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1. On finding your memoir in the kitchen: dinner is served

Today on Huffington Post I'm sharing (in words) one of my seven video essays on the art of memoir. Here I'm thinking about those memoirs that begin in the kitchen and about the writers (MFK Fisher, Mary Gordon, Lavinia Greenlaw, Diana Abu-Jaber, and Chang-Rae Lee) who lead the way.

The link is here.

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2. going deeper

There is, in fact, no master plan, but this is what is happening: I'm growing.

No, I'm not referring to the physiological impact of the morning oatmeal cookie (butterscotch!). I'm referring to my spheres of interest, the books I'm reading, the ways I'm paying attention to the news, the bravado I displayed when I buckled down to learn how to throw a clay pot on a wheel (to learn, not to master; hardly master), the expanding repertoire in the kitchen. Hisham Matar's The Return has taught me some of the history, geography, and politics of Libya (and disappeared dissidents). Rebecca Mead has taught me Middlemarch and George Eliot. Katie Roiphe has taught me John Updike, Maurice Sendak, Dylan Thomas, and James Salter (among others). Scott Anderson, with his glorious New York Times Magazine essay, has taught me the antecedents of contemporary Middle East. Viet Thanh Nguyen is teaching me, with his Pulitzer winning The Sympathizer, the Vietnamese experience of war.


The world is complex. The news requires perspective. Life is once. I'm going deeper.

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3. restlessness at summer's end

End-of-summer restlessness. Too much of the politics. Too much of the heat. Too much of the bad-behaving swimmers. Too much, even, of the books that (despite a major early-summer purging) have again piled up around here (she is insatiable, this Beth is, she can't help herself with books, but sometimes, too, the books box her in). Her mind seeks a vacation, a respite from the known—the small house and the home-cooked meals, the familiar routines, the same walk over the same asphalt beneath the same trees, daily.

Saturday. August 20. 7 AM.

What will she do?

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4. Danielle Smith: A PW Star

There are no floating platters larger than these in the world.

And there is no greater star than Danielle Smith, who was just (drum roll, please) included on the list of the PW Star Watch. Nearly 300 entrants, my friends. Forty finalists. Just a handful of agents. And Danielle is one.

I nominated Danielle for this prize months ago, long before I even knew if Wild Blues (and me) would ultimately find a publishing home. I nominated her because I know her soul and her commitment to books and her kindness. These are the words I wrote. I am so happy for Miss Danielle.

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Now here’s a young woman you must meet.



Trained as an engineer, hailed early on as a major KidLit blogger (that award-winning 200,000 hits-a-month “There’s a Book”), and frequently consulted as a Cybil’s judge, say, or as a board member of the BEA Book Bloggers Advisory, Danielle Smith turned to agenting just a few years ago. At Foreword Literary she sold the sensation, Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book). Now, at Red Fox Literary, Danielle is continuing to both create careers and extend them for authors and illustrators of picture books, middle grade novels, and young adult literature.



Don’t try to pin her down to a single style or a raging trend. Don’t build, for her, a box. Don’t be ashamed to name your dreams. Don’t come to her mid-career (as I have) worried that your mid-career is maybe, perhaps, oh no, more like your end-of-career.


Because Danielle Smith has a plan for you. And it won’t be the well-trod one.



How about this,she’ll say, in the twinkle of an email.



We have momentum,she’ll say.



Optimism fuels the goodness in my life, she’ll say.


And she’ll be right. About all of it.



Danielle is innovative. She’s connected. She’s thoughtful. She reads, she advocates, she suggests. Agents (great ones) do all of those things, but Danielle further distinguishes herself by her approach—a philosophy that puts kindness first.



Kindness.



Imagine.



It’s tough out there in the publishing world. It’s hustle and razzle dazzle. It’s solar blast and fizzle. It’s the hot new thing and the marketing slogan. Danielle somehow quietly stands above the fray. She sees what must be done and she does it—with integrity, with an open heart, with a deep desire to populate the world with good books.



By taking on books and authors she genuinely believes in, by celebrating their victories all along the way, by practicing the art of gratitude, by caring deeply about the power of stories, by bringing her whole self (and indeed, her two adorable kids, her test readers) to the task, Danielle has the capacity to restore one’s faith in the publishing business.



She has certainly restored mine.



Danielle Smith is a rising star. That Snappsy, her first sold book, has been featured almost anywhere a book can be featured, gained a gigantic fan base, and started a movement. Her line-up of recently sold books wouldn’t fit on this page. Her connections to TV, movies, and foreign rights surprise even those who know how excellent she is.



She’s no wheeler-dealer, this Danielle Smith.



She’s something more. Proof that excellence can also be the product of humanity, dignity, humor, and love.




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5. Art in the Dark, at Longwood (Nightscape)



Next October (2017) I'll be leading a one-day memoir workshop at Longwood Gardens, using the topography and installations as literary prompts. Bill, my Juncture comrade in arms, will be with me, collecting images of the writers at work in those exquisite 400 acres.

We walk Longwood differently now when we go. Last night we went to experience Nightscape, the extraordinary sound and music show that runs from August through October. It's a seduction. A magic experienced in the dark of night among others whose voices you hear, whose passing bodies you're aware of, but whose faces mostly remain obscured. Trees and fronds are canvases. Long walkways. Ponds. Flowerbeds. You find your way. You look up. You stop to see.

To be outside in the dark living art in summer is a very good thing. To have the company of Matthew Ross, one of the most endearingly well-read, widely traveled, smart people you'll meet, is a big bonus. To have the rain begin, a soft pattering, as you walk the lit bridges is sweeter than I can say. The smell of earth rising at your feet. The hush of other passersby. The moon still in the sky.

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6. the beauty question (reflections after reading Rebecca Mead on Middlemarch)

I have made light of it, of course. I have said, within the past week, even: If only I were beautiful, Then. I wouldn't feel so unsettled as I sit before a camera, filming essays about memoir I've given my whole heart and head to. If only I were beautiful, Then. That driver wouldn't have cut me off; it was my turn after all. If only I were beautiful, Then. She would have never dared. If only I were beautiful, I'd be something.

No self-respecting woman is supposed to say such things, think such things, wallow so ungraciously. I know that. But the thoughts come unbidden, and there they are. Mucking around with me.

How easy it is to cast blame on those things I cannot control. How undignified not to stand up to the superficial me, not to embrace all my good fortune first and only. But there it is. I am.

Earlier this week, while reading the intensely intelligent memoir, My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, I found myself all caught up in the beauty question again. Mead is pondering George Eliot's appearance—the images she finds as she conducts her deep research into the life and mind of this complicated writer. Eliot did not, it seems, impress others as a beauty. She was possessed of a large nose and jowly facade. She was not svelte. She was not to be found in the fashion pages.

But, Mead writes, something happened when Eliot spoke. Something that contested the physical facts of her matter:

... a first impression of her hideousness, [Henry James] said, soon gave way to something else entirely. "Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end as I ended, in falling in love with her," he continued. "Yes behold me literally in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking."

Sara Jane Lippincott, Mead tells us, first found Eliot to be "exceedingly plain, with her aggressive jaw and her evasive blue yes.... Neither nose, nor mouth, nor chin were to my liking; but, as she grew interested and earnest in conversation, a great light flashed over or out of her face, till it seemed transfigured, while the sweetness of her rare smile was something quite indescribable."

Mead ends that paragraph with, "Ivan Turgenev, a friend of Eliot's, said that she made him understand that it was possible to fall in love with a woman who was not pretty."

Mead's entire book deserves your time. Mead's deft examination of how Eliot's biography shaped her fiction. Mead's brilliant assertion of the power books have to help us read our own lives. Mead's never-intrusive insertion of her personal journey as a repeated Middlemarch reader.

And, finally, Mead's lesson—Eliot's lesson—that, in a world of static images, Facebook portraits, video essays, beauty is not a closed one thing. Beauty moves.

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7. This Is the Story of You: The Scholastic Edition

A few weeks ago, the very lovely (inside! out!) Taylor Norman wrote with what was, to me, surprising news: This Is the Story of You has found some lucky momentum.

We trace much of that momentum to the book's gorgeous cover (thank you, Chronicle Books), to its timeliness in this weather-worried world, and to word of mouth (thank you, kind readers). We trace some of it the Jr Library Guild's generous selection. And now we also have Scholastic Books to thank, for making Story a book club selection.

Taylor just sent along this photo of a Scholastic edition book.

To which I answered, as I so often do when answering Taylor: woot.

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8. Juncture Workshops: we're in deep planning mode for Field Notes


Oh, it's getting exciting. Oh, it is. Every day of Juncture Workshops (Field Notes) now developed, reading by exercise by pause. The writers' own work ready for deep review. Lab Girl and the Lab Girl reading guide to be discussed over dinner. Mini lectures on form and universality.

September can't come soon enough, as we Field Noters now like to say.




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9. what's wrong with a little happiness?

Into this steamy heat I went a few hours ago, on my way to errands. I was driving my yellow car. I was thinking about the heirloom tomatoes I would buy, the watermelon and feta, the chunky bread. Thinking about lamb chops for dinner, maybe. Thinking I might treat myself to a pot of ACME roses.

As the first light went from red to green, as I accelerated, something inside me stopped.

I'm happy, I thought.

I'm happy.

I had cleaned the house in the early morning. I had scanned 30 new pages for the Juncture memoir workshop now set for less than a month from now. I had written to a friend. I'd cracked an egg to make my breakfast and found, within, twin yolks. This had been my day so far. And it seemed a perfect one.

How long has this simple happiness eluded me? What did it take far too many years to step away from so much that hurt, degraded, deflated, consumed, buried me with worry, kept me up at the wrong hours, made me feel less than, a last-in-line priority? We never know how much more time we have. We are bound (oh, trust me, I know) by responsibilities. But I had lived so subsumed by burdens that I had not made room for simple happiness.

Watermelon. Heirlooms. Feta. Homegrown mint. Chunky bread.

A pot of ACME roses.

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10. reviewing the exquisite Angela Palm (RIVERINE, a memoir) for the Chicago Tribune/Printers Row

Oh my friends. Some very big talent has just walked into the memoir room.

My review of Riverine, the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize winner, by Angela Palm, in Printers Row (Chicago Tribune). Click the link here for the full review.

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11. Today I lived as people should

I spent the morning revising a book I'm writing—finding all those places that cry out for more and developing (so happily) that more. I spent the afternoon reading the last three chapters (Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak, James Salter) of Katie Roiphe's magnificent reflections on writers facing their finalities (The Violet Hour). I spent time in between responding to all those really kind people who wrote to thank me for my essay on building a new life as I leave (for good now) corporate America, in this weekend's Philadelphia Inquirer. I watched my husband bring his wet clay things to the deck to dry. Physical work. Good work. I got a text from my son.

I walked, and as I walked, I talked to my great, great friend, Debbie Levy, whose I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark, is about to make a mega splash in this world.

I spend so much of my life worrying the global news and the private uncertainties. Pondering silences and outrage.

But today I lived as people should. Engaged with my world. Happy in the making. Grateful for the people I love.

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12. reading and writing memoir: announcing the release of our video shorts on Udemy

It's been nine months since Bill and I began to dream about, plan for, and make quiet declarations about this company called Juncture. 

We haven't had this much fun in years. Our first memoir workshop, at a central Pennsylvania farm, is five weeks or so away, with writers coming from around the world to join us. We have another workshop planned in November, a seaside gathering in Cape May, NJ. We're feeling pretty lucky about the memoirists who have stopped by to talk with us for our free monthly newsletter—and grateful when we read the newsletter-inspired work that comes our way. And this coming weekend, in the Currents section of the Philadelphia Inquirer, we tell the story of our transition from corporate America to this something brand new.

Now we're ready to release our first series of video shorts designed for readers and writers of memoir. There are six filmed essays here that braid classic and brand-new memoirs around themes ranging from writer's block to kitchen lives to time and mortality. Tillie Olsen, Maggie Nelson, James Baldwin, Mary-Louise Parker, Diana Abu-Jaber, MFK Fisher, Chang-Rae Lee, E.B. White, Terrence des Pres, Abigail Thomas, Annie Dillard, Sarah Manguso—they, and many others, are here. So are lessons and prompts.

"The Stories of Our Lives" can be accessed through Udemy, at a discount, using this link: Juncture16. Click the link to preview both the introduction and one full essay for free. Hopefully you'll be inspired to take the (very reasonable) plunge and watch the complete series.

Please consider passing the news on.

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13. living the hybrid life

At Chanticleer not long ago I photographed this winged thing. Like a hummingbird, but with antennae. Like a fattened frog, but it could fly.

I do not know the name of this hybrid creature, but I feel as if it is living my life. I'm glad that it, like me, has paused for a spell upon a bright pink flower.

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14. some words about my husband, the essential force behind Juncture

First of all, he's beautiful. You see him once, you know that. Second (since I'm already counting), his calm ways calm me. I can be out in the world, under assault, confused by the assault, and he's with me. You don't need to deal with that, he'll say. And it's true, I think, I don't. We'll have dinner, watch a movie, and the wounds of the day will be gone.

Third, and I promise that I'll be stopping here, he cares about the things he does, and I love how much he cares. Launching Juncture Workshops was Bill's idea. Crafting its image, its material self (a bank, a PO box, tax filings)—that was all his doing. The branding, the web work, the advertisements, the photography, the discovery of and interactions with the farm, the Cape May painted lady, the garden where these workshops will be held: that's all Bill. So is building the teleprompter that enabled the filming of these videos we'll soon be releasing through Udemy—videos that celebrate great memoirs, videos that suggest new ways to write—not to mention the positioning of the lights, the filtering of the camera, the selection of the music, and all the post production.

Bill is in possession of uncountable talents. He's bringing all of them to Juncture. Every day he finds a new way to do even more. So that much of this weekend and part of last week he's been researching and designing one of the very special gifts the workshop attendees will be receiving. So that all this weekend and part of last week, he's taken extreme pleasure from doing just that.

Bill's joy in co-creating Juncture is contagious. His faith in me as I build the content, ready the agenda, write the scripts, and prepare (also joyfully) to teach makes this thirty-year marriage feel brand new.

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15. I thought all publishing was behind me. Then this.


Last October, Danielle M. Smith, a friend and agent, picked up the phone and called me. My husband and I happened to be away, at a just-the-two-of-us retreat. It was raining. Outside, a river rose. I talked to Danielle for close to an hour.

About life, moose, cookies, hope. About what I was and was not writing. She asked the question. I said "not much." Finally, I confessed. There was this book, this very personal book, a book that I'd been writing. I wasn't sure I'd ever publish again. But the truth was, I couldn't stop myself from writing.

A few weeks later, I finished that book. I sent it to Danielle, a presumption. It isn't as if she'd asked for it. In fact, she actually had not. Danielle was busy building her new list with Red Fox Literary. She was selling story after story. I don't think she was in the market for another client. But there, with this book, I was.

She read right away. She had a hunch. A little while later, the book went to auction.

So, Danielle, this is for you. And this is for Caitlyn Dlouhy, editor extraordinaire, who said so much when we first talked that still resonates here, in my head and heart. And this is for the other really kind and smart editors who talked with me that week. Each of you a boon. Each unforgettable.

Sometimes, we give up on ourselves. Sometimes we're given (a gift) brand new chances.

I'm grateful for this one.

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16. living this life new

More and more, I am becoming me.

It took me this long to get here.

Fewer and fewer things in this house. A miniature car, bright orange. No more of that corporate work that bound me to this desk from 3 AM, sometimes until 10 PM, sometimes, work that made me less than pleasant (but only sometimes, I think, I hope). Only the books I want to read twice or three times in the house, and the ones I buy now are the ones I want, not the ones I feel an obligation to.

The work I do is the work I want to do. Reading the middle-grade books that carry the grown-up wisdoms. Reading the memoirs that I will teach. Profiling the people and places that inspire me, like Elisabeth Agro, say, who has revolutionized crafts in my city. Talking to other writers in real ways about the real work we hope to do.

I lived decades measuring my life by what I thought of as "real work." I was, I boasted to myself, making the correct sacrifices. I am trying on something new. Living my life as measured by my passions. I don't know how far this will go. But I'd be so mad at me if I didn't try it.

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17. oh, the places I'll go

Last evening, between storm surges and convention watching, Bill and I finished filming the sixth video in our memoir series (see our introductory video here). We put the finishing touches on the packet we're about to send to the first dozen writers (we love them all already) who will be joining us for our five-day workshop on the old farm in September. We looked, again, ahead.

Here's where I'll be (when not in this house reading and writing memoir) over the next few months:


On August 4th, I'll be at the Stone Harbor Yacht Club in Stone Harbor, NJ, sharing my Jersey Shore novel, This Is the Story of You and reading some of the Jersey Shore pieces I've written over time (a chapter in Small Damages, a chapter in Love: A Philadelphia Affair). We'll also have some memoir writing fun. The event begins at 3:30.

On September 4, I'll be in Decatur, GA, for that most amazing AJC Decatur Book Festival, sharing a panel with young adult writers Alexandra Sirowy and Ami Allen-Vath.

On September 11, I'll be on a farm with the incredible memoirists who have said yes to the inaugural Juncture Workshop series

On October 15, I'll be joining fiction writers Angela Flournoy and Toni Jensen, poets Robin Coste Lewis and Chloe Honum, YA fantasy writer Brenna Yovanoff, mystery writer Will Thomas, and romance author Sherry Thomas at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma for the Nimrod Conference Readers and Writers.

On November 1, I'll be in Cape May, NJ, for the second Juncture Workshop.

On November 8, I'll be conducting training for the T/E School District.



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18. introducing the Juncture video shorts: lessons on memoir for readers and writers



Over the past several weeks I've been here in my pretty little house reading and re-reading some of the world's great memoirists as I prepared for a series of six video shorts that will soon go live on Udemy. Think of Virginia Woolf, Alison Bechdel, Maggie Nelson, E.B. White, Abigail Thomas, Sy Montgomery, Angela Palm, James Baldwin, Helen Macdonald, Ta-Nehesi Coates, Chang-Rae Lee, Annie Dillard, and a variety of others all showing up for the same party. I'm hosting that party.

Bill, meanwhile, has been building (yes, building) a teleprompter, fixing the lights, turning on the camera and the voice recording equipment, and not making too much fun of me when I falter and we have to begin all again.

(I make him cookies. He forgives.)

This video tells you more about what this series is. I'll be reporting back when it is officially available. But if you have any interest and want us to send you an email when the whole series is fully live, just send us your address through the Juncture Workshop site (here) and we'll get back to you.

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19. scenes from a day of small-town unity, in Kutztown






At the Kutztown Folk Festival, Bill and I found hay balers, glass blowers, pot throwers, hex signs, the son of a Lebanese immigrant who has perfected leather. We found people, together. Open sky. A little peace.

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20. Juncture Workshops takes yet another step forward

When I left the vagaries and (often) cruelties of corporate America behind this past May, I wasn't only leaving something. I was stepping toward something new. We've called it Juncture Workshops. You know what it is—an intense focus on memoir and how it might be taught in ways that radically reinvent both community and self knowledge, literature and the single sentence.

Over the past few days we've been laying the groundwork for a new Juncture element—a series of brief video interludes that introduce (in Series 1) paired memoiristic essays (unexpected pairings, pairings that delight me, pairings I've not taught before) that reveal both the inner workings of memoir and the essential eruptions of memory.

We're filming our first one tomorrow. We'll be releasing the whole as a set on a teaching platform toward summer's end. I post this now because it's exciting to me—to discover these connections, and to share them.

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21. my Radnor High commencement speech: a video


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With thanks to Don Bain (for letting me know) and to those who captured this moment on film. Forever grateful.

These words feel particularly relevant today, in this world that keeps breaking our hearts.

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22. my father's house, settled, and in such very good hands

A few weeks ago, my last day at my father's house, I took this photograph.

An empty house. An empty room.

A journey ended.

This afternoon my father and I joined our beautiful realtor, and my friend, Marie, in an office down the road. We were handing over the keys to my father's house. A lovely young family is moving in. They will make this home their own.

A journey begun.

Thanks to all of you who have joined me on this journey of deep discovery, sometimes frustration, and, today, peace. So much is wrong with the world. The sale of this house to this family is not one of those things.

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23. All the Wonders: a conversation (and some news)


Sometimes everything falls into place. A dear friend becomes an agent. She sells (she does!) a book (two books). She forges a link to another special person. A conversation begins.

Who hasn't listened to an All the Wonders podcast and thought, Oh, my. What intelligent questions. What a happy dialogue. What a voice that Matthew Winner has. Who hasn't secretly hoped for the chance to be a guest?

Thanks to my agent, Danielle Smith, thanks to the sale of that book (those books), thanks to her generous linking of me to Matthew Winner (a writer, librarian, husband, dad, and All the Wonders wonder), I had my secret hope answered. I'm episode 272, and during our conversation I talk about the making of sentences, the intrusion of the writerly impulse, the story called THIS IS THE STORY OF YOU, and, well, my new news. Matthew reads from my book. So do I.

All of that is here.

Thank you infinitely, Mr. Winner and, of course, the remarkable Ms. Danielle Smith.


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24. in Chicago Tribune: the inherent wisdom of middle-grade books

A few months ago, I sat on the couch in my family room reading and re-reading middle-grade books. I had reached an end of sorts with young-adult fiction—had grown concerned about the divisions, the animosity, even, that had grown up among and between YA camps and were splitting writers from writers from (ultimately) readers. I wanted to feel the simple magic again of being a reader in a young person's world.

I read to be alive to the stories themselves. I read in search of binding patterns. I read, and I thought.

This essay, now published on Printers Row/Chicago Tribune, reports back on the thoughts I had.

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25. in the Philadelphia Inquirer: my morning with the incredible Elisabeth Agro




Several Fridays ago I had the extreme pleasure of spending a morning with Elisabeth Agro, the Nancy M. McNeil Associate Curator of American Modern and Contemporary Crafts and Decorative Arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

She inspired, educated, danced. She was alive, passionate, smart. She was breeze on a summer day. I adored her.

And so I wrote about Elisabeth for the Philadelphia Inquirer in this weekend edition that extends an open welcome to politicians, delegates, media, and conventioneers. Why not take a break from the balloons and debates and slip in among the art? Why not go to a quiet, thoughtful place and ponder the future of us?

A link to the story will go live on Sunday.

Meanwhile, those of you arriving or departing from Terminal D at the Philadelphia International Airport will perhaps notice the LOVE display that was unveiled a few months ago, in anticipation of this week. Based on the essays and photos in my book Love: A Philadelphia Affair, that mural, too, celebrates the museum as part of a broader celebration of our region.

We hope for peace and intelligent conversation this week. We hope to be a city well received and well remembered.

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