Last week, I experienced a one-two punch of spiritual therapy when we had an unexpected snowstorm. There I was sitting on the couch with Smudge, Faith snoozing on the floor next to me, and as I glanced out the window, the rain had turned into what looked like a snow squall.
It snowed that way for maybe an hour. Then the sun came out. The combination of snow and sun is one of my favorites for being wowed by nature, so I put on my boots and the dogs and I headed outdoors.
While we were outside, the snow started melting from the tree branches at such a rapid rate, it felt and sounded like rain.
If you’d like, you can listen to the wonder of it for yourself here.
I’ve never experienced anything like it, to feel the raindrops fall on my face, under the shining sun, while snow crunched under my feet. Then there were Smudge and Faith snooping around the yard just being dogs.
I hold on to these little moments of joy as we continue facing the uncertainty of what’s happening in the world. It’s not much, but it reminds me that unexpected events can be beautiful and wonderful and full of magic. Thank you, God, for giving me this moment, and thank you Smudge and Faith for bearing witness to it with me.
If the world seemed a little darker to you this past Monday, February 3rd, it’s because a woman named Eve Thew died in the early hours of the morning. And if the world seemed to brighten in unexpected and myriad ways in the days after that, well… that was all of us celebrating her life.
I met Eve within our first month of moving to Norfolk in September, 2016. The congregational church on the Village Green offers a creative writing group on Wednesday mornings in their Battell Chapel, and since I’m a writer, I thought I’d give it a try.
Eve was outside the chapel doors that first morning I showed up. “I’m here for the writers’ group,” I told her.
“You are?” Eve’s face lit up like someone flipped a dimmer switch to it’s highest setting. “That’s wonderful.”
Eve and I have been friends ever since.
We have spent Sunday mornings together at church, Sunday evenings together at supper, Saturdays at Makerspaces, and random other times of friendship and fun throughout these last three and a half years.
Eve was sitting in the front the first time I preached at the church. “This is so exciting,” she said, “to watch you go through this.” She then gave me a truly wonderful gift: she cried tears of joy for me when I had finished my sermon.
Thanks to Heath for taking this picture!
To know Eve is to know joy. Even in Eve’s death, there is still joy. When I ran into John, Eve’s husband of nearly 69 years, in the parking lot of the post office on Wednesday, his eyes twinkled and there was a wondering smile on his face – he told me he could still feel Eve. He marveled over the different ways Eve had let him know she was okay and happy where she was, and he was excited to keep experiencing these “joy bubbles” as he called them throughout the day. He wondered when he would next encounter Eve’s love from beyond. John didn’t know, and he couldn’t wait to find out.
I love you, Eve. I know you still can’t wait to see what I do next in this life of mine. I feel the same way about you.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year! No, I don’t mean Christmas. Although, let’s be honest. I do enjoy some good Christmas spirit, ginger snap cookies, and pictures of dogs with Santa Claus.
Dodger with Santa Claus
What I’m talking about is my annual reflection on what I would do in 2019 if I knew it was my last year on Earth as Kelly Kandra Hughes. Yes, I know. At face value a death meditation is a morbid topic, particularly during a season that is known for its joy and wonder.
But that’s exactly the purpose of a death meditation – to make you mindful of your limited time on Earth so that you make better decisions in how you choose spend your time.
You don’t have to take my word for it. As I’ve written about before, thinking about death is essential for living in joy, as written about by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in The Book of Joy, as well as happiness and productivity expert Dr. Christine Carter, PhD, in TheSweet Spot, and lay people such as Mark Manson in The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and Oliver Burkeman in The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.
During my most recent death meditation as I thought about what if 2019 is my last year alive, two thoughts bubbled to the front of my mind:
I am so blessed;
I still haven’t sold any books.
These thoughts make my 2019 relatively easy. For thought #1, I’m going to keep on doing what I’m doing. This includes:
Loving Heath as much as possible
At Athabsaca Falls, Jasper
Petting as many dogs as I can
Kelly and Phyllos
Wandering around in the woods, ideally with a dog
We never did learn who this yellow lab is!
Spending time with my family, especially my niece
Saying Goodbye at the Harrisburg Bus Station
Absent from my list is seeing bears in the wild and visiting as many national parks as I can. It’s not so much that I’m experiencing a been there and done that feeling, as these two goals came about from recent death meditations, and they majorly contributed to how I spent my time in 2018.
It’s more that in the past year I’ve learned that wonder is so much more wonderful when it’s not planned.
Instead, I will (ideally) remain open to the world around me, (try to) have zero expectations for what an experience should be like, and instead (hopefully) stay present in the moment and enjoy it for what it is.
Which brings me to thought #2: I still haven’t sold any books.
Being the optimist that I am, I am already generating BIG PLANS for all the writing I’m going to do in 2019. I’m not going to go into detail in this blog post because I’m still plotting (haha) and planning the stories that I want to write, finish, or revise next year. But I can assure you that 2019 is the year where I do my absolute best to sell one (or more) of my manuscripts to a publisher.
Let me be clear: I have made a lot of progress towards this goal. In 2018, I wrote three picture books (around 500 words each), one chapter book (16,000 words), one middle grade novel (48,000 words), one New Adult novel (57,000 words), and one adult novel that is hand-written on small yellow note pads and still needs to be typed so your guess is as good as mine for how many words it actually is. For the record, my guess is 50,000 words.
Also, for the record: I do not advise anyone to write a novel by hand. Having to type my story into Word is quickly becoming one of my least favorite writing activities of all time.
If you’re wondering why I don’t consider ALL THIS WRITING I’ve done in 2018 my absolute best is terms of getting published, it comes down to one reason.
I write books and then I don’t submit them to agents with any sort of tenacity typically required of an unpublished author. I like to tell myself it’s because God is figuring out the details and I don’t have to worry about that part of the process. That’s just a cop-out excuse.
It’s not my job to manage the universe; but it is my job to give the universe something to work with.
This time I spend on Earth is God and Kelly willing and because of my fear, Divine Providence can only do so much. If I don’t share my work with people who are in a position to publish it, then I am making it so much harder for that right-place-right-time moment to occur that God has so graciously granted me in the past.
As I thought about my death, what I realized is that I have been afraid of failing as a writer.
What if I write an amazing story and it still doesn’t get published?
What if I write a dozen amazing stories and none of them get published?
So instead I’ll watch one more YouTube video of a dog trying to sneak a tater tot or check out Instagram for pictures of polar bears or mindlessly scroll through Facebook seeing what friends/family are posting instead of researching agents or submitting my work or writing.
If I don’t do my absolute best, then I always have a reason for why I haven’t achieved my goal of being a traditionally published writer. It keeps me in my comfort zone. Giving up the fantasy that the book I’m writing is going to be my debut book and a best-seller and become beloved by millions throughout the world (all publishing goals of mine) terrifies me.
But now what terrifies me more is taking my last breath in 2019 and wishing I had done more to become a traditionally published author.
Thanks to my death meditation, I’ve now realized it’s necessary to give up my clung-to fantasies in order to make them actually come true. The only way for me to get traditionally published is to put my work out there. Agents and publishers may so no. And, if they say no, then that particular fantasy for that particular book is dead (for the time being).
That’s a scary thought and it’s one that has kept me from doing my absolute best with my writing. I have spent countless hours this past year allowing myself to procrastinate and waste time and generally do things which are counter-productive to my publishing goals.
I think I’m *finally* done with that, and I have my death meditation to thank. I am living out all my other goals and dreams and I don’t want to waste any more time on the one that I’ve wanted the longest.
So, what does my absolute best include? Not letting the fear of failure get in my way (i.e. NO MORE PROCRASTINATING), improving my writing craft, writing as many new stories as possible, submitting my work to agents, and then keep on celebrating the blessings in my life – Heath, family, and dogs.
Heath with Smudge
I look forward to the opportunity to share this journey with you in 2019. Thank you for your love and support.
This past week, my husband and I hit our seventh national park since June: Theodore Roosevelt in Medora, North Dakota. Unlike the other parks we’ve visited, this one wasn’t on our road-trip list of must-see places, nor was it recommended by anyone.
We didn’t even know it existed until I Googled “Map of National Parks,” to see if we could visit any on our drive back East. Our house-sitting job in Connecticut doesn’t start until after Labor Day, and I wanted to make the most of our time on the road.
My husband wasn’t sure he even wanted us to stop. We had just spent 8 very hot days in a not air-conditioned apartment in Dixon, Montana. That wouldn’t have been so bad, but trains also blew by multiple times throughout the day, blaring their horns. Every. Single. Time.
Including five in the morning.
We also knew that temperatures would be soaring close to 100 in Medora and instead of being concerned about bears infiltrating our camp site we would need to worry about rattlesnakes.
Apparently, they are everywhere in the prairies of Montana and the Dakotas.
But I had my heart set on visiting the park ever since the internet informed me that wild horses lived there.
I didn’t know wild horses lived anywhere in the United States other than the islands of Chincoteague and Assateague off the coast of Virginia. So, YES! I wanted to visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Instead of camping, we decided to stay in a small hotel right outside the park entrance. It was worth every penny! Every morning we got up before the sun and hit the scenic loop in the south end of the park. There was wildlife everywhere.
Even More Bison!
I know I used a lot of exclamation points, but in my humble opinion six isn’t nearly enough to express how excited I got with each new animal sighting.
In addition to all the animals, another positive aspect of the park was lack of crowds. For every early morning we went out, Heath and I would be the only ones driving on the loop. We missed the sunrise the first morning by a few minutes (mostly my fault, as I wanted to stop and take pictures of horses and bison), but the second morning did not disappoint.
We also spent time learning about Theodore Roosevelt, the person, and Theodore Roosevelt, the president of the United States. His connection to Medora, ND, is tragic: At the age of 25, he went there to recover from the deaths of his wife and mother; they both died on the same day – February 14th, 1884.
The Visitor’s Center at the park features a Theodore Roosevelt museum, as well as the Maltese Cross Cabin, where Roosevelt spent his mourning period.
Historians believe that it was Roosevelt’s time in North Dakota that eventually lead him to become a great conservationist later in life. Earlier, however, he practiced the appalling hunting practices of the time, many of which were cruel and inhumane.
Considering the great work that Roosevelt did for animals and the environment later in his life, I can’t hold his earlier actions against him. I suspect he felt a significant amount of regret for the choices he made earlier, and who am I to judge?
We watched a movie on Roosevelt’s life while at the Visitor Center. Towards the end, the movie featured this Roosevelt quotation, which struck me as being relevant and profound for the world we currently live in:
“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”
Roosevelt said this on May 13, 1908, as part of his Conservation as a National Duty conference he held at the White House with governors and statemen from across the US. I find it ironic and thoroughly depressing that 100 years later many of the people in charge of our “lavish resources” don’t even seem to care about asking these questions any more, let alone trying to protect them.
Over the next week or so when you are out and about in nature or see a picture of a natural place that touches your heart or soul, please remember the above words of Theodore Roosevelt and ask yourself: What would I do if this place was gone?
Don’t give yourself a free pass by saying that would never happen. Because it could happen. It is happening to some places thanks to our current government.
Just think about the place not being there.
See how you feel.
And then take a moment to say thank you because right there and then, you are still able to appreciate the beauty of God’s green Earth while we still have it.
Today I turn 41 years old, and today my blog turns 2.
These last two years have been the best of my life! That’s not a coincidence. Nor is it luck, magic, or random chance.
Anyone who reads my blog on a regular basis knows I value mindfulness. I’m a big believer in taking stock of my life on a regular basis and checking in to see how I’m doing.
I also believe in God. When I say God, I do NOT mean I believe there is a some man with a long white beard and a gold letter G on a white robe hanging out in heaven with a score card keeping track of my every move.
Because I was made in God’s image … and I don’t look like that! Neither do approximately 7.5 billion people on this planet.
Although, my good friend, Lem, does so maybe that what’s God looks like to him.
To me, God is the Divine Source of energy or Spirit, that connects us all to each other and to the universe. The holiest Holy Spirit that resides and dwells in each one of us. Both male and female.
I can’t take credit for that idea. I learned it from Father Don McLaughlin at St. Thomas the Apostle in Naperville, IL. On Mother’s Day 2013, I sat in a church pew mesmerized as Father Don discussed God as loving Father AND Mother and how the feminine is nearly forgotten in the church today.
Now that was an idea I could get behind.
In fact, when I now pray to God I pray to my Loving Father/Mother God. So my Our Father prayer begins with Our Father, Mother, Spirit Who Art in Heaven.
This realization that God is Mother and Father to us all and we are all a part of God is why I care about girls receiving an education in Burkina Faso, children being separated from their parents at the US borders, and polar bears losing their habitat in the Arctic.
Because I am them and they are me. The only difference between us is that for the Grace of the God, I ended up being born to the parents I did.
So when I take stock of my life on a regular basis, it’s to make sure I’m on the right path. The one that God intended for me, and the one in which I am an active participant and creator.
Two years ago for my birthday, my best friend Arlene sent me a beautiful card in which she hand-wrote a prayer for me. It’s from Matthew Kelly, founder of the Dynamic Catholic movement.
Prayer by Matthew Kelly. Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash
I’ve been saying this prayer every day before I start my morning meditation for two years now.
Even when I added Rumi’s Prayer of the Chalice to the start of my meditation practice because I wanted to keep the practice fresh, I still found myself saying the one Arlene sent.
It’s not like you can go wrong with TWO prayers.
I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that these past two years have been the best of my life. My life is God AND Kelly willing, and I choose for it to be this way with love and guidance from God.
So on my 41st birthday, I say thank you to God for showing me where I need to be in my life and what I need to be doing, especially these last two years.
These last two years brought me to Norfolk and gave me more dogs to love than I could possibly imagine, friends that keep my spirit up when life gets me down, a community that makes me a better person, writing that makes me proud and takes me one step further towards my goal of published author, visits with family near and far, travels to new and wondrous places, and time with my husband to love and laugh and love and laugh some more.
There has also been loss; of course there has! This is life, after all, and that comes with being here. But through the love around me and which dwells in me through God, I am able to accept it and channel it into making me a better version of myself.
Thank you also to everyone who reads my blog and supports me on my journey. I couldn’t live this life without you either.
I, however, grew up in a family that considered a three-star hotel roughing it.
Nevertheless, I have changed a lot in my adult life. One of my favorite ways is that I’ve embraced the restorative and healing power of nature. Some of my greatest moments of joy in the last year have occurred simply by walking through the woods with a dog.
So, I approached camping with an open mind and an enthusiastic spirit.
My husband approached our first camping adventure together with some trepidation.
One of his biggest concerns was that sharing an air mattress would result in poor sleep for both of us. Ironically, he slept great and I slept okay. For someone with narcolepsy, okay sleep is actually quite good.
Case in point: for the first time in years, I averaged more than 8 hours of sleep a night. One night I even slept for a solid 12 hours!
Our trip to Glacier had been planned since December. But I’ve wanted to visit Glacier for years.
Overall, I found the park … meh. The Internet isn’t kidding when it says national parks get crowded in the summer time. More than a few times I had the thought that I was in a more open-air, natural version of Disney World.
If you do not get up early to secure a parking spot at any of the park’s trailheads, which we did not since we were too busy enjoying good sleep, then a good chunk of your day is spent searching for a parking space. Sometimes, you may even have to give up and go home. We heard quite a few people complaining about that in and around the park.
There are also people EVERYWHERE!
The experience reminded me of when I visited Machu Picchu in December 2015. At some points in MP, I literally stood in a line just to walk to the next observation point. That’s the first time I drew a parallel experience from Disney World to an outdoor experience.
Since most of my time prancing around nature in CT is people-less, I had gotten use to the tranquil solitude that comes with those experiences.
I had zero similar experiences in Glacier. That’s not to say there weren’t any moments of wonder or awe for me, because there were actually quite a few. Checkout these views:
At the same time, not everyone experiences awe the same way I do. Take our hike up Avalanche Trail, for example.
The first time we tried this hike, we got rained out. We went back the next day and trekked up the mountain. The scene at the top took my breath away.
Yet my moments of delight were interrupted by a 20-something year-old, maybe even a late teenager, who stripped down to his shorts and splashed around in the lake. His friends called him crazy, snapped pictures, hooped and hollered it up, and then turned their attention elsewhere after a few moments. This guy then proceeded to yell at them, “I’m peeing in the lake!” Cue giggles and shrieks from his friends.
I can’t really get mad at a kid for acting immature. If he’s been reinforced to act this way by family and friends, he may not know any better and at this point in his life he may not want to know any better. I can only send him a silent prayer of blessing, which I did, and turn my attention to myself. Which I also did.
I sat on a rock watching this chipmunk live his best life (video).
I threw rocks in the lake contemplating the profound nature of the ripple effect (also a video).
I watched my husband take photographs.
And then it started to downpour (it rained all week), so we headed back to the trail. On our way, we met a beautiful tanager.
My Glacier trip ended up being different than I wanted it to be. And that’s okay. Some of it exceeded expectations (YAY camping) and some of it fell below (BOO peeing in a lake). Then there’s the fact that it SNOWED in July. I didn’t even know that should be an expectation! (video)
What truly matters is I had new experiences, learned a few things about myself, spent time with the person I love most in this world, and met several new dogs.
I guess that means it was perfect.
For anyone so inclined, please send love and prayers to Diane and Fred, Tana’s mom and dad. They were our neighbors at the Apgar campground and we’ve stayed in touch. Tana had to be put down last week. Love to them and anyone who is missing a loyal animal companion.
I’ve never been one of those people obsessed with supermodels. Until I found out that there’s such a thing as wildlife supermodels. Meet Bruno!
And, yes, he really is this good looking in person, plus he oozes charm. I mean, what bear doesn’t?
In all seriousness, I really didn’t understand the concept of a wildlife photography model until my husband and I took part in my Christmas 2017/Valentine’s Day 2018/Anniversary 2018/Birthdays 2018/Christmas 2018 present to ourselves.
All the way back in December 2017, I was watching episode 309 of Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild. In this episode, Jack and his wife visited a ranch in Montana to photograph bears. Hmm, I thought. That would be the perfect present for my husband for Christmas, et al., since he’s a photographer and I’ve wanted to visit Montana for many years now.
I immediately Googled Triple D Game Farm and discovered that they offer photography workshops for the public. There were a whole host of options to choose from, such as horses or birds of prey.
The choice was tough. I, however, couldn’t resist a workshop featuring baby wildlife. With this option, there’d be a little something for both of us: adorable animals for me to dote over and new photography skills for my husband to master.
I was determined NOT to make the same mistake I made last year in surprising my husband with his birthday present.
One of the things I love most about my husband is his curiosity and drive to learn as much as he can about anything that interests him (which is a lot). A few years ago, he made a goal to be fluent in Spanish by December 2017. I wanted to support him, so when a Norfolk friend told us about a Spanish immersion school in which she and her daughter attended in Antigua, Guatemala, I surprised my husband with a week-long program for his birthday last year (May 2017).
Unfortunately, because I wanted the trip to be before December 2017, the only time that worked for him to travel to Guatemala was at a time when I couldn’t go with him. In hindsight, I should have said to heck with the goal date, because I missed out on my husband’s first international trip. We could have hiked a volcano together!
Lesson learned! So, hello, baby wildlife!
The workshop was lead by an incredibly talented and knowledgeable photographer, KathleenReeder. After observing Kathleen during the workshop, I felt a renewed sense of certainty that I made the right decision to quit my teaching job two years ago. Kathleen is a natural teacher, who thoroughly enjoyed what she was doing and enthusiastically shared her gifts with others. In other words, a model teacher who embodied many of the qualities I lost (or never had) after choosing a profession by default rather than true interest and passion.
Every day the photographers would assemble at the crack of dawn to work with different animals, which included baby foxes, wolves, coyotes, otters, pine martens, Canada Lynxes, and a juvenile mountain lion.
Perhaps I’m just naïve, or, maybe the animal lover in me is too attached to the possibility that I could be wandering around the woods and happen across Canadian lynx kittens posing in a log and get to witness the adorableness of it, but I had no idea a lot of wildlife photos are staged.
Watching the animals land on their marks during photo shoots in between romping and playing is something I will marvel over for the rest of my life.
Then, I met Bruno.
You may be thinking that Bruno is not a baby animal, and you’d be right. I think Bruno is maybe 6 years old.
As part of the workshop, participants were offered the opportunity to photograph additional species for a fee. Talk amongst the participants who had previously attended Triple D workshops was that Bruno the Bear is a ham. He’ll pose during his photo sessions and look at the photographers to make sure they’re watching. He loves laughter and applause and applesauce and wants everyone to love him loving those things.
Of course, I suggested we participate in a Bruno the Bear photoshoot. No brainer, really. Just look at him!
Since I was only attending the workshop as a “sidekick,” I wasn’t allowed to take any photographs of the animals myself, lest I be charged the full cost of attending. So, the photos in this post are some of my husband’s cast-off photos. He said he’s saving his best ones for his own social media purposes, unless I wanted to pay him. HAHA, he’s such a funny guy. He and Bruno could be BFFs, if Bruno wasn’t, you know, a wild bear who just happened to also be a supermodel.
It finally happened! After hoping and praying for, well, my whole life to see a bear in the wild, on Tuesday morning while driving through Grand Teton National Park, my husband and I saw a mama bear with her two cubs frolicking in a pasture. I couldn’t stop smiling, and yet…
Just a few days prior, this happened when my husband and I were driving through Custer State Park in the Black Hills, South Dakota.
And the day before while driving through Badlands National Park, we saw our first bison
Which was preceded by bighorn sheep,
prong horn antelope (at least I think that’s what they are),
and the cutest prairie dogs you ever did see!
Then there are ALL THE DOGS, I’ve met so far since leaving Illinois:
Plus, Oompa Loompa!
And one of the cutest kids I’ve ever met in my whole life, who seemed in awe of my husband and his feet.
In all of these situations, I felt feelings of wonder and joy. I laughed a lot and even teared up a little at some of them, especially the bison because of how close they were to us and Lucy the dog because of how much she reminds me of Smudge, one of the dogs that we care for long-term in Norfolk, CT, during the fall and winter. Also, because she carries her blankie with her everywhere and makes the cutest rumbly noises while doing so.
Something, however, felt less than joyful with my bear sighting. Don’t get me wrong – I loved every minute of it and I even put down my phone because I wanted to stay in the moment, and I couldn’t get a good picture, anyway. So, I let myself watch those bears run, and romp, and play.
Then, we drove away and I became aware of a small sense of disappointment that was gnawing at my brain. I couldn’t understand why I had these feelings.
As a psychologist, I know about the pitfalls of having expectations and how the brain can too easily adapt to surroundings so that a novelty wears off quickly, and, in fact, I’m reading a book right now called The Happy Traveler: Unpacking the Secrets of Better Vacations, which explains how our brains can be our own worst enemies on vacation (very useful reading for a three-and-a-half-month road trip.)
Yet, none of those reasons seemed to ring true for what I was experiencing in that moment.
Then, an a-ha moment came out of nowhere! Or, in my case, it poked its head out of the woods and looked right at me as my husband drove us down the road.
“WOLF!” I cried. “HEATH, THERE’S A WOLF!”
We both saw this majestic, white creature with grey trim stare at us as we drove the stretch of road between Yellowstone and Grand Teton.
By the time we turned around, the wolf had disappeared. And, then, I knew.
I knew exactly why my bear experience had felt less spectacular than seeing all the other creatures, great and small, on our road trip so far.
As we drove into Grand Teton, I asked a ranger where to see the best wildlife. “Oh, pretty much anywhere,” she replied. “The North end of the park is especially good. We already had a bear sighting this morning.”
We drove further and further North, until finally we were greeted with a flashing sign: Proceed with caution. Bear with cubs crossing road next 6 miles.
Not three miles later we saw her. Along with maybe a hundred other people and several park rangers checking in to make sure everyone stayed safe, including the bears.
All along the way, I had been told about THIS MOMENT. Then it happened. And then it was over.
There had been no element of surprise whatsoever, no random spotting of a creature in the wild or discovery of a silly characteristic from one of my domesticated friends as I spend time with them.
One of the reasons I love adventure so much is the discovery of the unknown and pretty much everything about my first bear in the wild experience had been made known to me in advance.
But as I type this post, my feelings of disappointment are disappearing. Because, it’s hitting me again. I. Saw. A. Bear. In. The. Wild. That’s a fact, not a feeling. And, I know the difference. Looks like my PhD paid off after all!
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.
The first time I visited New York City, my mom got us tickets to see Cats for my 11th birthday. Everything about the trip and the city appeared glamorous to me – the show’s costumes and makeup, the skyscrapers and people, the miles and miles of fancy stores with huge windows that displayed sophistication and wealth.
We returned to the city several times during the next two decades or so, usually to see a Broadway show, sometimes during the Christmas season. Every time, I felt a sense of wonder and awe and for a few years of my life I fantasized about what it would be like if I lived in the New York.
My husband, who was born and raised in the Nashville, visited New York City for the first time in October 2016. As a photographer, he found tons of inspiration in the people and architecture, and he’s been wanting to return ever since. So when an opportunity presented itself for us to housesit in an apartment in the financial district of NYC this last week, we said YES!
Nearly everyone we spoke to were so excited for us to spend Christmas in New York. We received many recommendations and we made our to-do lists. We both wanted to see the tree at Rockefeller Center and the ice skating rink, so that’s where we headed on Christmas Day.
I felt almost giddy with nostalgia of the times my family and I had walked down 5th Avenue. Then we actually got to 5th Avenue and, Dear God, what had I been thinking?
Once when I lived in the Chicago area, I headed downtown on Christmas Eve to spend the evening with a friend and her mother. The city felt peaceful and quiet, with a cold solitude enveloping the night. Hardly anyone else was out and about and I delighted in how easy it was for me to find my way around and secure a parking space without parallel parking.
Naively, I held the same expectations for Christmas in New York. I could not have been more wrong.
THOUSANDS UPON THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE EVERYWHERE! People crammed onto every street corner, jostling for position to view the tree and ice skaters. SO. MANY. PEOPLE.
I still couldn’t resist having this picture taken:
Seriously, how cute is my husband?
Then we headed to Saks 5th Avenue. STILL. MORE. PEOPLE.
It was like Disney World. Literally. And I really do mean literally because this year Saks opted to have their windows display scenes from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
As a writer, I felt a huge sense of disappointment and dismay. Not to minimize the work and production that went into creating these windows, but where was the imagination in this process? Every single scene was a snapshot from the movie and I’m pretty sure most are featured on the Disney World ride.
Equally disappointing was that every window featured sponsorship by Mastercard. Although, I suppose nothing says Merry Christmas in our 21s century consumeristic society like a credit card.
Just when I was on the brink of feeling totally Scrooge like at everything going on around me, two small miracles occurred. First, I got to experience this child’s wonder at seeing the windows:
Then, I just happened to be there when the Saks’ storefront came alive in lights and music:
For a moment, I could let go of ALL. THE. PEOPLE. and I could feel the wonder around me.
Unfortunately, it didn’t last too long. I don’t know if it’s the energy in NYC or something else, but with where I am right now in my life, NYC and I are just not that into each other.
The real highlights of my trip were the animals I got to take care of and love. Meet Clyde, a mini-Schnauzer:
Schroeder, a Bichon Frise:
Sheena, a very vocal white cat:
And Heisenberg, a handsome ball of fluff and fur:
The single best part of the trip is the fact that Sheena rides around in a backpack.
We took her for a walk the first day and I’m so glad we did because it’s been so freakin’ cold every day thereafter, and even though Sheena has a sweater, it’s just too cold outside for her little body.
FUN FACT: The sweater Sheena has is the same sweater I bought for Cody the Boxer when I lived in Naperville, IL.
A gang of dogs and cats wearing matching skull-and-cross-bones sweaters? Sounds like a children’s book in the making!
There are so many benefits to the housesitting lifestyle, but at the top of my list are the sources of inspiration I encounter with each new house and animal I meet.
After this recent stay in New York, I can say with certainty that any fantasy I had about living in the city in now kaput. I wouldn’t trade the week for anything, though, because now I find myself dreaming of the stories I could write about my new furry friends.
At this very moment there could be an editor thinking to themselves, what I really want in a picture book is a story about a cat who goes everywhere in a backpack or a little dog who takes on the winter world when he’s wearing his flannel cape.
These will likely be the next stories I write. Because they’re based on my house-sitting adventures and animals I now know and love, the writing process is going to be one of joy and enthusiasm.
Nothing may ever come of these stories, although I hope that’s not the case. But in the meantime, I’m going to give myself some good laughs, stretch my creativity and imagination, and work on the art and craft of picture book writing.
Wishing everyone one a Happy New Year! May 2018 be filled with abundant joy, prosperity, love, light, and laughter.
End Note: I wrote this post before I found out yesterday that a dog I love dearly had to be put to sleep. He was surrounded by his family at the time, and although I am so sad the world has lost such a funny, loyal, brave, and true companion, I am grateful for the love and laughter he brought into our lives. If everyone who has a pet could give them a special hug and kiss from me today, I would appreciate it. The world is always a better place when there’s more love in it.