Monday, March 31, 2014

The Day Before April 2014

 Today is the day before April, the day for me to reprint my now-traditional day-before-April post.

My mother was an elementary school teacher as well as a writer of a few published stories for children. Her love of reading and writing is where I get my love of reading and writing. My sister and I were raised on poetry. One of our favorite collections was Silver Pennies, edited by Blanche Jennings Thompson ("A Collection of Modern Poems for Boys and Girls" - modern, meaning at that time, published in 1959). The preface to the book begins with the lines:

You must have a silver penny
To get into Fairyland.

The premise of the book was that poems themselves are these silver pennies.

Of all the silver pennies in the book, this poem was the one we loved best, by Mary Carolyn Davies:

The Day Before April

The day before April
Alone, alone,
I walked in the woods
And sat on a stone.

I sat on a broad stone
And sang to the birds.
The tune was God's making
But I made the words.

My mother, my sister, and I have long celebrated "the day before April" as a holiday, a Mills family holiday. Some years ago I hosted a "day before April" party, with my mother and my boys (who did think it was a somewhat strange party) as the only guests. I usually gave my mother flowers on that day.

I've dreamed of writing a book with the title The Day Before April. Maybe someday I will.

In honor of the day, I'm going to go buy some flowers - daffodils, probably. A few years ago, when I first wrote this post, I took daffodils to my mother, who was in a rehabilitation center after a fall that broke her hip and arm; she died two months later. My daffodils today are in memory of her.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Greetings from Michigan

Greetings from West Bloomfield, Michigan, where I've just finished up a wondrous week of school visits, taking advantage of the University of Colorado's spring break to be able to absent myself from campus for a five-day immersion in some of the most delightful schools in America. The amazing West Bloomfield Township Public Library, recipient of the National Medal for Museum and Library Service (the nation's highest honor for libraries), partners with the public schools for their Pine Tree reading program, which has been going on for over thirty years. The children read 20 titles from a selected list, with all kinds of delightful challenges and incentives to entice them to read all 20, and then there is a week-long Pine Tree celebration, all funded by the public library. And as part of this year's reading extravaganza, they invited me.

I love going to schools and talking to kids, Even more, I love just being in schools and seeing wonderful teachers at work - and maybe, just maybe, coming away with a few book ideas?

At one school, I had the chance to sit in on the dress rehearsal for the fourth grade choir concert and hear the kids singing a medley of patriotic tunes, as well as bopping along to the Beach Boys, "I Get Around." At another school I dropped in on the before-school knitting club, where the children were knitting and crocheting colorful yarn squares to stitch together into blankets for the homeless. I did two evening programs at the public library where I got to answer questions that went far above and beyond the usual "What is your favorite book?" and "How many books have you wrote?" Instead, I was asked questions like: "You told us that it's important to put vivid, sparkling details in your stories when you write them. But sometimes I think I'm putting too many details in mine. How do you know the right amount?" Oh, and one media specialist shaved his head to reward his students for meeting their Pine Tree challenge.

Then today I spent time at Sheiko Elementary, one of the most diverse schools I've ever visited, with students of  so many races and ethnicities. It was pajama day, so most of the kids were there in pj's, complete with fuzzy bathrobes and stuffed-animal slippers. (Some teachers, too!) After my two assemblies, Mrs. Claudette's Daniels's students invited me back to their class for their "salad bowl." I had no idea what this "salad bowl" was going to be. Of course I said yes.

When I reached the room, soft music was playing to encourage quiet reflection. While most students sat on traditional chairs, some sat on big hoppy balls, so that they could get their wiggles out in a non-disruptive way. The "salad bowl" itself involved students taking turns in sharing their writing, in a "share when the spirit moves you" format, a tossed salad of diverse ingredients, if you will: poems, persuasive essays/speeches, whatever the students chose to offer.

Mrs. Daniels went first, sharing a piece of her own about the different fathers she knew and loved as an adopted child. I don't think I've ever seen a teacher so willing to share her own writing with her class, willing to accept the inescapable vulnerability all authors feel when they allow others to see and hear their work. Some of the student pieces were ardent speeches making well-reasoned arguments for greater environmentalism and social justice. Some were modeled on template poems provided, such as "Life for Me Ain't Been No Crystal Stair" by Langston Hughes. Poems on homework and ice cream were hilarious; poems written in the voice of a mother sharing hard-won wisdom with her children were deeply moving.

And then, it was time for the actual edible salad bar, served in a corner of the classroom.  And time to sing a "birthday rap" to the birthday boy of the day, who stood on a table surrounded by his classmates who honored him with a birthday greeting set to the tune of "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugar Hill Gang. (No, I did not recognize the tune myself, but the much younger media specialist who was my host for the day identified it for me).

What a gift to be in the company of such a gifted teacher. What a joy to be in the company of such motivated students.

Thank you, West Bloomfield Township Public Library, for a magical week. And don't be surprised if some future book of mine features pajama day, a salad bowl sharing of kids' funny and poignant poems, or a birthday rap....

Friday, March 21, 2014

Lucky (Despite Being Unlucky)

Yesterday I went to my first followup appointment with the orthopedist since I fell just over two weeks ago and broke my foot.

It's been a daunting and discouraging two weeks. I couldn't master -- well, actually, gave up on even attempting -- crutches; the knee-scooter I rented proved unwieldy and difficult (for me) to maneuver (but, oh, you should see Christopher zoom around my tiny house on it, and my ski-injured students zip around campus on them wonderfully). I had to go up and down stairs on my bottom. I had to ask my students to help me get in and out of doorways in my wheelchair. I had to ask my already stressed family to bring me my morning hot chocolate.

When I flew to the Children's Lit Festival in Warrensburg, Missouri, last week, I had the shock of discovering that although I was wheeled right to the plane in an airport wheelchair, the actual plane was one of those tiny ones out on the tarmac, with steps you had to climb up into it - and no way for a disabled person to climb them. So I gave up any pretense at dignity, ascended the (cold, metal, dirty) stairs on my now-practiced bottom, and hopped down the narrow aisle to my seat.

But then, at yesterday's appointment, the doctor examined my x-rays and probed my foot. Did it hurt? she asked. No, I answered honestly. In fact, that's been the hardest part about accepting my disability: forcing myself not to walk on a foot that didn't really hurt at all. The only pain, one of my friends at church said, was the "pain in the ass" of the massive disruption to my daily routine.

"Walk on it!" the doctor said, with a merry shrug.

I felt as the paralytic did when Jesus told him, "Get up, take your mat, and go home!"

Well, not quite. But almost.

The bliss of being able to walk from bed to bathroom! To walk from couch to desk! To go downstairs on feet, not bottom, and make myself my own hot chocolate at will!

"You're so lucky!" a friend told me when I called her at once with my good news. And she's right.

Then again, a truly lucky person wouldn't go out to get the mail, trip on nothing, and fracture her foot.

Lucky? Unlucky? Or both?

One of my favorite books is Alix Kates Shulman's memoir To Love What Is. (Thank you, Alison, for that book recommendation!) Her beloved husband falls nine feet from their sleeping loft and is permanently brain damaged as a result. Their marriage will never be the same. How could it be? And yet she dedicates the memoir to him, "To my darling."  Despite her friends' horror at her changed life, her husband himself keeps repeating the mantra, "Aren't we lucky?" Shulman writes, "Our shorthand for this tenacious optimism, which some consider temperament, others self-delusion or denial, and still others a gift, is the language of luck -- which we continually manufacture by our stubborn resistance to viewing our lives as other than blessed."

Sometimes it's harder than others to see our lives as blessed. Mine feels much more blessed now that I've been given permission to walk again than it did two days ago when I was in a rage of despair against the limitations imposed on me by my temporary disability. It's a heck of a lot easier to feel lucky today than it was on the day I got my diagnosis. I have loved ones dealing with things in their lives right now so tough that few could call them lucky outright.

In any case, I'm feeling lucky right this minute. I just walked downstairs and fed Snickers her breakfast. All by myself! That was me, walking right down the stairs like nobody's business.

Lucky, indeed.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

No Cows This Time

I'm off this morning to the airport to fly off to Missouri where I'll attend the Children's Literature Festival hosted by the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, which I've attended for at least fifteen years, maybe more. The festival brings over 30 authors to campus to speak to over 5000 children, who are bused in from all over the state, some traveling two hours each direction simply to come to the festival and share the joys of talking about books with the people who write them.

The festival is always the same. Many of the same authors return every year, so we cherish our once-a-year festival friendships, catching up on everything that has happened to us in the previous year. (I'm certainly bringing pictures of new grandbaby Kataleya). The authors go on a shoe-buying party to the old-timey shoe store in downtown Warrensburg where gentleman in suits measure our feet with that old-fashioned foot-measuring thing. Then we go across the street to Heroes, a cozy restaurant/bar where we order their signature drink, the Unknown Hero, and onion rings. We take a long walk on Sunday morning with the stated objective: "see cows."

This year I'm going to navigate both airports - Denver and Kansas City - in a wheelchair. I can still give my four talks a day to the children, perching on a table (as I've been teaching my classes) rather than striding back and forth in front of the room. I can still do the nightly gabfests. I will still buy a pair of shoes, though won't walk around the store to test how comfortable they are (all of their shoes are comfortable). I will definitely down an Unknown Hero (or two) and my share of onion rings.

But I won't go walk to see the cows.

That's a sad thought for me.

But not too sad. Sometimes in life there are years when you don't go see the cows. Then there are other years when you do. My broken foot will heal. A year from now I'll be leading the way to the cows. This year, I'll stay in my room, broken foot elevated, and work on the copy-edited manuscript for Izzy Barr, Running Star, and that will be satisfying, too.

No cows this year. But, God willing, cows next year. And cows the year after that.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Dependence and Independence

To have a fractured foot is to experience what it's like to be dependent. Told that I can't bear any weight on my injured foot for 4-6 weeks, I'm not supposed to take even a single step. Not one!

At the urgent care place, they sent me away with crutches. This was my first time in my long life trying them. I promptly tripped, landing on my broken foot much harder than I would have if I had just cheated and walked on it normally instead. I have such poor upper-body strength that it's extremely difficult for me to propel my bulky mass around using my arms for support.

I decided that crutches weren't for me.

So I ordered a knee scooter, where you prop your disabled leg on the scooter and zoom around using your good foot to push you off. It took five days for it to come and then required significant assembly. My son Christopher can zoom around on it like the coolest skateboarder on campus. But when I tried to turn it in my very small, furniture-crammed house, I fell. Hard. On my injured foot, of course.

I also ordered this "fake foot" kind of thing, which you strap on to your thigh - sort of a prosthetic leg, with a little shelf on the back of it where you can tuck your real leg, if you happen not to be an amputee. Despite a rave or two on the Internet reviews, even Christopher found it extremely awkward. After watching his failed efforts, I have yet to try it myself.

So how am I getting around? At home I roll along on my desk chair, quite hard to do over carpet, but safe and comfortable otherwise. I go up and down stairs on my bottom. I hop if there is something I can hold on to while hopping. I borrowed the church wheelchair to come to the university. Christopher has been driving me to and from work, loading and unloading the heavy, bulky chair, a luxury I will not have for much longer, as he starts a new job next week. One of my classes meets mere steps away from my office (well, mere rolls away); I managed to move the other two classes into my building, at least temporarily.

A person in a wheelchair looks and feels dependent. At least that is the report from this person in a wheelchair. I find myself asking my family to wait on me because it's so hard for me to get things myself; my house is really too small for ease of maneuvering the wheelchair just as it's too small for ease in maneuvering the scooter. I find myself feeling impatient when they're busy with other things, such as with my two-week-old granddaughter, who of course is their top priority. I feel guilty for not even trying to be more self-sufficient. Did I give the crutches a fair try? No. Other people use them. Surely I could do so, as well. Am I really ready to start pleading age as an excuse for opting for the wheelchair instead of taking on the challenge of the scooter, the darling device of all the students at CU recovering from their weekend ski injuries?

And yet. . . .

The best way to learn any new skill is to be willing to make mistakes. That's why Christopher is a better skier than the rest of us: he doesn't mind falling, and we do. That's why Gregory is better at computers than the rest of us; he just goes ahead and experiments, without that terror that your computer will crash. When baby Kataleya starts to walk, in a year or so, she is going to fall down. There will be tumbles. There will be tears. That is an inescapable part of learning.

But right now I desperately don't want to fall. Another fall could be so costly. And because I'm afraid to fall, I stay dependent, rather than moving toward independence.

I do think it matters that my dependence is short term rather than long term. If all goes well, in another three weeks I'll be up and about as in days of yore. In my view it's not worth significant investment of time and effort - and significant risk - to master crutches. But - here is my pledge to myself - when I'm up and about again, I'm going to invest time and effort, and whatever risk is required, in building upper-body strength and improving my balance. I'm going to walk faster and farther than I've ever walked before. I'll climb mountains, tall ones, I will!

I'm going to do everything possible to maximize my chances for continuing independence over what I'm calling Act III of my life.

But for now, I think I'm going to let myself be dependent for just a few more weeks.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Making Peace with Sorrow

I've been crying off and on for two days, hosting a lavish pity party for myself, as I contemplate all the changes this broken foot is bringing to my life.

I review five children's books a month for the online review service Children's Literature (I also find a lot of my reviews for them posted on the Barnes & Noble website). The book I read and reviewed yesterday is a sports novel by Mike Lupica called Game Changers: Heavy Hitters. Toward the end of the book, the main character says, "My dad [is] always telling me to appreciate these seasons [of sports] because nobody ever knows how many they're going to have." Well, that sent me bawling for half an hour, mourning the end (at least for now) of my walking season. Walking is one of what I call my "four pillars of happiness," the four things that bring happiness to every day: writing, reading, walking, being with friends. How can I lose one of these beloved pillars for six whole weeks and maybe even longer?


Then this morning I went to church. Our family made quite the entrance with me in the wheelchair I borrowed from church (I can't do the crutches, I just can't) and Christopher and Ashley proudly carrying in baby Kataleya for her first appearance. I'm in love with the wheelchair already. So much easier to navigate than the rolling desk chair I've been using at home. Everyone had broken foot stories to share with me; apparently I really was long overdue for mine, as everyone else on the planet has had one or two already. And everyone had smiles and hugs and prayers.

I taught my tiny middle school Sunday School class. By some sweet coincidence, the topic prescribed in the curriculum for this week was "encouragement." My three students and I shared some problems for which we need encouragement: a broken foot, an upcoming move, a stressful test at school, and having to get up an hour early for the time change! We took turns giving each other encouragement. The best piece of encouragement I received was from Tyler. He told me this would all work out for me, because "You're good at things. And this is a thing."

Yes! That will be my new mantra. I'm good at things. And this is a thing.

During worship I presented the children's message. I talked about this being the first Sunday of Lent, the 40 days of preparation for Jesus' suffering and death on the cross, followed by the joy of Easter Sunday. I told the children that even though we know that Easter is coming, that light and love will return to the world, there are still seasons of sadness and sorrow in our lives; no human life escapes them. Lent is the time in the church year where we create a space to make our peace with sorrow.

If the doctor's estimate is accurate, Easter sunrise should happen just as I'm allowed to be weight bearing again. Lent this year is going to be my own season of sadness, my own time to make peace with sorrow. It's okay for me to be sad right now. While Tyler is correct that "I'm good at things, and this is a thing," it's also a hard thing. It's permissible for me to whimper a little bit. Maybe it's even okay to wail. Forty days of this, and then the Alleluia of Easter.

I can do this. I can.

Friday, March 7, 2014

It Happened, at Last

I wrote a blog post in January on "under-appreciated pleasures." In it I focused on the pleasure of rolling over in bed, something my sister was temporarily unable to do because of shoulder surgery. I also offered up an ode of gratitude for the pleasure of walking briskly, a pleasure denied my mother at the end of her life. I pledged to enjoy these simple pleasures with heightened awareness, pleasures we tend to notice most when we're no longer able to experience them.

I wrote a blog post in February called "the last happy day," in which I vowed to notice every happy day as I was living it, because we never know when terrible tragedy might strike us. What if we had lived our last happy day and hadn't failed to savor it?

Obviously I was writing with a sense of impending doom, wouldn't you say?

Tuesday I was heading out for my usual walk with my friend Rowan, this time accompanied by little dog Tank. I stopped to get the mail and then dashed back the few steps to my house to drop it off before continuing on my way. I tripped. I fell, wrenching my foot. Deciding the injury was nothing, I proceeded to walk for an hour with Rowan and Tank, and then walked around campus all day on Wednesday. But by Thursday, when the foot was still so bruised and swollen, I decided to have it checked out at urgent care. As I have a high-deductible insurance plan, I knew I'd have to pay around $300 for the visit. But it was worth $300 to me for the reassurance that nothing was wrong, after all.

Diagnosis: a broken fifth metatarsal bone in my right foot.


No need for surgery, no bulky uncomfortable cast. But no weight-bearing on that foot for 4-6 weeks. No weight bearing AT ALL.

Okay. At least I can truly say that I appreciated weight-bearingness while I had it. Every single walk I took with Rowan we spent half the time marveling at how fortunate we were to be able to live in such a beautiful place, with such beautiful walking-conducive weather, with both of us in excellent walking-facilitating health. I did notice these things every single day.

Now I'm going to have to notice other things for a while. How lucky I am to have a desk chair with wheels on it. How lucky I am not to live alone. How lucky I am to have enough money to be able to order a little rental scooter-thing for $35 a week, as it's already exceedingly obvious that I will never be able to master crutches (given that I can't even walk to my mailbox without breaking my foot). How sweet it is today simply to have canceled or rescheduled everything I had to do at the university, so I can spend this whole rainy/snowy day at home hopping from desk to couch to bed, maybe even getting some writing and editing work done. Or maybe just taking it easy, for once. Why not?

It's going to be hard to sustain cheerful gratitude for 4-6 weeks, especially with no guarantee that I'll be fully healed at the end of that time period. I have two big trips between now and then: my annual trip to the children's literature festival in Warrensburg, Missouri (no walking with the other authors to look at the cows this year!) and a week of school visits in Michigan over spring break (I guess I'll have to roar into the gym on my scooter and then give my presentation while perched on a stool). How will I manage at the airports? How will I manage everything in my busy life that needs to be managed?

Well, I'm not the first person in the history of the world with a broken foot. I'm not even the first or second or third person in my circle of friends. As I head into Act III of my life, falls may become more common (though the first thing I plan to do upon recovery from this one is some balance training, as this is my third major fall in six months).

So I might as well work as hard as I can at practicing cheerful gratitude. Occasions for making use of it are unlikely to be few.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Good News and Bad News

(Spoiler alert: 99 percent good. . . . )

Baby Kataleya is one week old today! Her mother, Ashley, has made a near-miraculous recovery from her c-section. I knew she was having a vastly quicker recuperation than I did from the c-section that produced Kataleya's father when I saw Ashley scoot herself into a more comfortable nursing position without wincing or groaning. Sure enough, she reported yesterday that she feels as if she never had surgery at all.

I posted earlier about my fears of the inevitable disruption caused by having a newborn come to live in my tiny condo in the middle of an already stressful semester. These fears so far have proved completely groundless. Baby Kat eats well, sleeps well (five hours the other night!). While her parents report some nocturnal fussing, her tiny mewls can scarcely be heard anywhere else in the house. As we eat supper, she dozes contentedly in the little bouncer that came to us as a present from the church "welcome celebration" in her honor.

Did I mention that she is adorable? Well, she is. We all adore her.

And what is sweeter than to see one's son cradling his newborn daughter?

So where is the bad news, you may ask?

Well, I've been working on the second book in the Nora Notebooks series, in which Nora becomes a reluctant ten-year-old aunt, overwhelmed by the chaos that envelops her once-peaceful home, as an incessantly crying baby makes ordinary life impossible. I certainly remember that as being the way my life felt to me in the weeks that followed Christopher's birth.

Was I mistaken? For now it seems as if a newborn baby brings no commotion at all. Our house feels as if there isn't even a baby in it. I go into their room and see both parents resting on the bed, but no baby. Where is she? Where did she go? Then I see this tiny beautiful sleeping little object on one of their laps. I've probably heard her cry twice. I had to strain to hear it.

What is going to become of the plot of Nora Book Number Two, given that I now know that babies are completely delightful and no trouble at all? Someone out there, tell me that I can salvage my plot, that some newborns do howl, and that some new families are bleary with lack of sleep.

Wait. I do hear her, in the distance.... Plot saved, after all?