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The Ripple Effect

The author in Costa Rica, circa 1986.

Photographs convey an immediacy that compels us to respond. A photo can transport us back to a precise moment more rapidly than words. But words — journal entries, letters, hurried notes — take us beyond simple visual memory. Words have the power to replay history, stirring recollections of who and what we were along the timeline of our lives.

I was reminded of that recently when I uncovered a snapshot stuffed in a file of my old news clips from Central America. The picture, a casually composed Polaroid, gives little away. The only clue to where or when the picture was taken is scrawled across the bottom: 1986, El Pueblo. How the group knew each other and what brought us together in that particular bar is left to the viewer’s imagination. I knew the photo was taken in San Jose, and could still identify the group. But it was the scrap of a story clipped to the photo — a grad school assignment written years after I left Costa Rica — that brought those years tumbling back.

Seated around a wooden bar table, leaning against each other and across a stained plastic mat, the six of us look happy. We were friends of a sort, brought together in a strange and difficult place where we lived and worked for a brief time and then moved on. When I look at the photo all these years later, I am almost fooled into thinking we were the best of friends. In truth, I was never a part of their group, a select few bonded by one overriding memory that forever defined their friendship.

It was death that brought them together. The bombing made news around the world not so much for who died, but for who didn’t. The narrow escape of Eden Pastora, a Nicaraguan revolutionary turned rebel fighter, filled the column inches. The brutal death of an American reporter, wife and mother of an eight-year-old boy, was judged less newsworthy. But in San Jose, Linda Frazier’s murder left a long shadow; not just over her grieving family, but over the Costa Rican paper she was a part of — the paper where the six of us first met.

My mother would often recount the story of how I took a job on that paper, stepping in after a woman reporter was killed. She saw my decision as rash and a testament to my daredevil temperament. She was partly right, as mothers often are. But what she didn’t understand was why I wanted to work there.

The paper was run out of a ramshackle colonial house in central San Jose. It was painted Pepto-Bismol pink and housed an assortment of stray cats, a family of rabbits and a crew of underpaid, young journalists. We loved it, knowing we were at the heart of a big story — a guerrilla war bankrolled by Washington and fought along Costa Rica’s northern border. Journalists from media outlets around the world would drift in to write about the Contra insurgency, hiring us to book interviews, translate or take notes at press conferences. “Fixers,” they called us.

It was one of those fixer jobs that first brought me to the Nicaraguan border. We travelled up river along the San Juan for hours, passing near the rebel camp where two years earlier, a bomb exploded at a news conference killing seven people, including three journalists, one of them Linda. Night had fallen by the time the reporters assembled, packed into a wooded shack on stilts above the muddy river. Pastora had just begun answering questions when the bomb went off, sending shrapnel in all directions.

Despite the trip, despite coming so close to that reality, for me the tragedy remained a distant event. And when the others would recount the long night waiting for news of friends that lived or died in that ill-fated press conference, when they would mull over every detail and obsess about the identity of the still-unknown bomber, I would only listen…

When I saw Pastora’s obituary last month in The New York Times I thought of my time in Central America, and my writing of events there. Not long after the snapshot was taken, I interviewed Pastora. By then he’d abandoned his war against the Sandinistas, but still reveled in telling tales of his adventures — the dangerous, wild life he led as a revolutionary hero, Contra guerilla and finally, shark fisherman. It’s the back story to a photo that truly resonates, the complicated stuff that we can’t see. And it’s those stories that cause a ripple effect, evoking in us wave after wave of deepening memories.

The author in Managua, Nicaragua.

Remembering What Matters Most

I ’ve done a lot of thinking about my own mortality these past few months, in the thick of the pandemic. Like most people, I’m not easy with pondering my own demise, and even less comfortable planning for it.

But I’ve discovered that thinking about death has forced me to consider what matters most in life: family, friends and long-held passions.  It’s been an unexpectedly comforting meditation, unearthing old memories, untold stories and life lessons I’ve picked up over many decades. It struck me, not for the first time, that while we often define our lives by the material treasures around us, it’s the life lessons we learn, the wisdom we gain and the stories we pass on to the next generation that truly define our legacy.

My musings got me thinking about ethical wills, a particular kind of storytelling where the focus isn’t on the timeline of a life, but the values that bind us together.

The ethical will has been around since Biblical times. In fact, there’s a reference to the tradition in Genesis 49 when a dying Jacob calls his sons to his tent, determined to give each of the 12 some very specific advice.  

One of the most famous early ethical wills, written in the 11th century, comes from a Spanish doctor, Judah ibn Tibbon. The document, which runs over 50 pages, is packed with detailed advice for his son Samuel on an slew of subjects, from telling him to study medicine and the Torah, to ordering him to honor his wife. Apparently eager to leave no stone unturned in Samuel’s life, the anxious father even spelled out how his son should care for the family library:

Never refuse to lend books to anyone who has not the means to purchase books for himself, but only act thus to those who can be trusted to return the volumes. Cover the bookcases with rugs of fine quality and preserve them from damp and from mice, for your books are your greatest treasure…

Modern ethical wills have come a long way from those ancient scrolls. To start, they come in curiously creative packages — films, digital recordings, handwritten letters, illustrated books, a collage of beloved photos, a laundry list of ideas — and can be addressed to anyone the writer thinks should read them. I heard of one case in which a young mother, diagnosed with terminal cancer and longing to leave her two daughters her best advice, bundled together a packet of letters for each girl to read on the most important days of her life — 21st birthday, graduation, wedding, becoming a parent.

Recognizing the emotional clout of ethical wills, lawyers are increasingly adding them to their estate planning toolbox too. As the Vermont attorney William Deveneau explains:  

For the most part we leave the decision to write an ethical will up to the client, but we do tell them that if they want their values, life lessons and advice to be passed on to the next generation, they need to put it in writing or it’s unlikely to ever happen.

This is especially true, Deveneau says, if there’s potential for a quarrel when the legal will is read.

If there’s the possibility that the [legal] will might infuriate people, I suggest including an explanation. I’ve found that explaining the values and emotions behind the decision can help soothe conflict among the descendants.

Sometimes an ethical will goes well beyond a family legacy, posing instead as a speech that powerfully addresses the writer’s hopes and dreams for the next generation. In this month of cancelled graduations, I’m reminded of Steve Job’s poignant commencement address at Stanford. Standing before the Class of 2005, believing in that moment he’d survived cancer, Jobs bequeaths the graduates his lessons on life. Emotional and inspiring, the man who changed the tech landscape forever told the crowd that coming close to death had forced him to look at what was most important in his life. Don’t settle, he urged them, do what you love.

…Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition…

The speech ends, as any will should, learning from the past and looking toward the future: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”

I Wish I’d Asked

Megan Johnson Randall in her Vermont kitchen.

As I grow older, my hair gets frizzier, and there’s many a morning when I like to pull it back and up into a cheap facelift. As I anchor it with a few bobby pins and a claw clip, I often think of Grandma Randall. She had smooth silver hair, not at all frizzy, and she’d sweep it up in one deft twist which poufed naturally in front into a slight pompadour. As a young girl, I admired her gesture of careless elegance, and marveled that the twist stayed put all day long.

Grandma was from Louisville, Kentucky, a southerner and a farm girl who did most things with a certain dash. She was also cranky and fundamentalist. You avoided getting into a long conversation with her; you might end up, as I did once, being forced by guilt into memorizing the first chapter of the Gospel of John.

Maybe Grandma’s critical nature prevented us from prodding her for more stories, or maybe we took it for granted, as children will, that we already knew all there was to learn about her life, but I regret not asking more, now that there’s no one left to witness or explain. I’m left with her pretty old hands on the silver twist of her hair, the wonderful peach cobbler she threw together one hot summer day when too many peaches ripened at once, her slightly bow legs she said were from horseback riding, and those delicious molasses cookies she made from memory.

Oh those cookies! How many times have my sisters and I said to one another, “I wish we had Grandma’s molasses cookie recipe!” But I never saw Grandma work from a recipe. Her molasses cookies were as big as my palm and a half-inch thick, soft and cakey, an aromatic dark brown. Did she use the sorghum she sometimes brought us from down south? I wish I’d taken the time to learn how she made them, to show my love that way. As I twist up my hair, I think of the small things we leave behind us, and the importance of witness. As the Gospel of John says, “In the beginning was the Word.” Words save memories; be sure to leave some behind. Be sure to collect them. Especially now while we’re all stuck inside with so little social interaction with those we love, get them to make a video of each other making the treasured brisket recipe, the family favorite O’Henry bars, mom’s inimitable pie crust. Tell us about your results.

And while memory plays tricks and makes many things impossibly delicious, here’s a challenge for you. Can you replicate Grandma Randall’s large, very dark, cakey molasses cookies? Maybe it’s regional?

What follows are two not quite it molasses cookie recipes. One is from The Silver Palate Cookbook. They’re addictive, but too flat and too chewy to be Grandma’s. The second is an old standby from Joy of Cooking, too small, too light colored, just not Gram’s. Neither can replicate Grandma’s recipe, put together by handfuls instead of using a measuring cup, by guess and by golly, from her long practice of 80 plus years. Got another offering?

Contributing writer Megan Johnson Randall is a retired English teacher who holds a master’s degree in creative writing.


Molasses Cookies

The Silver Palate Cookbook By Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins

24 large, flat cookies

12 tablespoons (1 ½ sticks) butter

1 cup granulated sugar

¼ cup molasses

1 egg

1 ¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour

½  teaspoon ground cloves (I adjust to ¼ teaspoon as cloves can be overpowering)

1 ½ teaspoons ground ginger (I adjust to 2 heaping teaspoons)

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon baking soda

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
  2. Melt butter, add sugar and molasses, and mix thoroughly. Lightly beat egg and add to butter mixture; blend well.
  3. Sift flour with spices, salt and baking soda, and add to first mixture; mix. Batter will be wet.
  4. Lay a sheet of foil on a cookie sheet. Drop tablespoons of cookie batter on foil, leaving 3 inches between cookies. These will spread during baking.
  5. Bake until cookies start to darken, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from oven while still soft. Carefully slide foil off baking sheet. Let cookies cool on foil.


Old-Fashioned Molasses Cookies*

The Joy of Cooking By Irma S. Rombauer & Marion Rombauer Becker

About 40 2-inch cookies

  • Beat until soft: ½ cup butter or shortening
  • Add gradually and blend until light and creamy: ½ cup sugar
  • Beat in: 1 egg ; ½ cup molasses
  • Have ready: ½ cup buttermilk
  • Sift together: 2 ½ cups sifted cake flour ; 1 teaspoon baking soda ; 1 teaspoon each cinnamon and ginger ; ¼ teaspoon cloves
  • Add sifted ingredients in 3 parts to the sugar mixture, alternately with the buttermilk. Beat the batter until smooth after each addition. Add: ½ cup chopped raisins

Drop the batter from a teaspoon onto a greased cookie sheet. Bake 8 to 12 minutes.   

*Please note that this recipe is a perfect illustration of Rombauer’s injunction to always read the recipe through before beginning. But never fear: no buttermilk? Cake flour? See her invaluable chapter on Substitutions.

Beating Boredom In Lockdown

Diary Pages, Michelle Phillips © Peter Beard

A friend of mine emailed me an article today on cleaning house for the coronavirus. Armed with sprays and wipes I vigorously scrubbed all the high-touch surfaces I could think of while trying hard, as instructed, “not to be neurotic about it.” Fifteen minutes into my manic marathon, my stress levels rising, I shelved the wipes and reached for tea and shortbread. I was gonna need a better project.

Hunkered down at home, we’re all scrambling to find ways to get through this crisis and maintain our sanity, our spirits and our sense of self. And while being stuck inside is hardly an opportunity any one of us would have wished for, it does give us time to do things we might never have considered. Sure there’s binge-watching Mad Men or re-reading Jane Austen, but for me neither stretches the boundaries of novelty. And as the world spins wildly around me, I’m not inclined to file photos or organize my kitchen cabinets. So let me suggest a project that will set your imagination free, throw you back into the past, or jolt you into the future. A project that’s all about you: creative writing.

One of the first and best books I ever read on the subject, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, talks about writing without any expectations, “to give yourself the space to write a lot without a destination.” Let go of your paralyzing constraints. What will people think? How do I begin? My spelling is terrible! And instead, dive in:

  • Forget your computer, use paper and pen. There are plenty of options: a repurposed notebook, a yellow legal pad or a brand new journal, if you want the thrill of getting a package delivered.
  • Find a private space and commit yourself to a few minutes, a half-hour or even an hour.
  • And as Goldberg says: Don’t get logical, don’t think … lose control.
  • She offers a wonderful array of starter questions to get you going, among them, begin with “I remember,” small memories or big, just keep going.
  • Write about the street you grew up on, the walk you took this morning, your first love, a meal you cooked, going home.
  •  Stephen King’s masterful writing memoir, On Writing, advises that the most interesting story lines can be conjured asking “what-if questions.” He writes: “What if vampires invaded a small New England village (Salem’s Lot)? … What if a young mother and her son became trapped in their stalled car by a rabid dog (Cujo)?
  • Of course not all of us have the King’s strange, you might say tortured imagination, but letting your own thoughts wander unrestrained can kick off some fascinating ideas.  What if a virus shut down America? …. Maybe not.
  • Finally, there is visual journaling – the new rage.  Surrounded by artists most of my life, including a son in art school, I’m not surprised the world at large has adopted the idea. These are essentially diaries with both images (usually drawings or collage) and words. They can take the structured, often stiff, task of keeping a journal into a whole new imaginative realm, tapping into your creativity in an entirely different way. Be inspired and don’t let your inner critic get in the way, you might find the process liberating and fun.

If nothing else, letting your creative side run free might take your mind off the world outside the window. Remember, some of our most treasured writers were witnesses to the toughest times.

Diary Pages, Khadija and ’78 Diary © Peter Beard

True North: A Love Story In 5 Maps

True North: A Love Story In Five Maps recounts a couple’s courtship through their travels and adventures.

The Heart of interviewing

The journalist Isabel Wilkerson once said the trick of getting ordinary people to open up about their lives is to create what she calls “accelerated intimacy” between her and her sources. Don’t ever lead the interview, she cautions, instead let it develop like a guided conversation.

I thought of that the other day when I sat down to interview a young couple for a Short Take they’d commissioned for their first wedding anniversary. They were easy-going and eager to talk, but describing the ups and downs of a love affair can quiet the most effusive among us. In their case, we were lucky, they’d come equipped with props: five maps.

As they told the story of the maps, connecting each to a moment in their courtship, they visibly relaxed into the conversation. What started as a formal interview quietly shifted gears into something less guarded. Of course letting a couple steer the narrative can feel a bit like watching a game of street basketball — he starts to dribble, she steals the ball, he recovers it, pauses, and passes back to her — but the process brings out the best of both partners’ tale-telling abilities as they pick up the thread of each other’s storylines and expand on the other’s thoughts and memories. It’s a delight to record.

In the best of personal interviews, what begins as a dry series of introductory questions quickly morphs into a fun and often even funny narration. It can be irreverent, intense, emotional and curious, but most often provides the makings of an openhearted narrative — a love story to cherish. — Caitlin Randall

The Soul of Design

The basketball analogy is apt. The subjects of our book — Jesse and Betsy — are athletes, and when they are in motion, they are at their least self-conscious. And so I embraced their suggestion that they be photographed while going for a run. Not only did that free them from worrying about how they looked on camera, but it created an air of spontaneity that resulted in images that pleased us all. Certainly their dog, Banjo, helped lighten the mood.

It was only after the portrait session that I read Caitlin’s text for the Short Take and began designing Jesse and Betsy’s book. Its subtitle, A Love Story In Five Maps, was a given, but the concept didn’t come together until I actually saw the maps that Jesse had drawn. His very literal interpretation of a compass rose — complete with thorns — was as romantic as it was clever. I thought, What does the rose point to? What is the heart’s desire? The answer was our title: True North. — Peter Crabtree

Taking the Leap to Propose: What Are Women Waiting For?

Amy Adams and Matthew Goode duke it out in Leap Year (2010). 

Leap Year, that weird calendar oddity that only comes every four years, has inspired a slew of stories and superstitions. The most famous — February 29th is the day women can ask men to marry them — was conjured up in Ireland sometime back in the 5th century.

Legend has it that an Irish nun known as Saint Brigid of Kildare bitterly complained to Saint Patrick that too many women were waiting too long for men to propose marriage. The country’s patron saint agreed to give women one day in the calendar — conveniently one that falls only every four years — when they could ask their longtime suitors to wed. If the man said ‘no’ tradition demanded that he buy his spurned girlfriend a silk gown. I wonder how many rejected women felt they’d won the better end of that deal.

For a woman to propose on any other day among the 365/366 in the Gregorian calendar was and, to a certain extent, still is considered a major no-no. Astoundingly, society clings to the notion that a marriage proposal is a male responsibility. The idea is so culturally pervasive that a woman dropping down on one knee to propose is still a rarity. The image of a ‘desperate woman’ prevails.

So what do you think? Does it really matter who proposes to whom — or why, or how? And a shoutout to all the modern women out there: Would you or have you popped the question? We’d love to hear your stories!

Here are a few famous women who have done the proposing:

  • Actress Kristen Bell to Dax Shepard
  • Pop star Britney Spears to Kevin Federline on a flight back from Ireland (where else?)
  • Singer/songwriter Pink to Carey Hart
  • Fashion designer Diane Von Furstenberg to Barry Diller
  • TV’s Judge Judy to Jerry Sheindlin
  • Elizabeth Taylor, married seven times, but only asked one man, Michael Wilding, to marry her

Top Tips For Love, Or At Least How To Write About It

Groom tenderly touching his bride's bare back.

At first blush, writing about romance may seem as easy as, well … falling in love. It isn’t, even for the hopeless romantics among us. At The Story Project we have the lucky advantage of penning the stories our clients tell us. It’s not up to us to devise romantic plot twists, adorable “meet cutes,” or emotional grand declarations. That’s best left to the Hollywood RomCom writers.

Our job is the not-so-small matter of coaxing couples to talk (yes, it’s mostly the men that duck for cover). And then there’s the challenge of writing a story  — from first glance to “I do” — that captures the essence of their romance.

As a Valentine’s Day gift to the wanna-be romance novelists among you, or just those of you inspired enough to compose a truly personal card this year, here are some of our best tips for writing about love:

Soldier embracing his girlfriend upon his return from combat.
(Photos Peter Crabtree)

— Steer clear of clichés. “It was Kismet” or “we fit together like pieces of a puzzle” are as old as the hills (excuse the cliché) and read that way.

— Write in your own voice. Any attempt to parrot Jane Austen’s genius, or for that matter, Danielle Steele’s sauciness, reads like what it is: a stale imitation.

— The “meet cute,” Hollywood’s name for a charming, sometimes ironic way for a couple to meet, is one of the most used tropes in film. It’s also one of the most difficult to write. Skip it. A first encounter doesn’t have to be adorable or embarrassing to grab your readers’ attention. Sometimes reality works fine. I once asked a colleague how she met her husband. “We met in the office,” she said shrugging at the dullness of it. “We hated each other. It took two postings and three countries before we fell in love.” You gotta ask: how did that happen? There’s usually a good story behind every match, even if it’s not the made-in-Hollywood variety. Ask around if you need some inspiration.

— Search for words that really express the sentiment you’re trying to convey. Her “twinkling” blue eyes and his “amazing” physique are not exactly descriptive. Then again there’s this: “The elevator whisks me with terminal velocity to the twentieth floor.” Terminal velocity? Ugh, but the author made a gazillion bucks from it. See 50 Shades of Grey.

— Trust yourself. Consider what you really want to say and be brave. Putting it out there takes courage, but then again, so does falling in love.

If you need more inspiration, keep an eye out for The Story Project’s upcoming Short-Take telling a clients’ love story, True North: A Love Story in Five Maps, posting on our website (with permission) this coming week.             

Have a Happy Valentine’s Day!

We’re Offering a List, and Checking it Twice….

Fairdale Farms in the Snow, Bennington, Vt.

A moment of silence please for those among us who will sit down this holiday season to awkward conversations, prickly interrogations and unwelcome political jousting. Do we really need another round of Uncle Harry’s latest conspiracy theory gleaned from Facebook? And how many times in one year can Aunt Tilly ask when she’ll dance at your daughter’s wedding?

Despite the plethora of suggestions out there to guide us through the political and social minefield that is 2019, The Story Project is offering it’s own List. We begin by suggesting that everyone at the table or around the fireplace turn inward. Make the season a true family event. Here are five questions to help get you started:

• To Your Grandparents: How did you meet each other? Was it a long courtship? Did your parents pray for a wedding or beg you to break up?

• To Your Parents: What was the best-ever family vacation? What was the worst? How did you celebrate the holidays when you were young?

• To Your Siblings: What’s your favorite Christmas/Hanukkah/ holiday memory? And your funniest?

• To Your Kids: What traditions, favorite dishes included, do you most want our family to continue and to pass down to your children?

A few things to remember:

• Avoid yes or no answers by asking open-ended questions. For example, you met Grandpa in New York? How did that come about?

• A good interviewer gives the subject space and time to answer. Sit back, relax and let the stories wash over you.

• It’s about fun and tapping into family memories. If you ask heartfelt questions and listen deeply, you never know where the conversation will lead.

The Story Project team wishes you a holiday season full of memories and wonderful stories to tell.

Charles Graham, Christmas Eve. Image courtesy Clark Art Institute. clarkart.edu

A Snowy Evening

Robert Frost’s Stone House, Shaftsbury, Vermont (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Robert Frost moved to Shaftsbury, Vermont, in 1920, intending to establish an apple orchard. During his nearly two decades there, he wrote some of his best-known poems, including the iconic “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

In his honor, the Bennington Museum will mount a major exhibition next year, Robert Frost, At Present in Vermont, examining the poet’s life and work in the context of the landscape and culture of Bennington County.

In a prelude of sorts, the museum’s current exhibition, A Snowy Evening, features 31 regional artists responding to the poet’s work. Among them is Story Project co-founder Peter Crabtree, who contributed “After Frost: Do, Does, Did.”

After Frost: Do, Does, Did

Peter’s artist’s statement follows:

Did I really watch him on TV that January day in 1961 when John F. Kennedy was inaugurated, or was it later, in some grainy newsreel footage, that I first became aware of Robert Frost — stooped and white-haired, like some kindly grandfather — reciting from memory his poem “A Gift Outright” to mark the occasion? Either way, the impression that he had always been an even-keeled, mild old man would stick with me through high school and only be shaded somewhat by the mandatory reading of “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening.”

But in fact, a closer examination of the poems Frost wrote while living in South Shaftsbury reveals a person lashed by some dark inner weather. Read “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things,” “Spring Pools,” and “Acquainted with the Night” and you realize that impermanence was much on his mind and that the darkness must have followed him throughout his life.

And so this p­­­iece, “After Robert Frost: Do, Does, Did,” pays tribute to that man and his method. No one photograph could do justice to the way his poems work — building image upon image — or the passage of time, or Frost’s clear-eyed, unsentimental observation of the way we live as part of, rather than apart from, nature.

— Peter Crabtree

Robert Frost in 1959 (Courtesy Library of Congress)

A Snowy Evening runs through Dec. 30, although a closed-bid auction for the works in the exhibit ends Dec. 22 at 4 pm.  (The winning bid will be split, with half the proceeds going to the artist and the remainder to the museum.) For more information about the event and to see the other works in the show, please visit http://bit.ly/snowyevening