On Safety Pins and Stories; On Listening and Speaking Out

How do we start at the beginning?

Do we begin with an election, an election between two flawed human candidates, but also one where one candidate had demonstrated, through decades of actions, her qualifications, and the other had demonstrated (also through decades of actions), his political inexperience, his bullying, and his lack of self-control?

Or do we begin farther back, with President Obama and those who wanted to insist that the election of a black president meant the United States no longer had any race issues?

Or even farther, to the inescapable fact that our nation, our “city on a hill,” was built on twin towers of shame: the eradication of the people who lived here before the first wave of immigrants arrived, and the tradition of slavery that ended not so long ago?

I don’t know. America’s history is in many ways no worse than most other modern nations. And there is much to be proud of here, much that Americans rightly hold up as the beacon they hope to be to the world. This is a complicated, complex issue that many smart people will spend years unraveling. But I am a storyteller, and more specifically, a children’s book writer, so I am trying to make sense of this story.

All stories have heroes and villains, scapegoats and tragic missteps. The best stories make us think…really think…about who is good or bad, and how the events unfold.

Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election to a man who has, for the last year, been a megaphone of fear and anger for this country. His election tells us less about him — a funhouse mirror that warps and distorts what it reflects in America — than it does about our country. People are angry about their loss of the American dream (whether mythical or real), about the fact that they used to know their place in the world and now that place is less clear, about the fact that while President Obama talked about hope and opportunity, they felt stuck and lost and unable to see a path forward. It matters hugely why so many people felt so lost and betrayed, and which policies and politicians truly failed our population. But that’s not the story I’m going to talk about.

I’m going to talk about what comes next.

My heart hurts, actually hurts in my chest, and has since last Tuesday night. I ping-pong back and forth between slowly feeling better, slowly getting back into some parts of my normal life (cleaning the bathroom, figuring out who’s taking care of the cats next week), and feeling incapacitated with sadness and fear over what comes next. In some ways I’m afraid to get back to work, because I’m afraid that I, as a white woman in a small liberal Northeast city, will lose focus. I’ll go back to tutting over the news, and donating money when I have it, and forget that an earthquake just jolted my country. I can’t allow that to happen. We are surrounded by damage, and the long-term consequences are unknowable.

One action that people took right after the election was to put a safety pin on their jacket. This small gesture began in England after that country voted, in a similarly surprising and upsetting vote, to leave the European Union. The vote was largely related to how the British felt about the recent influx of immigrants, and the result was a resounding and angry statement that they are not welcome. The safety pin, there and now here, is supposed to symbolize a welcoming presence; a way to say, without words, “I am on your side. I did not vote to exclude you. I will stand up for you.”

After last Tuesday, the safety pin movement grew quickly. On social media people posted photos of themselves proudly wearing a pin, and a group of children’s book illustrators created beautiful artwork of inclusivity, showing their characters wearing the symbolic safety pin. But then a backlash arrived. People of color, and of other maligned groups, spoke up that those wearing pins were not actually willing to speak their values, and were standing by while vulnerable individuals were being harassed. There were accusations of people wearing pins to feel good, but not to support those who needed it. In response, some white folks felt angry and hurt, like their goodwill was being thrown back in their faces. Understandable, I suppose. Those who are most at risk do not want to see feel-good symbols that don’t translate to action. Those who truly want to create a safe space don’t want to feel accused and defensive, like they are the bad guys.

Stories, again, are complicated.

Another common response after last week was a call to get over the animosity of the election, to move forward together, and to give the new administration a chance. These are all reasonable ideas. Or would be, in a reasonable time. But as Maya Angelou famously said, “when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” The president-elect has shown us who he is. He has mocked a physically disabled reporter. He has called for his political opponent to be jailed, despite the fact many aggressive FBI-led campaigns against her have turned up no wrongdoing. He has spoken of assaulting women. He has called for a religious group to be rounded up and registered. Again, in a normal time, moving forward and assuming the best of someone is reasonable. In this moment, the calls to do so are really calls to normalize and accept what is not normal.

Online and in real life, I’m surrounded by like-minded people. We are all mourning, trying to make sense of what just happened. Specifically we are trying to both understand how we can be so disconnected from our country, and also to figure out what happens now. This presidency is unprecedented in modern times. Someone running on a platform of autocracy and fear has won the highest office in the land. Will our system of checks and balances be enough to hold him to what I’ll call the ongoing workaday hurtful policies against women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, healthcare, global environment and so on? Or are we in uncharted waters? Will he cut off access to the media? Force a religious registration that echos horribly of Germany at the rise of Hitler? What is going to happen? What can we do?

What can we do?

When writing my books, I sometimes lose my way. I get bogged down in details and write paragraphs, sometimes whole chapters, that do nothing to move the story forward. When this happens I have to regroup, read over my original outline, and try to remember what I’m aiming for. That is where I am now. I cannot get bogged down. I have to remember the story I want to tell, and that is a story of resistance and positive action.

So what can we do?

Here’s what I think:

  • I think that wearing a safety pin, or an “I’m with Her” button, or a Black Lives Matter button, is a great idea. It shows others that you support something and that you’re willing to show it.
  • I think wearing a safety pin and not practicing HOW you are going to intervene, how you will speak up on a subway, in the cafeteria, on the school bus, in the PTO meeting, is a bad idea. It’s scary and hard to stand up. It takes preparation and practice. Here are three great links on how to figure out what to do:
  • I think the biggest risk right now is that people who are angry and want change will walk away from this movement. That people of privilege will get offended or feel unwelcome, or that people who are most vulnerable will get angry or despair. I think we — meaning all of us who oppose the direction of our country — need to stay focused on our common goals, even as we disagree and debate and speak truth to each other. Complacency and cynicism are our enemies. We must fight against them.
  • I think those most at risk have a right to be angry and skeptical that the most privileged among us will keep fighting. I think those of us with privilege have to sit with that, not get defensive, and work to prove that yes, we are going to keep showing up.
  • I think we need to speak up when it is scary to speak, and listen when it is uncomfortable to listen.
  • I think walking away from the fight is a terrible idea.
  • I think that even as we all work together on the big issues, we also each individually need to pay attention to the smaller issues close to home. In the children’s book world, the safety pin artwork is glorious, and hopefully teachers will use them in classrooms to cultivate inclusivity and dialogue. But let’s also look at publishing, and how much work we have to do to bring more diverse voices to children. Again, we need both. We need to stand up to overt hatefulness, and also look at more insidious systems that we ourselves might be complicit in maintaining.
  • I think it is easy to be motivated now, but much harder to remain motivated for the next four years. To that end, I’ve created a challenge for myself, called #SustainedOutrage. I have pledged that every day, since the day after the election and until election day 2020, I will take an action for change. I will not get complacent and slip back into my privilege. I will not lose focus. I will keep on. What will I do for the next 1449 days? Not sure, but here’s a sample of what I’ve done so far:
    • Set up a recurring monthly donation to the American Civil Liberties Union
    • Wrote a letter of support to a dear friend who took weeks off from her job to work on the campaign
    • Donated my books to an LGBT-friendly church in Montana that needed some love
    • Called and wrote my elected officials to oppose the new president’s political appointments
  • I hope you will join me with your own acts of #SustainedOutrage — share with me on Twitter or Facebook if so.

 

Finally, I think this story is far from over, and that we all need to write the next chapter together.

ONWARD.

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Dedicating my Vote

There is a general feeling that politics shouldn’t be discussed in a professional setting. I don’t always agree with this, but I try to keep my Ranty McRant pants in a hard-to-reach drawer, so I don’t pull them on too often. Mostly I write about books I love, or post photos of my cats, or other totally irrelevant vitally compelling information.

(Here, here’s the cat. You’re welcome)

Boo cat living his best life.

Boo cat living his best life.

Well.

That may be true in more typical election years, but this is not a typical year. This year the Republican candidate is an explicit racist, xenophobic bully who has not only spewed all kinds of dangerous hyperbole, but, even worse, has normalized this type of behavior so that all kinds of people — even kids — feel that it is okay to say out loud the racist, cruel, sentiments they feel.

Maybe it’s better this way. Maybe we’ve turned over the proverbial rock, and are allowing sunlight and air to hit the slimy, blind, wriggling creepy-crawlies beneath it. Maybe now that we, as a nation, see what is fermenting in our Obama-is-President-so-we-must-be-past-all-that-race-stuff country. This kind of hate is not new to the era of Drumpf, as I call him, but he has legitimized it. Now instead of whispering, more Americans feel comfortable shouting their distrust of Muslims, their anger against immigrants, their lack of concern over the racial equality gap. He has made this okay.

Today I happened to read this post on the blog #DedicateYourNoTrumpVote (which has all kinds of compelling and moving stories). In it, an author writes about her son Omar, and how a fellow student said to him, “When Trump’s president, you’re out of here.”

One ten-year-old to another.

This one gut-punched me. I cried a little. And I realized that, as an author for kids, this IS my business. These are my customers, if you will. These are my market segment. These are my people. And they are scared.

And you know who else is scared, because they’re facing the brunt of this hate? The authors, illustrators, and creators of color who stand at the front lines and take hit after hit from cruel and ignorant people so that they can keep pushing toward the goal of more inclusive children’s literature. They stand between haters and readers, between racists and kids of color trying to find themselves and their stories in books. And for their pains they get death threats, hate mail, professional setbacks, and more.

So I’m going to go ahead and #DedicateYourNoTrumpVote to the kids I write for, but also for the warriors of #WeNeedDiverseBooks, who saw a problem and turned a complaint into a movement, who created internships for diverse young people to get into publishing, who put a spotlight on #OwnVoices titles by highlighting diverse authors telling their own stories, who who speak up again and again for those whose voices are continuously silenced. I dedicate my vote to them, and hope to keep walking with them, in order to form a more perfect union.

There are a lot of these justice warriors, but I dedicate my vote to a few who I Twitter-know well, and have actually managed to meet in real life once or twice: to Ellen Oh, and Mike Jung, and the wonderful magical Kaye (who prefers not to use her real name)
I dedicate it to everyone at We Need Diverse Books.

And I dedicate it to kids like Omar, who is scared of where he will belong in a post-Trumpian world. Because he belongs right here, and our job, as writers, parents, librarians, teachers, and humans, is to make him feel welcome.

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The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island Launch Party (or, MOAR SHENANIGANS!)

UPDATE: Honestly compels me to admit I thought I posted this over two months ago. And I didn’t ever post it, which is more than a little bit embarrassing. So…um. Well. Here you go. A blog post.

*skulks off*

No embarrassed cat here. NOPE. Move along.

No embarrassed cat here. NOPE. Move along.

 

On May 2nd I got to go back to one of my favorite bookstores in the world, Jabberwocky, and have a party for The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island. It was a blast. There were new readers, and old friends, and of course whoopie pies. (Because I’m of the opinion that all good launch parties require whoopie pies, though I’ve learned cupcakes can work too…please note these bookish cupcakes we had at Blue Bunny bookstore just last weekend!) IMG_2492

Second books are very different beasts than debuts, for a bunch of reasons. Not better or worse, but just different. Expectations are lower — authors know what to expect, and how it goes — or higher — authors hope that readers and librarians will be excited for the new title! Authors do less promotion — they know it doesn’t have a real impact on sales, or they do more promotion — they hope they have a base of devoted fans who will rush out for the new one.

Mostly, for me, I was just deeply, totally grateful that I get to do this gig. As I say all the time at school visits: “I lie to children for a living. It’s a great job!”

Anyway, for those of you who couldn’t make it, I’ll share my thoughts here. I’m also happy to send along fun bookmarks, signed bookplates, stickers, and more if you or your kiddo want some fun Fletcher swag. (Sadly I can’t send a whoopie pie, as there are none left. My son, in a HUGELY thoughtful and generous gesture that will pay dividends for years, actually saved me an espresso cream whoopie before they were all gone. That was true love).
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In some ways it’s hard to believe it’s been two years since I stood here and talked about The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, and in other ways that feels like ages ago…and that Sam and Jax and Eli and Frog, like my own kids, would be so much older, bigger, farther away from me.

But in books, thankfully, we can slow down the clock, so even though it’s already been two years, I can bend time, and pretend only a few months have passed.

The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island takes place just a few months after the first book ends, but it’s more of a companion novel than a sequel. As the cover suggests, it’s a summertime story, and I have to tell you…it was a delight to write. It really was.

Writers often tell horror stories about second novels, about trying to follow up a debut with something new, and feeling paralyzed and unable to write.

That didn’t happen. At least not with this book — ask me about the third book I just finished!

But truly, this story was easy…it unfolded on the page as quickly and happily as summer itself. Because here’s the thing — I love summer. I really do. Part of it is primitive — I think our caveman selves know that more warmth and light means better chances of survival, and better food. And part of it is the luckiness of my life — my summers have been spent playing and working in beautiful places with people I love.

Now as it happens I know a lot of people in education reform, trying to make our schools better, so that they can better serve kids who are living and learning and working in this 21st century world of ours. And I hear a lot about Summer Slide — which, though it sounds delightful and possibly dangerous or at least very splashy — is actually all about learning loss over the summer. And I also know that summer months can be brutally hard for working families to figure out, because summer camps and childcare and all those things cost money. So I totally get the movement to change how we think of summer, this archaic and old-fashioned idea that started with the cycles of life on a farm.

I get it. Summer vacation — whole months away from school! — is a problem. I know that summer can’t always be this perfect, and that the system might have to change. But one of the wonderful things about writing stories is that I GET TO MAKE THINGS UP. And so, for the Fletchers at least, I can ignore all the realities and just remember the best, more perfect fun that summer can bring.

Living here in New England, one of the reasons I love summer so much is that it feels so very short. On June 21st, the summer solstice, we celebrate and revel in the start of the season, but even as we’re doing so we realize that, starting tomorrow, the days are getting shorter again. In books, and in real life, kids get older, and things change, sometimes for the better, and sometimes not. I hope that everyone who reads about the Fletchers on Rock Island finds a way to revel in this summer, to remember what they love best, from popsicles and blue tongues, to concerts in city parks, to cannonballs in the pool, to swims in the endless ocean.

Because loving those summer days is really what this book is all about.

 

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I look quite stern here. Perhaps I’m learning that the whoopie pies are all gone.

IMG_2497 Anyway, I hope you get a chance to read The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island. I hope you like it. And I hope your summer, like the Fletchers, is filled with ice cream, adventures, good friends, and the feeling that time really should stand still.

 

I Love Summer — Giveaway Edition!

The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island is in the world today, and I am downright giddy! In fact, if you’re looking for me, I’ll probably be spinning, Sound-of-Music style, or flailing, Kermit style, (or possibly napping).

But because I want to celebrate with all of you as well, I decided to throw a little virtual party, where we can share our favorite summer memories. So head over to Twitter or Instagram and post a favorite summer photo with the hashtags #SummerisComing #GameofFletchers and you’ll be entered to win one of three amazing giveaways!

Each winner will receive:

  1. BOTH audiobooks — The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, and The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island
  2. A special custom tote bag that Sam, Jax, Eli, and Frog might have brought back from Rock Island
  3. A mystery summer novel, specially chosen by ME for YOU!
  4. (Other assorted stickers and fun things)

IMG_2354Sadly, the contest is US-based only, for purposes of not going broke on postage.

The contest will run from today through Sunday night (May 15th), and winners will be chosen by random. One entry per person, no matter how many adorable photos you post.

So go ahead! Tweet me your favorite photo at the beach, the pool, the local ice cream store, Central Park, an old dock…the sky’s the limit! Because the Fletchers and I have been waiting long enough! #SummerisComing!

 

 

EDIT:

People have asked me to re-post the order links, so here they are! Just a reminder, for reasons to boring to get into, early sales matter A LOT for books, and early customer reviews help push the book so that more people see it. So if you’re inclined, buy early and often!

 IndieBound for ordering.

Barnes & Noble for reviewing and ordering

Amazon for reviewing and ordering.

Goodreads for reviewing

Shameless Self-Promotion

So…I’m beginning to realize that with this whole Tempus Fugit year I’m having, it’s about to be May, and my next book, THE FAMILY FLETCHER TAKES ROCK ISLAND, is coming very soon! (Pictured below…my author copies! Huzzah!)

 

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I am beyond excited to share this story.
Now sometimes friends say, apologetically, that they didn’t buy my book, that they took it out from the library, or borrowed it from a friend instead. Let me go on the record: that’s awesome! Do NOT apologize! Share it, pass it along, take it out from the library…as long as you don’t steal it or illegally download it, I’m happy.


Here’s the thing: you can help an author in a bunch of different ways, some of which don’t involve spending a dime. And because people have asked, here are some ways to support your favorite books.
1) Pre-order it. If you ARE going to buy it, consider pre-ordering it from your local bookstore or one of the online behemoths. I’ll put links below, to make it easy.*
2) Request it at your local library. They will get pretty much any book you ask for, so make it a point to ask!
3) LEAVE A REVIEW! Seriously, this matters more than you might think. The big three are Amazon, Goodreads, and Barnes & Noble (links below). It does not need to be a thoughtful, college-essay-caliber assessment of the themes and subplots. You can literally write, “Great book!” and give it five stars, and that would suffice. If you DO write a thoughtful and insightful review, you can simply cut and paste it from one site to another. (Note: some don’t let you post reviews until the book is out, others you can review whenever).*
4) Give it as a gift! If you know kids, or if you give gifts to schools, consider gifting the books you love. Most authors will happily personalize or send along extra swag like bookmarks to make it even better.

Again, don’t ever apologize for not buying my books…share them, borrow them, stick notes in them and leave them on a park bench. I’m honestly grateful and delighted to know these stories are out in the world, no matter what.
Read on, xoxoxo Dana


IndieBound for pre-ordering.

Barnes & Noble for reviewing and pre-ordering

Amazon for reviewing and pre-ordering. (Note: you cannot review until the book is officially out, even if you read an early draft!)

Goodreads for reviewing

*If you are wondering why it matters to pre-order books, or why reviews are important for things like internet algorithms and the like, I’m happy to go into it, but it’s kind of long and boring and I won’t bother unless you ask.

Hi there

I don’t blog a lot. I admit it. So if you’re looking for updates, please check my News page, and if you’re looking for links and procrastination and general brain ramblings, consider taking a look at my Facebook Author page, which is a great spot to find all of that.

However, I do occasionally have something to say, so check back here as well, if you don’t mind being disappointed.

For instance, the book I’m working on now includes a small Roman centurion who is photographed all around the United States. How did I ever come up with that, you ask??

Well…more to come on that later, (and for that matter, more on that book, which will be coming out in 2017!!!) But for now, I leave you all with this.

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In Which I Get Uncharacteristically Crafty

Those who know me will attest that I’m not a particularly handy or crafty type person. In fact I have been known to duct-tape the cuffs of my jeans, and my kids once asked, when they were quite young, “Mama, what’s that?” when they first laid eyes on an iron.

Those who know me also know I am not religious, by any traditional measure. I don’t practice an organized (or even disorganized) religion in a formal place of worship, though I do seek mystery and spirituality the the world around us, when I’m not busy seeking laundry or a missing soccer cleat or my inspiration for a book.

So as a non-crafty, non-religious-type person, it is odd that I love the holiday season so much. But I do. Long before humans put the current names on the current religious holidays, the earth turned away from the sun, and the days got colder and shorter. This changing of the seasons toward the shortest day has always mattered. The rituals of lighting candles, hanging evergreens, and singing have been human instincts long before our religions incorporated them into today’s traditions.

I love this time of year. It marks the death of the old year and the birth of the new, the start of winter and, paradoxically, the start of lengthening days toward spring. So yes, my non-religious, non-crafty self gets very excited come holiday season.

With all that said, I have one spectacular holiday tradition that I’m pretty proud of, and thought I’d share. I’m particularly proud because, while it looks adorable, it really comes from a pathological inability to throw away cute socks or good books. Also it involves no sewing (*shudder*) or god forbid…GLUE GUN. (They terrify me).

So what is this magic? A picture book advent calendar! This began when I realized that:

  1. We owned a ton of holiday/winter themed picture books
  2. They didn’t get much attention the rest of the year
  3. My kids were starting to move on to chapter books but I wasn’t willing to give these up
  4.  I have a lot of unmatched tiny socks for absolutely no reason

A bunch of years ago, I decided to take the holiday books out of circulation the rest of the year, hiding them away in my closet (not with the rest of the Christmas stuff, since I need them on December 1st, and I definitely DON’T need to be rifling through boxes of ornaments and stockings at 11:30 pm on November 30th, thanks for asking). The first few years we didn’t have quite enough books, so I borrowed a few from the library or from friends. But luckily or unluckily, truly gorgeous holiday classics keep being published, and while I try to be disciplined about picture books (since my kids are teenage-ish now), sometimes I have to add a new one. Anyway, I keep them in a pile in my room, and bring them down once the day’s sock has been opened.

Here are the books:

 

 

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While there are lots of good ones, some of the favorite titles are:

  • The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey
  • Olive, The Other Reindeer
  • The Polar Express
  • How the Grinch Stole Christmas (duh)
  • The Shortest Day
  • A Child’s Christmas in Wales
  • Little Tree
  • The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree
  • Who’s That Knocking on Christmas Eve
  • Night Tree
  • All the gorgeous Robert Sabuda paper art pop-up books

I should also note that, as a God’s-Greatest Hits kind of family, where we celebrate both Jewish and Christian traditions, most of these books trend toward the secular, though there are a few really lovely ones (like One Winter’s Night by Diane Dillon) that tell the Christmas story in a way that allowed me to cover the facts without making me too uncomfortable with the religious aspects.

As pictured here, I took twenty-four tiny little baby socks and mittens, a piece of ribbon, and some clothespins, and set them up on the wall.

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I typed up the book titles, printed them out, and cut them into little strips that could be tucked into the socks. Some days I also tucked in a marble, a tiny eraser, a chocolate, or some other little treat. (But not all days…because kids, like dogs, are easily trained, and after a few disappointed looks when “only” the book came out, I backtracked.)

Some titles correspond to specific days — we have a wonderful book called The Shortest Day, all about the solstice and the traditions that have surrounded it, from the druids to modern day — and that one gets read on December 21st. The Night Before Christmas, of course, is in the last sock. The Nutcracker, on the years we’ve gone to the ballet, is on that date. But otherwise, I just shove them in there.

My big grown-up kiddos still get excited when the familiar titles come out. Sometimes we have to delay a reading because of homework or late night hockey, sometimes the teen listens with one ear while checking his phone, but regardless, the tradition is still going strong. And I love revisiting these books, and seeing the tiny socks each year. Especially because no glue gun was required.

ALSO!

As mentioned above, we are Jewish and Christian, and so celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas. While there is always more hoopla for Christmas, I will add that I also have amassed a rather wonderful collection of Hanukkah books, and the top ones do come out on the eight nights of Hanukkah. (Though there are no socks. Sorry about that).

A few favorite Hanukkah books, for those who might want them:

  • Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins
  • The Hanukkah Guest
  • A Light in Every Window

 

Happy solstice season, however you celebrate!

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Yom Kippur at the Beach

Some lessons learned from a day at the beach

I’m not what you’d call a practicing Jew, what with being married to a lapsed Catholic and considering bacon and lobster two of the world’s best foods. But I am Jewish, and our family (like my fictional Fletchers), does our best version of God’s Greatest Hits — menorah in front of the Christmas tree, Passover Seder complete with Easter Peeps, and so on.

But the High Holy Days are tough. If you don’t attend synagogue there is not a lot to do at home to mark these most holy of days. We dip apple in honey for a sweet new year, and have talked about trying to add in our version of Tashlich, where you go to a body of water and cast in your sins, so as to start the new year clean. But even so, we go to school, we go to work, and keep living our very busy everyday lives. And yet, there is something about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, these two holy days, that make it hard to stick to business as usual.

So I went to the beach.

Okay, it was a little bit more than that. First I decided to take a digital fast, staying off of social media, email, and even my phone, trying instead to just…be present. I didn’t make it a work fast, because I am writing a new book, and it is very very difficult right now, and I wanted to be open to thinking about it without adding the agitation and stress of breaking my own rules. So without my phone, in that quietness, in that stillness inside my head that wasn’t very still at all, I went to the beach.

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It was so, so, beautiful. It was heart-hurtingly beautiful, so perfect that somehow I couldn’t relax into it right away.

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I arrived there with a chair and a blanket, thinking to lie down under that endless blue sky and let the sun and air wash over me. But it was too beautiful to stay still, and I started walking, just to be MORE there, more present, with my feet in the sand and fast-licking salt water, my back baked hot in the sun, my ears filled with the screech and wheel of the gulls. And as I walked, I found myself unable to stop thinking about writing, and about the story that was fighting to get out.

So I offer up these lessons, on writing and on life, that came to me.

 

I. Sometimes you think it will be easy, and it’s not.

I found a treasure first thing — a whole and intact sand dollar! — and assumed many more would follow. It was the only one I found.

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II. Sometimes there is no clear path and it seems like too much trouble to pick your way through the rocks, and the ocean seems very far away.

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III. Sometimes in the middle of your clambering there are big rocks that stick up above the rest that look tremendously fun to climb. But once you get up there, it’s much harder to take the next step. You find yourself slowing, having to backtrack, moving farther from your goal.

 

IV. Sometimes after climbing up and backtracking off the big rocks three or four (or five or six) times, you figure out that just because they are fun to climb doesn’t mean they will take you where you want to go. You learn to hop along on the smaller rocks and pass the large ones that don’t take you anywhere.

 

V. And you learn: if you just hop from rock to rock, looking only at where to put your feet, and not at the distance to travel, it’s amazingly quick, and surprisingly fun. Suddenly, you are there.

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VI. Sometimes you are brave and wade into gross water and stick your hand under a big rock, hoping for treasure, and find nothing. Rewards are not guaranteed, even when you do everything right.

 

VII. Sometimes it is so beautiful, and no matter how you long to grab that beauty with words or photos you can’t, and all you can do is gaze out and be grateful.

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L’Shanah tovah, all. No matter how you celebrate this turning of the seasons, whether it is with back-to-school notebooks or apple in honey, I hope it is a very sweet new year.

And So the Shortest Day Came…

Yesterday my son broke a rather expensive glass candlestick. He broke it by kicking a soccer ball at the dining room table, so there wasn’t much room for ambiguity here. He pretty much nailed the sucker.

But let me back up.

Almost nineteen years ago we were given these hand-blown, Vermont-artisan candlesticks as a wedding present. They are quite tall, and elegantly simple, and (as could be intuited from the fact that they are tall, elegantly simple, and handmade), fragile. But I have a stern policy that beautiful things are to be enjoyed and lived with, day in and day out, and so these candlesticks sat on our table for all these years. Until last winter, when I broke one.

I broke it. (Not with a soccer ball). Not the kids, who play all sorts of insane ball or projectile-based games around the table. Not the cats, who despite our best efforts at training leap up and knock over vases of flowers with stunning regularity. Nope, I broke it myself while rushing to clean up the table.

Turns out that elegant simplicity doesn’t come cheap. It would be in the low three figures to replace the candlestick, and we just didn’t have it to spend. So I put away the single one and placed a row of unbreakable, if uninteresting, votive candles on the table. Funnily enough, it was not a case of out of sight, out of mind. I really missed my old candlesticks. There was something about their shape, the length of clear glass, the height of the candle burning tall and lovely. But on the scale of problems in our house, let alone our world, this didn’t even rate. I put it out of my mind.

Then last month we happened to be in a small town in Vermont for a hockey tournament. (You can guess where this is going). It happened to be the town where the artisan glass-blowing Vermonter was plying his trade.

simonBWstill

Reader, I bought another candlestick.

As the days of November got shorter and shorter, I was so happy to be sitting in the early darkness with my family by the light of our old familiar candle holders. I appreciated their beauty anew, and the rest of the family agreed.

That was around five weeks ago.

Flash forward to yesterday. It was the shortest day, the winter solstice, the day in our natural calendar that has given rise to so many of our religious and spiritual beliefs. As a New Englander, I deeply feel the pinch of the dark on these shortest days. It can be hard to maintain optimism and energy when faced with encroaching darkness. The solstice is a favorite day for me; a day that reminds me that even though winter is just beginning, even though we have months of snow and ice and cold ahead, we are turning back toward the sun. The days are getting longer.

I was celebrating yesterday, to use that term in a grossly inaccurate way, by shlepping through the grocery store and, lord help me, Marshall’s, buying food and searching for last minute presents. I was not in a pleasant mood. It was in Marshall’s, next to a display of pithy-statement-wielding barware, that I received a phone call from my son.

There were tears. (His). There were questions. (Mine). There were assurances of love. (Both). And promises of payment. (His. Well intentioned, but I happen to know the state of the bank account).

I wasn’t that angry, really. After all, what was the point? It was broken. Being angry wasn’t going to help un-break the glass. He was already distraught. Being angry wasn’t going to make him realize he screwed up. Even as he’s telling me, gulping a little, and sniffling, a small part of my mind was already thinking: this would make a kind of funny story. I obsess about a candlestick for a year, then it gets broken a few weeks after I bite the bullet and replace it. Okay, it wasn’t actually that funny, but still.

I drove out of the strip mall, having not found the last few presents I needed, bummed about the candlestick, and full of the low-grade frisson of rush and stress that accompanies the it’s-Sunday-and-laundry-and-a-seven-o’clock-hockey-game-and-presents-and-did-I-seriously-forget-milk-dammit.

As I waited for the light to change there were two individuals on either side of the road, a man and a woman. They were bundled in coats and boots, young-ish, and each held a cardboard sign that read: “Homeless couple. Just trying to get off the streets for the holidays. Please help if you can. God Bless You.”

I live in a pretty small town, and while there is poverty here, most of it is tucked out of sight. These people looked a lot like everyone else here, except for the signs. I sat in the line of traffic, waiting to make a turn, and the light changed before I could really process my thoughts, which were something like this: Do I have any cash in my wallet? They look so normal. Is she wearing Ugg boots? I know there’s a heroin problem in town. I wonder if that’s it. God I wish they could go home. I wish they had a home to go to. By the time I had found my purse (on the floor under a case of clementines) the light had changed. I made the turn and they were behind me, out of sight. But not out of mind.

I turned into the driveway of the empty bank next door, and parked. Sure enough, my wallet had limited cash. (Probably a quarter of the cost of the candlestick that was in shards on the table). I pulled it out and walked through the empty parking lot toward the women. Next to her the line of cars still sat, everyone on their phones or dealing with their radios or maybe, like I had been, trying to process how to help, how they could possibly help, in a moment before the light changed.

I handed her the money and wished her the best of luck. I wanted to ask if she had anyone to call. I wanted to give her the phone number of the shelter in town, or find out if she needed to see a doctor. I didn’t do any of those things. I handed her the money, and looked at her for a second, rather than looking away. Then I got back in my car, which was full of food and a few more unnecessary presents, and looked out at the fading daylight.

It was not yet four o’clock and it was already getting dark. The shortest day was upon us.

I went home and we unloaded the groceries, we cleaned up the glass, we made it to hockey and back, then we lit the menorah and said the Chanukah blessings and stared at the flickering candles and the gleaming Christmas tree lights as they danced in the darkness.

The candlestick is well and truly broken. So much is, in our world. But this shortest day reminded me again (and it seems I need so many reminders), how to cherish what I am lucky enough to find whole and intact.

Happy Solstice, all. Here’s to longer days ahead.

stock-footage-golden-candle-glows-in-front-of-window-with-heavy-snow-storm-seen-outside-at-night

P.S. The title of this post came from the Susan Cooper poem, The Shortest Day. I have linked to it before, as it is one of my favorites. But here it is again, for any who want to read it today. http://www.revels.org/index.php/store/cards-gifts/shortest-day-cards/#product[this]/0/

 

We Need Diverse Books (of course)

Well, I might have just cried a little bit at the video below.


There are a lot of good and important causes out there, but I can’t think of many nearer and dearer to my heart than the We Need Diverse Books campaign.

What began as a social media uproar due to the lack of diversity in a major publishing conference’s lineup, has morphed into a full-fledged movement for change. Major media outlets (School Library Journal), big name authors (Jacqueline Woodson, Matt de la Peña, Grace Lin, to name a few), established nonprofit First Book and publishing houses are partnering to put real effort to the idea. No longer is it an amorphous “I’ll-tweet-about-it-because-I-care-but-hey-it -won’t-really-change-anything” feeling.


Now there is a partnership with First Book to get diverse books into classrooms; now there is the Walter Dean Meyer Grant and Award program to recognize excellence in diverse books; now there are toolkits teachers and librarians can access to help promote diverse books in schools. There is a famous and sometimes overly-used quote by Margaret Mead: “
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Right now, in front of me, this is happening.

 


THINGS ARE HAPPENING. Things are happening because writers and readers called BS on a homogenous and unrepresentative book panel, and instead of just complaining about it they decided to change things.

So they need some money (not surprisingly). If any of you were feeling really bad that you didn’t get me a birthday present, feel free to wander over to the We Need Diverse Books fundraising campaign and drop a Ben Franklin, and Andrew Jackson, or whoever the heck is on the other bills. You couldn’t invest in a better cause. (And you can be off the hook for any Xmas/Chanukah present you were thinking of getting me too).

 

P.S. If you don’t think I know what I’m talking about, you may want to hear what this guy John Green has to say. He know a little bit about writing for teens.

 


Thank you!