It’s not good story-telling, I know, to give away the ending at the beginning. But I don’t like stressing people out with this sort of thing, so I’ll cut to the chase. I recently had a biopsy done, and it came back negative. Yay!
I’ll also leave out most of the story, the part that led up to the biopsy — what?! — because what I want to share is what I got out of the experience. There is a short story in that, though.
See these branches?
They’re on a tall pine tree outside of my bathroom window. When I called my doctor’s office for the results, I retreated to my master-bedroom bathroom. This way, I’d be out of earshot from my kids who were home on a snow day (which yielded no snow, so the branches looked just like this).
I waited for the office staff to put my call through to the nurse. It took a long time before the nurse picked up. Well, maybe a minute or two, but it felt like a long time.
There wasn’t much to do in the bathroom, so I gazed out of the window at those branches on a beautiful, blue-sky day.
On the one hand, the branches looked vulnerable – sitting way up high, extending far from the trunk, bobbing in the breeze.
On the other hand, they’d weathered many storms over the years. Whipped around by high winds. Pelted by heavy rain. Weighed down by snow and ice.
Those branches had been really good at bending and not breaking. I’d been watching them for sixteen and a half years. A few had broken from extreme stress, but for the most part, they’d remained resilient.
So, as I waited for the nurse, I anchored myself by watching those strong, flexible branches. And I thought about how the nurse on the other end of the phone would give me news, likely either: “It’s negative,” or “The doctor will call you” (which I’ve come to understand often means bad news).
And I thought about how the news, depending on what it was, would take my life in one direction or another.
Would I proceed with my plans for the rest of this school year? Or would a good deal of my time and energy need to go elsewhere?
Whatever the news, I hoped to handle things as those branches do. In that moment, I don’t think I could have laid eyes on a better role model. They keep it simple. They do what they need to do. And they do so with grace.
They seemed to be saying, quietly, “You got this. Whatever it may be.”
As it turns out, I was lucky. Before this, I’d been lucky — and unlucky — in other life situations.
Haven’t we all been in both of those places? Lucky? Unlucky? Be it health or something else? Something little or something big? It’s just part of the human experience.
This makes me think of another very short story. When my younger daughter was three years old, she had an accident while under my care. She required stitches, as had my older daughter a few years prior. I felt awful. Both of them. Under my care! Maybe I could have prevented it, if only I had…
My brother, Pete, who happens to be a family practitioner, told me over the phone, “You’ve probably helped her avoid other accidents. You just don’t know it.”
That was such an eye opener, and I felt so much better. What a compassionate response. And what a novel way of looking at motherhood and at life. I also took it to mean: Luck is all around, even when we don’t know it.
I’m aware of how fleeting and fragile life is. It’s a heavy awareness to live with, yet it’s part of what feeds my gratitude. That awareness makes me feel grateful to wake up each day.
That awareness also makes me avoid drama (which is different from conflict). I have no time and energy for the former. I’d rather be doing something meaningful or having fun. Or eating chocolate.
Those moments, like my phone call with the nurse, feel like reminders from the universe to sharpen that awareness and gratitude and perspective when it may be dulling.
As I’ve moved forward from that phone call, I’ve held on to the image of those branches swaying gracefully. They don’t know what will come their way; they just keep bending.
Those branches remind me to keep bending. They remind me that I’m lucky (even when I don’t know it).
December is whizzing by in a blur of kid-related activities and holiday festivities.
And more outrageous national news.
I must say: America’s turmoil has challenged my spirit this holiday season, as it has this past year. Like many people I know, I’ve tried my best to stay informed and to carry on.
Thankfully, holiday traditions have grounded, distracted, and cheered me: shopping and cards, decorating and baking, gatherings and volunteering.
The same old holiday songs have played in the background, connecting the past to the present. Some people have grown annoyed by the endless holiday music — no wonder, some stores have been playing them since the day after Halloween! — but I haven’t been able to get enough of them. I think it’s because they’re so filled with love and joy, peace and hope. And good memories.
One song, “My Grown-up Christmas List,” has resonated like none other this year. It’s not my favorite, by any means. It’s always been too mushy for my taste, especially the melody. But I appreciate the lyrics, particularly those of the refrain.
Wherever these lyrics have caught me this season — in a store, in the car, at home — I’ve paused and thought, “Yeah. That’s where it’s at.”
No more lives torn apart
That wars would never start
And time would heal all hearts
And everyone would have a friend
And right would always win
And love would never end, no
This is my grown-up Christmas list”
— David Foster & Linda Thompson-Jenner
My kids are too old now to believe in Santa. And as much as I’d want it, I don’t believe these grown-up Christmas wishes will ever come true, completely. I’m dreamy, but realistic.
Yet I do believe that if enough of us work on this list, we’d see less lives torn apart, less wars start, more healed hearts…
So, here’s my top wish: Our country and world will be in a better place at this time next year. Not in the same place, and definitely not in a worse place. But in a better place.
The grown-up in me knows that wishing is not enough. I must act, and do so with commitment and courage. I’ll do my small part in the greater effort to make that happen.
Whichever holiday(s) you celebrate, I wish you and yours love and joy…peace and hope…and whatever fills your list.
I just may keep playing holiday music well into the New Year. Here’s to 2018! Together, we can do anything.
Earlier this month, I participated for two days in The Big Read Holland Area. Holland is located on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. The first Europeans who settled there were — you guessed it — from the Netherlands.
My experience in Holland was simply powerful. Rarely does an experience resonate in so many ways: as a writer, former teacher, politically conscious citizen, and human being.
The Big Read, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, is a program that provides grants annually to about 75 communities across America. Led by Associate Professor Deb Van Duinen of Hope College, Holland received its fourth consecutive grant this year. They’re doing something right!
According to the NEA website, “…the NEA Big Read broadens our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book. Showcasing a diverse range of contemporary titles that reflect many different voices and perspectives, the NEA Big Read aims to inspire conversation and discovery.”
I had the joy of seeing a community putting NEA’s aim into action — particularly refreshing during this time of national turmoil.
For this year’s Big Read, Holland chose Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine, a heartbreaking novel about a family’s experiences before, during, and after the Japanese American internment. Built around this novel and the internment, Holland offered a month-long array of programs incorporating book clubs, lectures, visual arts, music, film, and so on.
The Big Read is not just for adults! The committee chose my book, A Place Where Sunflowers Grow, so that kids would have an accessible book about the Japanese American internment. A committee member told me that 600-700 copies of my book were distributed in the community. Wow! What an honor to think that so many kids in Holland have my book in their hands.
As you may imagine, the internment is a difficult subject to discuss with young people. The last thing I want to do, in my personal or professional life, is to crush a kid’s spirit. On the contrary, I try my best to lift up.
Whenever I share my book and give a program, I walk a fine line between educating kids about this dark chapter of American history and trying to inspire feelings of hope for their lives and our country. It feels like, and is, a tremendous responsibility.
Although my library visit was advertised for upper elementary students, younger children also attended. One boy, about four years old, asked one of the wisest questions:
Why were there guns?” He was referring to the guards who pointed guns toward the internees from the watchtowers.
Yes, indeed. Why?
At the library and at the schools, I spoke with a total of about 600 kids. What an opportunity to reach so many young people about the internment!
Yet my primary goal was to connect with them, in one way or another. I think that when we experience connections, it’s hard not to care about each other and the world. And I think that connections can also foster hope. Don’t we all need more hope these days?
Depending on the audience, I shared:
history about the Japanese American internment…
…my maternal family’s experience at Topaz, one of the ten internment camps…
…my grandmother’s art which helped sustain her during the internment (as well as before and after)…
…and Felicia Hoshino’s illustrations which were, in part, inspired by my grandmother’s art. Do you see the girl in the red cape in both pieces?
I asked kids to think about what it is they love doing and encouraged them to nurture that love. What brings you joy? What brings you peace? Their faces lit up and they were eager to share.
Of course, I read and took questions.
You never know what someone might connect with, and it was eye-opening to see the range of connections that students made during my visits.
Some students focused on the internment: “One of the saddest things about the internment was all of the loss.”
Some students focused on writing: “What did you struggle with when you wrote your book?”
Some students focused on personal identity: “Did you know that I’m half Chinese American, too?”
Still others focused on personal experience. Between school visits, I heard that my book resonated with a student whose parent had been removed from home due to immigration issues.
And just yesterday, I received an email saying that one student, who is going through tough life circumstances, connected deeply with the main character who “understands what it’s like to go through hard stuff.”
Then there was a question that cut through the weight of the subject matter and made me chuckle: How old were you during WWII? You gotta love kids!
At one of the schools, I offered a high-five to students as they were filing out of the gym. I was surprised to be offered hug after hug. Ever mindful of physical boundaries, I repeatedly said, “You don’t have to hug me.” But many students chose to give a hug over a high-five.
In addition to kids, I had the pleasure of connecting with adults in Holland. I shared a yummy lunch with Hope College students who serve on the college committee of The Big Read Holland Area. It’s a big operation (and even includes a high school committee). These bright students are getting it done!
I also shared a long dinner with two wonderful librarians, Anne Harrison and Anne Pott, who serve on the main committee of The Big Read Holland Area. Dinner was scrumptious, the company lovely, and the conversation meaningful. Could I love librarians more? Authors and librarians (and teachers) share a special bond when it comes to books and kids.
I asked the waitress for a menu to take home as a memento. Salt of the Earth seemed like a fitting description of the evening and of my experience in Holland.
I went to Holland hoping, most of all, to connect with people. I did and left with a renewed sense of hope — born of a community’s commitment to learning and growing, even when the conversation gets difficult. As with most things in life, going through the process can bring on something positive.
The President aims to start shutting down the National Endowment for the Arts in 2018. NEA programs like The Big Read, which reach millions of Americans, would cease to exist. It’s hard to fathom the loss that this would cause in our country, both individually and collectively. Please click here to read about it and to speak up for the arts.
I often quote Kate DiCamillo: “Stories connect us.” I think the same goes for all of the arts. They have a way of sparking connections within and between people, sometimes in unexpected ways and in unexpected places.
Thank you, Holland, for your warm welcome. As 2017 comes to a close, I’ll remember my time there as one of the brightest spots of my year!
When I registered for a writing workshop with Kathy Erskine in May 2014, I knew I was in for a wonderful writing experience. I had also been hoping to find other children’s writers who might want to form a critique group. Lucky for me, Marc Boston was also in the workshop!
At one point, Kathy asked for volunteers to read aloud manuscripts. Marc volunteered. Based on the smiles and laughter in the room, I think it’s safe to say that everyone was delighted by his rhyming picture book manuscript.
Well, Marc and I formed that critique group (along with other writers). He’s been cranking out the manuscripts and has been a great support to me on my own writing journey.
And that picture book manuscript? Marc ended up self-publishing it as The Girl Who Carried Too Much Stuff in October 2015.
In June 2017 Marc self-published his second delightful picture book, What About Me?. Like his first book, this one is charmingly illustrated by Annie Wilkinson.
Amy: Hey, Marc! Congratulations on the publication of What About Me? Tell us a bit about it.
Marc: Hey there, Amy! Thank you, and thanks for inviting me to stop by to have this conversation with you. In the story, the nameless main character is vying for the attention of her two older sisters, who seem oblivious to her appeal for recognition. They aren’t being mean; they are just in their own little worlds.
As the story progresses, our lead character must come to understand that with a little creativity and imagination, she can learn to be her own best friend. She learns that she doesn’t need to seek validation outside of herself, and that it is ultimately up to her to make herself happy. This story is an attempt to explore the theme of self-empowerment, which is truly a universal theme that folks of all ages can embrace.
Amy: Will you share your inspiration for your books?
Marc: Many of the stories I’ve written are based on the interactions, antics, and shenanigans I witness my three elementary age daughters engaging in during their everyday lives. I notice their interesting or quirky behaviors such as my middle daughter Delaney’s old habit of needing to carry many of her possessions around the house and whenever we’d leave. This particularly priceless practice of hers sparked the idea for my first book, The Girl Who Carried Too Much Stuff.
I also enjoy listening to the funny things that they say, and I attempt to use that as writing material. I love to remain aware of what they are doing around me because I feel that there are so many treasures that can be mined from their unaffected, authentic way of being. I casually and surreptitiously observe all of this and spin those situations into fun tales. I’m basically a fly on the wall reporting on their day-to-day lives without their permission…hopefully they don’t sue me one day. 🙂
What About Me? is based on my youngest daughter, Journey, and her perceived interactions with her two older sisters. Perceived in that even though the stories are based on them, the stories are told through the lens of my perspective. All three of my girls get along splendidly, however there are those occasions when I notice that the older two are off engaging in some little household adventure, while Journey is off somewhere doing something solo.
Most of the time Journey seems content, but there are those times when I feel like she’s been purposely left behind because she’s just not old enough yet to keep up. After witnessing several of these instances, I began to wonder how she might feel about being treated like a third wheel. Maybe she doesn’t mind it at all, but I thought that this episode in their lives would make a great story. So I sat down and wrote What About Me?
Amy: How was the experience publishing your second picture book?
Marc: I am excited to have recently published my second book. I experienced a much easier time around publishing the new book than my first book, The Girl Who Carried Too Much Stuff. The first book was almost four years in the making. I wrote the story but I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it, because I didn’t know much about the publishing world in general.
Once I performed a bit of research, I decided that I wished to self-publish the book as opposed to seeking traditional publishing. I set out down the road to self-publish, but I had almost no idea what I was doing at first. I learned through trial and error with the help of some very supportive artists and professionals. This time around I didn’t feel like a rookie; I didn’t have to wonder about whether to self-publish as I had my personal publishing apparatus in place already, so to speak. So this time it felt like a rather painless process.
Amy: Why did you decide to self-publish your first book?
Marc: Probably because I’m a little crazy. 🙂 Mostly it’s because I’m a bit of a rebel. I’ve never fit completely in with many social standards. For example, I was one of the first stay-at-home dads that I’d ever known 11 years ago, and now we are more common place.
I chose to go into self-publishing because first of all, I didn’t want to wait to be picked. I chose to pick myself! I feel like I have something to say through the stories I tell, and I didn’t want to have to wait to tell them. When I was ready to follow my goal of becoming a children’s book writer, I knew it; and I didn’t want to wait any longer. I was ready to just go for it with a sort of against-all-odds attitude.
I worked through my initial fear and attempted to just focus on putting out my best work, allowing the chips to fall where they may. Today’s publishing world is so different than in the past that it afforded me the opportunity to do this. Not to mention, my first book was like my baby and I didn’t want to give her away to the traditional publishing world to raise. That’s the stay-at-home dad coming out in me.
…my first book was like my baby and I didn’t want to give her away to the traditional publishing world to raise. That’s the stay-at-home dad coming out in me.” — Marc Boston
Amy: Do you see yourself continuing to self-publish or do you see pursuing traditional publishing at some point?
Marc: This is a question I’ve wrestled with from the very beginning, before I made the informed decision to self-publish. Which way should I go? I certainly have nothing against pursuing traditional publishing. There is something to be said about having a team of professionals to help a relative newcomer like me with the process. Being new to the game, it would be nice to have an agent or publisher hold my hand as I continue to develop and grow in this industry. And I’m certain that the education I would receive from such a partnership would be invaluable. One of the biggest issues I’ve had with self-publishing has been the marketing, promotion, and distribution. So yes, I am truly open to the idea of receiving some assistance to further the career I’m working to firmly establish.
Amy: There are so many writers looking to publish picture books. What do you feel sets your writing apart?
Marc: There are so many reading choices out there, so what would make someone want to choose one of my stories to read? When a writer is striving to be heard, it’s easy to feel lost in the shuffle. During these times I try to remember that I have something to contribute as well. With my writing, I attempt to entertain, educate, and inspire. These attributes are common in all of my stories. Part of what I hope makes my writing entertaining is my rhyme style. It is definitely what gives my work its flavor. I also don’t shy away from using words that may be above a certain reader’s grade level, and after reading my stories I want you to feel something. I try to write thought-provoking pieces.
Amy: What threads all of your stories together?
Marc: The need to write stories that contain universal themes that all people can relate to. No matter how old or young you happen to be. And the strong desire to present people of color as the lead characters in my books.
Amy: Why is it important to you to send main characters of color out into the world?
Marc: Because there is a whole segment of people out there who feel left out, forgotten, invisible. Diverse books help to remind the world there is more than one story to be told, more than one perspective, more than one culture. And, diversity is normal! You don’t only see one race or one gender when we leave our homes. There are many different types of people, with various positions and points of view. Diversity is a beautiful thing; it should be embraced, and reflected in the books we read.
Diversity is a beautiful thing; it should be embraced, and reflected in the books we read.” — Marc Boston
Amy: What has surprised you about the writer’s life?
Marc: (1) How much better I feel when I’m writing. If I don’t write I don’t feel right. (2) How many other people wish to also write books and articles. I can’t tell you how many people have solicited adviceabout how to write and how to publish, and have asked if I would critique their work since they found out that I published a couple of books. And I’m thrilled to be of service in that way.
If I don’t write, I don’t feel right.” – Marc Boston
Amy: What has been the most rewarding part about the writer’s life?
Marc: One of the most rewarding things about the writer’s life is being able to write. To start with a blank page and have a story come together the way you wish is great. To publish a book and have it accepted to the VA Festival of the Book is an amazing feeling. To have an article published in a magazine is very rewarding. To have someone actually ask your advice about writing, because they believe that you may be an authority on the subject, is fantastic. For someone to say that they really love your work is worth all the effort.
Amy: What has been the most challenging part about the writer’s life?
Marc: Writing can be a lonely pursuit. Often I wonder if anyone cares about the work I put out. The vulnerable feeling of putting yourself out there to potentially be judged by others can be nerve-racking. Am I good enough to even call myself a writer? Sometimes it’s really hard to produce something you feel is worthy enough to present to the world, and after you do, the insecure feelings over the quality of your work are always there.
Some writers wish to be JK Rawlings or John Grisham or Walter Mosley, and if you aren’t that it feels as if you have to fight off the stigma of this being “just” a hobby. There are certain expectations you put on yourself as a writer and the perceived expectations of others that seem to be ever-present. The only thing I can do about that is to put out the best content I can, and let the work speak for itself. Because it isn’t about me, it’s about the work.
Amy: What other stories are you working on these days?
Marc: The beauty of being in a wonderful writing critique group like ImagineInk is that we usually submit new material to one another for review every three weeks. Without my writing crew, I probably wouldn’t write as much as I do. You all have been holding me accountable for the past three years. So I’m always working on something new. I have a picture book story I’m working on now that touches on childhood poverty, and I just wrapped up an article I wrote for a local magazine that explains how my daughters often provide fodder for my stories.
Amy: What other interests do you have besides writing? What else fills your days?
Marc: When I’m not writing, I’m usually reading. I’m an avid reader who loves the Easy Rawlins mysteries by Walter Mosley. I’m very much into spiritual books like those from Marianne Williamson and also Eckhart Tolle. I try to stay fit by running a mile a day, and I have a daily meditation practice. I also enjoy watching old movies, listening to classic hip-hop, taking walks, cooking, and spending time with my family traveling or just being silly with them around the house.
Amy: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?
Marc: I just want to thank you, Amy, for giving me this opportunity to chat with you. I’d also like to encourage everyone to continue to support diverse books, and to always strive to live as fearlessly and authentically as possible. Peace & Blessings.
Amy: Thanks so much for stopping by, Marc. It’s been fun to learn more about what makes you tick. I look forward to your next writing group submission. See you soon!
If you’re local, Marc and I will both be at the Charlottesville Book Fair on Saturday, November 18 from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. at CitySpace on the Downtown Mall. Please come say hey to over 40 local authors!
My kids have been back in school for over a month, and homework and activities have kicked into high gear. Leaves are drifting to the ground and blanketing the grass. Tomorrow we’ll turn the calendar to October. Summer is behind us (although the 80-90 degree temps have made it easier for my mind to remain there).
I’ll remember the Summer of 2017 as the Summer of Reunions (I went to three!). I’ll also remember it as the Summer The Nazis Came to Town. It was an eventful summer all around at local, national, and world levels, wouldn’t you say? [Heavy Sigh]
In the swirl of summer memories, two keep rising to the top. As each situation unfolded, I thought, “I could blog about this.” I got busy with other things, but they’ve continued calling for my attention (even though neither is directly related to anything mentioned above).
I think their appeal is due to the fact that each involved two things: kindness and strangers. There’s a reason there are so many quotes about this combo. There’s something magical about it.
It was mid-June (technically not even summer yet). My girls were headed out of town on a Tuesday, a few days after the end of their school year. They were flying to California to stay with their uncle and aunt, and were planning to visit additional relatives. In the midst of end-of-year teacher-gift-buying-and-making, I had picked up gifts for relatives as small tokens of our appreciation. My closet looked like Christmas in June.
My family would have said, “No need,” but I really wanted to. These people were planning to take care of my girls for two whole weeks, laundry and all. They were also giving me way more kid-free time than I’d had in 15 years. I love my kids and they’re great kids, but let’s be real, parenting is tiring.
The school year ended. Monday afternoon arrived. All the gifts were ready!
Except. As I searched the gift pile, I realized that I had bought the turtle earrings for my mom (and the flower earrings for my daughter’s friend’s birthday), but I hadn’t bought the dolphin earrings for my sister-in-law, after all. They were still sitting on a rack at the gift shop at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. One-and-a-half hours away in Richmond. Oh no!
Was this a real problem? No. Remember: local, national, and world events. In a way, this “problem” was indicative of privilege. My girls were flying to CA. Relatives were excited to see them. My girls were old enough to finish packing while…
I drove to an outdoor mall in Charlottesville in search of something dolphin or cat or unicorn related. I saw a cute-looking store that I hadn’t noticed before. It was already 5 pm, so I dashed in. It was filled with cute knick-knacks and accessories. Perfect! I started to scan the shelves and racks.
A saleswoman, perhaps in her early 20’s, approached me. She looked like she could have been a runway model. In a professional manner, she said, “Is there anything I can help you find?”
There I was wearing my typical shorts, t-shirt, no make-up, and graying hair. I felt tired and frazzled, and probably looked it, too.
I told her about my sister-in-law’s preferred animals and mythical creatures. She reached for a pair of cat socks; too young. A unicorn stuffed toy; too big. She showed me a few more items, but nothing quite worked.
“I just really want to help you,” she said. I could tell that she did. And that she was disappointed with our luck so far.
“Thanks for all of your help. I’m sure we’ll find something,” I said, trying to reassure her.
Several times during our interactions, she said she was tired and apologized for stumbling over her words. Each time I told her, in one way or another, to please not worry. “I do that, too, when I’m tired,” I said (and it’s true).
I wanted her to give herself a break. She was trying so hard to help me find a gift, and to come across as the perfect professional. I understood this trying-hard-at-life thing. Don’t so many of us?
I spotted a mug. Not practical for luggage, but good enough. “I found something!” I said.
She looked relieved. We chatted as we walked to the cash register. Again, she stumbled over her words and apologized. I told her that I had kids and understood feeling tired. “Look at me,” I said, “I thought I’d gotten a gift and I hadn’t!”
As she boxed and bagged and added tissue paper and ribbon, making a mug look like a million bucks, she said, “You’re the nicest customer I’ve ever had.”
“Some customers can be so demanding and also mean when I trip over my words.”
Then she started to cry. She said that she was a single mom with a four-year-old, that she was divorced from her daughter’s dad, that it was the best decision, that she loves her daughter more than anything…but that life was overwhelming.
“I went to my car during lunch and cried,” she said.
My heart broke for her. I was old enough to be her mom. I said, “I feel like giving you a hug.”
She came around to the other side of the sales desk. She bent down and I reached up, and we hugged. Two strangers in the middle of a store.
“You made my day,” she said.
“You made mine. I can tell you love your job, and you’re great at it. I bet you’re also a great mom.”
As I headed toward the door with my gorgeous gift bag, I turned back to her and said, “Keep doing your thing. Keep shining your light.”
She called back, “You, too!” She was smiling. She looked radiant. She didn’t look tired. The evening sunlight was streaming into the store and enveloping her red hair in a warm glow that made her look…well, angelic.
I walked to my car marveling that by simply being a decent human being, I’d made someone’s day.
After my girls had landed safely in California and I could breathe again, I called the store and left a message for the manager saying what amazing service I had received. Because really, that young woman had made my day.
And my sister-in-law loved her mug!
While our girls were away, my husband Rob and I visited a few places that we hadn’t managed to get to in our 16 years in Charlottesville. One place was White Oak Lavendar Farm located about 50 minutes from our house, on the other side of a mountain which is part of the Shenandoah National Park.
For a few reasons, I drove my car. It’s 16 years old, by the way. (See where I’m headed with this?)
We made it there and basked in all things lavender. I didn’t get around to trying the lavender wine, but I still felt intoxicated by the scent of lavender that permeated the place — from the fields and the shop products and even the tea. Guess what else filled the air on this picture perfect day? The sounds of live harp music. Life slowed down in this heavenly place. It was more than worth the drive.
Afterward Rob and I enjoyed an equally relaxing late lunch/early dinner nearby. Then we decided to head back over the mountain to Charlottesville.
As I was exiting the parking lot, I heard something metal graze the pavement. A few miles into the drive, I heard the sound of metal scraping the road. “Uh oh, is that my muffler?”
“I think so,” said Rob.
I pulled over onto the narrow strip of grass near the guardrail and popped the trunk. We climbed out of the car and checked out the muffler hanging by one intact but rusted bolt. The other bolt had bitten the dust, lost somewhere on the road behind us.
Ah, my trusty old Toyota Corolla. It had passed the annual inspection a couple months before. Yes, we tend to keep our cars, Rob and I. My last car was towed away for parts right before we moved from Brooklyn. I still remember standing in my doorway waving good-bye to it like an old friend. Rob’s now seven-year-old car replaced his nineteen-year-old car.
Yet this was the first time, ever, that I’d been stranded by the side of a road. As a driver or a passenger. How lucky I’d been!
It could’ve been worse. It could’ve been raining. It could’ve been dark. We could’ve started ascending the mountain.
There were some stores, although they lay miles ahead of us. Anyway, it was Sunday at 5 pm. What would be open then in this rural area? And what was it about me and the 5 pm hour?
We looked in the trunk. No tools. My fault. I’d taken out the emergency crate to make room for our girls’ luggage and hadn’t returned it. There was some random stuff in there: reusable shopping bags, plastic forks, coupons, a clipboard, a lint roller. The most promising thing was some plastic twine. Rob wondered if it would burn from the heat of the muffler, but it was the best we had, so we were going for it!
Rob is a handy guy, much more so than I. He lay down on the grass with his head under the car. My attention felt divided between the cars whizzing by at 60 mph a few feet from his head, and the trail of ants crawling all over him.
I decided it was more important to keep my attention on the traffic, just in case I needed to scream at him to jump over the guardrail to safety. We’d deal with the ants later.
The cars on the two lane road kept zooming past us. Who knows where they were coming from or where they were headed? But I was keenly aware that we were in the middle of what was likely Trump territory. This is not to say that people who voted for Trump would hurt us or not help us, but as two Asian Americans, we were not in our comfort zone. We would have felt more at ease had we broken down in, say, Brooklyn or Charlottesville.
Several minutes later, a big pick-up truck slowed down and parked behind us. My eyes zeroed in on the specialized license plate: Don’t Tread On Me.
“This could get interesting,” I thought. “Probably not. Hopefully not.”
My eyes jumped to the driver behind the tinted window. He opened his door and stepped out – all 6’4’’ of him. A white guy wearing jeans and a t-shirt, he looked to be in his mid-20’s. He struck me as a nice guy; I caught a good vibe.
“Hey!” I said and smiled.
“Hey, do you need a hand?”
I exhaled. “That’d be great. Thanks so much for stopping.”
“I have some really thick bailing wire. Do you want some?”
Rob was looking up from the grass and watching the scene unfold.
“That’d be great. Thank you.”
The guy went back to his truck and soon brought us a strand of bailing wire.
“This is perfect. Thanks a lot,” said Rob who was now standing.
“That was so kind of you to stop,” I said.
The guy said, “Whenever I see someone broken down on this road, I pull over. People drive really fast here and they don’t always know what they’re doing.” He smiled.
“That’s so kind of you,” I said again.
“Well, I better go. I’m going to meet my girlfriend to buy baby clothes.”
“Congratulations!” Rob and I said. We thanked him again for saving the day. We exchanged names and handshakes. And the guy drove off.
Rob got to work with the bailing wire while I continued to keep an eye on the traffic. A few minutes later, we heard a loud honk. We looked over to the other side of the grassy median and saw the guy passing us. We waved.
And then I realized. “You know, he must’ve been heading in that direction, saw us, and did a u-ey to help us.”
“Really nice guy. He really went out of his way,” said Rob.
“Yeah,” I said, “just showed up, helped out, and took off.” Kind of like a superhero.
When we got back home, I put that emergency crate back in my trunk.
The next day Rob left town for a work trip. And I took my car to the shop. I asked for two new bolts: one to replace the missing bolt, and one to replace the other rusty bolt that would fall out in a matter of time.
When my girls arrived home a couple days later, they showed me their souvenirs. Miya was most excited about a bag she had found in Japantown in San Francisco. This pretty much sums it up:
“Choose Kind” is a theme in the middle grade novel Wonder by R.J. Palacio. This is Miya’s favorite book; she’s read it several times. It’s about so many things, but at the heart of it is kindness.
During these divisive times, I find myself holding tighter to stories of kindness – online, in the newspaper, in books, in life. These stories don’t erase the stories of horror, but they remind us that there is often kindness around the corner or down the street. It’s ours to give and, if we’re lucky, to receive.
My younger daughter, Miya, poked her head out of the bathroom before taking her evening shower. “Mom?”
I looked up from my laptop to her face which held an unusual mixture of eagerness, curiosity, and concern.
“Are you ever going to stop reading to me?”
Her question, like the look on her face, held so much meaning for me. Twelve years of books. Twelve years of connection. In sum, her childhood.
Of course, I’ve known for a long time that I wouldn’t read to this girl forever. But I’ve continued, often neglecting other things and letting her stay up past her bedtime.
She has given no signals to stop. I had thought by now, she would have. As she has grown from infant to tween, we’ve run the gamut from board books to picture books to middle grade books to younger YA books.
Her question came a week ago, the evening after her second day of middle school. Of course. That made sense! She had had half of her classes on the first day and the other half on the second day. She had caught a glimpse of her new life.
Her first two days of middle school went very well, bringing her (and me) relief and excitement. But being in a school with 600 other preteens and teens…well, she felt it: she’s no longer a little kid. And her school workload is increasing.
Are you ever going to stop reading to me? I wasn’t quite sure what to say. I let a couple seconds tick by.
“I hope not. I hope you’ll never get too busy with schoolwork that we won’t find the time.” I decided to leave out the part about hoping I’ll never get too busy, either (even though I feel I already am, but…).
“Yeah, that’d be sad. It suddenly occurred to me that you might have to stop one day.” And then her face brightened. “If I get too busy, we could just sit together and I could read my [school] book and you could read your book. And you’ll finally get to read adult books again.” (Ha! I do manage once in a blue moon to read adult books, but in the end, I’d still chose kids’ books.)
“Yeahhh,” I said with a sigh. “That would work.” I smiled.
She smiled back, satisfied with our long-range plan. And then she closed the bathroom door.
I was glad that she didn’t seem to think it uncool for her mom to still be reading to her. I was glad that she still wanted to spend her last moments of each day with me. I was glad that she loved stories so much.
I knew that this was not a signal to stop, but rather a signal to continue. Yay!
Yet I also felt a tinge of sadness, a little sense of loss. She was highlighting the inevitable next chapter; we would come to a point in our story when she’d read beside me instead of with me (which in and of itself, would still be a great deal).
I’ve been reading to Miya nearly every night since she was born, except for the nights when we’ve been out of town (but sometimes, even then). We’ve read in hotel rooms, on my bed, on her bed, on her floor, in her forts… I’ve read half-asleep, struggling not to stumble over words. As she’s gotten older, she’s read to me when I’ve been too tired or I’ve had a headache.
We’ve relished this shared experience. For so many reasons. Some feel beyond words.
If I were granted a do-over as a mom, I’d do some things differently. But not this one.
I started reading to Miya for the joy of snuggling together with books and with the hope that she’d fall in love with them.
But somewhere along the way, the heart of why I continued to read aloud shifted. It became more about what she’s gained as a person. And what we’ve gained in our relationship.
Together we’ve grown with and learned from characters. We’ve laughed a lot. And shed some tears. Many of the characters – and the stories themselves — have ended up feeling like our mutual friends.
And isn’t it comforting to know that even when we don’t see our friends, they’re still there?
A few weeks ago, the white supremacists came to my adopted town, Charlottesville, VA, for a “Unite the Right” riot. Like most of the world, I watched in horror.
How do you explain this display of hate and racism to a child? Happening in her hometown, the only place she’s ever called home? A place where she’s been privileged to feel relatively safe?
As an Asian American girl, she’s encountered microaggressions. She lives in a household where we talk about issues of race and racism (and other -isms). But this was a whole new level of discussion.
After James Alex Fields Jr. crashed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others, I sat down with Miya at the kitchen table. When I mentioned the KKK, a look of recognition crossed her face. And she did what she sometimes does during life events and situations, happy or sad: she brought up a book that we had shared.
“I first heard about the KKK in Gone Crazy in Alabama.” This is the third book in Rita Williams-Garcia’s heartwarming trilogy filled with African American history. We had read it two years prior.
I exhaled. I felt grateful that she had given me a path to discuss the horrendous events occurring just miles down the road. And I felt grateful to Rita Williams-Garcia for having given my daughter a historical context to work from and characters to care about.
I felt as if the story were holding our hands.
During that difficult discussion, I felt a keen sense of gratitude to all children’s book authors who send out stories that allow kids to learn about people and places beyond their own little corner of the world. As Kate DiCamillo, one of Miya and my favorite authors, says, “Stories Connect Us.” And these stories nurture empathy.
So when will I stop reading to her? I don’t know.
I do know that as long as she wants it and makes the time, I’ll make the time. Even if it becomes one or two pages a night instead of one or two (or three) chapters a night. Last night, I realized that I hadn’t made this part of the plan crystal clear, so I did. Just in case. She said that she already knew.
And then I joked, “Oh, I’ll be that crazy mom FaceTiming you when you’re in college. ‘Hi, Miya! I’m here to read you a bedtime story.’”
She laughed, knowing that I was kidding, that even her book-loving mom has limits (I think I do, anyway).
Then something in her face told me that she realized what I’d assumed she already knew: I’ve gained as much as she has from our time together.
Whenever Miya decides…for whatever reason…to move on…I’ll feel very lucky to have had this privilege: two people holding onto one book and each other while navigating this beautiful, messy thing called Life.
Three weeks ago I joined my mom, Ibuki Hibi Lee, and Michio Aoyagi for the Grand Opening of Topaz Museum in Delta, Utah. As young children, they had lived at Topaz, one of the ten Japanese American internment camps during WWII. They met decades later in the Bay Area where they were born and now live.
My mom, her brother Satoshi, her mother Hisako Hibi, and her father Matsusaburo “George” Hibi were among the 8,000 Japanese Americans who were interned at Topaz. My grandparents, who were professional artists, were very involved at Topaz Art School.
The art school was directed by Chiura Obata, who had been a Professor of Art at UC Berkeley for 10 years prior to the internment (and later returned to teach there). He and my grandfather were close friends and served as best man at each other’s wedding.
When Obata was released early from Topaz, my grandfather took over as director of the art school. My grandmother taught classes to children; my mom and uncle were students. The art school gave them all a sense of purpose and peace behind barbed wire.
Really, how could I not go to the Grand Opening with my mom and Mich? The internment history made it a bittersweet occasion. Yet it turned out to be an overwhelmingly positive experience.
This museum is more about the future than it is the past.” — Don Tamaki
Hundreds of people — of all ages from all over the country — attended the events on Friday, 7/8 in Salt Lake City and Saturday, 7/9 in Delta. The outward energy was upbeat and, well…celebratory. It was as if the community was saying, “We did it. We survived. We were wronged. We prevailed.”
Below are the Topaz survivors who were able to attend the events. I wanted to hug each and every one of them! Three moments during the weekend made my eyes well up: at dinner and at the opening ceremony when the survivors were asked to stand, and when this group photo was taken. Each of them had traveled such a long distance in life. What were their stories?
Topaz Museum is a testament to the strength of the human spirit. It features art as well as artifacts from the camp, displaying the beauty that internees managed to create during one of America’s darkest chapters.
Of all the camps, Topaz held the highest concentration of professional artists. Topaz Art School served several hundred students, from young children to senior citizens, in classes that ranged from ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement) to oil painting. Not only did classes allow for creative expression and exploration, they documented camp life since internees were prohibited from owning cameras.
Seeds for the museum were planted 35 years ago in two of Jane Beckwith’s Journalism classes at Delta High school. Over the years Jane, the Founder and President of Topaz Museum, worked tirelessly with the help of others to grow these seeds into the museum.
The events were organized to a T by Jane, other Topaz Museum Board Members, and volunteers:
There were speeches…
…even a pack of greeting cards in the welcoming packet…
…and, of course, artwork. The museum features many artists; here is one each of my grandparents’ pieces.
My grandparents’ pieces at Topaz Museum were donated by other individuals, known and unknown to my family. It was a joy to see their pieces, especially in this setting — in an ironic sense, back home where they belong.
The local NBC affiliate interviewed my mom about what the museum means to her. At one point she said, “To see my parents’ works, too, displayed here is very meaningful.”
The last event that I attended happened to be the most sobering one: visiting the site of the internment camp itself. What remains of Topaz is an open field, now a historic site.
Standing there, I could only imagine the shock of being removed from the Bay Area — where most of the Topaz internees had lived — to the one-square-mile of desert surrounded by barbed wire and policed by armed guards.
The heat alone felt oppressive. To give you an idea: an EMT truck was stationed there in case any of the guests should need medical care. When I jumped back on the bus and felt the rush of cool air from the AC, my heart sank at the thought that the internees didn’t have even electric fans to provide some comfort.
How did they cope with the hardships? From physical to psychological? How did they endure? While these were not new questions for me, they now felt more tangible.
After the events were over, my mom asked me, “Was there anything about Topaz that surprised you?” It was a thought-provoking question, and I was surprised that only two things came to mind. The first was that there was a great deal more sagebrush than I had imagined. My mom said that indeed a lot had grown since Topaz days. The second was that Delta was located much closer than I had imagined. Mich said that the town had indeed grown over the years and spread closer to the site.
This was my first visit to Topaz, so I felt relieved that I had managed to depict my book fairly realistically. I’m currently writing another children’s story based on the Japanese American internment. Being at Topaz was both grounding and inspiring for my work. I wrote while there and have continued to write since (which is partly why I’ve taken so long to blog about the museum!).
I also left with a better understanding of my mom, even though she had spoken openly of the internment while I was growing up. There was nothing like stepping back into history for a bit with her to bring me to a greater place of knowing.
Finally, I left with an even bigger wish for this grave history to never repeat for any group in America. This deep sentiment was echoed over and over at the Grand Opening. My mom said it in her TV interview: “Justice for all people…We’re a nation founded in democracy.”
This t-shirt, which I picked up for my daughter, also sums it up:
If you ever find yourself in that neck of the woods (or desert), please stop by Topaz Museum. It’s filled with gems from the desert. And you’re sure to learn a thing or two about American history.
As Don Tamaki — one of the pro-bono lawyers representing Fred Korematsu in the 1983 reopened case that cleared him of criminal conviction for defying internment orders — said in his keynote speech at the Grand Opening, “This museum is more about the future than it is about the past.”
Cynthia Kadohata! I had the great pleasure of meeting her in 2007 at the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award Ceremony where her novel, Weedflower, won the award for Older Children.
Here’s Cynthia’s autograph:
Huh? An honor? Cynthia Kadohata, author of the Newbery Award winning Kira-Kira? To this writing newbie, her message shone with humility and generosity.
Those qualities shone through again when I emailed Cynthia (after no contact in between) to ask if she might be interested in being interviewed for my future blog (i.e. still a figment of my imagination).
Since 2007 Cynthia has published several other novels to great acclaim including The Thing About Luck, winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. You get the picture: this woman can really write!
Although this interview is my first lengthy exchange with Cynthia, l have felt a sense of connection to her over the years through her novels which I find luminous, honest, and humorous.
“Sometimes it’s simply amazing how the world blooms around you when you are searching for something.” – Cynthia Kadohata
Amy: Welcome, Cynthia! It’s truly my honor. You’ve had a long writing career including ten published books. You started off writing for adults, publishing your first novel, The Floating World, in 1989. How did you make the shift from writing adult novels to writing children’s novels?
Cynthia: My editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy, was my grad school roommate, and while I went off to write for adults, she went off to become a children’s book editor. We remained good friends, and now and then over the years she suggested that I write for children. Then in 2002 I read a pile of children’s novels she’d sent me, and something just clicked. I hadn’t read children’s novels in many years. It was like a light being turned on. So I decided to try it. My writing was always from the POV of a young person – my first adult novel’s narrator is a child at the start of the book – so the switch to writing children’s novels wasn’t that much of a jolt to my system. It felt very natural, and I loved it. Channeling my inner twelve-year-old is one of my favorite things to do!
Amy: I’m glad that you brought up your inner twelve-year-old. I’ve read four of your novels (so far) and noticed that the protagonists are all at the threshold of adolescence. What is it about that age that speaks to you so strongly?
Cynthia: I’m not sure. I’m still in touch with a number of the “kids” I knew from when I was twelve, and I feel a connection with them that I don’t feel with many other people from my past. It was a fun, intense, vivid time. Often when I’m writing, the character just naturally comes out eleven or twelve, so I just let that happen. My February 2018 novel, Checked, is from the POV of a boy who starts out eleven and turns twelve during the novel. I think it’s a sign that my development stalled at age twelve!!!
Amy: Ha! If you’re stalled at twelve, I’m stalled at nine or ten. Care to share anything about Checked?
Cynthia: Checked is about a group of hyper-competitive, athletically talented, and sensitive twelve-year-old alpha boys playing elite hockey in Southern California. The main character, Conor, owns a Doberman named Sinbad who is his best friend in the world. Sinbad gets very sick, and Conor learns to navigate the world and play the game he loves while also suffering through the ups and downs of Sinbad’s illness. In short, he grows up!
Amy: Sounds compelling and I look forward reading to it! A year after your last book, Half A World Away, was released, I had the pleasure of taking an intensive on editing and revising with your editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy, at the SCBWI (Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) Mid-Atlantic Conference. She said that after a few rounds of back-and-forth edits, she suggested that you put away the manuscript in the drawer. You then sent her a much revised manuscript which she described as “the biggest blow-my-mind ever.” How did you take this manuscript from drawer to publication?
Cynthia: I think a lot of it was discovering Bruce Springsteen’s song “Backstreets.” It’s a really intense song, and when I first discovered it, I went to sleep with my earphones on, and the song just played over and over while I slept. And then this really intense boy character just came to me when I woke up. I listened to that song a lot as I wrote.
Amy: Such a cool story! I do find the voice of Jaden, the adopted son and protagonist of Half A World Away, to be intense (and honest) which is largely why I find him endearing…When you adopted your son Sammy from Kazakhstan, you had already made the transition to writing for children. How has being a mom influenced your writing?
Cynthia: One thing is that I have greater confidence to write from a young boy’s point of view. And of course loving someone so much is transformational. I’m not sure how that changes my writing, but I’m sure it does. On the down side, I don’t have as much time to write anymore! Checked is about a boy who plays ice hockey, like Sammy does. At this point I sometimes think I can write more naturally from a boy’s POV than a girl’s.
Amy: Yet you’ve been prolific with six published books since becoming a mom. How do you manage your writing time? Any tips to share with other writer-parents?
Cynthia: I don’t feel I manage my writing time very well at all! I feel I should have had a book published every year and am actually kind of disappointed in myself that I haven’t. Well, more than kind of disappointed. It eats at me! I used to write daily, but now I write more in spurts when I can. Either way seems to work out fine.
Amy: Writers and parents are two groups of people who never seem to have enough time. If you were gifted with an extra hour each day — your only restrictions are that you may not do anything directly related to your writing career or being a mom — what are some of the things that you might do?
Cynthia: If I could save all the hours up and have a big hunk of time, I would take Amtrak somewhere, anywhere. I love the train! My sister was interested in visiting our childhood home in Arkansas, and that’s something I’d like to do as well. If I could have only one hour at a time, I also like to draw.
Amy: Ooh, what do you like to draw?
Cynthia: I used to love drawing the faces of old people. Their faces are so beautiful and expressive! I’m not good enough to do that anymore, as I really haven’t kept it up. So now when I draw, it’s always a still life that I set up. For a while I was drawing regularly with my son, but for some reason we stopped doing that even though we both enjoyed it. My drawings are kind of embarrassing now – really, really simple, but at the same time it was kind of cool because I could feel that if I really put work into it, I could get back to where I was. But I feel like it would take 100% commitment…which isn’t going to happen.
Amy: I hope that you’ll find some time to draw and take that train ride with your sister! Many of your protagonists possess strong sibling relationships that help sustain them through very challenging circumstances. Will you tell us about your portrayal of realistic yet tender, devoted sibling relationships?
Cynthia: My childhood, while far, far from perfect, was nonetheless totally magical. And my brother and sister were a part of that magic, so I really like writing about siblings. Of course I love my brother and sister a lot…more some days than others – I guess that’s where the “realistic” parts come from.
Amy: I love your point that life, while imperfect, may still be magical. American and world history are filled with imperfections, and yet you write historical fiction that is nonetheless magical…Little known chapters of history often undergird your novels. How would you describe your relationship with the research process? Do you have any words of advice for other writers who need to do intensive research?
Cynthia: I just read a 1,000-page historical book to help me write a novel that’s less than 150 pages. The history book is backstory for one of my main characters, and I didn’t feel I could write my novel without this backstory. I get really involved in the research, and I’d say it takes up as much time as the actual writing. I also do a lot of interviews. My only advice would be to treat your interviewees like the royalty they are. I recently watched a video featuring short-story writer George Saunders. He used the phrase “intuit their expansiveness.” I LOVE that phrase, and I think it’s a good idea to intuit the expansiveness of your interviewees. They turn out to be such wonderful and generous people, as well as unique and full of great depth of emotion.
Amy: “Intuit their expansiveness” — that’s wonderful advice for any writer. What keeps you writing for children? Do you have any interest in writing another adult novel?
Cynthia: I love writing for children! I don’t have a particular interest in writing another adult novel, but I would never say never. If a story idea came to me, I would gladly do another adult book. It seems like it’s fairly common for me to run a story idea by my editor, and she thinks it sounds too adult for kids. Like I wanted to write about the Battle of Stalingrad from the POV of a young boy, but she didn’t really see how it could be a children’s story. I had even started studying the Russian language a bit.
Amy: What are you working on now? What do readers have to look forward to?
Cynthia: Checked just went into copy-editing, so while I wait for the copy-edited version, I’m working on a novel about a Japanese American girl whose father renounces his American citizenship while incarcerated during WWII. Several thousand Japanese Americans did just that. At the moment I’m working on deepening the girl’s character, or intuiting her expansiveness. It’s coming in fits and starts.
Amy: Is there anything that you’d like to add?
Cynthia: Hmmm, well, right now I’m into the concept of serendipity. I’d been worrying because I didn’t see how I was going to get firsthand information on what Hiroshima was like after the war for my current project. I didn’t know who I could interview. And then a translator who is generously helping me with the project happened to mention that she has friends whose parents come from Hiroshima, and they could help me. Sometimes when you’re writing a novel, things just fall into place in a miraculous way. Seeing this happen is one of the best parts of writing a book. And THEN I found a woman whose parents renounced their citizenship AND they went to the Hiroshima area after the war! Sometimes it’s simply amazing how the world blooms around you when you are searching for something.
Amy: Thank you, Cynthia, and I wish you much continued serendipity!
Until this year, my favorite writing place was my 20-year-old sofa, tucked away in my bedroom. It’s comfy and embracing, as if cheering, “You’ve been here before. Many times. You can do this writing thing!”
But it became impractical to keep my piles of books and other writing materials on the bedroom floor. So this past winter, I ventured out to the dining room, a sunny room with an empty tabletop. And a big window that allows me to look out onto grass and trees and sky. It has turned out to be the perfect spot, offering lovely surprises and unexpected lessons along the way.
One blue-sky morning in late March, I was sitting at the table when I heard a gentle rattling at the front door. I looked up to see my cats, Wall-E and Howie, already sitting in the foyer and staring at the backside of the door. I glanced out the window and saw nothing unusual. I resumed work until the rattling and my cats returned.
This cycle continued a few times until I noticed a small brown bird, carrying a leafy twig in its mouth, zip past the window toward the front door. It was the closest thing to a peace dove that I’d probably ever see, and the fleeting sight was magical.
OH! Could the bird be building a nest on the wreath? I hurried out the back door to take a look. When I was about 15 feet from the front door, the bird startled and flew away to the nearest tree, an oak tree in front of the dining room.
The next time I heard the rattling, I peeked out the window. Yay! A nest in the making! This city girl posted the breaking news on Facebook: Momma bird was building a nest! To lay eggs in! And there would be teeny tiny birdies!
I was in awe of momma bird’s brilliant idea to build a nest on a wreath (camouflaged!) under the porch roof (protected!); her expert skills in crafting such a beautiful and sturdy nest; her intense focus and abiding devotion. I was in awe of the miracle of life, with its newness and hope, unfolding at my front door.
How did I live on 2 acres of land for 15 years and reach age 50 without witnessing this? And yet, how lucky I felt to still have so much of life to see.
I went out of town to NYC for a writing conference. When I returned, I found five eggs! Perfect eggs. Gorgeous eggs. My husband Rob and I did research and determined that these were House Finches.
Well, that was it for the front door. No more using it for the whole family. No more visitors at the front door. I posted this sign:
I asked visitors in advance to come to the back door. Whenever an unexpected visitor came to the front door, poor momma bird fled to the oak tree. No doubt she was worried about her eggs, but what else could she do? She had to take care of herself, too. And take good care she did — of herself and her eggs. Before long… Happy Birthday!
The babies thrived. I could tell from all of the poop! It was not a pleasant sight, but poop was part of the package (and seemed to act as an adhesive between the nest and the door). Be forewarned: as the birds grew, so did their poop!
By early May, I noticed that momma bird had a companion in the oak tree. He was brown with red markings; poppa bird, I assumed! They chirped and flitted about in the branches, moving between the tree and the nest where they fussed over their babies.
One morning momma and poppa birds were particularly chirpy and active. I heard what I thought was a mixture of excitement and nervousness. Could this be the day for their babies to take flight? It was — for one!
During the next two days, whenever I heard a flurry of activity, I checked the nest.
In the end, what remained was an empty nest and a whole lot of poop. And quiet. Momma and poppa birds had moved out of the oak tree.
In the days following their departure, I missed the cheerful sounds and the sight of the sweet family. I was surprised by how much joy the entire process had brought to me. And equally surprised by how wistful I felt after the birds had left. But then, when something brings you joy, isn’t it natural to feel its absence?
Yes, I was experiencing empty nest syndrome.
As the babies departed, I sent the photos to Rob. In response to one photo, he emailed back:
“Wow! But they’ll never call and never write. Sigh.”
I think this was his way of saying that he’d miss them, too. I shared his email with our 11-year-old daughter Miya who commented, “But they can Tweet.”
Ah, I can always count on these two for a little levity!
Still, why was I so moved by the birds? Other than allowing me to witness their amazing process, the birds also spoke to me as a writer and as a mom.
Building a writing career – building each story – is a process. And raising a child is a process. In the end, after doing the best we can, we send each manuscript and each child out into the world. We hope the world will be kind to them; we hope they’ll have good luck. And this is the case for whatever we invest our hearts into and then have the courage to let go of.
I’m a writer who has just started the process of querying literary agents and sending them manuscripts. It’s exciting, and it’s hard. Realistically, I’ll receive many rejections, and they’ll sting. But as they roll in, I’ll continue to nurture my manuscripts before sending them out again… and again… and again. And, hopefully, one day an agent will think that one of them is ready.
I’m a mom who has two kids wrapping up another school year: 9th grade and 5th grade. Part of me wishes I could keep them in those sweet elementary school years forever. But even if I could I wouldn’t, because moving on means that they’re privileged with life and growth. They’re still in my nest, but the reality is that they’re already leaving it on a daily basis, growing more independent; and one day they’ll leave for good when they’re ready.
Momma and poppa birds had but one month, filled with quick and numerous transitions, to spend with their babies. Their abbreviated cycle of life seems to make each moment that much more important and their process that much more obvious. Here’s what the birds shared with me:
Pick a good spot.
Build a strong foundation.
Focus and work hard.
Take care of others (and yourself).
Embrace the joyful moments and the process.
Maybe the babies were afraid to fly, or maybe not. Maybe their parents were afraid to see them fly, or maybe not. Maybe the babies and their parents miss each other, or maybe not. Whatever the case, they all did what they needed to do. And that to me is beautiful: that they did what they needed to do.
My family and I are back to using the front door. I’ve cleaned up the poop. But I’ll keep the wreath and nest up in case another momma bird (maybe even the same one or one of her grown babies) finds it and makes it home. It would be my privilege.
My move from the old sofa to the dining room was practical. But it’s turned out to be instructive and inspiring, too. I’m glad that I’ve been able to look out the window to see new sights. In a way, the window has also served as a mirror, reflecting back those new sights into deeper insights. Some days I may still choose to sit on my comfy old sofa and write. But for the most part, I think I’ll stay put at the dining room table.
As I was putting together my website, I thought long and hard about this question.
I was no Maria.
Maria twirling on a mountain top
It’s not that I didn’t have ideas. Rather, I was experiencing an avalanche of them. (I’m not sure what’s up with the mountain theme. Maybe because I live near the Blue Ridge Mountains?)
As is often the case when I’m stuck, words managed to get me un-stuck. You guessed it — Maria from the Sound of Music (my all-time favorite musical film) set me straight.
Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.
I’m a writer, so when did I first start writing? I mean: outside of school assignments, on my own, without being told to. Just because.
That sounds like an easy one to answer, right? For some writers, definitely. But not for me.
I wasn’t a kid who grew up writing many stories or poems. Not like my 9th grader who knew as a 3rd grader that she wanted to become an author and hasn’t stopped writing.
So once again, I thought. And I came up empty-handed. My once sharp memory had grown fuzzier with motherhood and age, but really? There had to be a beginning whether it was in childhood or adolescence or in college or…
That question continued to follow me around: When did I first start writing?
It felt deep-rooted — this need, this desire to put words down on paper. Where did this come from? Why did this feel natural? Why did this feel GOOD?
Then I remembered. The answer shone past the cobwebs in my mind. And the answer was both unexpected (because it was not creative in nature) and obvious (because it was an integral part of my life). It was like “Huh?” and “Duh…” and “Aha!” all at once.
One day when I was nine years old, I (alone) accompanied my mom to our local Waldbaum’s on Staten Island. Being one of four kids — the fifth hadn’t come along yet — this supermarket time was nothing short of a treat.
At one point, I visited my favorite aisle. Not the one with all the candy or ice cream. Rather, the one with all the cool stationary and pens — so neatly packaged, so full of possibility…
Then I spotted it just to my left on the bottom row: a little red diary. Gasp.
Yes, it was there in that aisle of Waldbaum’s, of all places, that I first remember feeling moved to write. It was as if I developed tunnel vision, and all sound disappeared. It was just the diary and me. Meant to be.
I was not a child who asked for much, so my mom added it to the week’s groceries. (I learned a few years ago that my mom had kept a childhood diary during and after her Japanese American internment years. No wonder she understood that wish to put down words in a sacred place.)
Every time I sat down to write in my diary, I experienced that Waldbaum’s Effect: no sights or sounds beyond my diary, pen, and voice in my head. Living in a big, hectic household with four brothers, this was my quiet, peaceful place.
It was a place I kept wanting to revisit. A memory box for my day’s activities. A safe space to express my feelings and thoughts. A means to connect with myself and to make meaning out of life.
Each day meant a blank, brand new page. And a new beginning.
Neither my mom nor I knew, back in Waldbaum’s, that my little red diary would become the first of ten consecutive diaries. Yes, I wrote nearly every day for ten years: 3,650 entries. Yowza!
Down the road, maybe I’ll take a long retreat and read those old diaries. Part of me would like to leave the past in the past. After all, what teenage angst might I find scrawled across those pages? Would I like the person I find?
Burn them? Shred them? Over the years, these thoughts have crossed my mind, but the writer in me is now glad that I didn’t. Talk about getting into the head of a child and teenager.
Though I didn’t know it back then, those diary entries gave me daily practice in telling stories and writing from the heart. They got me writing.
And that was a very good place to start.
On that note… So Long, Farewell.
Until we meet again,
P.S. What prompted you to first start writing? I’d love to hear your story! Let me know in a comment below.