Tuesday, April 17, 2018

On the Bright Side

Today's going to be a crappy day.

I mean that. I'm starting my prep this afternoon for the colonoscopy I'm having tomorrow afternoon. It's a routine screening procedure, so nothing to worry about, except the misery of making sure every inch of my intestines is squeaky-clean for the camera.

I'm in a bit of a funk this morning, despite all the myriad blessings in my life. I was in a funk part of yesterday, too--the 104th day of January, sleet bashing against my office window while I wrestled with my novel manuscript and mostly it kicked my--well. I stuck with it, because writers are people who stick with writing, and also because my publisher seems serious about the deadline, but I would like to point out that at no time yesterday did I feel the slightest flicker of inspiration. Nada. And yet in the end, by sticking it out, I came up with a respectable number of pages that aren't half bad.

I don't do page or word goals, by the way. I'd rather end up with 20 brilliant words at the end of a long day than 1000 crummy ones. But that's just me. All authors work differently.

Anyway, between more time on an airplane (flew up to Chicago to visit my son last weekend, weather was crummy there too but my son oh so lovely, had a great time) and lots of hours in my desk chair, my hips were hurting last night. (I sit cross-legged at my desk. It's not great posture for my hips but I've been doing it forever and am really uncomfortable any other way.) I was half-asleep in bed when I suddenly asked my husband, "You know how my hips are hurting?"

"mmm," he said.

I said, "Do you think there's any chance it's cancer?"

He woke up a bit more. "Kim," he said, "That's your IT band. It's been hurting for twenty years, and if it was cancer you'd have died a long time ago."

That cheered me right up, and I went to sleep.

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Goy On The Bus

Catriella, the PJ Library employee who was in charge of the Author Israel Experience, asked all of us lottery winners participants to write a reflection after the trip. I sent her links to my previous blog posts about Israel, but I didn't consider them my Official Reflection, because, primarily, I hadn't had enough time to reflect. I dropped back into my normal life short of sleep and saturated with new experiences, and there were broken fence boards and a horse missing a shoe and another pretending to limp (he's the drama queen) and laundry and school visits to prepare for and oh yeah a book under deadline.

I've been interested in my friends' reactions both before and after my trip. Mack, who's worked on my farm for the past 20 years, usually gets worried every time I travel abroad. He warns me of terrorists in Scotland, in Austria, in Italy. My trip to Egypt five years ago rendered him nearly speechless, and now, with increasing troubles of his own, I figured he was not going to take the idea of Israel well. I expected a whole lot of you-shouldn't-go-there and mideastern-terrorists from him.

"Miss Kim," he said instead, a few days before I left, "I need you to promise me somethin.' When you get to that Wall, will you say a prayer for me?"

I did. I wrote my prayer out on paper I ripped from my journal, and I took a photo of it, and then took a photo of it stuffed into a crevice in the temple wall. When I got home Mack asked, "Did you remember?" and I showed him the photos.

For me the Wall will ever be first its foundations, as we saw them from the ancient tunnel by which we approached it. It will be sitting in the shade while our guide Jonty explained the architecture, the vanished archway, the rubble and broken pavement left over from the temple's destruction two thousand years ago. It will be watching women pray with their foreheads against the wall and tears streaming down their faces. It will be a small group of friends walking backward away from the wall, slowly, because we wanted to be in solidarity with the women who cried.

Yesterday at Mass word had gotten out about my trip. Several people brought up "The Holy Land," and one person said, "You walked where He walked!" Jesus, sure. Standing at the Temple, or looking out at the Mount of Olives, it's impossible for me not to think of Him. But I was on the trip in search of what it meant to have a Jewish identity, not to explore my own Christianity. I left the Via Dolorosa for another time.

(The bus is trundling down a modern highway, through not-quite-desert, lots of sand and bluffs. Gail, sitting next to me, calls out, "Jonty, what's this on the side of the road?" It's a little domed church, mosque-like but with a cross on top, and a parking lot and a few trees. "Ah," Jonty says. "That's the place where Jesus was baptized." Oh, okay. No big deal.)

I was one of only two non-Jewish writers, and I think--I may be wrong--the only practicing Christian. This came out when we introduced ourselves the first night, Right from that moment my fellow writers were kind to me. They welcomed my questions. They explained traditions. Several times, different people would come up to me and ask how I was doing. Was I learning what I felt I needed to know? How did I feel about whatever activity we'd just done? Was it awkward for me? Was I okay?

The second night we had a drum circle on the beach near the Dead Sea. A man taught us all to play the drums, then led everyone else in singing a few songs. Everyone else because they were Jewish songs, in Hebrew, and I didn't know a single syllable. On the walk back to our rooms people asked, Did I feel out of place? Was it uncomfortable for me?

No, it wasn't. Because of them--because of how they welcomed me. I came to understand how songs were important in Israeli life. I could feel how the kibbutzim used to gather and sing in the evenings. I could feel the traditions--not just religious, but cultural--behind the songs. The other writers' honesty and openness made the whole trip like that for me--easy, eye-opening. I wasn't Jewish, but I belonged.

That is, until Yad Vashem. Only three of us went there, skipping a culinary tour of Jerusalem's enormous marketplace. I love markets, but I thought I needed to see Yad Vashem. Then Stacia decided to go because she thought I shouldn't have to see Yad Vashem alone, and Gail decided it might help her book, too.

I knew it wouldn't be easy. It shouldn't be easy, it ought to be dreadful. But I'd been to the U.S. Holocaust museum, and I'd seen Schindler's List and old newsreels from the liberation of the death camps. I'd seen the awful images before. What I wasn't prepared for was the beginning, the history of Antisemitism and how thoroughly it was entangled in and propagated by the Catholic church. I knew the history--but I'd never seen the vile medieval artwork before.

And then, Poland. My mother's side of the family is all Polish. They came to the United States in the early 1900s, in the wave of Polish immigration fueled by a famine in that country. My Polish side was also my Catholic side, and when I was 11 a Polish cardinal became pope, and I would have said that historically Poland was pretty much always entirely Catholic, and I would have been wrong. Poland had over 3 million Jews before WWII--about 10% of its population. And three million died in the Holocaust. German Jews had much higher rates of survival than Polish Jews. Nearly everywhere else had higher rates of survival than Polish Jews.

So suddenly this felt very personal to me. My people, my heritage, were not the good guys here. It was hard to absorb.

I also learned some very specific information that fixes the plot problem I had on a book I'm working on in my head. I laid it out to Gail and Stacia in the cab ride back to the rest of the book, and to the cabbie, too, who joined in our discussion with gusto. I would end up unable to sleep much of that night, bothered by nightmares, but when we rejoined the rest of our group, outside the marketplace, they surrounded us with tenderness and love. Were we okay? Yad Vashem is so hard. Had we eaten? Were we hungry? Here, have some food. Here, walk with us. We're going to a bakery.

The very next day we would see the Dead Sea Scrolls, up close, not behind glass, and someone would read a line from one of them, and nearly everyone would start to sing.

This is what I learned in Israel: we are all different. We are all the same. And words can last forever.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Night Flight from Tel Aviv

It's Wednesday, and I'm headed to Missouri. School visits in Chillicothe, where I spent a delightful two days several years ago--it's the second time I've been invited back to a school I visited before.  My intensive travel year is nearly over--I've got a week of visits in May, and then it's all fun and games until September.

If you're at all interested in having me visit in 2018-2019, please contact me now. I sincerely doubt I'll be squeezing anything else into October, mid-November through the end of January are booked for my husband's surgical recovery, and spring is filling up really really fast. Plus it's still marginally possible that I'll have a new book out next spring--I should know for sure in a few months--and if that happens I won't accept new visits until the launch details are worked out.

So. Last night I dreamed of airports--no surprise--and Israel. I want to tell you about my flight home, and a boy named Yoshe (that's not his name; I don't use the real names of minors in my blog. But it could have been).

To understand my night you first have to understand the day. It was our last day in Israel. We woke early in Jerusalem, ate a good breakfast (how I loved Israel breakfast buffets! a multitude of offerings I'd never eaten before. Sashushka! Berochis! (I have no idea how to spell that) Persimmions! Potato Kugel! Gefilte fish! every day I'd take a serving of whatever I couldn't identify, take it back to my table, and ask my friends what exactly I was eating. Someone always knew.), staggered onto the bus, and drove to Tel Aviv. It's not far, maybe an hour. Unlike most of the places in Israel, which pre-date Christ, Tel Aviv didn't even exist until 1909, not in any form. It feels like a very modern city, nothing at all like Jerusalem.

First we visited the house where David Ben-Gurion, founder of the State of Israel and its first prime minister, lived. He had the best personal library I've ever seen; I think we all felt a longing for it. Then we went to an adjoining conference space and had some reflection on the trip as a whole. Then we went to Independence Hall, the former Tel Aviv art museum where Israel declared its independence in 1948. Then we were turned loose on the city for nearly two hours. Mara Rockliff and I went through the Tel Aviv market--I'd missed the tour of the Jerusalem market by opting for Yad Vashem. We ate some sort of lovely flatbreads at an outdoor stand, bought spices and halva, and I had my first ever Turkish Delight. As Mara warned, I was deeply disappointed. This was why Edward sold out Narnia? I think less of him now.

The market ended near the beach. We walked along it, searching in vain for somewhere without steep rocks, so we could wet our feet, and more successfully for a public restroom. Then back on the bus to another part of town, where we had a graffiti tour, which is exactly like what it sounds--a tour of graffiti on the buildings. By now it was getting darkish. We had our farewell dinner, highlighted by a talk given by one of Israel's leading modern writers, whose name I entirely forget, though I liked him.

Then it was 8:30 at night. The first flight out--the one that went to New York, not California--left at 11:10, and given the size of the plane and the scope of Israeli security we were actually leaving it a bit late, but we all made it. I was in seat 45J--that's the 45th row back, actually the ninth seat over, the aisle seat of a group of three against the far side of the plane. The window seat was occupied by a very nice woman from Boca who had been visiting family in Israel. The middle seat was occupied by Yoshe.

He was, he told us, eleven years old. He was slender, slight for his age, an ultra-Orthodox Jew whose long forelocks were pulled back and tucked securely into the edges of his kippa. He was fluent in both English and Hebrew and I have no idea where he was actually born, or lived; he was part of a family so numerous that the very small children were seated with the parents and Yoshe nowhere near them.

He delighted being alone. He delighted in the screen on the seatback in front of him, which showed whatever movies or cartoons or video games he wanted. He delighted in the dinner they served him. He was audibly pleased when the flight attendants announced that while the only meals they would be serving were dinner right after takeoff and breakfast immediately before landing, anyone who felt hungry during the 12 hour flight could go to the middle galley and pick up whatever snacks and drinks they liked.

I was worn out from the day and the trip. I was full from dinner. As soon as we took off I made myself comfortable, glasses and shoes off, wrist guards on, neck pillow in place and a light scarf thrown over my head. My superpower is sleeping on air planes and on this one I needed no medical assistance. I was whacked.

I'd barely shut my eyes when Yoshe tapped me gently. "Sorry-sorry," he whispered. He needed to get out, and he was too small to clamber over me without banging into me.

I removed my scarf, moved my legs sideways, and said, "I'm going to be sleeping this entire flight. Anytime you need to get out, wake me up. It's okay. I won't be angry." It was only fair. He grinned.

He went off, to the bathroom I presume, then returned via the middle galley carrying a can of Coke. I went back to sleep. He turned on his overhead light (the only overhead light on in the plane, a small puddle of light, not enough to disturb me), put his headphones in, and started watching movies.

When he finished the Coke, he whispered, "sorry, sorry," pushed himself past me, went to the bathroom, and returned via the middle galley carrying another Coke.

And another. And some pretzels. Half a dozen bags. And some Sprite, for a little change, and then back to Coke again. At one point when I woke to use the toilet myself he handed me two empty cans to throw away. Then it was his turn to get up. "Sorry, sorry."

His second or third movie, Despicable Me, cracked him up entirely. He giggled and giggled. I'd been perfectly happy moving six or seven times so he could pee and refuel, but this was too much. I raised my scarf. "Quieter," I said.

"Sorry, sorry." He reached to adjust the volume on the movie.

I said, "No. YOU."

"Ah." A big grin. "Sorry, sorry."

He was quieter. He kept drinking soda. He never once slept, not for one single blessed moment, whereas I, despite everything, slept for 10 hours. With interruptions every eight ounces or so.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Things Change

I've got 20 minutes to write and post something before I have to leave for yoga; I have to leave early because my yoga studio moved and I don't know exactly how long it will take me to get there. (Previously, it was exactly 10 minutes away--so my aim was always to leave at 8:10 for the 8:30 class knowing that I usually run a few minutes late. Today I'm leaving at 8. Or so I tell myself.) I'm tetchy about the studio moving. The old studio was for me an extremely safe space, a place of total security and comfort, and it messed me up for two weeks when they painted the walls a different color. So I expect to be out of sorts at yoga today.

I want to write more about Israel but I'm not sure I can. Something awful happened to one of our group late last week--unexpected and thoroughly horribly awful--but it's not my story and I won't say more, except that I had come to feel quite connected to all the people on the trip and now we're connected by sorrow and concern for our friend. So that's hard.

Yesterday was Easter. It was the first Easter Mass I celebrated at home for something like 13 years. Once the children hit school age their spring breaks always started with Good Friday, and we love to travel--I've heard Easter Mass at the Duomo, at Notre Dame in Paris, at St. Mark's in Venice and in a cinderblock church in a very remote part of Costa Rica. Yesterday we had a nice Mass at home, and later I made nachos. My son went to church with friends in Chicago and then had brunch out. My daughter went to church with friends in Philadelphia and then went on an unsuccessful trip to find Peeps, because they heard that if you stuck toothpicks in the Peeps and then put a pair of them in the microwave the Peeps appeared to be fencing. Unfortunately the stores were fresh out of Peeps. The Penn fencers must have got there first.

I want to say something profound, about loss and resurrection, perhaps, or the universality of love and grief, but really I've got nothing this morning. A cup of coffee. Yoga in a new studio. A trip to the grocery, a horse getting a shoe back on. Novel-writing. Laundry. One usual blessed day. Perhaps. It's early.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Unpacking Israel: The Surface Layer

Last night my husband had a business call at 8 and after that we were going to watch Survivor. (I love Survivor.) I fell asleep on the couch a few minutes before his phone call, and I thought, hey, I'll take a little nap while he's talking, and I'll be fine and dandy. Nope. Staggered off to bed before nine and slept so soundly. It was the exhaustion of Israel catching up to me.

Our trip was stuffed, just stuffed, and it will be a long time before I begin to understand all I've learned. I know the easy things--the surface level. I'll figure out the rest.

For a recap, I was traveling with a group of 19 other American and Canadian children's book authors, on a trip designed and sponsored by PJ Library and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation to give us all story inspiration.

Best quote of the trip, though I don't remember who said it, regarding the compact powerhouse that is Gail Carson Levine: "Has anyone checked Gail's back for wings? Because I'm pretty sure she's actually a fairy." (If you understand that Gail writes fairy tales, this gets even better.)

Best funky coincidence: The mom of my host family for Shabbat dinner, graduated from my college the year behind me, and although we didn't know each other we waxed rhapsodic about our mutual favorite history professor.

Best moment of enlightenment: We went on a kayaking adventure in the Dead Sea; our large group had to be shuttled over rocks and sand in smaller groups from the tour bus. I was in the first group, about six people; five of us were standing at the edge of the sea, but Marla Frazee stripped to her swimsuit and started walking in. We told her we didn't think we were allowed to do that; also, our tour guide had said we might have time to swim in the Dead Sea later that afternoon. Marla said, "What if this is our only chance?" and kept walking. The rest of us thought for a moment, stripped to our suits, and went in. It was brilliant. (We did get another chance later on.)

Best made-up word: bunnyrat.

Best moment, ever: We were in the laboratory that's conserving and digitizing the Dead Sea Scrolls. We got to see actual scrolls from inches away--amazing, never to be repeated--but then the director of the lab pointed to a place on the scrolls, and one of our group who could read Hebrew read out the first line of a Psalm. It's a Psalm still sung in Jewish liturgy. Three-quarters of the group began to sing. That piece of parchment is over 2000 years old, and its words are still a known melody. Even thinking about it gives me goosebumps.

Best non-Jewish experience of Judaism: Mine. I've never been in a situation where every question I had was welcomed and answered. I came on this trip wanting to know some very specific things for a book I had in mind, and repeatedly, over the course of the week, people sat down with me and discussed what they thought might help me, and it did, but I also learned so much more. I will take the joy of Shabbat into my Catholic Easter; I will remember this always.

Best group catch-phrase: Dibs!

Tuesday, March 27, 2018



I got back from Israel yesterday afternoon--overnight flight from Tel Aviv to Newark, then Charlotte, then home. I had brought my iPad with me on the trip, intending to blog while I was there, but I didn't. The internet was a little dicey at the first hotel, and though our bus  had wifi it only worked for the first 14 devices that snagged it, and then also our schedule was packed very full (the commemorative t-shirts which I really hope Marla Frazee or Barry Deutsch is designing will feature a quote from our tour guide, Jonty, "we are supposed to be there already") and then also I preferred either talking or listening while I was on the bus, and trying to sleep when I was in my room. I'll probably write some Israel blog posts in the next few days, but if I don't, it won't matter: the trip will inform my writing going forth. Before we left, PJ Library kept sending us emails calling it, "the trip of a lifetime." I've gone on a lot of really great trips but I've come to believe that. The trip was unique, not only in terms of what we saw but how and with whom we saw it.

Yesterday during my layover in Newark I spent time online catching up to the news. I knew about the March For Our Lives--my friend Stacia Deutsch wore a Moms Demand Action t-shirt to the Western Wall and would like everyone to know that thoughts and prayers have been taken care of, thank you very much, and we can all move on to laws and action--but I hadn't yet watched the video of Emma Gonzalez's speech or heard that Leslie Gibson, a man no longer running for the Maine House seat, called her a "skinhead lesbian," trying to imply that she should just shut up.

Which was interesting on so many counts. First of all, I don't think he understands what "skinhead" means. Yep, shaved head, but also white supremacist. Whatever else you can say about a Cuban-American bisexual young woman, it probably isn't that.

Second, Emma's already discussed her decision to shave her head--as a hairstyle, not a political act. She did it before the shooting, before her high school prom, before she had any idea of her current position. And she made a powerpoint presentation to convince her parents to give her permission.

Let's unpack that for a moment. An adult male was trying to publicly shame someone who still wanted and needed her parents' permission to cut her own hair.

It's also interesting that "lesbian" was used as code for "we don't have to listen to her--she's not even a woman who's attracted to men, she's a woman attracted to women." Nevermind that that's now how Emma defines herself.  Nevermind--well, just nevermind.

She's eighteen years old. She's fierce and smart and strong, and eighteen. When I was in Florida recently I was impressed when an 18-year-old friend of mine asked if she could drive my horse trailer, because it was brave of her, and adventurous. I'm not making that up. It wasn't standing in front of a few million people in DC, but it really was brave.

And then I think about Emma's mom, who got a phone call or a text or whatever--there's a shooter at your daughter's school. I thought about what the next few minutes were like for her, let alone for the mothers and fathers of the 17 people who died.

And I thought about Emma's silence. Because she spoke mostly without words.

I stand in front of audiences all the time. I'm very comfortable giving speeches and classroom presentations. I wasn't always--it's a skill I worked hard to attain. When I was Emma's age I wouldn't have been able to read the announcements in my homeroom without my hands trembling and my words tumbling out too fast.

Standing silent, saying nothing, is much harder than continuing to speak. Standing without moving, while cameras and crowds stare at you, while everyone gets less and less comfortable with your silence--that's breaktaking.

I'll go back to writing about Israel tomorrow. Meanwhile, for Emma, I have no words.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Athletes, Artists, and Adventurers

I write this on my iPad in the Bristol airport. I’m waiting for my flight to Charlotte. From there I’ll go to Newark, and then Tel Aviv. My Israel adventure has begun.

(There’s a man in the terminal talking loudly and persistently to everyone—he just said, ‘I’m going for my PHD in math’, and now he’s explaining something about climate change via mathematical models—I’m hoping like heck I don’t sit next to him.)

I’m wildly excited but it was hard to leave home. My darling daughter had surgery yesterday, on the knee that’s been hurting since November. Last Saturday, a week ago, I was watching her fence at the east coast NCAA Regionals. My daughter’s only been fencing for 18 months; she was second-team all conference this year and one of only 6 division-III fencers to qualify for the NCAA tournament in her weapon and region (in fencing, divisions I and III compete against each other). Her knee kept her from training as hard as she wanted to this year, and from doing some very specific fencing moves. This was her spring break; on Wednesday we took her to an orthopedist, had an MRI, and scheduled surgery for Friday. She heads back to school—500 miles away—tomorrow.

At Regionals she told me that one of her teammates related a story from her coach about who he’ll accept as a walk-on for the fencing team. (He plucked my daughter from a Beginning Fencing PE class her first semester of college.) “Athletes, artists, and musicians,” he said. Those three groups knew what it was like to be bad at something, and to work to improve.

I loved the idea that her coach predicted success by looking at who knew how to fail. That’s incredibly what writing feels like to me—successive failures without quitting. I wanted to work on the Egypt book this week—I need to, I have a deadline and it’s not looking good—but I didn’t, except in my head which counts but only a little bit. I spent the week reading my way through the Israel reading list I was given, meeting my review deadline, taking care of my daughter and spending time with her and my husband. It’s all very good.

This trip is an immense gift and I’m determined to learn from it all that I can. I’ve got a big journal going with me—I don’t keep a regular journal, but I sometimes keep them when I’m traveling—and one thing I’ve done so far is copy down quotes from some of the books I’ve read. From Sabbath, by Abraham Joshua Herschel: “To have more does not mean to be more. The power we attain in the world of space terminated abruptly at the borderline of time. But time is the heart of existence.” And from Walking the Bible, by Bruce Feller: “The difference is God,’ [Avner] said. ‘He just appears and begins to create the world, using only words as tools.’”

And the book of Genesis: In the beginning was the Word.

Whee, this will be amazing. It’s a combination of what I love and what I feel called to do, and I’ll be in the company of other writers the whole time. My heart stays with my family. The rest of me yearns for Israel.