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

Speechless

Phew.

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.

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Night Diary, by Veera Hiranandani

Children's books debut on Tuesdays, and this past Tuesday was a book birthday for a bumper crop of next-year's award winners--Mapping the Bones, Jane Yolen's 366th (!!!) published book, The Flying Girl, The Field, The Poet X--March 6th was a big day. It was also the book birthday of The Night Diary, by Veera Hiranandani, which features a wee quote from me on the back (so does Mapping the Bones) right next to a quote by Renee Watson, or, as she's now known, Newbery Honor Winner And New York Times Bestselling Author Renee Watson. (I'm pretty excited for Renee. Can I call you one of my #Newberysisters? Loved Piecing Me Together, and loved meeting you at NCTE.)

OK. Sorry. That was a lot of name/title dropping in one paragraph. What I want to do today is tell you how I came to blurb The Night Diary. Because honestly, I wasn't gonna. Until I started reading.

Namratha Tripathi is the editor of The Night Diary. Her office is right next door to that of my main editor, Jessica Garrison, and Nami and I have worked together on some small things and shared meals and I like her tons. So when she emailed and said, I've got this book you'll love, I didn't want to turn her down. But only because I like her tons. It happened to be right as I was about to embark on two weeks of travel for the release of The War I Finally Won, and I was overwhelmed, and somewhat anxious, and I did not need to be reading something about Pakistan, for heaven's sake, from an author I'd never heard of, let alone as an electronic copy, which I dislike, and really for just about anyone other than Nami or Jess I would have said, no, sorry, I wouldn't blurb the New Testament if Christ himself asked me right now.

But it was Nami, so I said, ungraciously but with as much grace as I could muster, well, send it, maybe, we'll see.

Then on one of the very first flights of my trip I was seated in the bulkhead, so had to put all my bags in the overhead storage, and I was the window seat with two large persons in the middle and the aisle. Somehow I forgot to grab a book out of my bag (some sort of Regency romance, I'm sure, the type of book I read when I'm stressed) but I did have my phone, because I was texting family members until the boarding door closed and I had to switch the phone to airplane mode.

So there we have: bulkhead, large impediments to the aisle, bags overhead, phone. Later in the trip I probably would have just gone to sleep. But I sat sulkily looking at my mostly-defunct phone, and I remembered the story Nami sent me. I dislike reading on my phone even more than I dislike electronic manuscripts in general, but desperate times call for strange bedfellows, or something like that. I pulled it up and started reading. I'll be honest--I planned to stick with the novel for exactly as long as it took for the flight attendants to click off the seatbelts light, at which point I was going to make my seatmates get up so I could rummage in my bag.

Then the plane landed. And I was annoyed all over again. Because I had to get up, and I wasn't finished yet.

The very last thing I expected from The Night Diary is that the story and voice would utterly captivate me, especially when I was so determined not to be captivated. But they did.

So go buy it, hey. Or get it from your library. Worth the trip.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Sabbath Days

I’m at the airport typing this on my iPad, because my laptop’s out of batteries. I’m waiting for the airplane that will take me to Missouri for the start of a week of school visits. Friday I’ll take a train from my last school into Philadelphia, and Saturday I’ll watch my daughter fence in the NCAA Regionals. Sunday I’ll hang out in Philly with my whole family, then fly home. Then we’ll have my daughter home for spring break, then I leave for Israel. It’s going to be a mad March, for sure.

Which is why I treasured the last three days. My husband and I spent them at our house in the North Carolina mountains, near a very small town called Linville. We love our Linville house, but this year especially haven’t been able to be there as often as we’d like—we missed a planned weekend in January when our sweet dog was too ill to make the drive. The lovely thing about the Linville house is that it’s there, waiting for us, with a big fireplace and the world’s best porch, and trees shading us from all the world. At Linville I sleep soundly and at length—it’s become a joke in our family. Over and over again my teenaged children would come into my bedroom, sit on the foot of my bed, and say, “Mom. Wake up. It’s time for LUNCH.”

We arrived Thursday night after what had been a very long challenging week for my husband, and a pretty frisky one for me.

On Friday we slept until lunch. Then we went out for lunch, then we went to the grocery for dinner food so that we could return to our pajamas for the rest of the day.

My husband has done this never in his life before.

Mid-afternoon he took a nap.

We rested. We visited our favorite local art galleries. We took walks. We built big fires in the fireplace and drank nice wine. We reveled in each other’s company.

I’ve lived long enough to realize that time is my most precious commodity. It was such a gift to spend three days in happy tranquility. I’m grateful for every moment,

Thursday, March 1, 2018

I Prepare For The Trip of A Lifetime

I'm about to embark on what its organizers are cheerfully calling the Trip of a Lifetime. And I'm pretty sure that will be true. The Harold Grinspoon Foundation selected 20 children's book authors from a larger pool of applicants to spend eight days in Israel learning about Jewish and Israeli culture, with the idea that we would learn enough to be able to write about Judaism well.

I loved the idea. A Jewish German refugee named Ruth is an important character in my recent novel The War I Finally Won. I used lots of beta readers on several sections of the novel, but also I was helped by my naive Christian point-of-view character, who needed everything explained to her anyway. But if I wanted to ever write from Ruth's point of view--and I would like to--I would have to understand Judaism much better than I currently do. So I applied for this trip last fall. In January I learned I'd been accepted. I got final travel arrangements, an updated itinerary, a suggested packing list, and a list of all the participants.

I thought about contacting the organizers and asking if they had any suggested reading. Often when I travel I like to read about my destination beforehand, and especially on this trip I thought some background might be a big help. Before I could email them, however, they emailed me--with a suggested reading list! Some stories were attached as PDF files, and I zipped through those pretty quickly (2 picture books, 2 short stories, a middle-grades novel). The rest were unfamiliar to me, so I got on Amazon and ordered the lot.

"That's a lot of books for a trip that starts less than three weeks from now," my husband observed, as I typed in the order.

I ignored him. I read fast and regularly.

Well. Seven of the ten books just landed on my doorstep.

God in Search of Man. It's 400+ pages, and I just read the first seven. It's actual college-level philosophy. Then there's Israel: A History. 700 pages. Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle. Etc.

My husband and I are headed out in just a bit to spend the weekend at our house in the mountains. I'd already packed a bag of books for the trip. I just unpacked it, removing Homo Deus and some other you'll-need-to-think-about-it tomes. I'm going to be thinking about Israel this weekend, and reading as well as I can.

I did leave A Duke In Shining Armor in my bookbag. Might need it from time to time.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

What We Get in Return

This morning my beloved husband came to breakfast with tears in his eyes. It's the night of the team banquet for the middle-school basketball team he's coached for three years, and he had printed off something he wanted to read to them, and was stuffing it into his gym bag. I teased him that if he couldn't get through breakfast without tears he would never, ever get through his speech without tears, but yeah, he's not even gonna try. The man wears his beautiful heart on his sleeve.

Then I went into my office and saw that he'd called up, on my computer, a blog post I wrote three years ago about his basketball team. I suspect he'll be reading some of that. And then I fell down a rabbit hole of my own creation, reading a bunch of old blog posts. Some were about my Egypt book, which I feel like I've still barely begun (despite finishing and discarding an entire first draft). What can I say? I've written books quickly and written them slowly, and the slow ones have always been better.

Meanwhile some teachers have been sharing their students' work with me online. One teacher posted a whole series of poems written in response to The War That Saved My Life. They were lovely. One said, "She has a pony. Butter. Like what she put on my bread." Now, of course I knew the pony was named Butter--I named him, after a horse poem I read years ago that contained the line, "his mane smells like butter in the sun"--and I also remember writing, "all she had, she said, but there was butter on the bread and sugar in the tea," the first meal my Ada eats in Miss Smith's house, when she's startled by the comparative luxury--but I swear I had never connected those two pieces, until this student did. The pony is a piece of softness, like the butter on the bread. That's really good.

In the same vein, only not really, a set of valentines made by another class. The ones the teacher shared made me laugh until I cackled. I really, really want to print them off and make them into t-shirts that I can wear when I'm feeling cranky. One says, "Ada, I've got a crutch on you." That's bad, and hilarious, but the absolute best, honestly, was a very fierce drawing of Mam--all big shoulders and scowls--and the caption, "For Valentine's Day, I'll let you out of the cabinet."

I'm dying. I can't even type that without laughing out loud. It's so perfectly perverse.

I love writing for kids.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Never Again

I last posted on Valentine's Day. Ten days ago--that's a pretty long hiatus for me. All sorts of things happened in those ten days. My truck broke down in an active lane of a Florida state highway with two horses in the trailer I was pulling. My eventing family rushed to my aid--if there's any better response to my first frantic phone call than, "I'll be there in ten," I don't know what it is. Friends got the horses to safety, a total stranger pulled my rig to the shoulder, and we carried on. Then my horse hurt herself--but we have access to pretty good vets down there, and so I learned pretty quickly that it was a mild injury that should resolve soon. At home a dear friend was horribly ill, but he got better, and my daughter was sick, and she got better too. The sexual harassment thing still upsets me a lot, but at least we're talking about it.

On Valentine's Day I wrote and posted my previous blog entry about sexual harassment. It was hard for me to write. I felt edgy all afternoon, because of the post, but then everyone at the barn went off to karaoke night and for awhile life was excellent. Wednesdays are always karaoke night at the Ocala Palms Golf Club restaurant, which is a fancy-sounding name for a short mediocre golf course run through a community of identical retirement villaminiums. The restaurant usually serves cheap wine and burgers. In honor of Valentine's Day they offered a choice of chicken marsala or steak. Every table got a long-stemmed rose. Since there were 12 at our table, and only one couple, we passed the rose from person to person, solemnly. I don't know who ended up with it. We sang. (This is the only place in the world that I'll sing karaoke.) We line-danced. Plenty of couples slow-danced.

Then Poppy, the old man who runs the karaoke machine, called for a moment of silence. He had to call several times, as the crowd was loud and rowdy and the people in the back weren't paying attention. "Five seconds," Poppy insisted. "We're going to have five seconds of silence." He told us there had been another school shooting that day.

He told us 17 people had died.

You're a mother and you imagine hearing that your children's school is on lockdown. You imagine rushing to the school, waiting outside with parents you've known since nursery school, waiting, praying your children walk out. Seeing injured children carried out, whisked into ambulances. You probably know them. Little league, soccer teams, school plays. You've seen these children grow.

Nothing will lessen the tragedy of that day. But I've been watching in awe as those students, the survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, rose up and spoke out. Seventeen-year-old Camerone Kasky, a junior, asked Florida senator Marco Rubio on live tv if he would refuse to continue accepting money from the NRA. (Rubio ducked the question.) Now there's a movement, NeverAgain, and a march on Washington on March 24th.

My hometown is planning a similar march on the same day. I wish I could be there. I'll be in Israel learning about Judaism, for a future novel. March 24th is Shabbat, the one Shabbat during my trip. I'll spend it in Jerusalem. It will be easy to remember what's happening in the United States on that day.

This is a complicated issue in so many ways. A friend of mine, who hunts, commented on one of the pro-gun-control Facebook pages I shared, "If only it were this easy." It's not easy. I know that. But, as with sexual harassment, I'm profoundly glad that things are starting to change.


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Happy Valentine's Day! Let's Discuss Sexual Harrassment

Well, I spent last Sunday in a state of tension that melted into near-despair, from a situation I didn't anticipate. I'd been following some web reports of sexual harassment within the field of children's book publishing, and in the comments section of a School Library Journal people started naming their harassers. Who include some very big names in children's literature, one of whom, Matt de la Pena, I not only considered a friend, but vouched for to another author, who'd had bad experiences in the past. "He's one of the good guys," I said, based solely on my own experiences, which, according to several other women, were not the whole story, nor even close.

My friend--the woman in question--I'm so sorry.

Here's a good recap if you want to read further.

Publishing is like acting; it's very hard to break into the field, and lots of talented people want to. There's an innate power differential between bestselling authors and unpublished ones. This creates situations where power can be abused. It's incumbent upon all of us to be aware, to speak up, to believe accusers, and to distance ourselves from people who behave inappropriately.

One of the men accused, David Diaz, was a member of the board of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators when he was accused of inappropriate behavior several years ago. He was suspended from the board and underwent some sort of sexual harassment training. Then he was let back onto the board. That's the part I don't understand. We have so few people in an organization of over twelve thousand willing to serve on the board that we needed to put Diaz back on? Yeah. Didn't think so. (Subsequent to further issues, he's been removed not only from the board but from SCBWI.)

I'm a sexual assault survivor myself. I know to what extent harassment causes harm. I know how very much courage coming forward requires. I'm absolutely sick about all this. I'm grateful for the courage of those speaking up, because bringing this to light is the only way we can stop it.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Again With The Pesky Newbery

It's that interesting time of the year. This morning I finished an essay I'm writing for The Horn Book. I sent an email to one of the publicists at Penguin Random House about it, and got back an auto-reply, "I am at ALA Midwinter." Then I wrote a book review, submitted it, and then, before sitting down to the Egypt book, draft 3.1, clicked on School Library Journal's website, where people are making Newbery predictions. Some, bless them, mention The War I Finally Won.

Last week I wrote a blog post about riding and writing and meeting my goals. One of my friends emailed me for clarification. What were my writing goals? And if I say I've met them, am I done?

Ah, no. Writing is part of my identity. It's who I am. I have so many stories left to tell. I wish it didn't take me quite so long to tell them, but that's how I am. I've learned that I prefer writing good books to bad ones. I can write bad books quite quickly--my record is  2 1/2 weeks--but good ones take me years. What I need to do now is make every book meet my goals.

Of course I want to win the Newbery on Monday. Every writer who had an eligible book published in 2017 wants to win. Every. Single. One. And Lord God, do I love TWIFW being part of the public discussion.

Winning the Newbery is not, and never has been, one of my goals.

Goals are something we have some control over. Not perfect control, of course--life isn't predictable, anything can happen, usually does--but awards are something I have no control of whatsoever. What I can control is the story I tell, the words I pick, the meaning I find. All my life I wanted to write stories that were hard and honest and true--and I think I've learned to do that, and I'm glad.

On Tuesday the middle-school boys' basketball team my husband coaches had a phenomenal win. They beat their cross-town rivals in an upset. I was delighted, not because the results of any middle-school basketball game anywhere are actually significant, but because I could see the growth in the team. They ran plays. They snapped passes. They boxed out. They threw the ball to the man on the corner knowing the man on the corner would be there, and he was. They held their ground. They dug in. I've watched these boys for three years, and I love their increasing skill.

At one point they were set up to receive an in-bound pass. One of the boys looked up at the bleachers and happened to catch my eye. He broke into a wide grin. Hey, Mrs. Bradley. Isn't this fun?

Yes. Yes, it is. I am so grateful to be playing this game.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Swimming Free

I'm home for a week. I've entered the home-for-a-week, gone-for-a-week phase of my year. I've got three weeks of school visits and an amazing trip to Israel on the schedule for later this spring, and next week I'll be back in Florida, where my horse Sarah and my other horse Gully and Gully's young rider Caroline all still are. We'll come home together.

I let myself off the hook. I'm proud of myself for that. My main coach Cathy was gone from Florida for a few days, so Caroline and I took lessons with our awesome friend Hannah Sue Burnett. On Sunday we went to a horse trial. Caroline was fantastic and wonderful Gully went around like a top, very happily; they got a ribbon in a class won by a member of the Canadian Olympic team (Selena O'Hanlon, a super nice woman and lovely rider).

Sarah and I had a credible dressage test--really just about our best in terms of her basic movement. I rode well in showjumping, and she jumped well--and then we decided not to run cross country. That's the short version but it'll suffice. Sarah was nervous; she worked herself into quite a temper tantrum at one point, and she's brilliant at temper tantrums. It wasn't directed at me or what I was asking of her, but it was reflective of her general discomfort with the whole situation. I've owned and ridden Sarah for six years; she hasn't competed at all for the last two, and, until we went to Florida, hadn't been off our home farm since my accident 14 months ago. We schooled in a couple of places last week, and that went well, but the truth is that we weren't ready to run cross country. Some days it's best to pat your horse and move on. Cathy's riding Sarah this week and will be able to expose her to a few more new things, and then I'll be back, and we'll go to a show, and maybe we'll attempt all the phases, and maybe we won't. Whichever, it will be okay.

Sunday, withdrawing from cross country in the rain, while my horse whinnied and jigged, was a terrific day. My lovely husband tried to console me afterward. I didn't need consoling. I had learned several things, all of them good.

One was that Sarah and I just weren't quite ready to compete. It wasn't a fear thing or a shame thing; we simply hadn't been able to prepare enough.
The second thing was that I could recognize that we weren't ready, and so withdrawing was the correct choice, easy to make.
The third thing--this took me awhile to understand, but it came as a sort of revelation--in some part of my brain I must have known we weren't prepared enough, and I think that it was that, not the head injury, not the accident, that was causing me to feel uneasy last week.

We hadn't competed in two years. We hadn't competed since just after The War That Saved My Life won the Newbery Honor. I went down to Florida in the immediate afterglow of that phone call, as planned (the trip, not the phone call!), and then my life started changing in ways I never anticipated. TWTSML was my sixteenth published book. It won awards in California, Nebraska, New York City. It hit #1 on the New York Times. I traveled a lot more; I spoke at conferences nationwide.

I love having this new platform. This year I wrote a proposal for NCTE about a topic very important to me, and marshalled some friends to join me, and not only was it accepted but it went really well--a whole lot of teachers and librarians listened hard to what we had to say. That was fantastic. I have something to say, and opportunity to say it. What a blessing; what a gift.

In other words, the head injury was part of my riding story, but not the whole of it. I don't think I'd truly grasped that until Sunday. I still entirely love riding. Sarah makes me laugh every day. Eventing brings me joy. I'll learn a lot next week but then I have a busy spring--I won't compete again until June at the very very earliest. Perhaps that won't be feasible. Perhaps I won't be able to compete again this year; perhaps my books will keep me busier and busier, and I won't compete again. Every option will be fine. That's what I learned on Sunday. That's a pretty good lesson right there.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Fire and Fury and Why Word Choice Matters

Last week I checked the book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, by Michael Wolff, out from the library.  I was curious about it but thought I probably didn't want to pay Wolff royalties, and turns out I was right.

I am not a fan of Donald Trump. I'm sure big parts of the book are true. But I'll never really know, because I stopped reading on p. 55, permanently, forever. I didn't mind the subject matter. I was terrifically annoyed by the writing.

Let me offer the following example. Here are some facts about a man.

1) He grew up attending Catholic schools in Richmond, Virginia.
2) He got a bachelor's degree from Virginia Tech.
3) He spent the next seven years of his life in the Navy, first on ship duty and later at the Pentagon.
4) He was a Naval lieutenant.
5) While still on active duty he obtained a master's degree from Georgetown.
6) After leaving the Navy he went to Harvard Business School and obtained his MBA.
7) He then spent four years working for Goldman Sachs as an investment banker, reaching a mid-level position there.

Now, I could write those facts in paragraph form like this:

After a childhood spent attending rigorous Catholic schools, he graduated from Virginia Tech, one of the best universities in his home state. He joined the navy as a lieutenant and spent seven years in service to his country. His performance on board ship earned the attention of his superiors, who transferred him to the Pentagon. There, while working full-time on active duty, he also earned a master's degree from prestigious Georgetown University. Honorably discharged at the end of his term of service, he continued to none other than Harvard Business School, where he received his MBA. He then worked four years as an investment banker at Golden Sachs, reaching a mid-level position in that short time.

Sounds pretty impressive, right?

Okay, here's another version. This is from Fire and Fury, page 55:

"Catholic school in Richmond, Virginia. Then a local college, Virginia Tech. Then seven years in the navel, a lieutenant on ship duty and then in the Pentagon. While on active duty, he got a master's degree at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service, but then he washed out of his navel career. Then an MBA from Harvard Business School. Then four years as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs--his final two years focusing on the media industry in Los Angeles--but not rising above a mid-level position."

Doesn't sound as good, does it?  Our man may be a bit of a wastrel--"local college," "washed out of his naval career," "not rising above a mid-level position." But in that first paragraph we have "in service to his country," "prestigious," "reaching a mid-level position within that short time."

These two paragraphs slant the same set of facts diametrically different ways. I wrote the first, not out of any personal conviction, but just to show the opposite point of view. The problem is that all of Fire and Fury is slanted. Every bit. And after awhile--because I'm a writer, because I know how to control slant and how easily some readers are affected by it--after awhile it made me really angry.

The guy in question, by the way, is Steve Bannon. I don't like Steve Bannon. I would be interested in reading more about him, but not in the way I quote above. It's dishonest to suggest that seven years in the Navy and degrees from VT, Georgetown, and Harvard represent failure. You could say, despite all that, and give us some other facts, or quotes people said about him, or something--but if you're trying to skew every single fact you find, I'm not going to read your book. And I'm really glad I didn't pay you royalties.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Letting Myself Off the Hook

I'm in Florida with my horse again.

A year ago I was 6 weeks into my recovery from a head injury. I was still sleeping 14 hours out of every 24, by necessity, not choice. I had figured out how to change the monitor on my computer at home so that I could stand to use it, and I was working two to three hours a day--pretty much all I could manage--on The War I Finally Won. I couldn't do my usual work at Faith in Action--having to switch windows repeatedly on the database and refer to handwritten forms was too much for the visual processing part of my brain, which, along with the arousal portion (see: sleeping 14 hours a day) took the biggest hit from my injury.

Before last year, I'd come to Florida to ride for a week or two for eight years running. I am friends with some professional event riders who spent the winter in Ocala, and I took my horse down and rode with them. It was always wonderful fun. I immersed myself in the rhythms of barn life, of making horses a major focus of each day. At home I ride several times a week but I don't have lessons, let alone at gorgeous facilities with proper dressage arenas and a wide assortment of cross-country jumps, let alone with tremendously talented women who understand me and my horse and my goals very well.

Then last December my horse pulled a shoe cantering across a mown hay field, and tripped. I went over her shoulder--an easy, straight-forward fall with difficult and complicated consequences. I was wearing a new, properly-fitted, high-quality helmet. But I'd hit my head several times over the years, and my brain was over it.

I want to live a long life with my brain working well to the very end. I really don't want dementia. I want to be able to travel with my husband to all the places we still haven't seen--it's a huge list. I have so many stories left to write. I would rather lose large parts of my physical capabilities than lose the ability to write.

I'm aware it isn't all up to me. I don't have control over large portions of my life. But it's up to me whether or not I ride again, whether or not I jump, whether or not I compete. My sport, eventing, has a high rate of injury. I tend to minimize that, but I can't deny it. It's true that the worst falls tend to happen at upper levels I never dreamed of reaching--but it's also true that I fell last time cantering my horse on grass.

Obeying the protocol suggested by my sport's governing body--the fact that my sport has a detailed protocol accounting for frequency of head injuries and their severity should tell you something--I didn't ride for six months. My mare pouted. I couldn't explain. While I was still sleeping 14 hours a day I didn't miss riding, except in the abstract--barn chores were enough of an effort--but by about month three I ached to be back on my horse. I love riding. I love my sassy, quirky, emotional mare.

I did my homework. I took a two-day clinic on how to fall off safely. I bought a new very good helmet. I gave myself time to heal. I resigned from the hunt I rode with. I gave up the goal I'd always had of reaching the Preliminary level in eventing (despite the name, it's the fourth of six recognized levels, with the sixth being Olympic caliber). I decided that from now on, I'd stay at the lower two levels, where the jumps are smaller and the speeds slower.

One of my first times back in the saddle I galloped on a beach in Normandy with my daughter. The sand was firm and flat and went on for miles. It was glorious.

I was out of shape (no flow yoga for six months, either) and at home I started out slowly, hacking my fat mare. I paid a lot of attention to proper body position and correct movement, and our flatwork started to come together. It's better now than it ever was. Eventually I started jumping the small jumps in my fields. It was fun--but I also felt a little anxious.

There's good-anxious and bad-anxious, a kind you should pay attention to and a kind you should overcome. I wasn't sure which this was. I'm still not. I had to skip my trip to Florida last year and I was eager to go back this year--but what were my eventing goals, now that Preliminary was off the table? For a decade I've worked to make myself a better rider. Was I going to be happy striving for the title Queen of 2'6"?

It was an interesting dilemma from an intellectual standpoint. Why do we pursue what we do? Would I still write every day if I knew I would never reach my goals? (We'll never know, as I've mostly reached them.) Riding was something I loved, but it was never my vocation; I never yearned to be a professional or had remotely the discipline to reach the top. (Unlike writing.)

I filled out entry forms for two competitions down here in Florida, both at Beginner Novice, the lowest level. My husband said, "Please don't do this if you feel afraid." I spent a lot of January thinking about this, riding my horse on my farm in ugly weather.

Really, I thought too much. Overthinking is one of my character flaws. I started explaining how I felt to my daughter, at length, and eventually she interrupted me. "Mama," she said gently, "let yourself off the hook."

So I did. I came down here. I said to my coach and long-time good friend, "I'm not afraid on the flat, but over fences I'm a little afraid." That's all I said. She heard me. Yesterday, my first lesson in well over a year, she started me over a line of cavaletti and poles on the ground, and then eventually they were jumps at beginner novice height. I had a lovely time. Every so often my coach would yell, "Breathe!" and I would--I'm back to yoga now, I breathe like a champ when I remember to do it--and everything smoothed and softened.

It was a very easy lesson compared to what I've done in the past.

It was exactly what I needed.

I don't know yet what the answer is going to be. I don't know what new goals I'll come up with, or if I need goals to be happy, or if I want to keep competing or keep jumping at all. I'll find out, slowly. Meanwhile I woke early this morning, pulled on pants and boots and went out to bring my mare in from the field. Above the live oaks dripping Spanish moss the full moon shown in the lightening sky. My horse sighed and touched my shoulder, lightly, with her nose. We're glad to be here. I've let myself off the hook.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

I Need Your Opinions for Books Move Mountains

Those of you (both of you--and thanks!) who regularly read this blog know that I've become passionate about getting books into low-income children's hands.

Nationwide, if we look at fourth-grade reading tests results--this is 2016 data from the US Department of Education--and divide children only by whether or not they receive free or reduced-price school lunch,
--of those who get free lunch (the poorer kids) 21% read at proficient level
--of those who don't get free lunch (the richer kids) 54% read at proficient level.

That's right. Nationwide.

So. It's obviously a complicated problem, but I've been throwing books at it, in a couple of local afterschool programs and a very low-income local elementary school, and that's great at all--it'll be awhile of course before we know if it makes any difference at all--but I've been working on forming a real charity, a 501(c3) organization. I have a great friend who's all in, and we had a meeting in December to start to figure things out. We're meeting again today. I haven't done a thing I thought I would do in the meantime, including asking people to be on my board of directors, and it's not actually because I'm a lazy sod. I was trying to figure out what exactly we should be doing.

I love these libraries that we're putting into place, but what I'd really like is for kids to have choices about what they read--studies show that's a strong predictor of reading success--which is the whole point, I don't really care if they ever read Great Expectations, I care if they can read proficiently enough that they can learn chemistry and history and auto mechanics and whatever else intrigues them. I think I'd like kids to be able to keep the books they choose. If you know anything about Appalachia, about all these small mountain towns, you know there aren't many libraries, let alone bookstores. The schools are often poorer than you'd think possible.

I remember as a kid loving the Scholastic book flyers. My mom would always encourage me to pick out books, and it was terrifically exciting to have those books arrive. But if your parents can't pay rent, they can't give you money to buy Scholastic books. You can say all you want that it's not much money--it's not, if you're middle-class. When you're one car breakdown away from homelessness it's harder.

And then kids grow up thinking books are something they can't have. Books are for rich people.

So.

Here's my idea. I want to start something like a Scholastic Book Flyer where the books are free. The kids in low-income Appalachian schools get to pick out a book from the flyer, any one they like. The teacher sends the order in to my organization, and we send out a box of spanking new books.

I'm posting this because I NEED YOUR OPINIONS. You're teachers, librarians, writers, educators. Help me out here--what am I thinking about incorrectly? What else do I need to consider? I really want to do something of value here, and I need any and all of your thoughts.

Thanks so much. It's important.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

What I'm Up Against

First of all, thank you very much for the love and support regarding my dog's death. I knew it was coming and had time to prepare, but it's still hard, and the house is very quiet; your sympathy means a lot to me.

We're having a snow day in Bristol, since there is actual snow on the ground. This is the south. It makes more sense to us to occasionally shut down all schools and half the businesses than to invest a whole ton of money in snow removal equipment that we would use once every other year. Or so we tell ourselves. Sometimes I think most communities just calibrate themselves so that, whatever their typical weather is, they get a snow day once in awhile.

My sister in Wisconsin woke to a foot of snow and her kids didn't even have a delay. That may be the only reason to avoid Wisconsin--I love cheese and their summers are lovely--but it's a big one.

Anyway, it's a full-on snow day, with both my yoga class and Bristol Faith in Action closed. I got up early with my husband (it's one of his surgery days) so I could write before yoga and BFIA, and now it's 9:30 and I've pretty much written myself out for the day. Which is fine--I have lots of work to do.
The other day I was excited to receive a book I had to search for--it's called The Modern Neighbors of Tutankhamun, it's published by the American University of Cairo, and it's all about Qurna, the village near the Valley of the Kings.

On Monday, full of grief, I found it impossible to read this book. Yesterday I made some headway, but not much, and here's why. A sample quote:

"Rather than infer certain economic practices inside the Theban Necropolis from ethnically situated psychological characteristics, here we seek to describe Qurnawi behavior in non-racially conceived terms, instead looking at their relationship with the surrounding archaeological landscape as a formative element in the specific characteristics of Qurnawi agency and action."

In other words, we're not going to assume that all the people who live in Qurna are tomb-robbers, just because they're probably descended from Bedouins.  They lived near all these tombs and sometimes found stuff, and they were poor, can you blame them if they sold grave goods?

Really. Taken in context, that's what they mean.

The book is 499 pages long.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A Strange Sense of Calm

I had to have my dog put down yesterday. It was completely the right decision, at the right time, but of course it totally sucked. I was able to have the same vet who castrated one of my barn cats on the tailgate of her pickup truck come to the house and do it there, so it was peaceful and calm, and, oddly enough because I've been dreading this day, that's how I feel today.

I've always written from home, but I've never been alone before today. When I quit my job as a research chemist to write, I was pregnant, and far enough along that the baby felt like a minnow fluttering inside me. (That baby lives in Chicago now, working his first full-time grown-up job.) By the time that baby went to preschool, twice a week, I was pregnant with his little minnow sister. (She's in Philadelphia, at college). By the time she went to preschool, twice a week, we had acquired Under Dog, a wiry terrier of limited intelligence but enduring dogged affection for his people. (Under died five years ago, at a very old age, following a stroke.) Eventually we acquired Under's consort, Sweet Polly, one of the gentlest dogs on earth. So while the children were at school, growing up, I would go to my office to write, and the dogs would follow. Polly liked the green chair or the window seat. Under sometimes curled up in the dog bed in the corner but was more likely to drape himself across my feet, to the extent that I eventually put a dog bed beneath my desk. (It's still there. I just checked.)

Polly snored loudly enough that sometimes I had to walk across the room and wake her, as I absolutely couldn't think with that much noise. Under barked whenever anything happened outside--the day the UPS truck chased two deer up our driveway I thought he would burst his brainstem--and Polly joined in if the threat seemed real.

Yesterday afternoon I felt very sad. I'd been feeling sad all weekend, knowing what was on the horizon, but I'd made my peace with it. It was sad, and right, and good. But I still let myself feel sad. My husband came home late, after basketball practice, but I thought to myself, if there's ever a day you're allowed to put on flannel pajamas at four in the afternoon, it's the day you euthanize your dog. So I did. Then I heard my daughter's voice. While she was home for Christmas, when we came in cold from riding and doing the barn chores, she'd say, "Mom, would you like a hot beverage?" and put the kettle on for tea. So I put the kettle on, and brewed a nice pot of herbal tea. I snuggled up under the floofy couch blanket, and drank tea, and read a book about the Holocaust because the one I need to read, about the village of Qurna in Egypt, was too technical for my sad brain.

I also baked a chicken, because it was a comforting dinner that required very little work on my part.

This morning I slept in a bit. Lately the dog had been sleeping in our bed. It was hard for her to sleep with her heart condition worsening, and it made her feel panicky unless she was with us--but she coughed and wheezed in the night, and the last few nights I'd woken several times to check if she was still breathing. Last night I woke several times, thinking, where's the dog?

But now it's morning. I'm writing in the complete silence of an empty house. It's not as bad as I thought it would be. I miss my darling Polly. I miss Under. And I'm okay with the quiet that surrounds me.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Shaking Down My Family Tree

The other day my daughter's friend came over with her laptop and her access to Ancestry.com. We had a bit of a field day. It was fascinating--to the point where both my husband and I are going to be copying out entries and sending them to our extended family.

I can't write about everything that amazed me--let's just say I found evidence of what had been rumors regarding a couple of family members--the people involved are gone now, but not that long ago, and their stories still don't feel like mine to tell. But a few other things were far enough back that I don't think it matters. One of my husband's way-back ancestors lived in central Indiana, and is listed as having had five children with his wife, and then nine more children with a Miami Indian woman. A written notation (on a census record? I don't remember now) says that he is "a great friend to the Miami." I should hope so.

It turns out that my children are a Son and Daughter of the American Revolution, as another of my husband's way-back ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War. No one on my side of the tree had made it to America by that point--I can actually remember much of the generation that immigrated, and the last member of my family born in Poland died only last year. (I was so sorry she missed the Polish translation of The War That Saved My Life--she was literate in Polish, and would have loved it.) We found a copy of a ship's manifest listing my great-grandfather as a passenger--his name in America was Walter Guernewicz, though I called him Dziadek, Polish for grandpa. Family legend says that Guernewicz was a misspelling picked up at Ellis Island, and there in the records we could see it--both spellings of his last name, as well as the Polish spelling of Walter--which now, away from my daughter and her friend's computer, I can't remember, except that it made perfect sense. He went by Walter Guernewicz in his daily life, but on his marriage certificate, written after many years in this country, he spells his name the Polish way.

Walter was 19 when he boarded a ship called the Amerika. He settled in Gary, Indiana, and worked in a steel mill until an accident there blinded him. My mother remembers him as stern and somewhat dour, but when I was small and visiting his and Babcia's tiny house, I would climb onto his lap. He would run his fingers very lightly over my face, smile, and say the only English word I ever heard him say. "Pretty," he said.

Monday, January 1, 2018

New Year

I've never really understood the big deal about New Year's Day. Some of my friends really love it, see it as a sort of cosmic do-over, a fresh start, a chance to resolve to be better.

I pretty much see it as  Monday. If pressed, I'll add that it's the day after my son's birthday (the moment he took his first breath, 23 years ago, New Year's Eve ceased to have any meaning for me either). It's the day I get to open my new Dilbert-A-Day calendar--my husband's given me a Dilbert-A-Day calendar for as long as I can remember, probably longer than my son's been alive.

Last year the only resolution I made was to finally go out to lunch with one particular friend. We kept saying we were going to meet for lunch, and then not doing it. I'm happy to say that not only did I keep this resolution, I made a habit of it. Lunch with XXX is now a Thing.

I have a book to finish in 2018. ("Finish?" my daughter asked, yesterday. "Finish, or finish-finish. Copyedited finish?") (Her Christmas gift to me was a t-shirt reading Unreliable Narrator. I loved it.)

The answer is, finish-finish. Yes, it is. And no, this book is not the third one about Ada. I can not promise a third book about Ada. A bad book would be much worse than no book at all.

Also, I'm sorry to say this, but the character who dies in TWIFW is dead. Dead-dead. I make up the rules for this particular cast of characters and it never once occurred to me that this person was not entirely dead, until I started getting conspiracy-theory letters from readers who were hoping, really hoping, that this character was not really dead and that in the mythical third book would walk up the cottage's front path to the amazement and heartfelt joy of all. (Please to note: I took the spoilers out. )

It won't happen. But thank you, thank you so much, for wanting it to. Your connection with all my characters, with Susan, with Lady Thorton, Maggie and especially my dear Ada, brings me both amazement and heartfelt joy.

Whatever this day means to you, I wish you a good one.