PONDERING SNAILS with EMALINE: Four Tips to Help the WRITER in You SLOW DOWN (and See the World Anew)

FullSizeRender (1)A special part of my recent trip to England was spending time with a friend who recently moved to London with her husband and three adorable daughters. My day with Charise began with a reading of “Goodnight Ark” to her girls’ classes at their lovely school in Hampstead, a village of London.  That was a wonderful treat in and of itself and I especially enjoyed answering the children’s questions after each reading, asked in charming British accents.

 

 

The readings ended at 10:30 and I think Charise’s youngest, who is just three, was a little sad not to get to spend the rest of the day at school with her sisters. It all turned out okay, though, because in the end, since Emaline was with us, it was she who got to show me the snails.

This is how it happened. First, Emaline and her mom gave us a walking tour of Hampstead. As we walked Charise pointed several spots that will be featured in the upcoming film Hampstead starring Diane Keaton, which I now can’t wait to see.  After our walk, it was still too early for lunch so we stopped in at their home for a few minutes.

Once home, Emaline took great pleasure in showing us her garden – and that’s where I met the snails. This particular morning there were only two. “Do you think this one’s the other one’s mum?” Emaline asked as we watched them move slowly across a patio stone. “Perhaps,” I answered. “Or maybe they’re friends. Maybe they play together. What do you think?”

Then, in quiet whispers, Emaline and I watched them for the loveliest long time. And, as we crouched there, I thought how good it felt to pause from the busyness of the day to ponder snails – how they might be related, where they might be going and what they might be doing etc.

This adorable interaction got me thinking about life as a writer. I’ve discovered over time that my most satisfying days are those in which, like Emaline, I pause from the hectic pace of it all to ponder snails (or whatever) – in other words, to allow myself to slow down enough to see the world anew.

Heaven knows, the publishing world moves at a snail’s pace, so what’s the rush, really? Especially, when there’s so much pleasure and inspiration to be gained from crouching down and seeing the world – snails and all – from the perspective of a child!

Now, in celebration of three-year-olds, snails and 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.
  2. CLEAR the CALENDAR for a morning. Then find a spot, preferably outside, and be still. 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.
  3. DEDICATE an AFTERNOON to READING PICTURE BOOKS.  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.
  4. 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 ponder the snails this week.

OUR NEW TREE: A Symbol of HOPE and BLESSING

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A few years ago we sold our first house so we could move a few blocks away to a slightly larger home to fit our growing family. We loved that first house and I know my son still misses it sometimes, but what I, at least, miss most is the lovely Korean dogwood that graced the front lawn.

May 2004 004To me, that lovely tree symbolized hope and blessings. I gazed on it from the window when I was on bedrest with our first child. And once he was born (extremely prematurely at 24 weeks), that tree provided precious shade as I sat with him outside and later as he toddled about. He eventually even climbed that tree, for its trunk was nice and low and its branches the perfect size for him.

Later, as we wrestled with the understanding that the risks were too high to try for another biological child, that Korean tree became a reminder that blessings come in many ways. I’d always dreamed of adopting, perhaps because I had such fond memories of my sister’s childhood friend who was a Korean adoptee. Having that tree in the front yard seemed like divine confirmation that this was to be our next step as well. Indeed, I’m so grateful and happy to say that in due time that lovely Korean dogwood also provided shade for our beautiful adopted daughter – though she preferred playing fairies beneath the branches to actually climbing the tree.P1010024

Sometimes as I sat under that tree watching my children, I would free write what would later become stories and poems. I even have a post about that if you want to read. It’s all about not being in a rush to bloom as a writer, but to savor the experience along the way.

Long story short, we’ve been in our new house several years now, and every June I’ve missed that tree. Then, during a wild storm a couple of years ago, our neighbor’s pear tree, that had provided such lovely shade for both our front porches, collapsed and so we found ourselves with a bright, sunny, treeless front yard.  We lived for a couple of summers in that treeless condition before decided that we should plant a replacement tree in our front yard.

And what kind of tree do you think my husband and I both agreed we should get – a Korean dogwood!  So, here it is brand-new and darling as can be.  We’re watering it well so that it will grow healthy and strong – a living reminder of hope and blessing for years to come.

KINDERGARTEN POETRY MOMENT: How High Can a Cow Jump?

P1010023.JPGJust in time for National Poetry Month, I rediscovered this little treasure while paging through one of my old notebooks. It’s a perfect example, not only of seizing the moment, but of the power of poetry to spark not only conversation, but creativity!  ENJOY!

“How high can a cow jump?” my newly-minted five year old asks from the back of the car – all serious and deep in thought.

“Come again?” I ask.

“How high can a cow jump?” she repeats. “You know, COWS?” And she drags out the word C-O-W-S to make sure I really understand.

“They can’t,” I reply. “Cows can’t jump. They can moo and chew grass, and they sort of plunk along slowly, but they can’t jump.”

There’s a momentary quiet in the back and I can tell by my daughter’s squiggly brows that she’s perplexed. Finally, she says, in exasperation, “Then how did the cow jump over the moon?”

As we wait for the light to change, I consider the various ways I might answer this. “It’s just pretend,” I want to say, but this, I know, will be too abstract or her. She understands real versus make believe, in theory, but in practice she still gets scared during movies with cartoon characters. She also believes in fairies and Santa and so the distinction is still very fuzzy.

So instead, I say, “Come now, can a dish run? Can a spoon dance?”

My daughter giggles. “No!”

So I continue, “Can cats fiddle?”

“No!” she snorts between giggles.

“Do dogs laugh?” I ask.

By now, my daughter is hysterical. “Say more funny stuff!” she squeals.

So I do. “Do hamsters play flutes?” I ask. “Now your turn!”

My daughter explodes with laughter. Then she says, “No! Do fish dance ballet? Now your turn, Mommy.”

And so we continue, getting sillier and sillier with each passing car. As we head for home, it dawns on me that, as a poet and picture book author, this is exactly the kind of conversation I hope my writing will spark.  And I am reminded, once again, of the power of stories and poems, to spark – not only conversation – but creativity as well!

Happy National Poetry Month all!

GOODNIGHT, ARK: Original Spread (And a Writerly Pep Talk)

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I love my porch. It’s a wonderful spot for reading, people watching, and playing board games with my kids. It’s also a great landing spot for special packages, like this sturdy parcel which landed here on Friday!

I knew this was my long anticipated birthday/Christmas gift and I couldn’t wait to unwrap it!

First, there was the bubble wrap. Next, I could  could just see the top edge in a tidy plastic encased swirl.

Finally, first through plastic…img_3782

and then – oh my – in my hand!  

img_3783-1It’s the original hand-painted spread for the “Time for bed/It’s getting dark” spread in GOODNIGHT, ARK!  I just love the details in the original – actually being able to see the layering of paint and those tiger whiskers, Jane, are just amazing!  

Thank you, Dad, for this lovely gift, and thank you, Jane for being will to part with one of these treasures!  

img_3786After oohing and aahing with my family, I took the illustration straight to my favorite local framing shop.  And Stefanie and I (Thank you, Stefanie!) spent almost two hours playing with mattes and frames and lay out options.

Now, here’s my writerly pep talk – which I very much needed on Friday, by the way. I had optimistically put $.50 in the parking meter, thinking that an hour would be ample time to select the perfect matte, frame and layout for Jane’s piece.

But after an hour, we still hadn’t found a winning combination. To be honest, I was ready to be finished, but Stephanie handed me $.50 to replenish the meter and so, even though it was raining, I dashed out to buy another hour’s time.

When I returned to the shop, waterlogged, Stephanie said something so simple, yet so wise.  Here are her words:  “Oh, good, we’ve got more time because I think you and I both know it’s not quite working yet.”  I smiled at her honesty.  And somehow, with that truth now out there in the open, it was easier to return to the quest. Indeed, shortly thereafter, tucked low on one of her revolving racks, I found a simple wooden frame that really said “Noah’s Ark” to me. Once we had that, it was suddenly clear as daylight which matte we should use.  What it took was admission that we weren’t quite there yet and renewed intent and joy in the search.  

It’s like that as writers too.  We work and work on a story, at points even hoping that it’s finished and ready to submit.  But, sometimes, it just isn’t and what that story really needs is an honest voice – maybe your own, or maybe that of your critique partner or agent – to say “Keep at it, it’s not quite working yet”.  

Then, even if your spirit feels rained on, go add money to the meter!  Keep at it. Don’t give up! Persevere!  You will make that story sing. It may just take looking at it from a new perspective, digging deep and finding a new ending twist -or bit of arc- tucked low in the recesses of your brain, waiting to be discovered. 

Happy writing this rainy  week and don’t be afraid to add extra money to that meter!

THE PHOTO SHOOT: A Day in the Life of a Picture Book (and its Author!)

 

p1060649One of the unexpected necessities (and fun bits)  of being a picture book author is the occasional photo shoot. Luckily for me, my neighbor Rick Gerrity is a photographer.  Four years ago (Sheesh, where did the time fly?) he graciously took a few book flap/publicity shots of me at home – on the porch, on the stairs and with our sweet pooch, Sophie. The front porch picture now graces the book flaps of my first two books.

Now, four years older and with two more books coming out, it seemed about time to update those photos. Rick, once again, said he’d be happy to take the pictures and really went above and beyond in brainstorming new settings that would capture the picture book spirit.  He’s the one who had the idea to visit Donaldson’s Farm in Hackettstown, NJ, a beautiful fourth generation family-owned farm, and one of only five in New Jersey that grows sunflowers for the Audubon Society!

Our morning began with a tour of the farm given by the lovely Katie Donaldson. In addition to growing 40 acres of sunflowers, they also cultivate umpteen varieties of tomatoes, asparagus, peppers, lettuce, pumpkins, peaches, apples, berries and more! After the tour, it was time for the photo shoot.  =)

I hope the photos below give you a sense of the magic of the day. My daughter came along and Rick let her use one of his fancy cameras.  Thus, the shots captured below are both hers and Rick’s. Thank you Rick, Katie and Miss A. for helping make this such a special and memorable day!

The sunflower field we used was at its peak with about 22,000 sunflowers! Breathtaking! First, we took a few shots by the edge.

Then I stepped into the field… further and further!  What fun! We took shots with the hat and without.

Next, it was time for books to have their time in front of the camera.  The pumpkin patch seemed a fun setting. It was a little tricky getting the books to balance!

When the sun disappeared behind the clouds, we dashed back to the sunflower field for a few more shots.  All in all, I think Rick took about 100 pictures!  There were many good ones, but my favorite is the one I’ve saved for last.   Happy Monday, all!p1060633

 

GUEST BLOG: Reading At Lakeside Chautauqua

IMG_0572I am guest blogging today over on The Front Porch, the official blog of Lakeside Chautauqua. We’re headed to this lovely Ohio treasure next week to enjoy a relaxed week with family – including cousins! I will also be doing a special Christmas-themed story time at Green Gables (pictured above).  My topic today?  Reading!  So, grab a cup of coffee (or tea as I prefer) and head on over to the Front Porch. The breezes there are wonderful and the post, I hope, is inspiring.  Happy Thursday!

BAKING COOKIES: Thoughts on Peace and Reconciliation During These Troubling Times

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My blog celebrates “writing, reading, and life” and mostly I focus on things writerly and readerly. This week, however, has been firmly grounded in life.  Like many of you, I have been grieving over the state of our nation at this present moment.  There is just so much hurt and bitterness and anger and racism and misunderstanding.  And this week’s news breaks my heart – two black men shot and killed by police in Louisiana and Minnesota and five police officers shot and killed in Dallas?  Will this ever end?  Is reconciliation possible?  And what can I do? What can my children do? What can you do? What can we as individuals do in the midst of this miserable time?

Foster community.  Build community. Construct bridges. That’s what.  This Sunday morning, in an act that is totally out of my shy/reserved comfort zone, I listened to that inner voice inside which whispered to me – reach out.  What we did this morning was very small, but it’s a step.

First, Miss A. and I woke up very early and baked cookies – lemon sugar cookies.  Once they cooled, we decorated each one with a little pink icing heart and placed them attractively in a box. Then we prayed that God would bless our morning call.  (After all, I think He’s the one who prompted the whole thing.)

Then, instead of going to service at our regular church, we drove to the charmingly steepled church near us that is home to a predominantly African-American congregation.  Neither Miss A. nor I knew a soul.  Nevertheless, we climbed those stairs with our cookies and our courage. I felt a little nervous, but I needn’t have.

What a wonderful morning it was!  The love and grace of that congregation filled the sanctuary. As we sang hymns in unison, I felt God’s very presence. I wondered how I would let them know the reason for my visit, or if I even should.  The answer came  with the morning announcements. Since we were clearly visitors, the pastor welcomed us. Then he asked if I had a greeting or a word to share.  My shyness threatened to take over, but I didn’t let it.  With a slightly shaky voice, I briefly spoke what was on my heart – that with all that’s going on in our country – the hurt, the killings, the divide, that I felt the Spirit’s prompting to step outside my normal routine and reach out in this way.  I added that I had also been prompted to bake cookies – and everyone laughed. I loved that.

The whole service was a blessing, but my favorite part was the altar call. We all – everyone of us – formed a circle in the center aisle. Then holding hands and leaning hearts and minds towards the altar, we prayed.  We prayed for peace and reconciliation for our country; we prayed for those who are hurt and grieving or ill; we prayed for hope and we affirmed that God is a God of life and that killing and hurting our fellow humans is not part of God’s plan for us.  And we thanked God for His love and grace.

Afterwards, we enjoyed cookies in the parish hall. I had a chance to talk and make more connections.  One of the parishioners  even said that the morning was like a breath of fresh air!  It was and I think we all needed it. When it was time to go, we were invited back anytime.  And we will be back… because  we are community and we need to come together and support each other.  Cookie by cookie, step by step.

My parting thought today, both for myself and for you, is what can I/you do this week to build bridges instead of walls, love instead of hate, and understanding instead of misunderstanding?  It doesn’t have to be anything big or complicated. It can be as easy as… baking cookies.

God bless you!

What’s Your BEESWAX? (Writerly Thoughts Inspired by my Son)

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He’s almost 16 now and hasn’t sewn much since that long-ago locker dangler.  But he’s still just as resolute, determined, and inspiring to me as ever.  (And my sewing is forevermore transformed!)  With this intro, please enjoy this old, but still inspiring, favorite post of mine.

As a sixth grader, my son took a mini-course in home economics. For the sewing component, he hand-stitched a simple felt pocket with a button loop to hang in his locker. He completed most of the “locker dangler” at school, but needed to finish the final step – sewing on the button- at home. After rummaging through my button box for a “funky” button, he was ready to get started.

I’m no seamstress, but I’ve sewn on buttons before. I’ve also hand-stitched doll quilts and sewn on my fair share of Boy Scout patches. So, in a knowing “I’ve done this before” tone of voice, I suggested that he double up his thread so it wouldn’t slip off the needle, but not make it too long, lest it get all twisty and knotted. This sometimes happens to me, and it’s a nuisance, requiring that I back up or start that section over.

My son, however, was resolute. “I’m supposed to do this by myself,” he explained. “And I know what to do.” Then, with remarkable skill, he threaded the needle, doubled up his strand and tied a tidy knot.  Finally, peering into my sewing kit he asked, “Where’s the beeswax?”

“The what?” I asked.

He looked at me incredulously. “You know, the beeswax.”  I didn’t know, but now I do, and I think my days of knotted thread might finally be over!  For, as every REAL seamstress knows, a coating of beeswax quickly applied to the thread, not only strengthens and bonds the double strand, it also makes it slippery so the stitches glide knot-free through the fabric.

Sometimes, like thread, my writing feels tight and knotty. The words don’t flow at all.  What I could really use is a little beeswax for my pen, or maybe even for my mind, to loosen me up and get those words gliding.

Thankfully, I think I’m a better writer than a seamstress. Here’s my writerly beeswax: I begin each writing session with 5 minutes (or more if I’m having fun) of just playing with words.  Somedays I’ll free write something that’s on my mind. Other days I’ll open with quick hand written list of, say, all the words that rhyme with shoe, or all the different ways a penny could get lost. Often that’s all I need to get me going.

How about you? What’s your BEESWAX?

PORCH WISDOM: Thoughts on Flowers and Life

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I’m sitting on my porch again this morning. It’s still early so it’s just me, the birds, my bible, journal, a cup of tea – and clippers.  That’s right, clippers.  And, after I reflect on Scripture, journal, pray, and finish this lovely cup of tea, I will put those clippers to good use. 

You see, this summer I bought two gorgeous hanging flower pots to decorate my front porch.  I love how they look, but I had no idea just how much tending they would require. Without daily – and if it’s a scorcher of a day, twice daily- watering, they wither. The delicate little flowers turn brown and fall off and the vine-y stems shrivel up like old twine. I know this because when I first hung them, I thought I could water them every other day. Now I know better and they are getting plenty to drink.

But to keep them truly bursting with those gorgeous blossoms, I’ve also learned that they require daily trimming.  Each morning, I snip off dead blossoms so that all their stored energy can focus on getting  all those new buds to blossom.  And as I do, I pray or think quietly aloud – yes, I sometimes even talk to them, but they love it! I love it! We are thriving together.

It just happens that this morning I was reading from the first chapter of  James. Found in the New Testament, this chapter is bursting with wisdom and exhortation, but -perhaps because of these hanging plants -I was especially struck by the verse that reads, “For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business” (NIV, James 1: 11).  

That verse, combined with my flowers, reminds me that life is indeed fleeting.  Like the flowers on my porch – that take my breath away each morning with their delicate beauty – my life, too, is filled with breathtaking blessings and riches – big and small. But like flowers, that can wither and fade even as we go about our business – if I’m not careful, these blessings too can pass by unnoticed and unappreciated.  And how awful would it be to have them wither and fade without my even recognizing them or taking the time to tend to and find joy in them!  I do not want to be so busy going about my business, that I miss the blessings, big and small, that enrich each day.  

My most precious blessing- my family – will soon awaken. And my clippers and that verse have inspired me.  No, I’m not going to use clippers on my family. But I am going to grab a spatula and bowl and make them a special pancake breakfast because we are all home today. It’s the Fourth of July and I can’t wait to tend to and find joy in their presence.

Happy Monday, all!

FIVE Things That FLOAT My Family’s Boat

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RUMBLE! BOOM! If your family is anything like mine, life can be stormy, what with the winds of busy-ness blowing us this way and that. And even if we’re not in the midst of truly stormy times, I find, as a mom, that it’s necessary to be intentional about finding creative, loving ways to stay afloat above the sea of activities and responsibilities of family living. Indeed one of the themes I hope readers (and their parents) will take away from my first book, GOODNIGHT, ARK  (Zonderkidz, 2014), is that sometimes a little extra TLC is just what’s needed to make things okay, even in the midst of a storm!

Now in celebration of TLC (tender lovin’ care) and GOODNIGHT, ARK (which is #15 on the Christian Juvenile Bestsellers’ List for May 2016!), here are five things that keep my family afloat (and happy).

  1. Morning Hugs – From the moment they came home as babies, we’ve started our mornings with what we now call the “morning hug”.  Indeed the first sentence out of my daughter’s mouth each morning is,  “Time for my morning hug.”  And mine:  “Me, too.”  My son, age 15, now gives more of a morning shrug, but we still all know that the morning wouldn’t be quite the same without it.
  2. Special Breakfasts –  These are pretty self-explanatory. I mean isn’t any day extra special if it begins with pancakes and bacon, or warm-out-of-the oven blueberry muffins? The extra, extra special twist is that these breakfasts are often a group effort.  Who wants to stir?
  3. Family Dinners – Eat together.  Talk together. Be together.  Need I say more?
  4. After Dinner Sillies – This is our family’s favorite time to let loose and be silly. We’ve done foot puppet shows, dance numbers, stand-up comedy, you name it. Anything goes, really, in this delightful post-dinner moment of relaxation before dishes are cleared and the evening routine of finishing up homework, cleaning up after dinner, taking showers etc. resumes.
  5. Pillow Ponderings (and Prayers) There’s something about the cozy comfort of bedtime that brings out a reflective spirit in each of my children. And I love nothing better than talking with my kids about what’s on their mind and then wrapping it all up in prayer, before giving each that last goodnight kiss and turning out the light. Even when I’m tired to the core, like the Noah in my story must have been when he finally settled those animals down, I wouldn’t miss these special bedtime moments.

HAPPY FLOATING, ALL!

(An earlier version of this post appeared on Becky Kopitzke’s lovely blog.)