One of us lives on the east coast. One of us lives on the west.

One of us lives in a rural community. One of us lives in a city.

Both of us wander. Both of us witness. Both of us write.

This is a record of what we find.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

New Orleans Landscape

I spend the last 3 days in New Orleans, getting my feet on the exact ground where Henry and Zavion, the two main characters in my middle grade novel, Another Kind of Hurricane, place their feet. Both of them walk very specific streets, and I was able to navigate the same ones, replicating their journeys.

Before this week, I had certainly imagined those journeys.  I researched them like crazy, pouring over maps multiple times, and talking with folks in New Orleans who could confirm that, yes, it was possible to turn this corner and walk down that street. I felt like I had done due diligence to the process. I knew, as best I could, where Henry and Zavion trekked as they went on their adventures.

But it another thing, all together, to actually walk in their footsteps.

Boy oh boy, does it matter…getting your body into the landscape you are trying to describe. It's not always possible, but when you can do it, it is amazing.  And not surprisingly, the details that come from experiencing something first hand are gifts. 

For instance, the wind. 

The approximate location of the Salvation Army
The grocery store

I walked from where I have placed the Salvation Army in my story, to where I have placed a small grocery store. 

These streets are right near the Mississippi River. The wind comes off of the river and, depending on whether you are walking perpendicular to it, or parallel, it whips harsh and sharp…or not.  And even when you walk a few blocks in from the river, you can feel it there. The expanse of it.  The abruptness of the land ending and this enormous body of water beginning.  The cramped feeling of narrow streets.

There are details, too, that are much harder to articulate.  A feeling on a street, or the sense of history that lies thick in walls and sidewalks.  The energy of a place.  The ways a landscape holds stories.  Layers and layers of stories.

Then, of course, the idea is to translate these details to the page. To add our story to those others. We do our best, right?

With gratitude,

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Landscape of Scents and Memory Reposted from September 2012

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,


Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Importance of Shadow

This past week, I've been especially aware of the suns daily journey tracing a lower arc in the sky, creating lengthening shadows and shorter days. There is a bit of melancholy surrounding this letting go of the light and spending more and more time in shadow and darkness. These thoughts have reminded me of a post I wrote about this same time three years ago on the importance of shadow:

In Erin Bow’s marvelous and magical Young Adult novel, PLAIN KATE, young Kate sells her shadow to a sorcerer in exchange for the means to escape the town bent on destroying her, only to find that life without a shadow is even more dangerous. It turns out in Kate’s world, owning a shadow is essential to staying alive—it is what separates the living from the dead.

I’ve started noticing shadows a lot more when I’m out wandering. The shadow of a leafing plum tree with the dappled movement of foliage dancing above the slanted trunk. The triangular shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid cast at sunset against a nearby skyscraper. The shadows of clouds traveling across the Bay like amorphous whales. My own shadow growing and shrinking and growing again as the hours of the day pass. Which reminds me of a story I once heard about a small boy, who, when his aunt commented on how big he had gotten, answered with, “Oh, but I’m much bigger than this!” 

I love the particular silence of shadows and the fact that they exist but leave no permanent mark, have no capacity for memory. Shadows cast by moonlight, by streetlight, are the most mysterious. And don’t forget that we sleep in the earth’s shadow, more commonly known as night. 

When I first started to seriously study drawing and learned the essence of shadow for creating an impression of realism, I felt like a window opened. I began looking at everything completely differently. Facial features suddenly rearranged themselves into tonal patterns of light and dark. Shadow is what gives a solid form dimension—it grounds an object or a person to the earth. Without it, we visually float.

Psychologists talk about our shadow selves—the interior shadow where we conceal the darker parts of our personalities. Often these shadows are not the aspects of ourselves that we’re especially proud of. They are the flaws we strive to overcome. But try creating a fictional character without them, and what you have is an unrealistic, one-dimensional character. It turns out, even fictional characters need shadows to bring them to life.

We do want to thank all of the people who stopped by this past week to read and comment on Jennifer Wolf Kam's interview, talking about her debut YA novel Devon Rhodes is Dead. Emma the Sheltie has picked a winner from names written on balls of paper scattered around the room and...drum roll please!...the winner is Sarah Tomp! Congratulations Sarah!

Take Good Care,


Thursday, October 30, 2014

Interview with Jennifer Wolf Kam

Sharry: It’s Halloween week and time for all things ghostly—who doesn’t love a good ghost story? (We do!) So we’re especially excited and proud to have our VCFA classmate and good friend Jennifer Wolf Kam here today to talk about the narrative landscape in her spooky, dark debut YA novel Devin Rhodes Is Dead. Welcome Jen!
Jen: Thank you guys--I'm thrilled to be here. =)

Sharry: So, could you tell us about the concept of landscape that inspired the story of Cass and Devin?

Jen: I would say the landscape that inspired Devin Rhodes Is Dead, is the landscape of friendship--its smooth plains and lustrous gardens along with its weather-beaten marshes and craggy ledges. Friendships are fluid and can often be tenuous, but they have the ability to be life-sustaining.

Sharry: Oh! I love your description of friendship’s landscape—really beautifully evocative! It makes me think about my own friendships and what their landscapes might look like. Can you tell us more about the atmosphere/mood of this landscape?

Jen: The landscape of the story is varied, but certainly leans more towards the treacherous. The floral imagery contrasts with the ravine to show both extremes.

Sharry: This is fascinating Jen. How would you say that these treacherous and flourishing aspects play a part in your story? 

Jen: I think many of us have relationships in our lives that are difficult, relationships that cause others to wonder why we have them in the first place. Friendships are complicated, some more than others. At times, the landscape of a friendship becomes too difficult to traverse. Other times, we manage it, but not without peril. The complexity of Cass and Devin's relationship in Devin Rhodes Is Dead, is what drives the story forward.

Sharry: This theme of complicated friendships is one that I think everyone can relate to. What do you hope that readers might come away with after reading Devin Rhodes Is Dead?

Jen: In the tween and teen years, friendships can be fragile, delicate things, fraught with difficult choices and challenges. But I think they teach us how to navigate a lifetime of relationships, when to pull away, but also when to invest the effort.

Sharry: Jen, thank you so much for taking time to visit with us at Kissing The Earth.

Readers, win your very own copy of Devin Rhodes Is Dead simply by following these instructions: 

1. Leave a comment below.
2. You must have a US or Canada mailing address to win.
3. Enter by Wednesday, November 5th midnight EST. A winner will be randomly chosen (by Emma the Sheltie) and announced here on Thursday the 6th.

Jennifer Wolf Kam began writing stories as soon as she could hold a crayon. Today she holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Devin Rhodes Is Dead is her debut novel and the winner of the National Association of Elementary School Principals Children’s Book Award. She is also a four-time finalist for the Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing, offered by the journal, Hunger Mountain. She lives in New York.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Repost: Mindfulness

Hello everyone.

I wrote this two years ago but I could have written it today.  Or yesterday, as that is when I was supposed to post.  Sorry for the lateness.  

I have spent the last week madly working between sun up and sun down, that time of light which is getting shorter by the minute. Fall is here and winter is coming. My goal in this transition time is to find a way to turn my madness into order. Not lose the energy but find some space in the midst of it all. I have a novel to finish (new novel, but still true!) and I need the space for that. I have a family to sit and read with, play with, hug and hang with (definitely still true!) and I need the space for that.

I want to be mindful and heartful and here. I want to hear the prayers that are made out of grass.

So for today, I leave you with this poem by one of my heroes, Mary Oliver.

By Mary Oliver

Every day
   I see or hear
         that more or less

kills me
   with delight,
      that leaves me
         like a needle

in the haystack
   of light.
      It was what I was born for—
         to look, to listen,

to lose myself
   inside this soft world—
      to instruct myself
         over and over

in joy,
   and acclamation.
      Nor am I talking
         about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
   the very extravagant—
      but of the ordinary,
         the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
   Oh, good scholar,
      I say to myself,
         how can you help

but grow wise
   with such teachings
      as these—
         the untrimmable light

of the world,
   the ocean’s shine,
      the prayers that are made
         out of grass?

Gratefully yours,

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Patrick Blanc And Urban Vertical Gardening

Aboukir Street and Petits Carreaux Street

I spend a lot of time thinking about the contrast between man-made environments and nature-made environments. Over the past four years (yes! It’s our fourth Kissing The Earth blog-o-versary!) Tam and I have spent a lot of time here talking about variations on this theme, about the urban and the rural, about oases of nature in the city and human intervention in nature. A grove of redwoods in Golden Gate Park and neighbors rushing in to help with the aftermath of a flood in rural Vermont.

I mentioned here recently that I was reading Diane Ackerman’s The Human Age, an in depth look at the Anthropocene, to review for BookBrowse. In it, she introduces readers to a myriad of innovators reshaping the way we live and the way we will be living in the future given the disturbing effects of global warming, contrasted with the latest technologies, the vast amount of information available on the internet, and the advances in medicine and abilities to improve the human body. She takes a surprising and refreshingly optimistic view considering the current seriously threatening environmental chaos on Earth, but reminds us that we are thinkers, builders, rearrangers, inventors, and innovators and believes our abilities and innovations can and will help people adapt. She then goes about convincing readers by introducing us to the people who are actively involved in helping to create this future.
Musée du quai Branly, Quai
Part of what she explores is how people are ‘humanizing’ cities, making them greener, more livable, more sustainable. She discusses urban biodiversity, and biomimicry (buildings that resemble growing organisms). She shows us how excess body heat from 250,000 railway travelers is being used to heat a thirteen-story office building in Stockholm in the middle of winter.

One of the many innovators in the realm of urban biodiversity that I was especially drawn to is the French botanist Patrick Blanc, widely acknowledged as the father of the vertical garden. Blanc has recreated natural habitats as artistic, living green tapestries in major urban centers all over the world, developing a process that allows plants—flowers, mosses, vines, and shrubs—to grow without soil along the face of a wall, where they attach their roots to a felt irrigation cloth that evenly distributes water and nutrients across its entire surface. (So cool!) Blanc spent years traveling the world, studying plants that flourish vertically in their natural habitats; plants that grow in and around waterfalls where damp walls are often completely hidden by plant life—places like Cuba, Wales, Java, Thailand, the Canary Islands, Cameroon and Venezuela; plants that thrive up and down riverbanks in Sumatra, Kyoto, on a small mountain north of Valencia, Spain, in Mali and in Ecuador; plants growing on cliffs and rocky outcroppings where species have adapted to tolerate droughts; caves with plants growing on rock surfaces where water seeps through; and plants that grow in dark glens, on slopes and in forests.
Icon Hotel Hong Kong 
And then returning to his urban habitat, he’s used what he learned to create dynamic ecosystems that attract butterflies and birds, help clean the air, produce more oxygen, and reduce noise. They also soften contours and offer relieve from all of the hard surfaces that make up a city, they feed the human spirit, and help to reconnect us urban dwellers to the natural world.

You can learn more about what Patrick Blanc is up to and where you can see one of his lush garden tapestries in person here 

And if you don’t know about BookBrowse, you should! It’s a fantastic online member-based community for book lovers. 

Take Good Care,