Sunday, August 28, 2016

Moving Day, Part Two

The other day I hefted five boxes out of my son's room and mailed them to him in California.

Before I hefted the boxes out of the room, I thumbed through the things left behind--the books on the bookshelves, the plastic bag on the floor filled with lacrosse balls, the rumpled viola sheet music on the desk, the closet, now empty, except for a pair of old soccer cleats.

After I mailed the boxes, I came home and wandered around for a while feeling weepy and silly over feeling weepy because it's not like I didn't know my son was leaving. And anyway, he's happy and I'm happy for him and tra la la.

When my son was packing up the boxes a few weeks earlier, I didn't help him, except to offer garbage bags, in case he wanted to chuck anything in the trash, and a box for Goodwill, in case he wanted to donate anything to Goodwill. I told him he didn't have to make up his mind about anything if he didn't want to. If there was stuff he wasn't sure about, stuff he might want to hold onto, but didn't feel like packing, he could feel free to leave it at our house.

It's not like his room was going anywhere, I told him.

He said, okay.

Which made me wonder if the books left behind and the lacrosse balls and the viola sheet music and the soccer cleats fell into the category of stuff to hold onto for later. Or not.

It's hard to guess the things that matter to people, even people you know well.

When I was packing up the things in my own childhood bedroom a million years ago, I didn't feel a particular attachment to much of it.

I was going away to college 1250 miles away, flying there. So packing space was limited. What I was most worried about were clothes. I didn't have a lot, at least anything that felt fashionable (whatever that was). I'd gone to Catholic schools and had worn uniforms for most of my life. Also, I lived in Connecticut and owned a lot of winter-y related stuff and my college was in Memphis and I suspected I wouldn't need many sweaters and long sleeved blouses, the bulk of my meager wardrobe.

I left behind my long winter coat, the one my stepfather bought me when I was in ninth grade. I left behind my hefty feather pillow.

My stereo system. My albums. The much-played Van Halen and Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, and the Journey Escape record that I'd won at the county fair.

My two shelves of books, my prized collection of Trixie Belden books, the complete set of sixteen, the books an aunt had given me when I was a child, two or three a year, on birthdays and at Christmas, the books I'd read over and over, from number one Secret of the Mansion to number sixteen The Mystery of the Missing Heiress, the books that deposited me safely out of my childhood for a blessed few hours here and there.

The day before I flew away to Memphis, I hefted a trunk over to that same aunt's house. Inside the trunk were all of my journals and diaries, every story I'd ever written and two novel manuscripts, photos and mementos.

And then I left my childhood bedroom behind. My younger brother took the room when I went away to college. I gave him the key for the deadbolt lock that my boyfriend had installed on my bedroom door. Why, you might ask, did I need a deadbolt lock on my bedroom door?


Let's just say that after my sophomore year I never went home again except to visit. Somewhere along the way, all of the things I left behind in my childhood bedroom disappeared. The pillow. The albums. The books.

When I graduated from college, my aunt drove from Connecticut to Memphis to attend the ceremony. Inside the car she'd packed the trunk of my stories. She gave them to me, and then she surprised me by giving me the car too.

How do you even begin to express gratitude for gifts like these?

The other day my husband suggested we turn our son's room into a guest room.

Let's wait a little while, I said.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Marcie Colleen's an Author On the Verge

One of the many perks of being a Regional Advisor in the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators is getting to meet writers and children's book industry people from all over the place.

Last Saturday, for example, the lovely Marcie Colleen, author of a multitude of soon-to-be released picture books and chapter books, was in town. Marcie's connection with an SCBWI chapter in California led to a connection with our local chapter in Ohio

which led to a group of us meeting for breakfast, where we had conversation with Marcie that was too inspirational not to share.

I say inspirational because Marcie has been plugging away writing children's books and pursuing publication for years and now her dream is just about to come true-- not one book on the shelf, but two, followed in the next year by two others, and that is only the beginning.

Inspirational too, because her road to publication was especially rocky, starting in the low moment when she lost her job in New York City.

Marcie's background is in theater education and during the height of the financial crisis in 2009, the theater industry was hurting like every industry. "I was afraid," Marcie told us, "very aware that I was living in one of the most expensive cities in the country and suddenly jobless with no solid prospects on the horizon."

Her mother's gentle reminder that she could always come home was a nice offer-- but also, a jolt of motivation.

Something I always find fascinating when I hear about fellow authors' journeys is how much of an interplay there is between hard work, determination... and luck. Marcie's luck came in the form of her husband's (then her boyfriend) publishing industry contacts. He knew Little Brown editor Alvina Ling and when Marcie wrote her first picture book, he passed it along to Ling to look over.

This is the part of the story that beginning writers dream of and imagine is the secret backdoor way into Publishing.

Splash-of-cold-water Truth: it rarely happens that way in real life, and it didn't happen that way for Marcie either. For one, she admits that her first stab at a picture book wasn't all that great. Fortunately, Alvina Ling was kind enough to not dwell on that with Marcie.

She did not buy the picture book. Instead, she gave Marcie some advice:

Take a writing class
Find a critique group

Marcie did all three of these over the next several years, taking classes online, and when she couldn't find a critique group in her area, forming her own. In the meantime she wrote a ton and read a ton, not submitting anything at all until she felt that she had a better sense of the writing craft and the industry. [shameless plug: it really does help to join SCBWI!]

When she was ready to submit again, she had a few completed polished projects, and one of these snagged the attention of an agent. Things happened quickly after that. One book sale, the picture book The Adventure of the Penguinaut with Scholastic in 2018, and another, Love,Triangle with Balzer & Bray/Harper Collins in 2017.

And then another fun opportunity came her way, the eight-book Super Happy Party Bear series developed with Erin Stein at Macmillan. In the cool twisty world of publishing, the first two books of that series, which were written after the picture books, will be out Sept. 6, 2016 and featured in Target.

Marcie had never written a chapter book up to to that point, but she threw herself into learning about the genre and is happy that she said yes to the opportunity.

And saying yes seemed to be the theme of our group breakfast with Marcie. Yes-- to putting your work out there and facing lots of rejection, Yes-- to plunging into learning everything you can about your craft and the industry, Yes-- to making contacts and new friends, Yes-- to hard work, and

Yes-- to recognizing lucky opportunities when they come your way, even when they don't quite work out how you dream...

Because in the end, saying Yes is the only surefire way to make your dreams come true.

For more about Marcie Colleen and her soon-to-be-released array of books, check out her website here:

Friday, August 12, 2016

Don't Know Much About Canadian Geography

Last weekend my husband and I dropped our grown son off at the airport at 4:30 in the morning, said one final goodbye as he tromped off blearily, yet excited, weighted down by multiple backpacks, to embark upon his new life on the opposite side of the country,

and then we got back into the car and my husband asked me if I was going to cry and I said, No.

Maybe I was tired because it was 4:30 in the morning or maybe I'd already made my peace, in a way, with the goodbye to our son--it's not like I didn't know it was coming--and it goes without saying that I am thrilled for him--

Or maybe I was a little excited myself about the adventures that lie ahead, for my son, of course, but also for my husband and me,

and I was looking forward to an actual adventure-- the spur of the moment road trip that my husband and I decided to take that very day.

Neither one of us had ever been to Niagara Falls and the place is less than six hours away and the thought of returning to the dark quiet empty nest house (if you don't count the dog, the cat, the fish, and the possibly enchanted plants in the garden) just seemed kinda depressing to both of us.

So off we went.

But first a pit stop at the airport McDonalds for much needed coffee. And then, off we went!

We went to the Canadian side of Niagara because we had heard from various people in the know that it was the Better Side. Whatever that meant. Something funny about this trip is how unplanned it was.

My husband, if you don't know the guy, is a big-time planner-- (it's his literal job) -- and his planning abilities always spill over into our vacations. I'm talking excel spreadsheets of sights we will see and meals we will eat. Wondering what the restaurant reviews are for that pizza place in San Francisco? My husband can tell you.

My role, on these vacations, is to show up and go with the flow, as we follow his meticulously crafted itinerary.

For some reason though, (my husband's own empty nest melancholy?) there was no meticulously crafted excel spreadsheet for this Niagara trip. 

We were throwing caution to the wind, driving by the seat of our GPS, caught in a bit of traffic crossing the Canadian border because my husband had not googled the various border crossings to compare traffic lines ahead of time!

I know. INSANE!

But somehow we managed to make it over to Canada, chatting as we did about how little we knew about Canada and Niagara Falls. For example, I did not know what province we were in (Ontario), or that there are two Great Lakes in the region (Ontario and Erie).

That the water of the Niagara River is mesmerizing as it flows over the Falls. You can go down into a tunnel and feel the vibrations as it crashes over the rocks. And when you take a boat tour on the river, you'll be close enough to the churning falls to get your hair wet.


I know this because my husband and I did another completely spontaneous thing: we signed up for a bus tour. This is something true Planners NEVER do. I mean, really, why would you pay a tour operator to cart you around from site to site when you could research all of this stuff in advance and cart your own selves around?

We loved our tour guide and we loved being carted around and told what to look at and where to go. We also loved skipping all the long lines and moving with our tour group ahead of all the poor planning do-it-yourselfer-save money suckers people.

The only thing we had to do on the tour was make it back to the bus at the designated time.

Fun fact: We were the last people to make it back to the bus at the designated time. I don't know how this happened to such dutiful obedient rule followers as my husband and me. It was like we had lost our damn minds.

We also may have lost our minds the next day when at the spur-of-the-moment we drove up to a town called Niagara on the Lake, parked our car in the first lot we came to, walked ten steps and wandered into a shop where we discovered that a winery tour was about to begin,

and bought tickets to go on the tour, because what the hey? Why not drink 25 glasses of wine at 10 o'clock in the morning?

Oh my God, that was a fun wine tour.

Ontario, apparently, is known for its wineries. Something something about the climate, the air moving from the lake across the land and bumping into a hill or whatever.

Oh, and there's this crazy good tasting wine called Ice Wine, where the grape growers wait until the grapes are frozen and then they pick them and do whatever it is to make wine with them.

Ice Wine is particularly tasty after you've drunk 20 other glasses of wine.

So tasty, in fact, that you buy a bottle and not realize until after you pay with the weirdo plastic-y Canadian money, that you just spent like, 75 dollars.

Also, the people on the wine tour think you're funny because they're all Canadian and you're the doofball American asking, wait, what lake is this again? after drinking the insanely expensive Ice Wine.

But then, on the bus ride back to town, they forgive you for your ignorance when you tell them that 24 hours earlier you dropped your son off at the airport so he could fly off to his new life on the other side of America. The woman on the bus next to you is your new best friend and she shows you pictures of her grandchildren,

and you think, holy moly, one of these days we're probably going to have grandchildren and won't that be a...(gulp) adventure,

and then it's time to say goodbye to the lovely Canadians, and you and your husband drive back over the border, back to your quiet dark house and happy-to-see-you pets and enchanted plants

where you pour two glasses of Ice Wine

and you say, Cheers.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

When We Were Four

Today begins the last week of my two kids living at home. 

I am trying to wrap my head around it. How time moves, at once, both so slowly and so quickly. 

When the kids were little and my life centered around theirs, a wise friend told me The days are long and the years are short. 

I thought I understand what she was saying then. But then, I was stuck on the days are long part of the equation, when the days began before the crack of dawn, or even before, with babies wailing and dropped pacifiers and bleary-eyed diaper changes

and early morning nursings and drooly bibs and mixing up pasty cereal and smushy cheerios

and then the kids became little people, with their own wills and interests, and their interests became my interests

trucks and insects and catapults built in the backyard and Blues Clues notebooks and bracelets and Trading Spaces

Scooby Doo and Stars Wars, Harry Potter-themed birthday parties

Piano lessons and soccer practices, Spanish Immersion and ski clubs, lacrosse games and orchestra concerts, 

slumber parties and car pools and college searches--

Now the Legoes and the American Girl dolls are packed away.

In a few days our children jet off to opposite ends of the world, the boy who once followed the exterminator around asking in a chirpy voice about queen ants 

and the girl who once had stage fright.

Now the boy scales mountains and the girl writes briefs against the death penalty.

Once upon a time my husband and I were two

and then we were three

and then we were four...

Repeat after me: 

The years are short
The years are short
The years are short
The years are short
The years are short

Friday, July 29, 2016

Something strange is going on in my garden this year

I did what I normally do. 

In the spring I dug some holes. Sprinkled seeds. Watered. Got excited by my first lettuces and peas. Staked the tomato plants and sweated it out in the sweltering heat yanking weeds. Planted seedlings and thinned the stuff growing too close together. Fought off slugs.

All normal, ordinary gardening stuff. 

But something Out There is... different. 

In the mornings when I am alone in the garden, picking worms off the cabbage plants or poking around in the carrots or smushing the bugs on the kale. I brush my fingers over the purply leaves, wave a hand across the row of swiss chard, poke my nose in a squash blossom

and have the weirdest sensation

that I am not alone.

The plants keep growing, above my knees, above my waist, above my shoulders, over my head.  The paths between the rows narrow. 

The garden is a maze of plants, borage blossoms tapping my arms, tomato leaves nudging my bare legs. 

I weave between the plants sprucing and straightening, gathering the vegetables they offer. I stake up the massive bean plant, shivering as the tentacles wrap around my wrist--

--but this is silly. I know.

It's only the garden. And I am only the gardener. 

(massive green bean plant)

The other day I was running errands, and my son, who never goes into the garden, texted me that he and his friends were making lasagna and they wanted to use fresh herbs in the sauce and would it be okay if he used some of my basil?

Sure, I said. 

I got home a little while later and he was sitting inside the house.

Did you get the basil? I asked him.

No, he said, sounding a little embarrassed. 

He couldn't figure out which plants were the basil plants and he googled basil on his computer and pulled up images and went outside into the garden, walking around the plants while holding his laptop in front of him for comparison purposes, but gave up because he couldn't find a match, and anyway-- and here he lowered his voice and laughed a little nervously, 

the garden sort of gave him the creeps. 

Like the plants, he said, were watching him.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Maybe I Knew Italian In Another Life...

Or maybe the words are familiar through some kind of osmosis. A stray word here and there lodged in my brain, after visits with my Italian grandmother a million years ago or from the roommate I had in college who was taking Italian 101 and constantly muttering vocabulary words under her breath.

Maybe the words seem familiar because they're closely related to Spanish (a language I sorta sorta know).

bambini, bella, libro, lingua, famiglia 

The words jump out at me from the pages of the book I'm reading. They ping around in my mind. I know them. I want to know more.

The book, in case you are wondering, is called In Other Words. It's a memoir by one of my favorite writers, Jhumpa Lahiri. I've read and loved all of Lahiri's books and scooped up this latest without knowing exactly what it was--

basically a musing on Lahiri's obsession with the Italian language, which leads her to move to Rome with her kids and painstakingly teach herself to speak and write only in Italian.

In Other Words is her fifth book, her first memoir, and her first book written entirely in Italian. It was translated into English by someone else but Lahiri's original Italian text appears on every other page.

Every time I turn a page, I begin to read, out of habit, the words at the top of the page, which are in Italian.

It's disconcerting and familiar all at once-- for me as a person who is intrigued by the very idea of immersing oneself in a foreign language as an adult--

and as a writer, amazed and fascinated by Lahiri's quest to let go of the language she knows in order to think and read and write in a different one.

Lahiri is considered one of the best authors in America. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her first book, Interpreter of Maladies; her later books have won both critical awards and landed her on best seller lists. And here she is, in her own description of her process, struggling in this new medium.

Maybe not completely surprising though.

There's lots in Lahari's novels and stories about the immigrant experience, displacement, belonging. Many of her themes are rooted in her own life. She grew up in America speaking Bengali with her Indian parents and speaking (and writing and reading) English everywhere else. Both Bengali and English feel as if they are imposed on her, whereas Italian is a new way to define herself.

Plus, it's a challenge.

It helps her rediscover her joy of reading. And gives her a new understanding of herself as a writer.

"What does it mean," she asks, "for a writer, to write without her own authority? Can I call myself an author, if I don't feel authoritative?

How is it possible that when I write in Italian I feel both freer and confined, constricted? Maybe because in Italian I have the freedom to be imperfect."

I'm not sure, exactly, why this book is resonating with me. I won't be moving to Rome any time soon or immersing myself in another language. My writing is nowhere near the level of Jhumpa Lahiri's, but still, her words-- in Italian, in English-- tumble around in my head.

They confirm what I know about the creative process, which involves, by definition, risk and discomfort,

the balancing of discipline with taking leaps off cliffs,

the striving toward perfection and the letting go of it,

a rooting around for words that are both familiar

and magical.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Writing Words in Times of Plague

There's a doofball character in the book The Plague by Albert Camus.

       The writer.

A terrible plague sweeps across the land and the town is suddenly quarantined. Anyone who happens to be outside for the day can't get back inside. Everyone inside is trapped. Soldiers guard the walls.

The people in the town begin to act the way you might imagine they would. Some freak the hell out. Many strike out at others. A few rise up to help.

Police officers and government officials try to maintain order. The doctor takes cares of the sick and dying. The minister prays and offers consoling words. Most people retreat to their homes.

The writer writes.

The truth is he's not even much of a writer.

He fiddles with the words in one sentence, the first sentence in what he dreams will be his magnum opus. Meanwhile, the people in the town are struggling. Consumed by terror. Numbed by horror and death. The good among them trying to cope against what feel like impossible odds.

And here is our writer, entering the scene every now and then to share his story.

The novel, the sentence, the words are his passion. A mental challenge. A puzzle. A cause for frustration, and at times, delight and joy. He will get this sentence "right" one day and he will move onto the next sentence. One day he will reach the end of the book, and everyone will celebrate with him.

The other characters shake their heads in amusement at the writer. But they pause to hear the latest version of their friend's sentence, and then they go back to their urgent and seemingly endless work,

and the writer goes off to fiddle with his words.

The people inside the walls continue to live and die. One small town suffering from a plague, a place where there is no escape except death.

They grow sick, they despair, they mourn

They steal, they blame, they attack, they kill

They retreat, they hide.

They help. They care. They give.

They build. They plant. They write. They paint. They dance.  They dream.

They love.