Punctuating the Pezzo

In his essay “In Praise of the Humble Comma” Pico Iyer writers “The gods, they say, give breath, and they take it away. But the same could be said – could it not – of the humble comma.”

Punctuation is like sheet music, he writes, “telling us where to rest, or when to raise our voices; it acknowledges that the meaning of our discourse, as of any symphonic composition, lies not in the units but in the pauses, the pacing and the phrasing.”

I love this! Punctuation is to words as notation is to music,  adding accent to notes, indicating where the crescendo should go, inserting a cheerful allegro non troppo, a slow-paced adiago, a strong fortissimo or a pulsing vibrato.

You get the idea.

The humble comma the most used – and misused – mark of punctuation. Read Iyer’s piece for a better idea of how to access its superpowers. It has the potential to turn our writing into song.

Object Permanence



Every January for 25 years, my friend Mary Ellen hosted a women’s luncheon in which  she served a flavorful winter soup and a few side dishes.

As guests, our task was to bring an appetizer, champagne and an object that represented  the year that has just ended. The afternoon was spent in an adult version of “Show and Tell,” taking turns telling the stories that animated the items.

Over the years, I’ve forgotten many of the women’s stories but I remembered what they brought. I can still see the magnifying mirror from the woman who just turned 50. The basketball, soccer ball and baseball from the mother of three athletic sons. The photographs from the woman just back from Cuba. The Mary Oliver poem from the woman who had lost several friends that year.

Some years into this ritual, I recognized the value of keeping a record of my own luncheon artifacts. The large box pictured above is filled with envelopes, marked by year, with the object or record of it inside.

What’s interesting is how quickly the sight of these items reconjure the year in question.

Objects are concrete. Tangible. Understood.

When we work them into our stories, people can see them. They provide visual heft. They can be a shorthand for larger ideas and feelings. Perhaps a metaphor. An object offers a way to move time without referring to literal time. They age; show wear and tear but can be refurbished.

A well-selected object makes your stories pop. Your message will remain in the screen and hopefully, heart of your listener or readers’ mind.

Photo by Ellen Blum Barish

Scenic Views, Ripe for the Picking

I’ve been sending out print or electronic family new year’s greetings since 1992 when my youngest daughter reached her first birthday. Every year, I struggle with what to say. I have yet to get into the year-in-review highlights letter (but never say never I always say) so I usually stick with one or two lines.

Here are some examples:

2011 family foto

In 2011, under a photo of my husband and two daughters standing in front of a range of Colorado mountains:

May you reach your mountaintop with views that take your breath away in the year to come.


In 2000, under a photo of my husband and two, much younger daughters, bundled up in winter coats in our backyard:

Hoping this season finds you – and keeps you – warm and cozy. ‘Til we see you again…


In 1995, the four of us in an apple orchard:

Wishing you all things colorful, juicy and ripe for the picking this holiday season…

You get the idea.

In each of these, the season, setting and/or  stray details steered the language to link the photograph to the wish.

To help the reader, see.

That’s what we want to do with our writing. Go from the abstract to the concrete and back to the abstract again.

Here’s what I mean by that: Wishing someone a happy new year is in some ways an abstract concept. In what way do you want them  to be happy? What could that look like? There are so many choices!

It’s more concrete to wish them the chance to “reach their mountaintop” or stay “warm and cozy” or the option to pick things “ripe and juicy.” But these are also images that are imbued with multiple meanings. Metaphor.

So think about the abstract-concrete-abstract idea when you are looking to layer your pieces. And let me know how it goes. I’d love to post examples in this space.