The Echo of a Mother’s Steady Love

My mother died several years ago. No matter how old I get, I still have a pang of longing each Mother’s Day for just one more phone conversation, one more moment sitting together at the table, with our hands, so similar, wrapped around our coffee cups.

 

Mom was always extremely well-organized. A year or two before her stroke, almost as if she had advance warning, she shipped me a box of family letters that she wanted me to save.

I hadn’t really taken a good look at the box, other than to note that one envelope included my grandparents’ love letters.

Recently, I dug through my closet and opened the box. My intention was to read my grandparents’ World War I correspondence and perhaps get an idea for a story.

Instead, I picked up a stack of blue-and-red-bordered airmail letters from my grandmother to my mother. As I flipped through the envelopes, I immediately noticed the postmarks were out of chronological order.

So unlike my mother!

The top letter in the stack was dated in 1977, the year Grandma died. It must have been the last letter Grandma wrote to Mom. In her beautiful handwriting, Grandma said how hard it was to take out the trash during the harsh Iowa winter, and how she was worried about Grandpa slowing down. But her words still contained that upbeat contentment I so associated with my grandmother. She was looking forward to spring and already had some flowers blooming indoors.

The next letter, directly under the 1977 letter, was dated 1962. Apparently, my mother had written to Grandma that she was feeling depressed and adrift. My mother was in her early forties in 1962. Here is Grandma’s response:

“I suppose the 40’s are apt to be a time of reassessment. The glowing optimism of youth has become a little dulled. We may wonder just where we’re going and why.

But don’t expect to find all of the answers. I don’t think we’re supposed to, or perhaps we’d cease searching and struggling. It seems to me only the very smug pretend to have ‘arrived.’ 

Probably it’s a good thing we are already committed to our tasks and must carry on as best we can. The daily routine helps a lot when life may seem pointless for a time.

Natural phenomena helps me when I’m low. A flutter of wings always roused me enough to try to identify the bird. Flowers have always interested me, as you know. Sunrises, sunsets, cloud formations give me a lift.”

My grandmother goes on to remind my mother that she has good friends, including her husband, that she can reach out to. That she should remember not to take all of the burdens on the world on herself and not to worry about mistakes, they are part of life.

Grandma continues:

“Fortunately, you are not self-centered, you have always thought of others. To concentrate on oneself is a fatal mistake….One thing I’m sure you know you can count on, and that is our deepest affection, always. You have always brought us great joy, a daughter for which to be very grateful.” 

How often in our lives do we hear pure, heartfelt, unselfish love? At that precise moment, sitting on the floor of my bedroom, I found Grandma’s words encircling me with warmth, telling me to take time to both forgive myself for errors and rejoice in the world around me.

But there was more. Tucked into that 1962 envelope was another letter, much older, that Grandma sent to my mother on her 21st birthday.

“To Dad and me it scarcely seems possible that you are twenty-one. It seems but a few years ago that you were enthroned on Dad’s shoulders with your baby fingers tangled in his hair while we took our Sunday walks over the Arkansas farm…

And now you stand at the threshold of adult life. I wish I could guarantee you a life of great happiness, but I cannot, for that will depend largely upon yourself. I asked Dad what he would choose to give you as a life inheritance if it were possible and he said ‘good health,’ that with it you could win nearly anything else.

The joy of accomplishment has always meant much to me, be the tasks large or small. Your grandfather told me he never cared to be wealthy, just so he could make enough money to associate with the people he enjoyed being with.

At any rate, we wish you an abundant life, full of congenial work, and love and friends. Seems as though such a combination should produce happiness.”

And, indeed, this wish did come true. My mother had a well-lived life — teaching, reading, volunteering. Always busy with ‘tasks large or small.’

I now know why these letters were out of chronological order. They were at the top of the stack so that any time Mom could reach out, unfold the thin pages, and hear her mother’s comforting voice in this our sometimes painful, often confusing world.

My mother gave me a gift this Mother’s Day. These beautiful letters. They remind me that strong families are built, in part, on a mother’s steady love, echoing down the generations.

Happy Mother’s Day

 

On September 11th, Write About a Peaceful World

It happened a few years after 9/11. Highlights, the children’s magazine, was having their annual writing contest. The theme was: “Write a children’s story set in the future.”

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The reason I write for children, the reason I read children’s books, is that children’s stories are stories of hope.  A children’s primer that I have from the mid-1800’s, which shows a couple grieving over an empty bassinet, says something like “Mr. and Mrs. Smith have lost their child. They are grieving, but perhaps God will give them another child.”

Grim, I know. But even during an era when the purpose of a children’s book was to prepare children for a hard and unpredictable life, there was always a drop of hope.

I wasn’t thinking grim thoughts years ago when I learned about the Highlights contest. I plopped down in front of my computer, excited to travel to distant worlds or explore some facet of scientific discovery.

I sat.

And sat.

And sat.

I, who grew up with Star Trek and all of the subsequent science fiction stories. I, who still read science fiction and thrill at new concepts, couldn’t think of one story set in our future that ended well, or at least had the hope of filling the bassinet again.

It occurred to me, sitting in front of an empty screen, that we will never see or know peace if we can’t keep an image of peace in our minds.

So every September 11th I try to fill the bassinet with hope. I draft a story about a peaceful world set in the future.

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Not all butterflies and kittens, but a story that brings me a little closer to understanding who we are. I write stories about how we, humans of all faiths and backgrounds, can, hope by hope, drop by drop, build a better world.

Join me. Write about a peaceful world on September 11th.

Here’s what you do. Sometime during the day or evening set a timer for 10 minutes. Sit down and write about a world without war. What would our lives look like without war? What would be on the news?

You don’t need to be a “writer” to join me. Set a timer for ten minutes. Pick up a pen or sit at your keyboard. Dream.

If you like, you can join the Facebook event.

 

What About Maddi’s Story?

A few weeks ago I visited an elementary school in northern Washington State.

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The school held a food drive and collected 1600 food items before my visit.

I spoke to three assemblies and then led two writers’ workshops. At the beginning of 5th grade workshop, I asked the kids if they had questions about Maddi’s Fridge that didn’t get answered at the assembly.

One girl shot her hand up straight in the air. “Why don’t you do a second book, this time tell Maddi’s story.” What she meant was, tell Maddi’s Fridge from Maddi’s point of view.

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I answered her by suggesting the class read Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate, a middle grade novel told from the point of view of a boy who has an empty refrigerator.

I went on to the next question. The girl’s hand went straight up back in the air. After answering a few questions I called on her again.

“What I’m asking is, why don’t you write Maddi’s story?”

The reason I love school visits, the reason I love to teach, is that I am given so much more than I bring when I walk into a school. I am given the gift of looking at the world in new and thoughtful ways.

The girl was asking me why Maddi didn’t have a direct voice in her story.

At this point I need to back up and let you know that the school I visited, the school that brought in 1600 food items for their local food bank, has a school-wide Title 1 program. In this school 29% of the kids come from families that earn less than $24,000 a year for a family of 4. An additional 11% of the kids are in families that earned less than $44,000 a year for a family of 4. (If you wonder how such a student body could bring in so many food items, read my blog post “What if the Poor Aren’t Stupid.”)

Many children in that school were already familiar with a grim statistic. Over half of American children are raised in families living below the poverty level. Some of the kids I was speaking with were living with empty refrigerators and empty cupboards.

Why didn’t I write Maddi’s story from her point of view? Why was Maddi’s story told by Sofia, a girl who had plenty of food in her refrigerator?

The simple answer is that I wrote a story based on my own experiences. I was an observer of a horrific event, the indifference our prosperous county pays to the hungry children in our midst. My childhood anguish when I found out that my best friend’s family had no food was still paramount in my mind as I wrote Maddi’s Fridge years later. I wrote from my point of view.

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But what about Maddi?

There has been a lot of discussion in the KidLit community about diversity in children’s books. Maddi’s Fridge has been mentioned frequently as a diverse book because it has a character living in poverty. (Remember, that’s now 51% of our children.)

But Sofia tells the story. Is that right?

What a difficult and complex question.

Maddi’s Fridge is my first book and I wanted to, was driven to, tell that story through my own eyes.

However, one story is not enough. There are 12.5 MILLION stories of childhood hunger happening right now in the United States. Why aren’t these stories showing up in the books we are reading. Not just books about hunger, but mysteries, sci fi, romance, adventure, fantasy, etc. Why are some groups so hidden from our collective consciousness? Why are so many children underrepresented in the books we read? Not only as characters, but also as viewpoint characters?

That fifth grade girl was telling me that she wasn’t in Maddi’s Fridge. Yes, she felt a connection with the book, but what about the Maddis of the world? Don’t they have the right to tell their own stories?

I am very proud of Maddi’s Fridge. It pushed into an area that was rarely explored by picture books and has touched the hearts of thousands of children and adults.

But that young girl’s question was a reminder to me, a reminder to all of us who write stories, to pay attention to the stories we tell. Who have we hidden? What voices have we unwittingly silenced?

On September 11th, Write About a Peaceful World

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Several years ago the theme of the Highlights Fiction Contest was to write a story set in the future. I’ve always enjoyed entering this contest, and sat down to write my sci fi short story for young children.

The page stayed empty. Not for a few minutes, or hours, as sometimes happens. The page stayed empty for days. I thought of several dystopian story lines, but nothing suitable for very young readers.

It was a few years after 9/11, but I discovered that the hope I had always held for the future (I’m a huge Star Trek fan) was gone. It took me several days to calm my fears and find in my heart a story that envisioned our grandchildren and great-grandchildren living happily in a peaceful world. The story had conflict, of course, but not the dark images which had haunted my mind since the moment the towers fell and continued well into our generation’s endless wars.

Since that time I’ve stretched the ‘hope’ section of my brain by spending ten minutes each September 11th envisioning peace. What would our lives look like without war? What would be on the news? What games would our children play?

If we imagine what peace looks, smells, feels, sounds and tastes like, we’ll know how to get there from here.

You don’t need to be a “writer” to participate. Ignore grammar, spelling, all of those boogeyman that slow down even the most accomplished writers. Lock your editor in a drawer (internal, not the one at your publisher). Set a timer for ten minutes. Pick up a pen or sit at your keyboard. Dream.

If you like, you can post your writing in the comments section here on my blog, or go to the event page on Facebook.

live long and prosper

Risk, Broken Bones, and Writing

In early June my son and his friend, both college students, were skateboarding on a Friday night in Portland. They chose a street that each thought the other had gone down before. As they picked up speed both realized they were in trouble. My son’s friend purposely headed into a wall of blackberry brambles. His was a good decision.

My son thought he could slow or stop. He came to a few minutes later with a broken collarbone and trouble speaking. His concussion cleared enough for him to ask his friend to call 911. His friend’s phone was shattered and the friend flagged down a passing motorist. My son spent the night on a gurney in the hallway of the emergency room. He said that being in the hallway was a good thing. People were dying in the rooms.

A week after the crash, my son had his third orthopedic surgery in four years. (#1 a collision off of a snowboard jump. #2 a fall while bouldering.) My son is doing well now. His full recovery from the accident was faster than mine.

I spoke to my son about his general risk assessment skills. So did his professor (my son was working in a lab for the summer). So did most of his friends. Even for the 20ish crowd, three sporting accidents requiring surgery seemed extreme.

Here’s the strange thing: part of me was envious of my son and his broken collarbone. (I can publicly admit this because none of my children read my blog.)

It’s been an incredible year for Maddi’s Fridge. It’s been a tough year for my writing.

I have been slow, tentative, and reluctant to take the risks necessary submit finished picture books to editors and polish my current novel. My inability to take chances is pulling me under like quicksand.

I know that some of you will say “Unknown steep hill, skateboard, that’s a risk. But what’s going to happen to you? Is your laptop going to fall on your big toe?”

You are right. I am under no physical threat. Emotional fears, though, cause their own damage. Fear of losing self-respect though failure, fear of ridicule (you wrote what????) and fear of rejection can paralyze even someone with a few accomplishments under her bra strap.

Then I look at my son who stands at the top of a steep hill with a thin piece of wood, four wheels, no helmet, and is excited and happy to see what happens next. My son is modeling behavior for me.

I don’t want to be as physically adventurous. I do want to emulate his excitement and the willingness to leap.

For the record: I am not advocating that you or any member of my family skateboard, skydive, etc. But I’m beginning to realize that extreme sports are so popular because they show you both the joys and risks all in the same moment. You overcome your fears and the reward (or occasionally, the punishment) is immediate.

You will not find me standing on a steep Portland hill with a skateboard in my hands. Hopefully, you will find me rebuilding my excitement and enthusiasm for writing. If I can rediscover that passion, I know I will leap

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And yes, all thanks to my son.

Humbled — Maddi’s Fridge Wins a 2015 Christopher Award

So you’re writing a story and the protagonist wins an award. She gets up on stage — maybe you have her trip on the stairs for humor’s sake or to break up the pacing — and then she begins her big speech. The only thing she can blurt out is, “I’m totally humbled by this award.”

This is first draft stuff, where clichés rule. You need to cut that dialog and have the protagonist thank her cat (hmm, that might be cliché too) or, I don’t know, do jumping jacks. Anything but say the overused “humbled.”

Maddi’s Fridge has won a 2015 Christopher Award in the Books for Young People category.

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The only word that I can think of, even a week later, is…humbled.

Humbled because I don’t know where my friend Liz, whose empty refrigerator was the tear in my heart that began this story, ended up in adulthood.

Humbled because the manuscript for Maddi’s Fridge somehow landed in exactly the right place: the talented and competent hands of my editor, Shari Dash Greenspan at Flashlight Press.

Humbled by the incredibly fun and beautiful illustrations drawn by Vin Vogel.

Humbled by all of the great books published in 2014 that also “affirm the highest values of the human spirit.” They are out there lighting the darkness. Find them.

Especially humbled by all of the volunteers in food banks across the United States. No one is throwing them a party or giving them a medal. They lug heavy boxes and sometimes search nearly empty shelves. They hold hope in their hearts while working to feed hungry kids and the elderly. They help families that have no where else to turn.

While clichés may not work in literature, in the real world some still have deep meaning. (“Hearts of gold” comes to mind when I think of the volunteers at food banks.)

I’m totally humbled by this award.

If you’d like to help your friends and neighbors who might have empty refrigerators, here’s a link to Feeding America.

What Writers Can Learn from the Seahawks

I’ve had a real slump in my writing life recently. And not one that people see. On the surface everything looks great. I’ve got a fantastic picture book out, reviews are excellent, and I’m having a blast doing school visits and helping young children with their stories.But in my daily life I am struggling. Despite many drafts that I love, I’ve been thinking lately that maybe I only had one really good book in me.

I watched with incredible dismay on January 18th as my team fell apart. Russell Wilson could neither run nor throw a pass. Correction, Wilson could throw a pass to the Packers defense without any problem. I’m not sure that the Seahawks even made a first down in the first half of this crucial playoff game.

After the third quarter and another interception, I thought, okay, we’ll be back next year. Even a great team can have a horrible day.

Then I thought about my writing. Why wasn’t I giving myself the same break? Sometimes the day-to-day setbacks of the writing life — rejections, meandering plots, and flaccid characters — stop me cold. I won’t write for weeks. How stupid is that? I have dozens of stories in my head demanding to be written.

The Seahawks, unbelievably, turned the game around.

And this isn’t the first time that they’ve pulled a win out of their ****. (Okay, I can’t think of a substitute for a rather rude but accurate description of where the Seahawk’s often bizarre victories appear to come from.) The Seahawks have a pattern of winning games they shouldn’t. Often the other team looks better. It drives my California relatives, 49’ers and Packers fans all, into red-faced rages.

The truth is that the Seahawks never give up. Richard Sherman playing defense with an injured elbow may have been one of the stupidest moves in pro football I’ve seen, but it speaks to heart. He wouldn’t leave the field when his team needed him.

Forget that you are down by 16, that your quarterback has just thrown another interception, and that your fans are saying goodbye on Twitter and filing out of the stadium. Do you want to win the game? If so, forget the yard markers and the calls that go against you. Ignore the score and keep playing with all you’ve got.

No matter what the outcome this Sunday, or what your team, the Seahawks are a great example of how to keep working when the game becomes impossibly tough.

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