As the traveling sketchbook show heads to Melbourne, here are some of mine…

This is so cool!

A library in Brooklyn has amassed an enormous collection of sketchbooks — 7,500 from 130 countries — and their books are now traveling the world, currently in Chicago. They’re on a 14-city tour, ending in Melbourne.

I love every single thing about this:

sharing ideas globally

sharing one’s art with strangers

sharing the most private and intimate place to stash your drawings.

And they’re now collecting sketchbooks for the 2013 world tour. Jump in here!

I’ve sketched all over the world on my travels.

Here (gulp) are a few of what’s in one of my sketchbooks.

Les Halles, Paris

I spent the happiest year of my life, 1982-3, living and working out of Paris, on an eight-month journalism fellowship called Journalistes en Europe. We were chosen, 28 of us from 19 countries, ages 25 to 35, to live in Paris and travel all over Europe reporting. I got to know the Les Halles area, in the 1st. arondissement, well, as the CFPJ centre nearby was at Rue du Louvre. On one of my many later visits, alone on a frigid winter’s afternoon, I did this quick sketch with a sharpie. It’s still one of my favorites. (All these images are, in life,  4 by 6 inches.)

Le Loire Dans La Theiere

Here’s a pile of photos of the place to see what it’s really like! I did this one in colored pencil. This is a great tea-room in the Marais section of Paris. The name means The Dormouse in The Teapot, a reference from Alice in Wonderland. You’ll find it at 3 rue des Rosiers in the 4th. arondissement. Everywhere I travel, I seek out a cosy tearoom. Amusez-vous bien!

Freud’s Chair, London

Did you know that Sigmund Freud lived in London after fleeing the Nazis in his native Austria in 1938? And that you can visit his home, now a museum? I’ve been to London many times, and loved seeing his chair — which is battered brown leather — and the original psychoanalytic  couch, covered in an oriental rug, that his patients lay on. His family, a talented and eccentric bunch, has very much left their mark on British culture, from his grandson, legendary painter Lucian Freud to author and Financial Times columnist Susie Boyt, his great-grand-daughter who grew up desperately wanting to be Judy Garland. I did this quick sketch in pencil.

The paddock view, Castle Athenry, Co. Galway, Ireland

For a few years, my father owned a house built in 1789 in Galway, near the town of Athenry. It was one of the loveliest places I’ve ever been lucky enough to stay. This is a watercolor I did of the view from the kitchen into the stone-walled paddock behind the house. He sold it, sadly, and it’s now a nursing home.

Sydney Harbor, Australia.

In 1998 I was crazy enough to fly alone to Sydney — 20 hours from my home in New York — with the goal of writing a book about women sailors competing in a round-the-world race. It was an insane commitment of a ton of money and when I arrived they reneged on the deal! So it became a very costly, albeit lovely holiday I would never have dared embark on otherwise. I did this watercolor from the window of my hotel room. One of the things that intrigued me most about Sydney, which you can see here, were its corrugated metal roofs.

In 1994, I spent 21 days traveling Thailand, from very north to very south. This was a temple across the street (!) from the airport in the tiny, quiet, isolated town of Mae Hong Son, in the very northern corner, near near the border with Burma. The only sound you could hear after getting out of the airport — one strip — was the bells from this temple. I walked into town from the airport, a first, and felt I had arrived in heaven. This spot remains in my top five of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever visited.

Hope you enjoyed these!

The inner hippie emerges!

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, CA.
The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, CA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Have you ever found yourself in a landscape that transforms you?

I recently returned from one amazing day spent driving through Marin County, which is across the Golden Gate bridge, north of San Francisco. I went with a friend and her tiny daughter, who turns 3 in June. It was so lovely I’m counting the minutes until I can get back on the plane for the six hour ride from my home in New York.

Marin is bathed in golden light, its velvety hills a mix of Ireland, Scotland and Vermont, dotted with black cows and brown horses. Thick groves of redwoods. A winding road that led us through Dogtown, pop. 30. (The official sign later hand-lettered, amended to 31, 32, 33…)

I felt like a chorus in a Joni Mitchell song.

We stopped in Point Reyes and bought ice cream. Four men asked me to take their photo outside the Western Saloon, which looks exactly as it sounds.

I posed them in the narrow doorway of the saloon. “You look like a rock band,” I told them, and they laughed. Until they looked at the photo on their Iphone.

“We do! Great photo!” one said, delighted.

Thick afternoon light coated the red bricks and the emerald-green California I highway sign.

The last place that had so profound an effect on me was Taos, New Mexico. Like Marin, it’s a favorite of some big name celebrities — Julia Roberts lives there, at least part-time. Taos is tiny and filled with eccentric details. (Yet, like many of these idyllic rural areas, almost a quarter of its 4,700 residents live in poverty.)

Here’s a recent essay about Taos from The New York Times:

I had come to this far-flung desert town to write a memoir about searching for traces of one of the heroes of my English adolescence, D. H. Lawrence. Taos was the only place where Lawrence had ever actually owned a house, and I suppose, as a visitor, I was hoping some of the inspiration he had drawn from the land and people might rub off on me. I had imagined the landscape would all be bare desert and mountains. The last thing I had expected was to find it reminding me of England.

But all around town there were grassy fields, tussocky, mostly flat, with patches of shorter grass where horses and cattle had grazed. They were no different from the fields back home where I had grown up, playing soccer with friends, walking the dogs, rambling, sleeping out in summer. This one near my apartment was no exception.

An unexpected sense of intense familiarity with a foreign place has been felt by other travelers in other lands, but I was surprised by how completely at home I felt in this field: the long grass, the faint scent of hay, the trees hissing softly in gusts of breeze. Of all strange things, this meadow in Taos had exactly the same rough grass stalks, feathery at their tips, as the field next door to my childhood home in the Cherwell Valley north of Oxford. And the path, beaten smooth as hide, was just like the path that ran through that field, too. And the tremendous ribbed trunks of the cottonwoods that ringed it were like the boles of old English willows.

The day we arrived in Taos I ran out and bought a tie-dyed tank top, astonishing Jose, then my boyfriend of only three months, (now my husband, 12 years later.) In New York, he’d been dating a woman who appeared buttoned-up and conservative, a WASP — me — who showed up on dates wearing turtlenecks.

Who, suddenly, was this hippie chick?

Blame it on coming of age in the 1970s, but I’m often deeply happiest in a place where I can ride horses, pick up fossils from ancient riverbeds and let my eyes roam across empty miles. Where the air smells of dry earth, old stone and sagebrush and eucalyptus. Where the light is so exquisite I’m torn between my camera, sketchbook — and simply letting it soak into memory.

I found the same qualities of Taos and Marin — of light, rugged landscape and timelessness — in Corsica. I wept when I left, in June 1996, and dream of returning to explore it much more.

How about you?

Have you been somewhere that so moves and touches you?

The death of an ordinary woman — justly celebrated

One of my close friends works at The Toronto Star, and tipped me off to this extraordinary piece of journalism, about a single, childless, non-celebrity 55-year-old Toronto woman named Shelagh Gordon.

The story came about the way the very best stories often do, when a reporter’s curiosity was piqued by an obituary privately submitted to the newspaper.

Shelagh was quirky, generous, fun, clumsy. She was not rich or well-known or politically powerful. Her husband and children — she had neither — had not carved out fame and fortune in the world.

Yet The Star decided to devote some of its most experienced career writers to chronicle this woman’s life.

She was, like many of us, simply a private citizen whose love for, and devotion to, the people in her private world brightened many lives for decades.

I’ve included a short excerpt here from this exceptional story.

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The Star dedicated unprecedented coverage to the funeral of 55-year-old Shelagh Gordon – interviewing more than 100 of her friends and family – to show how a modest life can have a huge impact.

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By Catherine Porter Columnist

I met Shelagh Gordon at her funeral.

She was soap-and-water beautiful, vital, unassuming and funny without trying to be. I could feel her spirit tripping over a purse in the funeral hall and then laughing from the floor.

She was both alone and crowded by love. In another era, she’d have been considered a spinster — no husband, no kids. But her home teemed with dogs, sisters, nieces, nephews and her “life partner” —a gay man — who would pass summer nights reading books in bed beside her wearing matching reading glasses.

Her relationships were as rich as the chocolate pudding pies she’d whip together.

She raced through ravines, airports and wine glasses (breaking them, that is). She dashed off dozens of text messages and emails and Facebook postings a day, usually mistyping words in her rush to connect.

Then, every afternoon, she’d soak for an hour in the bath while eating cut-up oranges and carrots and flipping the damp pages of a novel.

She called herself a “freak,” at first self-consciously and, later, proudly.

But my sharpest impression of Shelagh that day, as mourners in black pressed around me, was of her breathtaking kindness. Shelagh was freshly-in-love thoughtful.

I love this article and the rare journalistic commitment — in an era of celebrity fawning and faux fame — to celebrating an ordinary woman. I love its depth, detail, intimacy and humanity.

I hope you’ll make the time to read it in full, and share it through your own blogs and other social media.

Even better, please email or write to The Star, (whose editor in chief I’ve worked with twice before), to let him know how great this is. His name is Michael Cooke, 1 Yonge Street, Toronto, Ontario, M5E 1E5,Canada.

The Best Meals Of My Life

New Year's Eve fireworks in Paris
Oooh-la-la! This is how my tastebuds felt. Image via Wikipedia

Having just survived eight days of an all-vegetarian retreat — I may never eat field greens again! — it got me to thinking of the best meals (and, yes, drinks!) I’ve ever enjoyed.

The food we ate wasn’t bad at all, and in fact beautifully presented, healthy, full of vitamins. The cheese/fennel scones were perfect little pillows; the berry crumble lovely; the crispy green beans just the right color and texture…

But still.

Here are some of my favorite meals:

In a port-side cafe in Concarneau, Brittany, cold, fresh oysters, a baguette with sweet butter, tiny hot sausages and a crisp glass of Muscadet.

Street-vendor food in Bangkok.

My late granny’s Christmas goose.

My mom’s hamburger smash — ground meat, salt, pepper, carrots, potatoes — all mixed up in a frying pan.

The sweetie’s blueberry pancakes with, of course, real maple syrup.

A spectacular fish soup I ate on a frigidly cold winter’s day in Old Montreal — in 1987! It was that good.

The peach crumble with sour cream at Stash Cafe, also in Old Montreal.

On my first visit to England, when I was 12, eating clotted cream right from the bottle.

Some hellaciously good barbecue in Fort Worth.

At a rooftop party in Paris on New Year’s Eve, fistfuls of fresh oysters shucked right in front of us.

At Los Almendros, in Merida, a fish dish so good we went back the next night and ate it again.

The tiny perfect sweet mussels our friend Celia made for us for dinner when she lived in Paris, served on her rooftop.

The stew my Dad and I made in Ireland from mussels we picked ourselves from Galway Bay.

My friend Mary’s Brooklyn roof-top open-air feasts, with a bottomless tureen of lethal/delicious caipirinhas.

Hot, fresh churros with a melting chocolate center, bought from a Mexico City roadside stand our driver Gerardo took us to.

The spaghetti carbonara, eaten at the bar, at Morandi in New York City.

The tacos al pastor and homemade guacamole at Toloache, also in Manhattan.

My first pisco sour, at Carlin, in Lima.

At Casa de Piedra, a long-gone and lovely hotel in Cuernavaca, my first and unforgettable taste of sweet chestnut paste. Not to mention their enormous, salty home-made potato chips. (Here’s a link to a replacement every bit as lovely and charming, Casa Colonial.)

How about you?

Dish!

Trying To Remember, Hoping To Forget

Build a clock
Image by lisibo via Flickr

Today marks the 14th. annual USA Memory Championship, which pits high school students against one another to see whose brain retains the most. It’s held in Manhattan and open to the public.

What? You forgot?

I recently finished a three-week trip and my camera kept reminding me that its memory card was full, so — on the fly — I’d ruthlessly edit images I didn’t think worth keeping to capture a few more.

Memory is one of our most precious attributes.

One of my favorite films (and also my sweetie’s) is After Life, a Japanese film from 1998 about memory and how precious it is to us. The film’s premise is that, after you die, you will be forced to choose only one memory of all those you have accumulated. Which would you choose?

My mother was diagnosed this year with dementia, and I know it will likely worsen, so memory has become more of an obesssion with me. How much longer will she remember her life, her travels, her friends?

Her only child?

Here’s a new book, wildly and widely reviewed, about memory, “Moonwalking With Einstein” by Joshua Foer.

And what of hideous memories, the ones we so badly want to forget but which, so annoyingly, seem the hardest to get rid of? For me, these would include the night my husband walked out of our brief marriage, for good; the night my beloved red convertible was stolen; watching my Mom (who came out fine) heading into a six-hour neurosurgery…And our memories shift our perceptions, altering how we create and recall new ones.

I stayed on this trip at a resort hotel whose motto is that they create memories, an interesting idea. I brought home several from that trip, perhaps the most indelible being a dog-sledding expedition of about 90 minutes that took us along a tree-lined trail, across a barren, wind-swept frozen lake, alongside a river whose waters were so clear and blue we could see all the way to the bottom.

The dogs kept looking back at us as if to make sure we were still there. Wind clawed at my cheeks so viciously I feared imminent frostbite. A winter sky was as white and impenetrable as the snow on the Rocky Mountains around us.

Unforgettable…

I hope.

What is your most powerful memory and why?

Moved By Mountains

Mt. Rundle, Alberta Canada
Mt. Rundle, one of my new favorite places in the world! Banff, Alberta. It's 330 million years old...Image by s.yume via Flickr

I’ve always thought of myself as a city girl. I love to dress up, eat out, look at art, attend theater.

But having just spent a week in the Rocky Mountains I came away so bereft at the thought of leaving them behind it was hard not to weep today when the Air Canada 767 finally took off from Calgary, taking me back to Vancouver for another week.

How can mountains, ones I didn’t even ski on or climb but merely admired from a distance, so move me?

Every morning, I opened my hotel room’s pale yellow striped curtains and stared straight up a steep, wooded mountain. If I peered off to the right, far in the distance, snow-covered peaks glowed rose in the dawn, disappeared into wreaths of snow or cloud, gleamed blue at dusk.

Having never lived near mountains, I had no idea how they change with every cloud and shaft of light, shifting shape and character hourly. Like an ever-changing baby’s face, I could watch them, mesmerized, for hours.

I had never felt such an intimacy with a landscape, enveloped by the crags surrounding me. I was up this morning at 6:30 to catch my bus, and ran about — my nostrils freezing shut, eyes weeping with cold, bare hands cramping, snatching earrings out of my pierced ears (they conduct cold!)  — snapping last-minute photos. As the bus raced east, I shifted from one side to the other taking more images through its windows, oblivious to what a gawping tourist I was being.

Mt. Rundle, one of the peaks I stared at every day in awe, is 330 million years old.

As we entered the endless suburban tracts outside Calgary, a local woman — heading off for a week’s warmth in Mexico — pointed out a “sundog” — a huge rainbow encircling the sun, thanks to light refracted through ice crystals in the air.

It sounds odd to say I’ll desperately miss a pile ‘o rocks, but I will.

What landscape has so touched you?

Six (Of Many) Challenges Of Writing Memoir

Memory (1896). Olin Warner (completed by Herbe...
A statue of memory...Image via Wikipedia

On the long-running listserv WriterL, populated by everyone from eager fresh grads to Pulitzer winners, we’ve been chewing over the many practical challenges of writing a memoir.

I’m halfway through mine, and am finding it challenging on many levels. It’s a totally different animal from my first book, which includes 104 original interviews from 29 states, five of which I visited.

This book relies on my ability to recall, describe and make compelling my own experiences and feelings and those of others. This time, I’m living inside my head, reporting my own life and that of about 20 other people.

Anyone hoping to write a memoir faces many challenges. Here are some the ones I’m now grappling with:

1) Other, real people become your characters. Many times the writer must do this, or chooses to do this, without asking their permission, no matter how much they reveal about these people. If they are alive, you have to find a way to be truthful to your experience of/with them without — or does this matter? — destroying their affection or respect for you.

When you change their names or identifying details, do the new ones help the reader or confuse them? Which of their qualities are most germane to your narrative?

If they are dead, are you free(r) to say whatever you wish?

2) It’s your memory. Is it reliable? Walt Harrington, a terrific writer, has said he carefully re-reports his own life; if he writes that Tuesday November 13, 1973, (I’m not sure it was a Tuesday, but he would be), was cold and cloudy, raining later that afternoon, he goes back to check the weather reports. Every writer, potentially, can fact-check his or her impressions by confirming them with others — if this is part of your plan. You may not want others’ input and it may not be gettable any other way. Then you’re on your own, unless you took detailed and copious notes or (unlikely) have audio, film, video recordings or other documentation for reference.

3) Our memories are clouded by emotion. One of the arguments made about recall is that traumatic events are more clearly embedded in our brains than others more banal. Can you remember last Wednesday’s lunch? How about your wedding day? The day your first child was born or the death of a loved one? What emotions are clouding or coloring these memories? Are they accurate? How would you know for sure?

4) Describing and conveying emotion is difficult. Maybe not for some, but as a certified WASPy Canadian (i.e. not someone who’s wild about emotional displays or drama), I find this especially challenging. A memoir without emotion is a meal without cutlery — you can get get through it, but it’ll be hard work and not terribly enjoyable. I wonder if writing memoir, then, comes more easily to more confessional cultures or generations; Americans, much to the consternation of more buttoned-up natives, often seem very at ease telling total strangers a lot of very personal detail.

Perhaps today’s teens and 20-somethings, sexting and posting on-line videos and details of their most intimate lives, would find this “challenge” absurd.

Yet, no one wants to read 75,000 or 100,000 words of pure confessional. It’s not a race to emotional nudity, stripping bare to the goriest and most salacious details reallyfast. Which are the most powerful? Says who? Like any great story, yours must also contain suspense, structure, conflict, resolution. It’s not just a matter of publishing your raw, unedited diary or a big pile of blog posts.

5) Which bits of this life you’re telling are most compelling, not to you, but to your readers? Why? After I’d written what I thought was a really great chapter, I shared it with my partner, who is not a writer but a fellow journalist and someone whose opinion I trust. “You can do better,” he said. Ouch.

It may have sliced you to your core the day your French or math professor laughed at you in front of your 7th-grade classmates — or whatever — but this moment, like every single one, must pass the “Who cares?” test. If it isn’t making a powerful or larger point, include it at your peril.

6) Which “you” is telling this story? I heard someone on NPR recently make a great point: once you’ve got the tone for your memoir, you’re good to go. Without it, you’re wandering aimlessly, no matter how great your raw material. I think of every memoirist, now myself as well, as simply one more character within the narrative, albeit the narrator. But we all have many facets and colors to our personality or character. None of us is 100% funny or calm or outraged or sad all the time, while the reader needs a consistent, persuasive voice in order to enter and follow your path.

I was one of those who really enjoyed “Eat, Pray, Love”, the much-lauded memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert of her global journey. I liked her authorial “voice” and trusted she would tell me a good story, and she did. For every reader who loved it, there are many who found her whiny or tedious or self-involved.

It is memoir. It is about you and what you’ve seen, heard and felt; that’s an inherent risk every author must take. It demands rigorous self-editing and fantastic help from your first readers and your editor.

Two of my favorite memoirs, oddly perhaps, are both of their African lives by British writers: “When A Crocodile Eats The Sun”, by Peter Godwin and “Let’s Not Go To The Dogs Tonight“, by Alexandra Fuller. Both are filled with sensual details — one smells Africa in their sentences — but also limn powerful, dark stuff. Godwin opens with a description of cremating his father and talks about his sister’s murder; Fuller’s life was spent in the care of a somewhat crazed mother in a foreign place, far from any possible rescue.

From this week’s New Yorker, by Daniel Mendelsohn:

This awkward blurring of the real and the artificial both parallels and feeds off another dramatic confusion: that between private and public life. The advent of cell phones has forced millions of people sitting in restaurants, reading on commuter trains, idling in waiting rooms, and attending the theatre to become party to the most intimate details of other people’s lives—their breakups, the health of their portfolios, their psychotherapeutic progress, their arguments with their bosses or boyfriends or parents. This experience of being constantly exposed to other people’s life stories is matched only by the inexhaustible eagerness of people to tell their life stories—and not just on the phone. The Internet bears crucial witness to a factor that Yagoda discusses in the context of the explosion of memoirs in the seventeenth century (when changes in printing technology and paper production made publication possible on a greater scale than before): the way that advances in media and means of distribution can affect the evolution of the personal narrative. The greatest outpouring of personal narratives in the history of the planet has occurred on the Internet; as soon as there was a cheap and convenient means to do so, people enthusiastically paid to disseminate their autobiographies, commentaries, opinions, and reviews, happily assuming the roles of both author and publisher.

So if we’re feeling assaulted or overwhelmed by a proliferation of personal narratives, it’s because we are; but the greatest profusion of these life stories isn’t to be found in bookstores. If anything, it’s hard not to think that a lot of the outrage directed at writers and publishers lately represents a displacement of a large and genuinely new anxiety, about our ability to filter or control the plethora of unreliable narratives coming at us from all directions. In the street or in the blogosphere, there are no editors, no proofreaders, and no fact-checkers—the people at whom we can at least point an accusing finger when the old-fashioned kind of memoir betrays us.

True?