Category Archives: Writing

When a Writing Piece Becomes a Painting

Suffield Town Center, by Peggy MacKinnon


One of the things I love about writing is not knowing where it’s going. Whether casting off or plunging into one’s internal well, writing is a fishing expedition. When asked what makes a great poem, W.S. Merwin replied, “Following what you don’t know.”

Writing about a recent fire in Friday Harbor, Washington led me to this piece. In the process of writing “What We Lost” ( ) I fell in love all over again, with my old town center in Suffield, Connecticut. Which is like falling in love with a ghost town for the center isn’t there anymore, except in my head. And now in this watercolor painting by Peggy MacKinnon that sits upon my writing table looking out to the bay. 

Peggy MacKinnon is ninety-six years old and still resides in Suffield. At one time my cousin lived just a few doors from The MacKinnon’s home on South Main Street. Best friends with her son Ian, I asked Gil about his time there, growing up.

“Ian was the youngest of six boys, all at least 6’1, and Peggy, their mom, so little. Likewise, all the boys and her husband, Dan, had a wild sense of humor,” Gil recalls. “But Peggy, so quiet … perhaps noticing other things.” The slant of light, the saturation of color. Even as a child Gil knew to detect an artist’s mind in Peggy.  

Peggy had met Dan in high school on a tennis court in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Years later they were a family of eight living in Suffield, and as a couple, frequently played tennis with my folks. In my memory of home my mother is often in her nightgown hanging onto the kitchen wall phone in the morning, and the friend on the other end was very often Peggy. Peggy MacKinnon.

Peggy painted. She painted while Dan was the Director of Prison Industries at a state prison, and when he founded the Maverick Corporation, a work program for ex-convicts and juvenile offenders. She painted as Dan served as Commissioner of Administration under Governor Grasso in Connecticut. She painted when Dan ran for Congress. And she painted for the twelve years he was at Merrill Lynch in Hartford, while at the same time running a small sheep farm in Suffield. She raised six sons, helped in birthing the sheep, and she painted. Peggy never lost who she was.

I don’t think I appreciated any of this at the time, but now I can see why my folks found them so interesting. And over the years I’ve grown to love her work, the delicacy of hand, always working in watercolors. Maybe it was my generation, maybe it was me, but we were anything but consistent. So I’m in awe of Peggy always knowing what it was she did and doing it.

2,444 miles away, I am writing to the painting today. In writing we speak of finding a “voice.” In painting it’s the artist’s “hand,” and I’ve found hers here. 

This is the center of town we all lost in Suffield. There was a sense of importance to the town then that is in none of the new-brick outlying buildings, or the building they refer to as “Suffield Village.” My friend Jane Clarke writes, “I too go back to Suffield to capture something that is so deep in my neural fiber… If I stand on the village green and look out over what the town is now, it seems to quiet my memories and I don’t see myself.”

A disappeared town center, there is no getting it back except in memories, stories, art and writing. And what started out as another cry from me lamenting the loss of old buildings, grew into an ode to a gracious lady and her paintings.


Filed under loss, painting, Writing

A Work in Progress

White Point Entry


The ugly little house in the woods by the bay is nearly all shingled now in red cedar. Its trim has been painted a clean bright white, reflecting light under the eves rather than the sickly green of the former siding. The roof always was in good shape.

“A good roof? Well, that’s a start,” chuckled my father when we told him of the house we had purchased on San Juan Island.

Now our house looks at home in the old growth forest where it stands. Its scent is as sweet as the trees. We started on the outside with this house, and are working our way in with a remodel. Closeness to nature has always described this move. Forgetting how late it stays light here, it’s easy to keep clearing brush well into the night. And working by the water’s edge hardly feels like work at all.

When the interior is complete, we have every intention of being back out and into the cathedral hush of the trees, mucking about on the water’s edge, or out to sea.

Living on a boat, we eat out more than we ordinarily would. One evening, climbing the darkened staircase at McMillin’s in Roche Harbor and being a little night-blinded myself, I reached for the handrail and marveled at the feel of it. Now how often do you come back to the dining table raving about the handrail? But a Douglas fir branch, debarked and organic in shape, seemed like something I had to have and to hold forever. So that will be coming into our home too, as handrails, wherever we have the opportunity to use them.

“This is the time of year to peel logs, when the sap is running,” Brian Prescott at the Egg Lake Sawmill & Shake informed us. “Otherwise, in winter, the sap goes into the roots.”

Along with eating out too often, we are also ferrying to and fro the mainland more than we would like. Sometimes in our wagon, often a rented UHaul, but always carrying material or household possessions to store in the garage. On one occasion, having picked up slate tiles for a floor and Carrera marble tiles for a wall, we fell in behind a large flatbed truck carrying logs—a common enough sight in the Pacific Northwest. But something about this particular load caught both our eyes, that plus we had over an hour’s ferry ride to stare at it.

I noticed the flower-like shape in the cut of the trunks, not like any log I’d ever seen. And my husband, for his part, must have noticed everything. For later, while out at Egg Lake Sawmill & Shake, he spotted the very same truck. It hadn’t been offloaded yet, and sure enough, it had just come across on the ferry.

If you’ve never seen a man fall in love with logs, you are missing something. The logs, we learned, were Yew, trucked up from Oregon, and Paul just had to have one. Our Yew is nearly ten feet long, milled, planed, ready to be trimmed a bit and mounted as a fireplace mantle on a yet-to-be-built rock wall that was inspired by the long log.

One of the things I love most in design is similar to what I love most in writing: the way you don’t know where the inspiration will come from, or where it may go. This happens every week in my writing workshop. Flushed faces all around the table, having written our stories, shared and enjoyed them, when everyone started without a clue that there was anything in us at all.

Paul and I didn’t know we had this house in us either.


Filed under Writing

The Good Life

sf_topothemark_sf-lgMy husband and I and our two grown daughters who call San Francisco home had climbed the heights of Nob Hill and ridden the elevator to the 19th floor of the Mark Hopkins Hotel for cocktail hour at Top of the Mark. Panoramic views of the city and the water and the bridges at sunset. A splendid site, the kind you write home about.

The last place in the world where you would expect to get into a little disagreement.

I am trying to recall it all. The signature martini menu, dance floor, and lounge atmosphere. Everyone dressed to the nine’s. A trip back in time and civility, expecting to see Tony Bennett take the mic in his easy stride and wide smile at any moment.

And that was what I was noting–in fact he was singing to me–when one of my daughters mentioned pointedly, “Mom, you can put that notebook away now.”

I don’t need to back up and inform you that we had had this discussion before concerning cell phones and texting in restaurants. But paper and pen? I always thought that the indisputable right of writers through the ages, and I was simply exercising my right.

But to the girls, it’s the same thing. Rude.

I’ve thought so much about this, I don’t know what I think anymore. A dilemma for all time, apparently.


Filed under Writing

Becoming Jane, Emily, and Joyce

The only thing I can think to blame on books is my falling way behind with films. I finally viewed, just this week, the 2007 film, “Becoming Jane.” I must do this more often. And while I may never catch up with films in general, I would like to categorically run through the complete collection of what I call writers’ films. Films like: “Adaptation,” “Sideways,” “Wonder Boys,” and “Joe Gould’s Secret.” There are so many more. “The Hours,” “Finding Forrester,” “Finding Neverland….”

“Becoming Jane” belongs on this list. In the course of the one hundred and twenty minutes of this film I was submerged in a profound tranquility that, for the most part, has remained with me all week. I’m talking about Jane Austen’s time and place, when she was twenty years old, falling in love, and well at work on her craft. The year was 1795 and I am thinking: how much easier to become a writer in simpler times! Let me explain. Jane Austen did not have to turn off all the white noise, bombastic media, and pry herself away from social media in an effort to find her own thoughts. The film, like the time, was so astonishingly quiet. The screen also went dark a lot. That’s another matter but much the same thing. When it was night it was dark, inside and out, as it should be. Candlelit rooms, playing the piano for music, and social gatherings in which Jane would read her work aloud. I am enamored with how uncluttered the psyche could be in such a setting. Clearly, the writers who came before us had this advantage. An artist requires solitude. Emily Dickenson went to extremes and protected hers with reclusion. Jane Austen had a relatively quiet house, loving family, and an idyllic woods in which she constantly went walking.

There is much in that too: living close to nature and the habit of walking. Joyce Carol Oates reflects on her own childhood in upstate New York in the 1950’s, “Because, I assume, I grew up in the country… most of my waking life when I wasn’t actually in school was in nature—meaning primarily silence, and solitude.” Intuitively, it seems, young Joyce knew to turn away from the television and radio in favor of reading, and “… hiking/ wandering/ prowling for hours, along the creek; through woods, pastures, farmland; nearly always alone, and drawn to aloneness. The old farmhouses/ barns… The Tonawanda Creek, the eerie underside of the bridge. Tramping for miles… just walking, walking.” As a novelist, Joyce Carol Oats has drawn from these early years in nearly all of her works. Today we may have to go out of our way to reach the parks and open spaces, but find them we must.

Solitude, nature, and the importance of walking. Listen to Kierkegaard on the subject of walking, “Above all, do not lose your desire to walk: every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.” Writers understand this. Walking clears the head and seems to solve problems. Good ideas come on walks. Walking taps the well from which our stories come up, and we must go it alone and go every day.


Filed under nature, walking, writers' films, Writing

Rewriting My Life in San Francisco

I am standing in the windows of my daughters’ second floor apartment in San Francisco. Double Decker buses regularly roll by the windows and the view goes both ways. We look out at the passengers as they peer in at us. I have become accustomed to that in this city. When I first started visiting San Francisco I saw the inhabitants as characters in a play. How theatrical they all look. Clothes as costumes, accessories as props, and people as troupe. Somehow everyone here is younger and has more energy, more imagination and resources then the rest of us, it seems.

Cities have always been a place to reinvent oneself, and San Francisco is becoming my second city. I want to visit as often as my daughters will have me. Their place is between Haight Ashbury and Buena Vista. I won’t give out the address but Grace Slick of The Jefferson Airplane reportedly lived here. This means more to me than it possibly could to my daughters. She had to have been the age they are now. We all were at that time. And here I am now, dreaming of reinventing myself yet again. Cities give us this sense of permission. Interesting, the anonymity we can feel in the city. It’s the small towns that invade our space.

I dream of putting a writing table in a bay window such as this, looking out to colorful Victorian architecture, stain glass windows lit at night, pedestrians, the small circle of people at the bus stop, and those riding by eye-to-eye. I am thinking I may never run out of material here. And although I have never lived in San Francisco before, I am thinking that I will feel I have come full circle.


Filed under cities, reinventing, Uncategorized, Writing

What a Girl’s Got to Do

I am up early and watching the light come on in the east. The homes on that side of the street are utterly dark. All that is visible are the slices of light between the homes. It is much like reading a negative. I have noticed paradigm shifts like this occurring all around lately. Seriously, it’s almost seismic.

I have the most extraordinary girlfriends. One of them phoned this week to inform me that she has been offered an outstanding professional commitment for a year in Jacksonville, Florida.

“But did you tell them you are married and live in California?” I asked.

“They know that,” she said, adding “but I just might do it.”

I tried to think of how she could swing this. Yes, her children were grown and gone, but her husband is a partner in a firm and not exactly mobile. Their marriage is solid, and they are just now coming down the home stretch of a long remodel on their beautiful home, and I know she had been looking forward to that.

“How?” is all I could think to ask.

And she proceeded to explain to me how it just might work…

Perhaps I couldn’t see it at first because I am too tangled in my own paradigm shift. My role has been changing and I don’t have to go to Jacksonville to get it. It’s here. Graduate school sealed the deal for me. During those two years my husband became an exceptional cook. Now here we are. Me with my MFA in Creative Writing under my belt, and he’s still cooking and is better than ever—because all these things, writing, cooking, take practice. Anyway, every sign around the house seems to say that I am now free to write. I’m trying to get used to that and take myself very seriously as a writer, knowing that my husband may very well be retiring by the time we see my writing career take off.

Back to my girlfriend, the one who I honestly think is going to choose to go to Jacksonville. For one year. And rent a charming little bungalow. And decorate as she pleases by hopping around antique shops and such. This is their agenda, for she has her husband’s backing entirely: when she isn’t flying back, he will fly out and together they will explore The South. All the places they want to discover: Charleston, Savannah, Beaufort, South Miami and Key West. As she names them, I realize how much I have longed to see these places too.  They will have one year to do it all and will approach it as they have France or Ireland or any other country. Get a car and go—submerge themselves in the culture, knowing that in a year it will be over and they will both be home in California, all the richer for the experience, as with Ireland or France.

She left me feeling envious of her opportunity. I know what my writing room means to me; what married woman doesn’t fantasize about having her own bungalow? Imagine being able to spring for that. And the romantic interest that could occur looking forward to seeing your lover, your husband, on weekends. And too, all that autonomy throughout the week…

I think she’s going to do it. She’s brave and brilliant and her husband is, as I said, a gem. It’s funny:  I can remember when my friend wasn’t particularly fond of flying. And now she’s all over the map.


Filed under cooking, girlfriends, paradigm shift, relocation, Writing

blogging in brazil

I may be the last writer I know to finally break down and start a blog. With all the pieces we could be working on, or should be working on, what are we doing giving it away for free? And yet… One by one, for a variety of reasons as rich and diverse as writers themselves, our tribe has backed into blogging. And so here I am, blogging in Brazil. And I will use that as the title because I am old enough to know I owe everything to beginnings.

I am not from here. Not that I am accustomed to being from where I live, not for a long, long time. Following a series of moves east and west, north and south, The Pacific Northwest is what I now call home. Beyond that, home is wherever I travel with paper and pen or laptop, wherever I can find a little elbow room…

My husband and I frequent theatre in Seattle and prefer going into productions “blind, deaf, and dumb,” meaning not having read a single review. This frequently finds us there for pre-production or opening night and the experience is as in a dream: you know not where it’s going; you just go. It works for theatre, and I would love to be able to travel that way too. Sometimes we can, but often the place is preceded with reputation, rumor, expectation. Such was the case with Rio de Janeiro. Boy, was it ever.

I have to say, remember everything you ever heard about the beautiful beaches, stretching Cococabana, Ipanema, and Leblon, the most magnificent shoreline that ever pulled right up to a city. And floating offshore and rising beyond the city, mountains of a lava lamp shape, looking liquid, poured… Add to that the mosaic sidewalks patterned in a black and white abstraction and red umbrellas dotting the beach—all this winding down the coastline like an immense cobra snake, and if I were transported there in the night I would wake knowing exactly where I was. Not every place can say that. Now imagine women in heels, stiletto and wedge, somehow walking over those mosaic stones, more off-shouldered tops and animal prints than anywhere on earth, men in flip flops and bathing suits, and you’ve got it, Rio. Where the beach meets the city, or the city meets the beach.

Now step with me onto the beach, for that is what it is, just a step away. Now imagine a nation of women, all shapes and sizes and ages, entirely unselfconscious about their bathing suits riding up in the back. Here the exposed buttocks is as natural as cleavage at the breasts. Not every woman in Rio is a hard body, and if that is what I expected, I was wrong about that. But I must say, every Brazilian woman is more comfortable with the body she has, and that is enviable indeed. Now picture me clad in a one-piece bathing suit, the only one to be found in Rio. Later, in Florianopolis, I spotted a couple others: a solid navy suit and a solid purple–mine was black. Looking back, I should have said hello as they must have been English.

So now you know, I was feeling Victorian in Rio. Nevertheless I hugged the shoreline by day; anyone would. The interior of the city struck me as cautious. Lopa is a quarter of old abandoned buildings in which the samba and jazz clubs have sprung up and go all night long. “I wouldn’t send you there by day,” our concierge confided, “but at night, plenty of police protection!” Nevertheless our taxi driver let us off a safe distance, and so we hiked. Indeed, a flashing police car keeping the peace on each block. All that for good music. The young take their life in their hands every night to be where everyone around will get up and dance, whereas I am thinking I can take the best of Rio home with me in CD’s.

We are leaving Rio and morning fog is rolling back for our flight. A man in a suit carrying a briefcase walks across the grassy field by the runway as we wait for clearance. I am curious where we are going as we fly over Sao Paulo to the island of Florianopolis, near the Argentinian border. Slipping into a world I never knew existed. A string of islands, tropical, verdant, and all that ocean, the Atlantic from here to Africa. This moment is the one I’m after, the discovery of another world, as in a dream or a darkened theatre, entering a world away from anything I ever thought I knew.


Filed under Travel, Writing