Blog: Here's what Tom says about that!

Sometimes my life gets in the way of my life

Posted July 22nd, 2014 by Tom

I learned it from Lindi, my wife. We were walking. Talking. It seems like we used to walk and talk more often as we made plans for our life together. Short and long term goals. Ideas. Musings. Fears. Dreams. One day, while talking about how hard it is to do what we really want, to be who we really are, she said,

“Sometimes my life gets in the way of my life.”

Yeah. No kidding. Those ten words have stayed with me. They’ve inspired me. Haunted me. Reminded me.

I’m a writer; a published author. I write. Writing is the one place I go alone to face myself, my fears, my joys, my desire for revenge and for healing. Writing is dangerous. Words can hurt, especially as I write about those closest to me (my lovers, my enemies, my family, my friends, myself), usually disguised (thinly or thickly, though I try to avoid “ly” words) in my characters. Writing is catharsis. It is cleansing like no soap ever; like Dr. Bronner’s Certified Fair Trade, 18-in-1, Hemp Peppermint Pure-Castile Soap… times 10. You want to wake up fast? Try getting Dr. Bronner’s in your eyes or in a tiny paper cut on your finger or don’t rinse it quickly enough from your body’s most – ahem – sensitive places. In that moment your entire focus hones in on washing Dr. Bronner away as fast as possible. And you know in that moment just how clean you are. Because you feel it in the lingering tingle. When Dr. Bronner has a firm grip, you direct your full attention to him. Nothing else matters but Dr. Bronner. When the writing is flowing like blood onto paper, there is nothing… nothing I enjoy more. In that moment, nothing else matters. I am most alive in that moment. Writing well demands that I pay that kind of attention; in ways I do not in other, less important, areas of my life.

Writing is thought. Writing is contemplation. Writing is translating those thoughts and contemplations into words on a laptop. Writing is the closest I get to fully living – outside of making love and living fully as I do with very few people this time through life. Writing is yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Breath. Blood (sometimes spilled). Death. Life. Writing is drama and trauma and my trail out from the wilderness.

And writing is second or third or fifth on my list of priorities. Dammit. Why? If writing is all this, why does it slip to fourth like California Chrome in the Belmont Stakes? Because life is also my family, caring for my grandchildren, preparing food, washing dishes, reading, my work with Coming to the Table, speaking and teaching at corporate events, universities, conferences and book fairs, publicizing and marketing my books and seeking opportunities to speak about trauma and healing and becoming our best selves, our best companies, our best communities, our best nation. Life is devoting time to having fun with friends, and taking care of myself physically, spiritually, and more. Always more. And all of it matters.

We all juggle our priorities. We aim for that perfect balance in creating the Life we desire. And “sometimes my life gets in the way of my life.”

When I first learned (around April, I think) from my friend and fellow author Andi Cumbo-Floyd about the Writer’s Retreat she was planning for July 18-20 at God’s Whisper Farm, her home on ten acres with goats, chickens, dogs, cats, and hummingbirds in rural Virginia, I opened the file on my laptop where I keep track of when, for how long, and how many words, I write. I stared at the screen, shook my head, and sighed. The last words I had written on a book manuscript were written ten months earlier, on June 22, 2013. Writing is my priority? Oh, please.

I registered for the retreat. I flew all day last Thursday from Oregon to Virginia. I rented a car. I picked up my friend and fellow writer Sha Jackson and we drove to God’s Whisper Farm to join Andi and ten other writers for a weekend of writing exercises, workshops, inspiration, and re-commitment to our writing.


I committed to myself and to my fellow writers to write 500 words per day until the end of summer. Then I will increase my commitment to 1,000 words per day. I’ll write 4-5 days per week. Yesterday was my first day home. I wrote 1,213 words before I did anything else. These 837 words, also written upon rising from Lindi’s and my bed, represent today’s writing. I have more stories to share, more books to write. I’m a writer.

I expect my life will still get in the way of my life. When it does, and when I pay attention, I’ll do something like fly to Virginia for a weekend to find my trail back home from the wilderness.

(You can see more photos from the retreat here)

For you to consider: What in your life gets in the way of your life? What are your priorities? What will you do to become your best self?

The Most Important Journey of Cheryl Strayed, Author of Wild

Posted March 17th, 2014 by Tom

IMG_4658bI had the pleasure of being in the audience to listen to Cheryl Strayed in Bend, Oregon last night. Her appearance was part of the Deschutes Public Library Foundation’s Author! Author! series. After having spent so much of my time since Gather at the Table was published in October 2012 speaking to audiences across the country at schools, churches, museums, and other venues, it was fun and inspiring to listen to another author – particularly one for whom I have such high respect.

I read Wild shortly after it was published. To be precise, I listened to it on audiobook. I loved it so much that I then bought it in hardcover. Her story of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is of particular interest to me. The summer after I graduated from high school, three friends and I backpacked through the John Muir Trail from the base of Mt. Whitney to Yosemite; some 221 miles of the PCT. I dreamed of someday hiking the entire PCT from the border of Mexico to Canada, but it never happened. So what a treat it was to re-imagine my dream hike through Ms. Strayed’s wonderful memoir.

When it was announced that portions of the movie Wild would be filmed near Bend, I wanted to be part of it. Though I was almost 20 years older than the age of extras they were looking for, I hadn’t cut my hair for awhile so I fit the “scruffy” description pretty well. I took a “selfie” with a pine tree in the background and submitted my application. They hired me to be a “hiker” out near Paulina Lake Lodge, which was “dressed” to double for Kennedy Meadows near Sonora, California. I spent a day hanging out with the other “extras” and crew and, yes, the star and producer of the film, Reese Witherspoon; a pleasant and down-to-earth woman who wanted everyone on the set to be comfortable around her. We were.

IMG_4651I was excited when I learned many months ago that Ms. Strayed would be speaking in our town. I bought my ticket early on, and good thing I did.  The auditorium was packed; the first sold-out performance in the Author! Author! series. I arrived early and found a seat in the front row.

Listening to her talk about the death of her mother at age 45, her resulting tailspin into unhealthy choices in the use of drugs and sex to cope, and her decision to hike the PCT though she’d never done more than day hikes before, was by turns funny, sad, and compelling. Cheryl pointed out the most important journey was not the hike itself but the inner journey she was on; that her goal as a memoirist was to explore what it means to be human in such a way that readers bring their own stories into her story. This is the goal of every writer… to connect with readers on a human, visceral level. Cheryl Strayed did so in Wild, and she did so in person last night. And what a dream tale it was about how Reese Witherspoon read the manuscript over a weekend several months before Wild was published it, called and spoke with Cheryl for more than an hour, and immediately optioned the book for a movie- with the pledge that the film would be true to the book.

I donated extra in order to be invited to the private reception with the author after the main event. It was at the reception that I met and spoke with Cheryl Strayed, gave her a gift of Gather at the Table as my way of thanking her for inspiring me so. And though on-set protocol did not allow for a “selfie” with Ms. Witherspoon last fall, Ms. Strayed was happy to pose with me last night.

IMG_4673As someone who travels the country speaking to audiences in the hope that they will want to read and be moved by my stories, Cheryl Strayed’s success in getting her books into the hands of millions of people is a big inspiration to someone like me whose books have so far been read by thousands. Whether or not I ever write a bestseller,  Cheryl Strayed inspires me to continue to explore what it means to be human and to connect with my readers as I have connected with Wild.

Thanks again, Cheryl.


Civil War – Ducks vs. Beavers – this one’s personal

Posted November 26th, 2013 by Tom


This Friday’s game isn’t just about winning a football game. Oh, no… I can’t recall a desire to beat Oregon State more intensely than I feel this season.

A little background:

This is the 119th anniversary of the “Civil War,” the somewhat unfortunate name bestowed upon the 7th most played college football rivalry in the United States (don’t ask me what the other 6 are – you can Google it yourself): The Oregon Ducks versus the Oregon State Beavers.

We take this rivalry pretty seriously here in Oregon; though for the most part it is a friendly rivalry. As a graduate of the University of Oregon, I wear a lot of green and yellow and write “Go Ducks” and “Win the Day” on my Facebook page regularly. I can’t tell you the name of a single player for the Beavs. Read the rest of this entry »

Akee Tree: A Coming to the Table story, and a first for this author

Posted August 26th, 2013 by Tom



Akee Tree: A Descendant’s Quest for His Slave Ancestors on the Eskridge Planation, written by Stephen Hanks, was recently published by American History Press.

I was particularly interested in the publication of this book for a couple of reasons.

First, this is the story of a long journey of genealogical discovery. Mr. Hanks became obsessed with learning about the past. Anyone who has read Gather at the Table understands it is often the case for black folks in America that such a journey involves researching not only one’s own family, but the family that once enslaved yours. Such explorations can be both enlightening and painful.

Second, Hanks’s journey is one that fits into the Coming to the Table approach to healing: uncovering, acknowledging and understanding the full stories of the past in order to heal historic, traumatic wounds. In my role as Community Coordinator for Coming to the Table, it is exciting to see more books, films, and other resources becoming available for this and future generations.

Finally, I was honored to be asked to provide an endorsement quote for Akee Tree. That’s a first for me, and I only hope that my words of support for Stephen Hanks’s important work will help get his book into the hands of more readers. Here’s a couple images of the back of Akee Tree. I hope you’ll check it out:



My Favorite Media Interview

Posted June 24th, 2013 by Tom

MyWindowInterviewI recently participated in one of my favorite media interviews ever.

I don’t know how many times I’ve spoken with reporters over the years, but it’s been a lot. My close encounters with news microphones began in the late 1970′s when I managed, and then owned, movie theaters, video, comic book, and frozen yogurt shops; human interest stories, Darth Vader appearances, you get the picture. Free publicity by way of news stories is invaluable to a small business owner and I was not shy. When I ran for city council in 1991, and began a 14-year spate of involvement in local politics and statewide arts advocacy, the frequency of interviews increased.

When my first book, Inheriting the Trade, was published, and the documentary Traces of the Trade both came out in January 2008, media requests began to come from around the country. As an author, being on The Early Show on CBS in connection with my first book, and Melissa Harris Perry on MSNBC with my co-author Sharon Leslie Morgan for our recent book, Gather at the Table, were invaluable opportunities for spreading the word about our work.

So what was it about this particular interview? Read the rest of this entry »

Breaking into Norway

Posted June 2nd, 2013 by Tom

When I fantasize about international acclaim, I think about my books being published in the countries included within their pages (in the case of my first two books, Ghana, Cuba, and Tobago), as well as many other countries and languages. I haven’t achieved that level of success with my writing… yet. But I did get interviewed by a Norwegian newspaper, Vårt Land, last month. It’s a start…

Vart Land Logo 2

If you understand Norwegian, you can read the article here: Vart Land Interview (Norwegian Newspaper, 10 May 13)

The reporter, Ingrid Hovda Storaas, contacted me through my publicist at Beacon Press. She wrote that she was working on a story on “inherited responsibility” for a Norwegian daily print Newspaper. They had recently “published a story on German youths working voluntarily in Norway as a way to ‘pay’ for the fact that their forefathers participated in the German occupation of Norway. A 20-year old boy was asked if he feels he is atoning for his grandfather’s sin (he was a soldier), and put it like this: ‘In a way. I have not inherited his guilt, but I feel I have inherited a responsibility.’” They were now doing a follow-up story with a more global view and had come across Inheriting the Trade in her research.

I agreed to respond to her questions via email. I was particularly interested in this opportunity because my great grandfather, Ole Nicholson, was born in Norway in January 1853. He came with his parents to the United States when he was 4 years old. His wife, Martha Ryen, was the daughter of Norwegian immigrants as well. They lived in Illinois and Iowa. Their daughter, my grandmother, Lida Nicholson married my grandfather, Giles DeWolf around 1915. Consequently, I have very fond feelings for Norway and hope to visit someday. Read the rest of this entry »

On Writing

Posted May 26th, 2013 by Tom

Home. Finally I have time to write.

Uh, not so fast, there Tommy…

From October through April mine was a life spent primarily on the road; promoting Gather at the Table with my writing partner Sharon Morgan and speaking solo at several colleges, universities and libraries. I was determined that once I returned home toward the end of April, I would stay home and focus on writing for the next 4-5 months.

There were a few technical details that needed attending. I had time to take my new laptop in to the Geek Squad to get the on/off button fixed (it broke in January but I couldn’t be without it while on the road so I simply put it into hibernate mode when I wasn’t using it). I had time to replace my aging and ailing Blackberry with a new iPhone. Learning how to use the iPhone, figure out how to add all my  contacts, email accounts, calendar, was challenging. But knowing I would be without my laptop for at least a week, I did my best to make the iPhone work for me. Then I was told that fixing my laptop was more costly to Best Buy than simply giving me a new computer. Oh, no! Read the rest of this entry »

Society’s Child

Posted May 3rd, 2013 by Tom

JanisAutographWhen I closed the cover after finishing Janis Ian’s autobiography, Society’s Child, I took a deep breath, sighed, and wished there were more. It was a walk through her life, and by extension, my own… a walk through the music and history of Janis Ian, other musicians I’ve listened to all my life, our country during the turbulent last half century as we’ve grown and changed our perceptions of each other in terms of race, gender, sexual identity and so much more.

I first saw Janis Ian in concert in the early 1980′s. My significant memory from that show was some guy shouting out, “Play Society’s Child! I insist!” Janis waved dismissively at him. She didn’t play the song; didn’t play it for years. Reading her autobiography, I now understand why.

I next saw her in concert in 2009 when she played with Joan Baez. I was thrilled to be Janis’s “front row guy” and wrote about the experience here. When my daughter Emily and I went to see Janis together recently at the Alberta Rose Theatre in Portland, I brought along the photo above of Janis and me taken after that 2009 show. And though I was already part way through reading Society’s Child, I bought the audio version at the concert. Hearing her stories again, in her voice, with her music accompanying them, will be a real treat. After all, she won the 2013 Grammy for “Best Spoken Word Album” when her competition was Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama, Ellen Degeneres, and Rachel Maddow, for crying out loud!

The way Janis described it, “There must be a joke in there somewhere. An ex-president, a first lady, and three lesbians walk into a bar…” Read the rest of this entry »

A Love Letter to Men

Posted April 26th, 2013 by Tom

I read a blog post by a friend of mine yesterday, “A Love Letter to the Men of the World,” that highlights how well-intentioned men are often blind to the ways in which we marginalize women and perpetuate sexism and male supremacy. Though the piece does not mention it, this article also reminds me of how sexism, racism, and all the other “isms” are related. One person (or group) forces others down to find a way up. Our children learn these lessons well, and on we go…

Dear Men,

Let me begin by thanking those of you who value me as your equal.  Who see me as equally worthy (or unworthy) as men of your respect, consideration, and attention.  Thank you to those of you who read women writers and a special thank you to those of you who read women writers intentionally, realizing that there is a still a power disparity and a difference in the way women and men are perceived in society.

I know most of you include yourselves as part of that paragraph above, and I know on some level most of you belong there.  But some of you – sometimes unknowingly – do not see women as equal. I want to help you see the ways you do this so that you can love us better as your equals. Truly.

I encourage my friends to read this powerful “love” letter, and then read the subsequent “A Love Letter to the Women of the World” and share them with your friends, and subscribe to AndiLit.

Happy Birthday, J.D. Salinger

Posted January 1st, 2013 by Tom

SalingerJ.D. Salinger was born January 1, 1919. He died 91 years later on January 27, 2010. Catcher in the Rye was his only novel; published in 1951. A few years ago I pulled out Catcher and began typing it word-for-word into my computer. I wanted to know what it felt like to write something as influential and powerful as Salinger had. It felt good.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Norman DeWolf | Website: James DeW. Perry