Cuyahoga River

Cuyahoga River
Cuyahoga River in the Valley

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Needing a Vacation

Long weekends are great, but there's no substitute for extended time away. My parents are in Fort Lauderdale, just off a cruise ship to the Caribbean, and when I listened to my mother talk about sitting by the pool last night, I was jealous. I'm itching to go somewhere, will even consider a weekend on Put-in-Bay until we can embark on our long-anticipated (and paid for) cruise tour of Alaska in June. The last extensive vacation we took was last June, when we explored Northern California.

One would think a tour of California would hold one over for a year. Especially when there were weekend trips in-between: we even drove to the Outer Banks for a five-day break in the fall. I NEEDED to be by the water again. Now, in late March, I need to be by the ocean again. The ebb and flow of the tides and the sound of the waves, walks on the beach to pick up shells and see the dolphins dipping in and out of the surf, and days beginning with sunrises shadowing pelicans fishing the surface of the water and ending with the colors of the sunset over a glassy sea call to me.

Travel magazines help but don't help. As an armchair traveler, I can explore Jamaica or Costa Rica or Sarajevo and appreciate a diversity of nature, culture, and people. A good writer can even take me there for an hour. But it's just not the same as being there . . . I wonder if I can hold out.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


I lust after wandering around in new places. I’d long been intrigued by the monthly Loganberry Books newsletters and wanted to explore it and write about the experience, so I headed over to find Larchmere Boulevard in Shaker Heights. I found Harriett Logan’s spunky space possesses an old-fashioned literary quirkiness that is a welcome respite for book lovers. I kept saying “wow!” because the bookstore is as comfortable as a library in an old manse and the sheer number of used and rare books in the nooks and crannies and filling the floor-to-ceiling shelves is intoxicating. Loganberry Books is much more than a bookstore.

Since I was on a rare visit to the East Side (and yes, western Cuyahoga County has many wonderful restaurants and shops and cool places to explore), I couldn’t be stopped. My wanderlust is not just about new places, but about experiencing places. My car took me to Coventry, which awaited me with Mac’s Back Books and its aging posters announcing poetry readings and events; I wondered where the head shops with incense and paraphernalia ended up—do we now have to go to Bangkok? Then I wandered over to Little Italy where I heard Frank Sinatra crooning the entire time I was on Mayfield Road, and with Presti’s open and still selling cannoli, I was glad some things remain.

Driving down Chester towards Cleveland’s downtown skyline and on over the Cuyahoga River, I was disappointed to be going home. The experience was similar to what I felt when I left Rome to go to Venice, yet knew Venice would be just as good. There’s always another place to explore, even if it’s in my own backyard. My wanderlust is not easily quenched.

Monday, March 24, 2008


When I was a child, I slept on a cot on a sleeping porch of a Victorian cottage in Lakeside while crickets serenaded me. Rows upon rows of cottages with postage-sized front lawns and comfortable front porches cozied up to the quiet narrow streets. I sunned on the dock that stretches into the Lake, played miniature golf in the afternoons in Central Park, licked ice cream that ran down a cone on a hot day, and paid $.50 to see last season’s movie.

So when I first starting going to Artist’s Way Retreats in Lakeside six years ago, it felt like I was going home. I love to walk the streets. Suncatchers hang in windows, cats sit on steps, wicker furniture adorns porches, and perennial gardens thrive between stoop and street. I admire the variety of cottages, from showboat-shaped homes with gingerbread trim to painted ladies three stories high to miniature-sized bungalows with window boxes.

Three blocks up Walnut from Lake Erie is the Idlewyld Bed and Breakfast, a large rambling vintage inn of 14 rooms. Its wraparound porch with hickory rockers surrounded by lush gardens looks like the perfect place to unwind. It is. Entering the house is a step back in time to an era of charm and simplicity where one can be authentic and true while mingling in the gathering room or sitting on the upstairs porch where I feel like I’m in the big tree. Hosts Dan and Joan Barris serve an English sideboard breakfast amid cottage d├ęcor.

For ten years, women have gathered at the Idlewyld for a tour of the community followed by dinner and a creative opening activity like creating a collage that tells the story of a life. The next two days were filled with breakout sessions to explore journaling, storytelling, photography, reiki, or yoga to inspire and give us a sense of possibility. We were entertained by a comedian or a drum circle on Saturday night, and Sunday was the winding down, a time to stand on the pier for reflection and hugs.

The Artist’s Way Retreat refuels our fires. This year we will again be inspired and reconnect at the Sharing Our Gifts retreat. I’m already looking forward to it.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Inspired to Write about Moments--Astrid & Veronika

Linda Olsson’s first book, Astrid & Veronika , was crafted within the cocoon of a writing program. Every word counted, every moment was worth the time spent. It was an excellent book, tight and pregnant with sensations and meaning. It left me more with a feeling than a story, the preciousness of thoughtful and deep friendship stays with me. Olsson explores the passing of time and importance of love, and what it means to live life well. I knew the author as a mature person and a young writer.

There were passages in this book that deserve reflection. The quality of life's moments are what is left in its waning years, as reflected in Astrid's statement, “’My life’s memories take up space with no regard to when they happened, or to their actual time-span. The memories of brief incidents occupy almost all my time, while years of my life have left no trace.’” Astrid, an old woman living in isolation in a small northern Sweden town, opened to the gift of Veronika’s presence and willingness to listen in the last year of her life. The reader experiences her life in snippets, as when she took Veronika to a hidden overgrown strawberry patch that was at one time nurtured, “’Like memories. You can make yourself believe that they have been erased. But they are there, if you look closely. If you have a wish to uncover them.’” The fruit from that uncovered patch was later celebrated by the women, who enjoyed a luscious strawberry liquor made by Astrid and kept for special ocassions, symbol of memories hidden and now brought to life. Astrid drives the point home when she explores, “’My life now consists of fragments where some are so blinding in their intensity that they make everything else indistinguishable. What shall I do with these glittering shards? There is no pattern; I can’t make them fit . . . I know there is more—there are less intense fragments that I need to make it whole . . . face the truth of what is really there.’” Slowly, as the fragments are strewn together to make a life, we learn that Astrid killed her own child in her desire to keep her close.

Veronika, isolated on purpose to get on with her writing, accompanies Astrid to the nursing home where Astrid’s estranged husband lay dying, and a nurse asks whether Veronika is the daughter, when the only daughter died within her first year. Surely this mean man whom Astrid had been made to marry didn’t mention a daughter. Or did he? That part of the story, his side of things, was never told, and there were many things left out—all those years were not told, just the bright highlights and the deepest truths. One cannot tell a whole life. That’s the lesson I take with me. Like Virginia Woolf, writing for her memoir club, who said she had to just pick one thing, and she chose, “Am I a Snob?”

I paid attention to what was eaten in Sweden where this book was set. On Veronika’s birthday, at a restaurant, “There was homemade rye bread, dried as well as fresh, and butter. A small juniper-wood bowl with pale brown soft whey-cheese, a bowl with fried chanterelles, a mixed salad of a variety of leaves and flower petals. Egg halves and a small bowl of whitefish roe. Two varieties of marinated herring. Small new potatoes sprinkled with dill.” For dessert: “a plate with one piece of dark soft cake.” Another celebration produced “a serving plate with thinly sliced gravlax [salmon] and a small bowl with mustard sauce. A basket with dark rye bread stood to one side, and two champagne flutes next to a chilled bottle of fine French champagne.” I served those foods when I hosted our book discussion of the book.

The reader hears the stories of Astrid being married in a traditional wedding costume and life in a small town near the Arctic Circle. We absorb the slow day-by-day rhythm of the lives of Astrid and Veronika. “They had adopted a comfortable routine that involved daily walks and dinner once or twice a week, alternating the hosting. Life has taken on a gentle, predictable rhythm. Veronica felt at peace, resting in the moment.” Here is where the preciousness of their unlikely friendship is born, in the sharing, in the resting in the moment, together. While Astrid told her story, she was allowing Veronika to embrace her own and go on to live fully. In the end, theirs was the friendship of a lifetime, and Astrid left her home to Veronika. Astrid's last words to Veronika were in a letter where her voice resonated on paper: “Love comes to us with no forewarning and once given to us it can never be taken away. We must remember that. It can never be lost. Love is not measurable. It cannot be counted in years, minutes or seconds, kilos or grams. It cannot be quantified in any way. Nor can it be compared, one with the other. It simply is. The briefest brush with real love can sustain you for a lifetime. You must always remember that.” Astrid’s story became the story Veronika needed to hear to write her book and once told, it inspired the story I needed to tell. In the forward to Daffodils and Fireflies I write:

The form of this book was influenced by Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being and Alexandra Johnson’s Leaving a Trace. I was reading Linda Olsson’s Astrid & Veronika when I found my voice for the moments of being descriptions of daffodils and fireflies I wrote months earlier; I credit her with reminding me that much feeling can be felt within 250 small pages. But this passage, from Astrid & Veronika made me think Olsson and I are kindred spirits who read the same books before writing our novels: “’My life’s memories take up space with no regard to when they happened, or to their actual time-span. The memories of brief incidents occupy almost all my time, while years of my life have left no trace.’” This was precisely what Woolf spoke of in her memoirs and exactly why Johnson chose to call her book Leaving a Trace. The spirit of these writers and their work lives in Daffodils and Fireflies.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Our Book Group Predicts Movies

My friend Gayle just presented our decades-old book group with a list of books we read that became movies. Our ability to choose movie-worthy books is uncanny. I will not be surprised if our most recent choice--Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen--appears on a movie screen. It has all the right elements--intrigue, romance, and a colorful setting.

People ask me "Which one was better, the book or the movie?" Sometimes the two can't be compared--the resemblance of the Wicked musical to the book was the difference between immersed entertainment and worrisome effort. The Harry Potter movies liven the books with great acting, scenery, and special effects, and although I'm surprised when the way I imagined scenes or characters differs from those of the director, I love the movies. The Other Boleyn Girl, The Horse Whisperer, and Under the Tuscan Sun were relatively dissembled when put into the film medium, and although the authors became richer by ticket sales, the transformation of their words onto the screen weakened their good work. The love stories told in The Notebook and The Bridges of Madison County became richer under the glow of photography and attractive actors; contrary to popular opinion, those books, as well as Tuesdays with Morrie, are marginally well-written.

Approximately thirty of the books we've read for book group have been made into movies. I haven't figured out if we pick good books or popular books or the books we choose just lend themselves well to film. Books like Snow Falling on Cedars and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil are chosen because someone read a positive review or it was highly recommended, or our group loved the way the writer put words together. I like to think we know good writing and good writing is rewarded by becoming mass produced, but that would be naive. I don't like to admit it, but it turns out that the books we read are those everyone else reads as well. Despite my classical literature education and the how intimately I'm affected by the words of Shakespeare and Wordsworth, I choose to be influenced by popular culture. It's pretty stimulating.