Friday, December 31, 2010

Farewell to 2010

The Writer's Almanac for today offers a number of New Year's Eve quotations from Tennyson, Twain, and others. This is the one that struck me, from Bill Vaughan: “An optimist stays up until midnight to see the New Year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.”

I have to admit that I'm falling into the pessimist category right this minute, though I don't plan to stay up until midnight, but will instead bid farewell to the old year at a more reasonable 8:30. But I do want to send 2010 on its way. It was so hard and so heart-breaking. I want a new year that is easy and heart-healing. Okay, I can't expect any year to be easy. But I can ask for heart-healing, I really think I can.

Still, poor 2010 deserves some loving tribute, too. In my special little notebook, I closed out the year this morning with a review of my achievements and accomplishments and major joys for the year, and sure enough, it filled a full page, which is all I had left in my notebook to allot to it. Here are just a few: I got a literary agent, for the first time in my career; I wrote four books, and I loved writing them; Makeovers by Marcia won an award in France, in its French incarnation, Marcia Vous Maquille - how cool is that?; I taught a totally fun new course, Philosophy through Literature; Gregory got heaps of graduation awards and won a full-tuition scholarship to the College of Music at CU to study jazz saxophone; Christopher found a full-time job that he loves, at Boulder Toyota; and even the farewells to my mother and Grandpa, who had both lived such full and rich lives, were in their way beautiful and satisfying. I was surprised when I started writing all of this down to find that the old year hadn't been a total bust, at all. I mean, what do I expect? Glorious happiness from dawn to dusk every single day?

Still, my heart has holes in it, big Swiss cheesy holes. Holes where my mother used to be, where Grandpa used to be, where my marriage used to be, where certain hopes and dreams used to be. These holes fill up with hurt in the evenings, throbbing, aching hurt. And then in the morning, I wake up, and the day is full of promise again. Tomorrow 2011 will begin, full of promise that this year I will run faster, stretch out my arms farther. Maybe even fill up some of those holes in my heart. And one fine morning . . .

Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Word for the New Year

When I attended my poetry retreat three years ago, the poet who led/taught/inspired us for the weekend was the remarkable and wonderful Molly Fisk. Molly is a poet, teacher, and essayist who does weekly radio pieces on top of everything else she does. She just posted on Facebook an update of the great new year's post she did last year. Molly believes that instead of making grim resolutions that are bound to fail, you should choose a word that will resonate inside you throughout the year, a word to hover in the back of your thoughts and help you through the coming months. One year her word was "surrender"; another year it was "austere"; this year it is going to be "precise." Molly said that sometimes you don't choose your word as much as it chooses you.

I want to choose a word for this coming year, for me. This is going to be a significant year for me, because for the first time in decades I'm free to create an entirely new life for myself if I want. My beloved mother and father-in-law are at peace and no longer needing my care, my younger son is away at college, my older son is employed full time. And I'm alone, without a partner to share my life, but also without a partner to encumber it.

So what should my word be, my word for this year that is about to begin? I thought about the word "adventure." But Molly's words weren't obvious and cliched like that. Then I wrote on Facebook that I was going to grope toward my word. And as soon as I wrote that, I thought: that's my word! "Grope"!

Molly didn't say anything about choosing a word, or having it choose you, and then changing your mind partway through the year; she didn't speculate that perhaps you could be wrong in your choice of word. She didn't treat choosing your word as some big deal that was supposed to take weeks of thought and preparation. So maybe I should stop second-guessing myself and agonizing over this, and just say, okay. "Grope." That's my word for 2011. "Grope." As I'm repeating it to myself now, it has a strange sound. It looks strange on my screen. "Grope."

And yet, it also seems right. And it rhyme with "Hope."

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Gratitude Toward My Former Self

One of the projects I have to do over the break is to write the paper that I am contributing to an edited collection on romanticism and childhood. I was asked to write a paper on my beloved Rousseau, connecting him somehow to recent children's literature. I hit upon the idea of looking at some recent children's books that feature home-schooling through the lens of Rousseau's Emile, his account of one fictional boy's extraordinary 20-year-long home-schooled education at the hands of his tutor, representing the figure of Jean-Jacques Rousseau himself.

Now is the day I HAVE to settle down to writing this thing. I unearthed the abstract I submitted to the editor many months ago and was agreeably surprised. It's great! I've already done all the work of laying out my ideas and linking them together. All I really need to do now is connect the dots, color it in, flesh it out. I even have detailed, extremely helpful notes on the four children's books I'm discussing: Skellig, Ida B., Surviving the Applewhites, and Stargirl. This is going to be a piece of cake!

So right now I'm overwhelmed with gratitude to my former self for giving my current self such a great head start on this project. Thank you, former self! And, in a pay-it-forward mood, now I want to do something equally nice for my future self. Maybe I'll eat healthfully and in moderation today so that she can be happy weighing herself tomorrow. Maybe I'll put in several good hours on this Rousseau paper so that she'll wake up tomorrow and feel as if the shoemakers' elves have done lovely things for her as she was sleeping.

I want to be as good to my future self as my former self has been to me.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

There's a World Outside of Yonkers

Last night I saw Hello, Dolly! at the Boulder Dinner Theater with my colleague Carol and her daughter, Elspeth. I knew it would be wonderful, and it was: the perfect end-of-year treat, the perfect usher-in-the-new-year treat, the perfect invitation, especially to those of us who are bit older, a bit more weary, to seize the splendor of every day before the parade passes us by. There IS a world outside of Yonkers, Barnaby! And now I'm determined that in the new year about to begin, I'm going to go out and find that world.

I'm going to go and taste Saturday's high life - I'm going to get some life back into my life! I've got to go again, I've got to drive again, I've got to feel my heart coming alive again! I'm going to raise the roof, I'm going to carry on - give me an old trombone! give me an old baton!

So this is just to put the world on notice that I'm planning to do something extraordinary with my life in this coming year. Me, and Dolly Levi.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Day After Day After Christmas

Now that I have eaten my way through three tins of cookies and several plates of fudge, it is time to turn my thoughts to using the rest of winter break productively. Next week I'll be heading back East for the poetry retreat I've attended for the past few years. This means that I have nine days between now and then to accomplish great things.

I meant to start accomplishing great things this morning, but so far I've mainly accomplished small things. I made my master list of all that I had to do, with 92 items on it. Of course, I write everything on the list, including the very smallest items, because I so love the motivating momentum of being able to cross things off: make a vet appointment for Snickers (done!), get tickets for the King Tut exhibit at the Denver Art Museum for this Wednesday (done!), transfer money to pay Gregory's college bill for the coming semester (done!), re-read a beautiful little book of Advent meditations before putting it away to read again next December (done!). Somehow it has taken me three hours to do these things. How can that be? I've crossed off seven things total so far this morning, of those 92, but they were all so small and yet somehow they took so long. Oh, well, at least they're done. If I hadn't made my gloriously detailed list, I might not have accomplished even those seven. Better seven than none, right?

I know that it would have been a better use of my time to pick one of the big, important things and do that instead, even if it was the only thing I managed to do today: e.g., work for one hour on a writing project. Actually, I could still do that, but somehow the luster is off the morning. Maybe I'll do at least three more tiny things for an even ten: I'll reply to three Christmas cards (I didn't send cards this year, so now need to do something to respond to the interesting notes on the cards I did receive); I'll send a nagging email to a journal that has had one of my articles for three months now; oh, and writing this blog counts, too. So that will be ten out of 92. Just 82 left to go.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve

Today I baked my mother's special Christmas cinnamon rolls. My mother served these on Christmas morning every Christmas that I can remember, my whole entire life. She'd make them ahead of time - on the day after Thanksgiving, the same day that she made the Christmas cookie dough. Then she'd freeze them. On Christmas morning we'd heat them up in the oven, frost them, and eat them after my sister and I opened our stockings (when I was little) or after the boys opened their stockings (when I was big).

Christmas was also my mother's birthday. She claimed that she liked having a Christmas birthday, that she liked having her birthday fall on this most special day of all the year.

Last year she and I baked the cinnamon rolls together. You make them with yeast, and the dough has to rise twice. The first time it rises in a bowl covered with a towel, set in a warm place. The second time it rises, it has already been rolled out and made into the cinnamon rolls.

I was nervous. I had never baked them before all my myself, and directions that have to do with yeast have a certain nerve-wracking vagueness to them: dissolve the yeast in warm water (how warm?); scald the milk and then let it cool to room temperature (how scalded is scalded? can I tell room temperature just by sticking the tip of my finger in the bowl?). What if they didn't rise enough? What if they rose too much?

And I couldn't call my mother to ask her any of these questions. I can never call her again.

But they turned out beautifully. They look delicious. I know they'll taste delicious. And the boys and I will eat them tomorrow morning, after they open their stockings, with smiles on our faces, tears in our eyes, and love in our hearts.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Rufus M.

I spent a most happy day today working on a scholarly paper on Rufus M., by Eleanor Estes, published in 1943; I'm submitting the paper to the annual conference of the Children's Literature Association conference, to be held this year at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, this coming June. Abstracts for submitted papers are due January 15, but I have another scholarly paper due in January as well, so I wanted to get at least one of them done before Christmas. And what more fun way to spend the day before Christmas Eve?

My whole career as a children's literature scholar has been spent writing papers on books I loved as a child. There is no other unifying focus to my published children's literature papers - now numbering almost twenty - except for the common theme of writing about books I loved as a child, though I guess I also try to focus on ethical or philosophical themes in the books, where I can. I've written papers on the Betsy-Tacy books, on the Little House books, on The Secret Garden, on the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, and three papers now on Eleanor Estes:

“‘Good in the way witches enjoy being good’: The Reality of Morality in Eleanor Estes’s The Witch Family,” The Lion and the Unicorn, vol. 34, no. 3 (September 2010): 320-32

From Individual to Community: The Shifting Moral Subject in The Middle Moffat and The Alley by Eleanor Estes,” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 55-71

"Artistic and Moral Imagination in The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes," Children's Literature in Education, vol. 33, no. 3 (September 2002): 167-74

If my Rufus M. paper gets published, it will make number four. From my fairly extensive search of the scholarly literature in the field, I have learned that nobody else has written more than ONE paper on Eleanor Estes. This makes me, I can say in all honesty, the most prolific and prominent Eleanor Estes scholar in the world. In the world! And Eleanor Estes is a pretty important figure of twentieth century children's literature, in my opinion, winner of the Newbery Medal for Ginger Pye and of three Newbery honors, for The Middle Moffat, Rufus M., and The Hundred Dresses. But nobody but me seems to have written much about her.

It's fun to be the foremost something in the world. And even more fun if you can be it simply by writing about something you love.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Carrying On

Every year since my boys were very little, my mother baked Christmas cookies with them. It was one of our favorite Christmas traditions. She would make the dough ahead of time (compulsively organized person that she was, she always made the dough the day after Thanksgiving and then froze it). On the baking day, she would come armed with dough, aprons, and enormous rolling pin. Under her supervision, the boys would roll out the dough to her prescribed thickness and cut out dozens of cookies with our wonderful assortment of cookie cutters. Then after she baked them for us , the decorating extravaganza would begin.

This is the first year we don't have my mother with us. I thought we'd skip the cookie baking this year - too sad to do it without her. But the boys wanted to do it. So yesterday we did. And it wasn't sad. It was wonderful, every minute of it. How could I have thought it would be sad?

Here are some of our cookies, made with so many memories, and with so much love.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Cringing Time

The most recent issue of the SCBWI (Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) Bulletin has an article by Joelle Anthony called "The NEW Red-Haired Best Friend: An Updated Look at the Most Overused Things in Young Adult and Middle-Grade Fiction." A few years ago, Joelle wrote her original list on her blog. The SCBWI Bulletin has her updated list; I think only members can access the link to it.

It's very hard for most writers, including me, to read the list without cringing. On her current list, I recognize several of the "overused things" in my own recent books:

#15 - stories of irresponsible parents with main characters who end up paying bills, cooking, cleaning, etc.
My newest middle-grade novel, One Square Inch

#3 - clumsy characters who can't dance or play sports to save their lives
My middle-grade novel Lizzie at Last

#1 - main characters who hate math
Every single book I've ever written EXCEPT for Lizzie at Last. In fact, Wilson's hating math is the very heart of 7 x 9 = Trouble! and Fractions = Trouble!

Joelle's earlier list has even more of the these cringe-generating items for me: parents who are professional writers, heroines who can't carry a tune, the diary as a device, main characters who want to be writers, and NUMBER ONE on her list: lists.

I know that so many writers gravitate toward these same story elements because so many of us tend to write about characters who were like our own younger selves, that is to say, people who grew up to be writers. Writers are often bad at sports and bad at math. Writers often keep diaries and like to make lists. Others of the items in Joelle's catalog come from the demand on us as writers to create a compelling story with high stakes for our main character - this is why we end up with main characters with absent, irresponsible, or dead parents. This is why Harry Potter is an orphan - oh, and I should note that he is also an orphan who has a best friend with red hair.

But I'm still cringing.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Last Thoughts on Utopia

I just finished grading the final papers for my Philosophy through Literature class, structured around the search for utopia. This time I followed the advice given to me years ago by one of our graduate student instructors, who said that he made it his practice to assign papers that he would enjoy reading. So I gave my students the option for their final project either to write a traditional analytic paper or to write a creative paper in which they designed their own utopia. To my great pleasure, more than half chose to share with me their version of a perfect world.

So I read about Prairie, a society that embraces the whole of human feeling and welcomes even negative emotions as a sign of being fully alive - Ataraxia, the land of tranquility (you have to pass a test of character to be admitted to residence there) - a libertarian utopia set in Somalia in the year 2060 - Cloud 10, an artistic and environmental paradise up in the sky - Gaia, based on empathetic spirituality - Atlantis, settled only by the hand-picked intelligentsia - Treeopia, where happiness is achieved not through material possessions, but through art. Although my students voted overwhelmingly, on our last day of class, to live in our world rather than any of the utopias we visited together, I myself am ready to sign up right now for Ataraxia or Treeopia - that is, if they will take me.

The downside of giving students an interesting paper topic is that they will rise to the occasion and produce truly wonderful papers, and then I'll have to give them high grades on these papers, and our chair will send us another memo about how we need to hold fast against grade inflation. But the upside is that I get to spend the last days of the semester reading papers that are truly worth reading and that make me feel that the course I taught was truly worth teaching. I think I'll go with the upside on this one.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

One More Day to Be Sad

Because it's been such a hard and sad year for me in so many ways, I've been looking forward to December 31 with great anticipation. Farewell 2010, and good riddance! On to greet all the wonderful new things the universe has lined up for me in 2011! I've found myself in a countdown mode - only three weeks left to be sad, now only two weeks left to be sad...

But then I decided that I really didn't want to wring every last bit of sadness out of 2010, especially because, after all, this is winter break from my job teaching at CU, and it's supposed to be a time of well-earned relaxation, plus a time to get all the work done that I didn't have time to do during the busy semester. Did I really want to spend the better part of winter break moping? So I decided to give myself just through December 26 to be sad, and then start being happy again on December 27. I'd have a sad Christmas (Christmas Day was my mother's actual birthday, and she was always the heart and soul of our family celebrations), and then on the morning of Sunday, December 26, I'd preach the sermon at church, as I've done for the past two years, with Christopher playing all the music for the service (the regular pastor and organist like to take off the Sunday after Christmas to recover from all their intense Christmas season efforts). It would be a sermon on looking back, and on looking forward, and then I'd start looking forward myself.

But now I'm thinking that maybe I should move up the deadline for starting to be happy again, and give myself just TODAY to wallow in my last hurrah of sadness, and then get up TOMORROW and start being happy again. I have a number of enticing work projects to begin, and all the last satisfying Christmas activities. And even today has a lot of distractions from sadness in it: church this morning, an open house at the parsonage this afternoon, and then caroling at two retirement communities. Still, I can squeeze quite a bit of sadness in.

And then tomorrow, Monday, December 20, I'm going to wake up at 5:00 again, instead of my currently slothful 6:00, and I'm going to listen to some great songs from Hello Dolly: "Put on Your Sunday Clothes, There's Lots of World Out There!", "So long, dearie, I should have said 'So long' so long ago," and "Before the Parade Passes By." And then I think I'm going to spend the rest of my life being happy. It sounds like a plan.

Monday, December 13, 2010

End of Another Writing Year

My wonderful Boulder-based critique group had our holiday dinner last night, with nine of us gathered around the beautifully decorated table at Elizabeth's house. Two beloved former members joined us for the occasion, and we added one new member this year, so the evening was a sweet mixture of old and new, with so many stories to share.

Ina asked us all to share our writing accomplishments for the year. Listening to our self-summaries, I was struck at how different we are in our approach to writing. Three of us are always writing heaps of books, whether or not they get published; we just keep on writing through hard times, through good times; we are dogged, dedicated, die-hard writing machines. I fall in that group. This year I wrote three 125-page novels in the space of six months while also nursing a dying mother, a dying father-in-law, and various dying dreams.

Others in our group spend more time letting the well refill. They make more space in their lives to develop their creativity in other ways. One, for example, has been prioritizing her photography rather than her writing. One is in the process of sustained private groping toward trying to write something unlike anything she's written before. One is preoccupied with the demands of her day job and giving herself permission to take some time off from writing.

I decided long ago that when it comes to creativity, one creative style isn't better or worse than another, it's just different. Maybe it would be good for our group's doers to spend more time dreaming, or for our dreamers to spend more time doing. Or maybe not. Our doers definitely produce more books. I wouldn't say that we produce better books. Maybe next year I'll try make more space for creative idleness, for deceptively lazy stretches of imaginative play. Or maybe I'll write five 125-page books.

But either way, it was wonderful holding hands around Elizabeth's table, blessed to be in the company of such beloved writer friends.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

End of Term Parties

The semester ended on Friday at CU, so I had my usual in-class parties for both my classes.

For my small Intro-to-Ethics freshmen class, which meets at 1:00, we had pizza and cupcakes. That course opens with our reading of The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Tolstoy, which I present to them as the story of a life gone wrong: as he is dying, Ivan Ilyich keeps tormenting himself with the question, "Did I live as I ought?" And he keeps trying to reassure himself with the answer, "Yes, I did, because I lived as everyone else did." Only on the day that he is dying does he realize that that the answer is no, he did not live as he should have lived, and with that answer comes the relief of facing the truth and reorienting his life in his last hours toward what really matters. Then the rest of the course is structured as a series of books about how we SHOULD live our lives, with readings by Aristotle, Epictetus, Kant, Mill, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Trungpa (Shambhala). On the last day I have the students vote: if they could give only one of these books to a young Ivan Ilyich, which would they choose? This year, the winner was . . . Aristotle.

In my other class, Philosophy through Literature, which meets in the morning, we had donuts and orange juice for our party. This is the class where we read six books on utopia, each one with a different vision of a perfect society. I had the students vote on which was their favorite, which was the world in which they would most want to live. The default setting was our own world. And overwhelmingly, when they voted, our world won. Part of me felt disappointed that they had remained so conservative in their vote, so wedded to the familiar status quo. But part of me felt that it was a lovely thing, to survey all these visions of utopia and then decide that our own world, just as it is, was the most wonderful of all.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


With my final Mason Dixon revision behind me, and the last of the in-term grading done for my two classes, and my signing off on my guest-editorship for the University of Maryland's Philosophy & Public Policy Quarterly today (hooray, hooray), I am now officially in groping mode for a new book idea.

Some of my author friends don't need to grope for book ideas. They already have more ideas for books than they could write in a lifetime; their panic is never "What will I write next?" but "Will I live long enough to release these characters into the world who have taken up residence in my head?"

Some people just have very fertile and clever brains. Of all my writer friends, the one with the most fertile and clever brain is Utah picture-book author Rick Walton. I've heard Rick speak several times, and it's always amazing to behold how his brain works. Rick says that he writes - get this! - some two hundred picture books in a year. Two hundred. He says he might end up selling and publishing five or six of these, so he has a very low publication rate from his ideas. But because he has so many ideas, he ends up publishing a ton of books. And, I might add, a ton of delightfully creative books.

My brain doesn't work that way. I have to sit down and slowly, consciously, painstakingly create an idea out of nothing. I tend to create one idea at a time, usually no more than one or two ideas in a year. I lie on my couch with my clipboard, pad of paper, and pen, hour after hour, day after day, until I finally start to form my idea. But then when I have an idea, it usually gets published. I have a much higher publication rate for my ideas than Rick has for his. My brain isn't better or worse than Rick's brain. It's just different.

So now, as soon as I finish posting this, I'm going to put in a good hour of groping for a book idea. And another one tomorrow. And another one the day after that.