New Year’s Letter

Oh, 2016. We kept going. We kept it together, more or less.

Kana is in 10th grade, and enjoys math, science, and Latin. (Her parents approve!) Her real love, though, is horses. She has been riding at a nearby farm several times a week, and wants to adopt a horse of her own. We do have a horse barn on our property, which we use for chickens. We’ll see.

Kana and baby Sage

Kana and Woody

Kana and Clover

Sam continues to teach Latin, classical studies, and philosophy at Penn State Altoona, and to putter around our farm. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if his projects are progressing or not: I won’t tell you how many junk tractors he bought, “fixed,” broke, discarded, and/or sold in 2016. He also volunteers at the local raptor center.

Sam and a friend

I continue to teach French, women’s studies, and medieval studies at Penn State Altoona. I also continue to write fiction. I spent much of 2016 looking for an agent for my novel – not an easy task. Through a combination of persistence and luck, I eventually found the right agent, and my novel is now being submitted to publishers. If you want to know what it’s about, you can find out more on my author website: go to and click on The Lost Heirs of Perceforest.

The highlight of my year was the week I spent hiking in northern England with my sisters Anna and Maria.

Ilam Church, Ashbourne

With Anna in stormy Yorkshire

With Maria in the Peaks District

Kana and I also climbed Mt. Washington.

Kana on the way up Mt. Washington

We said goodbye to our beloved cat Miles in April. He was brave, kind, and interested in everything from puppies to plumbing.

Miles back in 2012, with new puppy Lizzie

Although we’ll never be able to replace Miles, we were still unwise enough to adopt a new kitten in June. Toshi loves playing with the dog’s tail, biting the humans’ hands, terrorizing the adult cats, and sitting in the sink waiting for someone to turn the water on.


The farm feels like a mess, but it produces things: veggies, peaches, honey, eggs. We have more potatoes and squash than we can eat, and we were still strip-mining carrots from the frozen ground in December. But some things never work: I can’t figure out how to grow artichokes, can’t keep weeds from strangling the asparagus or Japanese beetles from devouring the cherries, and didn’t find the time to make jam. All my bees died, as they do almost every year.

I don’t know yet how I’ll fight the darkness in 2017. I have no idea if I’ll manage to write another novel, or if the one I did write will be published. But I’m grateful to be doing the things I do, and living with the people I live with.

In 2017, may you find ways to be as brave as Carrie Fisher, as creative as David Bowie, and as steadfast as Muhammed Ali.

Kana and Lizzie


Retelling at a Distance: L’Amour de loin

Jaufré Rudel dies in the arms of his beloved. BNF ms. fr. 854, fol. 121v.

The twelfth-century troubadour Jaufré Rudel left behind six poems, four with melodies. One of them, words and music, is imbedded at the heart of L’Amour de loin, a medieval artifact at the core of a modern work.

L’Amour de loin (Love From Afar) is an opera by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, with a libretto by the Lebanese-born French author Amin Maalouf. It is based on a thirteenth century legend about Jaufré Rudel. For me, seeing the opera was a chance to reflect on retelling, and the particular challenges of retelling a medieval work for a modern audience.

The premise of L’Amour de loin is almost forbiddingly medieval. Jaufré falls in love with a woman he has never seen, the far-off countess of Tripoli, because of the good things he hears about her from travelers. It’s hard to imagine a less plausible reason. How is this possible, unless love itself means something different from what we assume?

It does. For Jaufré, being in love is all about writing poems. His impossible love is an excuse for his true obsession: his own words and melodies, which flow all the more freely because the lady who inspires them is an absent ideal. The trouble arises because she isn’t – she’s real, she learns how Jaufré is using her, and that knowledge changes everything. Her journey through the bewildering landscape of Jaufré’s obsession takes her from outrage to impotence (unable to compose poems, how can she answer her lover?) to rage.

All this is authentically medieval, an exploration of the self-destructive logic of courtly love. “If death were not so close, you would not be so near,” Jaufré sings to his lady toward the end of the opera.

Watching the story unfold according to rules laid down by a handful of poets writing in Occitan nearly nine hundred years ago, I thought of another kind of distance – that between the medieval story and its modern audience. Retold today, the legend acquires resonances its thirteenth-century writer couldn’t have imagined.

For this is a crusader story: the distant countess is a Frankish noble in the crusader state of Tripoli, in modern-day Lebanon. Jaufré, lord of a tiny principality in what’s now southern France, “takes up the cross” when he journeys to see her. This crusade isn’t about war, though; it’s about distance. The distance between East and West, the misunderstandings that arise from idealizing the other. The ruin that comes of trying to close the gap.

To tell medieval stories is to be confronted with that gap, again and again. Perhaps, the opera suggests, it’s best to acknowledge our distance. The far-off world of the past can never be entirely present to us.

In Act II, a pilgrim sings one of Jaufré’s songs to the countess. The delightful surprise for me (lost, I have to assume, on most of the rest of the audience), was that the song really is Jaufré’s – performed on instruments that didn’t exist when he was alive, but otherwise not so different from what he wrote in the twelfth century. The medieval poet is allowed to speak, not in the voice of the character who plays him, but in the voice of the go-between, the pilgrim (poetry is also a go-between), who sings it while apologizing for his faulty memory (history is also a faulty memory). Stopping and starting, bit by bit, the pilgrim delivers a flawed performance that he hopes is “more or less” right. Jaufré, when he hears that one of his songs has been performed “more or less,” is outraged. But, at this distance, “more or less” is all we have left.

Read the New York Times review of L’Amour de loin here.

Read Jaufré’s medieval biography (English translation by Rupert Pickens) here.

Found Materials

Leaf, feather, beak, stone

Leaf, feather, beak, stone

Most mornings, the dog and I go into the woods together, hunting for stories. Almost always, I come back with something in my hands. A bouquet of autumn leaves. A twist of grapevine, looped and curled. A horse chestnut, gleaming like a jewel. A bright blue feather.

These found treasures keep me company when I sit down to write. Usually, I clear them from my desk at the end of the day, but a few stay with me longer. I still have a piece of quartz broken from the bedrock of my family’s land in Vermont. The beak of a cardinal, found lying in the snow one winter, bright scarlet. And the skeleton leaf that spoke to me during one painful round of edits – I wanted to learn from the way it kept its shape, even with most of it gone.

I write to recycle another kind of found material. Forgotten stories, the ones that haven’t been told for so long they’re beginning to fall apart. I try to renovate them like houses, knocking down walls, prying away tired old ideas, patching leaks. Medieval stories weren’t built the way stories are today, and that’s both good and bad. I don’t aspire to be “authentic” so much as to recreate something useful. Something people might want to live in again.

“Being a writer” feels presumptuous to me. The alternative: being a redactor, medieval style. To wit:

  1. In medieval Occitan, poets were “troubadours”: finders. The things they “found” were words, phrases, images, poems.
  1. The writer’s material – the story-matter – is ancient, amorphous, vast. The task is to break off bits and struggle to impart shape to them, to make them “make sense.”
  1. Stories move over time. They grow and change. Not only the ones that are constantly retold: the neglected ones can change too, when no one is looking.
  1. To discover the truest version of a story, listen to it closely. It may be that everyone has always told the story wrong. There may be no evidence for this, beyond the story’s own complaint, its own demand to be told differently. Listen to the story, always.