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)

QUIET WALKS and BABY SQUIRRELS: Four Tips To Help the Writer in You SLOW DOWN (and See the World Anew!)

On a recent walk, I noticed a squirrel scurrying up and down a tree carrying bits of thatch and leaves, to line her nursery, I guessed.  A couple weeks later this baby squirrel showed up on my porch. Could he be one her babies, I wondered? 

I don’t about you, but during this pandemic, going on walks has become a soul-nurturing necessity, so every day I strive to intentionally slow down and savor the little things. With all that’s going on the world right now, it would be easy to miss these little glimpses of joy and wonder and that would be a colossal shame. 

This deliberate slowing down has gotten me thinking about my life as a writer. I’ve discovered over time that my most satisfying writing days are those in which I pause from the hectic pace of it all to ponder chirping birds or baby squirrels (or whatever) – in other words, to allow myself to slow down enough to see the world with the child-like wonder we all once possessed.

Heaven knows, the publishing world moves slowly enough, so what’s the rush, really? Especially, when there’s so much pleasure and inspiration to be gained from pausing to see the world from the unrushed and wondrous perspective of a child!

Now, in celebration of child-like wonder and the pleasures of slowing down, I offer you:

 FOUR Tips to Help the WRITER in You SLOW DOWN (and See the World Anew)

  1. SPEND TIME with a CHILD.  There’s nothing quite as perspective changing as spending time with a little one.  Play a game together. Ask questions. Talk. See the world through their eyes. (During this time of social distancing, this can be done virtually!)
  1. CLEAR the CALENDAR for a morning. Then find a spot, preferably outside, and be still – or go on a quiet walk as I do. Listen to the sound of the wind rustling the leaves or the peals of children’s laughter. Quietly follow the trail of a chipmunk. What is he doing? Where is he going? You will be amazed at how alive and fresh everything (and you) will feel!  And, if you are anything like me, you will come away with at least a dozen new writing ideas.
  1. DEDICATE an AFTERNOON to READING PICTURE BOOKS.  As soon as libraries and bookstores re-open, settle yourself down in the children’s department of your local library or at your favorite bookstore and READ!  Pick old favorites as well as newer titles.  Before long, those stories will transport you to the magical world of child-like wonder. Have a notebook handy because you never know what long-forgotten memory your reading will stir.  (And for now, go investigate the books you have on hand, or tune in to the many virtual read-alouds that are temporarily available – thanks to the generosity of many publishers – during this unprecedented time.)
  1. Investigate AUTHENTIC CHILDHOOD WRITINGS.  These can be your own childhood writings or, if you’re like me, you’ve also saved your children’s writings.  I always ask my kids permission to read through their old school journals and story folders, and they always grant it.  I’m so happy they do, because those journals, as well as my own childhood scribblings, are precious sources of authentic kid-talk and they always inspire me.

Happy Monday all! And may we each find time to stop and revel in the wonder of small joys – both new and old – and transform them into amazing new writing pieces.  

MOTHER’S DAY: An Act of Kindness Remembered

Mother’s Day, for me and perhaps for you, too, is bittersweet. On the sweet side, I feel so blessed to be a mother and I love spending the day with my children. On the sad side, my heart also hurts a bit because it reminds me of my mother, who was so wonderful, and who I still miss.  And so, in her loving memory, and with thanksgiving for the a very special editor and illustrator who both played important roles in blessing my mom in her last days, I’d like to share a special memory.  I hope it blesses you too, with the reminder of just how powerful simple acts of kindness can be. 

Here’s how this special memory unfolded:

It was October 2013 and my mother was suffering from ALS. Except for labored one or two word bursts, had lost the muscular ability to speak and was growing weaker day by day. One morning as I was praying for her – she lived 6 hours away in Virginia – it suddenly struck me that she might not live long enough to see my first book, GOODNIGHT, ARK, published. 

My mom had been a great encourager to me on this journey into children’s book writing and I’d always appreciated her artistic perspective (she was an artist) as she read and critiqued my manuscripts. She and I had been so excited to learn that Jane Chapman would illustrate, and now, I realized, she might not get the chance to see those illustrations. 

 A wave of sadness poured over me and I emailed my editor, Barbara Herndon, at Zonderkidz, to ask she if she had a sketch or illustration sample or anything that I could share with my mother while she was still able to communicate – even if only in a limited way.  Within the hour, she responded that yes, of course, she could send something  – and not just anything – she had already special ordered two folded galleys of the entire book – and when would I need them by.  

Already feeling blessed beyond measure by this act of kindness, I now added that my sister and I had a special trip planned to see our mother. In just over a week, we’d both be swooping in from our faraway homes for a special mother-daughter weekend. It was short notice, but Barbara did not hesitate. She said she would do her very best to make sure they arrived in time for that visit and immediately made arrangements for them to be ailed by overnight express to my parents in Virginia.  

The pictures here, taken by my sister, show me with my mom and dad opening the package from Barbara and then enjoying the folded galley together. 

Because Barbara responded so quickly and so kindly, my mom was able to enjoy Jane’s illustrations and she even got to communicate her love for the illustrations with Jane via a short email. Then, Jane – in her own act of kindness – sweetly responded to my mother’s thoughtful artistic reflections about Janes’ illustrations.  

It was a very special shared moment made possible by a compassionate editor who responded above and beyond the call of duty to make something special happen for a dying woman (my mom) and her daughter (me). 

I will forever be grateful for that act of kindness and it came just in the nick of time. My mom passed away a month later – and that trip with those folded-galleys turned out to be our last -and very treasured – time together. 

And now, on this Mother’s Day, if you find yourself missing your own mom, perhaps this will inspire you to dig deep and find a special memory that will bless your soul.

Take care, all!

MONDAY MORNING BLESSING: A Chipped Mug

I chipped a mug today. Not just any mug. It’s a mug my mother and I bought together a few years ago. She lived in Colorado at the time and I lived in New Jersey.  She had one just like it and I when I drank from it, I would think about us sipping tea together, even though we were apart physically.  The connection I feel with that mug has only gotten stronger since she passed away.  When I sip from it as I read or write, it’s almost as if my mother is nearby, looking on in her loving way.

I think I can still use the mug for a little bit, but the crack runs long and I know that bacteria will set in and that at some point very soon I will need to set the mug aside and say goodbye do it. All this has gotten me thinking about things that are temporal versus things that are eternal.

This mug is temporal — and by that I mean it is earthly, physical, finite. Very soon it will join a remarkably large collection of other dishes that I have chipped, broken, or shattered. 

But the love I have for my mother is eternal, just as is the love I have for my family, my husband, my children, my father and my grandparents. Likewise, I know that the love God has for me and for our world is eternal and that gives me great hope in this moment in which we find ourselves. 

As we step into this week ahead, my hope for me (and for you to, if you are willing) is that we would focus on things eternal even in the midst of the temporal. 

Blessings to you!

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!

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!

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!

HAPPY HALLOWEEN from Little Owl!

Little Owl Halloween with text

LOOK! Little Owl, the sweet protagonist from LOVE IS KIND (Zonderkidz, 2018), is all dressed up for Halloween with spider buttons and a pointy hat.  And he’s got his little jack-o-lantern, ready to fill with Halloween treats. In this sweet illustration, created by illustrator Lison Chaperon (thank you, Lison!), it looks to me like he’s also whispering to Dragon that he’s ready to share his candy along the way and say please and thank you at every house he visits.  (That’s showing showing thoughtfulness and love in true LOVE IS KIND style, don’t you think?) Happy Halloween, all!

LOVE IS KIND Blog Tour: FINAL Stop

Since a central theme of LOVE IS KIND is spreading love and kindness, for this last stop on my blog tour, Darlene Beck Jacobson asked me to reflect on three acts of kindness that have touched me as a picture book author. However, as I pondered which to choose, one stood out from the rest. It’s one that I’ve been wanting to honor for a long time, but wasn’t sure how.  So thank you, Darlene, for asking me to write this post because, as it turns out, this was exactly the “how” I was looking for.  So, dear readers, grab a cup of tea – and some tissues – and head on over. I’ll make it easy.  Here’s the link.

NINE TIPS for Reading Picture Books with Babies/Toddlers

New Parent MeetupLast week I spent a special morning at the New Parent Meet Up at Farinolio‘s, sipping coffee and sharing a little bit about myself and my journey into picture book writing… along with some tips and reasons for reading to our babies. Here are a few pictures that capture the joy of the morning.

During my mini-informal presentation, one of my mama friends also captured this snippet of a sweet reading-related testimonial about the special bonding demonstrated years ago when my son was born 16 weeks early.

I hope that this clip  – along with the nine tips that follow -inspire you to read, read, read with your babies – and babies on the way! Now, without further fuss, are the nine tips I shared.

NINE TIPS FOR READING PICTURE BOOKS WITH BABIES and TODDLERS: 

Tip #1: Make reading time special. (It’s about more than just reading. It’s about
bonding, interacting and fostering love of story and storytelling.)

Tip #2: Ask questions. “Where’s the___?” “Who/what’s that?” “What’s ___ doing?”

Tip #3: Read anywhere, anytime. Read often.

Tip #4: Add simple actions and/or sounds. (Like animal sounds)

Tip #5 Vary the delivery. Sing the story. Use different voices.

Tip #6: Let toddlers turn the pages. Anticipate what will happen.

Tip #7: Extend the story with an activity. (Like counting or drawing)

Tip #8 Read the same stories again and again… if they ask! That’s how they learn and grow.

Tip #9: Establish weekly library visits. (Let them pick some of the books.)

Happy Reading, all!