KNIT THE TOWN: Thoughts on HOPE, LOVE, COMMUNITY (and writing)

A few weeks ago, I was asked by Teresa Murray, an extraordinarily creative knitter here in my hometown, if I wanted to participate in a surprise project to dazzle and cheer our little downtown clock plaza with yarn. We’d be yarnstormers, she explained, and the goal was to knit and/or crochet colorful creations which we would then wrap around the clock, lampposts, trees, benches, bike racks etc.  No need to buy new yarn, the challenge would be to use whatever we had on hand.  I immediately said yes, for I love a challenge and especially one that celebrates and blesses community through art.  

I chose a tree with a 72 inch circumference and quickly had a vision in my head of what I wanted to create – a patchwork of happy patterns framing the the word HOPE.  

Then, each day for two weeks, I spent at least an hour a day (and much more towards the end when I realized the project was bigger than I anticipated) knitting.  Since the final project needed to stretch 72 inches, I divided the project into three panels that I sewed together at completion.  The center panel featured the letters H O P E each offset by colorful complementary yarn.  I knitted the side panels patchwork quilt style, creating the brightest and cheeriest variety of colorful patterns that I could think of including stripes of all varieties – both vertical and horizontal, dots, checks etc. And I used the largest needles I had, size fifteen, intentionally knitting loosely for maximum stretchiness.  

When finished, it only measured 50 inches in diameter and I was worried it wouldn’t stretch around the tree completely.  But, thankfully, it was strong and plenty stretchy and I was able to wrap it around my assigned trunk and sew it in place with ease.  The result?  Success! Joy! 

It now hangs for a limited time with the knitted and crocheted creations of fifteen local “fiber artists” as Teresa so charmingly has called us.  Each piece is unique and together they fill the space with color and joy.  I’ve been down town a couple of times since the installation and have enjoyed watching people sit in the plaza enjoying the installation as they sip coffee or nibble ice cream.   

My hope is that the installation will be a reminder that hope lives and that, with intentionality,love and respect for all, we can come together as a beautifully diverse community (and world) of humans – each special and unique – but lovingly knit together into one humanity – just as all the colorful bits of yarn in this installation have come together to create beautiful works of art.

And the writer in me can’t help but be reminded that writing stories and poems is a lot like knitting. And that like these knitted creations, stories and poems also have the ability to bring us together and instill hope. Surprise, surprise, I’ve even written about the parallels between knitting and writing on this blog – twice!  Here are links.  Enjoy!  

SMITTEN with KNITTIN’: Writing in Verse 

KNITTING: Writerly Wisdom for the NEW YEAR (from a nine-year-old)

LOVE IS KIND: FIVE TIPS for Fostering KINDNESS in our Kids

I’m excited to share that a lovely little interaction on Twitter with a first grade teacher who shared how she had just read LOVE IS KIND to her students and tagged me – has resulted in an end of the year virtual school visit with the first graders at her school! I sometimes get discouraged  that all this social media socializing doesn’t seem to make a difference – but here’s a positive example of it working in a special way to make a very memorable experience for some first graders (and their parents and teachers) during these stressful times. I will let you know how it goes!

What makes this special visit extra special is that one of the very reasons I wrote LOVE IS KIND was to show in fun story form what love and kindness in action could look like. Now, in celebration of this teacher and her class, I thought it would be fun to share a few book-inspired tips to foster kindness in our kids. My hope is that they will inspire you and your little ones to follow in Little Owl’s footsteps and spread love and kindness near and far.

Tip #1: Be kind yourself. As Grammy from LOVE IS KIND would most certainly remind us, our little owls, I mean kids, are watching our every move. They are learning from us, seeing if our words match our actions. If we want them extend love and kindness to others, we must first be intentional about being kind ourselves in ways big and small.

Tip #2: Brainstorm ways to be kind. Little Owl was kind and loving every step of the way on his quest to get Grammy those chocolates, but he didn’t realize it until Grammy pointed it out. Sometimes reminders are helpful, so after reading the story, spend a few minutes brainstorming with your children some ways we can be kind to others. Consider having an older child write down your family’s ideas, then put them on the fridge as a visible daily reminder.

Tip #3: Make “good manners” a habit. Did you notice how polite Little Owl was throughout the story? And how good manners came so naturally to him? He said things like, “Have a good day!”, “Congratulations!” and “That’s nice.” I suspect Little Owl’s mama and papa and teacher were hard at work on a daily basis instilling those simple niceties. As parents (and grandparents) and caregivers, we can do the same with our kids so that when they are out and about those kind and friendly interactions are second nature.

Tip #4: Wear “kindness glasses.” I like to wrap up author visits by challenging the kids to be kind to those around them just like Little Owl. To help them remember this, I have them first hold their hands together so that thumbs and fingers touch to form a heart shape. I explain that these are their kindness glasses and I ask them to look through them every morning when they wake up and we all try it, which generates giggles all around. Then, while looking at them through my heart-shaped glasses, I challenge them to find at least one opportunity before the sun sets to extend kindness to another in an unexpected way. The silliness is part of the magic and it sets the tone for a good day. (Note: This tip pairs nicely with tip #2)

Tip #5: Catch each other being kind! Grammy caught Little Owl completely by surprise when she pointed out that he’d shown love and kindness along the way to Grammy’s house. And what was Little Owl’s reaction? He was thrilled! He realized HE was the gift and that his kindnesses towards others were better than any store-bought gift. Likewise, your children will be delighted when you notice their kind deeds. And this, I am certain, will spur them on to more and more and more! And that should make every parent’s heart sing. It sure makes mine!

Blessings to you and your kids as you lovingly instill in them hearts for spreading love and kindness.

Note: A version of this post previously appeared on Jean Matthew Hall’s delightful blog.  Please also enjoy her review of my book GOODNIGHT, MANGER, along with her rich archive of posts about both the writing and reading of picture books. And while you are there, be sure to check out her Bountiful Blessings Picture Book Series. Thank you, Jean!

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: Tending the Soul DAFFODIL Style!

As I was out for a stroll with the pooch the other day (one of my Covid19 anxiety-relieving strategies), I was struck by the beauty and diversity of the daffodils in my neighborhood. I had no idea there were so many varieties – all heralding spring as they stretch towards the sun in full bloom. I was so moved with feelings of joy and calm, even in the midst of this pandemic which has me quite unnerved, that I stopped at several spots along my walk to take pictures of them with my phone.  I’ve been wanting to share the pictures, but wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to say.

Then, just before bedtime, this lovely email popped into my inbox. It’s from Miss A’s second grade teacher. Miss A, as many of you may know, is now in 9th grade, but this teacher was a favorite and over the years we’ve bumped into each other at the super market and such. This note reflects a different kind of interaction- a fleeting drive by that I didn’t even notice at the time.   Here are her sweet words:

Hope all is well with you and your family. I often see you walking with your husband or dog. One day I saw you walking and taking pictures of flowers and it brought a smile to my face!!! Of course I always thing of [Miss A] when I see you.

After I read her note (which brought a smile to my face), I knew what I wanted to say in this blog post because I’m pretty sure the flowers she saw me taking pictures of were these daffodils! Of course, I’ve also been taking pictures of cherry blossoms, apple blossoms, azalea, teddy bears in windows (part of a town scavenger hunt to keep the kids entertained) and more! Those particulars don’t matter. The point is she caught me doing two things that are helping me to stay calm and even joyful in this time –– going on walks with the pooch and my husband –– and stopping to enjoy small things, like daffodil blossoms, along the way!  

So here’s my thought for the day. Like these daffodils, who bloom with such gorgeous diversity during this most unusual spring, we too can thrive, and even find calm and joy, in the midst of this anxious moment. There are lots of ways to bloom and thrive. For me – a walk helps.  Others find joy and peace in baking, or taking up beloved hobbies like quilting or knitting. I’ve spotted more people than ever out for runs and bike rides. Virtual gatherings have also helped to bring a sense of connection and love for many during this time. 

How are you finding ways to reach for the sun and dance in the breeze – during this unprecedented moment in time? As these daffodils remind me, there is not a single right way to tend your soul.  But however you choose to do it, I hope you take a little daffodil time today to nurture yourself. I, for one, plan to go on a nice long walk and see what small joys I can find along the way.  Happy Wednesday all!

SUNDAY REFLECTION: Thoughts on Wind and Faith

As it says on the banner above, this blog focuses on matters of reading, writing and life. Today’s post fits squarely in that last category. I hope it resonates as you walk through your day on this second Sunday (at least for us in New Jersey) of heightened regulations due to Covid 19.

I could really hear and feel the wind this morning as I was out on my first walk of the day. As it rustled the new spring leaves and tousled at my hair, I was reminded that God is present in the midst of this pandemic, even if we can’t see Him. And if we open our hearts we will sense His presence. 

But as I walked on, soaking up this beautiful, if brisk, sunny morning, it also struck me that God’s presence isn’t actually unseen. I cannot see the wind, but I can see how it makes flowers dance and branches sway. Likewise, I cannot see God, but I can see His movement as He works through those around me with acts of kindness, compassion, grace and more. I wonder how God will work through me and you today? Blessings, all!

The Christmas Memory That Inspired GOODNIGHT, MANGER

Have you ever wondered what inspired the author to write your favorite Christmas picture books? Well, we can’t answer to every story, but this week I’ve teamed up with fellow Christmas picture book authors Glenys Nellist, Mindy Baker, Crystal Bowman and Elizabeth Jaeger to present five days of “What Inspired the Story?” where we’re each sharing a short video clip describing a Christmas memory or tradition that inspired us to write our books.

Today it’s my turn today to share the inspiration behind GOODNIGHT, MANGER. And if you want to be sure to hear all the others, I invite you to like/follow me and the others on Facebook and Twitter. That way you’ll be sure to see all five of us share our stories because I’ll be sharing everyone’s inspirational clips all week. Enjoy!

SETTING THE GEARS IN MOTION: Writerly Thoughts inspired by my Antique Clock

In addition to the little toy train (circa 1906) that was my grandfather’s and the glass box that contains a chunk of the old-fashioned soap I helped make at the local 1740s living history museum where I volunteer, one of my favorite possessions above my fireplace is the pre-civil war mantel clock that I acquired from a dear family friend 15 or so years ago.  

Pre-electric, the clock needs to be “set in motion” each week by a steady winding of the gears using a lovely antique key, followed by a a gentle sideways nudge to the pendulum.  It’s a joy and a responsibility to do this each week, for my deliberate efforts set in motion not only a delightfully soothing tick-tock as the pendulum swings and the hands on the clock move forward second by second, but also a deeply resonant hourly chime,  set in motion by means of a coiled wire that releases a hammer that strikes the chime. 

All this winding, ticking, swinging and chiming is also a weekly reminder to me that “setting the gears in motion” is an important part in the life of a writer.  Nothing happens, writing-wise or clock-wise, if gears aren’t set in motion. In fact, with an antique clock, neglecting to set the gears in motion each week, if prolonged can freeze up the mechanics, thus destroying the lovely old-fashioned tick and gong that I so enjoy. 

Neglecting to set my writerly gears in motion on a weekly, or even daily basis, can have a similar effect. Not that my writing mechanics are destroyed, but I definitely start to feel rusty, and if I don’t do at least something to keep those gears in motion on a regular basis, it takes much longer to get back into a nice writing groove -or productive “tick-tock”, as I like to think of it. 

Now, with the holiday season upon us, it might be hard to find long stretches of time to pursue writerly passions, but not impossible!  With that in mind, and inspired by my antique mantel clock, here are FIVE ways, we can keep our writing gears in motion, even when life gets busy. 

1. If writing daily through the holidays is the goal, “setting the gears in motion” might simply mean getting up 30 minutes earlier to do just that.

2. If  trying a new genre is the goal, “setting the gears in motion”  could mean something as simple as going to the library and checking out several books in that genre and using them as mentor texts so that, either now or in the new year, you will be ready to write that first draft.

3. If getting a manuscript ready for publication is the goal, “setting the gears in motion” might mean taking thirty minutes every few days to revise again… and again… and again.

4. If publication us the goal, “setting the gears in motion” can be something as preliminary and vital as researching possible publishers or agents who might be good fits for your work… and then (when ready) sending that your best pieces off!

5. If  promoting an upcoming release is the goal, “setting the gears in motion” might mean taking daily small, but proactive, steps to set up a blog tour, arrange for book store visits, reach out to your publicist to see what they are doing etc.  

“Setting the gears in motion” doesn’t have to be big and splashy. It just needs to be intentional and weekly, or even better, daily. Take it from my clock – regular devotion to the craft we love best, pays off!  

Keep ticking and have a wonderful week!

CHRISTMAS THOUGHTS: The Inspiration behind GOODNIGHT, MANGER

Last week I had the honor of sharing my writing journey before a delightfully packed hall of residents and guests at Kendal at Lexington, the vibrant continuing care community where my dad lives.  The talk was enjoyed by all (me included, once I got over my butterflies), especially because it was accompanied by a colorful slide show.  The favorite slide by far was this one depicting two tender moments that inspired me to write GOODNIGHT, MANGER.

On the left, my daughter, then two, gently cares for her new baby doll, given to her by my mother on her birthday. It was with the same tenderness, just a couple of months later (and for several Christmases beyond that as well), that she would care for the little Baby Jesus that was part of our nativity set.  She’d carry him around the house saying things like, “Baby Jesus crying. It’s okay, Baby.”  Then she’d gently feed him or rock him and sing a lullaby. Before listening to her tender play, I’d never thought of Baby Jesus as ever crying. But, he was human (and God) and so he must have cried.  (And in GOODNIGHT, MANGER, He does!)

On the right, you can see what a noisy and unhappy participant my sweet daughter was in the Christmas Pageant held at her school when she was three. Moments after this picture was snapped, I scooped Miss A. up and enjoyed snuggling with my little angel while we watched the nativity story unfold together. There were plenty of angels that day, so it was just fine that she sat out, and the NEXT year she was happy to participate. I think, at barely three, she was overwhelmed by the packed chapel – just as Baby Jesus, in my story, was also overwhelmed by the bustling stable.

A third inspiration experience, not pictured above, was the sweet memory of singing lullabies to Baby Jesus with my kids. Miss A. and I even recorded ourselves doing it once, so we could share the moment with my parents who lived half a country away. You can see it here:

Finally, GOODNIGHT, MANGER was prompted by a personal desire to write a fun Christmas-themed book that would center on Christ, rather than Santa, in what has become a very secularized Christmas season. I wanted to write a Christmas story that would be fun for anyone to read, but which would point them in the direction of Jesus – the real gift of Christmas.

Here’s my closing thought for the day: With only six weeks or so until Christmas, now is the time, before the hustle-bustle of the holiday season sets in, to be thoughtful and intentional about how you will share the story of Christmas with your little ones. 

With this in mind, over the course of the next few weeks, I will be sharing ideas new and old describing different ways families, teachers etc. can share the Christmas story with their children in vibrant and engaging ways. And I, of course, would be honored if GOODNIGHT, MANGER makes your list of Christ-focused stories to share with your children this Advent Season.  Blessings all! 

PUMPKIN TIME: Thoughts to Inspire Your Writing

I have always loved pumpkins. There’s something about their shape, color and flavor that makes me happy.

Here’s the proof:

1. When I was little I requested pumpkin pie instead of cake to serve at my seventh birthday party. (My mother honored the request but wisely also baked a cake because it turns out not all children like pumpkin pie at birthday parties.)

2. I’ve always enjoyed carving jack-o-lanterns, then toasting and eating the seeds.

3. I dressed my children up as jack-o-lanterns when they were babies.

4. I once did a picture book photo shoot in a pumpkin patch!

5. I currently have a pumpkin-themed picture book manuscript that’s out on submission with a handful of publishers.

5. This blog has not just one, but TWO pumpkin-themed posts!

That last bit of evidence (the two blog posts one) also proves that pumpkins don’t just make me happy, they also getting me thinking about writing and how we can make ours better. So, now, without further delay, I’d like to inspire your writing this week with my two pumpkin-themed blog posts. Pick the one that grabs you first, or read both. Either way, have a WONDERFUL pumpkin-inspired writing week!

My first pumpkin post focuses on pumpkin bread, (Yum!) with a writerly takeaway about the importance of conflict in baking good stories. It was inspired by forgetting to stir in a key ingredient. Can you guess what it was? Find out here: Pumpkin Bread: Thoughts on Baking Good Stories.

My second pumpkin post focuses on the pumpkins themselves and how the stories we write are like pumpkins. Curious? Then pop on over and enjoy this post: Pumpkin Time: Thoughts on Carving Stories.

P.S. Final thought: My daughter celebrates her birthday this week can you guess what she’s requested for her birthday breakfast? Pumpkin bread! The apple (I mean pumpkin) doesn’t fall far from the tree (I mean patch) does it? Just saying. =)

FAITH, HOPE, STRENGTH: Thoughts on BLESSINGS Given and Received

It’s been almost six years since my mother, whose lovely banner still graces this blog, passed away.  And though I no longer mourn her loss in the intense way I did in the months following her death, every so often, something catches me – takes me by surprise- blessing me anew with memories of how faith-filled and strong she was —even the midst of struggle.

The blessing happened again recently as I was sorting through a desk drawer. This particular drawer was stuffed with old journals, letters and photos and, in an effort to thoughtfully thin the contents, I pulled everything out so I could sort into keep and toss piles. That’s when I discovered this: 

I knew what it was immediately – one of my mother’s many sketchbooks, but I wasn’t sure exactly why it was in this drawer, since all the other contents were assorted papers of mine.

I have several sketchbooks of hers and they are all similar – a blend of notes to herself to remember – say – to pick up milk at the store – and sketches she made while sitting in concerts or coffee shops or parks. 

I opened this sketchbook gingerly and it was an instant peek into her soul.  Turning the pages, one by one, my heart filled with love for the hand that had etched each quick sketch and stylized ink creation, for they all reminded me of her. Here are some samples:

Then I turned the page and wow, just wow! Right before my eyes was the answer to a question I’d been longing to confirm for years —and regretting that I had not written down.  It was like an answered prayer —and a renewed blessing to me.

In the spring of 2012, six months before my mother was diagnosed with ALS, but when she was starting to suspect something wasn’t quite right because she was struggling to regain her strength after back surgery, despite intense physical therapy sessions at the gym, she felt overcome by fear and anxiety. So one morning, during her prayer time, she asked God to please grant her faith, hope, and strength for the days ahead. 

When she arrived at the gym she was in for a surprise.  Her regular therapist was not in that day. Instead, a new therapist, one she had never seen before, greeted her. There was nothing particularly different about him. He was just an ordinary guy, but he was kind and sweet with my mom and very soon she noticed three special things about him. First, he had two crosses around his neck (FAITH!).  Second, he had big tattoo on his right bicep that said HOPE!  And, third, as my mom explained to me afterwards, he was very, very strong (STRENGTH!). 

I remember the joy in my mom’s voice as she described this encounter to me, for she immediately saw God in the moment —using that therapist to bring her the promise of FAITH, HOPE and STRENGTH that she so longed for.  And, given my mother’s sense of humor, it arrived in the perfect package.  

It brought her such joy, indeed, that, later that day, she sketched it into her notebook —a soul-nourishing reminder that God hears us when we cry out to Him, and that if we are listening, and waiting expectantly, He will answer. 

Those drawings were primarily for feeding her soul, of course, but my re-discovering them also fed my soul. For me, and I hope for you, too, her sketches are a much needed reminder not to underestimate the power of the still, small voice of God to speak to you in the midst of your struggles – most likely in the way you least suspect – such as through presence of this kind therapist whose appearance, which reflected all three attributes my mother had prayed for that day, was just what she needed.  

Here’s my mind-boggling (at least to me), closing thought.  When that therapist got dressed that day, I’m sure he had no idea that God would use his very presence to bless a worn and discouraged woman who needed a little boost of encouragement.

Think about it. Maybe this very week, or this very day, or this very morning, you might be God’s vehicle —in a way you haven’t even fathomed— to bring Light and Hope to another. I don’t know about you, but that sure motivates me to step out into this day, with all that it brings – in kindness and love.  

May your week be filled with blessings —both received and given!

PAPA WISDOM: Taking “The Long Cut” in Life and Writing

Not only has my dad always been a loving, caring father (and more recently a wonderful champion of my writing endeavors), he’s also been a life long creator of wonderful phrases that make life a little bit funnier. Memorable dad phrases include “I’m going to get my hairs cut”, instead of haircut, “Don’t worry, Daddy-do-it”, and, my favorite, “Okay, kids, we’re taking the long cut”, the opposite of short cut, which translated means, “I took a wrong turn, so now we’re going to explore”. 

On road trips as a child (and we took many), I remember my mother would often sigh and roll her eyes (in a loving way) when Dad announced that we were taking yet another “long cut” because he was a real stickler for doing it himself (i.e. “Daddy-do-it”) and refused to stop and ask for directions, unless the long cut got really, really long, or if it became apparent that we were just going in circles and even then he might not ask for directions.

But though she might roll her eyes, I think secretly she, and certainly my sister and I, came to really love and appreciate Dad’s “long cuts”. After all, without them, we might never have discovered that little out of the way village with the wonderful bed and breakfast run by a little Scottish woman who took us under her wing the time we got lost, I mean “took the long, long cut” through some Scottish countryside. 

And without one of my dad’s “long cuts” we would never have had the amazing fascination of having a picnic in a field in Spain, next to a big, big rock, only to discover the skeleton of a cow on the far side of the rock!  (Actually, my dad discovered that and wouldn’t let us look, which I for a long time I resented, but which actually I now realize he was doing to save us from losing our appetites).

And without my dad’s “long cuts” we most likely would never have found the perfect lunch spot in a meadow overlooking the Chateau de Chantilly, or have sat on a lonesome bench on a twisty mountain road with a view like this!

Looking back on my childhood, some of my favorite memories are of discovering unexpected and wonderful spots while were were taking “the long cut” between destinations.  I see now that those “long cuts” instilled in me an important life principle, for they taught me, in a wonderfully meandering fashion, that life is richer when I’m not rushing from one pre-determined destination to the next.  In fact, in my opinion, the best part of living is being willing to take the long cut and enjoy the wonderful things you discover along the way.  Thank you, Dad, for instilling that in me!

Now for the writing tie-in:  Like many new writers,  when I first started out, I expected immediate results – i.e reaching my destination without any twists or turns. And I’m embarrassed to say that in those first couple of years, as I was exploring the craft, I submitted stories and poems to publishers far too prematurely.  Now, when I look back at my earliest pieces, I’m amazed at how stilted, clumsy and rough they are.  Indeed, it wasn’t until I slowed down and really started to savor the writing process through years of writing daily, reading, studying the craft, attending conferences, and participating in peer critique  (in other words, taking the writerly version of “the long cut”) that I began to develop into the writer I am today (who is still ever-working on improving and expanding her craft). 

So, here is my bit of writerly wisdom for the day:  Writing is not a race to get published. It’s a beautiful “long cut” journey to be savored and enjoyed. So, take heart and be patient. Join a critique group. Attend a conference. Sign up for a writing class. Read a book about writing.  Spend time at the library reading all the picture books you can get your hands on. And, through it all, keep writing, writing, writing! The results may not fit your pre-conceived conceived timeline, but if you keep at it, I think you will find that the “long cut” journey – though not short, to be sure, – is rewarding.