I’ve been watching her closely, looking for signs. But with cats it’s hard to tell. They are eating and fine one day . . . Just the day before yesterday I told my husband Persnickety is still very much here, still vital.
But yesterday morning I got up early to take my walk. I gave Snick her breakfast. And then she took a walk of her own.
I went through my to-do list. Dishes, laundry, emails. Ran errands before lunch. I pitched her bed and cushion out of my truck bed (where she slept), noticed she wasn’t around. She was profoundly deaf and couldn’t hear car engines so we always checked when we backed out of the garage.
Came back from the errands. Still no Snick. I put her lunch out and went back to my to-do list. Changed the sheets, dusted the den, wrote. I ate my lunch on the porch. Snick usually came around to see what I had. Then I pulled weeds in the flower box. Skinks ran all over–some quite big and all with their tails. Snick loved to catch skinks.
By dinnertime her absence was keen. She’d stuck close to the house these last few years. She never missed meals. By dusk my husband and I were outside with a flashlight, looking under the porch, the shed, the deck, the bushes.
And then I knew. While I’d gone through my to-do list, busy-busy all day, she had one item on hers. This is so not what I wanted for her. I wanted to be with her, to help her out. But this cat came to us on her own terms, lived with us on her own terms (and they were strict!), and left this world on her own terms.
She was here . . . and now she’s gone.
Paul Theroux has a new book out, The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari, chronicling his experiences to find the Bushmen, the world’s oldest people. He was nearly 70 when he made this arduous and important trip. The African bush, he says, is his favorite place in the world.
In an article for the Wall Street Journal, he discusses his note-taking method: “I spend nearly all of my traveling life with a notebook in one hand and a pen in the other. The idea is to have a notebook that fits in your pocket, so that you are not advertising yourself as a note-taker. And two pens, because you’ll probably lose one.”
Last week I went to New York City for two days (up for a CBC Children’s Choice Award, didn’t win, loved the bizarre evening). This is as close to a foreign country as I’m liable to travel to these days. I took my camera and a small notebook, but I didn’t take a single note. I took exactly five photos.
This is the only picture I kept, the entrance of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. Why didn’t I take any notes? Why didn’t I take more photos? Why didn’t I lean into the strange—if there is ever a place with plenty of strange, New York City is it.
I found myself in Times Square, a gigantic, often living, billboard. Actors dressed in costumes hawked ads for movies. The tide of people carried me from street to street. I made no decisions, just walked when the conveyer belt of people moved, went where they went. I passed the same stores, Duane Reade, Papyrus, Crumbs. Much of what I saw was strange, but a lot of it wasn’t and didn’t seem worth recording.
Theroux says, “I write down everything and never assume that I will remember something because it seemed vivid at the time.” New York is so vivid, and yet at the same time, mundane, that I could not find my place there. At last I broke away from swarms of midtown and headed for the Village to the Strand Bookstore. My friend Donna Hopkins told me about it. A four-story genuine bookstore, these days as hard to find and as exotic as the Bushmen. Eighteen miles of books!
There I found my place. I roamed the stacks, looking for certain books yet coming out with books I had no idea I wanted until my fingers found them. On the train home (which I almost missed because I stayed so long in the bookstore), I read happily, falling into other people’s adventures. I made scratchy notes about the other passengers, my curious spirit once again free.
Amtrak steamed into my station the same time as the VRE. Commuters streamed off the double-decker local. My husband said they looked locked together like Lego people. But everyone quickly dispersed into their cars and so did we. I drank in the sight of woods, birds, and the first appearance of the seventeen-year cicadas. I saw old places I wanted to record with my camera.
Paul Theroux warns that “the accumulated experience in travel can be overwhelming—too much for anyone to trust to their memory. Because foreign travel is at times almost hallucinatory, you need to record everything, as well as your own disbelief.”
In New York, I developed a mental shield to protect me from the strange—too much felt like an assault. The energy and pace was overwhelming. I didn’t even know the name of the restaurants where I ate.
A few days after I was home, I was ready to take in the strange in my surrounding area. I could approach these places on my own terms and have time to think about what I saw. I took notes. I took photographs.
I’m writing this listening to the steady chorus of cicadas in the treeline beyond our house. They began showing up last week, ghost locusts stuck to porch railings and brick walls as they shed their amber skins. Magicicada stay above ground long enough to mate and lay eggs before dying. The nymphs from this brood will go underground seventeen years before it’s their turn to complete the cycle.
I made note of that in my notebook this morning. Unbelievable. Strange.
Finally, we are up to my era in Mad Men. I was 16 that year and I remember the make-up, the clothes, the shoes. It was a mixed-up time–volatile and fast-moving. But most of us were not adults living in New York City and working in an alcohol-fueled ad agency. Here’s what girls wanted in 1968, from my March 1968 Seventeen.
Pretty eyes. I had big round eyes, the fashion (I also wore glasses but kept them off except for reading the board). I perfected my eye makeup at age 12. Max Factor liquid eyeliner in brown. Max Factor powder eyeshadow in Espresso. Maybelline mascara in brown-black. Max Factor brow powder in dark brown (most girls ignored their brows). Once in a while, pink lipstick. Never Yardley white! White lipstick made you look like something helped from a coffin. I would love this eye makeup right now.
Pretty hair. Yes, the straight look was in (the curse of curly-haired girls like me who had to sleep on 4-inch rollers–my head never hit the pillow for four years), but curls were also popular. Most of the hairstyles you see on Mad Men are wigs or hairpieces–falls, wiglets.
Granny dresses. I made mine in eighth grade home ec and still wore it in high school.
I loved the midi-length, too. Look at how pretty these dresses are . . . they didn’t make you feel like a six-year-old at a birthday party. They made you feel like a girl.
The shoes. Okay, I had mini feet. I didn’t wear a woman’s shoe size until I was in eleventh grade. So these gorgeous shoes weren’t available in kids’ sizes like shoes are today (I still wear kids’ shoes sometimes). I remember a girl in my school who had turquoise patent leather Mary Janes with a spool heel and a wide turquoise grosgrain bow. I lusted after those shoes. I still do. Stockings were fun and if you had skinny legs like I did, the bright colors helped fill them out. I’d wear those pink ones today.
This issue was all about California. We all wanted to go there. We all wanted to be California Girls. Blonde!
It was a time of experimenting with your looks. I never wore shiny “peel-off” eyeliner–too harsh. But my sister did streak my long brown hair, one blonde rebellious streak.
It was a time of dresses. Romantic dresses. Dresses to play in. Dresses to dream about your future in. The world around us may have been mixed-up but with the right dress, we could face anything.
And we did.
In 1988 I wrote The Big Green Pocketbook. It was based on the little bus trips I would take with my mother. We’d catch the Trailways from our house on Lee Highway to Manassas to run errands. In the afternoon, the bus picked us up in front of Cocke’s Drugstore and took us home.
I was only five, but I didn’t want a little girl purse. I carried my mother’s old green pocketbook hooked over the crook of my spindly arm. We went to Woolworth’s, Rohr’s Five and Ten, People’s National Bank, Drug Fair. It was Big Day out with my mama.
But one time I left my pocketbook on the Trailways and—well, you’ll have to read the book to find out what happens. You may have read it already . . . it was published in 1993. The Big Green Pocketbook has been in print for 20 years this month.
Here’s how it all happened: After I worked on my manuscript for weeks, I felt it was ready to submit. The record inside my folder tells the story:
Sent to Ann [Reit, my editor at Scholastic] in 6/88. She didn’t much like it but passed it to Diane Hess [still at Scholastic]. Diane presented it to the board – late August. Sent back to me 10/11/88 w/letter [I don’t have]. Sent to Harper and Row – 10/12/88.
And then I forgot about it. By spring my mother was seriously ill. On April 11, 1989, I picked up my mail from my post office box on my way to see my mother in the hospital. I saw the big brown envelope and my own typed address label. Another reject. But at the bottom of the envelope, in neat little letters, was the message: Not a rejection.
Not a rejection? At a stoplight I ripped the envelope open. There was a letter from Laura Geringer: “Sorry it took so long to get to THE BIG GREEN POCKETBOOK. I’ve read it now and I think it’s charming, perfect for a very young picture book.” If I would make a few tiny changes, she would publish it. On the inside of my folder I wrote in big letters: SOLD, 4/11/89.
That day I told my mother I had sold a story that was about me and her. She was happy, I think. She never left the hospital, passing away in its hospice unit in June. But my journey with my mother continued on through this book.
Although the original manuscript is archived at the Northeastern Children’s Literature Collection, I still have the reviews, catalog, and production letters. Laura Geringer, my editor at HarperCollins (somewhere between the selling and publishing of the book the publisher’s name changed), told me that Felicia Bond had agreed to be the illustrator. I should have been thrilled instantly, but I didn’t know who she was! When I figured it out, I was over the moon.
Felicia was one busy gal. Besides her collaboration with Laura Numeroff on the If You Give . . . books, she wrote and illustrated her own books. My editor told me it would be three years before Felicia got to my manuscript. I waited. In 1992, I met Laura Geringer for coffee outside the JavitsCenter in New York City, where Book Expo was being held. By now my editor had her own imprint at Harper, Laura Geringer Books. She showed me sketches from Felicia. I loved them.
I had no idea when I wrote that little story that I would be lucky enough to be paired with such a successful illustrator, that my editor saw my manuscript’s potential, that the children’s department at Harper would guide the book so carefully through production. Most of my letters are from Caitlyn Dlouhy, Laura Geringer’s assistant, now editorial director at Atheneum. Caitlyn kept me in the loop on that long journey.
In May 1993, The Big Green Pocketbook was published and given the lead two-page spread in the spring Harper catalog. Felicia designed a poster that combined her popular characters with my little girl dancing on the soda counter at the drugstore. The book had already been named a Children’s Book-of-the-Month Selection. It was also an ABA Pick of the List. The reviews were good. PW said: “Studded with inventive imagery . . . A playful and most suitable setting for this winsome story with its timeless theme.”
Two years later, BGP was given new life as a Harper Trophy paperback and a library edition was published as well.
To my amazement, it kept on selling. Parents told me BGP was their child’s favorite book. Those children became teenagers, then college students, but I still heard from them. Then they became parents themselves. They bought or checked out The Big Green Pocketbook from the library. And it became their child’s favorite book, too.
“One of the Best Children’s Books Ever! My daughter is twenty one now but when she was little this was her favorite book. As a parent, I enjoyed reading it too.”
“Classic. This was my all-time favorite book as a kid. I read it with my mom, my dad, my grandma, and basically anyone who would read it with me.”
“Still our favorite! My daughter is now 11—and we still call errand day ‘our big green pocketbook’ day. It’s one of our favorite books as we still read it after 7 years.”
“My SON loves this book!”
I’ve just read these quotes for the first time—there’s a lump in my throat. I’m grateful my little story is still being enjoyed after all these years, twenty years in print, twenty-five years after I sat down to write about a sweet memory of my mother.
Whenever I open the cover, my mother and I are still riding the bus to town, our pocketbooks crooked over our arms. Mothers and daughters (and sons) everywhere run errands together. They go to the bank and buy crayons and eat ice cream in chilled silver dishes.
Some things never change.
One: Friday morning at 6:45 I stood in our driveway, listening to a pair of barred owls calling to each other. They weren’t far away, but our neighborhood was noisy with school buses and barking dogs and commuters and birdsong. My husband, on his way to work, too, couldn’t hear the owls. Like a conductor, I pointed when the first owl called, then swung my arm when the second owl answered. Once he was able to discern the direction and filter out the background noise, he could hear them, too.
Two: On my school visit last week, a second grader asked what I liked to do when I was his age. I told him my favorite thing in school was when our teacher told us to take out a piece of paper and draw or write anything we wanted. We did this for at least 30 minutes (so the teacher could grade papers or have a space of sanity). I asked the second and third graders if they did this, too. No, they said, shaking their heads. No, their teachers said, shaking their heads. Not enough time.
Three: In 1999, I wrote a story for a best-friends anthology published by Scholastic. I was in great company—Rachel Vail, Ann M. Martin, Cynthia Voigt, Paula Danziger—and proud to be a contributor. But I hated the title of the anthology: Girls 24/7. Back then that was new and hip, but I thought it had a creepy foreshadowing.
Four: I am finishing up a book on endangered and extinct amphibians. The further reading section must include books and websites. I had trouble finding relevant websites that weren’t saturated with ads. Even the best website had header and footer ads that had nothing to do with frogs (nursing jewelry? pet exam coupons?).
Five: Yesterday I decided to buy an MP3 player now that they are about to go extinct. Since I don’t know anything about MP3 players, I read about them on the Internet. First, there were all the types to choose from. Second, I didn’t understand how they actually worked. By the time I sifted through the information it came down to this: I would have a gadget that would require time to figure out and I’d most likely be excited about for a week before I stuck it away and forgot it.
Six: I am fixing to get ready to think about meditation practice.
So what do numbers one through five have to do with number six? They are all about distraction and mindfulness. I almost hesitate to use the word “mindfulness” because it’s everywhere. Mindful eating. Mindful relationships. Mindful parenting. In fact, as I’ve typed the word, it’s already fading into the wallpaper.
I have serious issues with distraction. It feeds into my irritability (a medical problem, not just because I’m grouchy). Lack of focus affects my work. And it is getting worse with the advent of the Internet and all that came gushing afterward.
A sample from my file of articles clippped from the Wall Street Journal: “A Cure for the Age of Inattention” (first-year Yale medical students study paintings), “No Vacation from Tweeting” (hyperconnectivity, “branding” yourself), and a chart that says, “Less than 40 minutes a week: Average backyard use by children; Less than 15 minutes a week: Average backyard use by parents.” The chart shows a photograph of a rope swing.
I want to practice meditation, but I know it will be a huge challenge: I have the skippity brain of a marmoset. How will my story-making mind learn to let go of thought attachments, not make connections to the past or future, even five minutes a day?
I’ve dragged home lots of books, ruled out Transcendental Meditation (pay money to get my mantra? Reminds me of Thoreau who warned of any enterprises that require new clothes), but insight meditation seems doable.
Right now I’m reading Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It was published in 2005 and the author talks about the connectivity of 24/7, of cell phones and beepers and wireless palm devices and the World Wide Web. Those things seem quaint, almost laughable, now. I kept dozing off (it’s a big, dense book), but woke up when I read this:
It is now harder to pay attention to any one thing and there is more to pay attention to. We are easily diverted and more easily distracted. We are continuously bombarded with information, appeals, deadlines, communications. Things come at us fast and furious, relentlessly. And almost all of it is man-made; it has thought behind it, but more often than not, an appeal to either our greed or our fears.
These assaults on our nervous system continually stimulate and foster desire and agitation rather than contentedness and calmness. They foster reaction rather than communion, discord rather than accord, acquisitiveness rather than feeling whole and complete. And, above all, if we are not careful, they rob us of time, of our moments.
I don’t know about you, but I’d like some of those moments back or want to at least experience the ones coming up. I want to switch from mind full to mindful. I’m moving toward a new way to help lessen stress and anxiety and to connect with myself at the purest level: this moment.
So I’ll forego the MP3 player and listen to the radio. I’ll continue to resist the lure of the smart phone and the insistence to brand myself. I’ll try to be more aware that the constant bombardment of Internet advertising (catered just to me!) appeals to my greed. Yet I’m glad I’m not so far gone I can still hear a pair of barred owls calling. And that I can still take out a piece of paper and write anything I want.
Five minutes a day to start. I can do it. Sitting in my own backyard.
Friday I packed a picnic lunch and my Canon S95 and took photographer and great friend Donna Hopkins on a road trip for her birthday. The little red truck shuttled us down U.S. 1. Once we got past the clutter of Walmart-Lowes-Target and down into the county, the road showed us ghosts of its storied past.
My stepfather called it Number One highway. We would traveled from Fairfax down through Alexandria to the Three Pigs for barbeque. I never knew the road, constructed in 1926, stretched from Maine at the Canadian border all the way to Key West. 2,377 miles of motels, restaurants, garages, filling stations, and roadside attractions.
Then along came I-95 and U.S. 1—which can sometimes be glimpsed from the interstate—lost its status as the route from north to south. All those little businesses died.
Donna and I stopped at a clapboard building that may have been an old store with living quarters above or a boarding house—it was hard to tell. The figure in the window made us wonder when somebody lived there last. We took pictures of the building and of each other and of each other taking pictures of the building. Cars whizzed by yards away. I turned around, hoping to hear the hum of Ford station wagons bound for Florida.
The Texaco sign in front of this small place seemed odd. No sign of a gas pump, but commercial things stored inside indicated it may have been a little store, the kind where you grabbed a grape Nehi dripping from the cooler and a pack of Nabs.
Our road trip set memories spinning free. While we ate our picnic (in the parking lot of Captain D’s), Donna told me how her father stopped at general stores along the road for a loaf of bread and package of bologna to make sandwiches. We never did that but I wish we had. What could be more spontaneous than making lunch in the car? Certainly not standing at the counter at a McDonald’s off the interstate, your stomach already regretting the grease to come, while the clerk throws a fish sandwich on your tray.
Not all the old businesses are derelict. Some have been converted into restaurants and antique shops. Donna took me to a tiny art gallery where we looked at photos of what I call Big Travel, iconic lakes and mountains. Our final destination was an antique shop where I made a beeline for the Paper Man. I’d read an article in the current issue of Vanity Fair about Holiday, a swanky travel magazine began in the 40s that drew top writers, photographers, and graphic artists. I bought ten issues, one with a Grandma Moses cover, another with pieces by E.B. White and Ludwig Bemelmans.
Because it was late, we hopped on I-95 to get home in time to fix supper. Within two miles of our exit—U.S. 1!—we hit a wall of traffic. It took us over an hour to crawl to our turn-off. There were no roadside attractions, no filling stations, no little stores with bread and bologna—just the back ends of tractor trailers.
Still, we had a big time because we both love Little Travel. We drove about fifty miles of that 2,377-mile road. And that evening, I opened my November 1952 issue of Holiday to a piece called, “First Road of the Land,” the last of a four-part series about U.S. 1.
While Friday going-home traffic remained tangled on the interstate, I dreamed we were driving to Ormond Beach in our ’52 Caddy, heading down Number One highway to Ellinor Village, the largest seaside resort in Florida. Our villa would come equipped with an ironing board and ice trays in the refrigerator. We could rent a radio, a toaster, and a cot for our maid, get our hair waved, and dine in the Tropics Restaurant.
All for $8 a night.
Last night I called my sister and we had a serious discussion: what the heck is the first episode of this season’s Mad Men about? I said when Roger started crying after he got the shoeshine man’s shoeshine kit, he was finally able to grieve his mother’s death. My sister thought he was crying over the shoeshine man’s death, Roger had known him his whole life, and the shoeshine man’s poor family had sent him the only thing he owned.
We went back and forth until I said I was going to write to Matthew Weiner and ask him why Roger was crying. But I already know the answer. Good stories keep you guessing. The best stories let you become the character. It was easy for me—and lots of other people—to identify with Roger losing his mother. But my sister, the true storyteller in our family, came up with a richer, more layered interpretation. She looked beyond the obvious. I like hers better (but I still think I’m right).
Work is still a muddle. The above photo is the mood board I created for a midgrade road trip novel that is going nowhere. When I cleaned my office, I put it away.
I’ve crossed little off my to-do list. Yesterday I wrote a few sentences on chapter two of the YA proposal. I didn’t even look at the “frog book.” I did eat an entire bag of Toad-Ally Snak Hanky Panky, a dollar a bag at Family Dollar, which tells you how nutritional it is, which I’m trying to stretch into “frog book” research.
While I ate Hanky Panky, I read Natalie Goldberg’s new book, The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language (I did promise three books). The title alone is enough to send writers in droves flying to the shelves, added to the fact it’s written by the Writing Down the Bones author. If there’s a secret in this book, it’s that we have to sit still, be silent, breathe, and let our thoughts go until we reach “wild mind.”
I always believed my mind was wild enough. But it isn’t, not really. Goldberg, who teaches Zen retreats that include meditation and writing, teaches the difference between letting random, obsessive thoughts go when meditating, and pinning them down in writing practice. She writes for ten, twenty minutes, never stopping, usually on a topic like cupcake, kiss, or cat.
Ever the skeptic, I wondered if this is a fancy version of “free-writing,” something I’ve always been suspicious of. Mainly because I want my work to count for something. Have a beginning, middle, and end, and meaning. Maybe a paycheck. Someone asks Goldberg, “When does it stop being practice and become the real thing?”
Goldberg says, Practice is not for something else. Practice is the practice of being here with your life and pen now . . . [to get] across the chugging land of your mind.
The book includes exercises. In one, Goldberg asks students how they got there. Some wrote directions from their house to the zendo. One wrote about how her parents met. The exercise I want to try is to spend a week— consecutive days—in a café for an hour, the same time every day, at the same table if possible, writing what you observe.
While Goldberg’s book has a lot of Zen-dy stuff I’ll never do in a million years, there is much in it to read and go back to. The notion of writing practice, of being quiet, of sitting still, of letting go of random thoughts, and then, later, writing like mad, dovetails nicely with keeping a journal. A wild journal, but still thoughtful and important-ish.
A Year of Writing Dangerously: 356 Days of Inspiration & Encouragement by Barbara Abercrombie is a great companion to Goldberg’s book. This is the perfect bedside book, though I’m tempted to keep it in the bathroom. (Yes, I have a bookrack in the bathroom. Go on, admit it, you do too. Stephen King says he reads while he’s peeing.)
A Year of Writing Dangerously consists of bite-sized essays plus quotations. This is from Number 83 (or Day 83) “Retyping the Best:”
When Donald Ray Pollock turned 45, he decided he wanted to do something different with his life; he was going to learn how to write. He began by retyping stories of writers he liked—John Cheever, Richard Yates, Ernest Hemingway—and then he’d carry the stories around with him and re-read them. “I’m not a real close reader,” he said, “and typing those stories out gave me the chance to see this is how you make a transition, this is how you do dialogue.”
I once read about a writing teacher in the 1950s who used to make her students (some of whom became famous) type out whole published novels by their favorite writers.
There’s more to this essay, but I think this is the most dangerous exercise of all.
I’m forever telling my students to type out picture book manuscripts and they grumble it’s a lot of work. 800 words! I’ve often typed out entire easy readers and the first two or three chapters in chapter books.
Like Donald Ray Pollock, I’m not a real close reader either. I’m going to get myself unstuck by typing out, if not the entire novel, than whole chapters of books I’m using as models for my own novel.
I’ll end with part of Number 84, “How to Be a Writer:”
“Make a place to sit down,” reads the first line of Wendell Berry’s poem, “How to Be a Poet.” The second line is: “Sit down. Be quiet.” He lists what you must depend on: affection, reading, knowledge, inspiration, and finally patience, “for patience joins time/to eternity.”
The quote that goes with this mini-essay is from Rilke: Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your life. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language.
All three books emphasize the same things: sit, be quiet, listen, pay attention, be patient and wait.
Well, it’s not midweek, but the end of the week. My husband is coming home this afternoon. The columns on the great big huge to-do list are only half-crossed through, though I did chores that weren’t on the list like wash windows and rearrange the bookshelves in my office.
Winchester will be thrilled to see Daddy because he gives him treats and stingy old Mama doesn’t. Persnickety will be glad to see Daddy because he’s her Person and I’m just a humble substitute. The house is mostly clean. The wife is five pounds heavier (too much Hanky Panky). There is a new pink geranium on the front porch.
I’m trying to have patience with unresolved things in my life and am grateful for three new books to help me. I’m learning to look beyond the obvious.
My husband left Sunday for a week’s course at Shenandoah University. I waved goodbye then rushed to make a great big huge list of things to do: Inside, Outside, Regular Chores. This list did not include working on the book that’s due May 1 or the YA proposal I have been writing for an eternity.
Since Sunday afternoon counted, I picked up sticks in our yard, bending and stooping with a carpet of gumballs and hickory shells underfoot. It was like performing brain surgery while standing on ball bearings. I filled my truck bed, tied a tarp over the load, and cheerfully went to the dump. I felt like the characters in my own book, The Old Blue Pickup Truck: “We had lots to do!”
Monday I leaped out of bed, ready to go. The best part of being alone is that you don’t have all that hunting and gathering of food. A quick stop at Wegman’s took care of my meal needs for the week. Then I tackled the flower bed box, digging up dandelions, onions, and something virulent with a taproot to China. I’d marked off an hour for this chore. Two hours later, I was sweaty, suffering from a hundred punctures from the roses, and not nearly done.
I switched to the Inside column of the list, crawling on all fours to dust baseboards and use the hand vac. For a small house, it seemed to have thousands of feet of baseboard. Finally I staggered into my office to do some writing. A little on chapter two of the YA proposal, some research, start chapter one of the “frog book.”
Outside, trees and flowers bloomed before my eyes. The grass is greening and growing. We’ve had a cold, hideous spring and this week, the first warm week all year, everything is making up for lost time. So why, then, was I crossing chores off an endless list? Why wasn’t I out in that gorgeous weather just sitting, instead of painting porch furniture or pulling chickweed?
Because it’s hard to do nothing. It’s hard for all us of these days. Every second we’re conscious, we’re looking at our phones (not me), checking email (guilty), throwing a load of laundry in the washer, making beds, putting away dishes, running to the store, refilling the cat’s water bowl, sweeping, picking up newspapers and toys.
Every single room I walk into, every single part of the room, has something that needs to be done, waiting for me. It’s worse outside. A hot week in Virginia means weeds reaching the roof by noon.
And my writing? It’s just as bad. Messy. Things needing to be done on every part of every page. None of it right. None of it good.
My work used to be so neat and tidy. I’d sit down at my computer and work on whatever book contract was right in front of me. Chapter One. The. Most of the time, the project behaved. But now nothing is behaving and I’m questioning my methods.
This dissatisfaction has led me to three books. The first is The Journal Keeper: A Memoir by Phyllis Theroux. I’ve always been intrigued by writers who keep real journals, as opposed to the notebook I drag around that has bits of ideas, pieces of current projects, conversations overheard, lists (more stuff to do), and books I want to find.
Phyllis Theroux started keeping a daily journal after her divorce, while she was raising three children:
I thought of it primarily as a ship’s log that enabled me to keep track of my thoughts and feelings as I bumped from one drama-filled day to the next. But I used it for other things as well: a place in which to work out ideas, to store metaphors, and save odd bits of dialog . . . There were times, in the beginning, when I used my journal as a wailing wall, but I learned not to immortalize the darkness. Rereading it was counter-productive. What I needed was a place to collect the light.
I love the idea of collecting the light. Too often my so-called journals gather darkness or are whiny. Certainly my Artist’s Way Morning Pages were. I don’t do well with writing “what’s on my mind.” I want to write elegant, insightful journal-y thoughts students years from now will tape to their computer monitors. I want to write what’s important.
Theroux says, One of the reasons people resist keeping a journal is because they assume it will quickly become a garbage can for all of the spoiled plans, bad news, and other dark developments of their life. The journal I keep is a spiritual equivalent of a personal light box . . . This isn’t to say the pages aren’t without pain or perplexity. The dilemmas in my life were one of the main reasons I began to keep a journal in the first place. I use it as a tool for sovling or understanding them.
Whatever insights or glimpses of the truth I glean when sitting quietly in my wing chair—thinking, reading, or simply gazing out the window at the neighbor walking her dog—is what I write down. These are my butterflies, halted mid-flight on the page.
She makes it sound so easy. This is the last entry in my notebook—I can’t call it a journal yet because that’s not what it is:
Overheard in Mineral Restaurant, Saturday:
An old man gave the waitress his order, “I’ll have the spaghetti and meat sauce. This is the start of a new life. I worked hard to get it lined up.”
I wrote it down because I wondered how spaghetti, on the menu every day, connected to this man’s new life. If this is my butterfly pinned to the page, then maybe I should work harder to get my own life lined up.
I should begin by tossing that list and sitting in an overstuffed chair like Phyllis Theroux does and just think. But you know I won’t.
It’s the worst-luck day of the year, Good Friday. Don’t cut your nails or your hair on Good Friday. Don’t take a trip or start a new project. Don’t wash your clothes. Kids shouldn’t climb trees. Don’t dig in your garden (iron = nails). My mother was highly superstitious and passed some of those warnings on to me.
As a child I was fascinated by the crucifixion story. Yet Easter meant getting a new dress with matching coat and hat, dying eggs (the joy of dipping eggs over and over in the teacup to reach that saturated shade of turquoise), and hurling myself into the living room Sunday morning for my basket that always had a stuffed bunny, a scattering of jelly beans, marshmallow chicks stuck to the wax grass, and a fat Mary Sue chocolate egg.
We dressed up, visited relatives, hid eggs, and ate candy, events that countered the sober Easter sermon we’d heard in church. Rabbits and angels? Though I understand the folklore of rebirth, I remain confused about religion. I flunked vacation bible school because I questioned everything. Raised a Lutheran, I tried on other beliefs like shoes.
So it was with some trepidation that I took a photo excursion to Powhatan County on Good Friday. Did that count as a trip? We traveled through familiar places—Louisa, Cuckoo—so it didn’t seem like we were going someplace new.
I spied a big old rambling house with a brace of outbuildings. The place appeared to be built based on need. When the owners bought a tractor or had more children, they simply slapped up another shed or added on another room.
Of course I went inside the house and almost fell over at the sight of this gorgeous red door. The green door next to it is actually a partition. In pagan Europe, doors were painted red to keep out evil spirits. Later, Christians painted their doors red to represent the blood of Christ (and also keep out evil spirits).
I stepped over the threshold into the unknown. I try to bring an open mind into these old houses, but I’m always bristling with curiosity and questions. Not just about who once lived there, but why I’m there.
The rooms offered few clues to the past. I wondered about the angel light switch cover. Nothing else in the house was that grand. A memorial spray propped in a corner reminded me I should have gone to the cemetery. I went out on the tacked-on porch.
There I found vestiges of the last owner. I saw the purple Easter card first, another pang for my mother gone so many years, and the books on the floor.
The book on the dresser is called Living Psalms and Proverbs. Suddenly I realized this wasn’t the usual left-behind detritus. Had a pastor lived once lived here? Or maybe someone like me, searching for answers?
Then I saw the pile of nails. Rusted. Sharp. Iron. Everything else on the porch had been tossed randomly, but someone had taken care to neatly sweep up the nails.
Behind the dresser was something that made me gasp. A turkey vulture’s wing. The bird had probably been eating road kill and was hit by a car. Vultures are ungainly on the ground and need time to lift off. A fox or some other animal carried the dead bird up to the yard, then maybe inside the porch. All that was left was this wing.
Vultures are usually considered ugly birds with a disgusting job. But in Tibetan religion, vultures are sacred messengers called dakinis, or “sky dancers,” the equivalent of our angels. They carry human souls to heaven, where they wait to be reincarnated. Buddhism was one of the religions I sampled.
My favorite Bible verse is John 14:2: In my Father’s house there are many mansions. I’ve always thought those words are so beautiful and mysterious. A huge house with endless houses inside. The verse has been interpreted to mean that the “mansions” are other forms of faith, that there is room for everyone in heaven. Is it possible one of the mansions holds people like me who clutch bits and pieces of different beliefs?
I walked back through the rooms of the old house, leaving the ghosts in peace and my unanswered questions behind. Outside, the woods were bright with birdsong, the breeze a hopeful reminder of spring. The swing moved gently, as if set in motion by invisible wings. I looked up. The sunny sky had clouded over.
The way it always does on Good Friday.
I didn’t want to go. I’d had bronchitis and an upper respiratory infection for nearly three weeks—not much voice or energy and a disgusting cough. I was behind in my work. Our house was starting to look like one of those abandoned houses I photograph.
But mostly I didn’t want to go because I’d be jolted off the Other Planet my family has been on since we got the news in January. It would be hard, I knew, to navigate the real world even for three days.
I stopped in Richmond first, taking homemade egg custard, checking on how my sister was doing since hospice had swooped in the week before. She seemed fine and her husband is doing well. Then I hit the road for Farmville, 120 miles away. After a short stint on a four-lane highway, I found myself on the first of many winding two-lane roads.
Though spring is slow coming to Virginia this year, maples showed budding red among the bare oaks. Robins and bluebirds and grackles were busy, despite the freezing cold. I wanted to stop a dozen times and take pictures—an abandoned clapboard church in the woods, old tobacco barns. But I had a tight schedule.
I checked in my hotel and drove to Longwood University. I gave my speech and chatted at the reception. When asked what I did to relax, I told them about photographing what I call Vanishing Virginia. People seemed interested I’m driven to do this, with all its attendant risks, though I figured they were really wondering why I didn’t take a vacation like a normal person.
As it turned out, the special collections librarian at Longwood approached me about a new digital collection they are starting. Apparently my Vanishing Virginia pictures will have a home. People can view the past as I record it. I’ll retain copyright, but more importantly, my photos will have a life beyond this blog. I’m honored to be invited to participate.
Early the next morning, I drove in the pitch dark down a two-lane road, heading for Charlottesville. I watched dawn break over the hills as I made my way through Amelia, Prince Edward, Buckingham, and Fluvanna counties, itching to take pictures.
The school I was visiting had hosted two other authors that week, but they welcomed me like I was the first writer they’d ever seen. I walked into the library and the librarian jumped up from the little class she was teaching and hugged me. And so began the most wonderful day I’ve spent in an elementary school in a long time.
All the schools I visit are run so well, I’m amazed how they do it, each member of the staff and faculty putting in 110 percent every single day. But some school libraries are disappointing. Just as when I step in an abandoned house and can sense its story, I have the same feeling when I enter a school library. Some libraries are too quiet and the librarians seem to be marking time.
Not this librarian! All the students loved her and I did, too. I could have stayed in that room the rest of my life. She was generous, funny, caring, and she made every single student feel special. She tirelessly taught media classes, ran my complicated day of presentations, and—best of all—read aloud to small groups. She chose an older book of mine, Big Rigs. As I listened, I learned how to make a book work for children, how to engage them as readers, how to keep them interested.
Yes, I write the books, but it was exciting to observe a dedicated librarian in action and see what happens to my books once they are out the door. The day got better. One of the teachers had read the first chapter of Rebel McKenzie to a fifth grade class. The class had begged the teacher to keep reading. What’s important isn’t that my book is so great, but that older kids aren’t read to that much. Story. We are all hungry for it.
By the time I finished my presentation of Rebel McKenzie—admittedly a girly book—every one of those fourth and fifth graders, including the boys, wanted to read it. When I left, I was tired, but it was that good kind of tired.
Next I drove to downtown Charlottesville to my hotel. A quick change and then I zipped over to another school for an evening program called Sweet Reads. The school put on a dinner for all the participating authors in the Virginia Festival of the Book. Parents cooked wonderful food and we ate in the library. I was charmed by the vintage children’s book table decorations.
After we ate, we went to the gym for a dessert reception. Nikki Giovanni gave a rousing poetry reading. The authors sat at tables around the gym. I have never seen so many kids! They didn’t know me from Adam’s housecat, but I signed Iva and Rebel for a solid hour and a half.
The next day I was on a YA panel that didn’t start until the afternoon. I relaxed in the hospitality suite which was filled with writers of all stripes. I listened to environmentalist writers and mystery novelists. I talked about how I write books for and about the kids nobody sees, those living on the margins. Unfortunately, those kids don’t buy books.
The other writers encouraged my dream, which has been flagging lately, and asked how I approach my “research.” I found myself telling a roomful of strangers my own sad and difficult childhood. They hung on every word and once again I was impressed by the power of story. This group helped me understand better what I’m trying to do, and even how the photography fits in. I left for my panel, feeling buoyed.
I was delighted to be on a panel with Meg Medina, Gigi Amenteau, and Lex Thomas (well, half of the writing team), YA writers in total command of their material and their audience. I took lots of mental notes, learning from the pros.
From there, I hopped in the little red truck and aimed it home, once more on two-lane roads that wound me through rolling estates. The other part of rural Virginia. While the countryside was beautiful, I was not tempted to stop and take pictures. The counties whirled by–Albemarle, Louisa, Orange.
And then I was home again. My husband had covered the table with pies, chips, dip, sandwiches, cheeses, crackers, soft drinks, bakery donuts, and a bouquet of pink tulips. That night I slept hard but woke from a strange dream.
I was in a classroom of children. One little girl was trying to read the address on an envelope. She kept crying in frustration. I went over and put my arm around her and tried to teach her to read the address. She would get some of the words, but would break away. And no wonder–who wants to read something as dull as an envelope? The other kids wanted to learn to read, too, but seemed reluctant.
So I told them how I learned to read with a Nancy and Sluggo comic and how I read to my niece and, with my first paycheck, bought her ten books and a little one dollar shelf to keep them in. The kids were so close to me, I could feel their breath on my cheek.
When I woke, I felt a disconnect between my writing for kids, selling to editors in New York, promoting my books through social media, watching kids in schools that seem driven by SOLs. Everyone is working hard at their jobs, but something is missing.
I padded barefoot downstairs to talk to my husband, my best sounding board. We discussed the students who slide through the net–he works in a community college system and is aware that many students struggle with reading and writing. I kept thinking about the frustrated crying girl in my dream. I thought about how kids of all ages love to be read to and realized I want to read to them.
My husband believes something positive came out of this trip—the talking and storytelling and watching the librarian and meeting the kids who bought my books without hearing me speak and the ones who wanted to hear more of Rebel. The miles of two-lane roads that spooled under my truck tires. The need I have to visit rural places, not just to take pictures, but to meet those kids and read to them. I don’t know how all this will work out, but I know they are hungry for story out there.
I also know how fast days pass, how quickly kids grow up, and that the window isn’t open forever. I hope I’m equal to the challenge.