This year I turned 60 and it’s been fun to notice things that were “born” the same year I was. In reality, I’ve been thinking more about events that happened 50 years ago because they affected my ten-year-old self, my most powerful and imaginative year.
In 1962 I read The Diamond in the Window by Jane Langton, the book that most influenced my life. And still does. I found the brand-new book in our school library one snowy weekend. I took it home on Friday and read it in a trance, while snow fell heavily outside. By Monday, I had become someone else.
This book has everything: a mystery, a treasure, a white elephant of a Victorian house. “Screened porches ballooned and billowed out of it all around, and domes and towers puffed at the top as though they were filled with air.” Eleanor and Eddie Hall live in the house with Aunt Lily, Uncle Freddy, and the threat of foreclosure. Aunt Lily teaches piano and Uncle Freddy used to run a school of Transcendentalism. They owe a huge tax bill.
Eleanor and Eddie discover a secret attic room with two small beds and a small keyhole-shaped window set with a “diamond.” A riddle etched in the glass leads them on a hunt for treasure and their lost Aunt Nora and Uncle Ned, who disappeared as children. Eleanor and Eddie sleep in the lost children’s beds and dream the same dream. As they get closer to the truth of what happened to the children, the dreams become dangerous.
Set in Concord, Massachusetts, the story weaves the no-nonsense philosophies of local luminaries Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and the Alcotts into the mystery. Growing up in Virginia with its languid summers and porch-talk, I felt the slap of all that brisk New England thinking. Shortly afterward, I declared to my mother I was quitting the Lutheran church and was now a Transcendentalist, a word I could barely pronounce.
I spent my childhood in a modern brick rambler, all the while longing to live in an old house, preferably haunted. The Hall’s house brimmed with antiques like the bronze statue called Mrs. Truth, a stuffed peacock hiding a secret, busts of Thoreau, Emerson, and Louisa May Alcott that sparked meaningful conversation, a glass globe in the yard that allowed the kids to gaze into their futures. We had “decorative accessories” from Grant’s.
The book grew up with me. In high school I read Thoreau, lining him up to be my private guru. I learned to pronounce “transcendentalism.” Everywhere I went, I looked for old houses ballooning with porches and turrets and imagined myself living there.
I told my poor husband-to-be that we had to get married on Valentine’s Day because my whole life I had wanted to be “The Bride of Snow,” one of the most moving chapters in Diamond. My $39 Montgomery Ward dress was hardly the magical lace creation from the book, but we tied the knot during the blizzard of ’79 and there was plenty of snow.
Years later I paid homage to that Bride of Snow dress by hanging lace curtains at all our windows, each a different pattern like snowflakes. In one window of the library I hung a prism which lets the late afternoon sun spray rainbows across the bookshelves. Thoreau resides in the powder room and I’m still looking for the right gazing ball for our garden.
Diamond even holds sway over my subconscious. For the last 25 years, I walk through houses in my dreams—my old house, my grandparents’ house, the house of my aunts and uncles, my sister’s houses. If not houses, then strange office buildings where I wait in front of elevators or wander down long corridors. I almost never dream about landscapes. Apparently my dreams need structure.
The connection hit when I put up a recent blog post, “Curating the Museum of Myself.” I dream of people beyond my reach, just as Eleanor and Eddie did when they glimpsed the lost children, always just ahead of them, in their shared dreams. I was astounded to realize the construct of my dreams comes from The Diamond in the Window.
In Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book, Gregory Maguire chose Langton’s book as his polestar. “All these years later,” he writes, “I live in Concord, hardly a mile from the house memorialized by the book. I dream a different series of dreams. Dreaming and examining what might be of value within the subconscious images is the start of my writing life every day. Thinking about concepts with capital letters like Truth . . . powers my work till bedtime. In gratitude I keep The Diamond in the Window and its sequels close to hand. My world, lit by diamonds, seems enormous these days.”
I wish I had Gregory Maguire’s eloquence. It’s humbling to try to describe a book of this importance and have words fail you.
When I was a student at Hollins University, I decided to write my final paper on Diamond in the Window for my fantasy class. After I finished my paper, clumsily titled “Daisy-clocks, Amulets, and Marxism: The Influence of E. Nesbit in Jane Langton’s The Diamond in the Window,” I burst into tears. Marxism! I had ruined my childhood book. I ran to the program director, still tearful, to whine that I had written a terrible paper and I’d get a terrible grade and would have to leave the program.
None of those dire events came to pass, but I learned it does not pay to take apart your favorite book.
The Trixie Belden books encouraged me to scribble stories when I was a kid, but The Diamond in the Window made me a writer. I thank my lucky stars I found that book—or it found me—just when I was ready for it. I go to my computer every day in the hopes that I will write a book that will change one child’s life, shape his very dreams.
Black Friday was going to be a quiet day, away from stores and restaurants filled with shoppers and travelers. We’d spend it at home like civilized people, lingering over brunch and reading Dickens aloud to each other.
But on our way home from Thanksgiving at my niece’s house, as we drove along a back road in Hanover County, I spied a turkey buzzard roost. “Look!” I screeched, nearly making my husband wreck the truck. “A buzzard roost close to the road! I can walk there!” Sure enough, about thirty turkey vultures were humped in two dead tree snags and a loblolly pine.
Generally their roosts are well back in the woods. This was a winter roost, small and temporary. I’ve been taking notes on a book and the last piece of research I needed was to visit a buzzard roost.
So the next morning, Black Friday, I bribed my husband with chicken rice soup at the Hanover Café if he’d come with me. The buzzards would be at work, but I had to see what they left behind. We hopped in the truck and motored down I-95 for the second day in a row. But the Hanover Cafe—a restaurant that’s open every day—was closed.
Lunch was at Cracker Barrel, a poor substitute as it was packed with shoppers and travelers. We took turns playing the golf-tee game because it was too rackety to hear each other. My husband never left more than one tee standing. My score was eg-no-ra-moose every time. The warm Coca-cola cake with ice cream slid down right nice, though.
Then we drove over to the roost. I eyeballed the trees I’d remembered from the evening before. Those cagey buzzards had picked a site that was close to the road, all right, but impossible to get to. Thorny locust trees, blackberry canes, and savage undergrowth formed a thicket like the one surrounding Sleeping Beauty’s castle.
Determined, I ducked through the brambles with my holiday tote that contained notebook and camera (but no machete). It was rough going–I sank ankle-deep in rotted leaves, tripped over a log, and slipped down a gulley. My leggings were ripped, my sweater snagged, and my shoestrings jerked loose. Clearly I was dressed wrong for hiking to a buzzard roost.
My husband kept track of me by the sun glinting off my bronze tote. I finally got to the roost and started hunting for feathers and buzzard poop. Yep. I needed to see what it looked like. But those buzzards must be mighty neat roommates. I didn’t find any feathers and only one splash of poop like white paint.
As I staggered up the incline, I saw something half-buried in the leaves and pried it loose. This treasure made the whole effort worthwhile!
I had twigs in my underwear and looked like I’d been drawn through a hedge backward. So much for being civilized. But I’ve never made brunch for us in my life and nobody reads Dickens aloud or otherwise. We would have stayed home watching DVDs. My husband said at least life with me isn’t dull.
And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for–how to make your very own Redneck Terrarium:
- Drink a beer
- Throw the bottle in the woods
- Wait at least a year
- Go dig it up
- Make sure it has moss and tiny plants; snail shell optional
- Give to someone who has everything
Dusting in my house is no quick little flick of the rag–some rooms can take an hour to dust. I don’t mind. It gives me a chance to revisit my past. Above, a few of my mother’s Thanksgiving postcards, her salt and pepper shakers, my stepfather’s mother’s turkey figurine, and the cut-glass pitcher was my husband’s parent’s 1923 wedding present.
When I first started housekeeping many years ago, I bought decorative “things” that were supposed to look good but had no sense of history or were relative to who I was. There was the (mercifully) brief fling with Spanish modern. The three rooms of furniture and ginger jar lamps I picked out in Sears in 20 minutes (and had live with the next 18 years). I spent a long time wrapped in my faux cozy English period.
I wanted a clean break from the clutter that fell on us when so many people left us: my stepfather, my mother, my stepfather’s mother, my husband’s father . . . at one point we could not get into our garage. When we moved to this house, I craved the spare lines of American primitive.
But I found the primitive look stark and heartless. I missed my old home, the one I couldn’t have any more. I missed those people, too, and so I let them bring their things in, a piece at a time. I brought out my childhood things, too, and my husband’s. Nearly every snapshot I have of my family is framed and out on display.
Carl Jung put forth the house-as-self theory. In his autobiography he describes a dream of a multi-level house that he realized was himself. My childhood home recurs frequently in my dreams. Claire Cooper Marcus, author of House as Mirror of Self, believes we are working through unresolved issues when we dream of our childhood homes. Maybe. I think I just want to go back.
Author Louise Bogan dreams about her childhood home and says, “Why do I remember this house as the happiest in my life? I was never really happy there. But now I realize it was the house wherein I began to read, wholeheartedly and with pleasure.” I learned to read in my old house too. And write. And draw. And watch birds.
In my dreams in my old house I’m a grown-up. People come and go. I catch glimpses of my mother, my sister, my stepfather through doorways. I try to get everyone in one room and keep them there. I never can.
Last summer I painted my kitchen. I painted it three times until I got just the right shade of green. I thought I was picking out the apple green in a Leonard Weisgard print. I was actually re-creating the apple green of our kitchen back in the 60s. I dug out this old pizza plate of my mother’s, one of two, and hung it over the stove so I can see it every time I cook. My sister has the other plate, which hangs in her kitchen.
Louise Bogan writes about returning to her old house in her dreams: “I go back to the house as I now am. I put into it my chairs, my pictures, but most of all my books. I rearrange the house from top to bottom: new curtains on the windows, new pictures on the walls. But somehow the old rooms are still there–like shadows seeping through.”
When people come in our house, I know they wonder about all the old stuff. Yes, I collect vintage dishes and cameras and children’s books. But most of what we have came from our families. Unlike Louise Bogan, I’m trying to bring my old house into our new house. I would be thrilled if the old rooms seeped into our new rooms.
I don’t treat our house as a museum. If something breaks, it’s not the end of the world (okay, the cookie jar was–I made my husband try to glue back together molecules and have since found a cookie jar just like it). But I do feel I’m curator of those memories.
I try to take good care of them.
Winchester cannot adjust to standard time. A creature of habit, he starts lobbying for lunch shortly after his morning nap. He shows up in my office at 11:00 on the dot, dropping hints until I finally feed him at 11:30.
But his stomach-clock is still on Daylight Savings Time which means he appears in my office at 10:00. Thirty minutes of Winchester-hinting is annoying. An hour and a half of him staring at the back of my head and climbing on the processor and knocking over small things is intolerable.
I actually enjoy standard time, except for the worst of the early darkness in late December. I’m ready to get up at 5:30 and ready to go to bed at 9:00. But I can understand Winchester’s problem. When we switch to DST in the spring, I squawk like a scalded chicken at 5:30 and am always hungry.
Lately, even though I seem to be in my office all day, I’m still trying to get in more hours of work. Like Douglas Southall Freeman.
Freeman was the editor of the Richmond News Leader and wrote Pulitzer prize-winning biographies, massive works that took so long to finish, his editors died waiting for them: the four-volume biography of Robert E. Lee, the six-volume biography of George Washington, the three-volume biography of Lee’s generals.
Take a gander at Freeman’s daily schedule, which begins at 2:30 in the morning:
- 2:30 – wakes, eats breakfast
- 3:10 – leaves for work
- 3:25 – begins work as editor of afternoon newspaper
- 4:00 – writes editorial, manages paper
- 7:58 – leaves for first morning radio broadcast
- 8:15 – finishes broadcast
- 8:20 – reporter conference
- 12:00 – second radio broadcast
- 12:15 – goes home, eats lunch, takes nap
- 2:30 – begins writing work
- 6:30 – eats dinner, meets with friends
- 8:30 – bed
And he did this day in and day out for years. His schedule makes me want to go lay down in a dark room with a cold cloth on my head. Freeman didn’t complain about there not being enough hours in the day–he used them!
Granted, he had a wife to clean the house, cook, raise their children, and take his three-piece suits to the cleaners. Freeman relished getting by on little sleep, which not all of us can do. But at the end of his busy day, he often said, “Fully this day I have labored and honestly I have striven to make the day’s work a thing of beauty.”
Look at his schedule again. He worked a full day in the newspaper office, and another four hours on his own projects. I sit in my office hour after hour and I have little to show, many days. What am I doing wrong? Well, the old problem of the Internet crops up. Freeman didn’t deal with constant communication. But it’s more than that. Freeman considered his day’s work “a thing of beauty.”
He worked smarter, not harder and longer. To that end, I’ve made myself a schedule, breaking up my writing time into two blocks, no more. I’ve corraled my email time into two blocks, as well. Most important, I’ve scheduled some time out of this chair.
I’m going to give Freeman’s method a try (though with 8 hours of sleep) and will strive for a day’s work that’s a thing of beauty, not a snarl of frustration and recrimination. If it worked for Douglas Southall Freeman, it might work for me. Of course, he didn’t have Winchester bugging him every five minutes . . .
The following is from the Free Lance-Star, the Federicksburg area newspaper, published Sunday, November 11, 2012. Feature writer Cathy Dyson came to my house to interview me. I fixed lunch and don’t even remember her asking me questions, we had such a good time.
She told me the piece would run in this Sunday’s Life section and I was up before daylight to get our paper from the box. I ran in and told my husband, “I’m on the front page!” He said, “You are not.” I said, “I am too! Look!” A smaller version of the photo by Reza Marvashti was above the banner.
People think that once you are published, you have it made. The life of a writer is not an upward incline to fame and riches, more like a bumpy road. Most people in this business don’t achieve overnight success–any success is the result of years of devotion to the craft. But I was also glad to meet Cathy and Reza, who also work hard at their craft. Less important than fame is the delight in crossing paths with others on their journey.
Here is Cathy Dyson’s article:
After Candice Ransom had written more than 110 books, she finally got the chance to pen the kind of stories she was meant to write. But the way the successful Spotsylvania County author came to follow her heart–and not the specifics of her book deal–may be a path others don’t want to take.
It was 2008, the economy had tanked, and her career was taking a nosedive. She had run herself ragged the year before–selling 12 books–but the old contracts were gone. Publishing houses she dealt with were either changing direction or going out of business. Bookstores were doing the same, and schools couldn’t afford to hire her for workshops.
To make matters worse, her depression flared, and the medicine she took left her with horrid side effects. She suffered bouts of insomnia that lasted up to 48 hours. She couldn’t tolerate bright light. She had no energy or desire to work.
“I was down, but not out,” Ransom said, looking back.
Characters who were a mixture of her imagination and childhood called her to the computer.
“I sat down and wrote for myself for the first time, and that was the thing that got me out of bed,” she said.
ART IMITATES LIFE
Ransom wrote about a girl like herself, “only braver.” That was 8-year-old Iva, who wanted to use her great-grandfather’s treasure map to discover long-lost gold. The girl lived in Mineral, in Louisa County, but Ransom changed the name to Uncertain to reflect her state of mind.
The book, “Iva Honeysuckle Discovers the World,” was launched–and published by Disney-Hyperion.
It got rave reviews from Kathi Appelt, winner of a Newbery Medal for children’s literature. She said Iva Honeysuckle “is destined to become as distinctive and well-loved as Pippi Longstocking. Here is storytelling in its full glory.”
Ransom followed that with an even funnier tale for middle-school readers. “Rebel McKenzie” is about a preteen who wants to be a paleontologist, “the Ice Age kind, not the dinosaur kind.”
When her parents won’t put up the money for her to go on a kids’ dig and safari–saying their busted refrigerator is the bigger ice-age issue–Rebel runs away. Police bring her back with blistered and bloodied feet, the same situation Ransom suffered years ago while growing up in Centreville. The only difference was that Ransom was trying to get to New York City to become a writer.
“To this day, I can’t wear closed-back shoes,” Ransom said. “I didn’t become a famous writer, either. And I can’t stand New York City.”
A COLLEGE DEGREE AT 52
Ransom is 60 and lives off Gordon Road with her husband, Frank, and their cats.
She’s spent more than 30 years writing historical fiction and nonfiction, biographies, board books and picture books. She’s written series about Time Spies and Boxcar Children and has had 45 titles translated into 12 languages.
Everything Ransom knows about the writing process, she taught herself–until she got a college degree at 52.
“I wanted the dorm experience,” she said, then realized what she needed more at that point in her life was her own bathroom.
She earned a master’s of fine arts in writing from Vermont College in 2004 and the same in children’s literature from Hollins University three years later. She teaches a six-week summer course at Hollins about writing for children.
While earning her degrees, Ransom noticed her real-world experience set her apart. Classmates would be analyzing why a writer chose a particular turn of phrase. They’d cite a Freudian cause or some other deep-seated condition.
“I would say, ‘She probably couldn’t think of anything else to say’ or ‘Her editor probably changed it.’ ”
Still, Ransom wouldn’t trade the tools she acquired through her degrees.
“I learned so much, even about sharing the bathroom,” she said.
THE BEST MATERIAL
Ransom says she doesn’t have time or the luxury to travel to new venues to find subjects for her books.
“I don’t need to,” she said. “The best material is right in my own backyard.”
She giggled that she gets excited when she sees a place name like Snell on a map. She and her husband set out, checking out old houses, unusual names of businesses and hole-in-the-wall restaurants. She regularly eavesdrops on conversations and stores them away for future books.
She’s enjoying this new phase of her career as she draws on her own experiences and people she’s known for Iva and Rebel–and future books and characters.
“We definitely hear more of Candice’s voice” in the new books, said Rebecca Purdy, coordinator of children’s services for the Central Rappahannock Regional Library. “I know [Rebel] is semi-autobiographical, and that’s part of what makes it such a strong read. It’s a very personal book.”
Ransom set the novel about Rebel in Frog Level and entered her in a beauty contest sponsored by the fire department. Mirroring her own life, she gave Rebel a young nephew and a big sister who studied cosmetology. Hot-dog spaghetti with a little sugar on top was a favorite, both in Rebel’s family and Ransom’s.
But there is one interesting difference between Rebel and Ransom. For the talent portion of the pageant, Rebel chugged a little RC Cola and burped her way through the 13 colonies.
“I can’t do the 13 colonies,” Ransom confessed, “but at one time, I got through most of the alphabet.”
My friend Donna and I went junkin’ last week. We talked about how things that used to be special aren’t any more. I remembered an old Family Circle magazine article on how to decorate Easter baskets with lots of bows. The beautiful baskets were created by someone named Martha Stewart. I kept the article until Martha Stewart became so branded her style was no longer special to me.
Then it was Paula Deen. I love her cookbooks and her show, but when her name began appearing on cupcake wrappers in Michael’s and pans in Wal-Mart, I lost interest in her as well. (Though I did buy a set of Paula Deen pans, which are just Teflon pans and don’t help me cook any better.)
We are losing the special in everything, it seems. Last week it was announced that Disney would make a Star Wars film every year or every other year, I can’t remember which, as a result of buying Lucasfilms. The first Star Wars was great fun, but now the wonder of those movies will be diluted.
Emma Thompson has published a lengthy (77 pages!) sequel to Peter Rabbit, 110 years after Beatrix Potter’s just-right original. Do we really want to know the further adventures of Peter Rabbit? I don’t. Yeah, Peter Rabbit has been fair game for years, but none of the knock-offs could hold a candle to Ms. Potter’s vision. (Ms. Potter wrote many books to earn money, but never compromised her own standards.)
I can understand the longing for sequels. When I first read Gone With the Wind, I practically peeled the endpaper from the back cover, I was so desperate to find out what happened to Scarlett. And when I finished reading the Lord of the Rings the first time, I was bereft to leave Middle Earth and hunted for any kind of fantasy that was remotely hobbitish (besides The Hobbit).
Eventually I learned to accept the fact I could revisit those places anytime I wanted. I didn’t need more, really. The sparkle was just as fine and bright as on my first trip.
With sequels and toys and endless branding on things once special, the sparkle on everything, it seems, is becoming tarnished. Even Goodwill, which is now so businesslike and expensive (gemlike finds are now sifted from donations and sold on eBay), the thrill of thrifting is gone.
Yet Donna and I did stop in Goodwill, where she snagged a small vintage typewriter for me, a model called Scholastic. I bought the $12 typewriter for the simple reason that I’m a fool over old typewriters and also because my first book was published by Scholastic.
When I got home, I looked up the typewriter. It was made by Singer around 1960. But mine didn’t look like the one in the pictures. I realized it is missing its hood, the piece that covers the ribbon spools. My typewriter was defective.
Then I ran my fingers over the “Scholastic” stamped behind the platen. A student may have done her homework on this little machine. Maybe a term paper on “Our Town.” Or a book report on Gone With the Wind. Cover or no cover, I love this little typewriter.
It sits on an oak buggy bench in our study, sharing space with a 1920s Remington portable. There are lots of other Singer model Scholastic typewriters out there, with their covers, but only mine has the special job of announcing the seasons.
And sometimes when I pass by the bench, I sense a hint of glitter dusting the keys, the remnant of a lingering idea slowly tapped onto the page by long-ago fingers.
Not all that is special is lost.