Artists Teach Us How to Live and Die

January 14, 2016


Artists are good at showing us how to think about death and dying. They extend their hands, stretching them far out into the unknown that awaits.

We arrived at a friend’s house, we brought food, two rotisserie chickens, salad and wine; my husband had made a pie. We’d been invited over because our friend David just learned he had one month to live. Being a writer I couldn’t simply arrive with food, so I wrote him a poem, and I also brought him My Poems Won’t Change the World, by Italian poet Patrizia Cavalli. We hugged. I handed over my gifts. David grabbed first the manilla watermarked envelope containing the poem, eagerly, almost greedily he tucked it into his pocket. What couldn’t be said that night had to be committed to paper, a thought to be savored, governed by whatever mood he decided. Our mission, that night a year ago now, was to have a pleasant meal and to sit with the overwhelming news.

He took the book of poems, “Is there anything about death in here?” he laughed in his characteristically dark and ironic tone, his lovely face crumpling into a smile.

“Yes,” I said, “But they’re easily avoided.” At that we burst out laughing, only the first of many wild laughs we would have that night.

David’s last weeks were lovingly chronicled by his girlfriend Rudi, a photographer, and her pictures captured the contemplative aspects of facing one’s final act, how good it can look, how a sense of peace and looking forward are not at all at odds. Some people are capable of that.


My husband saw him once more but I never did. Rudi told me he taped my poem to the wall of his study, and as much as I wrestled to keep my ego out of it, I had wondered what he did with it. I handed it over, hoping he wouldn’t find it painful, or trite. I don’t worry about the fragility of words. They are too precise. Besides it is important to show oneself. Still I struggled, wondering what might resonate, not too strongly or conjure the frictions we’d had over a long friendship, and wanting to avoid history, his or mine, as that now seemed irrelevant. These were earth bound concerns for sure, and they seemed trite even to me. I stayed up all night and wrote. Here, I thought, I’m showing up. I’m your friend.

I am reading Patti Smith’s M Train. There is much about death and life in her book, as there was too in Just Kids. She seems to have cracked the code, how to take each day, to take in each sorrow and joy in equal measure, or to tuck away into a useful compartment, all of the artist’s choosing. To me she seems to be saying it is by these tiny steps that we advance to that other side.

So I am reminded of this David, for whom the whole world mourns having departed too soon, or for him, at the exact right time. Every death is different, and a departing message always feels personally addressed, to us, a road map.

David Bowie copy


Walt Whitman

December 9, 2015

photo by Matt Swern

I’M THINKING ABOUT WALT WHITMAN!  His drama. His emotion. His love of nature, of men and women, and honesty…boy was he honest…uncensored, lyrical and bold. He is like my native Pine Barrens, fresh and raw and full of joy. Which is why I’m thrilled to be part of the anthology, Songs of Ourselves: America’s Interior Landscape, where the spirit of Walt hovers over each piece in this collection.

Now Available on Amazon

American Voices

October 9, 2015


Blue Heron Books artU P C O M I N G    P U B L I C A T I O N
“Growing Up (Italian) in the NJ Pine Barrens”
my memoir vignettes in an Anthology from:

Blue Heron Book Works ~  We love stories and we are dedicated to the idea that everyone’s individual story—not just those who live in the glare of the celebrity spotlight—is essential to the bigger story of who we are.

This quintessential American point of view is captured beautifully in journals and blogs, letters, in unedited and unreflective short bursts of observation and it is what we are celebrating in Songs of Ourselves: America’s Interior Landscape, coming soon in paper and ebook.

(Sometimes) it’s a good thing when history repeats Itself ~ ~

September 21, 2015

Pinelands Jetport 2_Fotor

The Pinelands Jetport:  A crazy plan in the 1960’s narrowly averted by citizen action ~

“Bridges to nowhere” crop up again and again with bigger money and political clout behind them. The New Jersey Pine Barrens is facing a rash of gas pipeline proposals with a fake argument for why they are necessary.

~~The fight is on — to stop a 30 inch-diameter natural gas pipeline to be put through forest and preservation areas of the New Jersey Pinelands, in direct, legal violation of the Pinelands’ own Comprehensive Management Plan. The real reason? Not the dire need for energy, but a glut of natural gas in search of a market…

Read Becky Free’s great piece:

This effort, to stop the proposed pipeline, mirrors the fight 50 years ago to stop the building of a “New City” and jetport in the N. J. Pinelands. Public opposition and soon to be governor, William T. Cahill, fought and succeeded in stopping the proposal. It may sound like the good old days, but when citizens engage, it’s possible to avoid destructive and costly mistakes.


Happy Birthday John Bartram! March 23, 1699 – September 22, 1777

March 23, 2015

That jolt of recognition!
Whether through a nice sentence or a photograph, you are transported by a sudden, ineffable feeling that can only be described as “home.”

I first came across John Bartram’s Garden, outside of Philadelphia, while doing research for my novel HEADFIRE. Initially, what caught my eye was a photograph of his home (in the collage below), that so resembled the property in the New Jersey Pine Barrens where I was raised, I did an abrupt double-take. It was like one of my photographs had somehow managed to slip into this old archive of life in what could only be the northeast of America, though not just anywhere.

The real resemblance to “home”–apart from the lakeside setting and near identical dock–was the familiar flora – trees and shrubs. More of a gestalt, because the photograph was blurry, but there was no mistaking the stunning similarity.

Compelled to read on, I learned about John Bartram, America’s first botanist, a Quaker with an abiding love and appreciation of nature. Self taught and maverick, Bartram (and his sons) are responsible for the first plant catalogue. John Bartram not only discovered, but introduced rhododendrons, azaleas, magnolias, and my favorite, kalmia, also known as Mountain Laurel, among other North American trees and shrubs. He gathered them up and down the eastern seaboard and shipped their seeds in his famous “boxes,” most notably to Europe, where his original specimens grow today in Kew Gardens, Oxford and Edinburgh botanical gardens.

According to Joel T. Fry, curator at Bartram’s Garden, the seeds were sent in one of the 3-by2 ½-foot boxes where you might “get 5 or 12 magnolia seeds and 25 to 50 pine cones.”

Read his incredible story, by Robin T. Reid,

Images reproduced in The New Mexican, "Botany Bay" by Rob DeWalt, Jan. 2013

Images reproduced in Pasatiempo, The New Mexican, “Botany Bay” by Rob DeWalt,  Jan. 2013   –   to coincide with a lecture by Thomas Antonio at the Museum of International Folk Art “Honoring John Bartram, America’s First Botanist”

Read John Bartram’s journals: Through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida.

John Bartram (March 23, 1699 – September 22, 1777)


The Italian Americans

March 9, 2015

 T h e  I t a l i a n  A m e r i c a n s  by  M a r i a  L a u r i n o 


This wonderful book is a detailed look at our Italian American ancestors, a comprehensive “history” with one important caveat: The Italian Americans by Maria Laurino is never ever “dry.” In fact, it is as colorful, elegant, and yes, even delicious, as our people and Italy itself.

For those who watched the 4-hour PBS documentary of the same name, you can expect this companion book to provide a richer, more nuanced portrait of so many struggles and triumphs. There is plenty of dark side, but far more brightness and optimism, qualities that occur naturally, and abundantly, in every Italian I know. With its plethora of color and black & white photos, The Italian Americans may look like a coffee table book, but it reads like one of the best adventure stories.

I am so grateful to Maria Laurino for illuminating our struggle to gain acceptance, and to finally, in this new century, witness and appreciate our lasting contribution to an America that continues to evolve with the histories of its newcomers.


Reluctant goodbye to blueberry season…

November 6, 2014



I know, blueberry season ended in California at least two months ago, but I’m not ready! Found this picture of my grandfather holding up a branch from one of his blueberry bushes in New Jersery (behind him is his farm). I can’t believe the berries were that large! According to the photo, the year is 1964.

A man named Frederick Coville, in 1916, successfully bred the highbush cultivars my grandfather would plant on his farm forty years later: Blueray, Bluecrop, Coville, Jersey, Berkeley and Weymouth, all of which are still grown today. My grandfather considered the sweet and early Weymouth to be his money-crop.


We need more humanists!

November 6, 2014

Leon Battista Alberti

Leon Battista Alberti  (1404-72) was a ‘universal’ Renaissance man and humanist. The humanists believed in studying “history, philosophy, and the classical texts,” believing this would result in an “ideal republic,” one that would thrive through participation and service.

We need another humanist movement today. Here’s why –

“To civic pride, an inheritance of communal Italy, the humanists added the aim of a secular intellectual life and Gilmour_Book_Fotora spirit of scientific inquiry. They attacked superstition and the corruption of the Church, they insisted on research uncontaminated by religion or politics, and they promoted the revival of classical learning, finding and preserving Greek and Latin texts and arguing that these contained instructive and relevant material that could not be found in the Bible. Their work was supported by nobles, rulers and sometimes even a pope, men who were eager to become patrons of scholarship as well as of art. Several of these humanists were given posts in government, especially in Florence, the capital of humanism from around 1375 to 1450.”

from David Gilmour’s wonderful history, “The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, Its Regions and Their Peoples.”


Homage to 176 Political Prisoners

October 28, 2014

SNOWDEN_LRGI’m reflecting on the bravery of individuals willing to stand up for something so important they sacrifice their freedom. Here is Edward Snowden at the Ai Weiwei exhibition on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, one of 176 political prisoners featured in the exhibit. Neither Snowden nor Ai Weiwei are permitted outside the countries where they reside, but their impact knows no borders. And the issues they fight for affect us all.

It gives me great hope when a person pushes against a powerful, sometimes unseen enemy. There is so much beauty, and much to admire in that. I can’t imagine losing my freedom.