Grief, Like a Woman

Grief, Like a Woman.jpg

My friend died yesterday.

Now I find myself in the kitchen, ready to bake an apple pie to bring up to her family, which includes her husband, homebound with a debilitating disease.  My tiny and slight friend had cancer, and in spite of dealing with that and caring for her husband, she’d been in a good place.  A few weeks ago, she threw a party to thank all her women friends who gathered around her during the last year, driven her to appointments, brought food, and created a web of support during this challenging time. She called the party, So Far, So Good.

The apples I’ll use are the ones my husband and I gathered from the heritage apple trees at a local land preserve.  My friend served on the local land trust with my husband, and loved this particular preserve.  My husband called her the “welcome naysayer”  on the board.  That’s the kind of person she was: she saw things clearly, and wasn’t afraid to say so.

 I pull out the pie plate, gather the flour and butter.  Then I notice the stovetop is dirty, so I clean it.  The rings around the burners are spotted with black, so I remove them, and tackle them.  As I replace them, the stainless steel teapot, covered in a film of grease, catches my eye.  I never clean it.  Now I scour it until it shines.  I remember when we had to put down Abby, our first Springer Spaniel.  The vet was kind enough to come here.  It happened so quickly, they go so quickly, you know, once that needle goes in, they’re gone.  And then they took her away, zipped in a black bag.  My husband left for work, and I was suddenly alone.  I called a friend, crying, “I don’t know what to do.  She said, “Clean out a closet.”  And somehow it helped.

So I finish the stove, then tackle the sink and the dish drainer.  Grief, like all strong emotions, carries a physical energy. As my hands move from one task to the next, I think about all the women who cleaned through their grief.  I think about my mother, who was a cleaning fanatic, and how much grief and loss she may have cleaned through.  Not just the grief of death, but the grief of life itself, the grief of loss and disappointment, of needs unmet and wishes unfulfilled.

Last night I woke up in the middle of the night and for a moment experienced the utter blackness of how death might feel.  I wondered how it was for my friend, in those final moments. I hope she went quickly. 

She’d become so thin.  She was small and slim to begin with, but chemo had worked her down to bones.  When you hugged her, there was nothing to hug, no padding on her skeleton.  But she glowed.  During her last year she grabbed onto life tighter than ever, she appreciated everything. The sickness brought her a radiance that I hadn’t seen in the few years I’d known her.

The cleaning calms me.  I can bake the pie now. My husband will clean and peel the apples we picked.  I will fill that pie with all the love and compassion I can.  As I make it, I will think of my friend.  I will remember her tiny hands that could do anything: knit, sew, garden, edit.  She was both an editor and writer, had a meticulous mind able to deal with intricate detail with an envious ease. She designed her own knitting patterns, edited cookbooks, knit and sewed for the Muppets. When one of us had a problem with our knitting project, she would say, here, let me, and fix it in a flash.  She was a wizard that way, a wizard with her hands.

She was elegant, savvy, and private.  Until she became sick a year ago, she took care of her husband single-handedly.  She had a wide circle of interesting and intelligent friends.  Last summer, I helped her clean out the garage in the house she had just sold.  Later, we drove over to her friend’s house to see the gardens.  

In the car afterwards, I commented on the friend’s high energy and the lovely design of the gardens.  “She’s one of us,” my friend said, and although I didn’t know exactly what membership in that club meant, I was content to be considered worthy of inclusion.

Things Fall Away

We streamed into Ozawa Hall as the summer evening cooled and the sun lowered behind the lush lawns of Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts. The wood-lined, shoe-boxed shaped hall, designed for prime acoustics, reminded me of a ship, and the audience members passengers embarking together.  My friend and I sat alone in our row on the first balcony, hovering over the stage. As the ushers closed the doors, we faced the front of the vessel and waited for our captain to arrive.

Cropped Ozawa Hall.jpg

        Pianist Garrick Ohlsson walked onstage, tall and substantial, dressed in a white tux jacket and black pants.  Described by reviewers as “a gentle giant in the service of Chopin,” Ohlsson’s reputation as one of the finest Chopin interpreters began in 1970 when he won the Gold Medal at the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, the only American pianist to ever do so. 

An Odd Coupling

        For this performance, the last in his season as 2017 Koussevitsky Artist, Mr. Ohlsson chose a solo program of Shubert and Scriabin, one he described in the program notes as an “odd coupling.”  He found a thread between the two geniuses in the imagined career of Shubert if he had lived past thirty-two.  

            A pair of Shubert sonatas bookended the program, as they bookended the last five years of Shubert’s life.  Diagnosed with syphilis in 1823, he died of the disease, likely compounded by typhus, in 1828.  These two sonatas express the beauty and anguish of his personal battle. The handful of Scriabin selections, some quite a bit more than a handful for any pianist, included etudes, a prelude, a tone poem, and the roller coaster ride of his Fifth Sonata.  Placed between the Schubert, they proved to be a perfect counter point, opening a door to the musical future that the composer never lived to see, nor exert his significant influence on.

            From our seats we couldn’t see Mr. Ohlsson’s fingers on the keys, but better yet, we could clearly see his long, kind face.  More than once during the recital, he looked right at us.   Between one of the pieces, my friend whispered, “I feel like we’re his muses, as if our attention matters.”  We felt within his circle of energy, if you can imagine one radiating from a musician of both greatness and humility, one whose powerful stage presence is the result of a long and successful career, a sweeping knowledge of the piano repertoire, and a transparent access to the emotional depth of the music he plays arising from his strength of spirit and intellect.  His arc was wide and generous, fueled by his gift for penetrating, gently, of course, our emotional defenses.  He calmly guided us to a place on the night ocean where one can lose sight of the familiar shore, a place where music can meet soul.

Garrick Ohlsson.jpg

The Program

          The first Schubert sonata, No. 14 in A minor, expressed the composer’s torment when first diagnosed with syphilis, a terminal diagnosis at the time. Being Schubert, he could not help but offset the disruptive quality of the music with gorgeous melodies woven throughout all three movements, as if he was calling to him the beauty of life before he would leave it.  This is most present in the third movement, where the melodies are interrupted again and again with disturbances in both tempo and tone.  

           The Scriabin set spanned much of the composer’s artistic life.  The pieces moved from the wandering dissonance of "Etude Opus 65, No. 1," to the jazzy, rhythmic flavor of "Etude Opus 8, No. 10."  "Prelude, Opus 59, No. 2," marked “Savage, Belligerent,” lived up to its name.  The painterly dreaminess of "Poème, Opus 32, No.1," was followed by the hair-raising ride of Sonata No. 5, Opus 53, which closed the set and left the audience ebullient in their appreciation of Mr. Ohlsson.  Schubert’s last Sonata, No. 20, filled the second half, showcasing in four varied movements Schubert’s talents for lyricism, structure, harmonies, and counterpoint, as well as foretelling the direction toward modernism he would have taken if he had lived.  Three curtain calls brought us three encores of short Scriabin etudes.

           I closed my eyes--I wasn’t always serving as muse, after all--and sank into the music.  Infusions of sound and vibration entered my body at what felt like the cellular level. A thought crystallized in my mind: things fall way.  I wasn’t thinking about Schubert at that moment. I wasn’t actually thinking about anything. I experienced a sense of release, as if locked-in patterns of emotional imprisonment were dropping.  The image of four walls collapsing outward, as in a magic act, rose in my mind. This brought a deep, mysterious healing, one I cannot articulate or grasp the effect of, and left me with the sensation of being filled up, and lighter. 

          I remember my piano teacher Maria Cizyk telling me about an audience member who sought her out after a performance to thank her.  The woman said, “As I listened to you play, something inside me healed, something I didn’t know needed healing.”  In Ozawa Hall, I understood what she meant.

A Distant Shore

          That night in Ozawa Hall we were passengers on a journey, guided by our trusted captain.  Our price of admission was the willingness to be transported to an unknown place, to lose sight of recognized lands, and to allow unneeded things to fall away.  Under the sure hand of Mr. Ohlsson, we arrived at the unseen shore, different people than when we set out.

Ohlsson Shubert Twood 2017.jpg

Cupid, King of Cats


1997 - 2008


Most pet owners can tell you about their once-in-a-lifetime pet.  Ours was named Cupid.

He came to us as a five-month-old street cat.  Wild in spirit, with an intelligence that rivaled a human's, he was loaded with personality, good looks, and a sleek muscular body that allowed him to bat tennis balls over a net, leap from the kitchen floor to the top of the cupboard, and survive being hit by a car. 

I could go on, but I won't.  Leave it to say that for eleven years we savored his magnificence in physical form, and then one day he was gone.  He disappeared on a Friday evening late in October 2008, slipping out the back door, off on one of his nightly jaunts.  On Sunday afternoon a neighbor found him in his side yard. We're not sure what happened, but we suspect an attack from an owl or hawk.  We buried him on our property.

And have never forgotten him.  

Click here for my video (1:35) dedicated to Cupid.

And for a little black humor on the original Valentine cherub, check out this original song called Cupid (2:08) written by my husband, Doug Mahard, which appears on his  latest CD Fidel Castro's Favorite Band.


The Women's March 2017

We left our homes at midnight Friday night to meet up with fellow travelers.  By 1:30 a.m. we  boarded one of 80 buses leaving Connecticut.  We rode through the night to arrive at RFK stadium in Washington, D.C. before dawn. We walked two miles to the march. By the end of the day, we clocked nine miles on our feet.   The crowds were tremendous, the numbers so much greater than the organizers expected.  Two hundred thousand were anticipated; by the end of the day, the number was reported to be over a million in Washington alone, with several million around the world.  A sea of pink pussy hats filled the eye in every direction, along with creative and provocative handmade signs.

This is what democracy looks like:

And this:

Women's March 1/21/17 Washington, D.C. 

Photos from around the globe (NYT)

I have never been in the midst of so many people, nor felt so much like a sardine as our group of six squeezed through the crowd to reach a spot where we could see and hear the rally projected onto a jumbotron.  Yet, in spite of being mildy claustrophobic, I never felt afraid or threatened.  

And this is what free speech sounds like (click on names for links to YouTube):

Feminist activist  and icon Gloria Steinem called it an outpouring of democracy that she has never seen before.

California junior senatorKamala Harrisconnected women's issues to human issues.

Filmmaker and activist Michael Moore gave us our to-do list for activism.

Civil rights activist Angela Davis spoke eloquently about social justice and inclusive feminism.

Actor and activist Ashley Judd electrified the audience with a bodacious performance of  the poem "Nasty Women," written by a 17-year old feminist from her home state of Tennessee.

The rally continued for five hours, two hours longer than planned.  By hour four, we were all tired.  The chant to "March, March, March" had begun.  We were packed together so tightly that people around us were having panic attacks.  The crowd made room somehow as friends helped them move to a safe space, which in our case was the CNN van parked on the corner. I maintained my calm by practicing yoga breathing.  My friend told me later she used her Lamaze breathing techniques to keep her cool.

Finally a volunteer marshal appeared and directed us to turn around so we could march a different route.  We shuffled down the street and the march began.  Then, at last, we had a chance to sit.

After a long trudge back to the bus, and a wearying ride back north, I walked in the door twenty-seven hours after I left.  I felt inspired, energized and, exhausted.  The experience of being among that many who share your outrage and disbelief as well as your values is deep and profound, both comforting and energizing

All the speakers emphasized that this march was the beginning, that we all needed to go home and become active in our communities.  A few weeks ago I tweeted: "Am I REALLY going to have to call my senators every day for the next four years?" It appears the answer is yes.

I stopped crying three days after the election. I decided I would not sit by and do nothing. The change that had occurred was huge and scary, unlike anything I'd seen in six decades. The antidote for feeling powerless is action.  I signed up for the Women's March as soon as I heard about it.  

On the day after the inauguration, something bigger than the election happened.  People all over the country, all over the world, made a statement that cannot be ignored.  As Gloria Steinem said to the marchers, "You are putting your bodies where your beliefs are.  Sometimes it's not enough to hit the Send button."

Women's rights are human rights.  It's up to each one of us who believes this is true to take whatever steps we can to ensure the progress that has been secured is protected, and that further progress toward an equitable society is established.

Which means we have to get to work.  Progressive change has never happened without a fight.  Sometimes a very long fight.  

Because that is what democracy looks like.

>>> Want to know what you can do?  The Women's March website is one place to begin.  Find it here.

>>> And check out Indivisible for a practical guide, written by former congressional staffers, for resisting the Trump agenda.

The Phrase That Did It

In the midst of grappling with the final revision of my novel, long in the making and even longer in the rewriting, I turned desperately to an inspiring read.  I asked myself, what character remains with me, after years of reading?  The unforgettable character that sprang to mind was Fenno, from the middle story of Julia Glass’s 2002 National Book Award winner, Three Junes.


I turned to this section as a way of immersing myself not only in wonderful (understatement) writing, but to revisit this complicated character.  I remember disliking him intensely on my first read, then slowly turning in my affection until, by the end, I loved him.  When I went back to reread, I wondered what I had found so objectionable in Fenno the first time round.  Yes, he was flawed, fallible, tripping himself up, but certainly not hateworthy.  Perhaps it is the fourteen years that have passed since my first reading that make me a more compassionate reader.

When I reached the end, the crowning sentence (spoiler alert--if you haven’t read this novel stop reading my blog and go directly to your indie bookstore to purchase a copy)--I  wept the way you do when you lose someone.  I cried when his friend Mal died, but it was later, in the scene when Fenno is in the attic of his childhood home with his niece, after he has agreed to an unthinkable sacrifice in order bring happiness to his beloved sister-in-law, it is there that Glass slips in the clincher, the sentence that brought me to grief.

In this scene Fenno is thinking about his New York apartment, directly across the street from where Mal lived and died, and where he now watches the new tenant arrive home late.

“If I look out my front windows, stare right across the street, I sometimes see a young woman.  I think she works long hours, as she is rarely there, coming home after dark in conservative, mannish suits.  When she turns on her lights, I see a poster of orchids where Mal put his Chinese carpet.  That carpet through that window, on that night of sleeplessness we shared before we even met, was my first glimpse of a life I might have shared, a love I managed to lose without knowing it was mine.” (Three Junes, p. 264)

I felt overwhelmed by this sentence.  It contained the culmination of Fenno’s self-realization, encompassing our human folly.  How we try so hard to be good, to be aware, to do the right thing, but we cannot see for our own blindness what we are doing or not doing, what we are missing out on. How life is right there in front of us, the blue jay splashing in my birdbath in the golden afternoon light, the wonder in the eyes of the toddlers in my music class, the sweet gesture of my friend who always stands by her door and waves as I drive off, and how I do not see it, how it doesn’t always register, how I can be oblivious.

What I realized is that this why I write fiction: so I can see what it is I don’t always see in myself and my life.

Fiction, in the hands of a skilled and committed author, gives us an opportunity to understand and know a character in a way we can’t know another person. And for anyone who craves understanding, this feels like heaven.

I remember reading a spiritual book, the title now lost to the river of forgetfulness, whose premise was that our wound is our gift.  In other words, whatever it is we think we have suffered, whatever it is we think we haven’t received from life, that is the thing we need to give to the world. So if I feel misunderstood, not seen or fully appreciated, then it is my task to do that for others, to give them what would feel the most luxurious and comforting to me: the gift of being seen, appreciated, recognized.  And by doing this I can heal, or at the least, turn my pain into something useful to the world.

And I’m here to say it actually works.

The fabulous Ann Patchett says that she writes the book she wants to read.  From my corner, it appears I write the stories I need to read.  I can only hope my readers feel the same way.

I Had to Watch

The New York Times recently posted this three-minute video which contains  a compilation of recordings from Trump rallies. (Reader be warned: this is not easy to watch.)

Unfiltered Voices from Donald Trump Crowds

I made myself watch it.  The Trump phenomenon is disturbing to me.   I have a hard time viewing videos of the candidate, let alone his unrestrained jeering crowds.   As a citizen I've never seen anything like the spectacle of Trump's triumphant and unlikely march to presidential nominee.

And as person who is committed to a decades-long avocation of spiritual growth, I needed to know if my personal beliefs could hold up to the vitriol I witness in the campaign, expressed both by the candidate and his supporters. My baseline belief is that, on the ultimate, mysterious level beyond the knowing of both scientists and theologians, we are all one.  If I am "one with everything," can I be one with Trump supporters, too?

As I watched the video again, three things struck me:

1/ The strong language used by the Trump supporters, such as:

F**k Islam - on a man whose t-shirt caused him to be ejected from a rally

F**k that "n word' - about Obama

As upsetting as these are, the worst are three chants about Hillary:

Unsettling: "Hillary is a whore:

Disturbing: "Hang the bitch"

Chilling: "Kill her"

Can I relate to any to these?  I have known anger, even rage.  I've said the words, "I could kill her," but it's been a long time since I've uttered that phrase.  The only time my father slapped me was when at age nine  I shouted at my mother "I hate you."  I learned an early lesson on the power of those words.

2/ The cathartic glee in the expression the young man repeating "F**k political correctness"  outside a rally.  He looked so happy to finally be able to say, shout actually, what he had been thinking, out in public, in the sunshine of acceptance.

As a writer and musician, I understand the delight in being able to express myself freely. It is exhilarating to speak my authentic truth, and to be heard.  I know how that feels. Can I find a commonality in this man's happiness?

3/ The older gentleman at the end (2:51), who says:

"He's the last candidate to preserve law and order and to preserve the culture I grew up in."

This was the poignant moment, the one that gave me a glimpse of what may be driving support for the unfathomable choice of Trump. Perhaps supporters are yearning for a past that cannot exist again, or didn't  exist at all.  Perhaps the inevitability of change is just too hard to come to terms with.  I've heard many spiritual teachers say: Change is hard, especially when resisted.

Can I gaze with neutrality upon these people, their reactions, their anger, their frustration, their willingness to follow, in what seems a blind fashion, someone who I consider not only mentally unstable (see these two links below for more on that) but downright dangerous to our country?

The Mind of Donald Trump (The Atlantic)

Could Donald Trump Pass a Sanity Test? (Vanity Fair)

What I'm trying to reconcile is this:  if we are all one, then what I am seeing in this video is also in me, and I am looking at my shadow.  I am capable of these feelings, too.  If all I do is push it away and refuse to look at it, or allow it to widen the gap between  Trump supporters and myself, then aren't I perpetuating the divisiveness that Trump is touting? Isn't that the same attitude that has led the human race to a history of war, rape, and violence against "the other"?

If I believe in a different future for this world, if I still carry hope for the evolution of our species to a more peaceful, harmonious coexistence, then I cannot avert my eyes.

Best Springtime Pie: Lemon Sour Cream

I was in the mood for pie, but with no local fruit available yet, I was stymied. Craving a fresh, clean taste, I thought of lemon, but knew I didn’t want lemon meringue.  A Google search led me to one of the best pies I’ve ever had: Lemon Sour Cream Pie.

Its charms: easy, tangy with sufficient sweetness, and a hit with everyone, including a 1-1/2-year-old.  With a soothing mouth-feel, it’s the perfect dessert after a spicy meal.  We had it after Indian food, which we had eaten shamelessly, but as our dinner companion mentioned, “there’s a separate stomach for pie, right?”  The balance of lightness, richness, and clean taste make it a winner anytime.  I only wish I had come up with the recipe!

The recipe comes from a blog called Inside NanaBreads Head.  The link is below the photo.

Lemon Sour Cream Pie - My Slice - Inside NanaBread's Head
Lemon Sour Cream Pie - My Slice - Inside NanaBread's Head

Lemon Sour Cream Pie

It requires a pre-baked pie shell.  I followed the instructions in Essentials of Baking, a Williams Sonoma cookbook, which has excellent dessert recipes as well as sections on baking basics with clear explanations and accompanying photographs.

1/ Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Line your pie crust (click on the link for my all-butter crust recipe) with a heavy-duty foil.  Fill the foil-lined crust with dried beans, uncooked rice, or pie weights.  (I’ve tried dried beans and the rice, and both work fine.  I store them for future use.)

2/ Bake the lined crust until it dries out, about 15 minutes.  Check by pulling up one corner of the foil.  If it sticks, it’s not dry enough yet.  Return to the oven and check every 2 minutes. Once dry enough, carefully remove the beans/rice/weights and the foil by gathering the foil edges toward the center and pulling up and out. (Have a heat-proof bowl or pan ready to deliver the foil package to.  It’s hot!)  Reduce oven to 350 degrees.

3/ Continue to bake until the entire crust is golden brown, about 10 minutes longer.  Let cool on a wire rack.

As the pie crust cooled, I made the pie filling, allowed it to cool completely (an important step, so be sure to leave enough time).  Once the pie is assembled, it should be refrigerated at least two hours.

I topped the pie with homemade whipped cream.  I did not try the raspberry jam layer, a variation suggested in the recipe, because the custard was so delicious I didn’t think it needed it.

Homemade whipped cream:

One pint (16 ounces) of heavy cream

Sweetener: maple syrup or agave syrup (I prefer liquid sweetener)

Vanilla – about a teaspoon

Whipped cream is made purely by instinct.  Let’s face it: you can’t go wrong.

Freeze the mixer bowl and beater. If you have a whisk style beater, use that.  Pour the cream into the cold bowl and put the mixer on the nearest to high setting. (On my KitchenAid, I set it on 8.)  You can also whip the cream by hand. While the cream is whipping, pour a thin stream of maple syrup or agave into the cream.  Then add the vanilla. Whip until peaks form.  If you whip too long, and the cream starts to “churn”, add a little milk and it will return to peaks.

Spread on the pie just before serving, or spoon dollops on individual pieces.  Prepare to be popular.

The Secret Musicians Know That Can Help Writers

I am grateful that I came to writing after years spent as a practicing musician, where I learned perspectives that make my writing life easier, and I came to understand the core secret behind any creative endeavor. First, the perspectives.

1/Practicing is an act of faith

When I grew frustrated in my piano lessons with Maria, one of my most important teachers, she would say that sitting down every day at the piano is an act of faith.  Some days it goes well, my hands feel great, the phrases come together with ease, and I can stay at my instrument for long stretches without feeling distracted.

Other days, I look down at my hands and wonder who they belong to.

On those days, my fingers feel stiff, I'm fighting the piano, my mind drifts off, and the music seems boring.  But I stay anyway.  I've been in this place before and know that tomorrow, or the next day, or perhaps next week, I will feel connected and fulfilled.  I know that the music will eventually yield to the repeated application of hard work and diligence.

And that if I stop, the ground will be steeper when I return.

2/ Daily time is a necessity

I often tell my piano students, "Even concert pianists practice every single day."  Cellist Pablo Casals said he had to find the E  in first position on the cello daily, a simple task that beginners face.

The difference between writing and playing an instrument is that I write every day for many different reasons, so it is easy to lull myself into complacency because I don't feel a physical disconnection from paper and pen, the way I do from the piano, or cello.  For writing, it's the connection between my hand and brain that needs to be sustained; the connection to my characters and my story that benefits from the consistent attention.  I want to stoke that sense of living in my characters' heads, of hearing their voices, of watching them come alive on the page. They will sulk in the corner if I ignore them, and the music I'm working on does the same thing.

Yes, life sometimes interferes, and I miss a day of practice or writing, but I never think about stopping.  In fact I become irritable when I cannot get to the writing, and the playing.  It's a physical craving that is only soothed by engagement with my art.  I come back to the instrument and the writing, and start again

In my studio I have an engraved stone sitting on the piano.  When a student comes to a lesson ill-prepared because of a skimpy--or non-existent-- practice week, I pick it up to remind them: Begin Again.

Begin Again
Begin Again

3/ The beauty is in the details

Once I learn the basics of playing a piece of music, i.e., the notes, rhythm, fingering, then the music making begins: working out the phrases, refining the sound, working on technique to create the sound "image" that's in my head, experimenting with the dynamics, grasping the inner story and emotions of the piece.

It's the same with writing. Every sentence, every word, is crafted until there is nothing that stops the flow of the words.  I don't know who first said "Writing is revision" because I've heard it so many times, but it is true.  When I came to writing, I never had a problem with this because I know how long it takes to polish a piece before it's "performance ready".  The repetitions required to master a piece of music are like "piling hairs", another teacher told me.  At first the difference is imperceptible, but eventually it adds up.

Bottom line: a first draft is the starting point, not the finish line, just as the first run-through of a piece is the beginning of the journey, not the destination.

4/ The commitment is to something bigger

My teacher Maria once performed the four Chopin Ballades by memory. For those not familiar with piano repertoire, rest assured this is quite a feat.  After the concert, an audience member came up to her, score in hand, and pointed out a few measures where she had missed notes.  I would have been furious.  All she said was, "It just shows us that the music is greater than us."

Whenever I open a new piece of music, I think about the thousands of players who have done the same thing, who learned and performed these notes in front of me. I sense the presence of a long line of people behind me who have learned and loved this piece.  With my writing, too, I am participating in an act that others before me have, as well as others that will follow me.  It gives me a sense of belonging to something greater, a sense of being part of a larger, unseen community of seekers of self-expression and beauty.

When I participate in making art of any kind, I belong to a greater community.

And the secret: Making art is, in the end, an act of devotion.  I give myself over to the mystery.  The commitment is not just to the page, or to the music, but ultimately, to my connection to that sustaining power.

I honor that commitment because I know it's the only path to the treasure.

Blog Interview by Jack Sheedy

Hello readers. What fun to be interviewed by Jack Sheedy, award-winning journalist and author of the engaging memoir Sting of the Heat Bug. I've known Jack, and his wife, poet, editor, and journalist Jean Sands, ever since I started writing seriously almost 15 years ago. In fact, it was Jean who started me writing in the first place. I have many happy memories of the now sadly defunct Shepaug River Writers Group. Click here to read the interview on Jack's blog, where I talk about writing March Farm: Season by Season on a Connecticut Family Farm, as well as my writing life, music and, of course, pies sneak in, too.


And be sure to check out Jack's book. Using crisp, witty, and moving language, Jack recounts growing up in Litchfield County in the post WWII era.  At the heart of the story is the love between Jack and his sister, Peggy. If you want to read the sterling reviews, here's the Amazon link. You will laugh and cry when you read this beautiful book.

Sting of the Heat Bug


Music , Beauty, and a Short List of Quotes

  Studio Wreath 2014

Music is a wide and wonderful world and there is room for everyone in it.

This is what I tell my students, and this has been my experience in teaching students aged from eighteen months to over seventy.  Whether you play an instrument, peck out a melody on the piano, sing in the shower, rock out in your car, attend concerts, listen to opera, chant in yoga class, or tap your foot while others are on the dance floor, music is a way for us to tune into something universal, something larger than ourselves, something that uplifts us and connects us to each other.

I teach music because I'm in love with beauty and seeking out beauty brings me closer to a sense of the infinite.  I believe in the power of music.  It's good for the brain, the body, the heart, and the spirit.  No moment engaged with music is ever wasted.

Here's a short list of quotes on music's power and mystery.

1. "To be a musician is a curse.  To not be one is even worse." -Jack Daney, Jazz Trumpeter  (from The Late Starters Orchestra by Ari L. Goldman - excellent insight on the challenges adults face when taking on musical study:  click here for a link to the book)

2. "Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything." - Plato

3. "Music speaks to what cannot be expressed, soothes the mind and gives it rest, heals the heart and makes it whole, flows from heaven to the soul." - Author unknown

4. "Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces insides our hearts and souls and helping us figure out a the position of things inside us." - Karl Paulnack (from Welcome Address to Boston Conservatory, an inspiring speech.  Read full address here.

5. "There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats." - Albert Schweitzer -  (found in The Nature of Music: Beauty, Sound, and Healing by Maureen McCarthy Draper - a wonderful book, full of ideas on how to integrate music into your daily life, with companion CDs.  Click here for link to the book.)

Pie for Breakfast, Yes We Can

Thanksgiving is not complete without pie.  In fact, I think it's the best part of the day.  Move over turkey, move over mashed potatoes: nothing rounds out the meal like pie.

Our friends, the Hunts, host a marvelous pie feast every year: Pie Breakfast on Thanksgiving morning.  They provide the whipped cream, coffee, and hospitality, and everyone brings a pie.  Savory, sweet, pumpkin, apple, sweet potato, quiche.  It's just heaven.  Pies are served, coffee drunk, the room is filled with talk and laughter, a little piano music drifts through the air from the spinet in the corner.  The atmosphere is relaxed and cozy.  Legend holds that it's a New England tradition, this pie breakfast.

Pie Breakfast 1



Pie Breakfast 3                                  Pecan Pie                                                Pie Breakfast 2

 Pie for breakfast, you say?  Are only New Englanders in on this?

"Pie has never been more loved than in nineteenth-century America, where it was not simply dessert but also a normal part of breakfast. The food writer Evan Jones quotes a contemporary observer as noting that in northern New England, 'all the hill and country towns were full of women who would be mortified if visitors caught them without pie in the house,' and that the absence of pie at breakfast 'was more noticeable than the scarcity of the Bible.'"  (From The Great American Pie Expedition, an essay in Sue Hubbell's book From Here to There and Back Again)

A tradition that needs to be revisited.  We're doing our best here in the northwest corner of Connecticut to keep it alive.

Pie Breakfast Napkin










Silence, Please

 St. Michael's Episcopal Church, Litchfield, Connecticut

St. Michael's Episcopal Church

Litchfield, Connecticut

Recently I attended an evening service - a  compline - at St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Litchfield, Connecticut. A compline is the final church service of the day, in the Christian tradition of canonical hours.

It was dark and rainy that night, so I left home earlier than usual, planning to meet my friend.  When I arrived, I entered the church through narthex (foyer), framed by two sets of wooden doors with cast iron latches.  People coming in behind me spoke quietly, or not at all.

Inside the sanctuary, stone pillars marched up the side aisles, offset by a vaulted ceiling. Along the pews stood candles on tall candlesticks, leading my eye to the front of the church, where a large, round stained glass window drew me in.  The Gothic design of the window filled the space with its symmetrical intricacies.  I sat down on a cushioned bench along the rear wall and waited for my friend, happy to have a moment to absorb the beauty and hush of this place.

No one spoke.  The silence filled me with a spacious calm, pulling me backwards in time, to centuries past, to a recognition of the importance of silence.  To sit down and be still, taking in the peace of the church, was a blessing in and of itself.  The quiet, like a silent wave, seeped into my body.

My friend arrived and we found  a place to sit in the nave (body of the church).  She directed me to a compact book, The Common Book of Prayer (1547), which was King Edward VI of England's attempt to unify the Anglicans during the break from Rome known as the English Reformation.  We marked the compline section with an index finger, then watched as the choir, led by Music Director Marguerite Mullee, proceeded in from a door at the side of the altar.  The singers, a group of women completing a six-week chanting workshop led by Mullee, were dressed in black, accented by scarves of their choosing. They lined up in two rows facing each other, perpendicular to the congregation.  The priest followed, his upper body in a forward motion leading the rest of his body, as if in permanent supplication.

The service was short, less than a half hour, and those in attendance listened, and responded at the appropriate times, as indicated by the liturgy.  The choir sang unaccompanied; a capella means literally "in the chapel".  Their voices rose in the space, filling it with a sound that seemed ancient.

The compline is the "good night" service, an opportunity for the faithful to feel safe before they head off in the dark to their beds.  When it  was over, I remained seated while others immediately began to move, and to me even more disturbing, to chat.  It broke the spell woven by this brief entry into reverence and inwardness. I wanted to sink into the vibration of the silence, drawing it into my body and mind, allowing it to work its soothing renewal.  Although others moved out of the pews, I continued to sit with my friend.

The sanctuary was nearly empty when a man and a woman emerged from the side door carrying long-handled candle snuffers with large bell-shaped ends.  They walked up the center aisle together, coordinating their arrival at each candle. As they lifted their snuffers, their movements matched, so the flames were extinguished simultaneously. They glanced at each other before moving again.  As they passed us, I gave a slight nod to acknowledge their ritual.  I don't know if they noticed.

When they were done, I said a quick goodbye to my friend, then left, turning once on the way out to take in the glorious church.  As I walked across the damp lawn, the couple in front of me was chatting.  I kept my silence all the way home, not even turning on the radio.  I felt sad, and cheated of the opportunity to experience silence in a place that was designed for it.

Our society has never been comfortable with silence, and even less so now, when it is so easy and tempting to fill our minds and ears  with chatter, busyness, and distraction.  We avoid being with ourselves, avoid going deeper, avoid knowing ourselves and, if inclined, knowing God, or whatever you care to refer to the mysterious force that animates life.

I learned later that in many monasteries it is the custom to begin the "Great Silence" after compline, during which the whole community observes silence throughout the night until the morning service the next day. What a relief that would be.

Then a friend shared this quote:

"In many shamanic societies, if you came to a medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions: "When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop being comforted by the sweet territory of silence?"                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Angeles Arrien, The Four-Fold Way

I love this description of silence as a "sweet territory", as a place, a space to inhabit, when I give myself the opportunity to stop skating across the surface of my life.

So my question to you, dear reader, is where and when do you find the "sweet territory of silence", and how does it serve you?





Welcome to Life With Pie

Because life without pie would not be as sweet, salty, buttery, or  delicious.

                     "We must have pie.  Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie."                                                                                                                                                                    David Mamet, from his play Boston Marriage, 1999

I love pie.  Thinking about it, preparing, baking it, and, of course, eating it.  It is one of the consistent  pleasures in my life. When I'm not sure what to do with myself, baking a pie, especially with local fruit, never fails to ground me.  And pies are suitable for all occasions, and flexible enough to accommodate many forms.

I came to pie baking as an adult and went through a lot of trial and error before finding my pie-happiness.  I am an ordinary cook with no formal training who has always loved to bake.  On this page I will share my recipes, and some from friends, and tips for making foolproof pies from start to finish.  There is no need for pie fear!

Let's get started.  First, the dreaded crust.  I use an all-butter recipe which has the flavor and consistency of a tart crust.  It rolls out so beautifully that you can roll the crust onto your roller to transfer it to the pie pan, just like they show in the cook books and on the cooking shows. It browns up nicely and tastes heavenly.  I actually prefer it to the traditional crust, as do my taste testers, which have included a Culinary Institute grad. If you prefer a flakier crust, I'll refer you to Michele Stuart's recipe in Perfect Pies, which calls for Crisco.

All Butter Pie Crust

3 cups flour 1 T sugar 1 tsp. salt 1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks) 1 egg 1 T distilled white vinegar 5 T light cream (or half and half) Crust dust (a la Gisene Bullock-Prado) 1 T flour plus 1 T sugar, mixed

In a food processor, pulse flour, sugar and salt until blended. Cut up each stick of butter into about 8 pieces. Add to flour mixture and pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal. Separate the egg and set aside the egg white. Whisk the yolk and vinegar together. Sprinkle yolk mixture onto flour mixture and pulse. With processor running, slowly pour in light cream, pulsing until mixture holds together.

Note: You do not need a food processor to make this crust.  You can prepare it by hand using either two table knives or a pastry cutter to mix in the butter, then blending the liquids in with a fork, using a light hand.

Divide dough into two balls, one slightly larger than the other. Flatten into disks. (You can freeze the pie crust at this time.) Refrigerate smaller disk while you roll out the larger one into a circle larger than your pie dish. (Ex: roll a 15-inch circle for a 10-inch pie dish.) Roll onto your rolling pin and transfer to pie dish. Brush the inside of the crust (bottom and sides only) with the egg white. Allow it to dry before you fill the crust. Keep in the refrigerator until ready to use. Sprinkle the crust dust on the bottom of the crust before you fill it.

If you're preparing a lattice top pie, roll the smaller disk out into a rectangle to be cut into 10 strips.  If you're preparing a covered pie, roll the disk into a round a little larger than the top of the pie dish.



Only Connect!

Only Connect

Only Connect!
                               - E.M. Forster, Howard’s End
     On a Friday evening I pull into the local pizza place. Parked next to me is a car with three passengers: a young mother in the front seat, her smart phone in her hand, her eyes on the screen. Two children are in the back. A four-year-old is in a car seat with a small digital pad in her hands, fingers pressing the screen. An older boy, maybe seven, sits next to her, absorbed in a digital tablet.
     It’s a summer evening, the air beginning to cool, the light still transparent at 7:30. Their windows are open, as are mine.  I turn off my car and wait a few moments, glancing over, seeing if I might catch their eye. Their eyes remain locked on their screens. Not only do they not notice me, they do not interact with each other.
     I walk into the pizza place. A few minutes later when I return, they are gone, and the opportunity for connection has vanished.
Hand-held Hostage
     Where is the shared experience in that family’s car? When the father came out with the pizza, did they put down their devices down and speak to him? Did they notice the aroma of the pizza, anticipate its taste, talk to each other? Or did they remain hostage to their hand-held devices? Who are they connecting with, if not with the people that are with them in the car? What will the memory of that moment be, or will there even be one? And if so, where will it be stored? On a digital server somewhere?  (See Huff Post Article on Why Hand Held Devices for Children Should Be Banned)
     I held out getting my own smart phone until last year. My husband and I had “dumb phones” (flip phones) until we could justify the expense. Once we converted, we were hooked. I am now guilty of checking my emails and Facebook an unnecessary amount of times during the day. It is so easy to do when I’m waiting at the bank drive-up, or riding in the car. I used to interact with the bank tellers more, and watch the passing scenery. Now I have to make a conscious effort not to give in to the tug of instant virtual gratification.
Map Queen
     Fourteen years ago, when we first moved to this house, people would stop and ask for directions when I was out walking. It’s easy to get confused on Connecticut country roads because they all look alike: winding, surrounded by woods on both sides, often unmarked by street signs. It wasn’t unusual to see a driver stopped, looking puzzled.
     I’d ask, “Do you know where you’re going? Do you need directions?” Then a conversation would occur, I’d direct them where they needed to go, and commiserate about how easy it is to get lost in these parts.
     Although now I still see people stopped, when I offer help they seem surprised, shake their heads, say “No, I’m just checking my GPS”. I want to say: Wouldn’t you rather talk to a person than a digital interface? Wouldn’t you like to know the shortcut and to avoid that road that is paved at the start but soon turns into a steep, rutted, dirt road that can tear out your car's suspension?
     I have always loved paper maps. In our house I’m known as the Map Queen because I have so many of them stuffed into my car door’s pocket. I throw the road atlas in the back seat whenever we take a trip. I like looking at a map. It brings me into the experience of our route, let’s me know where I am and where I’m going. Yes, I know, it can be seen as a metaphor for wanting to feel grounded and secure and perhaps in need of control, but navigation through this world is fun.
     On a paper map you can see a shortcut, or try a back road, or look, we’re just a few miles from this interesting looking place. With GPS, we follow the voice rather blindly, trusting a digital navigator to guide us. I’m a spiritually oriented person and I love trusting the invisible, but I'm interested in the form of the invisible that arises from within, not from the car dashboard.
Behind the Moon
     Only connect! When E.M. Forster wrote this, he wasn’t addressing the need for social connection, but it has become associated with that in this age of social media. (See New Republic article on context of this quote.)
     If I had to choose one quote to live by, it would be this one. It covers so much: only connect to the moment, to nature, to the deepest part of me, to whatever is presenting in my life, to whatever I’m experiencing, to that person across from me
     When we don’t reach out to a stranger, we diminish our sense of feeling safe in the world, of trusting it to be a generally friendly place.  We are isolated in our vehicles with our GPS, glued to our screens out in the world, frozen in front of the glowing squares in our homes.  How many times have you seen people at the same restaurant table completely ignoring each other while they tend to their lit rectangles?
     The experience of looking someone in the eye and seeing them, physically seeing them, of waiting to hear the answer while studying their face, of thinking of the life behind that face, this is what’s lost when we don’t connect with each other. No matter how much we’ve evolved and understand the physics of our existence and the oneness of everything, we still live and have our being in a physical world. The sensory experience of interacting with another of our species is a sweet, interesting, integral part of being human.
     Which is why we are naturally curious about each other. When I’m standing in the grocery line behind a parent with a baby, I hone right in on that little being. I want to make eye contact because that baby seems to know something that I want to experience again.
     When he was a boy, my husband asked his mother where he was before he was born.
     “Behind the moon,” she told him.
     I think babies may remember that place. When they hook into my gaze and stay with me, I want to go wherever they are going, and for those moments, I am a child again.
     That baby makes me smile, and I’m still smiling when it’s my turn to check out. I make eye contact with the cashier, exchange a few friendly words, and in doing so I acknowledge, however briefly, that we share the same place, the same planet, and that, on some level, we're all in this together. There is no digital equivalent for that kind of connection.




Being Sick, Like Buddha


Buddha Boy

Recently the stomach flu that’s been making the rounds hit me. Being ill for three days gave me an opportunity to practice dying, (yes, you read that right), and to cultivate a more Buddha-like temperament.


On the first day, I am pinned to the bed, unable to lift my head. I have to surrender to what my body demands: total rest. Since I’m a healthy, productive woman living in the go-go-go, connect-connect-connect twenty-first century, it’s a complete change to be barely able to make the necessary phone calls and emails to cancel my day’s work schedule. But I’ve learned that the quickest path to feeling well again is to allow my body to do its natural - and miraculous - healing.

I usually take my body for granted, although I do occasionally have moments of appreciation. The pulse of its natural, unerring urge to life was demonstrated when my mother was dying of lymphoma. During her last few days, I watched her twitch and toss, under the influence of morphine, as her body slowly gave up its grip on life. The only thing she was able to say when conscious was “I know, I know”, which we took to mean she knew she was dying and she was alright with it. But her mind accepted before her body was willing. The need for surrender does not come easily to our physical vehicles, which cling to life with ferocity.

I think about my attachment to not just my physical existence, but all the things in my world which form my identity and which I rely on to bring me comfort and beauty. I consider what it’s like to say goodbye to my home, to the people I love. I wonder about the moment of death, will I be aware and step willingly into the mystery of it? These are thoughts I usually don’t ponder, and I touch the freedom - and fear - of letting go. Maybe death is like taking off a tight shoe, the soul sighing with relief.

Being Mindful

Gate Garden Untethered from my daily routine, I become more present. I take in the view out the window,  which I’ve seen a thousand times, with new eyes, eyes that don’t breeze over details. I notice the shape of the trees, the branch that was torn off in the last storm, the way the tops of the pines are loaded with tiny pine cones. And I tap into a well of gratitude for the world I inhabit. On the second day, I wake up with a little more strength. I stare at the blue walls of our bedroom. The blue paint - Windmill, it’s called, although I wonder if the windmills in the Netherlands are painted blue - appear alive to me, so alive I consume it through my eyes. It travels into my body like ephemeral nourishment. I experience the energy of color in a new way and I promise myself I won’t forget.

Later that day I feel able to step outside on the porch and sit in the sun, or rather lie in the sun on the long porch step, while I lazily toss a tennis ball for the grateful dog. I cover my eyes with my arm and allow the sun to warm me. It feels like a gift. The dog is happy, and I’m content with this simple moment. I’m not thinking about what I need to do next.


When I return to bed, which has become a cozy nest, with pillows surrounding me and the afghan my mother knit me while I was in college covering me, I am thankful. I finger my mother’s handiwork and wonder how many times she ripped out rows to achieve the perfect result which, four decades later, still warms me. Some of the fringe was braided by one of my college roommates, and here is her hand, too, which I now have time to remember. I recall something endearing about her, how she didn’t know how to finish her laugh. One evening we taught her how, practicing the tapering end of a good laugh. I wonder what her laugh sounds like now.


On the third day I venture into the yard. In the garden, last night’s rain is puddled in the umbrella-like leaves of the Lady’s Mantle, the rain drops nestled symmetrically in the leaves’ folds. I see the world anew, stop to examine the buds on the dwarf cherry tree, listen to the hum of the bumblebees, notice their number - hundreds - turning that tree into a hovering hub of activity. I experience the world with the sense of wonder and innocence of a three-year old and although I know it won’t last, that within a day or two the spell will wear off, I appreciate it and want to retain it. Lady's Mantle Decades ago my first meditation teacher counseled his students to let death be our counselor. He introduced us to the the idea that in welcoming as companions the impermanence of life and the unpredictable nature of death, we could become more awake, aware, and alive. Being temporarily sick can be an opportunity to step closer to death, and to life.