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.

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.