Musings and reflections about writing, storytelling, literacy, Rowan the Golden, and everything in-between
Two Cats and a Dog
This is the journey toward writing a book. A book about two cats, one dog, and a woman who believed there could be "kumbaya" between all involved. Someday. Maybe. Perhaps. Or not.
In 2019 a friend bred her Golden Retriever female. Approximately two months later there were 15--15!!!--wiggling, blind, adorable creatures that resembled golden potatoes more than dogs. Their adorable-ness quickly improved, and soon they had wagging inch worm tails, pot bellies, and milky eyes. When they were eight weeks old I went to visit and play with 15--15!!--puppies. Yeah, you know what happened, don't you?
Wrong. I resisted. For one year, until I retired, and my daughter was home for the summer to help, and everything was ready. I replaced carpet with laminate and installed a fenced lawn. But wait! There's more. I installed a door from the garage to the yard. I asked family members for dog training videos for Christmas, and I read dog training books I purchased from my BFF, Amazon. Still more. I bought a crate for bedtime, and a crate for the car. I bought chew toys and stuffies, and covered computer and lamp cords. I was ready.
And then came the pandemic.
So, I ended up with what has come to be known as a pandemic puppy for many people who took the opportunity of being confined at home as an indicator that this would be the perfect time to train a puppy. Actually, my dog's adoption was preordained, long before the pandemic. When the female's second litter of only 13--13!!--puppies was born on May 19 I started receiving videos and photos of the golden potatoes. My daughter and I reviewed them carefully because we had been promised first pick since I had put in my reservation a year earlier. Would it be Red Collar, the first born and so self-confident? Would it be the one who was the most playful, or the one who was the most curious? Would it be male or female? Would it be the one who was adventurous, or the one who was quiet? Gradually we began to notice Blue Collar. Born in the middle of the litter order. More of a follower than a leader. Smaller than some. Sometimes bossed about by others. Growing well and looking certifiably adorable.
At six weeks we visited the litter to decide for sure. The breeder lived in rural Oregon, with many acres for the puppies to romp through, explore, and instantly collapse on, as puppies are wont to do. They had an adult brother that adored them, and no one ever noticed that he had only three legs as he romped and nuzzled with the best of them. Plus there was Mom with all her sweet milk, and an older "uncle". Lots of love and bouncing and licking for everyone.
We watched and laughed. We noticed all the happiness and good health. We waited for the right moment when Blue Collar would be close enough to scoop into hopeful arms. Was he the one? Finally he was in my lap and I held him and, well, you know what happened, don't you?
This time you're right. He picked us, we picked him. My daughter gave him the name of Rowan, which is Gaelic for "little red one," because we thought he might be more red than golden. We were wrong, but the name fits him perfectly anyway. His registered name is Keep On Rowan, and we frequently play with, "Where you goin', Rowan?" or "Rowan the Golden." July 12 was his Gotcha Day and we brought him home. Our hearts were ready, our house was ready, everything was ready.
Yeah, not so much. Have you ever had a puppy? I had never. Nor a dog. I thought everything was ready, but, oh, my goodness, life with a puppy is consuming, exhausting, challenging, and I was never quite ready for what he brought into our lives. 2:00 a.m. walks on our property, dressed in bathrobes and holding flashlights so we didn't trip over logs in the woods. Frustrating walks when he lunged at everyone and every dog. Peeing accidents when we thought he was fool proof. An obedience class where we saw that he was better than some, not as well-behaved as others. We constantly questioned our decisions. Is he limping? Why won't he eat? How much should he eat? Should we try a pinch collar so he won't lunge? How do we know when to let him be off leash? Are dog parks safe?
And then there were the cats. I have two elderly sibling cats who have been anti-social from the day I adopted them. They were turned in to the Humane Society after being found in an abandoned house. I wanted one, but couldn't stand to separate the two, so....They love me, they tolerate my daughter, and that's it. No one ever sees them because they hide under my bed when company comes. My brother calls them "your cats," with air quotes. But we established our routine over the years. Nicky would always greet me as I came in from the garage, sitting on the window sill of the breezeway. I called him Peek-a-boo Kitty, and he is long and lean, like a string bean. The other, Noel, is a fluffy potato with legs. She's grumpy and frumpy and loves to be petted. She hisses at her brother, and he harasses her. At night, while I watched TV, they were both in my lap, jockeying for their favorite position.
I thought, with time, they would adjust to Rowan. I thought they would learn to co-exist and establish new routines. I thought there would be a few swats on Rowan's nose from one or the other and he would know to keep his distance. Sigh. It's been a year and they still hate him. They sleep and eat all day in my bedroom. Very occasionally Noel will venture out and slink past Rowan in what can only be described as a creepy, slow motion alligator crawl. Very occasionally Nicky will sit on one side of the pet gate while Rowan lies on the other, tail thwacking with nervousness. They don't look at each other, and Nicky occasional growls, looking more like a Gila monster than my sweet cat. Rowan is completely intimidated by these cantankerous, stubborn felines.
I'm still hoping. To help me accept the many changes in routine, and my guilt, I wrote a book. That's what writers do, of course. We write and create a new reality, or reflect on the one that exists. My book is for early readers, and is a series of humorous conversations between two cats, set in their ways, who must adjust to the invasion of a puppy. Sound familiar?
How long have we been under the bed?
I don’t know. It’s a big number so it must have been at least 100.
Maybe dog is gone?
You go look.
Shhh. Someone’s coming.
Does Hooman sniff?
Only when she’s baking brownies.
Whoever is coming is sniffing. A lot.
Paws, claws and whiskers, it’s the DOG! In Hooman’s bedroom! Our bedroom!
Growl! Ha! We made him pee.
He really needs a litter box.
She’s taking him out.
Furballs! She's bringing him back in.
Have you noticed that every time he sees us he starts wiggling? And wagging. And sniffing. Kinda cute, actually.
He looks like he wants to play.
Cats don’t play with dogs.
I repeat. Cats. Don’t. Play. With. Dogs. It’s a law.
Who made the law?
Cats made a law about dogs. Interesting. Well, I’m a cat and I want to play. I want to chase. I want to boop.
He just fell over. Is he dead?
Kinda cute, actually. Ooh, he’s waking up! She’s taking him out. A-a-a-a-nd they’re back. He’s asleep again.
He doesn’t do much, does he?
Neither do we.
Of course not. We’re cats. It’s a law.
The book is in the nebulous stage of searching for the agent who says, "Yes!" I haven't found him/her yet, but I will persist, as writers do. In the meantime, new routines include snuggling with the cats on my bed when waking up and at night before sleeping, and laughing all day long at the goofiest, happiest, loving-est dog I could ever have imagined.
September, 2019, was when I had everything all planned out. Refirement, volunteer work, workshops, consulting, blah, blah, blah. And then life happened, assaulting my well-made plans with many interruptions.
First, a painful interruption. My mother, age 94, let go after a failed surgery and decided it was time to join my father in the light. She died November 1. My grief was more than just grief. It was acceptance and regret and loneliness and memories all tumbling through me and grabbing at me. I miss her no less today than I did then. I couldn't write. I just let myself feel, and survive the holidays.
Next came a world-wide interruption. Then came March, 2020. You remember that, right? Suddenly we couldn't hug or visit or gather. My daughter had to leave her university to complete her senior year at home. She had a "drive by" graduation. We searched for masks on the internet that reflected our selves. (They were all uncomfortable.) We wrote a silly Youtube musical, complete with puppets, to the tune of "From a Distance." We talked a lot about my mother.
A cute interruption. In July we got a pandemic puppy. Not because of the pandemic. I had planned for his adoption long before we knew about Covid-19. I'd never had a dog, let alone an 8-week-old puppy. It was a nightmare. Actually, worse than a nightmare because that would imply sleeping. Every day I wondered, "What was I thinking?" He controlled our thoughts, our movements, our schedules. We commiserated with others who had puppies, and we gradually established boundaries. We took him to obedience classes. Most of all, we loved his silly, doodley, adorable antics. He twisted himself around to look like Scrat from Ice Age. (He still does.) He invaded our hearts and, thirteen months later, we are smitten with Keep on Goin' Rowan.
Interruption Four. Volunteer work came and went. I'll write more about that another day. Suffice it to say I tried to do too much, and was on Zoom too often for trainings, meetings, and other communications. Worst of all, I wasn't getting any writing done. So, I pulled back. A lot. A friend once told me that when you retire, at first it's "Go, go, go." Then comes "Slow, slow, slow." And, finally, "No, no no."
I reached the "No" stage in May when I realized that the one thing--the ONE thing--I wanted most to do when I retired was not getting done. Writing. I did manage to finish the manuscript for "Bringing Heart and Mind Into Storytime: Presenting Social Emotional Learning With Books and Creative Activities," to be published by ABC-CLIO soon. (I say "managed" because I literally had to put a pet fence around me as I wrote so the pupper could not jump on me.) But I was anxious to work on a teen novel. I have two completed historical fantasies that I sent out, but no agent has responded with an enthusiastic, "YES!" Yet. I wanted to try something more realistic. It wasn't happening.
The fifth interruption. I had dinner with a friend (Were we wearing masks? I can't remember.) and she listened to me talk about the craziness of my house with a puppy eager for play and attention, and two middle-aged anti-social cats who did not comply with my plans for kumbaya and group hug. Not happening. The cats hissed, the puppy cowered. Then the cats became permanent daytime residents of my bedroom to avoid any contact with the intruder. I still have guilt. But my friend said, "You should write a book. Two Cats and a Dog." So I did.
It's a funny early chapter book of conversations between the two cats who are disgusted by the antics of a puppy that has been brought into "their" home. "He has to learn to sit? Dumb." "Why is she putting up a gate to our bathroom? Gates are for keeping someone in. So, once we use our litter box we can never come out? We're in there with the poo forever?" I'm sending it out, searching for the right agent.
Still, there's the teen novel, knocking about in my head. I considered what teens like to read, based on my forty years of being a youth librarian, manager and avid reader. I knew I wanted it to be about important stuff, real stuff, thinking stuff. Being a member of Moms Demand Action, I tried writing about a shooting at a park and how it impacts each of the victims and survivors but it was too disturbing, and my writing was disjointed and trite. Recent news tickled my brain with Greta Thunberg, polar ice caps melting, the disadvantages of fracking, the death of the last male white rhino in Kenya. Bits and pieces that mulled and roiled and, eventually, gelled.
In March I finally sat at my grandfather's roll top desk (which I had moved out of my bedroom and into the living room in order to provide more motivation) and waited for clarity. All of this climate change/global warming/ecosystem disaster stuff would mean research. A lot of research. How much was I willing to do? I also knew I wanted an animal to be part of the story. What animal? I've always been captivated by sleek and playful river otters. Yes? No. I have been to Kenya twice and love every animal, from warthog to leopard. Yes? No. And then a word crashed into my brain.
What I knew about wolverines five months ago would be less than enough to write a sentence. "Wolverines are scary mammals with big claws." A very short sentence. So I began the research. I discovered The Wolverine Way by Douglas H. Chadwick, who studied and tracked wolverines in Montana. I was impressed and intrigued. I wanted more. I read The Lone Wolverine: Tracking Michigan's Most Elusive Animal by Elizabeth Philips Shaw and Jeff Ford, and was not impressed. Too much of one guy's obsession and not enough about the wolverine. Barry Lopez's Lessons from the Wolverine is a lovely "spiritual adventure" about one man's journey to understand the power of wolverines. I watched videos of wolverines hunting, traveling, devouring, and, most of all, being elusive. I tracked down wolverine legends and facts. The more I knew about this "phantom of the woods," the more I knew this was exactly the right animal for my book.
So I began writing. And researching. I am still writing and researching. There is a girl, Coral, and her cello, Camille, in my book. There are street wise young adults. There is a missing person, fracking, a Wild Child, and there is the wolverine, traveling through it all, searching for a mate and what she needs to survive. Snow. Water. Food without deadly chemicals. I wrote 25,000 words and then rewrote it all, changing from first to third person. Why? Because it worked better is all I can say.
Interruptions will still happen. Rowan needs to be walked, groceries need to be purchased, social media needs to be addressed (thus this blog), friends need to be hugged. But writers need to write. And so I am now traveling with the wolverine, to wherever she guides me.
The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen.
When I first heard or read that phrase I could not find the sense in it. If the Queen is dead, then how could she live long? But somewhere along the way, either reading or watching a movie about British royalty, I understood. The old queen has died. The new queen reigns. Got it. I wonder if that was said when Queen Elizabeth II learned of her father's death while she was on safari in Kenya? She was at the Treetops Lodge, an amazing safari resort at which I am excited to say I have stayed. You actually sleep in a treehouse, and stay up all night and watch lions and elephants and waterbuck and warthogs and baboons all come to the water hole below. But when Elizabeth was there in 1952 (amazingly, the same year I was born), her safari was interrupted and her life changed forever. One minute she was heir apparent, and the next, at age 26, she was Queen. The King is dead. Long live the Queen. And, oh my, she has certainly managed to live long.
So, what in the world has any of this to do with my blog? Simply put, a queen of my life has died and another now lives. I am retired.
No, I have refired. Someone told me that word, and I have embraced it. Until it happened to me, I thought of retirement as a time of no work, quiet contemplation, occasional outings with friends, and time spent looking through photo albums and old letters. Gack! That is so not me. So when I began contemplating ending my profession as Youth Services Manager at Deschutes Public Library I knew I could not leave the amazing world of children's literature for photo albums. I could not give up bringing the joy of books to children through storytime read alouds and replace it with sitting on my patio to watch the bird feeder. (Well, actually, I quite enjoy watching my bird feeder, but not all day.) I could not let go of performing stories that sing to my heart and soul. So, I refired myself. Long live the Queen.
I am now an early literacy consultant. A storytime skills workshop leader. A storyteller. I am doing what I love to do, sharing the power of stories. Read all about it here. heathermcneilstories.com
Shortly before I retired a new picture book came across my desk (I am SO glad not be sitting at a desk all day anymore) entitled I Am A Tiger by Karl Newson. It was the perfect book at the perfect moment of time. It is also hilarious. A quick summary: A mouse informs his friends, a raccoon, a bird, a snake and a fox, that he is a tiger. They are, understandably, skeptical. He remains adamant, even when a tiger appears, which he insists is really a mouse. There is a brilliant double page spread in which the tigermouse points out the characteristics of each animal and declares their true identities. While pointing to the yellow snake draped across a branch the tigermouse explains, "Thin. Pointy. Hangs in trees. This is a banana." Ha! Finally, the tigermouse skips away--"Now, I really must be going--my lunch won't catch itself!" When he sees his reflection in a pond he is at first horrified to discover he is not a tiger at all. He quickly recovers, recognizes his attributes, and declares, "I am a crocodile!" He is refired.
So what will this refired librarian be doing? Is she a tiger or a mouse?
According to Retire Happy retirement is in three stages. The first is "Go, go." That is the stage I am delightfully embarking upon. Based on 40 years of experience, I am:
Retire Happy identifies the second phase as "Slow Go." I imagine I'll get there someday, when my calendar becomes too full and I miss watching the bird feeder. The third phase, "No Go," well, I hope to keep my health and attitude in a positive place for quite a while yet.
I thoroughly enjoyed many parts of my years in the library profession. I loved the children, their enthusiasm and simplicity and complications and resilience and openness and giggles. It was a mutual adoration society. I was proud of saying, "I work for the library," for twenty years in Colorado, and twenty in Oregon. People always responded with something positive to say about their relationship with the library. I took great pleasure in the courage of library staff, as they stand up for equity and inclusion and free speech.
I know I am very lucky to be able to start a new career, one that means making my own schedule, having days that are diverse, and being focused on what I am passionate about. I hope to see you somewhere, with books in hand and stories to share.
It's a snow day here in central Oregon. And I mean a SNOW day. The prediction of 8-12 inches was achieved hours ago, and it's still snowing. A lot. Constantly. I shoveled at least two feet of off the deck and within an hour it was covered with another 4". So, being the courageous mountain woman that I am, I quit. Came inside to put together a snow rake, which I bought two years ago after the last snowpocalypse, and it's been in its original box, in the shed, ever since. The guy at Ace Hardware had said, "Oh, it's easy. Just put it together, then you can extend it to the length you need." So, I brought it inside, carefully laid out the parts, and discovered the instructions were less than helpful. Miniscule illustrations with arrows that vaguely pointed to unidentifiable portions of the rake. Step one involved putting the handle into a tube that was smaller than the handle. Smart. So I pounded and, eventually, the two parts became one. I gradually figured out the rest with logic and absolutely no help from the so-called instructions. But then I discovered that the pounding had flattened the opening on the other end of the handle to which I was to add the extensions, and it was now too small for anything to fit inside. I quit.
That's when I decided I needed to spend my time doing something much more valuable than terrifying my two cats with shouted epithets of scorn. So now the three of us are on my bed. They are curled around themselves, nose to tail and paws over eyes (not around each other; they hate each other, even though they were born of the same mother, in the same litter, but from a different father, which I think has scarred and shamed them so much they can't offer love to the other). The French doors allow me to watch the snow falling and piling and covering. Bare branches are whipped with cream frosting. Evergreen trees are droopy with the heaviness of snow. All the world is white and silent and the earth is, I hope, drinking and storing moisture in preparation for the fires of summer.
I could be reading. But where would I begin? I don't mean by that, where do I begin in the book. Begin at the beginning, of course. Or where I left the bookmark. No, what I mean is, do I begin with the living room book, or the dining table book, or the bedside book, or the audio book, or the in-a-pile-waiting-for-the-right-time book?
I don't read just one book. Being a librarian and a storyteller, I am ravenous for books, so I read what I left where I am.
Where I am now is in the bedroom, snuggled beneath blankets, listening to one cat's snores and David Arkenstone on Amazon music, so we'll begin here. Last night, before sleeping, I finished I Always Loved You by Robin Oliveira. I have to say I really hate that title, because it makes one think of damsels in tight corsets and billowy skirts, standing on the terrace and softly weeping as the buccaneer sails off to the Caribbean. In fact the book is a powerful novel about Mary Cassatt, one of the few female Impressionists, and her tempestuous, unpredictable relationship with another artist, Edgar Degas. He was, to put it mildly, rude and often boorish. But his talents fascinated Cassatt, and she endured his priggishness (is that a word?) for an occasional compliment or kindness. The book also includes the story of another ill-fated relationship between Edouard Manet and Berthe Morisot, as well as appearances by many others who were part of Belle Époque Paris, and it is truly fascinating and very well written and researched. I occasionally wanted to shake Cassatt's shoulders and say something helpful like, "I know these kind of men! Shut the door! Pull the blinds! Don't pick up the mail!" But you love who you love. And she always loved him. (OK, I guess that could be the title.)
Tonight I will begin reading a 650-page tome by Irving Stone, he who wrote Agony and the Ecstacy, about the starving and never satisfied Michelangelo, and Lust for Life, about the maniacal and never satisfied Vincent van Gogh. This one is about Camille Pissarro, another early Impressionist. I look forward to hours and hours and hours and hours of immersion into the life of another poverty-stricken, unappreciated, and never satisfied artist.
Why all the Impressionism? I am traveling to Europe in May, visiting parts of Spain, France and Italy with my daughter. Galleries and museums galore! But, lest you think I am single-minded in my reading choices, let's move on to the dining table. I enjoy breakfast granola and coffee with Douglas Chadwick, who is more familiar with snow than I ever want to be. The book is The Wolverine Way, and is an account of Chadwick's many years of researching and following wolverines in Glacier National Park. Not only is what he learns about these elusive carnivores fascinating, but his writing is captivating, a rare talent among scientific researchers. He describes a mayfly caught in an ice storm as "a winged ant with soaked and crumpled flight gear." And more about the ice: "I find myself looking at countless tiny sparks dancing through the air in front of my eyes. Galaxies within galaxies, invisible imps cavorting with miniature sparklers...." He has great humor, too, about what it's like to survive the dramatic weather of Glacier, as well as encounter the animals who call it home. When one of his research partners is approached by more than a dozen wolves, Chadwick says to his wife, "Cool. After they kill him, let's take his stuff and tell everybody the wolves carried it off." Love this book!
sAnd now the kitchen. Here's where I have the joy of listening to a book while preparing a meal, emptying the dishwasher, mopping the floor. I continue listening while dressing in the bathroom, or folding laundry, or potting plants. I am an auditory learner, so I retain what I've heard easier than what I've read from text. Currently, I am re-listening to The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant. I actually read it a couple of years ago, but am returning to this sensual story of 15th century Florence and a young woman who is caught up in the bigotry and prejudice of the day. There's plague, fanaticism, betrayal, the majesty of Renaissance art, and even murder.
When I visit the Uffizi Gallery, and the Accademia Gallery, and the Orsay Museum, and the Musee de l'Orangerie, the paintings will mean so much more because of the books I've read. (Yes, I know I didn't include the accent marks, but darned if I can figure out how to do that.)
I also listen while driving, sometimes to the same book that is downloaded on my phone, but sometimes to CDs, which is what I've been doing recently, thoroughly enjoying Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina and wonderfully read by Frankie Corzo. This is the 2019 Newbery Medal winner, which is awarded to "the most distinguished" children's book published in the previous year. It is a heartwarming story of a sixth-grader whose world is changing, from confusing friendships at school to a grandfather declining with Alzheimer's disease. The success of an auditory book depends on the oral interpretation; I have deleted and discarded many, many books based on the first twenty minutes of listening to a pedestrian and uninspired reading. But Corzo (and Kathe Mazur for Birth of Venus) both give excellent performances, bringing the stories and characters to life.
One more to mention. A debut novel by Catherine Alene. The Sky Between You and Me is a novel in verse that tells the heartbreaking story of a teen who is slowly spiraling into anorexia. Friendships, the pressure of winning at horseback riding events, and the grief of losing her mother to cancer are overpowering Raesha, and the one thing she can control is whether or not she eats. This book is what I read during breaks at work. I am still reading, relishing the beautiful language and rhythm ("Our house breathes/In creaks and groans at night/Even my moccasin slippers/Make the stairs complain....") so I don't know whether the ending is hopeful, but I do know I look forward to more by this author. BTW, I have been known to look ahead at the ending, especially if a pet is involved, but not this time. I think it is imperative to feel the tension of this one.
By now you're probably thinking, "How can she keep all those books straight in her mind? Doesn't she get confused?" No, I don't, unless the books are too similar, which has happened with two murder mysteries or two travelogues. But combining an Impressionist, a wolverine, a headstrong sixth-grader, a teenager desperate for help, and the Renaissance is no problem. It's like living with a houseful of family, all of whom want to tell you their escapades. You hear about Aunt Matilda's delight with the new scarf she got at Goodwill while you're fixing a sandwich, and your little brother's fury about the referee's call at the basketball game while you're setting the table for dinner, and your mother's excitement about being called for an interview while you're fixing your hair, and your grandfather's memory about an old army buddy who just passed away while you're watering the plants. They're all family, and they all have stories that need to be told. and heard and passed on. Just like I'm passing these on to you.
And now, I shall re-engage with the snow shovel. But not the rake. The rake is dead to me.
It's still snowing.
I Say Airplane, You Say....
It was storytime. Specifically, it was storytime for toddlers. I had a room full of curious, energetic 18-16 months-old children with their care givers, approximately 60 total. The music of Laurie Berkner was playing to get them in the mood for stories about cats. "The cat came back/We thought he was a goner...." Sounds morbid, but it's actually quite fun, a remix that invites dancing and silliness. There's a lot of silliness at my storytimes, and today would be no exception with my French-speaking cat puppet named Sapphire, a bag full of big cat stuffed animals for them to guess, and action rhymes that got us all licking our paws, chasing our tails, and pouncing on imaginary mice. To say nothing of the fun of "Goin' On a Lion Hunt," when we all swam through a lake, climbed a tree, and tiptoed into a lion's cave. Of course, there were books, too, including I Am a Cat by Galia Bernstein, which gave me the opportunity to use many different voices, and Mama Cat Has Three Kittens by Denise Fleming, which gave them the opportunity to "read" along with me the repeating phrase, "Boris naps."
My blog today, though, is not about the storytime itself, but about something significant that happened before storytime. While I was arranging my books, felt board characters and rhyme sheets, one of the attendees came up to my chair and handed me what you see in the photo above. "This is for you," she said as she placed it into my hands. "I made it." I do get wonderful gifts from time to time. Squished dandelions, overly decorated cookies, thank you cards with unidentifiable scribblings by the toddler. I love them all, and keep many of them (except the cookies) in my when-the-day-is-going-downhill-fast file. One look through those treasures and I have no trouble remembering why being a librarian who gets to do storytime for kids is one of the best jobs in the world. Maybe THE best job.
I held the object carefully in my hands and said with great joy, "It's an airplane!"
Without missing a beat she said, "No, it's a butterfly." And then she proceeded to explain the color pattern--"See, it's blue, green, blue, green. I colored it." I thanked her profusely, she returned to her mother, and I carefully placed the butterfly on my table. What I wanted to do was smack my brain for having forgotten the proverbial response when a very young child hands you a piece of her artwork. "Thank you for sharing it with me. Please tell me all about it." But I didn't say that and she kindly corrected me, highlighting all the details that made this butterfly so beautiful in her eyes.
When my daughter was three one of her favorite words was, "venture," as in, "I'm going on a 'venture." I believe this came from how her grandmother and I would introduce a day's outing. It might be to search for sand dollars on the coast, or hike the Painted Hills of Oregon, or get a new beta fish at the pet store. She caught on to the excitement of the idea, and began to create 'ventures of her own. She would sit in her orange car and scoot herself around the back deck, declaring that she was grocery shopping, or visiting a friend, or going to the ocean. When she was four she drew a map of one of those adventures, and I am still intrigued by all the discoveries she imagined along the way.
What a joy to be a child, to create butterflies, correct adults, and go on 'ventures that lead you to lions or the ocean.
Then we grow up. We are told, "No, that's not right," or, "You made a mistake," or, "Don't." We are evaluated at work, declined after job interviews, rejected by soulmates. We aim to please others so often along the way that we can sometimes stop pleasing the hearts of ourselves. I am reminded of this as I struggle to get my first teen novel published. My three published books are educational, focusing on early literacy and storytelling. But now, I'm writing for teens. Two are finished, one of which is making the rounds of being sent to agents that I hope will say, "Oh, it's a butterfly!" So far all they've seen are airplanes. It is disheartening, to say the least. It can lead to a variety of illnesses, such as the headache of writer's block, or the self medication of chocolate. What is particularly hard is that agents don't have the time to individually respond to each query. So you either get a form email--"Thank you for sending us your manuscript. Unfortunately..."--or no response at all. This is after an average of waiting for 6-8 weeks, and why many writers turn to self publishing.
I believe in agents and editors, all of whom help the author make the book the absolute best it can be. So if a rejection comes I read the first two sentences, delete, and search out another agent who can see what I see. I can't quit because someone just wasn't in the mood that day for historical fantasy, or already contracted with someone else for a book about prejudice. Like selling a house, it only takes one.
A writer is a writer is a writer. So I keep on writing. I recently read an interview with some author whose first novel was being very well reviewed. She said, "People talk about this being my first novel. But I have eleven others in a drawer, all the victims of rejection." Well, I have two in the drawer. And a third one that's just been born, working its way out of my head and onto paper.
That's my 'venture.
I am sitting in my daughter's room, staring at the book shelf. The room is organized, colorful and quiet, as are the books, a perfect reflection of her personality and charm. (Her godmother described her as "a quiet spirit with the eye of a tiger.") On the top of the shelf are toys from Vietnam, revealing her heritage.. Her high school graduation cap and diploma rest lopsidedly on top of books, and there is a photograph I adore. She is barely 6, and is with 13 other dark-eyed, dark-haired Vietnamese children, all sporting green tee shirts that say "Vietnamese Heritage Camp." She was sick the entire time we were at that camp in the Rockies, yet she is smiling as if there is no other place she would rather be.
I am sitting here, staring at the book shelf, and reflecting on 20 years so quickly gone by and so connected to what is on that shelf.
She is not here because she is beinning a semester of study at the American University in Aix-en-Provence. It is not the first time we have been separated. She traveled with her choir to New Orleans and Chicago, and she attended language camp for 3 summers in Bemidji, Minnesota. She's in her 3rd semester at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA. For all those journeys I remained in Bend, OR. On the day before she left we tried to reassure ourselves by saying, "It's the same as if I was at PLU and we just don't get to have spring break together." "We have Whatsapp, Skype, Messenger, Hangouts--we'll be in touch a lot." "This is good practice for when I join the Peace Corps." "Four months isn't that long."
Poppycock. It was all baloney and poppycock. She's in FRANCE! You know, on the other side of the Atlantic, in tthe home of wine, sexy men with sexy accents, and scarves. Well, OK, the scarves are fine, but....
So, here I am, in her room, holding myself together, and remembering the years before. As it is in so much of my life, books are part of the story. Specifically, reading aloud, every night, including just two nights ago when I read from Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. The length and intensity of what I read aloud has changed over the years, but not the importance to us, nor the setting. On a bed, hers when she was young, then mine. Sometimes a cat curled between us. At least half an hour of sharing words and emotions. Twenty years. And it's all here on her book shelf.
I read and sang to her from the first day I received her in Hanoi. (That experience will be another blog for another day) She snuggled in my lap from the start, more than willing to stay for another book and another and another. Guess How Much I Love You was an immediate favorite, and to this day "I love you to the moon and back," says it all. Later, celebrating the full moon became a tradition, and I would drive us to an open meadow, we'd climb up on the hood of the car, and sing every song we could think of that had the word "moon" in it. "I see the moon and the moon sees me/Shining down from the old oak tree./Please let the light that shines on me/Shine on the one I love." When she left for France I gave her a small silver disk to tuck into her purse. On one side are the words "I love you to the moon", and an engraving of a moon and star on the other. I believe it is no coincidence that on this first weekend so far apart there will be a super blood full moon. We will share the moon, no matter how many planes and time changes there are between us.
Along the way of parenting we establish family traditions. It might be singing a particular song while hiking, or allowing the birthday child to choose what's for dinner, even if it's pancakes with chocolate syrup and spaghetti. Books brought up traditions naturally for us, leading to those full moon drives as well as certain phrases shared, such as Winnie the Pooh's, "Let's have a smackerel of something," and keeping a basket of Christmas picture books under the Christmas tree, which we still read aloud, one per night of December.
Two others that required repeated readings were Sleepytime Rhyme by Remy Charlip, and A, You're Adorable, words by Buddy Kaye Fred Wise, and Sidney Lippman, and illustrated by Martha Alexander. Both of them I sang, making up a tune for Charlip's gentle reminder of unconditional, everlasting love between parent and child. Alexander's detailed illustrations of multi-ethnic children required long, careful observations to find the kittens, identify the alphabet letters, and enjoy the many ways the children find to play with everything from balloons to tricycles. I'm sure by today's standards of awareness there is stereotyping in at least one of the pictures, but we focused on the fact that the children were of different skin colors, an important fact I made sure she understood as she grew more conscious of the fact that her skin is not the same as her mother's.
Speaking of ethnicity, another book that deeply resonated with my daughter was Aki and the Fox by Akiko Hayashi. I doubt that many people know this quiet gem, and I'm sure it's out of print. But the Japanese child and her adorable fox, clad in striped overalls and bright red shirt, attached themselves to my daughter's heart. Little Aki, the girl, and Kon, the fox, travel alone (!) on a train to visit Grandmother, and there is tension when Kon is briefly lost but quickly found, sporting a smashed tail. Then he is grabbed by a dog who buries him in the sand dunes. Aki rescues him and carries him to Grandmother, listening to his self-reassuring murmurs of, "I'm fine, I'm fine." Aki looks very much like my daughter at the age when we shared this treasure, and as many times as we read it she was always greatly relieved when Kon was back in Aki's arms, and both were embraced in Grandmother's arms. "I'm fine, I'm fine," was another repeating phrase we shared whenever life was wonky, and I find myself repeating it now, in the emptiness of her room.
Many books brought us laughter. Aunt Isabel Tells a Good One by Kate Duke features adorable mice, the most adorable of which is timid Penelope. She helps her Aunt make up stories, correcting her with, "That's too scary!," or "I think we should leave that Problem part out." Papa's Song by Kate and Jim McMullan is all about a baby bear who is not at all interested in going to sleep, so each family member takes a turn at making up a lullaby to lull him into closing his eyes. "I'm your mama, up since dawn./How I wish that you would yawn." For some unexplainable reason, a photo of a boy in Picture Dictionary, written by Jennifer Boudart, Brian Conway and Lisa Harkrader, sent my daughter into gales of giggles. To me, it's just a boy in jeans and yellow pullover, his arm extended up, but for her it was a guarantee of hilarity. By far the best for laughs and a few winks was one called When Mommy Was Mad by Lynne Jonell. Yes, indeed, I am human, and I had my moments. Single parent, working full time, blah, blah, blah. This book helped both of us see that even mommies can be unhappy, lose their temper, and be too tired even to snuggle. What they need is a good "bork," which amounts to being bumped by your child while saying "bork." In case you're wondering, it works. It brings a laugh. My daughter and I know this, first hand. .
We read fairy tales. No Disney! Those are fine for movies, but the real story of Rapunzel or Sleeping Beauty is so much more powerful, and the intensity and lessons learned in the traditional folk tales is so much more important than singing to blue birds.. Her favorites were the ones illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, and we both agreed we'd happily be kissed awake by the the handsome, rugged prince in Snow White.
We never read an eBook. Reading aloud requires cuddling with a real book with real pages to turn and illustrations to touch, and, yes, pages to smell. (you knew I was going to say that) When a child says, "What do lizards eat?" or "Why were Cinderella's sisters so mean?", it means a trip to the library. The child will soon learn that answers are found in reading.
Jane Dyer is a favorite illustrator of ours. Lush with details and rich with colors, every book is a treasure to explore. Oh My Baby, Little One helped with conversations about why I had to leave each day to work at the library. Time for Bed is a melodious spoken lullaby among animals preparing their young ones for sleep and she loved all the different voices I used, from hissy snake to squeaky mouse. And I Love You Like Crazy Cakes, well, that one deserves a blog of its own for those of you lucky enough to be adoptive parents. Suffice it to say there is no other book that resonated with us so deeply as we navigated the troublesome waters of understanding what adoption means.
As a librarian, I often hear from an exasperated parent, "I just can't read Green Eggs and Ham again but he wants it every night. It's so--so--so--." Yeah, I know. But here's what you need to do. Read it again. And again. And again. Something about that book resonates with your child and that will lead him to loving books and wanting to learn to read. Pick other books, too, but keep reading the annoying--uhm--catchy and repetitive phrases of Sam I am.
It was my mother who read aloud Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery, and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. When I was out of town for a conference she took care of my daughter, and they would sit on the couch for hours, Bobby the blanket firmly held in my daughter's hands, and Mom reading aloud to their hearts' content. When I was considering purchasing a house in the forest, and took Jamie Rose to see it, she immediately spied the green shutters and white siding, saying, "Ït's Green Gables!" We bought the house.
My daughter grew up, of course. So then I read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, (loved it) and The Great Gatsby (hated it), and A Separate Peace by John Knowles (pondered it). Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner captivated her and led to her reading all his others. Like almost anyone who is breathing, we read all the Harry Potter books. Twice. I finished the second round when she finished high school, and then read the playscript, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, while camping that summer. I really had to temper down my usual array of voices and drama in respect to others in tents not so far away. We've watched the movies more times than need to be counted, we've been to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and we could easily read all 4,400 pages a third time. Thank you, J. K. Rowling, for giving the world these books that have brought delight to more people of all ages than any other book I've known in my 40 years as a librarian.
So many parents think that once a child can read on his own they should stop reading aloud. In a word--WRONG! Reading aloud to a middle school child can lead to profound discussions about bullying or peer pressure. Reading aloud to a high school child can lead to her sharing thoughts or experiences she might never have shared otherwise. And reading aloud to a college student, the night before she leaves the country and will never be quite the same again, gives you the place and time to be together the way it's always been, the way that ended each day and left imprints of bonding never to be broken and memories never to be forgotten.
She's sleeping now, on the other side of the Atlantic. She has so much ahead of her to experience, from climbing Montagne Sainte-Victoire with the other new students, to learning about the immigration experience in Europe. To say nothing of being immersed in French. Ooh-la-la! (She's already fluent in Spanish, this child of mine who wants to make a difference in the world.) She will read alone, at night, as will I. But we'll share the same moon, and the same memories of me saying, "Go get what you want tonight from your book shelf." And off she'd scamper, running back into bed, snuggling under the blankets, and handing me the books that would fill us with wonder and love.
All My Hats
Manager of Youth Services in public libraries for 40 years. Avid reader.