Sunday, June 29, 2008

"Now We Are Six..."

Yes, the sweet girl turned six on Friday. Six!

And there are so many moments I could capture from the beautiful celebratory weekend just past (her beloved Aunt M and Uncle P were in town, and spoiled us all with a wonderful day at the National Aviary...more on that soon).

She is growing up so quickly, and she brings us so much joy.

Tonight at "candles" (our term for our evening family devotional time) she suddenly lifted a strand of her hair and said, in a very bright voice, "Maybe when we get to heaven one day we can ask Jesus how many hairs are on our heads!"

Last night on our way out of the restaurant (yes, M and P really spoiled us...they even took us out to dinner at the Olive Garden, a favorite for all of us) there was an amazing rainbow in the sky. It was drizzling rain right at sunset, and most of the sky was stained a lovely golden apricot color and suddenly we realized we could see an enormous rainbow arching through the sky. We hardly ever see rainbows around here, and it's very rare indeed we can see one that fully. We all stood in the restaurant parking lot and gaped for a while. I commented on how rare it was to see such a thing in our area. "It's the biggest rainbow I've ever seen in MY LIFE!" the sweet girl declared.

And that's a full six years now. A full girl-twirling, question-asking, beauty-remarking, laughter-inducing, keeping-us-on-our-toes six years. So thankful for every one of them, and each minute of every one.

Happy Birthday Charlotte Zolotow

Charlotte Zolotow's birthday was June 26, so I'm three days late to this online party, a celebration of her life and work hosted by Semicolon.

It's only been in recent years that I've come to know and enjoy Charlotte Zolotow's books. My daughter and I recently read Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, a lovely book! Our favorite, I think, is The Seashore Book.

But to really pay my respects to Charlotte Zolotow, I need to go back to my blog archives from two summers ago. In June 2006, I posted about a memory I had while reading Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, edited by Leonard Marcus. The memory was of an encouraging letter I received from Charlotte Zolotow, then an editor at Harper's, when I was sixteen years old.

Allow me to pull a bit from my old post, which was originally titled "The Audacity of Youth."

Continuing my delicious read of Ursula Nordstrom's letters, and came across a bit of information that made me recall a wonderfully audacious moment from my adolescence.

Charlotte Zolotow started out in the world of children's publishing as Ursula Nordstrom's secretary. Later on she became a distinguished author and editor in her own right...

I happen to have a letter from Charlotte Zolotow in my files. An actual typewritten (yes, typewritten) letter with a signature. It was a reply to a query I sent to Harper's when I was sixteen years old. I actually wrote to Charlotte Zolotow to pitch the idea for a picture book I'd already written.

The book was called Homer and was the story of a leaf that turned red on a tree where almost all of the other leaves turned yellow. He was teased and got embarrassed about how different he was, but in the end, he became immortalized in a little girl's beautiful collage. It was, if I say so myself, a pretty good story. I wrote a lot during my high school years, and my love of children's literature had given me a pretty good story-telling sense and rhythm. My dad helped me reproduce the text (we actually enlarged my typewritten sheets on a photocopier... this was still a few years before everyone had a computer) and we pasted the words on cardstock. He did beautiful illustrations for it and we actually bound it by hand. I still have the book -- I've not yet shared it with my little girl because it's sort of fragile now and I think she will appreciate it more later and treat it more gently too.

I'm getting sidetracked. I did not send the book or even a whole typewritten manuscript to Charlotte Zolotow. I knew enough to know that I should simply send a query letter and share my idea, which I did. I don't have a copy of that original letter I wrote, but I do have her very gracious reply. I just re-found it in my files a few months ago...

CZ, as Ursula Nordstrom called her, took me seriously. She told me that she didn't think they could offer to publish my book successfully because the theme of someone mocked for being different but triumphing in the end was a tried and true one that had been done before, perhaps best in Hans Christian Anderson's "The Ugly Duckling," which had been one of my favorites in childhood. She told me I'd made an "impressive start" to my "writing career" (I still remember how much those few words meant to me) and encouraged me to read everything I could and to keep writing.

What a treasure of a letter. And what an audacious thing for me to do, to send a letter to such a respected editor at such an established publishing house. Of course, I had no clue then of what a part she had played in helping to publish renowned 20th century children's lit. I don't even think I knew any of her stories. If I'm remembering rightly, I picked her name out of a market listing because...I thought it was pretty!

My post went on to reflect on the audacity of youth, but what I wanted to highlight today is how much that letter meant to me, and how much it reminds me of how we can touch and encourage the lives of younger writers (and mothers, and teachers, and...fill in the blank) when they turn to us, whether that's in day to day friendships, or in more formal contacts via correspondence from someone we don't even really know. It's a wonderful thing to take the time to respond to someone with kindness. It was a blessing and a grace to me that an older, seasoned artist took the time to respond to me with such generosity, not condescending in any way, but gently and in a way that pushed me to think more about ways I could learn to do what I loved and do it better.

And when I see Charlotte Zolotow's books on the library shelf, I almost always think of it.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

This Morning

Categorically proved: my kitchen floor gets a lot cleaner if I mop to Aretha Franklin's RESPECT.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Bible Translations for Children

I've been weighing the possibility of buying a Bible that's translated specifically for children. Does anyone have any thoughts/wisdom on this?

I ask because in some ways I think it's unnecessary. We have a number of Bible translations in our home already; we read mostly from the KJV or ESV at family devotion times. Like other books we read to the sweet girl, we know much of the Bible is still going to be "over her head," but we believe in the importance of reading it together. We can always spend time explaining, discussing and answering questions, and we also believe that there's richness in hearing the cadence and beauty of the language itself, especially in a beautiful translation.

But there's also much to be said for reading a version that's easier, more comprehensible for young people. We've used a number of Bible storybooks in the past few years, which are really collections of re-tellings of stories or passages from the Scriptures. There are some very good ones these days: we've especially liked Big Picture Story Bible and The Jesus Storybook Bible (which approach the Scriptures from an overall narrative/big picture perspective, relying on insights in Biblical theology). When the sweet girl was even younger, we used Lindvall's Tell-Me Stories books, which are marvelous for read-aloud (we still use them sometimes!). We also very much liked the now out of print "My Very First Bible" (by Sattgast) -- we've used both the Old and New Testament volumes, and still go back to them occasionally, though she's starting to remark that the stories are "too short." This year we've also been reading our way through Egermeier's Bible Storybook which has the advantage of being a very full collection with much longer and detailed re-tellings. I think it's been fairly effective, though I'm not wild about the illustrations. We're also using and liking the Young Reader's Bible by Standard Publishing for independent reading practice.

I'm now working on lesson plans for our first grade year, and one of my plans is to combine our ongoing study of the Bible with our new studies in Ancient History. I'm utilizing a curriculum guide called Biblioplan for Families and they emphasize reading a number of Biblical passages that correspond chronological with the history studies we're undertaking. For younger students in the K-3 range, they recommend The Step-by-Step Bible by V. Gilbert Beers. I've been trying to find a copy of this to look over (to see if I want to purchase it) but it's apparently out of print and not showing up in our county library system. I was not wildly impressed with the Early Reader's Bible that Beers did for the same publisher, which is why I'm hesitating to go on and buy a used copy (though there are some available on Alibris).

In the meantime, I've been researching into actual translations of the entire Scriptures for children. It seems there are a handful of fairly respected ones, primarily The International Children's Bible and the NirV (essentially the NIV but moved into an easier reading level). There are also other translations geared toward non-native English speakers or young/less fluent readers, including things like the CEV and Good News.

A bit mind-boggling, isn't it? And I don't mean to go crazy here. I'm thankful, very thankful, for the many rich choices we have when it comes to English translations of the Scriptures. I also know that the most important thing is that we're faithful in reading together each day and in teaching our daughter to love and listen to and obey these words. Still, I'd love to find a good article somewhere that fully compares/addresses some of the available options, particularly if it gives attention/care to the methodologies behind some of the translations. If anyone knows of any such resource, or if you'd like to share what you've used or how you've approached Bible reading and Bible study with your family/young children, I'm all ears!

Excavation of Creative Layers

For the past several days I've been going through old boxes and files, some of which I haven't opened in years. I am fairly certain that some of the things I'm going through I haven't looked at since we moved to this area almost eleven years ago. Other files I stuffed into cabinets and crates during the seminary years (as we now refer to them fondly).

Finding so many of my old papers has been eye-opening. By papers, I mean all sorts of things: papers I wrote during seminary, articles I clipped from newspapers or printed copies of from online sources, rough drafts of poems and short stories (some I spent long hours on and never went back to), notes and cards from friends, journals, favorite quotes and prayers. Seeing all of these things spill out of their haphazardly organized spaces (which I'm now trying to make sense of and really organize) has been a delight, but a bit overwhelming. It's a bit like excavating things in an archaeological dig, only the layers I'm discovering are layers of myself: my older (but younger!) self.

I'm beginning to notice certain trends in things I collected, kept, or wrote during certain seasons. My 20s and 30s were both very full decades, my 30s especially so, since those years included graduate school (seminary) and motherhood. The changing seasons of my life are easy for me to spot, like gradually changing colors in the layers.

And the one thing that stands out to me, with awe-filled gratitude, is that I've never lost my deep love for the written word. All those quotes and poems and articles and prayers I've collected, other people's words that inspire me, comfort me, challenge a colorful bouquet of ribbons, like lifelines. And finding my own words has been eye-opening too, looking back on what I've written and what I've cared about over the years, and discovering afresh how deeply certain themes run in my life.

And then there's the surprise: I've written a lot. More than I realized, more than I remembered. Even seasons of my life when I thought I wasn't writing much, when time with the pen or the computer was precious and spare, I've still written. I almost cried re-reading some of the old short stories: some of these characters were near and dear to my heart, and still are (I'm thinking of making a creative return to a few of my unfinished projects). All these words I've spilled out over the years, even the acreage of rough drafts (and that's mostly what I find) are testament to how much I've needed and wanted to write, even during lean periods when all I could manage was writing in the cracks and crevices of seasons filled with other important and worthy things.

Some of the quotations and prayers I've re-found have spoken to me so deeply again. In weeks to come, some of them may pop up here. I think I'll likely title them "excavation quotations"!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Missing Harry

The Harry Potter world got a treat yesterday, when the 800-word "prequel" story J.K. Rowling recently penned for charity became available online. It took my old computer a while to load it, but it was worth the wait. What a pleasure to read (and laugh!) my way through this delightfully funny hand-written scene, in which adolescent James Potter and his good friend Sirius Black evade the Muggle police on a magic motorbike we've all grown very fond of through the years...

One of the things I found most fascinating was the casual mention of the name "Wilberforce" within the scene. I planned to post about it here, but it seems that Travis Prinzi over at the Hog's Head beat me to the punch, along with a number of other folks. I think almost everyone in the world -- well, the Christian literary world anyway -- caught the reference to the great Anglican social reformer and took extra delight in it!

Over at Hogwarts Professor, John Granger was speculating on the inner and outer pressures that might bring Rowling to begin to write again in Harry's world, despite her avowals (in times past) that she wouldn't return to that world as a fiction-writer. I remember Orson Scott Card speculating on this same thing not long after Deathly Hallows. I really do think that the pure joy of having created characters like these and a world like Harry's will eventually pull Rowling back into writing stories set there, either prequels or sequels. I know from my own limited work as a fiction writer how characters have a way of getting into my head and spending a lot of time "talking there" (sometimes to the point that I find myself dreaming conversations between them). I can't imagine how it would feel to have invested this much time, energy and creativity in a fictional world...and not allow myself to go back and play there from time to time. I'm sure Rowling wants to try other kinds of writing too, and certainly shouldn't limit herself to only writing HP-related fiction, but it also seems silly for her to make it completely off-limits for all time. I think she'll miss it too much in the end.

Heck, I know I do. That's the main thing that came home to me yesterday. Reading this tiny little snippet of fiction was delightful because it felt like Harry's world. The cadence was there, the humor, the action. James and Sirius, full of themselves and ever so slightly obnoxious, yet vibrantly alive, made me miss Fred and George especially, but Ron and Harry and the whole gang too. It seemed absurdly easy for Rowling to "fall back into" the story. You almost got the sense that the scene wrote itself -- and given what we know of James and Sirius' characters, and the gift of a marvelous magical object like the motorbike, that makes sense.

So I had to chuckle when I saw JKR's final line, where she wrote that this was from the prequel she was NOT working on, but that it had been fun. Of course it was fun. And she may not be actively working on anything Harry related, but I would guess her mind is playing with the characters and the before and after story-lines more often than even she may know. I wonder if it will be a dream that will get her writing in Harry's world again?

Monday, June 09, 2008

Writing About the Roaring Twenties

The hits just keep coming...meaning, we keep being informed of new and upcoming changes in our work and ministry situations that mean income loss for us in the coming months. So in addition to praying mightily for discernment and provision, I am also spending some time trying to drum up new avenues for freelance writing work.

One potential article popped onto my radar today. A history magazine for junior high/ high schoolers requests freelance articles on a number of topics, and I'm on their mailing list. A couple of years ago I submitted a piece to them which they didn't use, but I got a thoughtful note from one of the editors letting me know they liked it and saying they wouldn't mind seeing more of my work. I usually try to capitalize on such open doors, but I've been busy and none of their recent "calls for articles" had appealed to me much.

But today's did. They're working on an issue on the "Roaring Twenties" and hey -- that's one of my best decades! They're looking for informative articles on a number of people and things connected to the 1920's. So now I'm trying to decide a couple of things.

Given that there's no guaranteed income here (they pay only if they accept) how much time can I/should I invest in research and writing this article? The potential fee is $75 for an article of 1,000-1,400 hundred words plus discussion/activity suggestions. How much time would you put into a project like this, when time is precious and any and all income is needed? Is there a potential to sell an article like this somewhere else if they don't accept it? I never did anything else with the last one, though I often thought I should have tweaked it and tried it somewhere else...

Secondly, which topic should I choose? On something like this, I tend to go with my gut. Of the topics they hope to cover (and for which they still need articles) they included Babe Ruth (I love baseball history!), the Model T (and I recently finished reading some very interesting history about the Model T and Henry Ford in the book "1908"), and Charles Lindbergh. I've not read much on Lindbergh in years, but I went through a period of time where I found his biography quite fascinating. I actually read all of his wife's journals.

So, there you have it. Any creative consultants who want to advise, please feel free. :-) I need to make up my mind about this soon, as the deadline for submitting the article is less than two weeks away.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Quotes of the Week

From time to time, I just love to recount a few of the things our dear daughter has said recently. Sometimes they're profound, sometimes sweet, sometimes just funny.

Just bear with this Mama's occasional snapshot moments. The sweet girl is growing up so quickly...

"Mommy, what is your most ticklishest place?" (said while we were tickling each other one morning)

"Wouldn't you get sick if you ate nothing but a hound dog?" (actually said to her Daddy while they were listening to Elvis Presley)

And...(popping back in on Sunday afternoon to add a question from this morning, on our way to church): "What if food fell from the sky and we all carried plates around to catch it?"

Friday, June 06, 2008

Windowsill Gardening and the Nourishing Soil We Need

We've been growing several plants on the sweet girl's windowsill this spring. Right now she has a small plastic green house with impatiens (which frustrate her patience by their refusal to bloom!) and a pot with a lima bean plant which is flourishing.

We also have a medium sized pot with a grass plant. Yes, I said grass. Now the funny thing about this grass is that it was originally planted near the end of S' preschool year when she was four, so we've had it for two years. They uprooted a bit of grass and planted it in a plastic cup in her preschool classroom and she brought it home. We watered it faithfully for months and it grew pretty well, but the size of the cup limited how big it could get. Eventually, a few months ago, I realized belatedly that the poor grass plant was looking pretty peaked...pale leaves, drooping. The reason was obvious. Through the clear plastic of the cup, you could see the deep root structure which had become quite long and tangled up. The poor plant was reaching for deeper soil, deeper roots, but it had run out of space and richness.

So we transplanted the pale bit of grass this spring, right around Easter time. I know it was Easter because I borrowed the soil from the potted tulip plants we'd bought at church, in memory of D's grandparents. I wasn't sure how wise it was to borrow soil that had already been "used" and had other plant roots in it, but it was handy and the dirt still looked so rich and I hated to waste it. I also wasn't convinced that the grass plant would make it anyway, so figured we had nothing to lose.

Imagine our surprise when the plant immediately perked up and began to grow like gangbusters! It's doubled (maybe tripled?) its size, and become a gorgeous vibrant green. A few weeks ago it suddenly shot out a long, skinny shoot. Looked sort of weedy, but we let it keep going, curious, especially when it seemed to be launching another bit of grass at the end of the shoot. And then this week, much to the sweet girl's delight, the shoot BLOOMED! Tiny little white flowers, like slender stars, opening out from the shoot.

All of this makes me think about our spiritual lives. How often, I wonder, are we ready to deepen, ready to really push our roots deeper down so that we can grow, only to discover we don't have enough nourishing soil? Part of the richness of our daily disciplines is the way they help to break down/build up the soil that we need. We might think of our "daily grind" but it's a "grinding" that helps to take the stuff of our lives and works it into rich soil that helps us grow. Maybe it really isn't a coincidence that "human" and "humus" (the root word for "earth" or "soil") seem so closely related! We can't expect to make even a sudden spurt, much less sustain growth over a long time or manage to bloom, without being surrounded by the nourishing soil we need. Our roots need a real place to deepen, and our daily disciplines help God make that space and soil in our lives.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Summer! And The Blessing of "Ears to Hear"

I know that summer doesn't officially start for another few weeks, but I can't help but feel we had our unofficial start today. That's for two reasons: we finished up formal school routine/kindergarten year yesterday (hooray for us!) and because I finally turned a major corner health-wise.

I've been battling ear problems for well over six months now. It started back in November. I can still recall almost the exact moment when I felt that my ears suddenly "closed up" inside, and I began having difficulty hearing. For a long time I battled what felt like sloshing fluid in both ears, and varying levels of pressure and discomfort. It would get better for a while -- long enough that I would think it was going away -- but it always came back. I tried homeopathy (which I often find effective) and just flat-out ignoring it, not wanting to deal with doctor bills (given my current terrible insurance situation, always very high) or with antibiotics, which I don't deal with at all well.

In March, the discomfort and annoyance suddenly morphed into real pain. I had a day when I thought my head was going to explode from pain and pressure. I ended up in an emergency visit to the doctor and went on a huge round of antibiotics which helped my ears drain. It was a drag, but I thought I finally had the thing beat. I was a little dismayed that I still felt some pressure in my ears even after the round of antibiotics, but I talked myself into thinking it would go away. For several weeks, I struggled with that pressure again and with bouts of time when I wasn't hearing well at all, especially on my right side. Then two weeks ago, everything started getting really bad again in BOTH ears; by the end of last week I was finding it difficult to hear people talking, and I gave in and went to the doctor again. My regular doc didn't know what to do this time as she didn't see any infection, but she knew my eardrums didn't look normal, so she sent me to an ENT. Thanks be to God, the practice had a cancellation and got me in almost right away.

And that's where I spent yesterday, having hearing tests and finally getting my ears fully and completely drained. Apparently my eustachian tube is not functioning well and I'm prone to this kind of terrible fluid build-up. I've gone through this procedure one other time (when I was eight months pregnant) and believe me, it is a drag. It hurts. But the pain is relatively brief, and when it's over, there is the blessed and almost immediate relief of pressure.

I'd lived with that pressure so long this time that I'd almost forgotten what it felt like not to have it, and today I am slightly euphoric (though worn out and ear-sore and a bit disoriented, since I am perceiving every noise, even slight ones, at a much louder than usual volume). I am feeling utterly thankful that I sustained no nerve damage. If all goes well, I should return to completely normal hearing. And that is just an amazing blessing, as I'd begun (seriously) to fear that I'd never hear normally again.

When you haven't heard clearly in many months, tiny things are such a joy. The voice of my husband and daughter. Not needing to ask them to repeat themselves over and over! The patter of rain on our skylight this morning, the fizzing sound of carbonated bubbles in a glass of soda this afternoon, the ability to fully sing again -- I love to sing, but haven't been able to clearly gauge volume or pitch for a long time. I even slipped on earphones this afternoon for a little while -- though I suspect I should go easy on that for awhile -- and played the beginning of the disc that happened to be in the computer CD player. It was the soundtrack to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and I almost cried at the clarity and beauty of the first rollicking, joyful notes of the opening track called "Fireworks."

Since it was pouring rain all morning, and I felt like I needed to take it easy and rest, the sweet girl and I spent a quiet morning together doing fun things (with no school routine). I got out a wonderful set of "Little House in the Big Woods" paper dolls I bought at a yard sale a few years back and had put away until she was older and we had such a rainy day as this one. We punched out dolls and sets and props and cut out clothes with tiny little tabs while we listened to the first 4 chapters of Noel Streatfield's Ballet Shoes read on CD. Ah, quiet mornings and a slower summer routine. And the blessing of being able to hear again. It doesn't get much better than that.