back, I remembered going to pow wows there when I was a child. For a minute, I could hear the drums and see the feathered bustles. A good omen.

It was five am when we checked into the volunteer desk, and she sent us over to our group leader. We all traipsed out to the vans waiting to take us to the top. I looked at the street, at the new day, and thought of all the runners getting up in t heir various bedrooms, stretching, maybe feeling butterflies, or a sense of today. I wondered who would win, male and female, and if they had an inkling. We piled into a van with our group. As we drove to the top, on a winding, guardrail-less road, the sun began to rise through tatters of cherry-stained clouds in the east. The rest of the sky was vast and crisp. Christopher Robin commented that the first runners would have good weather anyway.

At the summit, there were crowds already assembled at 6:30. Christopher Robin filled his big pack with boxes of grapes, and I carried our food in my pack, and we walked with our little crew down the mile and a half to the place where we’d set up the aide station. The others talked about former races, other 14ers they’d hiked, other days, other times. There were three or four men past fifty, all of whom had run the race in the past; a trio of thirtysomethings, identifiably outdoorsy by their gear, me and Neal. The only other woman was one of the thirty-somethings, a tall, lean, high cheek-boned blond with a self-confident and inclusive smile. Her expression said we were all great, the runners were great, we were lucky to be here, alive, on this mountain today.

I had to agree. The sun had risen, gilding the green valley far below us, and the sky above blazed in hyacinth blue. The temperature was cool, almost brisk in the shadows. I was glad I’d applied 30 SPF sunscreen to every available surface of skin. I expected I’d have to strip down later.

At the water station, we hunkered down over black trash bags and plucked ten thousand red and green grapes from their stems. The runners would be too tired to tug the grapes off themselves, so it would be our job to hand them six or seven or eight as they ran by. Two big green trash barrels, lined with black plastic, were filled with water, via a hose snaking down 1000 feet from the summit, far, far above us.

We all settled in knots in the springy tundra and took out snacks. Christopher Robin ate his Marmite bagel, I had mine with cream cheese, and we shared a cup of hot, milky tea from the very efficient thermos. In the bright morning sunlight, everyone started stripping down to shirt-sleeves. It was very still, the air as undisturbed as a lake at dawn, and before us spread the vistas-furry green mountains tumbling away to the city, glittering far away. On another day, we might have seen marmots, which look to me like teddy-bear sized prairie dogs, but they were all hiding.

We waited. Through the walkie-talkie one of the men wore, we heard progress reports: the race had started. People at the first station radioed the first runners to pass, then reports came in from Barr Camp, halfway, then A-frame, just below timberline. A young man was clearly leading, a Colorado Springs native who was a sophomore at Harvard. He’s young to win this race-the best performers tend to be a little older-but he’s leading all the way up.

Some of the men had binoculars, and they finally spied the youth in front, way down at timberline. After another stretch of time, we saw his tiny, tiny figure entering a long, fairly level stretch we would watch all day. (Christopher Robin said, in an aside, “The trick to running this well is that stretch, I’m sure of it” and I knew he was remembering the moment when his body refused to run another inch, right there, three years ago, and he had to walk for awhile, thus costing him the less-than-three-hour finish he wanted (by only a little)).

And finally, we could see him, the youth in front. He has a commanding lead. He runs like he’s jogging across the grass in a city park, his body moving easily and without jarring. He’s wearing no shirt and loose dark shorts. He doesn’t appear to even notice us as he passes. Christopher Robin said, “You could have been naked and it wouldn’t have mattered.”

From where we stood, it was possible to see him running nearly all the way, keeping that same, steady, easy pace. Or it looked easy, anyway. It couldn’t possibly be.

As he neared the top, the cheers and screams and yells began, and we could see lines of spectators along the ridge at the top, tiny figures silhouetted against the sky. Music poured down the hillside.

In the small, elite group of leaders, I happened to see one young man hit the wall I’d heard CR talk about: he was running along at a good pace, got through the water station, and he suddenly stopped running. I suspect he was going to just walk for a moment, but in that moment, the will was gone–physically or mentally, it doesn’t matter. He’d hit the wall. He still made a good showing, of course. There couldn’t have been ten runners ahead of him–but I’m sure he was frustrated with himself the rest of the race & day.

Meanwhile, trickles of runners turned into a stream at our station. I passed out handfuls of grapes. We all cheered the runners as they passed, “You can do it!” “Good going, Lady!” At the water station behind me, Christopher Robin called out again and again, very Britishly, “Well-done. Keep moving.”

Around ten thirty or so, I looked up and saw a cloud. And then there were more.

And more. The wind picked up, and I took advantage of a lull to put on my sweater. Then my coat. Everyone else was doing the same thing, adding more layers and more. Far away, in the distance, I heard thunder roll.

The runners kept coming, though I have to observe that after the first, very fit, very elite group of runners who passed over the first hour and a half, no one else really ran at this point, not at such a high altitude, not at such a grade.

They walked.

It was a huge revelation for me. I thought if they ran the Ascent, they RAN it, all the way.

I also thought the field would be made up of very fit, mostly very young, healthy runners. There were a lot of them, sleek and toned and athletic, with bellies like frying pans and thighs with thick ropes of muscles holding up their knees. But there were also people of all other sorts, too. Young, middle aged, old, both male and female. Some stocky, some skinny, according to genetics. Some very well-trained, smiling, even able to make jokes as they filled water bottles; others grimly planting one foot in front of the other, lips gray with effort.

Every one of them amazing. Wonderfully amazing in the sunshine. And even more so as the storm moved in.

I looked up and the top of the mountain had disappeared beneath billowing gray. I dashed up the hill to get our ponchos, and when it started to hail a few minutes later, we were very glad of the protection. Thunder rumbled loudly, and we saw flashes and cracks of lightning around us. I glanced up the hill to Christopher Robin. Deadly stuff, this, but there was naught for us to do but see it through.

And I felt sorry for the runners. It wasn’t big hail, but it was nasty. Stinging and cold and it went on for a long time. They were dressed thinly for the most part, and thighs showed red marks from the ice. Our group leader started outfitting some of them in black plastic trash bags.

We had every layer on, including gloves, and I wished for more. The runners poured by in the misery, heads down, hair straggling, their focus grimly on the finish. There’s no other out. No wagon to sweep by and pick up stragglers. You have to finish. We saw them go up higher and higher and disappear into the mist.

It hailed, then stopped, then blew, then lightning started lashing around again, all around us. Above us. Below us. Cracking so hard it was painful. The hair on my neck stood up more than once. A couple of times, I squatted instinctively. Eerie. I chose not to think about it much. No point. If lightning took me, I guessed it was my day to go.

I did, however, want Christopher Robin to be safe. I didn’t like it that he had his hands in water.

The runners ran. The hail poured down and piled up underfoot in a slick, treacherous blanket on the trail. One of the guys at the end of the path periodically shouted, “You runners are AWESOME!” They shivered through, and I was amazed how many thanked us for volunteering. The powers that be finally made the decision to cut everything off at A-frame, which meant any other runners would be turned back.

Christopher Robin took advantage of a lull to climb up the slippery hill for our elevenses, tea and turkey wraps. Except I forgot to put the wraps in the backpack, so we made do with Cliff bars.

And hot tea. Hot, sweet, milky tea. I could feel the warmth all the way down my esophagus, and I have to admit I felt guilty enjoying it so much. CR got a big kiss from me over it. I wasn’t particularly cold, honestly, and the hail had stopped again, so we had spectacular views of the valley beneath the clouds, and the odd shot of pale pink lightning across the way. Everyone was getting a little giddy after hours at altitude, and we were relieved not to be crispy critters, so the atmosphere got a bit hectic after that. We heard that the road down was closed, thanks to six inches of ice, and evidently, we had much to be thankful for, because the storm had been worse on the north face.

The last runners came through grimly. Frozen, exhausted, glad of grapes and chocolate and Mike & Ike’s and the trashbag raincoats the leader fashioned for them. I started telling the ones with the most miserable expressions to think of the great story they would tell some day.

The runners thinned out. There were, finally, no more. CR and I shared another cup of hot tea and headed up the mountain with a trashbag, picking up Gatorade cups and Gu packets from the slippery slush on the path. I was beginning to feel very tired and hungry-I had enjoyed the day, but enough was enough. We anticipated eating something hot at the top.

But when we got there, the lines for the busses were tremendous. The road had been opened, but only just, and the runners who’d been waiting there for hours were miserable. The runners leave clothes with a committee who trucks them to the top, so at least they could get warm, but the summit house restaurant had been demolished and there was no food. Many dozens were treated for hypothermia, dehydration and altitude sickness, and they were of course taken down first. Christopher Robin and I found some chocolate bars and I found a cup of hot coffee, and we carried it out to a wall overlooking the valley. He pulled out his last bagel, smeared with Marmite and butter, and offered me half. I was hungry enough to eat it, even though Marmite smells (and tastes) like seaweed. Somehow, it was deliciously salty and hearty and my body was highly approving. Christopher Robin poured the last cup of tea out of the thermos and toasted me. He said, “Do I know how to show a girl a good time or what?”

You do, sir. You do.


A letter to the young (and old) in my life who are suffering heartbreak


 Dear Children,

I’ve been watching all of you, the young adults in my life, puzzle out your relationships, remembering how hard it is sometimes, especially when you are young, to make sense of how we fit with somebody else, what to look for, what to avoid. In such a cynical age, it’s some times hard to believe in soul mates, in partnerships that go the distance, in a love that lasts through the decades.

I still believe.

Near the Sand Dunes National Park there flows a stream. During the spring, it’s wild and profuse, washing through the dry sand on either side in a torrent that seems miraculous. The rest of the year, it still flows, but you can’t see it unless you step on the stream bed. A footprint brings little pools of water in the dry sand–five tiny ponds of toeprints, a larger pool of a heel; if one stands there long enough, a rippling eddy of water comes out of the ground, cold and pure, to circle an ankle.

It’s always there, that river. It’s fed by snowmelt poured down through the winter months, and then by aquifers through the summer. Most people who visit during the off-times don’t even know it exists.

The coyotes come to path of the underground water and know to put their feet in it, to bring the water to the surface so they can drink. It’s the secret of their survival in this landscape. It’s the only water they can find for miles and miles and miles.

The spirit of love is like that hidden river. It exists always, sometimes flowing wildly, visibly, but sometimes going underground where it sometimes needs the simple work of putting a foot or a toe into it to bring it to the surface, or the soft, quiet work of a steady standing to reappear so it can ripple around an ankle.

Like that river, there are seasons to love. The rushing spring of infatuation, of sweet brilliance and an ease of connection, that stretch of time when you discover there is someone in the world who sees you, as you are, and accepts it. Then comes summer, steady and warm, when you build and learn, and the river runs freely, though not always so close to the surface.

Then autumn, when there is often a harvest, but often a slowing, too, a period of less rush and bustle. Then winter, when the rush is all but frozen, when the quiet stillness urges us to hibernate, take time to look within, rest with each other. And then the spring, the rush, the silvery flow of love over the sand, visible for all.

Have faith that there is a partner for you, and have faith that love can last. Sometimes, a love seems promising, and it falls apart, and that’s very difficult, but don’t let briars grow up around your heart. Stay open, continue to give, and your faith will be rewarded.





Originally published in the Novelists Ink newsletter for my Girls in The Basement column; November 2003

 A few years ago, I began teaching journaling classes to women in transition. Most are not writers, and some have difficulty in the beginning knowing how to write about themselves and their lives. To help them grow comfortable with the process of just letting words out of themselves, I discovered that timed writings of various sorts could be very useful. One of the most effective turned out to be the starter, “In the moment….” By simply describing exactly what was happening in any given moment, the writer was free to simply observe her environment and emotions without judging either her words or her world.

I’m a life-long journaler, but I’d not used that phrase in my ramblings. It proved so effective for my students, however, that I made it a rule to try it while on a hiking trip to France. I thought it would help me remember things better.

August, 2001

Paris, 7:30 pm

In the moment… I am sitting in the window of my little hotel room in the 12 Arrindossiment of Paris. Fourth floor, with windows that open like French doors to the street far below—I am completely free, if I wish, to throw myself to my death, and I love having nothing between me and the world beyond except a little grate. The view is not particularly inspiring. I’m overlooking a tiny alley, and across the way is an unbeautiful gray building. But there are apartments in it, and I’ve spent the last hour, blearily jet-lagged but unwilling to sleep, drinking red wine from a plastic cup (it has a tiny leak, so I’ve wrapped it in tissue), smoking cigarettes, admiring the snippets of lives I can see. There are red geraniums in clay pots lined up on the outside of one window, bottles of some sort in another. Directly across the way, even with my view, is a high apartment with the windows open and I can hear an Arabic family at dinner. If I spoke the language, I could eavesdrop on their conversation quite easily. Perched on their open window is a tricycle, almost poised for riding, right off the roof to the street 40 feet below.

I thought using the “in the moment” starter would help solidify my memories, but I gained something more. I began to practice “in the moment” when I wasn’t writing, too. It started running a litany through my head during the journey. “In the moment,” I’d think, “I’m sitting on an old stone wall where once a member of the French resistance had his lunch. My feet have terrible blisters, but I didn’t die on that last hill.”

What I noticed was that by practicing the discipline of “in the moment,” I was in fact actually participating in the moments of my life. Not judging them, not evaluating or reorganizing them, or observing them: living in them.

The result of that simple habit was that I came home with the details of the trip more firmly placed in memory than any other journey I’ve taken. It’s been a couple of years, and I’m still able to call up, quite clearly, thousands of “in the moment” memories.

I was also more aware of what was happening while it was happening. I was genuinely living—not worrying about what might be happening at home, or thinking about what I had to do for work, or trying to rush anything along. I found myself letting things just be whatever they were.

It was startling to realize how much that simple practice changed my perception of almost everything around me, and how it has begun to change the shape of my life. It is likely changing my writing, as well, though it’s hard to see our own work clearly except at a great distance.

Writers don’t need training in how to get things down on the page, as my journaling students do. They also don’t need instruction in how to step apart and observe—most of us have been one step separated from events all of our lives, watching the flow of life around us, often collecting moments without participating in them.

What we do sometimes need is a way to connect our minds to our bodies, a way of grounding ourselves in the real world. Writers are cerebral and imaginative. We live in our heads.

In the moment…

It’s early on a Saturday morning. I’m wearing my moon-and-stars hippie-dress-turned-robe, and my feet are cold, even in socks. I’m in my office with a red-painted wall and a Spanish Art Deco cigarette ad on the wall. My dog, wishing for me to come play, is breathing on my side, making a hot and annoying spot of yearning on my ribs. The Siamese is yowling. There is sun coming through the windows, through curtains so thin they’re like a glaze of ice. I love this room, this house, this dress, these critters. I love being awake early, writing in the quiet, with a fresh brain.

Now matters. There is a little extra sweetness in loving this room because I’m getting the house ready to sell, and I will miss it. Now, I’m here.

It takes practice to “be here now,” as Ram Dass, puts it. The modern world has trained us to be multi-taskers—and I’m as guilty as anyone. I notice I’m often doing more than one thing at a time: eating and reading, watching television and editing a book on the commercials, walking and listening to music. It’s very difficult for me to simply do one thing, and even when I do, I’m often thinking ahead to the next task, or thinking backward to something I wish I’d done. It makes it difficult to be aware of what’s going on in this minute.

Which means we often don’t even know what’s going on with our own bodies.

In the moment:

July 30, kitchen. I’m still recovering from the conference in New York. It was wonderful, but it’s always grueling, and I feel it in my shoulders and the back of my neck. I need more sleep, but I have to get some actual writing done! Maybe I’ll go get a latte from Starbucks and bring it back and drink it as a treat while I work.

August 4, back yard—I am tired. My shoulders ache. There is too much to do. Visitors to entertain, trip to New Zealand next week to pack and plan for (six talks!). The proposal to mail.

August 13, New Zealand—I am tired. I have a headache from a twelve hour flight. I need some coffee. The palms are clacking together, a wonderful sound.

August 23, Santa Fe—I’m enjoying this little side trip, but I’m tired. Too much travel, too many guests, too much to do! I have a little headache. I think I’ll go find some coffee.

September 6, back yard—I’m tired beyond description. Mama (my ex-mother-in-law) died. We’ll have to go to St. Louis.

September 10—I can’t stop sleeping. Every night, I’m out cold by 9:30 and sleep straight through until 8, and I’m still taking naps every day!

If I’d been truly in the moment, instead of rushing around from task to task to task, I would have seen clearly that my body was screaming for rest. Instead, I kept pushing along, thinking about the next thing and the next thing and the next thing. Even a few minutes spent in the moment, being aware of what I was really feeling, might have been helpful. I would have been able to recognize the tired was getting beyond worn, into deep exhaustion. Instead of manipulating my energy with coffee, I might have taken a longer nap on the days I could. I might have let myself go to bed earlier and sleep later.

Instead, the more tired I grew, the less I lived in the moment. As a result, I finally hit the wall and could not function for more than a week. I dragged my aching body from the couch to the back yard then back to my bed. Read about seven novels in a row, watched movies, ate. Slept an average of 12-13 hours a day.

There’s more we can achieve from the awareness of the moment than an awareness of our bodies. One side effect of being in the moment can be a better grasp of truth. Truth with a capital T—the emotional truth and the physical truth of life as it flows by.

Writers are masters of reweaving reality. We’re always taking bits and pieces and snippets of life and weaving them around into new shapes, new forms. It’s how we create books, by doing all that re-weaving, re-adjusting, re-shaping.

An example: In my Irish-American family, arguing politics and books and ideas was an art form, but I’m not adept in verbal combat. I just don’t think quickly on my feet, and I learned to hold back, let everyone else argue, then later, in the quiet of my room, rewrite the argument including what I’d say if I could have thought it up fast enough. It was one of the things that turned me into a writer.

This is an absolutely necessary function of the brain that creates novels. It’s not always a great tool for living. If we’re always mentally rewriting, how can we be truly living and experiencing the reality? The emotional truth of a moment is sometimes difficult, and it’s only natural to want to shy away once in awhile. But often the most difficult moments have something rich to offer the girls in the basement, for those future novels.

In the moment:

It is a funeral for a woman I adored, my sons’ grandmother. She died very suddenly, and we’re all shell-shocked, dizzy, milling around outside the Riverview Church of God in St. Louis on a sunny, hot September day. I am wearing my very best “successful writer” outfit, a pin-striped skirt and shoes that make my legs look good, and a turquoise blouse that makes the most of coloring, because it’s the first time I’ve been around my ex-family (as if such a thing exists) since a divorce a couple of years ago, and I want to look prosperous and healthy. I do.

It doesn’t matter. I wish I was somewhere else—her death makes me feel hollow and lost. This moment is one I would rather not have in my life. But I force myself. Force myself to see this moment, because it won’t come again. Force myself to look at the sisters of the woman who crossed over, their neat dresses and sad faces and graciousness. See the long black cars ready to carry us to the burial. See my stepdaughter, sneaking away for a cigarette. She is too thin, too pale. I worry about her.

My eye is drawn to my sons, standing together, a little apart from everyone else. One neat and slim in his crew cut and tweed jacket, his long white hands patting the back of an aunt who hugs him. The other, six inches taller, dressed in a tailored black suit and black sunglasses, his long, beaded hair pulled away from his face. He laughs when another auntie says, “Can I have your autograph? You look so cool, I know you have to be famous.”

They’re painfully beautiful, my boys, grown up and well trained, and my heart swells double its size with pride—and recognition of how fast time goes. How did they grow to be so tall? They were only born yesterday! In an hour, they’ll be fathers themselves. In two, they’ll be burying me.

Today, this minute, one is twenty and in love and his girlfriend is holding his hand. His heart is broken—this is the first death that he’s really known, and it’s hard. The other is 18 and not yet fully aware of his charm. Mama is dead, and our family will scatter a little more, and I hate that. But as the Navajo say, “You see, I am alive.”

I remember a line I read as a very young writer: “a writer writes best with a sense of mortality at her back.” I had no idea at the time what it meant.

It means be here now. Live this minute. Then put that on the page.

Our moments are finite. Choosing to be conscious of the moment we are living in right this very instant makes more precious the hours of our mortality. It also makes precious and precise the moments in our books. It makes them detailed and rich and real. It means we have more details to deliver: the sound of the single cricket singing to the night last evening as you sat on the front porch for a little while; the smell of sausage permeating the air on a walk through an old neighborhood; the dog, still breathing hope of a game of tug-of-war on my side. The sweet, immeasurable, fleetingness of all moments, which observed, become eternal.

In the moment:

August, 1987–I am in the backyard of a house I love, a rental. My toddler sons, one blonde and slim, the other round and dark, are dancing in the sprinkler. The late afternoon sunlight makes the water glitter in the air and shines on the wet backs of these two boys. I can hear my husband singing a gospel song in the shower. I smell freshly cut grass, and I have taco meat simmering on the stove. I just cut the lettuce and I’m going to go inside in few minutes and finish up the last of the corrections to the manuscript Silhouette requested. We’ll eat in a little while.

For now, I just want to watch them dance, watch my dog April sneaking up on the cat–Moses Many Toes, who warns him off with his baseball-mitt sized paws. Chuckle over the song coming through the bathroom window. Life is sweet sometimes.

Long ago.


Worth Reading

A handful of books I want to recommend



  #1 GREEN DARKNESS by Anya Seton

My most beloved romantic historical novel of all time.

Technically, I haven’t read the entire novel it since last summer, but it has been rereleased in a brand new edition by Chicago Review Press. For those of us who’ve been scouring used books stores for copies, this is very good news.

If I tell you I keep two (now battered) copies on my shelf, one to read, one to loan; that I read it six times the year I was fifteen; that I even made writerly pilgrimage to visit Igtham Mote, the English house that inspired Seton to write the book, you will understand that being asked to write the forward for this edition rates as one of the top five delights of my career.

But I’d really just like to urge a new group of readers to find this book and fall into the magic.

If you have not read GREEN DARKNESS, do. It’s rich and luscious and wildly entertaining. Order it now, and when you’ve fallen in love with it (or haven’t, though I’ll be surprised if at least a few of you don’t swoon!), come back and let me know.

And for those of you who’ve been waiting for a clean, shiny new edition: IT’S OUT, IT’S OUT, IT’S OUT!

Two other books I want to recommend today:

#2 KNITTING by Anne Bartlett.

A first novel by an Australian. A quiet, moving novel about two women coming to terms with their lives. Fans of English domestic novels will particularly enjoy it, as will any knitters out there.

#3 A SINGULAR PILGRIM, Travels on Sacred Ground, by Rosemary Mahoney.

This is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and one of the top travel books ever. Mahoney is an acute and tender observer, with compassion for the beings in her path and a sense of honor about life itself. I’ve been recommending it everywhere.

What have you read lately? Please share your recent favorites on the message board.

Travel Moments In France

Or, half the fun is remembering later


 I’ve been thinking a lot of a trip I made to France with my friend Sonia a few years ago. These are a few of the little moments I’ve remembered recently:

—Sitting at a sidewalk cafe in Nice. It wasn’t on the beach, but on a wide street, like a promenade, a few blocks away. The sun was hot, high over head. The buildings were several stories tall all around us, with windows and balconeys open to the breezes. Their walls were ocher and tangerine and blue and yellow. On a corner not far away was a McDonalds and I kept wondering how it would be different, and why you’d want McD’s here anyway. Sonia was eating a chocolate crepe, one of the most decadently lovely creations I’ve ever seen–too rich for me, though I loved smelling them. I can’t remember what I was eating. We were writing postcards after walking all day along the colorful shore with its Medeterranean palms and bright colors. An American sailor, geeky and lonely, heard our accents and said, “Hey! You’re American!” We talked for a little while and wandered off.

–In St Andres de Alpes, we settled in for lunch in a cafe on the town square lined with shops and dominated by an old stone church. We ate outside and there were dogs everywhere. One came up to me, a midsize multi colored mutt with a wolf-like face and a black and yellow muzzle, and eyed my jambon hopefully. I’d found it too raw for my taste and happily gave it to him. He put his head in my lap. He was wet from wading in water somewhere.

—Dogs everywhere. I have a series of photos of French dogs, sitting in shop doorways and sticking their noses out of baskets or purses and tucked into the indulgent arms of their owners. Big dogs loping along cheerfully by themselves, and tiny dogs with bows sitting on a table while their owners drink cafe cremes. It’s impossible not to love a country where dogs are so treasured.

–the old woman on the train from Paris to Nice. She had a big picnic basket on her lap and inside was a very, very big gray cat. Every so often, the old woman opened the basket, petted him, cooed to him and gave him treats. His tail, long and fluffy, trailed out of the basket like scarf.

I’d like to hear moments from your travels. If you want to play, go to the message boards and tell us about a great hour you spent somewhere you loved, or about an hour you spent in place you loathed.

Doing Yoga With The Dog

Or, making peace with life as it is


 Your dinner is on the stove, the children are fighting over who gets the yellow glass, the dog is scratching at the back door, the phone is ringing, you have 27 emails to answer, a business trip to plan, a dentist appointment to cancel, another to schedule, and it would be nice to sit down *sometime* today, but there are still clothes to be washed, phone calls to return (maybe only the one to your mother) and your husband is not the kind of guy who leaves you to do it all…he really does help, and there he is, looking pitiful with neglect…..


Modern women have such busy lives, I honestly don’t know how most of us do it. My own life lately has turned one of those high pressure corners we all run into–boys were home thought the holidays, elderly grandmother has been in and out of the hospital, book deadlines are piling up and I’ve been on the road a bit. Being a somewhat…er…high strung artistic type (you, too??) my tendency is to run on nerves until I fall over. As this is not a particularly healthy way to live, I’ve been striving to find ways to stay sane and balanced, even when life is crazy.

My main method of coping with stress is to exercise. I walk, go to the gym and lift weights, run, hike whenever possible. Being outside, breathing fresh air, moving my body enough to make myself sweat–that does a lot for my mental health.

But for purely destressing, nothing beats yoga. There is a short practice I like to do a few times a week in the evenings. Very simple, only about 25 minutes or so. It stretches out all the kinks in my neck and shoulders, eases the lower back stiffness that comes from sitting so much, and if I’ve been lifting weights, it stretches out all the tight spots. Yoga is one of those things that gets a bad rap–it sometimes seems as if all the practitioners are lean graceful creatures who can twist into pretzels. Not true–in fact, it can be a very gentle starting point for people who haven’t moved much can begin to center awareness on their bodies. (Most studios have now begun to offer classes for beginners and for those who might not be in peak condition, if you’re feeling shy. Check it out.)

Trust me, it feels so good.

But here’s how life is for me, and maybe you, too: the only spot I have to do yoga is in my bedroom. My dog must come with me. So there I am, on the floor, with legs twisting one way, torso the other, and here comes Jack, sniffing at my hand. Or I’m lying on the floor, foot stretched overhead, and he falls against my side, thinking we’re going to take a little nap. The funniest one is when I’ve finished, made it to relaxation pose, and he comes over, snuffles over my face, and licks my forehead.

Technically, I suppose it spoils the mood. But….well, maybe it’s because of the yoga, what I keep thinking whenever this happens is that doing yoga with a dog is a lot like getting through busy modern days. My practice is compromised a little bit by his presence, but his love is so precious, his company so enriching, that it’s okay to share the time with him in some small way.

And maybe I’m doing some kind of weird justification for multitasking even while doing yoga, but that’s life, too. At least, it’s part of mine these days, and I’d rather laugh with it than get tangled up in doing it all just perfect.