Saturday, July 23, 2011

On Vacation

I will be on vacation for the next two weeks, and posting and/or responding to comments will be difficult at best. I look forward to reconnecting with all of you again in August!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


Mole Music   [MOLE MUSIC] [Paperback]
Mole Music, written and illustrated by David McPhail, Henry Holt and Company, 1999

I’m guessing that many of you are familiar with this book, but in case you aren’t, it is a wonderful, sweet story about a mole who realizes something is missing from his life and decides to learn to play violin. At first he is unable to make a single pleasant sound on the instrument. He keeps at it, and after a week he can play a note. He keeps practicing, and learns to play another note, and eventually a simple piece. After many years of practicing, he is an accomplished musician, dreaming of music while he digs tunnels during the day and dreaming of changing the world with his music while he plays his violin alone underground at night. The thing he doesn’t realize, but which the illustrations make clear, is that the people above ground can hear him, and his music has a profound impact on the world around him.

I love how the words and illustrations work together in this book. The text provides Mole’s perspective, only, while the pictures reveal the deeper story. I love, too, the little details you might not catch the first or second time through—things that reward you for looking a little more carefully. The music, for instance. The snippets of music floating up through the oak tree that connects Mole’s burrow with the world above him are not just random notes sprinkled over a staff. They are quotes from real pieces, and they add their own dimension to the story.

The first “simple song” Mole learns to play? “Simple Gifts.” His next piece is “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Later on, when he has gotten really good and dreams of playing for an audience, the illustrations contain excerpts from the 4th movement of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1. The music that inspires soldiers to lay down their arms is the opening from the 1st movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (“The Pastoral”)—a movement Beethoven inscribed with the title, “Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country.” And while the soldiers embrace in brotherly love, Mole is playing the"Ode to Joy" theme from the 4th movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. ("Your magic reunites/What custom strictly divided./All men become brothers,/Where your gentle wing rests.") Finally, at the end of the book Mole plays everybody to sleep with Brahms’ Lullaby before he goes to sleep, himself.

Knowing these pieces and how they fit with the text and illustrations is not necessary for understanding the book, but I love what they add to it, and that David McPhail carried his art to that detail. And that’s what I love about a good picture book—it is a piece of art in a simple, accessible, relatively inexpensive form.

From Madeleine L’Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life, compiled by Carole F. Chase:
“Why do you write for children?” My immediate response to this question is, “I don’t.” Of course I don’t. I don’t suppose most children’s writers do…
If it’s not good enough for adults, it’s not good enough for children. If a book that is going to be marketed for children does not interest me, a grownup, then I am dishonoring the children for whom the book is intended, and I am dishonoring books.
Madeleine L'Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life (Writers' Palette)

Monday, July 18, 2011

10 Bits of Magic

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

1. Catching up with old friends
2. Falling asleep in the sun at the pool
3. Splashing water
4. Taking your time with a popsicle
5. Sleepover giggles
6. Friendship bracelets
7. Singing together
8. Homemade pizza
9. Golden moon
10. Staying up too late

What bits of magic have you seen or experienced recently?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

I Was Trying to Remember Not to Run

Youngest fell at the pool on Tuesday and scraped her leg in a couple of places. I didn’t see her fall, just heard the sound and looked up to see her splayed on the ground with that familiar shocked/wounded/should-I-cry look on her face. As we went in search of Band-aids, I asked her if she had been running. She hesitated before answering. “I was trying to remember not to run.”

My husband and I have spent a fair amount of time through the years explaining the difference between accidentally and on purpose. Also how you still have to apologize even if it was an accident, and how even after all that, being sorry cannot erase consequences. Sometimes life just hurts. And because of all the random ways we or the people we love can get hurt, we make rules to try to avoid the pain. Rules like, “Don’t run at the pool,” because even though the pool and friends and playing and running are inextricably linked with fun, all the grownups can imagine (or have seen) heads bouncing off concrete and a moment that can’t be un-lived, and we would give almost anything to avoid that scene. Still, when I hear myself telling my kids not to run at the pool, or not to run too fast down that hill because they could lose control and fall, I wonder what I've turned into, because I know that the very best moment is precisely the one right before you lose control and fall—that that is sometimes the whole point of running down the hill.

I haven’t quite put my finger on it, but there is something poetic about the fact that the bowl of watermelon featured in Monday morning’s 10 Bits of Magic came to such a dramatic end Monday afternoon. I have this (apparently bad) habit of thinking that if I can get the door (or drawer, or suitcase zipper) shut on something, that means it fits. And I was able to cram the bowl of watermelon onto the top shelf of the refrigerator and get the door shut with very little trouble, so I didn’t give it another thought. When I opened the door two minutes later to put something else away I was completely surprised that the bowl, released from the pressure put on it by the butter compartment, flew out and shattered on the floor.

I have broken my share of bowls, plates, glasses, baking dishes, pitchers, coffee decanters, and jars since I started pretending to be an adult. I’m almost used to the mess, but getting hurt isn’t usually part of the equation. This time was different. My husband, who is rather proud of his relaxed stance towards injury and illness, took one look at the gash on my leg and made me lie down on the floor right where I was. It was obvious I needed stitches. Youngest came into the kitchen at this point and started crying. “Mommy’s okay, honey. I’m fine,” I assured her, lying on my back surrounded by broken glass and watermelon chunks and thinking there was quite a bit of blood on the floor considering there had only been a second or two between when I got cut and when I started applying pressure. “But the bowl is broken!!” she wailed. Maybe I was being a little too calm.

I did get stitches—seven—and I’m sure the scar will be just lovely. It’s one more way that I bear my life outwardly, and it makes me wish I had felt more beautiful when I was seventeen.

I have mixed feelings sometimes about my 10 Bits of Magic posts. They are important to me because I want to keep seeing what is good—it is an excellent antidote to the fears and anxieties and general negativity that want to overwhelm me at times. But I’m aware of the danger that they will sound trite or sentimental. I worry about somebody reading them and thinking I am oblivious to the pain and struggle that they have in their lives, or that I have mastered those things in my own life. The truth is that the more it hurts, the more I feel the need to count the good and beautiful. Keeping my eyes open seems to be getting more and more important.

I can't stop thinking about Youngest’s response to my question about running. There are a lot of things I’m trying to remember, myself. I cannot count how many times I've tried to stuff things where they don’t fit since Monday. My guess is that I will never quite have learned my lesson. And why, exactly, do I expect to be so wise? It strikes me that the whole world is overflowing with any number of things, danger and beauty and pain and grace included. May I never get used to it. After all, nothing fits quite the way I think it will in the first place.

Monday, July 11, 2011

10 Bits of Magic

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

1. A bowl of watermelon
2. Hugs for no reason
3. Braiding hair
4. Painted toenails
5. Crushed ice
6. Smell of fresh-cut grass
7. Lavender
8. Frogs singing at night
9. Sitting in front of the fan
10. Jogging in the rain

What bits of magic have you seen or experienced recently?

Friday, July 8, 2011


Youngest was born into the crumbling of my idealized adult life. I spent most of my pregnancy hardly believing she would be born, still reeling after my recent miscarriage, the death of a friend, and loved ones’ health emergencies. The secure job we were sure my husband would land right after finishing his doctorate had not materialized, and all our hard work only seemed to produce more hard work.

Youngest did not have a freshly-painted nursery (she slept in a portable bassinet in the hallway outside our bedroom door), and she wasn’t a neatly-spaced two years younger than Middle, the way I had envisioned she would be. Our health insurance ended a week after she was born, and we spent the first year of her life paying as we went at the doctor’s office, hoping that the health emergency that could ruin us wasn’t just around the corner. We had friends, but I felt close to nobody, out of touch with old friends after moving several times, and unable to feel like I connected with the new ones. I sat with acquaintances while they compared notes about home renovations and quietly hated the white walls of our apartment, wondering what everybody around me had done to be able to own a home. I was not the gentle, abundant, glowing homeschooling mom I wanted to be. I was tired and disorganized, and my husband worked long hours and got paid only a few dollars an hour more than the babysitters we hired once in a while when there was no other choice.

And then, Youngest herself spent the first two years of her life showing me that my determination to have well-behaved, disciplined children and a perfect, well-groomed family was pure fantasy. She was loud, emotional, headstrong. She got into things my older two never dreamed of—kitchen knives, for example. She seemed bent on mischief and destruction. My parents referred to her as a force of nature. It was fitting, actually, that when a tornado struck our town two years ago, she couldn’t shake the idea that it was a person, not a thing, that did all the damage.

People love to say that being a mother is hard. What I wish they would say, even though it isn’t very good advertising, is that motherhood will probably at some point not only take you to the edge of yourself, it will hold you over the edge and let you dangle. Older women would stop me at the grocery store sometimes, and say things like, “You’ve got a big job there. I remember what those days were like. Hang in there—these are precious times.” The way their eyes held mine when they said it assured me they knew what they were talking about and had most likely spent a fair amount of time dangling, themselves.

Youngest stretches me. But somewhere along the line I realized that she is in many ways the girl I always wished to be. She is strong and feisty and outgoing. My social advice to my children is based on my experience as an introvert: be nice, make eye contact and answer people’s questions, and if you can’t manage anything else, a smile will get you a long way. My four year old, on the other hand, will march up to a complete stranger at church and say, “I haven’t seen you here before. What’s your name?” She won’t even blush or stumble all over her words or feel like an idiot like her mom would. She sings and cries loudly, loves being on stage, endears herself to everybody, and asks for what she wants. She is a free spirit, completely comfortable in her own skin, and I have a lot to learn from her.

Two years ago when we finally bought a house, we decided that each child should have their own room. Youngest was barely three, so I helped pick the color for her room. She loved purple, and the day-glo orange she wanted was not an option, so I found what I thought was the perfect purple for her: something light but somehow deep, passionate and mysterious, feminine but not frilly. It was a color that seemed to define everything I love about her.

It turns out she wanted pink, like Middle’s room. Not only that, but within a month of moving in, Middle and Youngest started sharing a bed again, and insisted that they hated being alone in their rooms. For a year and a half, they had sleepovers, alternating between their two rooms. They played together in whatever room they slept in, and the other room was always empty and trashed.

This summer, I did something I’m pretty sure I learned from Youngest: I asked for what I wanted. Not everybody was excited about the idea, but my daughters are sharing a room again. They both have the pink room they wanted, and they have loft beds, so each girl has a top bunk with her own private space underneath. And the purple room—I swear I didn’t choose the color for myself—but it is my space, now. My office. I still stumble over that word “my,” but there you have it.

There were a number of years that I truly believed that to be a mother I had to completely pour myself out, give up all of myself. As my children are getting older, though, I’ve had to rethink that. I feel like I am growing up alongside my kids, trying to help them discover who they are, but also rediscovering who I am. That idealized adult life I thought I wanted—a good portion of it was based on how I thought I would best fit in, how I could look good and feel accepted. But the times in my life where I have felt the most accepted were when I was being myself, doing the things I loved and being the person I was made to be.

I started writing seven years ago, during a time of great hope and great stress. It was something I did a lot of as a child, something I always loved, but I pushed it aside for years simply because I thought I had to. Recently, though, it has become a lifeline. I write to think, to pray, to connect the things in my life that I otherwise don’t know how to connect. To understand, and also to communicate. I refuse to call writing a hobby, but I hesitate to say it is a calling because I don’t know how you determine something like that. But it became clear that I needed to carve out a place for myself in this wonderful family—a physical and emotional space just for writing, and oh, it is the loveliest shade of purple.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

10 Bits of Magic

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

1. Family bike ride
2. Bag-full of candy from the parade
3. Sun glittering on waves
4. Scaring up one…two…three great blue herons
5. Glimpse of fish below the surface of the water
6. Late dinner
7. A fountain of fire and sparks
8. Waiting in the dark with friends
9. Thump of fireworks
10. Sparklers

What bits of magic have you seen or experienced recently?

Friday, July 1, 2011


When we moved into our house two years ago, I took down all the heavy curtains the previous owners had left. Gold lamé, thick satin, heavy florals—they all ended up in the basement, folded unceremoniously and waiting for all the projects I have imagined I can use them for but for which there will probably never be time. The red, white, and blue star curtains on the back porch—those, too, were dealt with quickly. I wanted to be connected to the outside world, not closed off from it. That back porch pretty much embodied the difference in taste between our family and the previous owners. The entire room was painted red to match the patriotic curtains, except for the spot where the chest freezer used to sit, which had been left blue. And as much as I love color on my walls, that room did not work for us. It felt close, oppressive.

My husband has been working on the back porch for most of the past month, fixing the windows that were painted shut, making the old door fit better, and doing various other thankless jobs that will transform this room into something other than a place to keep the vacuum and the recycling. We lifted our ban on white in order to paint the trim, although the color of the beadboard under the windows has not quite been decided (I had no idea, going into marriage, that the color of our walls would require so much negotiating.) The ceiling is blue, now—not quite sky blue, but more of a hazy blue-gray. I love this. I love the blurring of lines between inside and outside, as if when you look up you can see straight through the ceiling into the sky.

Blue seems to be about clarity. Seeing. It is the deepness of the sky, and all the distance you can imagine in it—eternity over our heads. But blue also reflects, like a glittering lake mirroring the sky, even while it hides a shadowy world underneath. There is something clean and pure about blue, even in its darker shades, yet it seems to increase in power and depth when you add in other colors. Add darkness and a hint of green and you are dabbling in mysticism with midnight blue. Add light and more green and you can have something as cheerful as turquoise.

I have read in home and gardening magazines that cool colors tend to recede, and warm colors advance. I’ve always accepted that statement, but now I find myself peeking at our new blue ceiling and wondering if that is quite true. Is it really receding, or is it drawing me with it as it goes, pulling me up and out?