Tuesday, July 26, 2016


I've been continuing to struggle with the same work/life balance issue ever since I returned home from Indiana two months ago: how do I find any time at all for my early morning writing and walking while living with a beloved little girl who tends to wake up VERY VERY EARLY - while one of her parents has left for work well before dawn and the other is zonked out exhausted after a night of sleep interrupted from bouts of nursing? 

I still have no good solution except to note that the earlier I get up, the better the day goes. Plus, sometimes willful toddlers don't get their own way and have a good ol' tantrum about it, and that's okay. And sometimes, I learned recently, I don't get my own way - and the results can quite wonderful.

The other day Kataleya got up just as I was about to leave at 5:30 a.m. for my cherished hour-long walk with poor little Tanky the dog who lives for our outings. (In houses with new babies, older siblings aren't the only ones temporarily dethroned). But there Kat was, doing what she always does whenever I prepare to leave the house: running to get her shoes, as if they were some magical talisman to ensure that she can come, too. "Shoes on! Shoes on!" she wailed inconsolably. 

Oh, well. Often I come up with some excuse she will accept: Mimsie has to go to work, Mimsie has to go to that mysterious thing called "a meeting." This time, I sighed, loaded child and dog into the car, and drove down to Viele Lake. Because this time, I had something splendid to share with her: goats!!!

The city of Boulder has decided to control noxious weeds on public lands not with environmentally toxic herbicides but with a traveling herd of goats accompanied by a guard llama. They are currently down by the lake in the park where I walk, behind an electric fence just a foot or so away from the yellow-net fence beside the path for cyclists, pedestrians, and their companion animals,

What a magical half hour the three of us had, in that crisp, cool dawn air, so close to two dozen goats that we could practically reach out to touch them.

I didn't get a proper walk that day.  I missed getting it desperately. Those of us with Fitbits hate sacrificing any chance for steps!! But I shared sweet companionship with an enthralled toddler. (And don't you love the purse?)

Before she became an acclaimed novelist, Elizabeth Berg was a frequenter contributor of personal essays to the women's magazines I love to read. I still remember one from decades ago. She wrote about attending an elementary school music program and looking at her watch to make sure she wouldn't be trapped there for too long. Then she had a revelation: if she didn't have time to hear little children playing Mozart, what more important thing did she have time for? Her answer: nothing.

Ditto for spending the first, best hour of the day with a two-year-old and a flock of hungry goats.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Baptism Day

Today was the baptism of my second grandbaby, Madilyne Jane Wahl, who will be two months old tomorrow.

I love the rite of baptism so much, the welcoming of a child - or an adult - or anybody - into the family of faith. Today I knew I would cry as the pastor held Madi and touched her sleeping little head with holy water, baptizing her in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. To make the day even more emotional, her daddy, my son Christopher, played the piano for the worship service, and he chose the hymns, including this one that always makes me bawl uncontrollably:

It begins:
I was there to hear your borning cry,
I'll be there when you are old.
I rejoiced the day you were baptized,
to see your life unfold.

It then proceeds through all the stages of human life, from birth to death, celebrating God's presence in all of them.
In the middle ages of your life,
not too old, no longer young,
I'll be there to guide you through the night,
complete what I've begun.
When the evening gently closes in,
and you shut your weary eyes,
I'll be there as I have always been
with just one more surprise.

Unfortunately, the pictures that are right-side-up on my phone, and right-side-up when saved onto my computer, and right-side-up when I emailed them to friends, are (well, some of them) at the wrong angle here. So you'll have to tilt your head to see them. But when I tilt my own head to see them, I view them through a film of happy, grateful tears.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Santa Fe Surprise

A few months ago I got an email from the Rocky Mountain Division of the American Society for Aesthetics asking if I would give a keynote address at their summer conference in Santa Fe.

Well, I love giving talks, and I love Santa Fe. There was only one problem: I don't really know anything about aesthetics, or the philosophy of art. My area of specialization is ethics. I assumed that they had invited me by mistake, confusing me with some other better-qualified philosopher, and I wrote back to tell them so. They replied that they had indeed intended to invite me, hoping I could give them a "creative artist" talk on philosophy and children's literature. And I said, why, yes, that is exactly the kind of thing I could do!

The conference was this past weekend. Santa Fe is only a 6 1/2 hour drive from Boulder, so I invited my husband to come with me, and he accepted that invitation as well. But then I became consumed with doubt and guilt about how I would manage all my competing obligations: 1) give a good talk at the conference; 2) attend other sessions of the conference; 3) see an old friend friend from graduate school, a photographer/blacksmith/art historian who lives near Taos; 4) develop a new friendship with the wonderful, kindred-spirit philosopher who had invited me; and 5) make this a little holiday for me and my husband as well.

I really think I ended up doing all of those things. My talk was well received. I heard ten other talks and came away fired up to do more reading and maybe some writing as well on topics presented at the conference. I stole time for a leisurely lunch with the artist friend and had late night one-on-one heart-to-heart conversations with two other friends. I had dinner with my husband every night, and we also had a lovely drive up to Los Alamos to ponder the fascinating, tragic chapter of our national history that was the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II; he and I also savored the gorgeous scenery through the most gorgeous stretches of scenery in Colorado and New Mexico.

Sometimes it's a mistake to try to cram too much into too few days. Sometimes it's a mistake in life to try too hard to have it all. But this past weekend, I loved being able to combine work and play, professional development with deep, meaningful connections with friends old and new, plus family fun, too. I did have twinges of guilt for missing some conference sessions, but everybody misses a few. I did have a few pangs for abandoning my husband during most of each day, but we had more quality time together on the trip than we would have had at home. Best of all, I had long, quiet walks early each morning, all alone, past the art galleries on Canyon Road, time just for me. I had time, that is to say, for everything.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Old Elitch's Theater Outing

All outings are fun, but for me, writing-related outings are the most fun of all.

Last night my writing friend Carrie organized an outing for her writing group, and me, to the abandoned theater that was once a prime attraction of the old Elitch's Gardens amusement park in Denver. Carrie is in the process of writing a young adult novel set in that theater, where she herself once worked many years ago, before Elitch's moved to its new location and the theater closed its doors for good. I was included in the outing as I'm going to be working with her in a mentor role as she tackles revisions. 
Now celebrating its 125th anniversary, and in the midst of a decade of renovations, the theater is hosting tours on the First Friday of each summer month. The tour we attended was extremely well organized. Half a dozen different guides presented information about a wide range of subjects: the exterior of the building; the timetable for the restoration; the history of the Elitch family (with special focus on spunky Mary Elitch, who kept the amusement park, zoo, and theater going after her husband's  early death); the history of the theater itself (the first summer stock theater in the U.S.); and the roster of  visiting stars who had performed there, including Sarah Bernhardt, Robert Redford, and my own favorite, Patty Duke.

Here we are, soaking up atmosphere and looking forward to seeing some details from the theater's storied past making their way into Carrie's book:
Afterward we wandered over to Denver's delightful Tennyson Street, filled with its own First Friday delights. Tennyson Street is home to the Denver bookstore I love best, the charming children's bookstore, Second Star to the Right.
They were still open, even at 9:30 at night, so I bought two books for Kataleya. Right across the street is another inviting bookstore for browsing and lingering, BookBar, which offers the combined attractions of bookstore and wine bar. What's not to like about that? The Denver Cat Company cafe was closed for the night, but several pleasingly plump kitties dozed in the window. After waiting for two of our party to have their Tarot cards read (!), we settled down for late-night people watching at an open-air, street-facing counter of a restaurant on the way back to the theater. 

I got home close to midnight, unheard of for me, early to bed and early to rise as I am. But once in a while, it's worth it to burn the candle at both ends. Especially when you have the chance for a fascinating and fun outing with fascinating and fun writer friends. 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Crossing Off Bucket List Items (I Didn't Even Know I Had)

In the past few days at the Children's Literature Association conference, I crossed off several "bucket list" items, things that I wanted most to experience before I die. Strangest (and best) of all, these weren't even items on my actual bucket list, as they were things I had never dreamed were possible.

Although I'm a children's book author, I come to the conference each year as a children's literature scholar, presenting papers not about my own books but about books by other authors I've long loved: Louisa May Alcott, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Maud Hart Lovelace, Eleanor Estes, Betty MacDonald, Rosamond du Jardin. But this year, another scholar on the program presented a paper about me.

Prof. Jean Stevenson of the University of Minnesota-Deluth frequently presents papers drawn from her archival research at the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota. It just so happens that I donate my own manuscripts to the Kerlan Collection. So this year Jean poked around into those materials and shared her findings in a conference session. It was bizarre, and humbling, to sit in the room and see my scribbled outlines, handwritten manuscript pages, and correspondence with my editor Beverly Reingold, there up on the screen of Jean's Power Point. I felt a bit exposed - appearing in public wearing only what ladies used to call their "foundation garments" - but mainly just so honored and grateful. Thank you, Jean, thank you, from the bottom of my heart for giving this loving attention to my work.

If that weren't enough, I gave my own presentation on my idol, Jeanne Birdsall, creator of the Penderwicks series. I was a judge of the National Book Award in 2005, in the category of Literature for Young People; Jeanne's first book in the series was our winner, and I think it's fair to say that I was the judge who loved it first and most.
This year the brilliant scholar Anne Phillips of Kansas State University created a ChLA panel on the "family story in the 21st century," centering on The Penderwicks, and invited Jeanne Birdsall to join us as the guest of honorSo in the last session on the last day of the conference, I gave my paper, "Exclusive vs. Inclusive Families: L'Engle's Austins vs. Birdsall's Penderwicks," with Jeanne sitting right next to me.The hug she gave me afterward is something I'll take with me to my grave,
Then that evening, at the awards banquet, I received the organization's Edited Book Award for my collection, Ethics and Children's Literature, a labor of love born out of a symposium I organized during my time at DePauw.
Shortly I'll fly back to my Boulder life, where I'll start dreaming and scheming about next year's ChLA conference in Tampa (theme: "Imagined Futures") and the year after that in San Antonio (theme: "Water"). But every conference for me has the theme "Happiness."

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Books and Bliss in Columbus, Ohio

Greetings from Columbus! I'm here attending the annual meeting of the (scholarly) Children's Literature Association conference. This might be the 20th one I've attended; certainly I've attended heaps and heaps, and in 2012-13, I served as the organization's president. This is always my happiest week of the year.

The conference officially begins today, but yesterday was the all-day meeting for the Executive Board (of which I'm no longer a member) and of the Phoenix Award Committee (on which I'm now serving the first of a three-year term). The Phoenix Award Committee gives an award to a children's book published 20 years ago which did not win a major award in the year of its original publication but is judged, by our committee, to merit one now.

I arose early and took myself on a delightful walk from our Sheraton hotel right across from the Ohio Statehouse to the picturesque neighborhood of German Village, with its historic houses and brick sidewalks.

The walk terminated in Schiller Park: how many major American cities have a park named after a poet? Here is its charming "Girl with an Umbrella" fountain, as well as the imposing statue of Friedrich Schiller.

Of course, along the way I found a German bakery/cafe for hot chocolate and whipped cream, and cinnamon-crumb-topped coffee cake.

Back at the hotel, it was time to hurry to the Phoenix Committee meeting. All year long, I've been reading titles published in 1998 in preparation for deliberating about the 2018 award (we work two years ahead for various logistical reasons). By the time of the conference we were down to our ten finalists. We spent the entire morning lovingly discussing each one, celebrating its strengths, noting its weaknesses, and then reached a consensus decision on the winner. I'm not allowed to disclose it at this time, but trust me, it's a wonderful book, The rest of the day-long meeting was taken up in phone calls to the winners selected last year and plans for next year's festivities.

In the evening, I had dinner with two beloved once-a-year conference friends, and stayed up late talking to one of them about our shared love for Louisa May Alcott's An Old-Fashioned Girl.

All this before the conference actually begins, with the registration table open in another hour-and-a-half - just enough time for a quick walk to the German Village, and more hot chocolate, with more whipped cream....

Monday, June 6, 2016

Finding an Hour a Day

Well, one day - ONE! - after posting my weepy, whiny complaint about how I can no longer find my golden hour of the early morning to write, I sat down with my little strategizing notebook and solved my problem, just like that.

The problem: my house is very small and very crowded, and my darling two-year-old toddler-in-residence now gets up unpredictably early. I've built my whole entire career on writing for an hour first thing in the morning. So it's now impossible to pursue my career as a children's book author, right?


To find my solution I began by listing all my woefully  imperfect options, with my litany of reminders why each one wasn't going to work:

1) Get my hour later in the day - oh, but I hate not starting my day off with writing! Once that crucial early morning time slot has passed, it's too easy to talk myself into thinking I might as well do my writing "tomorrow."

2) Slip away to a cafe and spend my hour there - oh, but that would mean getting dressed, and driving somewhere, and spending money, and what if they don't have a comfy couch, or what if they do and some other author has already claimed it?

3) Get up at 4:00 - oh, but that's sooooo early, even for me!

4) Try to make someone else take care of Kataleya - oh, but her father is off at work and her mother has been up many times all night long with a newborn baby, and it hardly seems fair to rouse her again.

5) Let Kataleya fend for herself when she awakes - oh, but who could recommend that for a very active and mischievous two-year-old who every day finds a new way to foil our child-proofing?

6) Give up writing. I don't even need to list why this option is unacceptable to me.

I realized that I could stare at this list for the rest of my days, and it wasn't going to change. These are the options. I had to pick one of them. The best one, all in all, was #3. As my literary hero, Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, wrote about his own pursuit of a writing career in tandem with a career in the British Post Office: "There must be early hours, and I had not as yet learned to love early hours." Okay. Early hours it would be, and I'd make myself learn to love them.

Unless. . . I reminded myself that actually Kataleya usually sleeps until 6 or 6:30 or even 7. There was only one morning - really, only one - when she was up at 5:30. It's true that now that I know she may wake up, I can't have the utter, spellbound, writing concentration of yore. But maybe I can talk myself into ignoring this dread possibility and write my best, anyway.

So, a new option appeared on the list:
7) Get up at 5:00. Don't check email. Don't check Facebook. Don't do anything but write as fully and fiercely as you can for one hour. If Kataleya wakes up during that hour,  yes, it's a disappointment. But life has disappointments in it, and only whiny babies wallow in them.

Problem solved. This morning I got up at 5:00. I worked for a glorious hour on the keynote address I'm giving in a week and a half at the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers workshop in Utah. I realized that I already had the talk well in hand from previous hour-a-day stints, so in today's hour of intense concentration I got the rest of it in good enough shape that, although I plan to do plenty of tweaking between now and then, if I had to give it tomorrow, that would be perfectly fine. Hooray!

Next time I have a vexing problem, I think I'll skip right over the self-pity stage and go straight to finding an imperfect but workable solution. I mean, why not?