Thursday, May 28, 2009

Last Six Betsy-Tacy Books Being Released Again This Fall!

Woo-hoo! Or perhaps that should be "Yoohoo! Betsy!"

Harper's is re-releasing Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy high school & beyond books (Heaven to Betsy, Betsy in Spite of Herself, Betsy was a Junior, Betsy and Joe, Betsy and the Great World, Betsy's Wedding) this coming autumn. You can go to this page at the Betsy-Tacy Society to see the announcement and sneak peek at the covers. You can even pre-order through their gift shop!

I almost swooned when I saw these. They're part of the Harper Perennial Modern Classics line. They've packaged them as two novels per volume (odd choice, but okay, I'll take it) but they're reproducing them with some of Vera Neville's original cover art. Too wonderful that. From the pictures, I think the cover art is from the earlier book in each pairing -- I wonder if they reproduce the art from the other book on the back cover or somewhere inside?

I don't often feel a desire to own another copy/edition of a book I already own, and I already own all the Betsy-Tacy books and the other Deep Valley books as well. But these books are such a major parting of my reading/writing life. So yes, I would love these.

I'll even forgive the publisher for letting Meg Cabot provide one of the forewords (I apologize in advance to any Meg Cabot fans) instead Considering I've never had a book published, for children or otherwise, I can understand why no one called! I can think of other authors, however, whose writing would definitely fit the spirit of Lovelace's world better. Though for all I know, Cabot loves these books dearly and has penned a terrific foreword. (I promise I will eat my Merry Widow hat if she turns out to have written something wonderful.)

Wouldn't it be fun if we all decided to have Betsy-Tacy picnics in honor of the release date in October?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Flight of the Hummingbirds

I'm a bit more than half-way through John Yow's The Armchair Birder. It's been a while since I've read a book of essays and I'm thoroughly enjoying these. He provides witty commentary along with his observations, and the birds he covers in these pages are "ordinary" birds (if there is such a thing...I'm starting to wonder!) not exotic ones. He even writes on a few birds, like the crow, robin and starling, that we see here in our little city.

An example of Yow's writing style will also provide you with one of my favorite passages so far. It's in the essay on the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris):

"Maybe the male I'm watching right now, sitting impatiently on the hook from which I've removed the feeder to refill it once again, is in fact trying to fatten up so he can hit the highway and catch up with his pals. Or maybe, since we're having one of the hottest, driest summers on record, he and all the other hummers are just thirsty. In any case, they'll be gone soon enough, headed to Central America on a journey that will include a 500-mile, nonstop flight across the Gulf of Mexico. The energy they build up for the trip often doubles their body weight, yet even so, the feat seems pretty miraculous. Austin says that a physiologist once proved by metabolic tests in his laboratory that the ruby-throat couldn't possibly store enough fuel in its tiny frame for such a lengthy flight, but, he writes, 'the birds, never having read the report, continue to do so twice each year.'"

Heh. It's not possible, but they do it anyway. How I love this.

Can you imagine the thousands...nay, millions...of wingbeats that one hummingbird must beat for such a long flight? A nonstop flight of 500 miles! For that tiny (yet courageous and ferocious, according to other descriptions) brightly colored bird.

Where does the hummingbird get its hidden reserves of energy? Yow mentions later that hummers can eat a wide variety of insects in mid-air, catching them "flycatcher-style." He didn't connect that to his former musings, but I found myself speculating that perhaps the way they have been designed enables them to take in the extra nourishment they need as they go.

Well, however the mystery works, it strikes me that the hummingbird probably gets the energy he needs where we all get it: from God, the one who sustains the whole world. As I was praying yesterday, feeling in need of strength for the ongoing journey, I felt thankful for the hidden reserves of energy given us by the Holy Spirit. And I found myself picturing the flight of the hummingbirds, whose migration will for me forever be an icon of reliance on the unseen...and the cheeky joy of doing what looks impossible in the face of all the reports that seek to define what's possible.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Quilt That Covered Me For Years

Last weekend we bought a new quilt for our bed.

Normally that wouldn't be something I'd find a need to post about on my blog -- or even turn into a status update on Facebook! It's actually not the new quilt (a practical machine washable one, lightweight with lovely colors, on major sale) that I feel a need to post about. It's the quilt we're retiring.

That quilt (the one pictured above) was handmade by my grandmother. My beloved Mamaw passed away almost seven years ago, the day that the sweet girl turned one month old.

Mamaw was an amazing woman. Tiny and tenacious, she gardened and quilted and canned for years in her small mountain home in western North Carolina. She often made what I thought of as "milestone" quilts to celebrate marriages and births.

By the time Dana and I got married, in 1992, she was in her early 80s and her quilting activities had slowed down, mostly because of her failing eyesight. I didn't really expect she'd be able to make us one and so was extra-delighted when she presented us with a quilt (the last one she ever made) in 1994. It was not her best quilt, she apologized. Some of the stitches came out crooked (I loved those). But she wanted us to have it. She stitched our names in tiny little red stitches on the inside corner. "Both your names," she emphasized, "so you'll always have to stay together." Her way of telling us that marriage is meant to last!

Although part of me considered the possibility of giving the quilt a longer life by only using it for decorative purposes or only using it once in a while, I found I just couldn't. My grandmother was such a busy, grounded, active person, always doing things for others, that it just didn't make sense not to use her gift to us as it was intended to be used. It was lightweight and stayed on our bed year-round. It's been there for fifteen years.

In the past couple of years, it's begun to get ragged. I started to cringe whenever I had to wash it as some of the tears got larger and some of the batting came loose. Unlike my Mamaw, I have no sewing gifts, and there wasn't much I could do to repair it. The edges and corners also began to look perpetually grubby and dingy. I used it longer than I should have probably, but it had become such a comfort and such a icon of love. Yes, it was a quilt that graced a marriage bed, so it represented that, but it seemed to bundle many other kinds of love in its warm folds. I cuddled with it on the couch on sick days, wrapped it round me in times of grief, and wrapped up in it to read countless times. I snuggled my nursing baby in the warm embrace of this quilt.

It was past due for retirement. It was time to take it off the bed and replace it with a serviceable quilt for "everyday use." As I folded it up and smoothed its soft surface, I found myself remembering a poem I wrote years ago when it was brand new, a tribute poem to my grandmother. It's one of those poems that makes me realize there really are moments when poetry can be a touch prophetic. I thought I would share it here.

You Gave Me Strawberry Squares

You gave me strawberry squares
stitched together with gnarled love
and trembling tenacity.
Patches of red cut a zig-zag path
against a field of soft white cotton.
"If I have one more quilt in me, it's yours."

You pulled it, piece by piece,
from your inner spaces
like sticky strands of intricate web.
Your weaver-hands are old.
You say you lost the needle
whenever your eyes got tired.
I see you searchng, on hands and knees,
looking for the eye, the center of things.

I patch your story with every question
about every photograph in the album.
We lose the thread of conversation
in the jumbling of years,
but always find the center again.
Your life has ripened on the vine,
bright like cloth strawberries.
Your creation holds the colors
of Christmas, the fruit of summer,
full circle in the midst of squares.

This quilt will cover me for years --
the fruitful squares of story
keep me going when I can't find the eye.
What did you think while you sewed
the pattern, bent over the frame
like living prayer?
(Was the pattern there all those years?)

Did you think about
the boxer dog who stole brown workpants
and green shirt right off the line,
how Papaw gave away the best beans
in the row because giving the best
is what you do,

the depressed corn field
where hungry neighbors stole healthy ears
and you pretended not to see,
the grave your men dug in the same field
for a friend,

the way you could turn your
on the sheets with one hand
he took to dying so lightly...

You remember it all, the places,
the names, the color of the corn
and beans, the feel of the sheets
and the smell of the field,
and it's all there, stitched into
strawberry squares you gave me,
past pieced lovingly to future.

This quilt will cover me for years.


Monday, May 18, 2009

100 Species Challenge #4: Mayapple

On Friday, the sweet girl and I went on a field trip with one of the families in our homeschool group. We headed to a nature center about 20-30 minutes from here and had a marvelous time seeing and hearing all sorts of amazing creatures great and small. Our favorite sounds belonged to croaking bullfrogs (we saw about a dozen of them, poking their eyeballs just above the surface of the pond) and hammering woodpeckers (we heard them but didn't see them). We also saw tadpoles in various stages, thousands of termites devouring an old log, and countless beautiful trees.

One plant we saw in the woods intrigued me so much I decided to take this photo so I could bring it home and identify it. The kids kept noticing the large, umbrella like leaves and I was surprised to find this mostly round white flower clinging to the front of the stem and sheltering under the leaves. Not all of the plants were flowering, but the ones that were had only one flower.

Thanks to Peterson's wildflower field guide, I now know this is a mayapple (podophyllum peltatum). It's a perennial plant found in woodlands; the flower usually appears in May and is later followed by a lemon colored berry. According to Peterson's, everything but the berry (which can be made into jelly?) is toxic.

The funniest thing was that I had no flash of recognition when I read its English name, but the light bulb went off for me when I saw the Latin name. Podophyllum happened to be the name of the homeopathic remedy that got me through a terrible intestinal virus in March. (Recall that homeopathic remedies are made with miniscule and very diluted amounts of substances which would otherwise be toxic.) So thank you, Lord, for the helpful medicinal qualities of this unusual woodland plant!

One more funny note: the plant has gone by many other names, including wild lemon and also mandrake. One website where I read information mentioned that in English folklore, the plant has been described as screaming when it's pulled from the ground, with its screams driving people insane. Ah-ha! Anyone else think that JK Rowling has read this bit of folklore? Good Harry Potter reader that I am, I couldn't help but laugh...and consider reaching for my fluffy pink earmuffs.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Pretty Wild! Top Picture Books for Children

Fuse #8, a blogger at School Library Journal, has been gradually posting the results of a poll that asked people to rank their 100 top children's picture books. Although I've only read a few posts, I've enjoyed them...she's not just ranking the books but talking about them, sharing snippets of emails in which the voters explained their choices, reflecting on the artistry and history of the various books, etc.

I just happened to hop over today and saw that the final post is up with the number one book from the poll results. You can click here to see the fun post on Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, which (not surprisingly perhaps) came out on top.

Also great fun...within the post is a link to a YouTube video of President Obama reading Where the Wild Things Are to a group of kids on the White House lawn. It was clearly not the easiest of tasks: one gets the impression the group of kids was huge, and he's in the unenviable position of trying to make sure everyone can see the pictures and also hear him, but it's still a delight. He's a bit stilted until he gets to the roaring, but then he warms up. My favorite moments are watching his daughters, especially the youngest, enjoying their Dad reading aloud, and Mrs. Obama adding comments and sound effects from her seat behind him. Yes, sound effects. Clearly Sendak's classic has been read at the Obama house long before this public relations event. Any time a family has sound effects down, you know it's a beloved book!

I'm looking forward to seeing a post that provides the entire list of 100 books, which should be coming soon. For now you have to scroll down and pick up links that direct you to other postings that detail the list. If you're curious, here's the top ten in descending order, from #10-#1: Knuffle Bunny, Millions of Cats, Madeline, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Make Way for Ducklings, Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, The Snowy Day, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Goodnight Moon, and Where the Wild Things Are.

An interesting list. I'm trying to decide what my top ten would look like, and what difference there might be in my personal list of books that I love and that have influenced me and my family, and my list of books that I think deserve to be in the top ten by virtue of their historic influence and how much they've been loved by so many people. My other thought has to do with editor Ursula Nordstrom, whom I was happy to see was featured prominently in the post in the post on Wild Things, and how far-reaching and long-lasting her influence has been in children's literature.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the top ten, or your own top ten!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Loving the Beautiful Particulars

If anyone had ever asked me if I loved nature...all the wonderful things God has created...animals, plants, weather...I would have always told them yes.

I grew up with, and completely took for granted, a lovely yard in Virginia. We had terrific climbing trees, green grass that felt terrific on my bare toes, a gorgeous garden complete with a garden patch I was allowed to call my own from a very young age. We had rose bushes and a plum tree and at either end of the street where I lived there were grassy fields (we called them the "triangles" because of their approximate shapes) where the kids in the neighborhood could meet to play kickball or pick wildflowers or collect bugs. We had ditches with ivy-covered banks between which water flowed like a miniature stream, allowing us to race leaf boats. I had a sand pile and a swing set. Down the road from us were neighbors who had all sorts of lovely trees, including magnolias. Almost nothing is more beautiful than their large, creamy blossoms and shiny dark green leaves unless it's the feathery, powder-puff pink blossoms on the sweet-smelling mimosa trees, which also flourished in our neighborhood. A block or so away, we even had a patch of woods in which we could wander (sadly gone now).

I loved it all. But I never fully appreciated it until I didn't have it.

I've had other places of beauty besides that first neighborhood. I lived on two stunningly beautiful (though vastly different) college campuses, including one in the mountains of western North Carolina, truly one of the landscapes of my heart. In the first five years of our marriage, D. and I lived less than five minutes from a Pennsylvania national park that burst into incredible dogwood bloom every spring, a place where you would stumble upon fields of deer or quaint covered bridges when you turned a corner.

I didn't know I was going to grow up and be called to live in an urban setting. Cities, for all the fascination they hold, always felt like they sucked the life out of me if I was in them for too long. Too much concrete and glass and brick, too much rust and bustle. I didn't mind visiting cities, but I was certainly never going to live in one, and I would have said adamantly that I would never a raise a child in one if I had a choice.

And I am, here we are. In the post-industrial rust belt for almost twelve years, a tiny town of boarded up storefronts and too much traffic, completely yardless, my front "porch" a concrete step just a few inches above street level. Would I love to live somewhere else? You bet, except for the tiny little wrinkle that the Lord has apparently called us to be where we are for the time being and given us a love for this place and those who live here. If there was one other important thing I learned along with my love of all things green in God's world, it was that the very best place to be is the place where God calls you, no matter where it is.

So here I am, here we are. And guess what? In this remarkably dry and weary concrete land, I have found myself falling in deeper love, and in deeper ways, with the created world.

I think it's because we see so little of it, because I have to work so hard to find ways to share nature with my little girl. She has none of the beauties I took for granted when I was her age, no yard to run around in, no place to safely walk barefoot, no opportunity to just sit and stare for minutes (or hours) at bugs. Well, we do have those opportunities sometimes, but they come rarely and they have to be planned carefully, with visits to the yards of friends or nearby parks or the seminary lawn. I think what I am most wistful for is the deep sense of freedom and spontaneity that I had as a child, when I could simply wander outside (I can hear a squeak and the slim wooden frame of the back screen door slamming behind me as I write this) and toss myself down onto the grassy lawn with a good book. The sounds I took for granted were cricket chirps and cooing doves, not motorcycles and trucks. The smells I took for granted were sweet honeysuckle and pungent ivy, not exhaust fumes and the dumpster across the road.

So we've had to get creative. We've had to get passionate about learning as much as we can about every bit of nature within reach. We take nature walks here in our little city, picking wildflowers, crouching as near as we can to curbside gardens that don't belong to us, twining binoculars around our neck so we can peer at the birds nesting in the birdhouse in the yard of a nearby church. During the week hardly anyone is around those church grounds, so we sometimes sneak into their side yard for a few minutes and play. There's a long, cascading kind of willow tree there, a small one that blooms with beautiful white flowers in early spring, and the sweet girl calls it her "tree house." She hides beneath the branches while her Mom keeps a casual lookout for anyone who might be wanting to kick us off the property, trying to give her little girl a few minutes of the kind of quiet, green privacy she loved so when she was six.

And I am amazed at how much I'm learning. Do I still long to live in a place where I can these things for granted? Well, to be perfectly honest, yes. But having to work hard to find bits of nature means I value them all the more when I find them. I have learned the names of plants and trees and birds. I've never been particularly good at knowing specific names of things, so I've tried to get better. And as I learn them, I pass them on to the sweet girl. We're learning together to appreciate every bit of God's beautiful created world we can, from the ten sycamores across the road (whose buds we watch with such raw expectation every March) to the wonderful starlings that are nesting in the gap between the buildings across the street. Not to mention the tree sparrows that have their nest in the corner of our own building (we live over a warehouse) and the huge crow that struts his stuff on the roof across the way from time to time.

This past weekend we went to a nearby park for a picnic supper, something we try to do as often as possible in spring and summer. This was our first picnic of the year and it was a bit grey and chilly in the early evening, but still oh so beautiful. Robins were scattered on the grass in such vast numbers it was like they were having a Robin convention, or (more likely, I thought) deciding to field a few baseball teams. I counted 29 robins at one point on the baseball field, most of them congregating in the outfield.

And I was stunned by the surge of excitement and happiness I felt when a bright yellow blur tumbled by us, surfing the wind. I actually stood to my feet shrieking "it's a goldfinch! it's a goldfinch!" I was so thrilled to see that amazing bird I wanted to toss a handful of confetti or set off sparklers. D. had told us he'd seen one during his morning walk the other day, but neither the sweet girl or I had been able to add this particularly beautiful little bird to our spring list yet, and we were delighted to do so. He flew by twice (yes, it was definitely a he...we could tell by his colors and markings) finally alighting on the metal fence by the baseball field, and I simply stood on the other side of the fence, staring in awe.

Getting to know God's world in its particulars is a joy. It strikes me as somewhat ironic that it took almost a decade of lean years to get to me to the place where I began to passionately look and learn everything I could. Somewhere along the line I realized I had to stop majoring in wistfulness and get busy appreciating anything and everything alive and growing (or singing or flying!) that God put in my path. The beauties of green and growing things, the gorgeousness of the natural world, are never going to be something my daughter is going to be able to take for granted as I did. But that doesn't mean I can't teach her a deep gratitude for them, and a deep joy in discovering them wherever they are.

Monday, May 11, 2009

For All The Moms Who've Been Before...

From the sweet girl's bedtime prayer last night, at the end of a lovely Mother's Day:

"Thank you for my mom...and her mom and her mom and her mom and her mom and her mom, all the generations back. All the way to Eve."

I think that just about covers it!

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Speaking of Writing

"Work of the eyes is done now/go and do heartwork..." (Rainer Maria Rilke)

I love this quote. You can find it in various forms online; depending on the translation, people seem to break the line in different places. Sometimes you'll find it as "done now...go" and sometimes as "done...Now go" and though those nuances make a subtle bit of difference, both seem to work.

What I love about it is the way it clearly shows the need for both "eyework" and "heartwork" when you're writing. "Work of the eyes" is necessary -- we need to look and look and look some more, and store up all we see. But there comes a time when the looking stage reaches some sort of end, and we find ourselves needing to do "heartwork" on the images we've seen. The last part of the quote is actually something like "go and do the heartwork on the images imprisoned within you." Although that speaks to me too (especially the idea that the work of writing has to do with freeing) I don't think that all the images we begin with are necessarily imprisoned. A better description for me might be embyronic. The images are like seeds, the "heartwork" involves digging, plowing, planting, nourishing, watering, and all the other many things one does to encourage growth and blooms.

Sometimes the images we begin with in the eyework stage are actual ones, things and people we've seen as we've explored the world. Sometimes the images are born in our imagination, including the images and characters that we're given as gifts. But once we have the image firmly fixed in our mind, it can't just sit there. We need to get it to the page, then begin to wrestle with it and create something that is born not only of close observation or creative imagining, but of the deepest parts of our hearts and what we believe about the story...the one we're telling, the one we're living in, and how those intersect.

Work of the eyes, work of the heart. Eyework, heartwork. Both utterly necessary, and both arduous tasks. I'm rediscovering that right now as I try to step back into the creative work of writing fiction. So far I've mostly dangled my toes, cautious about the water below. Pretty soon I need to dive.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

A Festive Morning To You

I woke up this morning feeling discouraged. That's not an easy thing to admit for someone who tries/wants to greet each new day like the gift from God that it is. But unfortunately today it was true: I felt like I sprang straight into the morning with leftover discouragement from the day before attached to my back in a heavy pack. Maybe I forgot to take the pack off last night before I went to bed!

And then the sweet girl got up. I was cleaning up a bit in the kitchen before I went into her room for morning prayers. I'd already told her good morning and when she came back into the kitchen, I said "good morning again" sort of automatically, my mind somewhere else.

"Good morning!" she exclaimed, her voice bright. And then added, "Festive morning! Great morning! Excellent morning! I love you morning!"

I started laughing. I told her I especially loved "Festive morning" -- one of the most joyful ways I've ever heard to welcome a new day and to share your joy with someone else.

I think I may try this discipline for a while: finding a joyful way to greet God each morning, maybe even before I get out of bed. I know some days I will feel that joy...and other days, like this one perhaps, it will be a conscious stretch. But that's okay. I think the discipline of doing it can matter, to my heart and to God's.

I've been realizing anew lately how important it is that I let God know how much I love him. So often when I pray, I'm stuffed with requests or worries, and yes, that's part of praying too, to present those things at God's feet. But simple words of love mean so much in any relationship, including our relationship with the Lord of heaven and earth.

A festive morning to you!

Monday, May 04, 2009

What a Difference...

the sun can make, especially in the way we see shadows.