Yes, I am a children’s book author admitting to never having read one of the greatest pieces of children’s literature of all time. Okay, yes, I’ve only been a children’s book author since June 2015, when I wrote my first picture book manuscript. Yet somehow that doesn’t make me feel less chagrined about the situation.
Since I’m coming clean, the truth is there are many kidlit classic books I have never reads. Some books and authors I have never even heard of when I’m perusing kidlit writing websites.
For example, I did not know who Ursula Le Guin was when she died on January 22, 2018. Her name popped up everywhere on the writing and entertainment websites I read. I ended up checking out this article in particular, Mapping the Pop Culture Influence of Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea Books, and I was shocked to learn that her stories had been a precursor to Harry Potter.
As a huge Harry Potter fan, how is it I had never heard of Le Guin before? Who else haven’t I heard of that I should?
At least I’m quite familiar with EB White and Charlotte’s Web. Growing up as a child in the 80s, I’d watched the cartoon version of the story dozens of times, but somehow I never managed to read the story.
When I think about it, I have no good reason why, other than I was reading other books: SweetValley Twins, Babysitters Club, Fabulous Five, and the Taffy Sinclair books just to name a few. All of these titles are series, so perhaps because I had multiple new books to read every month, I never needed to venture out to the classics.
I can still vividly recall the moment in class when my entire life changed because of a book. Mrs. Spore, my teacher, lead us in a discussion of the allegorical representation of Aslan the Lion in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Being a nearly-straight-A student, I raised my hand and proudly announced Aslan represented the struggle of good versus evil.
Mrs. Spore shook her head. “Too simple,” she said. “Aslan is much more than that.”
The guy next to me raised his hand. “Jesus Christ,” he said.
BOOM! There goes my head in an explosion of everything I thought I knew about the world. 13 years of Catholic education (K-12), and I had made zero connection to what C.S. Lewis was really telling us in his story.
Although that Intro to Children’s Lit class was my favorite class throughout all of college, anything in children’s literature/publishing did not seem a viable career option at that point. I allowed myself to get sucked down the rabbit hole of job security, earnings potential, and societal expectations, and ended up with a PhD in quantitative psychology instead.
So now, as a psychology professor turned kidlit writer, I find myself immersed in reading as much kidlit as possible. In January, on advice from an editor at Simon & Schuster, I checked out The Incredible Journey from my library. The editor recommended this book because I write about dogs. The writing was beautiful and the pacing a touch slow for modern reading standards (in my opinion). Still, I cried tears of joy during the last few pages.
Wanting to continue with reading kidlit classics, I then picked up Charlotte’s Web from the library. This is a book that should be required reading for all children and adults. The story is extraordinary in so many ways.
E.B. White is a master of word choice and description, with sensory details, rich visuals, and emotionally engaging characters that pull you immediately into the story. Just read the first sentence:
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” asked Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
Tell me you don’t want to read more!
Charlotte’s Web is not just about the writing, either. The illustrations by Garth Williams are adorable. Look at this little pig:
Or “puppy pig,” as my 21-year-old niece called him when I sent her an illustration as an example of why I was loving this book so much.
If you’ve ever read my blog before, you know how much I LOVE dogs! Give me a puppy pig and write him into a story where he finds out he’s going to die and you have me hooked.
The way E.B. White connected me to Wilbur the pig is genius. Wilbur loves Fern and misses her when she’s at school. He wants a barnyard friend to play with, but the other animals shun him. He finds out he’s going to die and becomes hysterical because he loves sitting in his pile of mud and slopping around his pigpen so much. Then, Wilbur begins to believe he is someone special simply because Charlotte, his spider friend, believes in him.
There’s also this sentence in the last chapter about Fern, the little girl who initially saved Wilbur the pig from Papa’s ax:
She was growing up, and was careful to avoid childish things, like sitting on a milk stool near a pigpen.
These words of E.B. White will stay in my heart forever.
I couldn’t help but cry when I read that sentence. They were tears of both joy and sadness. Joy because the way I live my life now, embracing the things that truly matter to me, such as loving my husband and family, playing with dogs, walking in the forest, reading and writing stories, and sitting on a stool near a pigpen are things I do every single day.
Okay, well maybe not literally every day sitting on a stool near a pigpen, but thinks to one of my wonderful friends in Norfolk, I do occasionally get to sit in a barnyard and play with farm animals.
There was also sadness for the millions of children who grow up and may never again recapture the feelings of wonder they experienced during childhood. Just like I did in college, they go down the rabbit hole of adulthood, and I don’t know if they ever find their way out. I hope they do. I pray they do. And I write stories to show how I made my way out.
Thank you for reading my blog! Your support is always appreciated. If anyone is interested in more Charlotte’s Web writings and illustrations, I’ve been posting selections on Twitter as part of my #365DaysofKidLit Challenge. You can look for me on Twitter with the handle @KellyKandra. I also included selections from The Incredibly Journey and The Original Adventures of Hank theCowdog, plus several picture books.
As an end note, I’m looking to read as many of the Hank the Cowdog books as possible without having to buy them (you know, minimalist and all). The inter-library loan only offers a few, so if anyone out there can give me access to more copies, I would be ever grateful.
Happy Valentines’ Day! And, happy two-year anniversary to me and my husband! That’s two years of being married and two years of being together. No, I didn’t get the timing wrong. We really did get married that quickly.
On Wednesday, January 20, 2016, I sat down next to an incredibly handsome stranger at a restaurant bar. Being in the Chicago suburbs, the stranger wanted to experience deep dish pizza. Several of his colleagues highly recommended Lou Malnatti’s.
Meanwhile, I had been invited to Lou Malnatti’s by a writers’ group at a local college I attended for the first time that night. They liked to socialize afterwards, starting at Lou Malnatti’s bar.
The stranger and I struck up a conversation. Four days later he proposed. Less than three weeks later, on February 12th, 2016, we eloped in his hometown of Nashville.
So, yes. Four Days to Fiancée is an accurate title. But, it’s really not as quick as it seems. The truth is that I spent several years prior to that night figuring out what I wanted in a partner. What gave me the insight and courage to take such a bold relationship step is the minimalist mindset I adopted over the years.
Many people will tell you minimalism is not simply removing the material clutter from your life, though that is a key component. It’s also embracing the values that are most important in your life and then making choices to support those values.
Freedom is at the top of my list of core life values, and ironically enough, it is because I value freedom so much that I was able to agree to marry someone whom I had known less than a week.
When I met my future husband that night, I had already begun taking steps to support my personal ideas of freedom. Thanks to a sabbatical from my position as an associate professor of psychology at a suburban Chicago University, I realized that somehow, I had let my life veer off course. I felt imprisoned by my choices and I wanted out.
The first step to my freedom began with purging. By August 2014, I had given up my apartment and sold, donated, gave away, or trashed 90% of my belongings. In doing so, I released myself from the debilitating mountain of stuff I had accumulated over the years. When you move three times in five years and some boxes remain not just unpacked, but unopened, it’s a wake-up call you do not need that stuff anymore.
After I removed the forgotten and unnecessary items from my life, I began looking at everything I owned. Gone were clothes I never wore, but someday hoped to have a reason to wear; shoes I had purchased for special occasions and hurt my feet the one time I wore them, but I thought looked so pretty; books I bought because I wanted to learn about the history of the Olympics, the healing power of food, or the latest pop psychology research, but never seemed to have time to read; and mementos from friends, travels, and experiences that caused me to buy extra shelves and cabinets to hold these memories, and which also took away some of my precious free time because I had to dust and organize them on a regular basis.
I ended up giving away so many of my belongings, one of my colleagues jokingly asked if I had a terminal illness.
Once free from the physical clutter, I wanted even more space. I returned from my sabbatical on August 24th, 2015 and on September 1st, 2015, I turned in my resignation, effective for the end of the academic year on May 31st, 2016.
With the knowledge of impending professional freedom, I then focused my attention on the kind of life I wanted to live and with whom I wanted to share it. Without any physical clutter to take up my time and energy, I waded through my murky past with the help of a therapist, a disciplined meditation practice, a church that inspired me to believe there’s something more out there, and several insightful journaling exercises and self-help books.
I asked myself tough questions, such as why had I not had a successful relationship in the past, what role did I play in failed relationships, and did I even want to be in a relationship.
Once I established that, yes, I did want to be in a long-term, loving and committed relationship, and understood how I had contributed problems to my past relationships and how to be a better partner in the future, I thought about the values I desired in my husband. What sort of person would make me the very best possible version of myself? Anyone who lowered my desired caliber of life would simply not be an option.
Nearly every day for a year, I meditated on this question and what I wanted, asking the Holy Spirit for guidance. What rose to the top of my list were curiosity, empathy, honesty, and playfulness. I also wanted someone who made their own physical and mental health a priority in their life since I had taken steps to become healthy again.
I didn’t have a specific “type,” in mind for a partner, but I hoped my husband would be as good-looking on the outside as his heart was on the inside. When I would see someone attractive while out and about, I would say to myself, “Wow! That man looks a lot like my husband.” I also thanked God every day for my husband, as if we were already together. I would write in my gratitude journal statements such as, “Thank you for my incredibly handsome husband, who is kind, compassionate, loves animals, and makes me laugh more than anyone else.”
It was in January, 2016, when a thought occurred to me: What I also wanted was someone who valued the life I was creating for myself and wanted in on the adventure. I wish I knew the exact date I had that thought, but I’m not very good at keeping a daily journal for an extended period. I just remember that the thought felt so real and powerful, I knew it was right for me.
It couldn’t have been more than two weeks later, I sat down at Lou Malnatti’s next to that incredibly handsome stranger. He overhead the discussion I was having with Anne, a woman in her 70s whom I had just met that night at the writers group. She was sitting on his right-hand side. I was sitting on his left.
Behind this handsome stranger’s back, because he was still eating his pizza, I told Anne all about being a professor, my imminent resignation, and writing. I explained my plans to be a professional pet and housesitter and travel all over the country. Then, for some reason we started talking about old movies and I told her I had just been to an Elvis Tribute Spectacular on January 8th with a good friend. It would have been Elvis’ 81st birthday and thanks to my Mom, I am quite a fan of Elvis’ music.
Despite not being a part of our conversation at all, Anne tapped the handsome man on the chest and asked, “Do you like Elvis?”
He sang his response with a southern drawl: I’ll have a blue Christmas without you. Thank you very, much.
“You’re not from around here, are you?” I asked.
“Nashville,” came his response and my immediate thought was, I am not interested in you.
But it turned out I was interested. From the first few hours of our conversation, my future husband spoke about books he was reading and asked me about books I was reading; he told me how he wanted to attend the Olympics before he was 40 and I told him I had attended the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. He spoke about some of the challenges he faced in his life and how grateful he was to his parents for their love and support. He teared up when discussing his chocolate lab, Lana, whom he had lost not that long ago, and I told him about my beloved black and yellow labs, Jack and Limit.
We continued our discussion the next night, when we went on a proper date. My future husband and I drove into Chicago so he could take some photographs. We went to the Harold Washington public library on State Street and acted out silly scenes with puppets in the children’s room, played Mad Libs at Epic Burger, and walked around Millennium Park, all the while discussing our lives, friends, and families.
The next day, Friday, my future husband came to visit me at work before he had to fly back to Nashville. The following day, we spent 14 hours on the phone, and on Sunday we spent another 12 hours. Sunday night is when he proposed.
If I hadn’t known what I really wanted in a partner, I don’t think I would have been able to say yes. But through the stories we told each other, the secrets we shared, and the time we spent together, I felt I had a good enough of measure of him. The values I wanted most – I knew he had them. I didn’t need any more time to tell me what I already knew – this was a man who would build me up and support me and help me become the absolute very best version of myself.
My husband and I were overjoyed to find each other, and we didn’t want to wait. We also had no reason to, other than that “society,” would deem our marriage too quick. Neither of us had debt, we were in our 30s, and neither of us had professional or educational aspirations that would limit our future choices compared to if we stayed single.
I was, however, asking my husband to give up everything he had to come be with me on this adventure. He left behind his family and friends in Tennessee and the only home he had ever known for 33 years.
So, of course, I would give him the highest level of commitment we both wanted. It allowed us to be free of our past lives, only we would be free together as teammates and partners.
Everything else seemed secondary. The very few people that I spoke to about our decision to get married so quickly wondered why the rush? How well could I really know him? they wanted to know.
To which I replied – how well can you really know anyone? I’ve known people who dated their fiancés for several years before getting married, only to be miserable and divorced within two years. Several people I know were married for decades before their spouses divorced them just like that! And one woman, who I admire very much, married her childhood sweetheart who was her best friend, only for him to realize a few years into the marriage that he was gay.
So, I didn’t buy into their concerns, because we can never really be certain about anyone other than ourselves. And because I took the time to really get to know myself and what I wanted, I didn’t have to waste any time figuring out whether we worked together. Our values lined up and that is all that mattered to me.
To my husband: I LOVE YOU! These past two years have been the best of my life. Thank you for asking me to marry you when you did, and thank you for being the best friend and partner I could have imagined.
With Christmas fast approaching and only nine days left in 2017, it’s time for my yearly reflection entitled, “Even Though It’s Christmas, People Still Die.” And yes, I totally stole this idea from the late 1990’s sitcom Friends.
Because I know many of my friends and family who read my blog sometimes worry about me based on what I write, let me clarify that thinking about death during the holidays does not mean I’m depressed. Quite the opposite.
This has been one of the happiest, most joyful years of my life. 2017 also happened to be the year I read five different books on happiness (two of them I re-read for the second time):
I recently told someone about all these books and she joked, “shouldn’t you be happy by now?” Her point is excellent, except I read these types of books as someone who has a professional interest in psychology, science, and research, more than as an I need these books to improve my life mentality.
Although, I would be lying if I said these books haven’t improved how I live. Each one of them has contributed positively to some aspect of my life, most notably The Sweet Spot because I’m now exercising on a regular basis and it’s become an actual habit.
What I find most interesting about these books is that every single one of them included a chapter on death. They all claimed that to truly experience sustained and long-term joy, you have to keep your own death a central part of your life.
Last Christmas, death ended up being forefront in my mind because one of the dogs we were caring for had been diagnosed with a mass on his spleen. He didn’t have much longer in this world and sure enough, he died within a month.
I also wrote last Christmas about my 43-year-old cousin Becky, who was diagnosed with cancer in December of 2013, and succumbed to the disease in April, 2014.
Those losses are still heavy in my heart today, just like all the other people and animals I’ve lost throughout my life. But like these books suggest, I don’t allow the losses to weigh me down.
Instead, I use their heaviness as reminders which ground me to my own life; they’ve become a rock on which I can stand and look around at our wonderful and marvelous world. These losses lift me up into the here and now because all of us could be one hour, one minute, or even one second away from death and I know it.
Our time is so precious and because I still have so much of it right now (God and Kelly willing), I don’t want to waste it. This reason is why death meditations can be so useful. If I knew 2018 would be my last year on Earth, what would I do differently?
Based on what I wrote last year – spend more time with family and friends, travel with my husband and/or niece to national parks, pet as many dogs along the way as we could, finish my first novel, publish my picture books, and see a bear in the wild – I’m tearing up with happiness right now because I’ve either done what I set out to do or I took major steps towards making these dreams a reality.
In addition to spending time with my parents in Pennsylvania,
and my husband’s parents in Tennessee,
we visited with various extended family members in North Carolina,
and my husband got to meet my oldest brother who lives in San Antonio, Texas, when we all met up at my parents’ house in Harrisburg.
We brought my niece to visit us in Connecticut for a week in May,
This past August, my husband and I visited the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio on one of our house-sitting road trips,
and this coming June we’ll be in Glacier National Park as part 2 of our super secret summer plans (SURPRISE! This is how my husband is finding out about our trip to Glacier. He still doesn’t know part 1).
Anyone who reads this blog, knows I’ve wholeheartedly met my goal of petting as many dogs as I could along the way, and I even managed to befriend some cats, llamas, chickens, turkeys, a goat, and a pig.
And, although I have not yet seen a bear in the wild, this past July I applied to be a volunteer at the Churchill Northern Studies Center in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, for bear season (October and November). I had an interview a few months ago for fall 2018 and my prospects look good for being selected as a volunteer.
As for writing, not only did I finish my first novel, but I wrote another book, started two more, and outlined several more. Those don’t count the picture books I finished. I also submitted two stories to Highlights magazine (no word yet on their submission status) and I submitted a blog post to a major minimalism blog that featured the post in their weekly newsletter sent out to over 24,000 readers. Combined with getting an agent to represent my work, this has been a benchmark year for my writing.
So when I think about my life this past year, I can boil it down to one sentiment. I’m about to break a cardinal rule of writing right now (i.e., avoid clichés), but here goes: WOW! My cup runneth over.
I am so grateful to everyone who has supported me along the way, most notably God who gives me the courage to live life this way and my husband who is also my best friend.
The question still remains, though: if 2018 were my last year on Earth, what would I do differently?
My answer? Nothing. It is with delight and joy that I can say this and feel nothing but enthusiasm and hope for the coming year. I’m going to keep on keepin’ on! And maybe, just maybe, I’m finally going to see a bear in the wild.
I recently had the chance to catch up with some of my former colleagues from the University I previously taught at. The school had a peace vigil this past Friday and since I’m in town house/pet-sitting, I decided to attend. I’m pretty disgusted with the events as of late in this country of ours, and supporting peace through lovely words and prayers seemed like a wonderful idea.
While there, several people made the same comment to me: you look so happy. I consider this compliment to be one of the greatest I can receive, because, truthfully, I do feel happy, and this wasn’t always the case. This past year of living a writer’s life, spending as much time as I can with my husband, and playing with and caring for dogs in exchange for amazing houses to live in, has been such a blessing. I am so grateful at the friends I have made this past year and the opportunities that have presented themselves.
These feelings of joy and gratitude were especially salient yesterday as I walked around a forest preserve. I thought I had been driving to another community gathering of love and peace, but it turned out I had the wrong location. Although that was bad news, the good news was I ended up at Fullersburg Woods, a forest preserve of DuPage County.
For about an hour, I wandered around enjoying the beauty of Salt Creek, before settling myself on some rocks by the Rainbow Bridge to simply be at one with nature. Although I missed the community fellowship I had been anticipating, I couldn’t have asked for a more peaceful way to spend my afternoon. And I wasn’t really alone. Spirit surrounded me, as did the rocks, trees, birds, leaves, and waves from the river.
Walking along the trail on my way back from the bridge, I began marveling at the world around me. Then, it hit me! One of the reasons I think I’m so happy is I’m able to find wonder and awe in the little things. I began thinking of what brings me the most joy in life. Here’s an incomplete list:
Laughing with my husband
Playing with dogs
Talking about dogs with my Mom
Reading a good book
Finishing a draft of a story
Helping someone edit a draft of their writing
Fantasizing about future travels, especially if they can include family and/or friends
Watching funny online videos of animals, particularly bears
It’s good to know these things because right now, there’s a lot of unhappiness and turmoil in the world. Sometimes it can be overwhelming, especially when it’s hard to know what to do in response. What I liked most about the vigil I attended on Friday is that the event was not against anyone or anything. I have often heard spiritual teachers caution against what you give your energy to, such as an anti-war protest versus a rally for peace.
With these thoughts in mind, I am recommitting myself to focus on the things in my life that bring me joy. Selfish and elitist? Perhaps. But I’m going to subscribe to the words of Gandhi: Be the change you wish to see in the world. I wish to see peace and happiness. So that’s what I’m going to be. Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me…one youtube bear video at a time.
I’ve shared this picture through social media before, but given how ridiculously cute it is you can expect me to share it every February 14th(ish) until I die. I also like to believe that little squirrel created his tree art just for me, but it could have been for somebody else.
Regardless, I can still remember the wonder I felt as I turned around a corner on the Naperville River Walk
and came across the little fella scampering around.
Then I saw the heart and I could have melted on the spot. Thankfully it was too cold in Naperville for that to happen, but at least my hands weren’t frostbitten enough that I couldn’t take out my phone to snap a few pictures.
Seeing my little squirrely love note came at just the right time, too, because I was feeling pretty lonely at that point in my life. I had recently given up my dog, Jack, to my parents in Harrisburg, PA.
His dementia was getting progressively worse and me being at work for 8+ hours a day wasn’t helping. I feared I would come home one day and find him in agony because he had eaten something he shouldn’t have.
My parents, in one of the greatest acts of kindness I have ever received, offered to take care of Jack. They no longer work outside the home, and my older brother also lives with them, so there’d be plenty of people to keep Jack company throughout the day.
In addition, one of my best friends at work had moved on to a new job. Even though I felt thrilled she was finally out of a position in which she was clearly underutilized and, frankly, not fairly compensated or appreciated for her talents and work, I still missed our daily interactions. I didn’t have many other close friends where my office was located and many days I felt isolated.
That song had been in my mind a lot at the time. A local musician performed it at an interfaith New Year’s Day celebration in downtown Naperville and I became hooked. I honestly can’t say if I’d never heard it before or
if I just hadn’t heard it with my new evolving life perspective that there was a lot more to the world than the little life I was living.
I ended up playing it on repeat on my iPad many times that winter and each and every time I felt a renewed sense of love and spirit in the world.
I’m very glad I have these reminders about love because as of late, I haven’t been treating myself with very much love. I don’t know why my narcolepsy seems so much worse these past few months, but I feel frustrated and demoralized that some days my greatest accomplishment is making it downstairs in the morning to feed the dogs.
I then surf the internet ad nauseam because it feels like I’m doing something, but I know I’m not, and so I beat myself up for it – I should be writing; I should be reading; I should be working on my website; I should be doing anything other than mindlessly thumbing through social media to the point where my eyes glaze over and I doze off.
Is this because of narcolepsy or inertia, I can’t say for certain. But in addition to feeling tired from a disease, I am tired of “shoulding” on myself (perhaps another disease in and of itself). My husband has very kindly and lovingly pointed out that it’s okay for me to take breaks and maybe I should cut myself some slack. Why is it that these “shoulds” I am more inclined to reject than embrace? These are the same things I would tell (have told) my loved ones when they beat themselves up. I would never let anyone talk to my family or friends that way, yet somehow, I accept it for myself.
It’s a funny situation because when I realize my hypocrisy, I get further down on myself for not remembering to be more enlightened. It seems like an endless patter, until I finally reach a point where I remember that violence in any form, which to me includes emotional bullying, sarcasm, and insults, is unacceptable. And the way I mentally beat myself up is violent.
This recognition is a good thing because above all I want to be a peaceful a person.
And if I can’t be at peace with myself, how can I expect to contribute peacefully to our world?
I put a little love in my heart and I try to remember how much I have to be grateful for, as well as remembering that you never know when you might turn a corner and find something so wonderful you didn’t even know to hope for it.
Most of my formative adult years took place in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Thus, it should surprise no one that some of my favorite holiday specials are the Thanksgiving- and Christmas-themed episodes from Friends. At the top of the list is The One Where Ross Gets High, featuring Rachel’s traditional English trifle and Monica and Ross outing each other to their parents for all their past misdeeds.
I still laugh a lot when I see this clip from Friends, but now I’m older I can’t help but spend some time reflecting this Christmas on what the Christmas skull means to me. I don’t mean to be morbid, but Phoebe is right. At Christmas, people still die.
These thoughts might be forefront in my mind because one of the dogs we’re caring for was recently found to have a mass on his spleen. He’s ten-years old and aside from a major surgery which may or may not prolong his life at all, there’s nothing else to be done for him. After agonizing over the decision, his doggy parents decided they would let him spend his days in the comfort of his home, surrounded by the rest of his pack, and meandering around the 20 acres on their property. It’s a nice way to go if you ask me, much better than being cut open and having an internal organ removed on the small chance of surviving an extra few months.
Or I could be thinking this way because of my cousin, Becky. In December, 2013, she was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 43. She passed away just four short months later.
Then there’s my friend who confided in me that it may be the last Christmas for one of their friends who has a degenerative illness. My friend wondered what to possibly get for this person and their spouse, knowing this will likely be some of the last time they have to spend together.
It’s a sobering thought to consider Christmas gifts as last ones ever. Does it make the iPad or gift card seem less relevant? Does it invoke a need to simply be with someone and let them know how much they mean to you? All thoughts to consider as we wait in line at checkout counters hoping to get the best sale of the season.
Then there’s the narcissistic, egotistical, and human side of me. What if it was my last Christmas? How would I want to spend it? What would I wish for? I spent some time reflecting on these last two questions and quite surprisingly I found a lot of comfort in the answers I came up with.
More than anything, though, I would want to spend as much time as possible with my husband. We would hit as many National Parks as we could, preferably bringing along some key family members and petting as many dogs as we could along the way.
I would also finish my first novel, which I’m delighted to report is thisclose to being done. After that, there would be only two other things on my wish list – for the children’s stories I’ve written to be published and to see a bear in the wild. The first would be easy enough, with my talented roster of friends, and the possibility of self-publishing. Plus, my husband is well aware of this wish of mine and I have no doubt he would spend whatever time necessary to get them published in my absence (just one of the MANY reasons I am so devoted to him). The second, well, if I got to cuddle with a baby polar bear at my death party, I’d be happy to let go of my desire to see one in the wild.
Here’s the best part about my wishes, though, and the reason I find so much comfort in my answers: this last year, I’ve spent most of my time working towards them on my own, without the threat of imminent death. Heath and I were blessed with a wonderful wedding reception from my NC friends.
We spent time with both my parents in Harrisburg, PA, and his parents in Smyrna, TN, and we have plans to do again soon.
My niece and I went on a spring-break-roadtrip extravaganza in the American Southwest stopping off at the Petrified Forest and the Grand Canyon
and my husband and I now travel all around for the sole purpose of petting and loving other people’s dogs (and cats and homes, too).
I write almost every day and agents are currently reviewing my picture storybooks. There still hasn’t been a bear sighting, but I am constantly on the lookout.
So, as we countdown to Christmas, I’d encourage you to spend some time quietly reflecting on what you would do differently if you knew this would be your last Christmas. Then go out and do it! If not for you, then do it for Moon, my cousin Becky, and my friend’s friend, and everyone else out there who will only get one more Christmas.
“Hallelujah.” Sophia repeated the last word of her father’s favorite song seven times as the music faded. She closed her eyes on the last few, then allowed the final note to wash over her. It did not bring her renewal or a sense of hope as it usually did and as Sophia made her way back to her seat she could not bear to look at anyone.
Tears lingered on Sophia’s face so she brushed them away with an errant hand. She reached out for support, imagining she had someone next to her whose hand she could hold. It was times like this Sophia second (and third and fourth) guessed her decision to end things with Colin.
Sophia had dialed Colin’s number several times that morning; yet every time she went to press call her father’s words of “never settle” ghosted through her mind. So now she sat at her father’s funeral alone.
Oh, this is stupid, she thought to herself as she continued wiping away tears. Sophia was not really alone, as she was surrounded by her mother, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. Her heart beat full of love. It just occasionally skipped a beat as there was one small piece of it missing.
Sophia had hoped Colin would fill that hole. And he did in some ways. Colin had many of the values important to Sophia, including honesty, determination, and intelligence. What he did not have was a passion for the arts, particularly music, and that made Sophia feel like there was still room for someone else. Thus, she ended their relationship. Sophia did so with kindness and appreciation for what Colin had brought to her life because that was her father’s second life lesson – Never settle, but don’t be a jerk about it.
Maybe it isn’t settling, Sophia thought as she watched her mother dab away her own tears with a handkerchief. Maybe that’s just what love is – to find someone who helps fill the void. It could be my fault. Maybe I’m the one who made the hole too big to begin with. Maybe it’s up to me to fill some of it on my own?
Sophia’s mother reached out and grabbed Sophia’s hand, jolting Sophia from her ruminations. Here she was at her father’s funeral thinking about Colin. Yes, she would call him tonight. As she came to this decision, she felt the emptiness in her heart consume her and it felt like the moment she watched her father’s life pass from his body.
Oh, Dad! she cried from her heart and then she heard his words echo again, “Never settle.” Sophia knew he was right and even though she craved even the smallest amount of intimate comfort, she would not call Colin. That would do both a disservice, not to mention it would make her a jerk to reach out when she had no true intentions of rekindling their relationship. She would honor her father that way, too.
For the rest of the day, Sophia stuck with her decision as she watched her father lowered into the ground and then celebrated his life with her loved ones over casseroles, sandwiches, and cakes. She began to waiver as she gave her mother one more hug goodbye in the parking lot, and so she decided to pick up some work on her way home to hopefully keep her mind occupied.
Sophia’s heels echoed down the silent and dark hallway of her school as she made her way to the music room. She felt small and lonely. Dad, I need your help, she thought as she again considered calling Colin.
As Sophia opened the door and flipped on the light, she blinked a few times and then her eyes settled on the four beautiful sunflowers perched in a blue vase on her desk. A card sat propped up on it and she reached out to open it.
Her eyes shined with unfallen tears as she read the contents:
Dear Miss Maxwell,
I’m so glad we found such a talented music teacher – hallelujah – I didn’t think this position would ever get filled! Let me know if you have any questions about the school. I was a newbie last year, so I know what it’s like and I’d be happy to show you around.
Peter Cohen (English Department)
Sophia read the card two more times. She did not know who Peter Cohen was, but she could not help but notice the one word that tied him to her father. In the quiet of the room, she started singing again. It soothed that empty place in her heart and Sophia knew whatever happened, she would not settle. She would find what she was looking for and in the meantime, she would sing.
Garden Victory Part 5
Before Peter knew it, he and Sadie had walked two blocks. He turned around as she sniffed at a fire hydrant, trying to recount the steps they had taken that got them to their current location. In the distance, he could hear the bells ringing from St. Michael’s steeple. Peter sighed as the sound reminded him about the new music teacher at his school.
“Come on, Sadie, let’s keep walking.” Peter tugged on her leash as they moved down the street, but the distance did not separate him from his thoughts of Miss Maxell.
He didn’t even know her first name. She had started at the school last week. Peter overheard her singing in the music room one day on his way to the teacher’s lounge. He stopped outside the door and listened as she sang a Beatles’ medley to herself. At first he stopped because the Beatles were his favorite band. A few moments later he was hooked as her voice seemed to reach the very depth of his core and when she started in with Here Comes the Sun, a desire ignited in him to find a guitar and start playing along.
“But we don’t play the guitar anymore, do we, Sadie?” Sadie ignored Peter as she was now sniffing a bench. He let her sniff away to her heart’s content as he remembered the last time he played his guitar. It was before his divorce three years ago. Peter had just gotten back from an open mic night at the local pub when he found a note on the table. Dear Peter, it began and then in a way so generic Peter wondered if she had copied the letter from the Internet, he found out his wife left him.
Since then, Peter turned into a shell of a man. His day to day motions were simply to get him through to the next day, then week, then month, then year. As he and Sadie ambled on, he felt a jolt inside him as he realized just how long it had been since he had even talked to another woman in that sort of way. I don’t even know what I’d say to her, Peter argued with himself as he made the case for doing nothing. I’d make a fool of myself.
Or doing nothing would make you the fool came his own retort. Peter tried to ignore this sentiment, otherwise that would mean putting himself out there and possibly getting hurt again.
“We don’t want that, do we, Sadie?” he asked to reassure himself. Peter, expecting no response, was unprepared as Sadie pounced on something laying on the sidewalk and he felt himself tumble over.
As Peter straightened himself up, he saw Sadie struggling to get four long-stemmed sunflowers into her mouth. Their bright yellows and reds burst through the gloom of his heart like a beacon of hope.
Peter gently pried them from Sadie’s mouth. He dried them off with the side of his shirt and examined them. They seemed no worse for wear and Peter looked around to see if anyone appeared to be missing them. He stood up and held the flowers in his hand, staring down at them as an idea formed in his head.
“Good girl,” he told Sadie with a smile as they turned around to make their way home. Peter knew exactly what he was going to do with these flowers and now he just had to find a card to write on so he could welcome Miss Maxwell to the school.
Garden Victory Part 4
Arthur watched from the back of the church as the congregation processed up the aisle. Some of the people went back to their pews, where they belong, thought Arthur, and some of them headed for the exit. As they walked past him, Arthur grunted, disgusted by the lack of respect these individuals had for the Body of Christ. Damn you, he thought. You’ll burn in hell for your sins. Even though a large part of Arthur took comfort in this judgment, a smaller part pitied the fools. Such a stupid price to pay, eternity in hell, just to avoid traffic.
Arthur checked his watch. Mass had gone over long. It was now six o’clock and they still had fifteen minutes to go. It was the windbag priest. “Anything extra goes back to St. Michael’s,” he repeated a dozen times discussing the bishop’s annual appeal. Finally, the priest got to “The Mass has ended. Go in peace,” and Arthur headed for the nearest exit.
On the way out the door, Arthur made sure not to make eye contact with the woman collecting change for the parish’s refugee resettlement program. Stupid immigrants. He hated that St. Michael’s contributed so much money to these foreigners. Why should a complete stranger get his money?
The woman tapped him on the arm. “We could really use your help,” she said.
He ignored her and started walking faster. As he headed across the street to his car, Arthur prayed the woman would leave him the hell alone. He looked up just in time to see the look of horror on the young girl’s face as she slammed on her brakes.
“Watch where you’re going!” Arthur yelled.
“I’m sorry!” The girl looked shaken. “Are you okay?” she asked, getting out of the car.
“No thanks to you,” he huffed.
“I was just trying to help.” Arthur didn’t say anything and started towards his car again. The girl seemed to dither on the spot, then reached into her car and pulled out four sunflowers. They had long stems. “Here, take these,” she said as she shoved them into Arthur’s hands. “To make up for almost hitting you.” The girl seemed to think she was doing Arthur a great favor what with how she smiled getting back into her car.
Arthur threw the flowers on his front seat. What the hell am I going to do with these, he thought as he drove away. He hadn’t driven too far, when he noticed a flyer on his windshield. It was asking for donations for refugees. At a stop sign, he grabbed one of the flowers and tried to use its stem to remove the flyer. It didn’t work, so he tossed it out the window. He chucked the other three out after it. There, he thought. Maybe a refugee will find them. He drove away leaving the flowers behind. Arthur chuckled to himself. Now, that’s the kind of charity I can get behind.
Garden Victory Part 3
Kayla sat in the parking lot. Twice she opened her car door, but each time slammed it shut. She kept looking through the restaurant window, seeing the girls clustered around a table. They laughed and smiled, scooping up ketchup with French fries and slurping on sodas. It was no different than the cafeteria at school. Not one of them seemed to have a care in the world.
Kayla sighed, looking at her body. She never knew what to feel about it, what with half the posts on her Facebook feed celebrating a big and curvy female body and the other half telling her she could get rid of her muffin top in as little as 21 days. But Kayla liked her muffin top. It gave her something to hold on to when she was feeling shy – she could cross her arms and hold herself tight – and then maybe she could get through whatever it was she needed to.
For right now, though, Kayla felt sure that getting past the girls inside was not something she needed to get through. So she stayed in her car, turning it back on. As she headed to the drive through she put down her window. Just then, two of the girls came out, drink cups held in their hands like trophies. They snickered as Kayla drove by and stopped a few feet ahead of them, waiting for the cars in front of her.
Kayla pretended not to notice as the girls strode past. But she couldn’t ignore their calls of greeting. “Hey Kayla,” one said. “Watcha gonna get?”
Kayla shrugged, but the girl didn’t give up. She pulled a dollar out of her pocket. “Here,” she said, throwing it through the window and laughing. “Keep it to their dollar menu. Maybe then you won’t get so fat.”
The girl didn’t wait for Kayla’s response, which was good because Kayla didn’t have one other than to turn bright red. Once the girls had gotten into their own cars and driven away, Kayla pulled her car out of the line and drove off in the other direction.
After a few miles, Kayla realized that she was lost. She hit the GPS button on her phone and waited for its instruction. “Turn left onto Hummingbird Lane,” it commanded, so Kayla did.
A quarter of a mile down the road, Kayla stopped. There in front of someone’s yard was a beautiful display of cut flowers. They were all propped up in paint buckets with the words 25 cents each written in black marker. The buckets spanned the entire length of two picnic benches. At one end was a metal box with an opening. Honor System it said.
Kayla grabbed the dollar bill on her seat. She picked four sunflowers in various shades of reds and yellows and gave the dollar in payment. She smiled as she got into her car, thinking that flowers were better than French fries anyway.
Garden Victory Part 2
Margie dragged the last of the empty paint buckets to her garage. She would take them out to the curb later. Back inside, she flopped on her couch and stared up at the ceiling. She nodded in satisfaction. Painting all her ceilings had been the right choice. It took three long weeks, but what else would she have done with that time?
A little voice told Margie exactly what she could have done with that time. For a second Margie considered knocking on Stella’s door. They had been neighbors on Hummingbird Lane for over 10 years and best friends ever since. Well, except for the last month.
Margie still wasn’t sure what happened. Half-hoping, half -joking she asked if Stella would consider chopping down her weeping willow tree. Margie’s new pool turned out to be one big hassle, especially the daily cleaning of debris. Most of it came from Stella’s weeping willow.
“How dare you,” Stella yelled. “Matthew planted that tree 30 years ago when we moved in!”
“I’m sorry,” Margie told her. “I didn’t think….”
“That’s right you didn’t. Just like you didn’t think when you decided to get that piece of shit pool in the first place.”
Their fight escalated after that with a lot of sweeping generalizations, over-exaggerations, and dredging up of the past as is wont to happen when two people who have a long history and love each other get into a fight. Margie and Stella had not spoken since then, so Margie had plenty of free time on her hands. Enough, to paint her chipped and cracked ceilings which Stella had pointed out made her house look run down. As Margie continued to stare at her ceiling, her phone rang.
“Margie? It’s Sophia. Listen, I know you and my mom haven’t talked much lately, but could you check on her?”
“Is Stella okay?
“No. It’s my dad – he was diagnosed with cancer a month ago.”
“Jesus,” Margie breathed. “I had no idea. I’ll call her.”
“Margie, it was fast spreading. The doctors said there was nothing they could do. Dad died this morning.”
In a split second it was as if their fight last month had never happened. “I’m going over there now,” Margie said and she hung up.
Margie found Stella laying in her garden, only it wasn’t a garden anymore. Every single plant was hacked to shreds with the colorful blooms scattered everywhere. She saw the weeping willow high above Stella’s house swaying in the breeze. Margie’s own tears now echoed its sadness.
“Come on,” Margie said as she picked up Stella from the ground. “Let’s get you inside.” As they walked to the house, Margie lamented the flowers they trampled on. Then she remembered the empty paint buckets in her garage. They could hold dozens of flowers. Perhaps their beauty wouldn’t have to be wasted after all. Margie gave Stella’s shoulder a squeeze. “And don’t you worry, I’ll take care of this mess.”
Garden Victory Part 1
Stella stood among the sunflowers, daisies, peonies, hydrangeas, and roses. The tears that rolled down her face hit the ground. She looked around to see if her sorrow had been absorbed into their roots. But the flowers didn’t wither and die. Instead, they stood tall and luscious; the sun showering them with vibrancy and life.
“Traitors,” Stella muttered. “It’s like you don’t even care that he’s gone.” Stella reached down and pulled her gardening apron to her, wiping the remaining tears from her eyes. As she did a pair of shears fell out of the pocket. She knelt down to pick them up, but stayed on the ground paralyzed by the flowers towering over her. Were they really as callous as they seemed?
Stella turned the shears over and over in her hands. The ground felt hard underneath her, but somehow that did not encourage Stella to get up. What would Matthew say about her sitting in the garden, she wondered. Would he behave in typical Matthew fashion and call her silly, laughing as he pulled her up? Give her a hug and a kiss on her forehead?
Well I’ll never know, Stella thought. Matthew is dead and I’ll never know what he would think about this. I’ll never know what he would think about anything again.
Stella continued turning the gardening shears in her hands. As she did, the words, Matthew is dead, turned over in her mind. The words and movement both seemed involuntary and she didn’t know how to stop either. She started squeezing the shears together, just for something different to do. Then, as another torrent of tears was unleashed, Stella began hacking the flowers closest to her. Down came the roses.
“Bravo,” they seemed to shout, taunting her with every snip of her shears. “Now you’re getting somewhere.” So, she kept going. Down came the hydrangeas, then the peonies, and the daisies. Last, came the sunflowers. She did not stop until every flower laid on the ground, their remaining foliage and stems at half-mast of where they had once been.
Stella looked at her work. “There,” she cried, sobbing into her hands. “Now you’re dead, too.” Stella wasn’t sure if she meant the garden or herself. She sank to her knees again, but this time the ground wasn’t so hard. The flowers cushioned her like a bed, soft and welcoming. Stella laid down. Maybe if she lay there long enough, the summer sun would somehow bring her back to life. So she closed her eyes and waited.
I didn’t plan to write about bears two weeks in a row, but then this past Saturday happened. It was completely unexpected, but I had the most extraordinary encounter with two bears, Gus and Ida. These aren’t just any bears, they happen to be polar bears which is my favorite animal of all time. Gus and Ida also happen to be figments of Caron Levis’ and Charles Santoso’s imagination, but that does not make them any less real to me.
Ida, Always, was the first book I came across that day and so naturally I immediately picked it up and started reading – how could I resist a picture book about polar bears?! At about the halfway point, my eyes started tearing up. By the end of the book, tears flowed down my cheeks and I looked around to see if anyone had noticed my emotional unraveling at a simple children’s book about friendship, love, and loss.
As usual, no one was paying the slightest bit of attention to anyone other than themselves or their children,
so I wiped my eyes and tried to get my act together.
I can’t remember ever being so moved by a picture book. When I was finished with it, all I wanted to do was call my husband and tell him I loved him. Being still in the library, I didn’t think it an appropriate venue for an emotionally-charged phone call declaring gratitude and affection for our relationship, so I waited until I got home. But even after I affirmed my love for him, I was still thinking about Ida, Always.
Reading this book was a gift; not only did it inspire me to connect with someone I love and feel appreciation for our life together, but it also inspired me as a writer. These feelings are especially apt as I start pitching my own picture book stories to agents.
One of the things I struggle most with my own work is how to know when it’s my very best. Last May I attended the SCBWI’s Wild, Wild, Midwest conference in Naperville, IL, where one of the recurring lessons presented throughout the conference was only submit your best writing. Apparently, a lot of people don’t and it makes for very large slush piles and tired and frustrated agents and publishers.
At that conference, authors, agents, and publishers all made recommendations on how to revise your own work (which I do) and stressed the importance of critique groups (which I attend on a regular basis).
But it’s hard to have an unbiased and blind eye towards your own writing in determining the quality of it.
That’s why I’m so excited and grateful for my most recent bear encounter. I now have a new benchmark for my manuscripts. In addition to following the typical rules of story arc, character development, and pacing, I will ask myself the following: what sort of emotional response does the story evoke? If I cannot identify what I want my readers to feel because of my story and if I do not see evidence of that response in their feedback either through direct comments or personal observation, then I will know that my story still needs some more work. I feel grateful to have this guidance and I am optimistic my writing will continue to improve.
In the meantime, I will continue to reflect upon Ida, Always, a story that is perfect in many ways. Thank you for coming into my life. If you end up being my only bear sighting for the time being, I’m okay with that.