Sometimes Things Are What They Seem… And Sometimes They Aren’t

My daughter Liana found this four-leaf clover last spring.

Saturday

It was a quiet morning, the start of what was to be an unscheduled day for me. Ahhh.

In the previous two weeks, my family and I had flown back from our family reunion in California… I had finished up an accelerated summer education course… I had had a routine screening colonoscopy… I had taken my girls to various annual appointments, gatherings with friends, back-to-school shopping, and their school open houses to meet their new teachers.

Having a great time with family in CA! That’s me in the dragon’s mouth.

All good. But busy. (OK, the colonoscopy prep was no fun. But the results were good, so I’ll take it!)

I was planning to head out that afternoon to indulge in some writing which had taken a backseat during the spring and summer to teaching recertification. I would hide out at the library or a café… and escape from life for a while.

Not!

The door bell rang. A friend of my daughter Liana had arrived to pick up Liana so that they could go for haircuts. (Suddenly, over the summer, several of Liana’s friends had attained their driver’s licenses. And they were willing and, dare I say, eager to chauffeur. Yay!).

I rushed to get dressed, greet her friend, and say, “Bye and have fun.” What happened next happened so quickly that I’m not sure exactly how it happened. All I can say definitively is that I ruptured a tendon in my left pinky.

As I was getting dressed. Yes, I hurt myself getting dressed. More specifically, as I was yanking up my jeans. I heard “SNAP” and… I’ll spare you the details of what it looked like.

Ouch. I know it sounds crazy, and almost two weeks later, I’m still shaking my head. And laughing about it. Kind of.

My husband, Rob, rushed me to the nearby urgent care center owned by one of the local hospital systems. The nurse joked with me that I must have been doing something heroic. Ha!

I had x-rays taken and my pinky was put in a temporary splint. Good news! The tendon hadn’t pulled off any bone.

But! I would need surgery. Bummer. I was given a referral to an orthopedic doctor with directions to call on Monday morning.

Saturday (continued) & Sunday

I iced and elevated. And continued on with life, disturbed that I could hurt myself getting dressed and sad whenever I peeked at my limp pinky in the splint. Every now and then, I fantasized that it would bounce back to life and not require surgery.

All the while, though, I felt grateful that it wasn’t worse, that I had family at home to help me, and that we have good health insurance (while feeling very acutely that everyone deserves good health insurance).

I contacted a friend who had had a hand injury last year, inquiring where she had been referred to and cared for. She raved about the UVA Hand Center (where I had not been referred to) saying that her child had also received excellent care there. Having great trust in my friend’s judgment, I decided to make the call there, first thing on Monday morning.

Monday

The kind person who took my call got me onto the schedule that very day. Indeed, I received excellent care. And then I heard these words: “I don’t think you’re going to need surgery for this.”

What?!

“We see this type of injury all the time. It usually heals on its own. We’ll get you into a custom-made splint and show you how to dress it.”

I’d come in fully expecting to schedule surgery. Instead I felt like I’d won the lottery.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll need surgery in the end. But I’m going with this until we know more. And I’ll be keeping my fingers, umm, crossed.

Wall-E checking out my handy-dandy splint

******

I’m under doctor’s orders to air out my pinky for 15-30 minutes every day. Since I have to support it with my other hand, I can’t be my usual self during that time, i.e. either buzzing around doing stuff or sitting still reading and writing. So I’m doing something I’ve barely made time for since my kids were born: watching TV. Rob got a big flat-screen TV ten years ago and I barely know how to work the thing.

So, there we are, Rob and I, watching a half-hour of TV together each evening. Often it turns into an hour. I’ve laughed a lot. And I wonder why I hadn’t joined him in front of the TV sooner. I like to think it’s just what the doctor ordered.

******

Wednesday

While I grew more skilled at washing the dishes and my hair with one hand covered in a plastic bag, my girls started their new school year learning algebra and trigonometry. They came home with stories to tell and I felt grateful to be a recipient.

After dinner Liana pulled the ice cream tub from the freezer. “Uh, this is really soft.” She took a close look into the freezer. “Everything is soft and melting.”

Oh no. This fridge was 14 or 15 years old. It had been a tad too tall to fit underneath the cabinets, and the delivery guy (with our OK) sawed off the bottom part of the cabinet frame so that it would fit.

About 10 years, the crushed ice function had stopped working. More recently, the filtered water had stopped working. And it had started making strange sounds.

We had just needed to replace the entire heat pump a few months before. The stove, dishwasher, clothes washer, and dryer were all older than the fridge. Don’t go, fridge! Not yet!

I left the kitchen table and crept toward the fridge, not wanting to face reality. On the way, I peered into the ice cream tub, and the ice cream resembled soft-serve. I reached into the freezer, touched the chicken, and it sprang back. Water was dripping from the ice container, dribbling down the walls of the freezer and onto the kitchen floor.

And yet for the second time since Saturday, I hoped against hope. Maybe it wasn’t really completely broken. Maybe we wouldn’t have to deal with another bill, another inconvenience, another thing to do.

Rob had had to work late. Fifteen minutes later he came home and was convinced that we had to deal with it. Well, all right, if we must…

I remembered that our neighbors had a deep freezer in their garage. I called them. Even better! They had replaced their fridge recently and moved their old one into the garage. It was working and nearly empty! They welcomed us to use it.

We packed up everything except for essentials for the next day’s breakfast and lunch. Rob and Liana brought over the food to our kind neighbors. Then Rob went out to get Ready Ice for the freezer where we then stored the essentials.

Thursday

Leaving four dishtowels on the floor in front of the fridge to sop up the dribbling water, I spent the better part of Thursday shopping for a fridge that would fit our smaller space. At Lowe’s there was one more in stock! On sale! To be delivered on Sunday! Score!

We knew we would survive with our food just down the cul-de-sac road. And we marveled at how people in our world live without a fridge and other privileges that many of us take for granted.

Friday

On Friday morning, Liana raced up the stairs to my bedroom. “Mom! Everything is frozen! My lunch is frozen!”

What?!

I ran down to the kitchen and threw open the freezer door (careful to protect my pinky, of course). It was working! I threw open the fridge door. Working, too!

No more water dribbling out of the freezer.

Maybe a mechanical part had gotten clogged with ice, shutting down the machine until the water had drained? I really had/have no idea. There’s a reason I stick to books.

I voiced the possibility of canceling the new fridge, but the other three people in my house vetoed that right away. Yeah, it had become too flaky. Sometimes it’s best to let things go. And we were lucky that we could afford to let this one go.

Bye, fridge. Thanks for all the years!

******

Friday (continued)

Later that day I was headed home at the start of rush hour. First, I planned to make quick stops at the library and supermarket. The cars were going the usual 60 mph on this stretch of a two-lane highway. I was traveling in the right lane, preparing to exit soon, when I noticed that a line of stopped cars had suddenly started to form. Maybe an accident? Or an overflow of exiting cars?

The-car-in-front-of-me stopped. I stopped. I looked in my rearview mirror. The-car-behind-me stopped.

But the-car-two-cars-behind-me DID! NOT! STOP!

It was coming. I would be rear-ended.

I heard it: “CRASH!”

But wait. Where was the second “CRASH!”? You know, my car? My car hadn’t budged from the impending impact of the-car-behind-me. Why hadn’t my car been jolted?

And then I saw the-car-behind-me fly to my left-hand side and stop beyond me in my lane.

And then I saw the-car-two-cars-behind-me fly between our two cars and continue beyond the-car-behind-me.

I pulled over to the break-down lane and looked around, trying to process what had just happened during the last few seconds.

The-car-behind-me was smashed in the rear and in the front. The-car-in-front-of-me had sustained less damage, but still, it had been hit and was further up in the right lane than the-car-behind-me. The-car-two-cars-behind-me was behind the-car-in-front-of-me, but in the break-down lane.

So, the-car-two-cars-behind-me had hit the-car-behind-me AND the-car-in-front-of-me.

And my car was untouched. Untouched.

What?!

I took a photo (which I’m not posting to protect the privacy of the other drivers), then got out of my car.

The road was littered with car debris. The traffic behind us had halted. Including the semi who was the first vehicle in the left lane. Oh, what a scary thought I had when I saw that truck…

Everyone said they were OK. Thank Goodness.

A police officer came quickly. Traffic started to move in the left lane.

Each driver talked to the police officer. I was free to go and got into my car. The police officer waved me forward, my car tires crunching pieces of the other cars that were all much newer and nicer than my 17-year-old car.

As I drove, I replayed the scene in my head over and over, trying to make sense of this accident that happened all around me but had left my car (and most importantly, my body) unharmed.

I hadn’t seen it all unfold. As with my pinky, it happened so quickly. But given the aftermath and after several mental replays, I think this is what transpired:

After the-car-two-cars-behind-me hit the-car-behind-me in the rear, the-car-behind-me steered into the left lane, presumably to avoid hitting my car, and then steered back into the right lane. The-car-two-cars-behind-me steered between the-car-behind-me and my car, presumably to avoid hitting either one of our cars. However, because it was traveling so fast, the-car-two-cars-behind-me hit the-car-behind-me again, this time in the front; and then went on to hit the-car-in-front-of-me.

Intense.

Unreal.

I could not believe how lucky I was to be able to go on with my day. If my pinky had been like winning the lottery, this was like winning countless lotteries.

I made it to the library ten minutes before closing to drop off some books and take some books off of hold. I picked up a few groceries for dinner at the supermarket and headed home.

Rob met me at the door. I said, “I was almost in a bad car accident.” That, of course, made no sense.

So he said, “What?” And I explained, feeling ever so grateful. And wishing the very best for the drivers and passengers of those three cars.

******

Sunday

The weekend had been uneventful, thankfully.

And then the highlight arrived on Sunday afternoon: the new fridge.

It fit! It worked!

******

For the past six days, we’ve been enjoying crushed ice and filtered water.

We love our new fridge. Well, everyone except for the cats who are wary of it. Maybe it looks like a gigantic animal. It certainly looks and sounds different. And probably smells different, too.

But unlike the pinky that needed surgery, the fridge that had drawn its final breath, and the car accident that was bound to happen, this new fridge is indeed what is seems to be.

Wall-E and Howie trying to decide what to do with that big thing

******

What did I take away from that week?

A LOT. I won’t mention every teeny tiny thing, but here are Amy’s Top Three (oldies but goodies):

  1. Be mindful; stay in the moment. I’m trying to use my pinky as a wake-up call. When I’m getting dressed, let that be what I’m focusing on instead of thinking about a zillion other things that may distract me… Or maybe I’ll just stay in my pajamas the next time the doorbell rings.
  2. Be kind. I interacted with a number of people, mostly strangers, as I dealt with these three situations. I was met with way more kindness than not, and every bit of it mattered. I would go into things more, but this is already a super long post! Thanks for making it this far.
  3. Be hopeful. Like the saying goes, it ain’t over ’til it’s over. There is always hope.

Have a wonderful Labor Day weekend! Whether you’re traveling far or staying close to home, safe travels to you and yours. And everyone.

Until we meet again,

Amy

Rejections: A Reason to Keep Going

Photo via visualhunt.com

A few years ago, when my younger daughter was nine years old, we were chatting about my writing and publishing goals. She said matter-of-factly:

Just remember, Mom, you have a very rocky road ahead of you. It took Kate DiCamillo 473 tries before she got BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE published.”

Oh, how funny to hear that from a kid!

But yeah. A very sobering fact. Kate DiCamillo had shared this whopping number at the Virginia Festival of the Book the previous year at a presentation to local students.

If it had taken the inimitable Kate DiCamillo 473 tries, oh my oh my, how many would it take me?

******

I started sending out manuscripts to agents and editors almost one year ago. For the previous few years, I’d been building my writing life to get to the point of submitting. Hitting “Send” was another leap, and the ultimate one.

I can now say, “Fourteen rejections down.” Hopefully, not 459 to go.

But who knows? Maybe less. Maybe more. Only time will tell.

The following quote, attributed to Katherine Paterson, sums up the writing life:

To write, your heart has to be absolutely tender, and you have to have the skin of a rhinoceros.”

I have the tender heart. I’m growing a thicker skin.

The first few rejections were a tough reality to face. Since then, each rejection has been disappointing, no doubt. But I’m at a point where I see rejection as par for the course. I try my best with each submission and then send it off, hoping for an acceptance but knowing that a rejection will most likely appear in my inbox. It’s a fine line to walk.

Some rejections have come in the form of silence. The reality is that agents and editors are overloaded with queries and other responsibilities, and they simply can’t respond to every query. I do understand.

Some rejections have come in the form of a standard email. I’ve appreciated this sense of closure. Here are a few lines from some of those:

  • “It’s not quite right for my list.”
  • “I don’t think this one is quite right for me right now.”
  • “I don’t think I’m the right agent for this particular project.”

Some rejections have come in the form of a more personalized email. These are the ones that have encouraged me to press on. Here are a few lines from some of those:

  • “You are a wonderful writer with a delightful sense of humor.”
  • “It’s beautiful and bold.”
  • “I REALLY enjoyed your manuscript.”

Not all rejections are equal. There are many factors that need to be in place for an editor to acquire a manuscript or an agent to represent a writer. It’s kind of magical when it happens.

******

Maybe some of the agents and editors I’ve queried don’t think I have what it takes as a writer. I really don’t know. Whatever the case, I’m not taking rejection as a statement about me as a writer. I’m taking it as a statement about that particular manuscript: that it wasn’t the best fit for them for some reason(s).

I’ve come to see my role as one of matchmaker: given the information I have about an agent’s or editor’s preferences, do I have a manuscript on my laptop that might resonate with her? Even if a manuscript does end up resonating, there may be reasons that she chooses not to or can’t acquire/represent it.

The more I send out there, as thoughtfully as I can, the better my chances of making a match. At the time of this post, I have six manuscripts out on submission. Another one is going out on Monday. I have a manuscript that I’m revising. And many more that I’m planning to revise. (Don’t even get me started on new stories that I want to write!)

I don’t exactly feel like throwing a party when I receive a rejection (okay, maybe a little pity party). But to me, a rejection means that I’ve tried hard. And I feel good about that part. So, what do I do? I take a long look at the manuscript, revise as needed, and send it back out.

I may need to try many, Many, MANY more times. In fact, I know I will. Rejection is a fact of life for a writer, even those who have multiple books published.

Waiting is another fact of life. Submission guidelines have stated anywhere between four weeks to six months for a response or an assumption of rejection. What do I do in the meantime? Write. Revise. Repeat.

So, Kate DiCamillo’s 473 tries. That’s a very rocky road, for sure. But it’s also an incredible story about hard work, persistence, and patience. And hope. I, for one, am very glad that she kept going.

Thanks for hopping onto my road for a bit. And if you’re following your dream (whatever it may be), I wish you the very best of luck! I’ll see you along the way.

Until we meet again,

Amy

My Christmas (and New Year’s) Wish

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.

Loaded with butter and topped with my husband’s homemade icing

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.

What’s on your list?

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.

I love this ornament! I love this world.

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.

I spotted this while Christmas shopping.

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.

With friends at the Women’s March on Washington, January 2017

Until we meet again,

Amy

The Big Read Holland Area: Connecting with a Community

Speaking with students at a school visit. (Photo Credit: Anne Harrison)

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.

Holland’s nickname is “The Tulip City.” This whimsical sculpture by Stuart Padnos stands in front of the Holland Area Arts Council.

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.

My well-loved copy

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.

Speaking to a group of 3rd-5th graders. (Photo Credit: Anne Harrison)

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.

Speaking to a group of 2nd graders. (Photo Credit: Anne Harrison)

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…

Discussing “Evacuation Day.” (Photo Credit: Anne Harrison)

…my maternal family’s experience at Topaz, one of the ten internment camps…

Discussing a photo of my mother and grandmother taken by Dorothea Lange. (Photo Credit: The Big Read Holland Area)

…information about Topaz Art School where my grandfather, Matsusaburo Hibi, and my grandmother, Hisako Hibi, taught and painted…

Discussing Topaz Art School which my book centers around. (Photo Credit: The Big Read Holland Area)

…my grandmother’s art which helped sustain her during the internment (as well as before and after)…

Discussing “Floating Clouds” (oil on canvas, 1944) by my grandmother, Hisako Hibi. (Photo Credit: The Big Read Holland Area)

…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?

Discussing my grandmother’s painting, “Windy,” (oil on canvas, 1944) alongside Felicia Hoshino’s dust storm scene. (Photo Credit: Thea Patterson)

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.

Photo Credit: The Big Read Holland Area

Of course, I read and took questions.

These kids asked so many compelling questions! (Photo Credit: Anne Harrison)

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.”

Heart-rending stories.

Speaking to a group of 3rd-5th graders. (Photo Credit: Anne Harrison)

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.

Photo Credit: Anne Harrison

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!

Hope College students (from left to right): Ryan, Lauren, Becky, Thea

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.

With Anne Pott (front) and Anne Harrison (back), celebrating The Big Read Holland Area.

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.

I found this downtown — footsteps leading up to an inspiring sculpture.

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.

My first time spotting a fireplace on a sidewalk!

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!

Signing and saying good-bye. (Photo Credit: Anne Harrison)

Until we meet again,

Amy