My all-time favorite movie is Meet Me in St. Louis. I fell in love first with that turn-of-the-century house seen at the beginning of each seasonal sequence as a postcard still, all quaint blooming porches and mansard roof set with keyhole windows.
In the Halloween segment (nearly cut from the movie), beggar-garbed Tootie and Agnes race like hooligans in the dark, leaf-scattered streets with others of their tribe, hurling furniture on a bonfire, flinging flour in people’s faces on a dare.
Over time, the tricking-bonfire-burning part evolved into milder trick-or-treating. Going from house to house became popular in the forties, lapsed during the war, then roared back in the fifties. On Halloween (and even the night before, unofficially called Beggar’s Night), legions of costumed kids roved towns and suburbs, demanding candy.
I went around with my Manassas cousins wearing my flammable witch costume, stumbling because the eye holes in my plastic mask had been drilled ten inches apart. Gangs of us slipped in and out of shadows. Leaves scuffed along the sidewalks and wind-tossed branches clawed at a moon that always seemed full and orange.
I began preparing for Halloween in August. It wasn’t about the candy (okay, a lot of it was)—it was about owning the night. Grownups exclaimed over our disguises and handed out candy, generally staying in the background. After roaming the streets, I would head home, sweaty, lugging my weighty bag of loot. There, I reluctantly surrendered my wild self at the door.
Over the years I’ve watched kids lose that ownership as their parents steer them through the holiday. Fewer trick or treaters show up at our house (this number fluctuates depending on where you live). More kids are escorted to parades at school or parties in the mall (how dreary to get candy from somebody outside JC Penney).
Parking lot trunk-or-treat events, sponsored by churches and community groups, provide a “safe and fun alternative” to going door to door. Of course we don’t want to endanger our children, but an adult-sponsored Halloween doesn’t sound like much fun.
We are living in different times and, in a way, I feel sorry for kids today. I was allowed to stay outside all day, ride my bike through a junkyard, ramble through the woods to an abandoned quarry with older kids. We got hurt. We got into trouble. But we also had adventures and we learned to figure things out.
In his memoir, Manhood for Amateurs, Michael Chabon describes his boyhood exploring a “thin two-acre remnant of a once mighty Wilderness” in the tame planned community of Columbia, Maryland where he grew up:
The thing that strikes me now . . . is the incredible degree of freedom my parents gave me to adventure there. A very grave, very significant shift in our idea of childhood has occurred since then. The Wilderness of Childhood is gone; the days of adventure are past. The land ruled by children, to which a kid might exile himself for at least some portion of every day from the neighboring kingdom of adulthood, has in large part been taken over, co-opted, colonized, and finally absorbed by the neighbors.
Chabon discusses the proliferation of scheduled play-dates, soccer teams, Chuck E. Cheese, the Discovery Zone, and other “jolly internment centers mapped and planned by adults with no blank spots aside from doors marked STAFF ONLY.”
Great Play opened in our town, a franchised gym where children learn “motor skills” in an “interactive arena.” Parents drive their kids to the location and pay for the “unique programs, packaged with a teaching system that makes it fun and maximizes children’s success.” When do kids cross the line into their own territory? When do they escape?
Meanwhile, the creeks and vacant lots and scruffy little neighborhood woods are deserted, places we navigated without a thought to “motor skills,” places we traversed with grit and bravery. I remember being the last one to cross the fallen log over a ravine to get to that quarry swimming hole, the other kids encouraging me. I was petrified, but I did it and my passport was stamped. That was success.
Tonight is Halloween. Some kids will go to supervised parties. Others will venture out trick-or-treating. They’ll collect candy that will be examined (yes, I lived through the era of razor blade-studded apples) and carefully rationed. They’ll have fun, many of them, because this is all they know. The maps of their lives are well marked with little room for side trips.
Except for kids in rural areas and on farms, most kids don’t realize the Wilderness closed down years ago. Tonight, they won’t experience the thrill of running with packs of their kind, letting themselves be genuinely scared. Owning their night.
It’s a shame . . . because, damn, we had a great time.
Most photos were taken at a “haunted house,” open once a year like Brigadoon. I broke in, as usual, still eager for adventure.
Rebel McKenzie has been nominated for a Texas Bluebonnet Award. Being on the master list for 2014-2015 is truly an honor. So many kids will be reading my book, it boggles my mind!
What’s really funny is that Rebel’s name came from Texas. I was speaking at the Texas Reading Association conference in 2008. I was already thinking about a middle grade to follow Iva Honeysuckle. At the luncheon, a reading teacher named Rebel Foster won the doorprize. I sat up in my chair. Rebel! That was my character’s name!
Rebel’s last name is actually the first name of a twelve-year-old girl I knew at the time. But her first name came from the state that invented feistiness. And now Rebel is goin’ home to Texas!
Let’s give her (and Doublewide) a big yeeeeeee-haaaaaaaaaaw!
The other day my favorite librarian said she’d just come across a recent book she thought I’d like and would put it with my requested holds. Don’t you love a librarian who does that? The book is called My Ideal Bookshelf, edited by Thessaly La Force.
More than 100 creative people were asked to contribute–chefs, writers, architects, photographers, dancers, actors, filmmakers, fashion designers, artists. Their assignment: “Select a small shelf of books that represent you, the books that have changed your life, that have made you who you are today, your favorite favorites.”
Illustrator Jane Mount painted the contributor’s selections. The details on the spines, down to the publisher’s colophons, are charming, even a little tipsy. Never before have books looked like they were having such a good time.
Inspired by the book–and by its last page, a shelf of blank books you fill in your own titles–I decided to create my own Ideal Bookshelf. It was hard to keep the books down to a reasonable number.
I went from room to room (yes, there are bookcases in every room in our house), gathering paperbacks and hardcovers, a few new, most old, and assembled the group on the desk-bookcase my stepfather built for me 40 years ago.
When I look at this collection, I’m already wondering why I don’t have Charlotte’s Web and more books by Lee Smith. Why is Bailey White’s Quite a Year for Plums missing? But that’s okay. This is my Ideal Bookshelf today. The next time I build that shelf, different books would be on it (though some would always be present.)
My collection isn’t as literary as the contributors–no Nabokov, no Ayn Rand or Hemingway or Woolf. No Proust and we share the same birthday. The books that shaped me were borrowed from school and public libraries or purchased from People’s Drugstore.
The books aren’t arranged in any particular order. Lord of the Rings is first because I read the first American paperback edition at age 13 and for the next ten years lived in Middle Earth. The Fellowship of the Ring was my boyfriend litmus test–if he’d read it, great; if he hadn’t, and he couldn’t get through it, he was history. This slipcased set cost $50 in 1973, a small fortune.
Minders of Make-Believe by Leonard Marcus is new and my favorite book about the history of children’s book publishing. It made me long to be a children’s book writer in the 20s and 30s when juvenile books were still a brave new world.
Watership Down–this is my original first edition bought at Woodward and Lothrop. Does anybody remember book departments in department stores? Does anybody remember Woodies? I was on fire to read this book. I’ve never viewed rabbits the same.
T.H. White is one of my favorite writers–I had to include The Once and Future King (actually four books) and his lighter Mistress Masham’s Repose. My first choice for a read-aloud is The Sword and the Stone (the first book in the quartet). I found the book in the library around the same time I read The Lord of the Rings. Who needed YA fiction when such riches were sitting on the shelf?
I was a little younger when I borrowed my sister’s copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I saw myself in Francie Nolan and found a world beyond my sleepy Virginia towns.
As a grown-up, I discovered Eudora Welty. When I am stuck for something to read, I reach for her short story collection. She is a place-based writer and her work and essays have taught me much about place.
If the house catches fire, my husband has strict instructions to grab Winchester, Ellsworth (my stuffed animal), and my Trixie Belden books (I’m to rescue my Little Lulu comic book collection). These books gave me the inspiration to be a writer. I would grow up and write series mysteries just like Trixie Belden and make girls happy everywhere!
I’ve written about The Diamond in the Window before. Jane Langton’s book changed my life at age 11. I learned about Emerson and Thoreau (whose teachings I still follow) while gripped in a mystery/adventure/fantasy. There are so many children’s books that inspire me, but Diamond is my yardstick. It’s the standard I hold my work to–and I haven’t gotten there yet.
I made the mistake of reading Truman Capote’s novellas to my husband, one on Thanks-giving, the other on Christmas. We were both a mess by the time I got to the end.
Lee Smith is my favorite living author. I believe I became a Hollins Girl because of Lee Smith (also Margaret Wise Brown and Jill McCorkle and Annie Dillard). It’s hard to choose my favorite book of hers because they are all wonderful, but when I first read Oral History, I realized it was okay to write about my own rural upbringing.
Gone-Away Lake and Return to Gone-Away are perfect children’s books. Just perfect. Elizabeth Enright is better known for The Saturdays, but I re-read these books every single summer. I still want to find that lost lake. I’d move into one of those abandoned old houses in an eyeblink.
To Kill a Mockingbird. What else needs to be said?
And last, The Burgess Bird Book for Children by Thornton W. Burgess. No one read those old-fashioned books in the early 60s. Published in 1917, The Burgess Bird Book featured syrupy prose (“Liperty-liperty-lip went Peter Rabbit as Jolly Mr. Sun rose over the Great Green Meadow”) but I ate it up with a spoon. The paintings in the book are by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, a prominent wildlife artist. I memorized every color plate and nearly wore the print off the pages, I checked this book out so many times.
Every Friday afternoon, I skipped out of Centreville Elementary with The Burgess Bird Book for Children (or, alternatively, The Burgess Animal Book for Children) under my arm. I wouldn’t be lonely over the weekend. My dearest friend in the world was going home with me.
I loved playing contributor to My Ideal Bookshelf. You can create your own bookshelf and Jane Mount will paint it! Or you can do what I did, gather your favorites, spend a little time with them, and take a family photo.
A few weeks ago, when I was at Bell House on my private writing retreat, I knew I couldn’t write ten pages a day as I usually do. For one thing, I wasn’t that far along on a project. For another, I was sort of a wreck. What I really wanted to do was sink into the little town of Colonial Beach. Let my innkeeper friend feed me sumptuous breakfasts. Run along the river in the mornings, walk on the beach in the evenings.
I went to the tiny library that’s only open at odd times. One of the best things about my retreat is that I have no dishes to wash, no food to hunt and gather, no laundry to sort, no TV, no phone, no radio, and, of course, no Internet. So I read. Deeply. I read on the sofa in the sitting room. I read in bed. I read in luncheonettes.
One day I pulled Eat Pray Love off the shelf, a book everyone has read but me. I wish I could say I adored Eat Pray Love but I found it self-serving and self-indulgent. Still, Gilbert gave me the notion to learn to pray. She says, “We gallop through our lives like circus performers balancing on two speeding side-by-side horses—one foot is on the horse called “fate,” the other on the horse called “free will.” Prayer is a relationship and your prayers should be intentional.
This made me think about the prayers I’ve sent up: “Please don’t let it rain the night of the Children’s Choice gala—I’m wearing a vintage dress.” “Please let my husband pull through surgery. I won’t ask for another thing. I promise.” And just this past Monday, “Please don’t let me die in Walmart.”
Using Gilbert’s concrete image, I decided I would practice Pick a Horse and Pray, knowing some prayers were on the Fate horse, but others, the ones in my control, were riding on Free Will. I am striving to make prayer less an occasion to ask for things, like a list for Santa Claus, and more of an intentional experience.
Since I made that decision half the time I forget to Pick a Horse and Pray. Sometimes I’m on my morning run when I remember. Sometimes I’m in the shower. Monday I realized it doesn’t matter when or where you pray, just so long as you mean it.
Monday I was out on errands. Library (not the cute one in Colonial Beach), grocery store, dump, finishing up with a quick stop in Walmart. I was dropping boxes of tapioca in my cart when the tornado warning came.
My first thought was: I wish I had brought a book. I’d just checked out Pat Schneider’s How the Light Gets In: Writing as a Spiritual Practice and had read the first chapter in my truck. No publisher paid Pat Schneider to go to a bunch of countries and write about how she healed herself. Schneider is in the trenches, giving writing workshops to women in poverty (something she experienced herself), helping them find their voices. Before I sailed blithely into Walmart, I read this from Pat’s book:
Beginning to write is an intentional, particular, inner act; usually it seems like turning toward something unknown in my mind—an inward looking, listening. I held my pen above my page, but I could not focus my attention. Suddenly I thought, tonight, words are turtles.
That may not seem very promising, but I love turtles. I grew up with them in the Ozark Mountains where a box turtle is a child’s most common experience of wild animals. Tonight, words are turtles. Experience has taught me to recognize the tiny jolt of joy that tells me a phrase or an image is worth pursuing. I wrote quickly.
Tonight, words are turtles
sleeping under mud.
Even when I poke them
they will not wake up.
Leave us alone
their silence says.
When we decide to surface,
we will tell you what we dream.
On the spot I fell hard for Pat Schneider.
I came home from Walmart in one grateful piece, fed the cat (who was annoyed I was late for lunch), heated some leftovers, and read more of How the Light Gets In. Then I went to my desk, opened my journal, and wrote this:
trundling a cart through Walmart
They herd us into the center
of the store.
We gather in Menswear
silent as rain pounds the
I think, Don’t let me go
Not for a ninety-four cent box of tapioca,
a pair of brown leggings to return (note: smaller size needed)
Not before I’ve learned
Take me for something bigger,
Pat Schneider gave me a tiny jolt in the right direction. There is work to be done. I have far to go in this praying/writing/living business. I’ll have to figure it out here at home, not in Italy or India or Indonesia, places like Walmart, not an ashram.
If I’m very lucky, I too will learn what turtles dream, when they are ready to tell me.
For my husband’s upcoming Big Birthday I bought him a Nikon DSLR (a step up from my Nikon), two guide books, a bag, and enrolled him in the same photography class I’m taking. When I told my sister, she said, “You got him what you wanted him to have, didn’t you?” Well, yes. I thought it would be fun to take pictures together. More important, my husband already knows old-fashioned SLR photography. Time I took advantage of his expertise.
Our first class was last Monday evening. The instructor said that would be “the worst”–all technical information. He wasn’t kidding. I took notes like mad, even with his slide show and slide show handout. My husband asked intelligent questions and never uncapped his pen. He’d had his camera about 45 minutes and still knew more than I did. By the end of three hours, I was sleepy, hungry, desperate for a bathroom, and dumber than ever.
For homework, we had to learn our cameras and take a bunch of photos at various settings. We didn’t unzip a camera bag until Saturday. We drove to Westmoreland County for some pretty scenery. I took pictures of this wonderful car (restored inside and out and all yours for $55,000) in bright sun. When I realized they were coming out dark, my husband suggested we apply what we’d learned.
Me: I didn’t learn anything except to bring snacks and water and get up when I need to.
Him: (fiddling with my camera) We don’t know any of the settings on these cameras. It’s a matter of finding the right answers to the questions.
Me: I don’t know the questions! I was hoping the teacher would tell us the answers instead of all that ISO and aperture and shutter speed stuff.
Him: It’s a simple equation. See? [He scribbled on our homework sheet.] X plus Y is less than Z. If you change X, you have to change Y.
Two memories slapped me upside the head. The first is in sixth grade and Mrs. King is leaning over my desk for the 4127th time, trying to pound long division in my wooden head. “See?” she said. I laid my cheek on the textbook and said, “No.” She showed me again and the eensiest beam of light eked through. I had it! But as soon as she left, the light blinked out. I could only do long division if Mrs. King was standing over me.
The second memory was much later, age 49, when I was learning to ride for the first time. All the other students at the barn (all under the age of seven, I was the only one who drove to the lessons), learned to post to the trot by the second class. I didn’t learn in eight weeks. Then I took private lessons at a different barn (to save face) and still couldn’t learn to post. My riding instructor said that it would come. Six months later, I figured out the rhythm. I felt like I’d split the atom.
Now it’s photography–a combination of learning to post and long division. In the visitor’s center at Westmoreland State Park, we sat down with our cameras, something we should have done before we started taking pictures. My husband muttered and jotted formulas while I watched an eagle fly down the river. Finally we were ready.
We went outside and pointed our cameras at some trees.
Me: We can’t take the exact same pictures!
Him: Okay. Go find your own scenery.
The park, which should have been filled with photo ops, was boring as an empty dinner plate. I set various f stops and shutter speeds on the most uninspired subjects. My pictures came out like this:
The next day I broke bad. I took renegade pictures (but I did use aperture so some information leaked into my spongy brain). And felt better.
I’ve decided to learn exposure and depth of field so I can make those nice blurred backgrounds without cheating with the clumsy version on Elements. I’ll apply my Nikon lessons to my sweet little Canon that also has manual controls. These cameras are so smart–why not let them do the heavy lifting?
Our next lesson is tomorrow. I’m taking snacks, water, and will write myself a hall pass. The instructor told us he’s putting together a certificate program in photography: this class, an advanced photography class, Lightroom, studio portraits, and more.
You know what? I’m signing up for it. It’ll be more like posting, which I eventually did learn, and less like long division, which never sunk in and didn’t matter. I can’t think of one single instance in fifty years where I’ve needed long division.