Saturday, December 4, 2010


Three days in, and December has tromped on the last of my flowers and spread its chill everywhere, including a thin crust of snow that crunches underfoot. It reminds me of two old nursery rhymes I rediscovered in a museum in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island this summer, in a display of weather-related collages. Both rhymes are English and quite old.

The first, is usually titled either The North Wind Doth Blow or The Robin:

The North wind doth blow and we shall have snow,
And what will poor robin do then, poor thing?
He'll sit in a barn and keep himself warm,
And hide his head under his wing, poor thing.

Whether the Weather is more of a tongue-twister but also fun:

Whether the weather be fine,
Or whether the weather be not,
Whether the weather be cold,
Or whether the weather be hot,
We'll weather the weather
Whatever the weather,
Whether we like it or not!

Monday, November 22, 2010

School Shoes

I’ve been neglecting the blog for a couple of months, so am trying to make up for it. Please pretend this is being entered in September. If it helps with the pretending, you might like to know I was thinking and talking about this idea in September. Just didn’t get to write it down. A recently graduated student commented on how odd it seemed not to be starting school in September—for the first time since early childhood. I could connect with that sensation. For a few Septembers, due to family events or job changes I too hadn’t started school and as a result felt myself adrift. No new outfits, no new school shoes. It felt way too weird, so I decided to go ahead and get the new school shoes anyway. I’d wear them out with friends or to a restaurant or a concert. So while classes didn’t always start, I was prepared, refreshed and ready for whatever might come my way when the (school) year got off to its official start. I finally did have lunch with two of these recent graduates. We all wore fun shoes or boots…so the fall is officially a success.

Ruby Slippers

A week in Kansas and no ruby slippers—no tornados either, so I guess I didn’t need the slippers. The trip was intense—fifteen events with children and the state is large. Many miles between locations. My assignment on this trip was to promote early literacy through the Kansas Reads to Preschoolers program. I was fortunate to have UP DOWN & AROUND chosen as the 2010 book and during the week I was there they hoped to share the story with more than 100,000 children across the state. I probably read (and sang) with about 1000 little ones. Kansas has been kind to me and my writing since the very start. My first book, Family Tree, was nominated for a William Allen White readers’ choice award when it first came out. Highlights of this trip? Staying at the Boot Hill B & B in the Annie Oakley suite. (When I was small I wanted to be Annie Oakley.) And staying in a B & B constructed from an 1800s barn. I particularly enjoyed the little girl who, when I talked about good eating and growing big, said, “I’m not big, I’m widdew.” Or the boy who saw the book cover and kept saying, “That’s a punkin patch. That’s a punkin patch.” Or especially my visit with two former students, now married, and meeting the first Chatham MFA baby, little Liam. A lovely, huggable, lapful. A great trip all around, Toto.

Monday, August 2, 2010

A Whale of a Trip

One of the absolute joys of the teaching life is having the opportunity to learn and grow along with one's students. Sometimes it is a small moment — a new book discovered or a new way of seeing an old favorite. Traveling through Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island with a group of graduate students is no small moment — it is an explosion of sensation as rich and nurturing as the krill that flourish in these marshes and estuaries. We sing everywhere — in the van, on boats, as we walk the beach or city sidewalks. Our laughing muscles hurt and yet the writing that is shared is thoughtful, profound, moving.

Which is the best moment? Seeing the glacier-scored rocks at Peggy’s cove, or hearing the story of Peggy—a child pulled from the wreckage of a downed schooner? Or seeing the graves of Titanic victims—some unnamed—who were not rescued in time?

I feel dwarfed by the work of Alexander Graham Bell—and then awed by the bald eagle, Alex, who circles our boat near this wise man’s Cape Breton home. To say nothing of seeing (in just two days) two moose and more whales than I can count.

The sea is all around us here—it salts my skin, sings me to sleep at night, carries me back in time to my childhood on the beach. So is this the best? High on the list, a moonlight paddle across a glassy lake then spending the night in a tipi on the shore.

And through it all—day by day—watching these lovely people stretch, grow, explore, take risks. There is no one best moment, for there are so many brilliant ones. Instead, for me, the mix of writing and teaching is simply the best life.

Here is a poem I wrote while on the trip —


yellow bathtub in peaty brown water

currents, wind whip up

waves smack the boat bottom

a drumbeat tattoo

in my ears I am an ocean-going tug —

a pilot boat

a zodiac bounding from froth to froth

in truth I am a small woman

on a small plastic boat

upon a small placid lake

but the moment is infinite

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Dog Dog Teeth

I’ve been spending several weeks in the country, digging in the garden and reading fun books. A lot of the time, I’m by myself, talking back to the birds who chirp down or grumbling at the bunnies who love to eat my Echinacea plants. Then people arrive on the scene, often in goodly numbers and it’s party time.

My most recent party time included a week-long visit with my daughter and her 21-month-old daughter, pictured above painting au natural. Little E is bursting into speech, abbreviating the language into bits and nibbles that convey her meanings with both joy and humor. And while she chats all the time, she mostly uses one or two word phrases—not yet full sentences. When she latches on to a new word, it becomes the word of the day and gets endless repeats. One day the word was Ma-Ma, her word for me. I slurped up all those lovely syllables and rewarded her with hugs and snuggles. Another day the word was fluffy, for she woke with wild hair, curling every which way and I said she was fluffy. So that day everything became fluffy.

My favorite of her expressions however takes a little explaining. Her mother has a delightful sense of humor and whimsy. The little one is in love with dogs, and so as her canine teeth are about to erupt from her gums, Mom explains that those are her dog teeth. My daughter is sure the baby will enjoy those teeth in particular because it will connect somehow with her doggy friends. Little E makes the phrase unique, for they are not canines, nor dog teeth, but dog-dog teeth. A three word phrase that always comes with a smile.

I drove them home and returned yesterday, again solitary, talking to the birds and bunnies. I spent the first half day feeling lonely and pathetic so I wallowed in it and did chores and put away bunches of toys. But this morning dawned crisp, cool and sunny and the garden beckoned. As I dug and transplanted and pruned, I kept seeing her covered in paint and hearing that chirpy little-girl voice in my ear, giggling Ma-Ma, fluffy and dog-dog teeth. I’m not sure if or when my grown-up vocabulary will return…

Friday, May 21, 2010

Birthdays and Baby Feet

Last weekend I participated in a birthday celebration--the Pennsylvania One Book (Every Young Child) was celebrating its fifth birthday, with a gathering of the authors or illustrators of all five books. What a delight! I've often felt that I live a privileged life--the people I get to hang out with much of the time are readers and writers, librarians and teachers, children, and gardeners.

The One Book creators were no exception. Folks who grow, nurture and support--whether children or plants--are generally kind, helpful, cheery, easy to be with. This crew included a number of illustrators and it was much fun to hear about their work and process, which is different in many ways from mine. I play with words; they play with images. I listen for the ways the sounds fit together; they explore color and line and shape. Together, although from our separate desks most often, we work to create a seamless and beautiful story. Cooperation at a distance.
I also met a fledgling writer last week. While visiting a school and presenting an assembly, I modeled some activities around using the five senses, then invited the children to explore their shirts with just their fingertips. I heard comments such as soft, very soft, a little scratchy. Then from the first grade rows, a little boy said, in a clear, loud voice: "my shirt is soft as baby feet." This boy is already a wordsmith--he makes images that sing. And he's only six or seven. It makes me wonder what tales he'll be spinning when he gets bigger...

Friday, March 26, 2010


When I’m out visiting schools, as I have been frequently this spring, children often ask who are my heroes. I think teachers ask them that question, frequently, and when they have a captive adult they like to turn the tables, toss it back. I find the question difficult to answer. At first I consider famous people—George Washington or Mother Theresa. But they’re too far away in time or space to be quite real for me. So my mind turns to folks closer at hand.

Living in Pittsburgh, it would be natural to select a sports hero. We have many to choose from. But although I enjoy sports, I don’t tend to lionize athletes. Or politicians or movie stars. Fame and glitz aren’t high on my list. Instead, I try to think, who has made a difference? Who has done something that really matters?

Joan Friedberg and Betty Siegal are two smart women with a good idea. And the energy to carry that idea into action. It’s a simple idea, really. If you start connecting children with books from the earliest months and years of life, they will grow up strong and healthy. Joan and Betty are the organizers of Pittsburgh's premier Early Childhood Literacy organization, Beginning with Books. These women are real heroes—their good idea has impacted and improved the lives of hundreds of children and families all over western Pennsylvania.

I have been notified that I am to receive the second annual Friedberg Siegal Champion of Literacy Award. To receive an award named after Joan and Betty is, in the words of my granddaughter, awesome. In my own words, it is humbling as well. I will have to do some serious stretching to measure up.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Breaking Records

And just when I was complaining about January, February hit. In Pittsburgh, we're inches away from breaking all records for the snowiest month since they started keeping track. This photo shows my street after only the first two days. That was about 21 inches, 13 days ago. We're at 38 inches today and it shows no sign of stopping or melting. Around town, electricity has been iffy, traffic has snarled into gridlock, roofs are collapsing. Down the street, a water pipe burst this morning. We haven't seen a snowplow on the street yet and probably won't. But we have seen folks on cross-country skis, and grrr. My skis are in Massachusetts as are the brand new snowshoes. Excellent timing.

In fact, it has been an excellent time. Hot soup with neighbors after shoveling, walks to the nearby market for supplies, hiking to campus for meetings with students, walking out at night to a nearby restaurant for an Italian dinner, all beautiful on foot. I didn't touch my car for 11 days and I really didn't miss it. Without all the usual distractions of outings and meetings and classes did cabin fever set in? Sure, a little bit. But there's a quick remedy for that--piling on the snow gear and going outside to enjoy the crisp cold air, the sculptural trees, the odd piles of snow on roofs.

For a writer, such a spell of quiet isolation is golden. When working forward in a manuscript, I try to compose one new chapter a day. Most days, I succeed. But during the past several days, I've averaged two chapters per day, occasionally more. I've also helped a writer friend (within walking distance) complete final edits on a manuscript and given feedback to others more distant via email. It is easy to let distractions rule one's life and when they disappear for a while, the day seems to grow extra hours. This is not to say I won't welcome tomorrow's meeting with colleagues at the university, for I will. You can spend only so much time in conversation with the made-up people in your fiction before turning loopy. Balance is all. And warm boots...

Friday, January 29, 2010

Snow and Chocolate

Twenty-ten. Late last December I yearned for the new year and without realizing it, was also waiting for a new decade. Then it arrived. We ushered in twenty-ten with family in New England. Playing games by the fireside. Enjoying our youngest grandbaby. A few moments before midnight, our daughter remarked that oops, nobody had thought to bring funny glasses or party hats. This set us off in a flurry of catching up. With five minutes to go, she created strange additions (from a child's puzzle) to her glasses frames while I grabbed a pile of newspapers and began folding. I should have sent someone off for the masking tape, but no time, no time. When the year turned over, it found us with semi-folded newspapers on our heads and riotous laughter shaking our bodies. To the onlooker, surely these people were missing a few essential nuts and bolts.

We returned home to Pittsburgh with a warning about lake effect snow, which caused us to travel a more southerly route. Once home, it snowed and snowed and snowed. Every day for thirteen straight days, snow fell in Western Pennsylvania. We never got a big pile, just an inch or so. I'd wake up to covered walkways and grab the broom, but by afternoon, I needed to sweep again. Somehow, this gradual, grey, small flurry and flake storm accumulated to more than a foot on the patio table. Creeping, sneaky.

There was nothing slow or gradual about what came next in this new year. Haiti was shaken, broken, devastated. In seconds the built landscape flattened, burying homes, roads, and most tragically thousands of people. The actual numbers are not known, will never be known. And that uncertainty must haunt the survivors. Did friends, family, neighbors, children survive? And if they died, where, how, how painfully? Will supplies ever arrive? Will I have a roof before the rains come? Will aid come in time to help heal the wounded? How many more will die? In the midst of such enormous disaster, we in Pittsburgh witnessed a small miracle--the evacuation of 54 orphaned children, already in process of joining new families when the quake struck. From farther away we read of survivors rescued after more than a week of entrapment. Tiny flickers and flares of hope amidst the ruins.

It felt odd, then, to travel to Hershey PA for a weekend library event. To visit Chocolate City, where they give you a candy bar as you check into your hotel, while in the Caribbean, people were desperate for food and water. Odd to spend an hour watching our two small grandsons splash in a large indoor swimming pool while some people can't find a drop of clean water. Odder still to sit in that hotel lobby and watch 60 beauty queens from all over Pennsylvania vie for the title of Miss Grange of Pennsylvania. Lovely girls, in beautiful dresses with proud parents and grandparents cheering them on. While in Haiti, families mourn their losses, scramble for a shirt, for shoes. And yet this too is a flicker of hope--a promise that young people will continue to grow and survive despite the challenges that surround them.

As we reach our hands into our pockets to aid and support the thousands in crisis, those same hands can applaud the proud moments of strong young women in triumph. Our hands, our hearts, these are versatile tools--and it is our task to use them well, to stretch and grow them and use them in all sorts of ways--to dry tears, to fan flickers of hope into flame, to sweep snow, to unwrap chocolate.