Monday, March 10, 2014

Interview with Jazz Pianist and Composer Mary Louise Knutson: Jazz, Improvisation and Creativity

Photo by Dietrich Gesk

Minneapolis-based jazz pianist, composer and teacher, Mary Louise Knutson has toured all over the United States with former Tonight Show bandleader and trumpeter Doc Severinsen and his big band and with her own group, Mary Louise Knutson Trio. She has appeared with such jazz greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby McFerrin, Dianne Reeves, Kevin Mahogany, and many others. As a show player, Knutson has performed with artists such as Reba McEntire, Michael Bolton, Donny Osmond, Smoky Robinson, the Osmond Brothers and comedian Phyllis Diller. Knutson's latest jazz trio CD, In the Bubble, made JazzWeek's Top 10 and stayed in the Top 50 for 19 consecutive weeks. Knutson's debut jazz trio CD, Call Me When You Get There, was featured in JazzWeek's Top 50 for eight consecutive weeks, earning Knutson the award for “Top New Jazz Instrumentalist of the Year” in 2001 from KWJL Radio in California. In 2006 Knutson was a Minnesota Music Awards nominee for both Jazz Artist of the Year and Pianist of the Year, and in 2005, she was a Finalist in the Kennedy Center’s Mary Lou Williams "Women in Jazz" International Pianist Competition. In 2004, Knutson was the recipient of Lawrence University's distinguished Nathan M. Pusey Alumni Achievement Award. As a composer she has won numerous awards, including two from Billboard magazine. Formerly an instructor in jazz piano and improvisation at Carleton College, Knutson teaches privately and conducts master classes in jazz, composition and improvisation.

Lisa: You have extensive training as a Classical pianist. At what point did you pick jazz as your focus and why?
Mary Louise: The summer following my junior year in high school I studied classical piano at the Eastman School of Music's summer session in Rochester, NY. High school kids from around the country were there to study either classical or jazz. I met a lot of the jazz students and was so inspired and intrigued by the music they were playing - the rich harmonies, the playful rhythms, the winding melodies, and the magical improvisation. My curiosity was piqued. I went off to college to continue my classical piano studies, but found a ways to dip my toes into the jazz pool as well. I played in several jazz ensembles, dabbled in jazz composition, and studied jazz piano privately for a couple summers. I learned about building chords and theory, yet I still didn't really know how to improvise and was very uncomfortable trying. Luckily, most of the jazz ensemble sheet music was written out and most of the improvised solos were handed off to more experienced improvisers. But my love for jazz was growing daily and I had a great desire to immerse myself in its challenges. By the time I graduated, I knew that I wanted to become a jazz pianist.  
Something else occurred right after college that further solidified my desire to learn improvisation. I had just received my degree in classical piano performance and was staying with my parents for the summer. I had also just performed my senior recital about a month earlier. A family friend was visiting and said, "Mary Louise, please play something from your recital." I attempted to play something, but I couldn't get through any of my pieces by memory and my books were stashed away in boxes. Then she said, "Well, surely you must be able to play SOMETHING!" I couldn't. I was so embarrassed that I couldn't play a thing without the music! I thought that surely she was thinking I should know the classical piano repertoire inside and out since I had just completed my degree. I wouldn't have even been able to play "Happy Birthday" had she requested it. So from that day on, it became my goal to play music by ear and to improvise, so that I could go anywhere in the world and play without written music. 
Lisa: How did you start playing with Doc Severinsen and his band? Was it intimidating? 

Mary Louise: My first gig with Doc was in 2010 when the Minnesota Orchestra hired me to play for his holiday show at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. There were hundreds of musicians on the stage - a 100-piece orchestra, a 100-piece choir, a 30-piece bell choir, a 15-piece big band, and a rhythm section (including me), which was at the back of the stage. Doc's drummer from the Tonight Show Band, Ed Shaughnessy, was a few feet away from me and Doc's bassist from New York, Kevin Thomas, was right next to me. Doc was clear across the room at the podium conducting and playing. It crossed my mind, "I wonder if Doc can even hear me back here."  
After the shows that weekend, the stage manager came to me and said that Doc wanted to see me in his office. I thought, "Oh no, Doc's probably going to give me some pointers on how I can improve." When I got there, he said, "You sound great! Do you want to go on tour with me?" I was ecstatic inside, but didn't want to show it. Of course I wanted to go on tour with him! It had been one of my dreams to tour with a nationally known and respected artist and here it was coming true!
The next year, Doc came to Minneapolis again to play a summer big band show and another winter holiday show, which I was hired for, but he hadn't called me for any touring that year. I was beginning to think that his offer was just too good to be true. But after the holiday show, Doc apologized that no tour had taken place and asked me if I'd help him put together a big band for touring. I thought, "How does he think I'm capable of helping him with THAT?" But I agreed, hoping that my beau, trombonist Michael Nelson, might be able to help me with the assignment. And he did. He knew which horn players played well together and which were a good fit for Doc's tastes. He hand-picked Doc's trumpet and trombone section and Doc picked his saxophone section (including two-time Grammy Award winner tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts, who was an original member of the Tonight Show Band), a drummer, and a bassist. Touring began in the spring of 2012.
Lisa: What is it like playing in Doc’s band? 

Mary Louise: The band is a real powerhouse and the soloists are burning. Doc likes the band to play with a lot power just like the big bands did before microphones were used. Plus he jokes that he can't hear very well. At 86, Doc knows exactly what he wants to hear, so we try to accommodate him at every turn. We all have so much respect and appreciation for who he is and what he has accomplished in his life as a musician and TV personality. And yes, that makes it very intimidating! Doc, himself, doesn't try to intimidate, but it's hard not to be intimidated by his masterful playing and lifetime of experience playing with every big name in the industry. Not to mention, I certainly want to play well for my band mates who are monster players themselves. 
Lisa: What are some peak experiences with your band mates?
Mary Louise: Peak experiences? Well, next to Doc, I have the best seat in the house at the piano, which is in front of the bass and drums and faces the horns. I can hear all the nuance and sheer power from the horns, the impressive solos from all corners of the band, and Doc's soaring trumpet. Every night is a peak experience. 
Lisa: Let’s talk about your life offstage. Can you describe your creative space? 
Mary Louise: I live with my musician boyfriend, Michael, in a 1920's stucco duplex. The first floor unit is our music space - I have the front two rooms and he has the back two rooms. A little sound proofing gives us more privacy. The upstairs unit is our living space. Pretty ideal for two musicians! My piano takes up one entire room except for the corners where I have my office desk and shelving.
Lisa: How do you do it all? How do you balance all the aspects of your career?
Mary Louise: If I ever hope to get anything accomplished creatively, I have to protect my time. And by that, I mean that I have to block off time in my schedule for practicing and composing, otherwise I'm likely to give time to other projects or spend the day procrastinating with activities that require less of a creative/emotional risk - like answering emails or promoting my gigs. If I'm lucky enough to have an open day (with no rehearsals, appointments, errands, etc), I try to get in 3 hours of practicing or composing, 2 hours of business, and 1 hour of exercise prior to my evening performance or teaching schedule. By writing my practicing and composing time in ink on my calendar (yes, I use a paper calendar!) I can check it off when it's done. And if I skip it, I know it, and am disappointed in myself. So the scheduling keeps me honest! I also turn off my phone during creative time. 
Lisa: Let’s talk about your compositions. How do you get started? What sorts of things fire your compositional imagination? What does your creative process look like? 
Mary Louise: One way I approach composition is to sit at the piano and allow my hands to wander across the keys, pressing down any key, any cluster of notes, any rhythm - sort of like what a child would do in their innocence and absence of knowledge. I attempt to be curious about what I'm hearing rather than judgmental. I try not to play any familiar chord voicings or harmonic patterns. I allow myself to fall into a rhythm, a melody, or a harmonic progression by surprise. And when something piques my interest, I write it down on staff paper. What appears first might be melody, harmony, or rhythm. It doesn't matter. Then I play with it and see if it can be developed. If it goes nowhere, then I leave it alone and hope to be inspired the next day. At least the seeds of the idea are written down.
Lisa: What’s the fastest time you’ve ever completed a piece?
Mary Louise: Only once have I developed a song quickly, within a few hours ("How Will I Know?" from Call Me When You Get There). I don't know how it flowed out so quickly, other than I was just lost in my feelings. Maybe letting my feelings be the guide was the approach here. Otherwise my compositions usually take weeks or months to complete. "Sea of Qi" from my latest CD, took SO long, at least 9 months. I was stuck for the longest time trying to find the chord progression that would end the first section and lead back to the repeat of the theme. I had to let it go and come back to it time and time again. Finally I found the missing chords and it all worked out. That was a happy day!  
Lisa: How do you deal with creative blocks like this without getting discouraged?
Mary Louise: Once when I was in a really deep creative slump, I decided to use a technic that I swore I’d never use. It’s a technic where you assign a number to every step of the scale...the first step of the scale would be 1, the second step of the scale would be 2, etc. Then you can take any sequence of numbers - say your birthdate, your social security number, your credit card number - and see if it makes a melody. I thought this was the most heartless approach to composition. But I was really stuck, so I tried my cell phone number and it worked really well! I titled the tune after the popular Verizon slogun, "Can You Hear Me Now?" and it's on my latest CD, In the Bubble. The "A" section melody is based on my cell number and the rest of the tune developed out of that. I will never criticize composing by number again!

Lisa: What do you believe are the top three most important things that help people be creative in their fields? 
Mary Louise: First, time management - respect your creative time, schedule time for creativity everyday (even if just 15 minutes). Second, when you show up for your creative time, leave your inner critic behind. Now is the time to go with the flow, go with your emotions, and let your art out on the page. You'll have the option to refine things later. Third, feed your "creative well"; at least once a week go see art, plays, dance, music, movies; spend time in nature; eat amazing food; try new things; spend time with friends. Sounds fun, doesn't it? If you deny yourself these pleasures, then you'll deny yourself inspiration. Much of this I learned from a book called, The Artist's Way, by Julia Cameron. It's an incredibly powerful workbook for anyone (not just artists) wishing to unleash their creativity. 
Lisa: I love that book! What else has led to your success?  
Mary Louise: Curiosity, patience, persistence, reliability, and a positive outlook. I always want to know "why?" and find out "how," and this curiosity has taken me deeper into everything I do, and luckily I have the patience to keep digging for the answers. My persistence in practicing over the years has helped me to grow well beyond my initial level of talent. I've landed a lot of opportunities just because I'm reliable. Many freelance musicians don't realize the damage they do when they make a policy of canceling one gig for a better paying gig, or by failing to study the music ahead of time, or wearing inappropriate attire. And finally, my positive attitude has been especially helpful in moving through challenges. I love this quote by Henry Ford, "Whether you think you can, or think you can't--you're right." This really rings true for me. I've actively analyzed my thoughts for years and what I've come to believe is that - what you choose to believe, or focus your attention on, is what manifests in your life. So, I'm mindful of my thoughts and when challenges come about (and as hard as it is to reroute my thoughts sometimes) I look for what's positive in the situation. Positivity creates flow, whereas negativity can be paralyzing. I've been paralyzed by fear and negativity many times, and it's much more fun to experience the flow and growth that positivity can bring!
Lisa: Any last words?  
Mary Louise: Thank you all, and Lisa (our host), for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you. . Here's wishing you all a joyful and abundantly creative life!  

To learn Mary Louise Knutson's ideas on teaching piano, improvisation and composition visit
To purchase CDs or learn about Mary Louise Knutson's upcoming performances and master classes visit her website:

Album cover photo by Dietrich Gesk
In the Bubble:
"This is timeless, classic piano trio music, right up there with Bill Evans and Bill Charlap." Pamela Espeland, Twin Cities Critics Tally 2011: Top 10 Albums, Star Tribune,

"...a masterful combination of original works and new arrangements... Knutson's compositions are marked by exquisite melodies, emotive harmonies, shifting rhythms and an elegant touch that recalls McPartland, Arriale, and Jarrett." Andrea Canter,

"...beautifully realized..." Stuart Kremsky, Cadence Jazz Magazine
"Her straight-ahead approach...spotlights her luminous work on the ivories, which is endearingly lyrical, sprightly, and rife with inventive nuances. She's been accurately compared to Bill Evans and Marian McPartland, with maybe the playful spirit of Vince Guaraldi thrown in."  Rick Mason, full review Critics' Picks, City Pages, Minneapolis-St. Paul 

Check out these samples from "IN THE BUBBLE" 

Album cover photo by Dietrich Gesk
Call Me When You Get There:
"Call Me When You Get There is...state-of-the-art piano trio finery." JazzTimes   
" excellent pianist whose voicings sometimes recall Bill Evans...she has a talent for coming up with fresh melodies. This is an impressive disc..." Scott Yanow, LA Jazz Scene 
"Mary Louise Knutson is somewhat reminiscent of Marian McPartland with her combination of strength and lyricism, line and texture, fresh reconceptions and exciting, beautiful original melodies. Piano Jazz is alive and well in Minnesota!"  Andrea Canter,

Check out these samples from "Call Me When You Get There"

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving Blessings Multiplied

There is a program begun by the Episcopal Church Women (ECW) of the United States that dates back to the 1800s—the United Thank Offering. Members of the congregation are provided with a “little blue box,” a cardboard piggy bank with a slot in the top of it. As church members go about their day they drop a coin in the slot with a little prayer of thanksgiving for the common and uncommon blessings of daily life: a baby’s smile, rain after a period of drought, a raise or promotion, a healing conversation, etc. The monies are collected biannually and sent in to the United Thank Offering fund which supplies grants for ministries and programs throughout the Anglican Communion in the states and world wide. Examples of projects that have received funding are a program to create a video and facilitators’ guide to address bullying in the schools, renovation of an unused parish refectory into apartments for the homeless, purchase of a van that will be used to deliver food, medical care and other services to those too far from the city center to receive help any other way.

I love the elegant simplicity of this idea. It’s better than the gratitude journals that became popular a few years ago, because our gratitude is converted into action; it has a ripple effect that makes the whole world a better place. To acknowledge the gifts we receive from each other and from life daily is psychologically beneficial. It makes us happier, reduces our stress, makes us see all of life in a new, more positive light. But to stop there is a bit self-serving. The “little blue box” ensures that I not only feel good but that the joy ripples outward. I am no longer a passive receiver but an agent of good and a catalyst for happiness in other lives.

In my family we began a practice of setting the “little blue box” in the middle of the dinner table and a few coins beside each of our plates. In lieu of a prayer, we each announce the blessings we are aware of that day and drop our coins into the box. Listening to each other, we become aware of blessings we hadn’t thought of, and our gratitude increases yet again.

Whatever your religion, creed or beliefs, I invite you to establish a thanksgiving piggy bank of your own. When your box is full, convert the money into a check and send it to the charity of your choice. We who have so much can do so much more in this simple and lovely way.
To find out more about the United Thank Offering visit:


Monday, October 7, 2013

An Interview with Author and Therapist, Jan Marquart

Jan Marquart is a psychotherapist and author who has written in every imaginable genre from fiction to memoir to poetry to self-help. She won the Writer's Digest Self-Published award in 2000 for The Breath of Dawn and the Achievement in Poetry Award by the International Library of Poetry in 2005. She is founder and CEO of About the Author Network, an organization dedicated to helping authors write, publish and sell their books.

She will be leading a Story Circle Network Writing from Life workshop November 2, 2013 in Austin, TX. For information and to register visit:

Lisa: How did you become both a writer and a therapist?

Jan: I was born in Brooklyn and lived there until I decided to go to college in California. I quit a great job as a legal secretary on Wall Street which disturbed my parents, but I couldn’t see myself taking shorthand and typing someone else’s ideas forever. I wanted to find out what I thought and desired to write since I was eight but tucked it away when my parents didn’t show an interest. When I enrolled in UCSC I met a friend who recommended I keep a journal. I have written every day since June, 1972. I studied philosophy and then got my master in Social Work.

Lisa: What do you wish people knew about you?
Jan: That is a great question. I have felt misunderstood most of my life and I realized that the thinking many people do is so limited and fearful. I suppose that’s why I write so much. When the pressure builds inside me I have to say it somehow, through some genre and still keep hope and faith. It takes a lot for me to ask for help, not because I can’t ask but because I don’t believe my life’s problems belong to anyone but me. I’d like people to know that for anyone who is suffering, me or anyone else, to receive an offer of help restores faith in humanity.
Lisa: Evidence for and trusting one's own intuition seems to be a major theme in much of your writing. Can you speak a little about that?
Jan: In the last twenty something years I had quite a few people tell me I couldn't do something while something inside me told me I could. They thought I just wanted to battle with them but I wasn't battling. I wasn't being recalcitrant. I truly knew I could do what they said I couldn't and proceeded from there. Turns out I did everything others told me I couldn't. So when people tell me what they think I am or am not capable of, I listen to the message from my gut. Sometimes my gut agrees and sometimes it doesn't. When I know better and I rationalize a reason not to listen to that voice, I suffer terribly. Listen to everyone but rarely take their comments to heart, especially when it comes to your capability.
Lisa: Of all the various genres you have tried, which seemed to come most naturally? Which was most challenging?
Jan: Once I start writing I don't feel as if I'm struggling with any of them. I think poetry is the most challenging because I don't know any formal poetry styles. I just write according to the power that comes through me.
Lisa: Do you use an editor or agent?
Jan: I had an agent for Kate's Way. I got her name from Lynn Andrews after asking her for and endorsement for [my how-to book] The Mindful Writer. As far as editors – I hire retired school teachers, friends, strangers, and anyone who would read my manuscripts. I like getting ordinary readers to give me their comments. All writers need to know that it takes other people to tell them what they like to read. We write in isolation but we must come out into the world with our manuscripts to see if they even make sense. I only make the changes that don't compromise the integrity of what I've written.
Lisa: What advice would you give to beginning writers?
Jan: Don't worry about how to discipline yourself to write. Don't worry about whether you can write or not. If you have something to say simply say it. You can't edit or publish anything unless you have written something first. I hear writers tell me in my workshops how frightened they are that someone they love will be angry at what they write. In my experience too many people don't do what they desire because of the criticism of narrow-minded and fear-based people. This is a dangerous place for writers. Write. Let other people decide how to behave around what you write.
From The Mindful Writer: Still the Mind, Free the Pen

"As a writer, going spelunking into your own experience may awaken ghosts and reveal black hearted wishes. But life has ways of forcing us to come to grips with the darkness so we can find the light in order to survive. What is your way to the light?"
"We call it 'writer's block' but there is no block. There is only our personal rhythm of experience."
 "I have found that all of life takes courage, relentless courage, and writing is no different."
From Echoes from the Womb: A Book for Daughters
"Daughters cannot help but take their mothers with them into their own old age. From conception to death we carry our mothers with us."
"We do stop crying and our pain can ease up if we face it with courage and hope. Learning how to suffer is a skill."
"You can pick and choose which pieces you want in the quilt of your future life and which ones you don't."



Monday, September 23, 2013

Wanting What I Already Have

Recently I have made a commitment to begin my days reading something spiritual. My first selection is by Joan Chittister, OSB, a profoundly wise little book, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today. It amazes me how this book, published in 1991, before the world wide web, still speaks of the same challenges we now face: how to live a holy life in a world that is ever closer and more connected, with technology that dominates our time and consumerism that invades our consciousness. "In a world in which the planet has become the neighborhood and our personal lives are made up of unending streams of people," she writes, "the Rule of Benedict with its accent on the spiritual qualities of life lived in common may never have been more relevant. I have begun to see under the covers of this age-old monastic rule a semblance of sanity to the insanity of   the world around me." (p. 11-12) What would she have made of the "unending streams of people" I can speak to  and they to me via the timeline of my Facebook page? Or a world in which I can download an entire library to my Kindle in less than an hour? Or a BOGO culture in which I get two blouses when I only really needed one, just because the second one was free?
The craziness of this massively inter-connected world is that amidst this plenty we can find ourselves very empty indeed. The shallowness of constant conversation via email and social media does not make up for the lost intimacy of a real, deep, nourishing conversation with a true friend. A closet full of clothes can hide the few, precious, beloved garments that bring back the best and brightest memories. A shelf full of books can camouflage the wisest and most life-changing favorites (like this one) amidst all the others I've "been meaning to read." Wisdom Distilled from the Daily gives us one approach through the ancient Rule of Saint Benedict as interpreted by this wise woman. "We have to come to understand that we have been allotted our portion of the goods of the earth; we have not been given the goods of the universe for our own personal consumption. We own this earth in common with the poor. We have to learn the difference between needs and wants so that the needs of all can be supplied, which doesn't mean that my own life must be narrow or restricted. It simply means I must come to understand the difference between having it all and having everything." (p. 72.)

Having it all vs. having everything. Having it all doesn't make me happier, it just creates more work, more things to dust, more things to wade through. And it leads to a world where a few have too much and too many have too little. Having everything is simply having that--and only that--which is necessary to live a life in balance, where work and leisure, solitude and companionship, the mundane and the sacred exist in equal measure. That kind of monasticism does not require I renounce my family or give away all my possessions or move into a convent. It simply means that I must focus on wanting what I have rather than trying to have whatever I want.

Monday, September 16, 2013

An Interview with the Story Circle Network's 2012 Sarton Memoir Winner, Monica Wood

Lisa: Your memoir, When We Were the Kennedys,  tells the story of your father’s sudden and unexpected death of a heart attack and how your family experienced that staggering event. How were able to write about such a painful time?
Monica:  Oh, but the writing was the opposite of painful! I loved being “back home,” even in the fraught year I was revisiting. I have such wonderful memories of my childhood, and my family at that time. Being with them again was a balm to my soul.

Lisa: Who were you thinking of as you wrote?

Monica: My audience for this book, for the first time in forever, was me. Just me. I’d hit a rough patch, both professionally and personally, and I was writing for comfort and consolation, not for publication. It was the most joyful writing I’d done in years.

Lisa: Your memoir is full of your early experiences with the love of words and books and stories. You describe in great detail the reams of beautiful paper that your father brought home from his job at the paper mill and the hours and hours you and your siblings spent filling the pages with drawings and stories.

Monica: Well, I come from Irish stock, and a love of words is in the DNA. Everyone in my family tells a great story. I do wonder, though, if being from a paper-mill town might have nudged me along the writing path. I love paper: I love its smell, its feel, its possibilities. Unlike a lot of writers, a blank page fills me with joy, not dread.

Lisa: Let’s talk a bit about those great family stories. What makes them so powerful?

Monica: I teach memoir writing now, and I don't think I'll ever go back to teaching fiction. I've seen first hand the power of speaking stories aloud, of simply putting on paper the tragic or ordinary or quirky or mundane. I teach in a women's prison and I see every week how their stories not only make them reflect on who they are, but how their stories connect them to one another in a place where human connection can be really risky.

Lisa: What else did you learn from doing the book?

Monica:  I learned that I have one memoir in me. I learned that voice is the key element in memoir. I learned that my skills as a novelist served me well in writing nonfiction.  And I learned that every particular family story is universal.

You can learn more about Monica Wood on her website:

“The Catholic tradition of my childhood—which I recall with affection, some awe, and a measure of yearning—did not allow for randomness. Every word and deed, every sorrow and triumph, every birth and death belonged to a Divine Plan. If at times you thought this Plan unreasonable, senseless, or just plain mean, you were asked to trust that even the most extreme sorrow had to be a blessing in disguise. Almost everything essential came to you in disguise.” P. 160

“We listen, all three, absorbing the sound as children from the coast might absorb the tidal sighing of a nearby sea, an ebb and flow so enduring that after a time the sound appears to be coming from within your own unsuspecting self. It’s been a long seven months, April to November, a tender time bracketed by death. A father, a president; the one grieved only by us, the other by a whole spacious-sky, purple-mountains-majesty, grain-waving country. I listen, with my sisters, in a kind of stupefied surrender, as the mill’s enduring breath smoothes over us, inhale, exhale.” P. 198


Monday, September 9, 2013

Book Review: When We Were the Kennedys

Monica Wood is the author of four works of fiction, most recently Any Bitter Thing, which spent twenty-one weeks on the American Booksellers Association extended best-seller list and was named a Book Sense Top Ten pick. Her other fiction includes Ernie’s Ark, Secret Language, and My Only Story, a finalist for the Kate Chopin Award. Her moving memoir, When We Were the Kennedys, is the winner of the Story Circle Network's 2012 Sarton Memoir Award.


“Our story, like the mill, hummed in the background of our every hour, a tale of quest and hope that resonated similarly in all the songs in all the blocks and houses, in the headlong shouts of all the children at play, in the murmur of all the graces said at all the kitchen tables. In my family, in every family, that story—with its implied happy ending—hinged on a single, beautiful, unbreakable, immutable fact: Dad. Then he died.”


Monica Wood’s writing is simply luminous as she magically conjures up a lost place and time — a small industrial Eastern town on the eve of the Kennedy assassination. The story of her father's sudden shattering death and her family's attempt to cope with the incomprehensible loss is brought
to vivid life through her precise and poetic prose. Her skill at characterization is so refined that I felt as though I really knew each of them personally: her no-nonsense little sister, Cathy; her solid, dependable big sister Anne; her forever-young handicapped sister Betty; her overwhelmed and anxious mother and heart-broken Catholic Priest uncle, "Father Bob;" her sometimes incomprehensible Lithuanian landlords the Norkuses and, of course, her beloved dad. Wood’s story begins the morning of her father’s death of sudden cardiac arrest on the way to his job at the local paper mill. Told through the perspective of her fourth-grade self we experience her shock as she struggles to understand what the loss will mean for herself, her mother and her siblings. Her poignant realization that anyone can be taken from us at any time is painfully raw and moving. Through her eyes we watch her family's sometimes incomprehensible response to grief, her mother, a widow, standing still and alone in a dark room, unable to return to her empty bed; her beloved uncle’s hidden alcoholism and brief institutionalization. “We were an ordinary family;” she writes, “a mill family, not the stuff of opera. And yet…my memory of that day reverberates down the decades as something close to music. Emotion, sensation, intuition. I see the day—or chips and bits, as if looking through a kaleidoscope—but I also hear it, a faraway composition in the melodious language of grief….” (p. 7) We watch as young Monica escapes her grief by delving into the world of Little Women and Nancy Drew and attempts to write her own novel poignantly titled The Mystery of the Missing Man. Here is a child in love with words, who copies them over and over on the beautifully made paper her father had brought home from the mill. Here is a child with the keen observational skills of the gifted author she will become.
This is an excerpt from a review that first appeared in the Story Circle Journal and on the Story Circle Book Review Site. To read more visit:



Monday, September 2, 2013

In Honor of Labor Day: What I Like About Weekends, Weekdays and a Little About the Sabbath

Being a piano teacher means most of my home is a public space. My living room connects to the dining room where my piano is located, and all that separates the dining room from the kitchen is a counter. In other words, my students and their parents can see almost the entire house except the bedrooms and the master bath. They have access to the other bathroom off the hallway.

Consequently, on teaching days, most of my house needs to be immaculate. I dust the living room and dining room, completely clean the kitchen and "guest" bath, vacuum and if I have time, sweep the sidewalk and porch leading to my front door. With the labor day weekend, I get a little break from the "my house must look perfect" compulsion.

With that in mind, and in honor of the Labor Day holiday, I thought I would write another list like the one I did about "how I know it's summer." So here, in no particular order, is a list of what I like about weekends. To keep a balanced perspective I followed it with, "what I like about weekdays."

What I like about weekends:
I can allow books and coffee mugs and knitting projects to accumulate on the living room tables.
If there are a couple of balls of dog fur fluff on the carpet, I don't need to panic.
If my husband leaves out his shaving cream and my daughter's toothpaste globs are congealing in the sink, I can ignore them.
I can wear my sweat pants or baggy jeans and a stained t-shirt with socks and flip flops if I want to.
It's OK if there are dirty dishes all over the kitchen counter.
I don't have to set the alarm clock.
I can stay up late and watch a movie.
There are people in my house to share the chores and to have fun with and talk to.

What I like about weekdays:
There are no people in my house; it's quiet and I can get work done.
Things don't get very messy because I have to stay on top of it.
Afterwards I get to read, play piano or work in a nice, tidy, comfortable space.
I get to do things my way.
I get to dress up and put on makeup which is creative and fun.
I have to get up to get my daughter off to school, so the day is longer and I get more accomplished.
I get to do work I'm passionate about and which is rewarding, interesting and even fun.
I miss my family, so appreciate them more when we sit down to dinner and talk about our days.

When all is said and done, what I really like is the switch from one mode to the other, from workday to rest day, like the change of seasons. Maybe that whole Sabbath idea is a good one. I like the idea of the Creator resting after six (or five) days of making something intricate and awe-inspiringly beautiful.