The winter solstice has passed, and each day adds two to three minutes of daylight.
The crocus buds have already broken through the soil. So far winter in the mid-Atlantic, at least in Maryland and Washington, DC, has been wet but not freezing though we are not yet safe from frost. I wish the buds would hold off, not be too anxious to pop above the ground. February can still be a fierce month.
In the garden the birds are clustered around the bird feeder for food which is still scarce on the trees. The squirrels have figured out how to tip the feeders and scatter the seeds and grain on the ground so they can run off with it. My dog spends hours at the window watching the squirrels, just waiting to get out to defend her turf. She’s taken the side of the birds which she also watches but allows with more tolerance in her corner of the garden.
She sees a fox and wants to chase after it though she is smaller but just as fast. It is mating season for the foxes, and they disappear into their den.
The early signs of spring are breaking out everywhere. We wait, not always patiently, for the earth to warm, the flowers to bloom, the cubs to emerge and disappear into the woods and for the earth to tilt towards the sun.
Photo credits: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman
The winter holidays start with lights in the U.S. and in many countries around the world. In the U.S. the lights begin to appear in early November, shining on street corners, in department store windows. By the end of November and the U.S. Thanksgiving, holiday lights are up and twinkling in white, blue, red, green, and gold on city streets and on country roads. By early December the lights are entwined on the trees and strung around front porches and lawns, and in shop windows, challenging the onslaught of winter’s darkness and the somber journey to the shadowed side of the sun.
The tradition of lights on Christmas trees started in 17th century Germany where they were attached by wax or pins. Then along came Thomas Edison and the electric light. By the late 19th century—in 1882—Edison’s friend and partner Edward H. Johnson developed the first string of electric lights for a Christmas tree by hand-wiring 80 red, white, and blue light bulbs together and winding them around his tree.
Many holidays around the world celebrate with lights, especially in the winter months, not only Christmas, also Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Diwali, St. Lucia Day, the Winter Solstice.
At a time when war is taking away the option of lighted cities, let alone festive lights for many in the Ukraine and elsewhere, I wanted to share these virtual lights with a wish for illumination in the year ahead.
Photo credits: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman
The geese have returned, flying in from Canada as the weather turns colder up north. The honking above each morning and evening signals the changing seasons.
As autumn accelerates with in-person meetings and events in Washington and New York, many for the first time in almost three years, I’ve been away from this haven on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. But I have now arrived back for a few days, and in the morning quiet before the birds awake, my eyes and thoughts are drawn to the water and sky and larger vistas.
This coming spring 2023 I have a new novel coming out and anticipate going on the road a bit. During the pandemic my two nonfiction books published were limited to zoom calls and meetings. I’ll be glad to get out to meet readers again. Burning Distance, my first novel published in many years with a second novel—The Far Side of the Desert—coming out in 2024, moves into new territory. A thriller/mystery/love story set between 1981-1996, Burning Distance’s promo copy heralds: “Jane Austen meets John le Carré in this cross-cultural love story and political thriller. A modern Romeo and Juliet set in…the dark world of arms trafficking.”
The novel took years of research and writing. Like many writers, I write even if not immediately published just as artists paint or musicians make music. I have several novels at the ready, and the gate is finally opening. I hope you’ll step through it with me and enjoy.
I’m sharing here the cover of Burning Distance and some of the generous responses from writers who have read the novel. The book officially comes out March 7 but can be preordered on links here. I hope you’ll order, read and share with friends. Friend-to-friend, reader-to-reader word of mouth is how writing finds its home. Thank you in advance for your support.
“Burning Distance is a double helix of a book, carefully plotted and beautifully told. It’s a spy story interwoven with a love story, and the strands fit together in a way that moves the reader effortlessly from chapter to chapter. While fiction, its narrative of the CIA and the Middle East arms trade are very close to fact. Joanne Leedom-Ackerman observes the world of American spies and Arab fixers through the eyes of a young woman who keeps asking questions about her mysterious past until she gets all the revelatory answers. A subtle and satisfying novel.”—David Ignatius, New York Times best-selling author, Washington Post columnist and novelist
“Burning Distance opens with a mystery, glides into a love story, and unfolds into a political thriller. Set against the backdrop of 1980s and 90s global politics, readers will be up way past their bedtimes eagerly turning pages to discover what happens to Lizzy and Adil. A story of war, family, history, politics, and passion. Joanne Leedom-Ackerman’s evocation of the era is pitch-perfect. A great read!”—Susan Isaacs, New York Times best-selling author of It Takes One To Know One
“Running the gamut of emotions from fear to love, this plot surges along as unpredictable as a riptide. Romance and thriller readers will both find plenty of mischief and mayhem.”—Steve Berry, New York Times best-selling author of The Omega Factor
“I entered the world of Burning Distance—of the characters Lizzy and Jane and Sophie and their mother and the family of Winston, Pickles and Dennis and the world of Adil Hasan and his father—and I didn’t want to leave. I cared what happened to them and was pulled along without being able to stop until the book was over, and even then I didn’t want to leave. The narrative voice unfolds the story both poetically and realistically. The story it tells is also the story of a political and historical time (1981-1996) that is relevant to the times we are living through. The narrative opens for the reader some of the history that has taken us to the current events in the Middle East and Europe and America. But first and foremost the reader will want to read Burning Distance to know the characters, particularly Lizzy as she makes her way and follows her heart through the conflicts of history and culture and family to find ‘the music’ that is in her life.”—Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran
“Lizzy is ten when her father’s plane explodes over the Persian Gulf and her life is set in motion. In the background of the narrative is the Gulf War and in Lizzy’s life, her father’s death marks the beginning of a search to peel away secrets, betrayals, international intrigue, dangerous associations which bring all the characters in this book under one umbrella. Burning Distance is a mystery, a complicated, story-driven drama of lives lived amidst the high risk of life and death in international arms trading and the book is grounded by the unlikely love story between Lizzy and Adil Hasan. Her obsession is to uncover the secrets which led to her father’s death and in her quest she comes to find that everyone in this story is linked by danger, everyone is at risk. This is a real page turner which also informs, excites and moves us.”—Susan Richards Shreve, author of More News Tomorrow
“I was immediately engrossed in the lives of Joanne Leedom-Ackerman’s characters and their fascinating and compelling stories. Joanne has the ability to take the big issues of contemporary life (including the clash of cultures and a remarkable grasp of the weapons trade) and render them in the contexts of love, conscience, and the consequence of choice. She reminds us as did Donne that we each are a piece of the continent, a part of the whole of humanity, and that no matter how difficult the time, that love and peace and hope can be realities rather than abstracts.”—Eric Lax, author of Faith Interrupted
The clouds have finally lifted after days of grey and rainy skies. The sun is rising in all its quiet splendor. I can see light hovering at the horizon on the far shore this early morning.
Since I returned from PEN International’s World Congress in Sweden earlier this week, the landscape here has been shrouded with the outer edges of Hurricane Ian. As the storm moved up the eastern coast of the United States, it delivered rain and wind and grey skies to the Washington and Maryland area. We are fortunate and probably needed the rain, but the devastation of the hurricane to the South haunts us and fills the airwaves with troubling news and pictures, as it also does regarding the war in Ukraine, the protests in Iran, and the famine in Somalia. These remind me to be grateful for my cloud-enshrouded patch of earth and at the same time to be attentive to all that lies beyond. My patch of earth at least is now filled with light.
Connected as we are and as we were this past week in Uppsala, Sweden at the PEN International Congress, we were reminded of the origins of the 101-year-old organization PEN, begun in the aftermath of World War One’s devastation. A few British writers, including Catherine Amy Dawson Scott and John Galsworthy, who later won the Nobel Prize for Literature, came together to form a dining club for writers of different countries in the hope that a community of fellowship and understanding would arise and diminish the nationalism and tensions that had brought on the First World War. Soon the concept spread across Europe and North America and then Asia, Africa, South America, and the Middle East. The mission also expanded to defend writers under threat. There are now 150+ centers of PEN in over 100 countries.
After two years of meeting on zoom, PEN delegates from 100 centers came together, hosted by Swedish PEN, to celebrate and defend literature, translations, and freedom of expression around the world, to bring to bear a collective voice to combat threats to writers and also to see longtime colleagues and friends. Gathering around the theme “The Power of Words,” writers celebrated the multiple languages and literatures represented and also strategized to defend writers arrested, disappeared, and killed by authoritarian regimes.
“PEN has power but not power to prevent some writers getting killed,” said International PEN President Burhan Sönmez. “But we won’t leave people of art in the hands of dictators.”
The bid for fellowship and a collective voice to protect writers under threat continues to inform PEN’s work a century after its founding. The 88th PEN World Congress sent its members back across the globe to work. The poem “Fairwell” by Federico García Lorca, read by PEN’s International President, went with us:
If I die,
leave the balcony open.
The little boy is eating oranges.
(From my balcony I can see him.)
The reaper is harvesting the wheat.
(From my balcony I can hear him.)
If I die,
leave the balcony open!”
I keep taking pictures of the sky and its changing scenery. I don’t need to go anywhere to travel its corridors of beauty and drama though as the summer ends, I will be on the road more often, and the sky will more often turn gray and the drama on the ground more compelling.
But on this last week of summer, this first weekend of September, I share the sky and its vistas, the sun rising and setting, and hope the perspective inspires days ahead.
Photo credits: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman
There’s a chill in the air this morning. I don’t know if it will last, probably not since it is still August, but I turn on the fire pit and wait for the sun to rise in the sky and warm my sleeveless arms in the tee shirt I slept in. My dog sits on my lap keeping me warm as she watches and listens to each morning sound, the starlings in the bird house, the crows in the trees, the many other birds whose sounds I can’t identify. A friend has given me a book on birds so perhaps I’ll learn to identify these occupants living on this patch of earth we share.
The world outside this haven is fraught with the shattering news of attacks and deceptions. I move between what seems a fraught nexus in Washington DC and the calm of the Chesapeake. I am conscious of the dichotomy, though also conscious that if I lift my sights higher like the birds who have now started to take their morning flights, I might see a larger view and see the oneness and harmony. I sit by the fire pit looking up….
Photo credits: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman
I’ve lost emails I’d saved as drafts on my phone. I have searched everywhere—in Trash, in Junk, in Sent, and in Received and have concluded they have disappeared, perhaps into the cloud. “The cloud” is a relatively new concept, at least for my generation. The miracle and mystery that all our information can be stored out there “in the cloud” still bends the mind. Who named this ephemeral space “the cloud”?
I am sitting outside on this cool summer morning staring up at a puffy ceiling of clouds above me. These clouds are shrouding the sun and keeping the temperature relatively cool. I know these are not “the cloud” the technicians mean, but I look up anyway for reference and to contemplate the vastness of the sky and beyond that, the universe.
This past week we were let into a view of that vastness with the photos from the James Webb Telescope which sent back pictures from billions of light-years* away. (Who can comprehend even one light-year?) We are told that whatever we are seeing would have already happened and is millions/billions of years old. Any life out there that might be viewing us would be seeing our lives in the 17th century if they were just 300 light-years away. If 300 million light-years away, they would be seeing earth before homo sapiens evolved or at 200 million light years they might see dinosaurs like the Allosaurus.
Where does that leave us? Projected images of light on a continuum of time? Ideas transporting instantly?
And where are my draft emails? In some cloud cruising the universe? The mind begins to expand as life and light expand and thought moves upward. I once read that most people (here on earth at least) see and comprehend only about two percent of what is going on around them. Does that seem about right? Depending on one’s optimism, that may be good news if we conclude the other 98 percent might be magnificent and revelatory depending on our expanding perception above the clouds, though the idea that “dark energy and dark matter” may make up 95% of the universe sounds more ominous. We are told we can’t see dark matter but see only its effects.
In the meantime I’ll call my nephew who is trained in cyber security and see if he can tell me how to find my lost emails. Maybe he and others can even find two days’ worth of crucial lost text messages of the US Secret Service for January 5 and 6. Those too may be traveling out into space and can be recovered by someone just a fraction of a light year away.
*Light-year: 5.88 trillion miles light travels in a year.
I sit in the early morning—5:30am—as the sun is coming up. I listen to the birds chirping across the sky and to the watermen on the river trolling for crabs or oysters, also with lines down for perch or trout or occasional catfish.
I’ve come downstairs to let my dog out. The morning is beguiling as it awakens with mottled light spreading on the water and the river humming with early traffic, so I let my day begin and sit on the porch listening and watching.
I’m always surprised how clear sound travels on the water. I can hear a little girl on a boat talking with her father though I have to adjust my camera to zoom in ten times the distance to get a silhouette. I can’t entirely make out the words, but I am eavesdropping though I am at my home on the shore, and they are drifting by.
Summer’s solstice has recently passed. There is much summer left, but I am sorry the light will now recede a little each day, though perhaps I’ll get more sleep. I never close the curtains and so often rise with the sun. I don’t like dark rooms. I want to know when the day begins.
Photo credits: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman
With the war in the Ukraine front and center in the news, I can’t help thinking back to my Russian colleague from PEN, the General Secretary of Russian PEN Alexander Tkachenko, or Sascha as we called him. I wonder how he would have responded to what is unfolding. During his tenure at Russian PEN, he stood up and argued with Vladimir Putin face to face on behalf of Russian writers and resisted when the government tried to close down PEN in Russia.
Sascha was complex—a former professional soccer player, a Tartar, son of the Crimea, a poet. Those who knew him may still hear his voice on the floor of PEN Congresses challenging his government’s imprisonment of writers, apologizing to new Afghan PEN delegates for his country’s incursion into their country, or remember Sascha swimming off the coast of Perth, Australia in spite of the signs warning of sharks or singing and reciting his poetry at the Writers in Prison Conference in Denmark, or strategizing with the Writers in Prison Committee in the hills of Nepal.
When Sascha suddenly turned up dead in 2007 at age 63, we were all shocked. Some speculated perhaps he drank too much vodka; he had a heart condition. We accepted that it was “heart failure” though even at the time, the skeptical voice questioned whether there could have been foul play. As I witness now the carnage in the Ukraine and have since seen the incidents of murder and recently read accounts of those who have been eliminated in Russia in books such as Bill Browder’s Red Notice and the new Freezing Order, doubts again stir about Sascha’s sudden end. I wonder how he would have reacted to the drama playing out today and the closing down of any freedom of dissent in Russia. Today there are additional PEN Centers in Russia—PEN Moscow, PEN St. Petersburg, Tartar PEN, and writers I’m told have differing views among them. But Sascha I feel certain would have defended the right to dissent, to stand up for the freedom to live.
Below is the tribute I wrote at the time. I feel I am mourning Sascha all over again as we mourn the loss of the freedoms he and others struggled for, and we mourn the loss of this vision of a nation.
December 7, 2007
General Secretary of Russian PEN Alexander Tkachenko –Sascha as he is known to his friends—died this week, peacefully in his sleep, we are told. It is hard to imagine Sascha passing anywhere peacefully, certainly not from this world.
As Russian PEN’s General Secretary, this hearty man with salt and pepper hair and moustache, this former professional soccer player and respected poet campaigned fearlessly for writers threatened in Russia. He often stood his ground with officials, bureaucrats, the military and with Vladimir Putin himself. When Putin once visited the Russian PEN offices, Sascha challenged him directly on the rights of writers and freedom of expression in Russia.
Sascha traveled the huge expanse of Russia from one end to the other to lobby, to argue, to advocate on behalf of writers who faced imprisonment by the Russian state, writers such as Grigory Pasko, the journalist and poet who was arrested after reporting on Russia’s dumping of nuclear waste. He championed as well those in former regions of the Soviet Union, in Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan. He also spoke out and represented the voice of Russian writers on behalf of imprisoned writers around the world.
Sascha served on the Board of International PEN and attended PEN conferences and Congresses for the past decade. My personal memories are many. I particularly remember standing side by side with Sascha at Istanbul University in 1997 surrounded by riot police as we addressed a crowd of thousands with a bull horn. We were the two representatives of PEN advocating for freedom for Turkish writers in prison.When the Russian government threatened to close Russian PEN in 2006 because of alleged tax payments suddenly demanded, PEN centers around the world rallied to help. I was International Secretary of PEN at the time and able to meet with Sascha and members of Russian PEN in Moscow as these payments were secured. That meeting was also attended by Rakhim Esenov from Turkmenistan, an elderly former general whose novel had been banned and who had been imprisoned for his book allegedly being “historically inaccurate.” Only a week before American PEN had given Esenov its Freedom to Write Award in New York. He was on his way home through Moscow, where Sascha and Russian PEN offered additional moral support as he returned to face the threats of his government.
When I think of Sascha, I first hear his laughter and then his arguments, then his particular English; I see his hands waving as he talks, see him reluctant to yield a microphone until his point is made; I see him as he must have been as a young man blocking and running down the field as a soccer player, bobbing and weaving, pushing past those who would try to stop him as he drove to the goal. In his last decades that goal was getting writers out of prison. Sascha was an advocate we all would want on our side should we find ourselves threatened or in prison. He will be mourned and sorely missed.
His funeral is in his home village of Peredelkino December 10, Human Rights Day. He would have liked that framing of time on his passing, though he will not really pass; he will simply rest in our thoughts and rise in our thoughts when courage is called for and an advocate is needed. When a government acts as though it is more powerful than the individual, Sascha’s memory will remind us of the power of one. His voice continues through his writing, and the impact he has had on the lives of writers imprisoned continues.
The geese have gone. Dozens have abandoned our lawn and veered back to Canada for the spring and summer. They will return when the temperatures again drop up North.
For now cherry blossoms are blooming, daffodils have sprouted, and green buds are exploding on all the trees. Spring in its mercurial moods has come to the Chesapeake. The last (I hope) snow and ice storm of the season passed through a few weekends ago. Bright sun and balmy temperatures warmed us last weekend; this weekend hovered somewhere in between, though Monday morning dawned below freezing again.
Even as this fraught globe balances between war and peace in Europe and drought and famine in areas of Africa, and genocide in regions of Asia, this earth of ours spins on its axis. The seasons continue to rotate. As humankind, most of us live lives focused on the needs of day to day as the peril from afar flickers on the screen. In the nighttime hours this flickering in the dark heightens and gives pause, intensifying as sleep eludes. But then the day dawns and the sun rises, and the earth again spins its course. Looking closely near and far, we witness (and can do) deeds of kindness, and these save us and the planet from the apathy of despair.
Here I post some photos of the season in appreciation of the beauty that I wish could unite us and that might at least find a home in imagination if not in fact.
Photo credits: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman