Category Archives: Kissing the Earth

Kissing the Earth: What If?

From: Kissing the Earth
October 18, 2012 at 12:01AM

Whenever I walk into a library, I take a deep breath; all of those words, all of those ideas! All of the stories, all of that information within four walls, under one roof! I just want to let it soak into my pores. I love the dusty paper smell mixed with the sharp scent of ink—one sniff and I’m ready to sit down, open a book and fall into the images conjured up by the words. 
People often ask writers where they get their ideas. Well, for starters, nothing beats the library. (No, no, I’m not overlooking the Internet—I know its there, but it’s a totally different experience. You know what I mean.)

It doesn’t take much to get me to the library, but last week I had two extra special reasons: two different author visits at two different libraries brought me out with a small ensemble of my Bay Area writer friends.

First, last Tuesday night Lois Lowry spoke at the San Francisco Main library. Author of over forty books and winner of numerous awards, Lois Lowry, (now in her seventies) has just finished the final book in THE GIVER quartet, answering many of the questions she’s received from readers since her original THE GIVER won the Newbery in 1994. She spoke on a number of topics but what especially interested me was how she got her idea for THE GIVER, a story about a dystopian society that had gained enough technology to create a lifestyle that had no memory of sadness or pain. She told us that all her ideas come from asking the question, “What if?” It was the question she asked  after a visit to her elderly father who was slipping into dementia and had lost his most painful memory–that his other daughter, Lois’s sister, had died as a young woman. Lowry first thought that it seemed like a good thing to forget the painful memories in life. She wondered, what if we could offer this to people? What if we could forget all of the sad and painful things that had happened to us? From that questioning came the idea for THE GIVER.
I think all creative endeavors come out of this ‘What if?’ question. What if I paint her face at another angle? What if I add cilantro to the pasta sauce? What if the violins come in on A Minor? What if I have a different character tell this story?
The second author visit was Rita William’s-Garcia at the West Oakland Public Library talking about her multi-prize winning book ONE CRAZY SUMMER, the story of three sisters sent to spend the summer with their estranged mother who is an activist with the Black Panthers in the late 1960’s. Rita spoke to an enraptured room of all ages about where her idea came from—it started with the question, “What would it be like to be a child in this very electric time and place?” It’s another kind of ‘What if?’
I took both of these talks back home with me, like treasures in my pockets. And when I pulled them out to admire them, a little piece of something else fell out with them—a folded piece of paper with ‘dare to fail’ scribbled on it. It’s the unspoken part of ‘What if?’ What if my idea doesn’t work? What if I try and fall on my arse?
The answer to that is simple: you get up and try again because intrinsic in the endeavor, in the desire to create, to the ‘what if?’ question, has to be the willingness to fail. I think it’s an excellent question to ask ourselves at the start of every day. It’s the only way through the door.
 Take Good Care,


Kissing the Earth: A Tree Last Year, the Same Tree Yesterday and that Very Same Tree Today

From: Kissing the Earth
October 11, 2012 at 12:01PM

I heard David Shannon speak last weekend. David Shannon of No David! picture book fame. He’s a wonderful speaker, an organic storyteller really, and he held my attention—along with every other person’s in the room—for the 45 minutes that he spoke. Or perhaps a better way to put it is that he interacted with my attention for that time, because he didn’t keep my attention clutched in his hands, still and silent, but instead, he danced with it: asked questions, made eye contact, created call and response moments, made connections…and asked for the same in return.
One thing David said was that he puts his dog Fergus—this cute little white terrier—into every one of his stories. And so he becomes an interactive game for David’s readers. Where is Fergus in this story? Is he in the background? Is he a toy? Is he partially hidden?  In a very clear and simple way, Fergus has become a recurring image, a through-line for David—from idea to idea, from story to story, from book to book.
Maybe David draws Fergus because a furry dog is fun to create. Or maybe he includes Fergus because he loves him so. And maybe—just maybe—Fergus has become a sort of gauge, a way for David to mark his growth as a writer.
Who knows. 
But like I said, David got my attention dancing, and the idea of recurring images is how I dipped and shimmied and spun. I got to thinking about the objects that repeatedly show up in my stories. (Mind you, I am not an illustrator, so I’m not talking about visual objects but objects, instead, drawn with words.) For instance, I write about trees. A lot. And so, in effect, I have a long-standing relationship with trees as story elements.
I had the urge, after listening to David, to go back through my work and search for those tree moments, to place them side by side in chronological order, and to trace the arc of my growth as a writer along their branched arms, from one to the other to the other. We are drawn to the ideas and images and concepts, I believe, that have the most to teach us. Early on we don’t know why we are so curious about them, but, still, we are…and so we play with them, repeat them, explore them. Slowly, though, their meaning becomes clearer. Maybe we connect them, for the first time, to a piece of ourselves. They take on a different resonance. They express more. There is something glorious, I think, in appreciating that progression of meaning. Something sacred and intimate and wise.
What images recur in your work? How have they evolved over time? What can they teach you about yourself as a writer and human being in this wide and wonderful world?

Kissing the Earth: The Interior Landscape Of The Little House

From: Kissing the Earth
October 04, 2012 at 12:01AM

Last week Tam talked about getting out of your usual surroundings to learn something about yourself that you didn’t know or had forgotten. She went on to say that when you take those discoveries back with you, you might find you have changed, perhaps even reincarnated yourself, keeping the important pieces and letting go some of the others.
Her words, as always, rang true.
In fact, I just had such an experience. Last week, I found myself in Spokane, Washington, helping my mother pack up and move over to the coast. I grew up in Spokane, but since our family lake house recently sold, I rented an enchanting little house through airbnb. (A great organization! Check it out if you ever need a home away from home:
The tiny house, lovingly transformed from a 384 square foot Washington Water Power substation with a 13 foot ceiling, was furnished with charming antiques and had a courtyard planted with organic berries and vegetables to pick and enjoy. With no Internet access or television, it provided a perfect oasis for me to rest, recharge, center and to get to know myself a little better again. Waking up in the morning and then returning to this one room retreat every evening for a week gently forced me into some new patterns—patterns of simplicity, introspection and a kind of meditative solitude I hadn’t experienced since my days in my little cabin on Orcas Island.
I discovered that I didn’t need to know, moment-to-moment or even hour-to-hour what everyone else was doing or posting. I didn’t need to respond immediately to whatever emails might be in my inbox. I rediscovered that sitting quietly, enjoying a cup of tea, a soft boiled egg and buttered toast or a simple salad and a glass of wine, without conversation, without an open notebook or even a book, was a pleasure and helped me pay attention to the moment, to the smells, the flavors, the temperature of the air, the curl of a leaf in the jug of freshly cut flowers on the table and in paying attention, my thoughts slowed to murmurs instead of the anxious banter that had been circling in there all day.
I rediscovered John Prine among the house collection of CD’s and remembered how much I used to love just sitting and listening to music—how it opens up something in my heart and makes me smile. I even danced by myself around the room, which reminded me that it’s good to be silly sometimes. That such uninhibited freedom can bring joy.
And then when I did finally sit down and open my notebook to write and try to get inside the character in the novel I’ve been working on, I found that not only could I hear my thoughts more clearly, but I could actually slip inside my character’s head in a way that I hadn’t been able to do before, perhaps because I was less attached to who I had been and more open to try on another skin.
And now that I’m home, I can feel those discoveries alive in me; I am going to try to be less obsessed with staying constantly Internetedly connected, constantly checking email and searching for unnecessary facts. I am going to try not to feel the need to constantly multi-task. I will try to allow myself more time to sit quietly, to pay attention to what I’m doing. Or not doing. I’m going to try and remind myself to use the Internet as a tool but to not let it become a substitute for real life connecting or experience.
I did, however, just go to iTunes and download some John Prine to dance to when I’m home alone.
Take Good Care,

Kissing the Earth: Landscape and Peter’s Theory of Buddha Self

From: Kissing the Earth
September 27, 2012 at 01:02PM

Who is this Peter guy?
I’m late to the Criss Cross party, but I made it. I read Lynne Rae Perkins’ book just last week. I love intersecting lives, connections being pulled into relief, multiple points of view weaving themselves together. And Criss Crosssatiated these loves. I had heard about the book so I knew this could be the case. But I didn’t know that Lynne Rae Perkins brings landscape into this trio of discoveries.

Peter and Debbie, two of the many central characters in the book, take a trip on a bus out of town. Not far out of town, but far enough that they find themselves in a place neither of them had been before. They find a bakery, buy chocolate milk and a loaf of freshly baked bread, and meander through a neighborhood until they find a bridge on which to sit and eat their meal. 
Then they get back on the bus to go home, and while they travel Peter tells Debbie about a theory he’s been making up:
“I think,” he said, “that it’s a good thing to get out of your usual, you know, surroundings. Because you find things out about yourself that you didn’t know, or you forgot. And then you go back to your regular life and you’re changed, you’re a little bit different because you take those new things with you. Like a Hindu, except all in one life: you sort of get reincarnated depending on what happened and what you figure out. And any one place can make you go forward, or backward, or neither, but gradually you find all your pieces, your important pieces, and they stay with you, so that you’re your whole self no matter where you go. Your Buddha self. That’s my theory, anyway.”
LOVE that.
To my mind and heart, Peter’s Buddha Self Theory ties directly and deeply with the ways lives connect and support and enlighten each other. The more we discover about ourselves, the more we know about ourselves, and the more pieces we fit together…well, the more we are whole. And the more we are whole…the more we can connect.* Truly connect. Nothing else brings a wider, more wonderful sense of being alive.
I often write about the joys of returning to a place again and again. Today I urge us—you all and me—to go somewhere brand new. Let’s see if we can find some pieces of ourselves there… wherever there happens to be.
With gratitude,
*Apologies for all of the more.

Kissing the Earth: The Landscape of Scents and Memory

From: Kissing the Earth
September 20, 2012 at 12:01AM

I have been spending a lot of time lately thinking about smells. Like the familiar smells around the house that wrap around me as I go about my interior day; ginger peach tea, warm toast, ripe bananas, the lanolin in the wool rugs that hang on the wall, oiled wood, pear slices, sunlight through the linen drapes, warm cat, damp dog, a glass of wine, Dr. Brommer’s Peppermint Castile Soap, a closet full of shoes, feather pillows on a cool autumn evening. These are the smells of home, of comfort, familiarity, safety. Calming smells. Secure smells.
In the midst of all this smelling, a link in Tami Lewis Brown’s recent Through The Tollbooth blogpost “Writing A Book That Stinks Or How To Make Scents of Great Writing” led me to Kate McLean, a graphic designer who makes exquisite and evocative sensory maps of towns and specifically what she describes as, “Smell maps as cartographic portraits of sensory perception in the urban environment.”
McLean’s maps and research have inspired me to the point of obsession with making note and keeping track of the myriad of smells in my neighborhood. I have started a map. Well, a list that will soon become a map…
So, today, the first things that hit me when I walked out the door were the smell of salt water, a little fishy, wafting up from the Bay, spliced with burnt chocolate that is actually coffee roasting at Graffeo Coffee three blocks away. Add to that the astringent smell of dry leaves in the gutter. Other marks along the way included wet slate and strong detergent from the scrubbed down entry way of the apartment building down the street, fresh house paint, mown grass at Michelangelo park, dog piddle at most every street tree, the sharp metallic smell of cable turning in the cable car tracks, tomatoes at the corner market, warm sugar from Victoria Bakery, chlorine from the North Beach pool, lavender at the bocce ball court, rosemary from the potted topiaries in front of the Bohemian Hotel. My canine companion, Emma, picked up other smells; she checked her pmial at every tree trunk, trash can and building corner, while always keeping a nose out for forbidden street snacks—cracker crumbs, pizza crust, apple cores, spilled chow fun.
And after Tam’s blogpost last week on how different the world can be at different times of day, I am more keenly aware of the changing smells from morning to afternoon to night.
It was some years ago, when one of my writing teachers had me do a writing exercise using smell to try to access some of my elusive childhood memories, that I discover the incredible power of smell to evoke not only memory but the emotional content of memory. I later learned that scientists, psychologists, poets, novelists and perfumers have long made the indisputable correlation between the sense of smell, memory and emotion.  More than the other senses, it is the sense of smell that instantly conjures up specific memory of place, atmosphere and potent emotion.
For me, the scent of warm sun on a bramble of blackberries immediately transports me back to an afternoon when I was ten years old, standing at the end of a gravel cul-de-sac, wind rattling the leaves in the poplar trees, a September sun low in the sky, worrying that my best friend had a new best friend and that I would have to walk to school by myself now. To this day, blackberry leaves hold the melancholy scent of change and loss, loneliness and exclusion.
The musty smell inside an old book transports me to Shakespeare and Company in Paris in my early twenties; I had a cold, it was raining and there was a huge long-haired tabby dozing on the counter. For me this old book smell still conveys the feeling of safety and refuge, so far away from home.

The smell of wood smoke, damp stone and seawater will catapult me to a beach on the Olympic Peninsula where I was camping with my parents and sister, bringing along the other senses—the sound of the ocean waves rolling and crunching stone on stone, the taste of sticky sweet marshmallow on a willow stick, campfire flames dancing high, sparks popping and jumping in the black sky, the pilled inside of my sweatshirt pouch. The emotion it evokes is a sense of connection with family bound by the experience of nature—a strong sense of belonging.

When I write, I often call on the sense of smell to help me get to an emotion that’s hard to pin down. Need happy? Try thinking of a moment when you were happy and sniff around the memory—is that cake and lemonade, the rubbery smell of balloons, the distinct scent of stretched out crepe paper? Once you can smell it, can you feel it? How about scared? Try scorched pumpkin, damp earth and the glue smell from the inside of a Halloween mask.
What smells evoke vivid memories for you? Or is it the other way around—how do your memories smell?
Take Good Care,

Kissing the Earth: Landscape and Time-of-Day

From: Kissing the Earth
September 13, 2012 at 03:00AM

School has started and my life is upside-down. I know it’s a temporary thing, just until we all settle into our new schedule, but this year the transition from summer to school has been more dramatic than in years past. I now have three kids in school, and this addition of one extra person entering the whirlwind of getting ready in the wee hours of the morning has tipped the scale for me. I can no longer hold the home versus school lunch choice in my head anymore. I can no longer remember the deadlines for permission slips, let alone which one goes to which kid. It’s lists and revised routines and prepping the night before. It’s all hands on deck as soon as the alarm clock goes off.
One of the knock on effects of this new reality is that I can’t go out at my usual time for a run in the morning, and so this, too, has been revised to fit into the new schedule. Instead of leaving the house at 7:15AM, I now leave at 6:15AM.

Same river. Same trail. Just one hour earlier. But it feels like a different run.
Mist is rising at a lazy speed off of the water. The sun is lower in the sky and cast different shadows into the trees and flowers, so new spots are illuminated and new spots are hidden. We surprised a juvenile bald eagle last week—and he amazed us by rising up slowly out of a tree so we could really study him as he picked up height and speed as he flew across the river. The air is colder an hour earlier in the morning. I even wore a hat yesterday. And because we are usually the first people of the day to step onto the trail, there are more sticky spider web finish lines strung across the trail for us to break through.
So the landscape is different an hour earlier in the day which, I suppose, is to be expected. But I am different too, an hour earlier, and that has been a surprising discovery. Do you know how some people get up early in the morning to write…sort of before the thinking part of the brain realizes it is awake…and the result is a more loose and creative process? The same is true for me running at 6:15 instead of 7:15. Less time passes between sleep and run. No coffee is involved. And very little, if any, talking.
This state of mind, coupled with the landscape-anew, creates a more meditative, magical run.
I urge you all, if you can, to go somewhere familiar but at a different time of day.  See what’s new. Smell and hear and feel what’s new.  And maybe ask one of your characters to do the same.
Happy New School Year!

Kissing the Earth: Interview with debut author Jeannie Mobley

From: Kissing the Earth
September 06, 2012 at 03:00AM

We are thrilled to have debut author Jeannie Mobley here today, along with her brand-new middle grade novel Katerina’s Wish. I couldn’t put Katerina’s Wish down while I was reading it, and about a third of the way through the book I figured out why: the story, more than any other that I can recall, evoked memories of reading as a child…of that very specific phenomenon of feeling a book transport and hug, all at the same time. Jeannie’s writing is magical like that.
I am lucky to be able to call Jeannie my friend. She is truly one of the warmest, funniest, smartest women I know. What I didn’t know, until I interviewed her, was how much landscape resonates for her. I feel even more connected to Jeannie after having this conversation.
KTE: Hi Jeannie!  Thank you for coming on over to Kissing the Earth to chat about Katerina’s Wish. First, what does landscape mean to you?
JM: Landscape is very important to me. I have always been a person who is rejuvenated by quiet space, and nothing does that for me like nature. So not only have I spent a lot of time outside, but I have also always sought out the quiet, peaceful places in the landscape to think, take comfort, relax, and connect. Even as I write this, I am sitting outside, and a breeze is singing thought a cottonwood above me.
KTE: Can you describe how, exactly, landscape is important to you?
JM: Nature is a very visceral experience for me. When I am outside in a beautiful place (and I find many kinds of places beautiful) I feel like my senses are more awake to everything. There is a concept in Buddhism of distracting the senses in order to free the subconscious, and I think that is what nature does for me. I feel hyper-aware of detail in the world around me, and less aware of myself. It is simultaneously calming and exhilarating.
KTE: I love that!  Boy, does that idea of being hyper-aware of details and thus less aware of self really resonates for me.
What does landscape mean to Katerina?  I am thinking, especially, of the juxtaposition of that magical place just over the hill and the coal mine.  As we talked about earlier, there is such a stark difference between the two.
JM: Because I seek solace in the quiet places of nature, that is what I wanted for Katerina too. I don’t think it ever occurred to me to have her find comfort in any other way. It seemed very natural to me for her to find a quiet, natural place, away from the frenzy of the world she dislikes. And for me, water and trees are in the places that comfort me most, and so that is what Katerina experiences.  For Katerina, though, I added another layer, one that I haven’t experienced. Because she is an immigrant from north-eastern Europe, I think the landscapes of Southern Colorado would be so starkly different, and it would be hard for someone from the green mountains of Bohemia to see beauty there in the best of times.
The tree that Katerina finds is a cottonwood. Cottonwoods have always been a special tree to me, because in the arid landscapes of the southern Colorado, they feel so out of place. They are truly oases, with their huge trunks and their huge, shady rustling leaves.  They seem to shout of something lush and green and cool, right out of the hot, dry, brown world. It was the best way I could think of for Trina to have a poignant reminder of home.


KTE: What does the landscape in Katerina’s Wish, especially, mean to you?

three generations of the Mobley family exploring
JM: I grew up camping and traveling in the west, and my family explored many old ghost towns in the Colorado Rockies.
an ancestral Pueblo structure in southwest Colorado,
returning to earth after about 800 years
 When I am in a place where people have lived in the past, whether it is an old cabin, or an archaeological site left behind hundreds of years ago, I find myself listening hard.
It’s not something I consciously do, in fact, I didn’t realize that was what I was doing for a long time. But when I am exploring a ghost town with family or when I am working on an dig with a whole crew of archaeologists (the 
day job), I find myself seeking out chances to get away from people and to find a quiet place to listen.

KTE: Are you able to articulate what you hear in a place like this?
JM: There is something different about the silence of a space where people have been, and where the memories are slipping back into nature. It is a deeper silence, one that calls me to strain to hear it. The lives lived in a space become part of it somehow, in a collective memory of the ordinary. It’s not as if great deeds have been done there. In fact, I often don’t have that feeling at a place commemorating great deeds. Great deeds speak for themselves. But landscapes seem to absorb the essence of ordinary lives, the sacred spark of lives lived for the sake of living. That is what I strain to hear, that calls to me. That seems to be a layer of story embedded in the deeper silences of places people once lived. Its as if the living and the dying there has changed the place. Even as nature takes it back into itself, those places never seem to go back to being just nature. They remain different.
None of which exactly answers your question of what the landscape of Katerina’s Wish means to me.
KTE: That’s okay!  I am still buzzing with this: The lives lived in a space become part of it somehow, in a collective memory of the ordinary… Its as if the living and the dying there has changed the place. Even as nature takes it back into itself, those places never seem to go back to being just nature. They remain different. Oh man…what a gorgeous, true statement.
JM: I suppose the landscape of the book per se means nothing to me, in that it is a fictional landscape that I have not been in myself. But the reason the landscape exists at all, is because of the time I have spent walking, sitting, and listening in the abandoned coal mine country of southern Colorado, with its ugly coal tips, it’s arid, brown landscapes, its empty houses, and its silence, asking to be listened to, with a tangle of ordinary struggles flowing through it.
KTE: So you have, in fact, listened hard enough to hear the voice–in this arid, brown place–of Katerina. An ordinary girl with an ordinary struggle, but then you, Jeannie the writer and artist, have elevated her with this remarkable story.
southeast Colorado

KTE: Katerina’s Wish is, of course, historical. How did you manage to create such a rich, true landscape when it is not here today for you to go visit, and research?  How did you gather and then articulate the details of this landscape?
JM: I do quite a bit of browsing through historical photos, because they capture the ordinary details of lives—the laundry, and picket fences, smoke and litter. Also, because I love browsing through old photos and it is a fun way to blow an entire morning when I don’t feel like writing. Although I read history books, oral histories, and other primary documents, my greatest inspiration comes from visual sources.
But really, what I try to capture is the feeling that a landscape gives me, and this draws on my years of collected memories in those places, and the wanderings of my imagination.  In the case of Katerina’s Wish, I had been in that area not long before I decided to set my story there, so I could draw on the feelings it gave me. I drew on it barren, dry, dead places and the sense of desolation they would give a Czech immigrant. 

The town would have been in an area like this, which once held the town of Ludlow. These are the old company stores and offices…

And these are some of the few miners’ houses left standing…

And then there is the mine. The hoists and shaft housing is all gone, but left behind, the piles of waste…

 And shells of unpicturesque concrete buildings.

This row of coke ovens would have kept the air constantly full of coal smoke. Note the black, barren earth in the foreground. Coal dust and debris still leaves it nearly sterile, decades later.

And yet, amidst this all, just a few hundred feet from those coke ovens, a quiet little haven, under a cottonwood tree. (This picture was taken in October, when the stream had dwindled almost to nothing.)

After visiting these places, they stayed with me, but as feelings and impressions as much as visual experiences. So of course, that’s what I set about trying to capture in my writing. It is an illusive thing, and I feel like I never quite capture it, which keeps me striving to do better next time. But, one early reader of my ARC told me, “I had to put your book down for a little while. I was so overwhelmed by a sense of homesickness from my childhood when you described that tree and pond, that I couldn’t keep reading.”  So I guess I got something right.
KTE: Ummm…yeah. You got a lot of somethings right. Thank you thank you thank you, Jeannie, for all of this. 

With gratitude,
Jeannie Mobley is a third generation native of Colorado on her mother’s side, while her father comes from a long line of yarn-spinners out of Arkansas. So really, it was inevitable that she would turn the histories of her home state into stories. In addition to letting her imagination run wild, Jeannie teaches anthropology in northern Colorado, enjoys as much sunshine as she possibly can, and talks in baby talk to her kids and animals, even though they are all grown up. Katerina’s Wish is her first novel. You can learn more about her here

Kissing the Earth: The Landscape of My Kitchen Window

From: Kissing the Earth
August 30, 2012 at 12:01AM

One of the writing exercise I use to get to know my characters and give to my writing students when we’re working on character development, is basically an interview where you ask your character all sorts of nosey questions, but my favorite question is “what’s in your pocket?” It can also be framed as: what’s in your backpack, what’s in your purse, what’s in that cigar box under your bed, or what’s on your windowsill? I find this a very telling investigation. I think you can guess a lot about a person, a character, yourself, by not only the practical things carried or stored, but by the less ‘useful’ items chosen to keep close.

Even as an urban dweller, my pockets always have pebbles, seashells, seed pods, feathers—treasures from nature that ground me and remind me who I am, where I’ve been and some of what I love. From time to time, my purse gets so heavy, it feels like it’s full of stones—because it is. When the weight becomes unbearable, I sort through, chose one or two to keep and return the others to the park, the beach, a garden. The keepers go in a pot on my kitchen windowsill along with the other items that have earned this distinguished place of honor. Besides my writing desk, my little kitchen window gets more face time than nearly any other interior view—it’s where I stand to wash and slice fruits and vegetables, fill the tea kettle, trim and feed house plants, sip a cool glass of water after a long walk.

Outside the window, I look at the paper bark trees that line the street, then into my neighbor’s garden, and behind, up to Russian Hill, to buildings beyond buildings. A flock of parrots comes screeching by like a gang of squeaky-break bicycles as a hawk slowly circles above considering its next meal. These are all pieces of my daily exterior landscape.

But inside, the things that line my sill are intimate reminders of parts of me I do not want to lose: a jar of shells and stones; a vase my sister brought me from Czechoslovakia decades ago, since cracked, now filled with feathers, my water color brushes and wish bones (saved up for the day I really need them); a fragment of pottery I found in the gutted foundation of the house my great grandparent’s built on their homestead in Montana in a previous century; sand dollars from the Washington coast; hand carved spoons (because my husband knows I love spoons); a scrawny aloe vera plant (for kitchen cuts and burns); a candle in a slipper (a fairytale token); a small icon of an angel (because everyone needs an angel watching over them); a rubber stamp of a luna moth (because a real luna moth is too fragile to keep on a window sill). Somehow these things help define me; they are symbols, metaphors, talismans. And like the pebbles in my pocket, they keep me, everyday, from floating away.

So, what I’d like to know (because I’m nosey and because I’d like to know you better) is: what’s in your pocket? Or on your windowsill? And why do you have them there?
Take Good Care, 


Kissing the Earth: Landscape and my nephew

From: Kissing the Earth
August 23, 2012 at 04:54PM

My family and I just spent the last two weeks at my parents’ farm. We swam, ran on the trails (uphill!), played with goats, horses and chicks (the chicks are ours, by the way, and we brought them to the farm in a tupperware on my lap in the jam-packed car…ask me about THAT journey sometime!), and generally had a lovely, relaxing time.

My sister’s family lives across the street from the farm, so along with spending time with my folks, we also spent time with my niece and nephew. My nephew is a tough kid. He needs a lot of action; he seems to need to create a lot of action, and if he can’t find a positive long-term outlet for that need—like playing a game of baseball or cleaning out his guinea pig cage—he resorts to lots of little, needling actions.  Things like pinching his sister or teasing his cousin or tripping his sister or taunting his cousin. You get the picture. His energy is frenetic. Quick, darting, in to do the job and out again so fast you hardly know what happened.

But…the one place where he is not craving that action…is out in the woods. I have spent the last two months working on an essay about the healing powers of being out in nature, and I got to see this process truly work with my nephew. Life imitating Art imitating Life.  One morning he took me on a four-wheeler ride onto the trails behind his house.  He wanted to show me a view he had recently found. On the way he slowed down to point out the many butterflies perched in the grass and flitting through the air. He slowed the four-wheeler down, yes, but he also slowed down his speech and his breathing (I was sitting behind him with my arms around his waist…I could actually feel this happen) and proceeded to explain butterfly migration to me. We continued on and entered a section of the trail that was lined with pine trees, and again he slowed down to try to articulate how magical the path felt, like the entrance to some fantastical land.  And finally, when we got to the spot with the view, he stopped completely.  We sat together. Quiet. Still. I don’t know what my nephew felt, of course, but I felt a sense of connection. To the land, and to him. I felt grounded in that connection. And thus calm. And I really wonder if he did too.

Kissing the Earth: The Landscape of Ups And Downs

From: Kissing the Earth
August 16, 2012 at 12:01AM

This morning, I walked out my front door and went down the hill, toward the bay. Then up another hill to get to the little park where I play soccer with my dog. Then up to a winding switchback of stairs that leads up another hill to yet another small hillside park. From there, I headed down two flights of stairs, straight ahead for three blocks, then down, back up and down more stairs to return home.
That’s a lot of hills and stairs.
San Francisco, as everyone knows, is a city of hills. And stairs. There are forty-two hills in San Francisco and more than three hundred and fifty public stairways that make it somewhat easier for people to get up and down these hills. Many of these stairways give access through otherwise impassable retaining walls—without them, you would have to go blocks and blocks out of your way. Some of these stairways are plain, some quaint and charming, some wood, some cement, many are ‘hidden’—visitors need a good guide or guidebook to find these gems. If you’re looking, Adah Bakalinsky has written the epitomic guide, STAIRWAY WALKS IN SAN FRANCISCO.

My own house is at the intersection of three hills; one side slants steeply up, south to Nob Hill, the other rises up to Russian Hill on the west and then down and back up to Telegraph Hill on the east. I cannot leave my house and return without going both up and down; the Macondary Stairs, the Green Street Stairs, The Vallejo Stairs, the Greenwich Stairs, are all part of my daily route. Even fetching the morning paper from the front porch requires going down and back up fifty-two stairs!

I have been thinking a lot about the conversation here at Kissing The Earth over the past few weeks on how our landscapes shape who we are; my lung capacity and leg muscles are both physical testaments to this! I am constantly telling out-of-breath visitors that it gets easier once you earn your ‘hill legs’. But it has also made me wonder if and how hills and stairs might shape character—has the daily up and down helped to prepare me for the ups and downs of life?

I do know that I have grown to be a much more optimistic person over the years that I’ve called San Francisco my home. Could this positive perspective come from knowing, in my body, that a hard climb up is usually followed with the ease of going down—could it be a result of literally walking up and down hills and stairs everyday? Does my daily walking practice inform and remind me that when I’m feeling down, I need to put in the effort to climb back up for a clearer view? I can believe that the landscape of hills and stairs has helped fortify my sense of the ups and downs all being part of the balance of life.
I also think about this in terms of writing (of course, as always), with the first draft as the upward climb (it’s hard work going up!) and then needing to stop and catch my breath at the top of the stairs, while gaining some perspective of the overview, before heading back down in revision. (which can feel more like downhill running than the trudging uphill of first draft work!)
We think of metaphors as being, well…metaphors, not reality. Not to be taken literally. But the good ones hold meaning, truth and at times, a physicality that goes beyond the mere representative.
Talking about hills, here’s a fun, short, colorful video shot in my neighborhood a few years ago:
Take Good Care,

Kissing the Earth: Landscape as Selfation

From: Kissing the Earth
August 09, 2012 at 09:55PM

I have been thinking a lot about landscape lately. Go figure. But these particular thoughts have been different. And I have been turning them over and over again like a pile of autumn leaves—gathering my thoughts, then jumping into them to see how they fly, then gathering them once again. This in part because I have been given the opportunity to write an essay about landscape and in part because of my recent conversation with Beth Kephart.
Much of what Beth said resonates for me. But especially this: I would suggest that what happens [when we become familiar with a place] relates to a sense of belonging.  When we belong somewhere, we can slow down, take note of receding details, stand there and watch the shadows without having to snatch up the exotica.  Time within a landscape yields a depth of understanding—of the place and of ourselves. Yes! Yes yes yes! I couldn’t agree more—I couldn’t feel the truth of this in my bones more—and I have been wondering why this is true.  I am especially curious about why, out in a landscape we know and love, we are able to gather that greater depth of understanding of ourselves.
My daughter recently reminded me the air we breathe was once inside the leaf of a tree. We inhale as the trees exhale. Such a simple truth, such a simple exchange, and yet—it means everything. It means we are connected.

I feel this connection when I go into my woods, and trek down to my river. I feel my senses—my ears and eyes and nose and skin—open wider and grow stronger. And in that open state, I am able to take in things like a broken egg in a nest, a pattern dug into the bark of a tree, a rock formation, a bee hovering over a flower—those small, amazing details that live in abundance throughout nature. I once spent a morning deciphering the footprints of a red fox along a trail, following it to the river where another fox joined it for a drink, and then back to the trail. By building a relationship with a place and organically allowing my senses to become wildly alive, I am then able to turn my attentions inward, to begin to recognize my own landscape, to take in one tiny detail that is a part of me. My relationship with landscape has been a pathway to my salvation—or my selfation as my husband recently coined. And this, I believe, is why.

We are able to mimic the way we see the details of landscape as we begin to find and name and celebrate the tiny parts of ourselves that make us who we truly are.

I would love to hear how other people find that depth of understanding of themselves…
With thanks and gratitude to you, Beth, and to you all.

Kissing the Earth: Interview with Beth Kephart

From: Kissing the Earth
August 02, 2012 at 03:00AM

A couple of months ago I was given a list of books to review, as I always am, by my wonderful boss at BookBrowse and I chose Small Damages by Beth Kephart. I was excited to read the book, but by the time I was a few chapters into it, I felt something much more electric than excitement. I felt transported—both out across the ocean to Spain and inside my body into my senses which were popping, buzzing and humming (a Spanish guitar riff…) Small Damages is an intimate, immediate story; filled with breathtakingly drawn characters. One of those characters is landscape. And while it doesn’t have dialogue per se, it does sing and moan and whisper and breathe.

I knew I wanted to interview Beth here, and she couldn’t have been warmer or more enthusiastic about it. It was a complete joy to connect with her. I am thrilled and honored to have Beth Kephart here today.  Welcome Beth!

KTE: Small Damagesis so rich in its attention to landscape. It was impossible to NOT feel like I was right there with Kenzie—smelling the saffron, feeling the thick heat, tasting the oranges.  How did you gather and then articulate the details of this landscape?
BK: I am very blessed in that my brother-in-law and his family lived in Seville for years.  I visited a number of times, and often in different seasons.  My relationship to the country changed from tourist to something deeper, for I had the chance to return to favorite places and re-experience them over time.  The cortijo that forms the backdrop to Small Damages is based on the actual cortijo of a man (no longer alive) who raised Spain’s most prized fighting bulls.  He took me out among them one day, in his open jeep.  He let me stand among his horses, his prickly pears, let me stand and look down his long roads.  He spoke English, thankfully, so he answered many questions.
I traveled through southern Spain.  I wrote while I was there.  I took many photographs.  And then I did the kind of research that every writer does, reading the travel diaries of those who knew Spain when my older characters—Estela, Luis, Miguel, and the gypsies—were young.
KTE: What is your personal relationship to Spain?
BK: Spain is where I am very happy.  In addition to my travels there to visit my brother-in-law, I chose Madrid as my honeymoon city.  I’ve always had an interest in the country.  A few years ago we spent many days in Barcelona; I wove some of that into my young adult novel, Nothing but Ghosts.
KTE: You told me that, for you, landscape is a character.  It is for me too. Can you explain that a bit here?  Why is this so?  How do you manifest this belief in your work?
BK: Landscape shapes us.  It defines our legs and lungs as we walk through it.  It shapes the way we see, how we define horizons, what seems impossibly far away and what seems gratifyingly or frighteningly near.  Landscape is proximity, and it is distance.  It is another way of measuring time.  And so, in much of my work—the memoirs (especially my book about marriage and El Salvador), the river book, a YA novel that takes place in Juarez, a YA book that takes place in a garden (and Barcelona and Portugal), another YA novel that takes place in Centennial Philadelphia, and of course Small Damages—I am placing my characters down among very specific places and learning how it shapes them.
KTE: Can you speak more about this shaping process? I wonder what you think about the idea that landscape holds stories. The way a piece of land is, for instance, itself shaped over time (from sheep pasture to forest, for example) and what that means for the people (characters) walking and breathing within it. Do those stories get told?  Or are they felt? It seems to me that landscape taps into some ancient part of us, some part that is connected to what has come before us, and as such it grounds us, or stirs us up. I feel that with Kenzie on the cortijo.  Of course it is tough to separate what she learns from the landscape itself and what she learns from Estela and Esteban as they connect to it…
BK: I am fascinated by changes in place over time.  I like to go all the way back, to molten earth, or to sea-drenched earth.  I read a lot of the naturalists, try to imagine all the ways the earth could have been and what it is and what (a much sadder thought, usually) it will become.  I have been known to stand on the top of a hill, closing my eyes, trying to somehow commune with the wafting ghosts of the past.  I do the same thing in urban locations, for cities are landscapes, too.  Kenzie is connected to the stories southern Spain holds. Estela, Esteban, Miguel, and the gypsies make sure that she is.  Those long dusty roads are not just earth.  They are all the places people went, and all the places they stopped going.
KTE: What does landscape mean for Kenzie?

BK: Southern Spain is, for Kenzie, so many things.  At first it is exile—the place where she is forced to go by a mother who will have nothing to do with her pregnancy.  It is loneliness, it is too much distance, it is everything she doesn’t want.  

But soon southern Spain is teaching her—about other people’s histories and heartaches, about a mysterious young man, about the dreams that are forged in foreign forests, among unusual birds.  Southern Spain releases Kenzie from the myopia of her own troubles.  It gives her perspective, new sun, new distances to travel.  By dislodging Kenzie from her self-centric worries, southern Spain gives her hope and wisdom and, magnificently, color.
KTE: What does landscape, in general, mean for you?
BK: Landscape roots me, and at the same time it surprises me.  I walk the same terrain every afternoon, my neighborhood, and love the familiarity but love, too, the unexpected things (a giant turtle, a snake!).  
KTE: I feel exactly the same thing! I run the same terrain every week, on a river trail near my house, and I can’t ever get over the incredible feeling of familiarity and surprise that it always brings me.  There is something powerful about ritual as it relates to landscape.  If you spend enough time SOMEWHERE you both become a part of it and see it anew.  Do you have any other thoughts about that?  Do you feel that this experience (this kind of ritual) is part of the process of coming to know self?  
BK: When you are first entering into a new place, its strangeness is rich and wonderful; that’s when I take the best photographs.  I have a sensual relationship, an ecstatic relationship, an I’ll never capture it all sensation.  But then, in time, something else happens.  I would suggest that what happens relates to a sense of belonging.  When we belong somewhere, we can slow down, take note of receding details, stand there and watch the shadows without having to snatch up the exotica.  Time within a landscape yields a depth of understanding—of the place and of ourselves.  
I travel just to see how the world folds and blends in other places.  Landscape answers so much that is curious in me and about me.  It is the inspiration for my photographs, and for so many books.
KTE: Oh thank you Beth, for all of this!  I could ask you so many more questions on this topic alone, but I will stop here…and offer this instead: a photo montage of images that inspired Small Damages. Beth took the photos (as well as all of the photos here) and her husband played the music. See and listen.

Gratefully yours,

Small Damages, Beth Kephart’s fourteenth book, received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Shelf Awareness and Kirkus and a featured review in the New York Times Book Review. In 2013, Handling the Truth, her book about the making of memoir and its consequences, will be released by Gotham, and in early 2014, Philomel will release a new novel set against the Berlin Wall in 1983.  Her blog, twice nominated as a favorite author blog by the BBAW, can be found here. Beth teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania.


Kissing the Earth: The Landscape of Home Away From Home

From: Kissing the Earth
July 26, 2012 at 12:01AM

I’ve just returned to San Francisco after spending an amazing five days with some of my dearest writer friends at the VCFA alumni weekend and then a delightful time in New York visiting my younger daughter Zoe who is working and interning for the summer in Manhattan before returning for her senior year at Sarah Lawrence.
For me, travel seems to open my heart and mind to other lives while expanding my sense of potential and possibility. I always love imagining myself, another version of myself, living in the places I visit. The contrast from Montpelier, Vermont to New York City stretches to both ends of the spectrum from my life in San Francisco, allowing me to construct two very different imaginary lives over the period of ten days!
Something I always do when I’m away from home, is to find ‘my house’—the house where I would, in my imaginary life, reside. I have virtual parallel lives and houses on several continents; a house in Buenos Aires, a house in Santa Fe, a house in Paris. My house in Montpelier is a charmingly tiny brick coach house, not much bigger than a child’s playhouse, where I could imagine myself as a quirky, arty spinster inviting my favorite writers to tea and making dolls to hand out as muses.
I discovered my favorite house (where the imagined famous writer version of myself lives and writes sweeping best seller sagas whispered to me by the ghosts who walk the moors) while on a family vacation driving through Dartmoor. We were in search of a Celtic stone circle from a postcard I’d purchased in Moretonhamstaed, driving, windows down, listening to the wind hush through the trees. Dragonflies zipped and hovered over grazing moor-ponies and sheep.  

And then there it was—the stone house that I silently but immediately recognized as my house. Time passed as we continued down the narrow road, until my husband turned to me and said, “Wasn’t that ‘your house?’”
“Yes!” I said. “It was!” He made a wide u-turn in the middle of the road, circling back. When I got out to take a photo, the owner came out and told us all about the house—how he and his wife and children were there on sabbatical—she was an architect, he a historian. He seemed very open to having my imaginary self move in when they went back to London the next year.
Now, if this all sounds pretty indulgent, consider the value of the exercise for housing fictional characters. We all have to live someplace, whether in real life, imaginary life or in fiction and sometimes the boundaries are thinner than you might think.
Take Good Care,


Kissing the Earth: Landscape and Joy Harjo

From: Kissing the Earth
July 19, 2012 at 02:36PM

Just a poem today, by one of my favorite poets.  I just spent a weekend with my dearest friends at beautiful Vermont College…they teach me again and again to open my whole self up.

Here’s to all of us opening, opening, opening…


Eagle Poem
by Joy Harjo

To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
And know there is more
That you can’t see, can’t hear;
Can’t know except in moments
Steadly growing, and in languages
That aren’t always sound but other
Circles of motion.
Like eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky
In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings.
We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the utmost care
And kindness in all things.
Breathe in, knowing we are made of
All this, and breathe, knowing
We are truly blessed because we
Were born, and die soon within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning
Inside us.
We pray that it will be done
In beauty.
In beauty.

Kissing the Earth: Thoughts on Urban Gardening

From: Kissing the Earth
July 12, 2012 at 12:01AM

 Reading Tam’s June twenty-eighth post, The Landscape of Root, inspired me to get out in my own tiny urban garden, to scrub out the birdbath, thin the heavenly scented rose geranium and coax the climbing hydrangea to grab hold of the scrim it’s meant to cover. 

Shaded by multi-story houses on three sides and a tall fence on the other, my little garden will only tolerate low light natives, although the small potted citrus tree has bravely endured the lack of light, with a single orange that has been growing slow and steady for the past 18 months—now nearly two inches in diameter! I praise its efforts and do not openly compare it to the more prolific members of its kind. (I know how disheartening that can be!)
In San Francisco, where houses stand shoulder to shoulder with little more than a few inches in between, and tiny backyards are shaded by surrounding buildings, people have learned to be innovative; some try container gardening, others have planted vertical wall gardens. But many have turned to community gardens to grow their flowers, veggies and herbs. There are over forty community gardens in the city, accommodating anywhere from six to a hundred twenty-five gardeners.

The community garden in upper Fort Mason is one of the largest and most abundant; here gardeners grow everything from roses to dahlias, apples to lemons, artichokes to pumpkins. The wait list is years long for a plot.

My husband David (who has never taken any previous interest in gardening) had a sudden hankering to grow some vegetables last month. He went out and got a twelve inch pot, a bag of dirt and six two inch Kentucky Wonder Bean starts, and set them up in the sunny corner of our kitchen. 

In the past month, the story of Jack and The Beanstalk has moved from folktale to non-fiction, with the plants now towering well over eight feet tall and the leaves the size of elephant ears. Well, baby elephant ears, anyway. It’s quite astonishing. A recent visitor mentioned the issue of pollination; we worried but then learned that beans are self-pollinating, so we will not need to bring bees into the house.

Some years ago when visiting a friend’s parents in a small rural town in Switzerland, where everyone has at least an acre-sized yard filled with flowers and vegetables, I commented on how surprised I was to see a huge community garden on the edge of town. I was told it was for city people who would make the hour drive from Basel to dig in the soil and tend their plants. Turns out, it’s a common practice in Switzerland; you can buy a tiny plot, big enough to construct one or two raised beds and a small shed that for many, not only house trowels and hoes, but a cot and a hot plate, so the gardener can spend the night. I love the idea of urbanites driving to the suburbs to work and sleep in their gardens. Someone even built a bee chapel on their plot—a tiny hive-filled church with mail-slot sized windows for the bees to come and go.
As Nature Deficit Syndrome becomes more of a recognized issue for urban children, parents and educators are pressing for school gardens. Once the privileged domain of private schools with expandable budgets, many public schools in San Francisco are now finding ways to make space and fund a school garden. Arden Bucklin-Sporer and Rachel Pringle have written a fantastic book, How To Grow a School Garden, that will tell you everything you need to know from why to how, including ideas for fund-raising. Check out what School Garden Weekly has to say about it:

Gardens and gardening have been used as life metaphors for centuries. When Voltaire said, ‘We must cultivate our garden,’ we understand that he was talking about more than tomato plants. May Sarton is quoted as saying, ‘A garden is always a series of losses set against a few triumphs, like life itself.’ Osho, said, ‘Life is a garden. It is an opportunity. You can grow weeds, you can grow roses; it all depends on you.’ And it was Abraham Lincoln who said, ‘You can complain because rose bushes have thorns or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.’
There are also many apt garden metaphors for the writing life, where the writer can be seen as both garden and gardener. We must plant seeds through contemplation, experience and research, we must dig deep in ourselves for our seeds to take root, we must nourish ourselves with reading, classes, and community, we must devotedly tend the seeds we plant with our focused time, protecting them from too much exposure early on and we must thin out and continually weed in order for our creation to blossom and come to full maturity.
I will leave you with a blessing from Thich Nhat Hanh;
May our heart’s garden of awakening bloom with hundreds of flowers.
Take Good Care, 

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