Monday, November 28, 2011

A Week of Thanksgiving

A week off and a chance to regroup. New paint in the bathroom (“Valley Mist,” a blue-green-gray hue that reminds me of water and glass and all things transparent.) Burned-out light bulbs get replaced by new ones. I get the haircut I’ve wanted to schedule since August. A small thing, but I feel refreshed.

I go running in a light rain. It sounds like Pop Rocks. At home I do laundry and sort through clean clothes. We have been richly blessed in hand-me-downs, and I want to pass along the things that have been outgrown. Stacks of fabric, clean and colorful and still-warm from the dryer, grow and teeter all around me. My husband helps the children clean their rooms. I meet a friend for coffee.

Today while running I notice the wind chimes. At one point, one particular set pings out notes from “Swan Lake” (see the moment here--particularly at 1:50--but then make sure you stick around for the sunrise at the end.) I wonder if the chimes do this accidentally or by design. More laundry. More room-cleaning. I commit to making a pumpkin-chocolate tart to add to tomorrow’s desserts. I make cranberry sauce and pour it gleaming into a crystal bowl. Every year the brightness of the red strikes me as surreal.

Family. My parents arrive from Minneapolis with baked goods and other lovely things. My mother-in-law brings the turkey and sweet potato casserole. My children have been thinking all month about the fact that Thanksgiving is at our house for a second year in a row, instead of in Lincoln with my grandma. It doesn’t seem right to them to stay home. I miss her, too. I have celebrated Thanksgiving in many different places and ways through the years, though. Some of them just couldn’t feel right, didn’t seem real. A year ago we celebrated in the midst of what I will probably always think of as a year of loss, but it felt very real. This year was different again, but also real. No doubt being with people I love is the key.

A full day with my family. Also Black Friday. I have been thinking all week about this video“Everybody wants to live a life of meaning. And today we live in a money economy, where we don’t really depend on the gifts of anybody, but we buy everything. Therefore we don’t really need anybody, because whoever grew my food or made my clothes or built my house, well, if they died or if I alienate them...that's okay, because I can just pay someone else to do it.” I first saw it here. I encourage you to listen, even if you don’t think you agree with everything you’ve heard about the movement.

I take part in a 5K run/walk sponsored by our local YMCA. It is cold and raining, but I so enjoy the sense of community, my family cheering me on, the act of making myself move forward when I want to quit. I had no illusions about being particularly fast, but am pleasantly surprised that I wasn’t quite as slow as I thought I would be. I hope I never stop setting goals for myself, never stop stretching.

Quiet days are good. Rest is good. Tomorrow I will jump back in to a schedule, and I know how easy it is to forget what I’m trying to be about. Doing, creating, giving, loving—being in the middle of all of it doesn’t mean I always keep my focus. It is good to step back. To give thanks. Happy Thanksgiving, my friends. May we all carry that—the giving and the thanks—along with us as we move on through the coming weeks.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thanksgiving at the Retirement Home

“You have such pretty eyes,”
he told my three year-old daughter.
“And your hair’s real pretty, too.
I think you’re just about perfect.
If you were mine, you’d tell me what to do
and I’d do it, just like that.
I’d do whatever you wanted,
and we’d have fun.”

My daughter listened, wide-eyed,
squirmed her feet a little.
“Pink shoes! Oh, you’re uptown!
That’s what a girl needs, pink shoes.
I tell you, you’re a real doll.
You’re so pretty.
You’ve got pretty eyes,
and your hair’s real pretty, too.”

“What’s your name?”
She asked him, bold with beauty.
He told her, “Marvin,”
and when he asked her name in return
she pronounced it perfectly—
the first time I ever heard her do it.

My grandma told me later that Marvin
never had children or grandchildren.
Saying goodbye,
Stephanie gave him a hug.
I smiled and took his hand
and wished we were his.

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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Trust the Work/Love the Work

I’ve been meaning for a while to write about the SCBWI conference I attended earlier this month. To be honest, though, I'm still processing.

The conference was wonderful. Exciting. Inspiring.

Overwhelming. I seem to be using that word a lot these days.

I’m thankful for the manuscript critique I got, and I feel like I have some concrete ideas about what needs work and how to proceed. Even though (I admit) I was hoping I didn’t have so much work left to do.

I’m thankful to get to hear and meet keynote speakers who were full of insight, and encouragement, and wisdom. They made me want to do and be better.

I’m thankful to have gotten to spend a day with people who are writing and illustrating and creating for children, and, by extension, their families. It is amazing to think of the kind of love and energy and work that goes into a book.

I drove home literally buzzing with ideas and plans, faces and conversations. I got home to my family and received the best round of bear-hugs ever. Pretty much immediately after that, though, a question smacked me between the eyes: When, exactly, are you going to do all this? Because I’m willing to do the work, but I don’t know how it’s going to be anything but impossibly slow. And done in stolen moments—while laundry is piling up, and dinner needs to be made, and people I love need me.

I’ve been giving myself pep talks: No. You will NOT collapse into a quivering heap of despair. I keep telling myself to trust the work and know that it will produce something.

While I haven’t yet collapsed, I’ll admit that things have been up and down since then. They are the usual kinds of ups and downs, swinging from loving how I get to spend my days to frustration with a schedule that seems to constantly demand. How do I clear the time and space to do this work? Do I have the right to even try?

Trust the work.

Every week I send families home from violin lessons with assignments about what to work on and how to do it. I don't tell them how to make that work in their busy lives. I offer suggestions, sometimes, but ultimately it is for them to figure out. My best advice is, “Do some work every day if you can, and work out from there.” I encourage them to trust the work.

I feel like I can do that because I’ve experienced the results of that kind of work, myself. I remember how hard it was to chart my own progress on violin. Most of it was slow, over the course of months and years. But looking back I could see: every etude book, every exercise, all the metronome work and the hours spent on scales, did in fact increase my technique, give me more tools to communicate and express myself. Keeping at it really does make a difference.

By Wednesday, I felt like a wreck. I was convinced everything was suffering: It seemed like either the house was in chaos because I took some time to write, or else I was so busy taking care of everybody and every thing that there was no room for writing. I was caught in a spiral of frustration.

In the middle of all that, I sat down to read Youngest a book. And oh, I love it when a book speaks right into your life. In Crossing the New Bridge, by Emily Arnold McCully (Putnam Juvenile, 1994) the old bridge into town collapses. The mayor and townspeople call on the Jubilatti family to build a replacement, and the mayor believes all his problems are solved. His plans for a triumphal march across the new bridge are crushed, however, when an old woman reminds him of the town’s tradition: the first person to cross the new bridge must be the happiest person in town. If anybody else crosses first, they will all be cursed. The mayor searches all over, looking for the happiest person, but everybody he encounters, although each seems like s/he should be happy, has a complaint. It finally becomes clear that the happiest people in town are the Jubilattis, themselves, because they love their work and do it well.

Love the work.

I know this well, but I forget more often than I’d like to admit. I looked around me again on Wednesday, and saw Oldest, still glowing from a 95 on his math test. He really is learning how to work, and he’s seeing results. Middle was in my office writing with gusto. She recently googled ‘writing prompts for 4th graders’ and is in love with the list she found. She wants to write every day. Youngest was down in the basement, completely absorbed in painting. She has announced to the family that she is an artist.

There are plenty of things my kids have to do every day that they dislike, but there is also work they do--maybe work they were born to do--that they know how to lose themselves in. This has to be one of the great joys in life. How can I not join them? Doesn’t everyone say it’s all in the journey?

Maybe I haven’t fully found my voice yet. That’s a painful thing to admit. Trusting that there is a voice to find, and having joy in the process—these are both fuel and comfort. Seeing my children looking for their own voices, helping them, watching them discover ways to develop them—these things spur me on. We are indeed fellow travelers.

Sometimes I am able to step back from a day I thought I didn’t know how to live and see that it is chugging along just fine, anyway. How good to get the chance to jump back in and join it mid-swing, trusting and loving the work.

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Monday, November 14, 2011

A Path through the Woods

As many Fridays as we’ve been able to manage this fall, we have visited this spot. For the most part, our nature walks have been on the same path, mostly because I want to pay attention to how it changes with the weather, the time of day, the change of seasons. I suspect it changes with our moods. Maybe it will change us, as well.

We take fewer notes, these days. I find myself hoping everything we see and hear and think will simply soak right through our skin, instead, and stay with us, even years from now when we no longer visit this place.

I fell in love with these steps the first time I saw them. They are perfect in their wildness and ruggedness and age. They are also steep. Youngest stumbled on them last week. She refused my help when I offered it. “Don’t worry about it, Mommy. I’m strong.”

The very things that make this spot so stunning also make it a little tough: the hill, the uneven steps, the very ruggedness. Funny how that is. I love those characteristics on a hike, but I rail against them in my life.

Youngest is strong. She continually impresses me. But I went back down to her, and we held hands the rest of the way up. Just because.

I hope this place and these times sink through to the bone.

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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

New Rules Every Time

Every move, actually, and only one person ever knows what they are. Sometimes there’s even a mid-game board spin. I love stumbling across things like this, especially during a rough, tired-out week.

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Monday, November 7, 2011

10 Bits of Magic

Remembering that grace and wonder abound if I’m willing to see it:

1. Exuberant drawings
2. Face paint
3. The smell of crayons
4. Messy hair
5. Paper scraps
6. Grass stains
7. Continuous humming
8. Invention journals
9. Books falling off beds in the middle of the night
10. “Mom, I really need staff paper!”

What bits of magic have you seen or experienced recently?

I would love to have you join in! List your own "10 Bits of Magic" on your blog with a link back to me, and use Mister Linky to leave your own link below. (Or, if you prefer, just list a few bits you've seen recently in the comments below. It is a joy to hear from you, either way.)

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Friday, November 4, 2011

What do You Think?

Please like it. Tell me it's amazing. But also tell me the truth. Somehow truthfully tell me that this is perfect, the best you've ever seen. But yes, of course, assuming it’s not perfect, tell me what I need to work on. What needs polishing. Are you getting ready to tell me it stinks? You’re wondering what I was thinking when I came up with this? You’re trying to figure out how to gently-but-clearly tell me that I’m completely deluded and should go home immediately? I’m ready to work, really. Just tell me what to do. And please tell me you like it. If you like it, that is. Because I only want to hear the truth…

Tomorrow I’m going to my first-ever writer’s conference. It’s not a huge one as far as they go, I think--for a regional chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators--but for me it is a big deal. I sort-of-but-really-don’t know what to expect. I’m looking forward to meeting people, and hearing speakers, and being on my own for 24+ hours. But most of all, I am looking forward to a 15-minute, one-on-one manuscript critique.

I had weekly violin lessons for more than 20 years. I’ve been teaching in one capacity or another ever since then. I’m very used to the idea of regular feedback, and I’m well aware of how difficult it is to judge one’s own work. I can’t count how many times I felt satisfied with my playing only to find out I still had a long way to go. There were just as many times, though, that I felt miserable about a performance only to be told that it went very well. It’s amazingly easy to latch on to one good or bad thing and allow that alone to define the entire work or performance.

Tomorrow I’m hoping for something similar to a short violin lesson for my writing. Part of me, naturally, wants to hear only wonderful things, but I know too well how helpful the this-might-hurt-right-now-but-it’s-the-truth stuff is. I’m trying to be prepared for anything, but my head is spinning.

Is that passage in tune? Does this phrase make sense? Is my sound projecting? Am I making enough of the dynamics at the end? Where do I need to focus my attention? What works?

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