if Monday is still a struggle, plan a little happiness, and slow down with one of my favorite Italian rituals

a gift from Hippocrates

We can thank Hippocrates for the Italian pre-dinner ritual of l’aperitivo, the noble descendant of the concoction he devised to stimulate the appetite. His was a sweet white wine infused with fraxinella, absinthe and rue, which meant it offered the added benefit of warding off plagues and pestilence.


Over the centuries, a white wine or Prosecco base has remained a mainstay, often mixed with soda and a bitter, such as Aperol, to make a spritz. Vermouth and Campari make a MiTo, derived from the cities Milano and Torino where they are made. Add soda water and the MiTo becomes an Americano. Or forget the soda water and add gin to make a Negroni. Add Prosecco instead of gin, it becomes the Negroni Sbagliato, which actually means a mistaken Negroni.


But there’s little mistaken about the art of the aperitivo. It is artistry, and not just in the drink. The Italians drink when they eat and and eat when they drink, so this pre-dinner beverage is always accompanied by savory snacks, and is best served with friends. Quantities are never overdone. The only excess comes from the sheer attention to detail.

Piazza Ducale

When I lived in Italy, I could stroll down the road from my apartment to one of Italy’s best kept secrets, Piazza Ducale in Vigevano. There I’d sit outside at one of the many bars to ready my appetite and in fact engage all of my senses, surrounded by the beauty of the 500 year old piazza, and the endless stream of locals, experts in slowing down and enjoying the moment.


Next time you’re in Italy, do as the locals do, preferably in the piazza under a setting summer sun. In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you do before dinner. Do you and your family or friends create special moments before you tuck in? Do you do it with an appetizer, a drink, or both? Might an Italian-style aperitivo be in your near future?

Buon appetito!

a bite to eat

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Yellow is the color we commonly associate with spring. It is the radiant color of sunshine, daffodils, lemons, bananas, emojis, highlighters, fluffy chicks, and the finest Pittsburgh sports shirts. It is a royal color. The early Tang dynasty banned common people and officials from wearing yellow, and declared royal palaces would be marked by yellow roofs.
It also denotes sickness—sallow skin, jaundice, or a bilious attack. It was the color of cowardice, as well as the star Jews were forced to wear, and of derogatory reference in the early twentieth century referring to immigrants from Asia.

Indian yellow

The pigment Indian yellow was popular among Indian painters in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Because of its odor, there was much conjecture about its origin. An Indian civil servant traced the mysterious yellow balls of pigment to a tiny suburb in Bengal. “There, a small group of gwalas (milkmen) tended a herd of ill-nourished cows they fed only on mango leaves and water. On this diet the cows produced extraordinarily luminous yellow urine—about three quarts per day per cow—which the gwalas collected in small earthen pots. Each night they boiled this down, strained it, and rolled the sediment into balls that were gently toasted over a fire and then left to dry out in the sun.”1

yellow books

The Italian word for yellow is giallo, which is also the word for thriller, because yellow book covers used to denote this genre of book. France, however, set the trend for yellow covers to mean sensationalist literature. In London in 1895, Oscar Wilde was arrested and later found officially guilty of gross indecency in court for carrying such a yellow book under his arm in public. Vincent Van Gogh painted a yellow book in two of his paintings. Yellow increasingly became symbolic of the rejection of repressed Victorian values, to the point where the final decade of the nineteenth century became known as the “Yellow Nineties”.

pause for yellow

Next time you see a daffodil, insert an emoji, or, for my writer friends, the next time you pick the dominant color for your book cover, perhaps you’ll #slowdown for a moment, and reflect on the story of yellow. And if you’re interested in reading more stories about colors, I highly recommend The Secret Lives of Color, by Kassia St. Clair, the inspiration and source for today’s post.

1T.N. Mukharji, “Piuri or Indian Yellow” in Journal of the Society for Arts, Vol. 32, No.1618 (Nov. 1883), pp. 16-17.



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a theater story

Aladdin’s lamp

At the Taproot Summit, Alison Diggs said that being inside the Tennessee State Theatre was like being inside Aladdin’s Lamp. When we went to see a Broadway stage production of The Wizard of Oz earlier this yearI had to agree. The lush interior is adorned with gold and jewels, oriental carpets and drapery. It is like a palace that is transported through thin air to a different world, just as story has the power to transport us to a different world.

People have been using story to make sense of life for as long as we have existed. Theater as we know it dates to the 6th century BCE, when a priest of Dionysus called Thespis engaged in a dialogue with the chorus at a festival honoring the god of wine and fertility. He became, in effect, the first actor. Actors in the west, ever since, have been proud to call themselves Thespians.

the Tennessee

The Tennessee State Theatre opened in Knoxville in 1928 as a movie palace. The Mighty Wurlitzer organ installed that year is still played every week to launch the week on the right note for a free lunch-time concert, Mighty Musical Monday.

Sadly, many early films were not preserved, the reels simply disposed of when they finished their run. The Tennessee’s first movie, The Fleet’s In, no longer exists today.

When The Wizard of Oz was first screened at the Tennessee in 1946, Knoxville Journal critic Sam Adkin called it “probably the most ornate and beautiful film ever produced.”

historic chapter

At its opening, the Tennessee Theatre was a whites-only theater, like many other theaters in Knoxville and throughout the South. In early 1963, students from Knoxville College protested on Gay Street outside the Tennessee. After months of nonviolent demonstrations, theater management relented during a screening of the powerful film To Kill A Mockingbird starring Gregory Peck.


With the help of the community, the Tennessee Theatre reopened in 2005 after renovations to restore its status as a resplendent entertainment palace, permitting a new chapter in the stage and screen storytelling in the 16th state.

your story

I’d love to hear from you. What’s your favorite play? Do you have a special theater in your neighborhood?


a play
a play




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spring tradition

The Greeks, Chinese and Persians exchanged eggs at spring festivals long before the Christian festival of Easter. Eggs were considered symbolic of the first sign of spring, and of fertility. They were also associated with magic because of the inexplicable birth of a living creature from such a strange object. To harness the eggs’ special powers, people would bury them beneath the foundations of buildings to ward off evil, and they’d be placed on thresholds for newlyweds to step over when they entered their homes for the first time.

the message is in the egg

Eggs have also been used to smuggle secret messages. During the Spanish Inquisition, Italian scholar, polymath and playwright Giambattista della Porta found a way to write secret messages on the inside of the unbroken shell. Seemingly intact, they were the only thing not checked at the gate of the prison where some of his friends were being held.
How did he do it? First, della Porta wrote on the egg shell using a mixture of plant pigments and alum. The ink penetrated the shell, and once it had dried, he boiled the egg in hot water and the ink on the outside washed away. The recipient in prison peeled off the shell to reveal the message on the egg white.

egg face

Like the prison guards, it never occurred to us to write on the inside of eggs, but growing up, we used to scoop out and eat our boiled eggs carefully so we didn’t break the shell. Then we’d turn the shell upside down in the egg cup and draw faces on the outside. Inevitably, we’d tell mum we weren’t hungry so we weren’t going to eat our eggs today. Of course, she never fell for it. My sister Vanessa always drew the best faces. Look at the ones we drew this Easter. We might not be eggstraordinarily gifted artists, but it’s all good fun. Which one do you like best? Vote in  the comments, and while you’re here, share your egg stories.


egg art

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mindfulness, and a cup of tea

In an age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.
Pico Iyer

the story of tea

According to Chinese legend, one fall afternoon long ago, Shennong decided to take a rest under a Camellia tree and boiled some water to drink. Dried leaves from the tree above floated down into the pot of boiling water and infused with the water, creating a pot of tea, marking the first ever infusion of the tea leaf.

For centuries, tea was used for its medicinal qualities, but became a popular drink in Buddhist monasteries after the caffeine proved to keep the monks awake during long hours of meditation.

slow down with a cup of tea

For some time, I’ve been pondering the question of how to slow down. Twice a year, at the Mindful Writers Retreat, I unplug in the company of other writers, focus on the now, and quiet the clutter of daily life to immerse myself in my writing. For the rest of the year, I try to do it by noticing the world around around me, the profound and the ordinary, #storyeverywhere, and when I can’t seem to stop racing, the act of brewing a cup of tea always helps. The first step is to select a type.
What’s your favorite brew? And what do you do to slow down and notice the world around you?


A good quality, well-steeped jasmine tea should be light and clean, with an aroma and aftertaste like a fine perfume. The Ming obsession with anything floral made jasmine a popular option. It is made by placing fresh jasmine flowers on a tray below a woven tray of green or black tea leaves in a warm room.
Often. jasmine tea has a base of green tea, so you get the proven health benefits of green tea plus its relaxing scent, found to lower heart rate. Some also claim that Jasmine acts as an aphrodisiac.

white peonyWhite Peony

This white tea is aromatic (with a peachy note) and the flavor is complex, fruity, stronger than most white teas, with slight mineral notes. It is made from a single bud and two tea leaves, which gently unfold in your tea pot, resembling the petals of a peony blossom, hence its name. The young leaves are carefully handpicked so that they suffer minimal crushing as it is when the tissue cells break that oxidation occurs and white tea stops being white tea.
A good white tea like this also contains antioxidants that strengthen your whole circulatory system. It helps both to lower blood pressure as well as reduce bad cholesterol levels.


Smoky, sweet, woody, grassy, vanilla, floral, geranium, honey, herbal and caramel are just a handful of the words that can describe the flavor spectrum of sipping a rooibos tea. Rooibos is an herb native to South Africa that isn’t even a true “tea” at all. Rather, it’s a plant that when harvested and dried can be brewed into a reddish-brown herbal infusion. Locals have been harvesting and brewing the naturally growing rooibos in the Cederberg region for hundreds of years.
The antioxidants in rooibos tea protect the liver from oxidative stress. It lowers blood pressure and relaxes tense muscles. Because it’s an herb, rooibos is completely caffeine free.
Rooibos is delicious sipped on its own but it also holds up to a splash of milk and a little sugar or honey, which is the traditional South African way to sip rooibos. The deep amber red color of brewed red rooibos makes it a great natural dying agent for hair color, fabric for crafts or Easter eggs.

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smell of old books


“A combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness, this unmistakable smell is as much a part of the book as its contents.”
Matija Strlič

Have you ever noticed how new books smell different from old books? This is because the pages of old books contain higher levels of lignin and other compounds. As these degrade, they release volatile organic compounds which reach our noses as the sweet, musky aroma of vanilla, almond, or chocolate, often mingling with smells absorbed from the book’s environment, like smoke or cat dander.
Matija Strlič and Cecilia Bembibre from University College London have developed a technique to sniff the gases given off by old books to capture their scent, and help monitor the health of the books for preservation purposes. The library of aromas they are collecting could also one day be used for multi-sensory experiences in museums or galleries. “As a society living at this point in time, which smells do we want our kids to inherit?” Bembibre says.


almond pages

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robed in white, snowflake fairies
ring together to wake sleeping nature,
milk drops conquer frozen earth, nod to fallen soldier.


drops on snowdrop


Have you ever noticed how snowdrops look like drops of milk hanging from a stem? The Romans did, because they named them Galanthus, which means “milk-white flowers”.

They are the first flower to conquer winter. According to a legend, if you listen really carefully, you can hear the bells ringing together to wake up sleeping nature.

Snowdrops grew wild near the terrible blood-stained battlefields of the Crimean war. British soldiers collected the tiny bulbs to take home or slip into letters to their wives and sweethearts, introducing them to the British Isles. Like everlasting tributes, they still bloom every year on the graves of the fallen soldiers.


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join me

Native Americans say spring is the re-awakening after a long sleep, and the power of new life. Spring represents victory over winter, winter is all about sadness and defeat, a season of survival and waiting.

I’m ready for spring, too, and I’m aiming for victory, only my mission is to restore the good name of the day that, too often, represents sadness and defeat. Monday doesn’t have to be a day of survival and waiting, it can be a purposeful launch to the week. I’m launching my week by looking for #storyeverywhere. I hope you’ll join me.

Sign up to my list, and I’ll see you bright and early!

tipped by snow

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Lavender, a childhood fragrance

from garden to drawer

My grandma, or granny as I called her, made me lavender bags when I was growing up—beautiful cotton sachets tied with ribbon or lace and filled with lavender harvested from her garden. I used to tuck them in my clothes drawers and the fragrance would remind me of her in the morning.

Garden is one of the British English words I cling to steadfastly. I’ve even rubbed off on my all-American granddaughter who loves to play in my ‘garden’, even though I conceded the vegetable patch to the deer a few years ago. For me, the word “yard” is rather barren, with connotations of concrete from a shipyard or metal from a junk yard. It doesn’t capture the romance, the feeling of peace that comes over me when I watch bees gathering, butterflies exalting, flowers exuding full color.

My garden falls short of the true English haven my mum creates year after year, but it brings me joy, it gives me a sense of renewal and rejuvenation.  I love to unwind with my camera, and explore the flower beds or the woods for images and patterns that only nature has the imagination to create. An instant slow-down moment. It’s the details that amaze me the most, the secrets you can’t know unless you stop for a closer look.

I planted lavender a few years ago. It’s given me a beautiful crop already, with a second about ready to pick. Soon, it will be dry and I’ll find some pretty cotton to make lavender bags. I think I’ll do them in my granddaughter’s favorite color, maybe she’ll tuck some away in her clothes drawers like I did.


lavender on wood
lavender on wood


lavender close
lavender close




















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When life gives you stories

a matter of perspective

A few weeks ago, we had the pleasure of going on a boat trip on Lake Erie. The colors were stunning—a patriotic parasailor, the blues of water and sky, colored rides at Cedar Point, but it was the lovely breeze on my face that fully grounded me into the moment.

There’s something about using more than one sense at a time, it’s a quicker, firmer way to slow things down and experience the present, which I talk about in Going Slow. And I’m continuing my explorations of senses in my new book.

The breeze made me think about the importance of details in a story, how they can add a richness that helps the reader to experience what the character is experiencing. (See the irony, from mindfulness to daydreaming?) I looked for words to describe this breeze so I could put it in my story. Only the character I’m developing right now is blind, and though people presume her life is dull, she actually has a better vision than most of what’s happening, and a pleasant breeze would add nothing to her story. Besides, she felt the breeze on her cheeks sounds a bit cliché, and who wants to read cliché? Which doesn’t seem fair because it really was a pleasant breeze.

You might have noticed, I’m still stubbornly stuck on the breeze. It was vivid, like one of those Old Man Winter faces you see on maps, only with spearmint fresh breath. Even if it doesn’t work for my blind woman, I can store it in my notebook for future use, or use it to create an entirely new character.

life inspires fiction

Like real life, a fictional character has a unique perspective. A unique set of experiences, physical abilities, even age will make her react a particular way. We can delve deep here to develop meaningful and diverse characters.

How about a fisherman who goes out on the lake every day? The wind might become so familiar it becomes invisible to him. But what if he starts every morning “listening” with his cheeks to feel the power of the wind, and the direction it’s coming from, like a personal weather forecast for the day?

What if my character has been a prisoner, incarcerated in a dank, sun-less cell. This his first time out—or his hundredth, and he’ll never take a breeze for granted again. Or a scientist who’d been stationed in Antarctica for six months, it would feel blissfully gentle. A women who survived a hurricane, but lost a loved one—it might feel like cruel mockery.

A multitude of experiences and factors defines how we as people and by extension fictional characters experience the world. Education, social class, special interests and the work we do.

fiction inspires life

Of course, sometimes it’s just a case of being 4 years old, or simply loving the color blue. But use details, portray a character in depth, and whether your reader loves or detests your character, they’ll know them so well they feel real. And it’s not all a one-way street. Just as real life can enhance our writing, fiction can enhance our experience of the real world, characters can open our eyes to a new perception of the world. And if fiction can broaden our perspective, it can foster understanding.

a challenge

Whether you’re a writer or a reader, I challenge you to try out life through someone else’s eyes. Imagine you’ve just been released from unlawful imprisonment halfway across the world and take a walk through town, seeing it for the first time after believing you would never see it again. Imagine being marooned on an island eating raw roots and sea urchins for the past six months, and eat your dinner as though it’s your first meal back in civilization.

Does it alter your perception of the familiar? Does your imagination ground you in the present, and gift you a moment of mindfulness? Did you get an idea for a story?

Please share in the comments. Let’s start a conversation, I’d love to hear what happened.

Preacher Gull
Preacher Gull
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