Star Gazer or Guttersnipe?

Leroy Jethro Gibbs of NCIS doesn’t believe in coincidence. I’m not quite as adamant as he is, but the timing couldn’t have been better for me to read Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick.

The previous week had left me feeling like I was in the bottom of a pit as life swung a pendulum with a bowling ball for its anchor. It struck me on one side of my head with its “to” and before I could recover, got the other side with its “fro.” The final blow was a rejection letter from an agent who included the words, “You’re a very talented writer,” and “Your work is very good.” Somehow these words were not an adequate cushion for the rejection that felt like one more pass with the bowling ball.

The “coincidence” came in my reading Wonderstruck that week with its recurring theme, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”    Comparing my own position to that of the two profoundly deaf protagonists, I could see that a shallow gully was a more apt description for my location than a deep pit. It also suggested that I had a choice whether to wallow in its muck or turn my face up to the sky.

Lying down in the gutter for keeps is an option, but so is getting up and reaching for the stars. Since I prefer stars to muck, I picked myself up and began researching other agents for children’s books and what kind of work they represented. Surely, there was one out there looking to represent “a very talented writer” whose “work is very good.”

As for Wonderstruck, whether you’re feeling the grasp of the gutter or the wonder of gazing at the stars this week, I recommend reading the book for sheer enjoyment of its two parallel stories told alternately in words and art that wind together to the end.


Hear Jane Preach. See Jane Practice.

“You can only pay forward. You can’t pay back.” Jane Yolen spoke to writers in 1998 at Highlights for Children’s weeklong writers conference in Chautauqua, NY. This legend in children’s literature has more than 300 published books in every known genre for readers from birth through adults. [Of special interest to writers is her Take Joy: A Writer's Guide to Loving the Craft.] My first evidence that she practices what she preaches came during that week. She sat at mealtimes beside and across from beginning and wannabe writers, sharing helpful information and encouragement or everyday chitchat. My breakfast conversation with her included her new grandchild and my new grandson Sam.

Hearsay brought my second knowledge of her practice. Alaskan writer friend Debbie Miller told me about Jane’s insistence that she not get a motel but stay as a houseguest when she was in Jane’s Massachusetts neighborhood to see her daughter’s college basketball games.

My third knowledge came this month in the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators Bulletin. Jane was the second person to become a member of SCBWI and has long used that platform to encourage other writers no matter what stage they were in their careers. Recently, she established an author grant for midlist writers who have struck a snag in publishing additional books.

I could stop with a pretty good picture, but I would leave out an essential portion of her paying forward. I just finished reading her classic The Devil’s Arithmetic, a book not to be missed. Every child and adult who reads the book will take a time travel back with protagonist Hannah to vividly experience the Holocaust.

The book brought memoires of our family visit to Dachau – the youngest illegally at eleven since the rules said one had to be twelve or over to visit. We spent a morning on the grounds of this Holocaust “camp” – seeing the photographs, reading the stories, watching the films, touring the ovens. Just one morning – but it was more than enough. We were one quiet family returning home. Not the most fun trip during our three years stationed in Germany, but probably the one with the greatest impact.

The rule for being twelve to see the “camp” was probably wise, but we would be back in the states before Mark turned twelve. We broke the rule. He needed to see and know. Reading The Devil’s Arithmetic brought the same intense feeling as seeing Dachau. Because of the intensity of the emotion, maturity might also be advised for the book. Perhaps twelve is a good number. No age is too old. In this book of fiction, Jane has paid forward another way with vital truth we should never forget.

On April 12, Jane will receive the well-earned University of Southern Mississippi’s Medallion for her body of work for children at the Children’s Book Festival. I’m guessing her paying forward will continue as usual. That’s who she is.


Wet Cement Childhood

It’s funny how little things can make such an imprint on children that the impression continues for a lifetime. A few [or more] years ago, Bonnie Bruno, mother of one of  my students, recommended a book to me called Children Are Wet Cement  by Anne Ortlund. The idea behind the book has lingered as I have seen the truth played out by childhood memories in my own life and observation of others. We seem to be aware of the negative cement by the frequency with which we lay blame for bad adult behavior on poor childhood experiences. While those have validity, the opposite is also true. The impression in the cement seems equally likely to be a tragic event, a pleasant surprise, an unexpected disappointment, or a favorite song or story read at bedtime. Maybe it’s a family tradition or a lesson learned by experience. Significant impressions of childhood days seem to pop up at unexpected times.

Perhaps because of its meaning or because of what it meant to one of my sisters or maybe “just because” one of the memories in my cement is a poem Mama used to read to us by James Whitcomb Riley.

A Life Lesson

There! little girl; don't cry!
They have broken your doll, I know;
And your tea-set blue,
And your play-house, too,
Are things of the long ago;
But childish troubles will soon pass by. --
There! little girl; don't cry!

There! little girl; don't cry!
They have broken your slate, I know;
And the glad, wild ways
Of your schoolgirl days
Are things of the long ago;
But life and love will soon come by. --
There! little girl; don't cry!

There! little girl; don't cry!
They have broken your heart I know;
And the rainbow gleams
Of your youthful dreams
Are things of the long ago;
But Heaven holds all for which you sigh. --
There! little girl; don't cry!

Mama never weighed us down with explanation. She read for the joy of reading and the beauty of the words, letting us draw our own meanings if we chose.

I wonder if she knew that my wet cement would go back to this idea over a lifetime. There is surely a time to cry, but also to remember that beyond sorrow comes joy; that both are part of life.   


Get Back to Work!

BeforeMy all time favorite movie is Fiddler on the Roof. I love Tevye’s discussions with himself as he weighs the options of his daughter’s choices in life partners with “on the other hand.” I feel the sadness both for him and Chava as he reaches the conclusion that “There is no other hand.” Truth to tell, issues large and small nearly always have an “other hand.”

Moving to self-employment as a writer has brought its own set of “other hands.” I addressed the need for true re-creation in Monday’s “Working on Recovery” blog. The work itself brings another set of challenges. I learned pretty quickly that staying busy, which I am good at, was not the same as being productive.

•    My story “Rags and Riches” in September 2011 issue of Cricket Magazine required confirmation that Milk and Wine Lilies (properly called crinums) live for generations on end. I grabbed my Passalong Plants book, knowing Steve Bender and Felder Rushing were authorities. Confirmation was quick, but one garden story led to another. By the time I reached the trumpet vine, I knew I had wandered far off task.
•    A twenty minute break for yard work extends into an hour as the Goldilocks Syndrome kicks in with just one more bush to prune or one more set of weeds to pull.
•    Then there’s probably the biggest distraction as a simple search on the Internet for immigrations patterns for the Katz family in early 1900s becomes a morning chasing one set of interesting immigration pictures and personal stories after another.

I figured out my problem quickly. On the one hand, I was very busy. On the other hand, I was not making progress. I needed a visual solution that showed accomplishment or lack thereof. I began using my Smithsonian calendar to record writing activities each day. This includes research, critiquing for friends, attendance at events like the Children’s Book Festival coming in April, and actual writing. Books I’ve read that week go at the top of the page since reading is part of my work. Blank spaces have reasons noted if they are real – like this week’s gum surgery. Otherwise, the very blankness rebukes me by its emptiness.

Have I cured myself? Not likely. I still chase a few rabbits all the way through the briar patch. But I have fewer “before” pages (2004) and more “after” pages (2011). On the one hand, in self-employment, I sometimes have the worst boss I’ve ever had. On the other hand, I sometimes have the worst employee.  After


Working on Recovery

If a support group formed for my addiction, I would have to go first, “My name is Virginia, and I am a workaholic.”

In a car trip with a friend, I carried my cross stitching. When she questioned why I didn’t relax and enjoy the view, I admitted that I never even watched TV without a task in hand. She said I had missed the meaning of “relax” and offered to give lessons. Retirement from teaching has only brought a different kind of work – writing, volunteering, needlework, gardening – and a tad of housework.

My husband Al thought a bucket list of visiting the 50 states might help. He  settles down to watch the scenery out the window, stroll through a museum, or wander around some gardens. I pull out my pencil and stenopad, taking notes for the trip journal – not that far removed from the work I do. And there are the story ideas that pop up in a chance remark, a tale by the tour guide, or a quip on a poster. It’s hard to escape when your workplace is in your head.

Hearing a lot of advice that we actually need time to re-create as we recreate brought me to thinking seriously about my problem and looking for something that would enforce off-task time. Recently at the local cancer center where Al was being treated [successfully] for self-inflicted sun damage to his bald head, I noticed they had jigsaw puzzles out on several tables for patients and their waiting support groups. Presumably this helped them relax and think about something beside the treatments. I remembered that concentration on shapes and colors does tend to take one’s mind away from everyday concerns – a lesson I learned when I was young and practiced through three generations of female relatives. I hadn’t thought about it lately.

Mama kept a puzzle going for the lady who show up regularly wanting to gossip. Mama didn’t hold with gossipping and soon had the lady talking instead about where that curiously shaped puzzle piece was that “should go right there.”

My sister Beth and I put aside our constant quarrelling for a jigsaw puzzle. I worked the ground, and she worked the sky. She had a better eye for tiny differences in blue shades.

My teen-aged daughter Anna and I perfected the skill and made our rules. We never settled for a puzzle less than 1,000 pieces, and we had a system. First you turn all the pieces right side up making sure none are still joined and removing the edge pieces. Then you put the edge pieces together for the outline. Only then do you begin to work on the puzzle. [Parenting hint: If you want to make a comfortable setting for your child to talk, a jigsaw puzzle will do it.] We also put a curse on those who thought it was a good practical joke to remove just one piece of the puzzle.

Just in case you thought I had forgotten where I was going with this, I have not. It came to me in the cancer center this was a way to enforce recreation for myself. Every holiday I start a jigsaw puzzle. I remain engrossed in the puzzle until it is finished, giving my mind and body a rest. I will admit puzzles are more fun with Beth or Anna, but I enjoyed my last puzzle immensely and became quite attached to this rooster with character.

I have the date of the next holiday, Easter – April 8, marked on the calendar with a puzzle at the ready!