Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Human Heartbeats

It's odd the things you don't think of when you adopt a baby. It never occurred to us that Maggie would be any less our daughter than a biological daughter would be.

But now I realize people think all kinds of odd things about adopted children. 

My husband recently listened to a friend talk about his first grandchild and the wonders of the experience.  Then the friend said, "But I know it won't be like this for you because your daughter is adopted."

What?  She isn't really our daughter so any children of hers wouldn't really be our grandchildren?  Therefore, we couldn't possibly love them completely?  We couldn't feel an equivalent happiness to that of a genetically spawned extended family?

Do divorced people who remarry ever get told they can't really love the new spouses because only a first marriage is a real marriage? No one ever writes about that kind of love being non-transferable.

Yet some children are more real than others in the minds of some.

There are plenty of things I don't believe in, but I do believe love is love. The same love that makes you smile also makes you cry. It floats your spirit just as easily as it sinks it. It isn't measured with a different set of rulers.

If your baby cries, you don't run faster in the night to a biological baby than you do to an adopted one. The human heart moves at the same speed.

The power of adoptive love is captured in Ladybug Love by Kat Lamons and Trish Diggins. They offer 100 charming vignettes from adoptive families on the day they were contacted about their match with a baby in China. That tiny picture they receive of a child on the other side of the world causes smiles and tears that rival those in a hospital delivery room. Without a caption, who could tell the difference in the parents' faces?

The book contains sweet stories about the goodness of mail carriers and adoption agency staff who sometimes faced extreme challenges to deliver the news about a long-awaited baby. There are difficult accounts about the agony of governmental delays, crippling self-doubts, and years of bitter disappointments. International adoption is not an easy path. But more importantly, they provide a firsthand account of joy when the parents learn the news in a grocery store or a garden or an office cubicle. Who would say theirs is a lightweight joy?

I looked up details about the human heart. They are all about the same size and beat approximately 100,000 times per day. It didn't say they beat faster or grew heavier for biological children than for adopted children.

Love for a child weighs the same in any heart.

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Saturday, December 21, 2013

December 2013

When Cliff and I moved from Tulsa to Wisconsin, I wrote a Holiday letter to let everyone know how we were doing. It became a tradition. We aren't folks who get sales bonuses or athletic trophies to announce, and based on Maggie's trepidation through her finals, we won't be flying a valedictorian flag anytime soon either. Still, we might have something worth reporting. 

Dear Everyone,

This is an old and embarrassing thing to say, but I think we all looked better when we used to get dressed up, like women wearing white gloves to restaurants. My dad wore a suit to see The Ten Commandments. My closet held plaid dresses with matching sweaters. We paid attention to little things. While you know I’m not especially religious, I have to say I believe God is in the details. By the time I stopped teaching, students no longer knew common expressions like easy as pie, smart as a whip, asleep at the wheel. Lost cultural details. They didn’t know why it mattered either.  LOL My mother used to love saying: When it rains, it pours. It covered a lot of territory. It set a recognizable theme. Well, we’ve had showers and storms this year and weathered them all.

After over 40 years in education, Cliff has finally begun thinking his favorite season is summer.  Free of a MN winter that lasted 7 months, he set off on a solo camping trip to Yellowstone in July. When a deluge of rain left standing water in our basement, Maggie and I called him for back-up. After 4 clear nights under the stars, he hurried home, finishing out his vacation with a few nearby fishing excursions--in water he could manage easily.

Now a high school junior, Maggie landed a summer job at a neighborhood movie theater where she found Prince Charming working beside her. He has all the best traits of every great boy I ever taught. Sitting between us through her 2-hour fall concert to hear her sing one solo line, he announced her talented and brave. When he declared our album collection prime, Cliff exclaimed, “The son I always wanted!” Energetic and spontaneous, he’s perfect for our buttoned-down, organized daughter. In the spring, she went with friends to the State Capitol for the vote to allow gay marriage. When the vote was delayed, she called me in a panic because she needed to be at rehearsal since she was the stage manager. Dodging cross-bearing protestors and rainbow-flag supporters, I remembered my dad’s driving antics during I-75’s first traffic jam to get me to the Beatles’ Cincinnati concert. You do what it takes. She was disappointed about missing the celebration’s high point and her compatriots’ unwillingness to attend the important rehearsal and sighed, “It’s tough to have a moral compass.” She has no idea where she wants to attend college and says understandably, “I’m still trying to do high school.” If she holds onto that compass, we don’t think it will much matter where she ends up.

Although Cliff usually takes the prize for medical emergencies, I got my turn last month. He was raking leaves in the front yard while I snipped dead stems in the garden. I carried the bags to the alley, stepped through the garage door into the back yard, and had no idea what to do. Blank. Something was terribly wrong. After a night in the hospital and an array of tests, they declared I had experienced Transient Global Amnesia. It was a frightening 2 ½ hours of not being able to retrieve information I knew I should know. As I searched drawer after drawer, every mental file was empty. I cried and asked the same questions repeatedly. I couldn’t hold onto anything. Then it was over. Cliff said it was like me to have some incredibly rare, highly dramatic diva disorder. I now wrestle with the metaphorical implications of a brain that throws up its hands and says, “Enough!” I think I exhaust myself to high heaven.

So we’re taking a close look at our emotional weather this year and feeling pretty grateful. We're now dry as a bone, but there’s a lot to be learned from storms. Maggie’s favorite movie, when she was little, was Singin’ in the Rain. She couldn’t get enough of “the happy man,” as she called him, dancing in the puddles in that nice suit and hat. It stands to reason that her favorite room plaque says: Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain. 

We’re trying. We hope you are, too.


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Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Wedding By Any Other Name

When we moved to Minnesota from North Carolina, Maggie noticed something different about her new middle school.

"There are lots of gay teachers up here," she said.  We explained that her last school had gay teachers, too, but they had to keep it secret in order to hold their jobs in a narrow-minded community.

She was incredulous.  So when she reached high school, she joined the Gay-Straight Alliance.

Fairness and honesty have always mattered to her. As a Chinese adoptee growing up in America, she's no stranger to racism, prejudice, ignorance, intolerance. Pick your poison.

For over two years, she's been a dedicated, enthusiastic ally and is now the vice president. She helped create a school-wide activity to challenge gender stereotyping. She worked to pass state legislation allowing gay marriage.

Last Saturday she celebrated her efforts at a wedding for one of her school's gay teachers.

The prelude included John Lennon's Imagine, and the processional was What a Wonderful World, made famous by Louis Armstrong. When the couple lighted the unity candle with their separate candles, the new flame leaped brilliantly.

Fire passes no judgment. Love is love in the presence of light.

These two wonderful men had a typical church wedding. Flowers and scripture readings. Rings and programs. Lunch and toasts. There was not, however, a poofy-dressed bride and a chorus line of bridesmaids. Honestly, I appreciated that.

The absence of sequins and satin kept us focused on their promise and their dream, a dream that any straight couple can take for granted.

At one point in the service, the pastor's blessing said: "...as you walk toward a horizon that never comes." I keep thinking about her words. Maybe she referred to the religious concept of life being eternal, even after death, for those who accept Jesus as Savior. That's certainly fine, but I've never been a stamp-pad hereafter Christian.

Instead of thinking about the next life, I think about her words in terms of this life as a road we're following into the distance, toward a better life on earth.  But if we experience life thoughtfully and bravely, we discover the journey doesn't end in a watercolored sunset on the horizon.  Rather, we keep finding new roads with even greater challenges.  Our ambitions expand because our courage soars, one success at a time.

Something seemingly impossible always awaits us.

My father used to say that I couldn't see the forest for the trees whenever I was stuck in the learning ditch. I had a tendency to be stopped by a single pine. He wanted me to understand the beauty up ahead.

Last Saturday Maggie witnessed that beauty up ahead with David and Tim.

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Thursday, November 7, 2013

Here Be Dragons

Ancient cartographers wrote Here Be Dragons to indicate unexplored territories and their imagined dangers. Fair warning, I guess, if you enter mysterious lands.

I’ve lived plenty of places in my life and every one of them is a mapped dot —a city in a county in a state. Nothing mysterious is left.

But I tell you this. No place ever mentions the squirrel hazard. The scary creatures haunt me.

In Oklahoma they chewed through the handle of the hose mobile. An elderly neighbor told me the salt from people’s hands attracted them. That gnawed handle, dangling unattractively, drove me crazy. Cliff said he could fix it, but I’ve been through that before—a man with a roll of duct tape. It’s never pretty.

In Wisconsin they ate my fall pumpkins on the porch our first year there. In subsequent years I carried each pumpkin inside during the night and kept watch throughout the day. Finally I got tired. The squirrels were waiting for me to surrender. They knew my kind.

In Illinois they chewed the pretty wood planters I special ordered.  Their white-picket styling matched our new fence.  Filled with pink geraniums and ferns, they would have caught Martha Stewart’s eye if she’d ever happened by, lost from Connecticut.  The hardware store clerk swore by sour apple spray. It worked, but I couldn’t keep it up.  It rained.  We went on vacation.  The squirrels waited me out.

In North Carolina our yard was filled with birds, so Maggie and I took on an outdoor winter craft project. (I read you were supposed to do that kind of thing with kids.  Otherwise they’d become teenagers with everything pierced and tattooed.) We gathered pine cones, covered them in peanut butter, rolled them in bird seed, and hung them from plant hooks. It was good, sticky fun. The birds were thrilled. 

Then one morning a genius squirrel figured it out. There in our yard, with his friends gathered, he set up Cirque de Squirrel. I couldn’t believe his agility, his relentless approaches. He set that pine cone swinging with his feet, grabbed on, and flew off the hook with it. He had learned well the laws of physics from his time at Harvard. 

In Minnesota I've finally learned that polyurethane spray banishes squirrels from pumpkins until the freezing rain finally wears it off. By then Thanksgiving is over and orange is no longer trendy.  At last.  I won.

But here’s what I didn't know when we bought this house. The real estate description sheet should have been marked: Here Be Squirrels and Such.  Apparently we’re on an ancient wildlife trail that makes our property irresistible.  Something gnawed two places in the new fence in order to pass through. The landscaping crew thought it was raccoons. Then something started eating the new plants, apparently thinking we’d installed a salad bar for their evening enjoyment on their journey through our yard. The same crew figured it was rabbits. I bought 100% guaranteed Bunny Barrier, a mix of despicable bagged herbs. Hung at nose level (One hangs on the arm of our Chinese statue.), it successfully shooed them away.
I was feeling proud of myself until Cliff noticed the hostas at the far end of the yard. The largest leaves were gone; only their stems remained. Clearly the herbal odor didn’t reach that far.

“What will you do now?” he asked.

“Nothing. At the end of the day, we all have to make a living.”

It’s important to know when you’re beaten, when to throw in the towel, when to fold your cards.

I’d take my chances with a dragon any day.

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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Sudden Angels Part 3: A Voice from the Closet Floor

If you're lucky, you meet a sensational person at some point in your life.  I mean larger-than-life sensational.  Unforgettable.  Someone who picks you up and turns you around before you ever know your feet are off the floor.

Florence Parry Heide, legendary children's author, was that person for me.

It was 1988 and I had moved to Racine, Wisconsin, and mentioned to a friend that I was writing picture book manuscripts.  The next thing I knew she'd arranged for me to have coffee at Florence's home in the neighboring town of Kenosha. This was not any house either.  It was a massive Tudor on Lake Michigan.  Florence swept me inside, all smiles and grace and good cheer.  She was the most distinctly defined presence I had ever encountered.  Tall and glorious, with a ringing laugh and conspiratorial tone that made you think you were in a 1940s movie with Jimmy Stewart about to enter on cue.

We sat in front of the fireplace in matching upholstered chairs with coffee and cookies on the ottoman between us.  She zipped through my story, looked me in the eye, and said, "I think you have promise."  She gave me a long list of editors, explained how to go about writing a cover letter, toured me through her office with the walls lined with her books, and assured me I could do this, too.

The woman never lost faith in me.  She was the most relentlessly optimistic person I'd ever met.  There were times when she might be uncertain about the trajectory of her own career, but she'd brush those doubts aside to focus on my projects and her certainty about them.

Her certainty in me lasted twenty years.  This was a woman who was in it for the long haul. 

One time I dissolved in tears over constant rejection and she plainly said, "If you stop sending stories out, I promise you will never be published.  No editor will ever call you."

She was right, of course.

Her letters arrived out of the blue, typed in her signature ee cummings style of random exclamation points, ellipses, capital letters, and flag-flying commas.  She always drew a balloon because she said ideas were floating just above us.  All we had to do was reach up and grab one.

Any time!...!  Go ON!!!  It's Yours!!!  Are you looking up NOW??!

And you did.

She was writing and publishing until her death in 2011 at the age of 92.  She was absolutely unstoppable until the very end.

I don't expect to have that kind of gigantic presence in my life ever again.

But then a month ago, she reappeared.  Or rather a note from her reappeared on my closet floor.  It was a card she'd sent when one of her last books, Princess Hyacinth (The Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated) was published.  She enclosed a note.

My mother enclosed this message in her Christmas card nearly forty years ago.  This is exactly the way I feel--at ninety.

So I'm 85.  So I'm old.  So I'm slowing down.  
So what?
For each year that has been added to my life has carried an extra dividend: each day an extra gift of sights and sounds and wonders.
And happenings: the successes of my children, the promise of my grandchildren, who carry in them the seeds of my own past; the endurance of friendships; the changing seasons which each year unfold their miracles of beauty and their promise to return.
Thus is every pain and sorrow and regret cancelled out by the awareness of life's bounty.
And above all I cherish the glorious gift of memory--and the certainty that nothing--nothing--can ever be lost.

On a difficult day when I most needed a reminder, it arrived.  It can be logically explained, of course, given the disarray of my closet, but Florence would be uninterested in that kind of logic.

She'd give me a wink and say, "Just reach up, Karen!!! NOW...W...W!"  

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Friday, September 6, 2013

Fifth Grade: Fifty-Year Puzzle

A lot of things happened in Mrs. Wilson's classroom. Some of it must have been good, but I remain haunted by one incident. I was only ten, and I still struggle to understand it.

Our class was assigned to do the February school newsletter. Various students visited kindergarten through sixth grade teachers to collect information. Some talked to the principal, the nurse, the band leader, the cafeteria staff. It was the primitive era of mimeograph machines and typewriters.  Pages were stapled together. Photography wasn't possible, so everything had to be drawn by hand.

The front cover art assignment was the plum. I wanted to do it.

When Mrs. Wilson asked me to stay after school for a minute, I knew it had to be good. It was. She showed me a cover from several years ago and said, "I'd like you to draw profiles of Washington and Lincoln like this." I was excited because I knew my art would be better.

The picture she showed me was really "young." You would never have guessed who the two men were without labels. I knew a side view of an eye did not look like an oval. I knew a nose did not look like a banana. I knew an ear was not a curve. Mine would be realistic.

When I got home, I studied their profiles on coins and began drawing and erasing and starting again and again until they were perfect. When my parents proudly announced my work looked exactly like the presidents, I was thrilled. I left my picture on Mrs. Wilson's desk the next morning.

She asked me to stay after school again. I knew she'd be happy.

"This isn't what I asked you to do, Karen," she said.

"But it is," I insisted. "You asked me to draw Washington and Lincoln."

"I wanted it to look like this," she said, holding up the childish version.

"I can draw better than that," I said. "Mine really looks like the presidents."

"I know you can make yours look exactly like this one.  Do it over tonight."

My face flushed. I was confused. By the time I walked home, I was crying. I told my mother what Mrs. Wilson had said.

"Why would she want me to draw like a baby?  Why wouldn't she want me to do my best?"

My mother leaned against the kitchen counter with her arms folded. She was silent for a long time as she looked at me. This was not like her. My mother was a chatty, bustling woman with the energy of five people. It was unusual for her to be still and quiet at the same time.

"This will be a hard lesson," she said.  "You're awfully young to be running up against it, honey."

She told me there were people in the world who wouldn't be interested in my best efforts. She said some would be resentful. She said they wouldn't understand my determination. Doing things my way, not their way, would irritate them. She said I might be right but that it wouldn't matter. They wanted what they wanted and my arguments wouldn't make any difference. She said the more I resisted, the more insistent they'd be to prove their point at any cost.

She said I'd have to learn when I could back down or compromise or hold fast.

She said that being true to myself would come at a price sometimes.

"You'll have to decide if you'll stand by your work or not, Karen."

I told Mrs. Wilson I would not re-draw it. She got another classmate to do it exactly the way she wanted it.

To this day, I remain baffled. Why would she want me to be mediocre?

I asked my husband Cliff, who was a sensational teacher before he became a principal.  I have never seen him be wrong about any aspect of education.  He said, "You're trying to make sense where there is none." He told me about Harry Chapin's song, "Flowers Are Red," where a little boy drew a page of flowers and leaves in every possible color and refused to change it for the critical teacher who responded:

Well, the teacher said, "You're sassy.
There's ways that things should be.
And you'll paint flowers the way they are.
So repeat after me."

And she said, "Flowers are red, young man.
And green leaves are green.
There's no need to see flowers any other way
Than the way they always have been seen."

There really is no sense to what happened to me or to the little boy. Some things in life are not about talent or happiness or what my daughter calls "the magical rainbow universe." It's about understanding when to draw a line in the sand.

I drew mine. Mrs. Wilson drew hers. And that's the long and the short of it. 

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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Fun at the Fair

When you go to the fair, you know what to expect.

You admire a 500-pound watermelon.  You coo over a blue-ribboned pig on a leash.  You think fried butter on a stick is a good idea.       

But sometimes the fair can take you by surprise.

That's what happened to me last Thursday when I was a featured author in The Alphabet Forest at the Minnesota State Fair.  Created by Minneapolis author Debra Frasier (A Fabulous Fair Alphabet) and the Children's Literature Network, the park offers literacy games and activities each day from 9 am until 6 pm through the fair's run.

I know you're thinking, You've got to be kidding.  In the middle of every possible mind-blowing, high-intensity, sugar-frenzied fair distraction, no self-respecting child could be dragged into reading and writing experiences.

You'd be wrong.  They come in droves.

My project, based on Sweet Moon Baby: An Adoption Tale, gave children two options.  They could create stick puppets from the book's characters and re-tell the baby's adventure, or they could create their own characters and imagine an adventure that might have happened on their birth night.  We gave them a kit with all the necessary parts (http://sweetmoonbaby.blogspot.com/2013/08/sudden-angels-part-2-instant-relatives.html).  I assumed they'd fly through a rushed assembly of pre-printed pieces at their parents' insistence and run off for cotton candy and duck races.  It's still summer.  Who wants to do school stuff?!

But those children developed an original storyline.  They wondered over possible magical influences that might have helped them--snowflakes, a seahorse, fireworks.  They drew themselves as babies.  They imagined what their parents wore.  They asked for more sticks and blank circles to make additional people and animals who might have helped on their journey.  They decorated their stages with pumpkins and daisies and rainbows.  They tried out dialogue, handing puppets to me so I could play along.  Plenty of them crafted the artwork we provided, too, asking questions about the book.  When they learned that Maggie, the teenager helping them, was the real Sweet Moon Baby, they were amazed.  A little boy said, "I never knew anyone out of a book before."

Even toddlers wanted to be at the table.  A three-year-old girl listened closely and scribbled with a crayon.  Her finished pieces might have looked ambiguous to anyone else, but they were clear to her as she announced, "Daddy, Mama, me!"      

It gets better.

You know how people insist that children need to be entertained in order to learn?  Or that children require every possible technological whirlygig?

We did all of this with paper and markers and glue sticks.  There wasn't a battery or power cord or digital screen in sight.  Every bit of information came from their own imaginations, their own experiences, their own family stories about wonderful things that happened on that special birth night.

No one googled anything. 

I went into this thinking I was just there to fill a time slot--an activity counselor under the shade trees.  But sitting there with my husband Cliff and Maggie, I discovered we were a reminder that every life has a phenomenal story line.  Despite the nearby pull of the Lego Challenge and the clickety-clacking from the marionette booth, these children took all the time in the world to consider the magic in their own stories.

As grand and glorious as a fair can be, it's nothing compared to a child's blue-ribboned life. 

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Friday, August 16, 2013


We adopted our daughter from China in 1997, and no one was allowed to visit orphanages then. Too much negative press closed those doors.  We received her at a hotel, having no idea what her life looked like before that day. Only 11-months old, she certainly couldn't tell us, and there's reason to believe she's lost all those early memories by now.

When we returned to China in 2012, she said she didn't want to visit her orphanage even though it would have been possible.  Last spring we received pictures of it, but she didn't care to look at them.  She's moved on.  After watching Somewhere Between, the documentary about Chinese girls adopted by American families, she seemed satisfied that some questions have no answers.  And that some answers don't necessarily help.

You are where you are in life.  There's no going back.

For those who are curious, however, Peg Helminski, an adoptive mother herself, has written an illuminating novel, Daughter of a Thousand Pieces of Gold, about a girl's life in China at the same time our daughter lived there in the late 1990s.

I'm inclined to stop here because it's hard to comment without spoiling the dramatic story of Mei Lin.  I knew nothing about the book, so being uninformed was the great journey for me.  The plot's twists are as amazing as a tale from Dickens.  I was horrified and nervous and eager, wondering how such torment and joy could exist in one child's life.

Then I remembered: I have a Chinese orphan, too.

That has been my important realization: Adoption never goes away.  It is a constant that shifts.  The tides of an ocean are currently moving, whether I see them or not.  My daughter's sense of her history rises and recedes each day.  Some days are effortless.  Some days are mysterious.

Helminski's novel is a significant examination of Chinese life at that time in history.  Her extensive research shows us the riveting details of a culture far different from ours.  We see the capricious nature of government decrees.  We see the struggle people face to reconcile reality with theory.  We see the power of the heart, which knows no international boundaries. 

As I read, I discovered how much I don't understand, how much I assume.  In the story, two girls discuss the roles of the adults working in their orphanage, and one explains: "A Mama doesn't go away at the end of her shift.  I think they might be different in other ways, too.  I don't know.  I never had a Mama."  Simple but breath-taking truths like this roll across these pages.

You have no idea what you don't know about adoption until you read this novel.

Because this is a self-published book, I feel compelled to address people who avoid non-traditional publications.  Yes, there are places where one could question a too-neatly-tied-up conclusion or a thinly developed character or a glitch in proofreading.  But whatever your technical quibble might be, let go of it.  The power of this story rises above such raised-eyebrow sensibilities if you're curious about China's one-child policy and the gates that finally flew open on the issue.

I am.  I always will be.

My own life story is an easy one.  It started at Point A in a hospital in Terre Haute, Indiana, when I was born to my parents who drove me home in a Ford.  I have pictures of the day.  My daughter Maggie's Point A will always float in the mist behind her.  No matter how many times she looks over her shoulder.  Or doesn't.  She cannot find it.

But I can save this book for her.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Sudden Angels Part 2: Instant Relatives

When I was a little girl, my summer highlight was visiting my grandparents' farm in Crawford County Illinois. I gathered eggs, made mud pies, and chased lightning bugs.

But the best part was the Saturday night picnic.

Relatives arrived by train, car, and pick-up truck. One of my dad's best friends came in a dazzling orange and white convertible. We carried all the tables and chairs outside, and if you couldn't find a place there, you ate on quilts scattered across the lawn. The washtub held ice and soft drinks, and no one kept track of how many the cousins drank. We had fried chicken, corn, baked beans, pie, and cake.

We made our fun.

I can still hear the crack of croquet balls and someone, usually me, begging my mother to turn cartwheels.  Everyone took a turn at cranking the homemade vanilla ice cream. Even cleaning up was an event because it was a monumental task on a farm with no running water.  Buckets of water were heated on the stove, and the men rolled up their sleeves to wash pans and plates. Women in aprons dried them. 

When I was still too small to help, someone would pretend I was lost and look for me among the yellow lilies bordering the wash house. I giggled and insisted, "Here I am! Look at me!" as the search continued.

I thought those picnics would go on forever. I thought my children would grow up in that kind of summer delight. It didn't happen that way at all. The families scattered across great distances, their schedules jam-packed with cruises and classes, texting their apologies for not being available. Generous souls passed away.

But my daughter Maggie got a glimpse of that kind of jovial event recently when volunteers with the Children's Literature Network gathered at the fairgrounds to get crafts ready for the Minnesota State Fair's Alphabet Forest. Because Sweet Moon Baby will be a featured book on August 22nd, the fair's opening day, Maggie and I will be there to help kids make a Sweet Moon Theater to celebrate an imagined adventure on the day they were born.

Some volunteers cut out puppet faces. Some measured yarn. Some sliced "noodles" to hold letters. Some folded patterns. But we all laughed--more and more as we got delirious from aching fingers and stiff necks.

I tried to stay quiet so Maggie would talk. (When you've got a teenager and a mother together, you've got ample opportunity for eye-rolling behavior from either party.) I did my best to avoid embarrassing her. I let her organize the details. I let her answer questions about her summer without my prompting.

She was surrounded by jovial adults, Aunt Kim, Aunt Debra, Aunt Sue, Aunt Lisa, Aunt Vicki, Aunt Cindy, Aunt Joyce, and Aunt Donna. And typical of all families, one good-natured relative was teased for not helping, although Uncle Steve assured us he was doing official work on his laptop and not playing Angry Birds.

Maybe we lacked fried chicken and aprons, but we pitched in together for a shared purpose that made for a really nice time. In a room filled with book people, titles and plot lines flew. Maggie, a reader herself, added her opinions.  

Every time I looked at her, she was smiling and busy, totally involved in the moment. The fine people at those tables made that possible.

My grandparents' farm is long gone, but I still have their yellow lilies, here in Ramsey County Minnesota. The blooms remind me of the little girl I used to be. While I can't re-create my own summer joy for Maggie, I know enough to recognize the value of good people in her life. Their presence, however it happens, is its own colorful quilt on the landscape of her memory.
I'll take a family wherever I can find it.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Desperately Writing Always

Writing with my mother is among my earliest memories.

My three-year-old mind was fascinated by my mother's literal writing with all its loops. Hers was a round hand, bouncing wherever it landed on the paper. I was desperate to learn how to make a pencil say things.

I hovered over her arm as she wrote grocery lists, wondering how she knew the way to indicate we needed salt or celery or soap. She wrote frequent letters to her own mother, reading the passages about me aloud. I giggled as she showed me the rows of sticks and dots that were maps of my days.

How did she know what circles to connect?

What told her to leave a space after certain curls?

Why did some letters look like mountains?

She read a different looking writing from books. I stared at the page. I traced the lines of print with my finger. Sometimes I placed my thumb over a favorite word, thinking the magic of it would soak into my skin.  I ached to understand.

Using paper and pencils, I created what I thought was writing. More than anything, I wanted to be part of the book world, so I launched my career on our freshly painted living room wall. It was the perfect place for everyone to see my story, written in beautiful purple down the length of the pale blue expanse.

Let's just say my efforts did not receive high acclaim.

My crayons were put on a closet shelf for a week. But more than my sorrow over their loss, I was hurt that no one could read my story. In a way, it was my first editorial rejection.

Still, I did not give up.

I recently discovered a book that my mother had kept as a reminder of my determination to be published. I must have been four when I copied her words onto the cover of James Whitcomb Riley's poetry book. I imitated letters from her lists and address book stacked on the telephone stand. I've mastered Ohio. To Do obviously puzzled me because I've picked up an extra loop from the line of letters above it. We shopped for groceries each Friday at the A&P, which explains those letters. I know I looked away from her guide because the P is turned backwards.

In my little girl world, I was now published.

Looking back, it's easy to see my life's ambition surfaced early. All the years of missteps and false starts and falls make sense now. They were the necessary tickets to board the train always running beside me.

Somehow my mother knew.

She read to me constantly. Never interested in princess stories, she preferred Riley's poems about the chores of Midwestern life. She liked the work ethic of the little red hen who tackled every task or the third pig who chose bricks. Her favorite for me was Watty Piper's The Little Engine That Could.

She never let me give up. Ever. About anything.

She was the ultimate ticket.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Sudden Angels Part 1: When Nuns Run

I try to walk our dog Maria twice a day.  We found her through Animal Ark, a no-kill shelter association who rescued her from the Red Lake Reservation where she'd been left at a dump with her two puppies.

Hers is a difficult biography, and her soulful eyes indicate she's been through plenty.  She's learned to accept a lot, and I think that's made her neutral about life, believing everything comes and goes, I suppose.  She probably decided long ago that she couldn't be surprised by anything.

But on our walk one evening, I saw her be amazed at the corner of Exeter and Dayton.

Behind a wrought iron fence, Maria saw two rabbits.  She almost missed them but turned her head at the last critical second.  She froze.  They were close enough to touch.  Countless times we'd passed that way with nothing out of the ordinary appearing.  We'd seen our share of squirrels, birds, other dogs, an occasional cat, but never had we spotted two rabbits sitting side by side.

They seemed unremarkable to me.

She saw the unexpected.

In the life of a dog, it had to be a thrill.  She must have wanted to leap the fence, but some instinct told her that would have destroyed the moment.  Her mind must have calculated the possibilities, knowing those rabbits would run if she moved.  So she watched, slowly easing to sit.  It seemed so important to her that I waited.  Finally she accepted the full measure of delight and stood to walk away with me.

I know she remembers that day.  Given free reign, she heads for Exeter and Dayton like a house afire.  She searches the yard each time we pass now.

I doubt if she will ever disconnect from her two-rabbit memory. Instinct holds onto her surprise sighting.  I can't blame her.

The other day I found my surprise at another corner.

If we walk east, we pass the playing fields of a catholic university.  Depending on the season, we see baseball, lacrosse, or football players.  Because I'm not athletically inclined, I rarely notice the teams.  On this particular day, however, an unlikely flapping of fabric at ground level caught my eye, and I turned my head to see nuns playing soccer.  They wore traditional attire, completely covered from head to toe.

I had never imagined nuns running.  They moved in swift waves of back and white cloth, leaping like graceful exclamation marks against the sky.

I didn't know where to put this discovery in my mental file system.  They weren't praying or helping the poor or reading scripture.  They were falling and laughing and bouncing a ball off their foreheads.  My instinct was to take a picture, but the unexpected metaphor of their presence was never meant to live on a screen.  Maria waited patiently beside me, following their game up and down the field.

They seemed unremarkable to her.

I saw the unexpected.   

Even now the memory of those nuns running reminds me I have unexpected lessons waiting.  The things I think I know still hold possibilities to uncover.  They will be my great surprises.

Unimagined glories remain if I simply turn my head.  If I believe I can be amazed by the sudden angels in the world.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Volunteering: The Importance of Sitting Still

Because I’m a writer, I spend a lot of time alone. Too much time alone probably. When we lived in North Carolina, I decided to volunteer at a retirement village to get myself out of the house and to show Maggie, who was twelve, a way to get involved in communities.

I was assigned to the assisted living wing of the facility. I drove down an azalea-lined road each Wednesday. I was another set of hands--pouring coffee or cutting craft paper or cleaning paintbrushes. Mostly I stayed in the back of the room.

When the residents ran out of stories to offer one morning during Reminiscence Time, the activity director said, “Miss Karen, (Remember this is the South.) do you remember anything from your childhood?” A wallflower by nature, I panicked as all eyes turned toward me. I said I remembered singing with my grandmother on the front porch. “Well, come up here and sing something for us,” she said.

I wanted to cry.

Not only am I shy, I can’t carry a tune. Nevertheless, I belted out “A Bicycle Built for Two.” A few ladies joined in. I tried “School Days.” More joined in. I sang every song I remembered from Girl Scouts and Bible school. I added the hand motions, and they followed along until everyone was involved in our spontaneous show. No one cared how I sounded. As they left, they shook my hand or patted my arm or hugged me.

One day I found a resident alone in her room, sitting in her wheelchair. I asked if she’d like to help me take a few books back to the library. She reached for them, eager for something to do. On our return, we stopped by a window to watch the ducks in the pond. She rarely spoke to people, but that day she chatted about ducks and all kinds of birds.  She knew a lot about them. Before long she told me about her mother’s garden. She described furniture her father had made. She offered a funny story about her sister. She took my hand and fell asleep for a while.

For weeks I’d walked past a lobby poster with a slogan about helping hands and caring hearts.  Finally on this day, I understood the depth of the message. The residents needed me to be beside them, not behind them.

Yes, practical chores were involved in volunteering there. People in assisted living needed plenty of help, and the staff was busy beyond belief. 

But what was the merit of sitting still and holding a hand on a spring day? 


Because I really held her heart.         

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Our Parenting Mistakes

When my husband Cliff and I adopted a baby from China, we were amazed at all the advice we got. One look at us and people must have known we didn't know up from down.  A woman watched me let Maggie crawl in the grass and offered, "If you let her keep doing that, you'll need to give her at least three baths a day."

I let her keep doing that. I never gave her three baths a day.

We pay attention to parents who know the rules. Along the way, they've tried to help us. They mean well, but so far we've made one mistake after the other.

          We let her watch television.
          We let her eat sugar.
          We let her eat fast-food. 
          We let her find her own friends.
          We let her pick her own books.
          We let her spend her allowance any way she wants.
          We let her choose her own courses.
          We never forced her to play an instrument.
          We don't make her attend church.
          We let her pick her own clothes.
          We let her wear her hair however she wants.
          We did not put her in Honors classes.

We once met friends for dinner, and they seated their children with their backs to the wall-mounted TV set to protect them from seeing the screen. They believe it is a corrupting influence. Throughout the meal, the youngest boy circled around to sit on his mother's lap, feigning affection. But I could see he'd position himself to peek at the TV. Mom and Dad praised him for being a sweet little boy. 

I volunteered during a third-grade party, and we made frosted cookies. A mother took the cookie from her daughter's hand, commenting,"It's too much sugar for you." She handed a tiny piece to the girl and ate the rest herself while her daughter watched. Earlier in the year, I helped another mother with her Halloween party. She gave every child a gift bag stuffed with candy. That same little girl ran to the porch with hers and ate every last piece in a panic before her mother arrived.

In kindergarten Maggie took up with a girl we thought was dreadful. I'll skip over a lot of details about this "popular" girl, but one day she started making hurtful prank calls to Maggie, who couldn't believe a friend would say such things. "You're right," I said. "A friend wouldn't." She cried. It took a long time to get over it, too, but she learned to be discerning about friends all on her own.

Because I was a high school teacher, I saw the ravages of Honors/AP classes. I saw kids run themselves ragged for a handful of points. I saw parents pull their children out of sports, the thing they loved best, to eliminate homework distractions. I saw kids cry because they were being sent to high-powered schools they didn't want to attend. I saw kids earn placement scores that meant they could skip several levels and graduate early from college--unhappy, immature, and unemployable.

There is no AP placement test that measures confidence or joy.

Last week Maggie's school held their annual awards ceremony.  Cliff and I got a confidential email to attend because she'd be a recipient. She earned the Sophomore Language Award in Chinese, which requires as much effort from her as anyone else because she only lived in China for her first 11 months. Her heart calls her to learn it. It's her own ambition, not ours. It's far more than a GPA thing.

She also received the Sophomore Science Award, and she couldn't have had the highest score in the class. At a recent parent conference, her teacher talked about Maggie's intellectual curiosity, her kindness to struggling students, and her helpful attitude in the lab. A few years ago in science, she was required to determine a mystery substance through weeks of experiments. The day before the project was due, a careless girl destroyed all of Maggie's work in an absent-minded wave of her hand.  Test tubes crashed to the floor.  The girl said nothing and walked away.  That indifferent teacher asked our daughter, "Is there anything here you need before I clean this up?"  Maggie was incredulous, but she learned a world of lessons from that hard moment. And she learned them on her own. The person she became out of that experience resulted in the award she achieved last Wednesday. 

I think parenting depends on how you see things.

When you see a cloud, do you want to tack it down, hoping it remains fluffy white or watch it float and reshape on its own?

When you see an empty basket, do you want to control what goes in it?

When a child plays with a pile of boxes, do you smile or do you worry that it's a waste of time and a big mess?

Cliff and I can only think of one rule we followed throughout her life. She had to write thank you notes for every gift she received.

We have tried to raise her to be a good person.

We think everything else will take care of itself.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Third Grade: The Failed Soap and Rope System

Miss Winkelman was strict and unsmiling.  I learned plenty in her third grade class, but none of it was academic.

She kept an Ivory Soap Chart on the wall.  We placed our hands on our desks, so she could check for clean fingernails.  We had to produce a spotless handkerchief or a packet of tissues.  Hair had to be neatly combed.  She recorded her findings after each inspection. 

Perfection in all areas received a tiny Ivory sticker after your name.  One demerit was an orange circle sticker.  Serious failures of personal hygiene received a red sticker.  Our grooming history hung there for all to see.

Over time, I noticed something.  Soaps remained soaps.  Red and orange alarm stickers never varied much either, although I did note that oranges were likely to become reds.  I never saw a red improve to soap status.  I wondered about this.

I also remember Darrell, a boy who could not sit still or remain quiet.  He was a whirlwind from 8 am to 3 pm.  Whenever Miss Winkelman left the room, he was up and running in circles and climbing onto his desk.  Kids laughed and clapped at his antics.  I worried.  She’d return and haul him down to receive his paddling in the cloakroom. 

He never shed a tear.

He never changed his behavior.

Finally she brought rope to school and tied him to his chair when she had to leave.  He was bound at the ankles and wrists.  Yes, he was still, but he never stopped talking or yelling or laughing during her absence. 

When I told this story to my husband, who has been in elementary education for forty years, he was horrified.  He talked about danger and liability.  But mostly he talked about the damage to a boy who needed help.

I see now what puzzled me in that classroom.  The inspection chart, a Procter & Gamble marketing campaign, did not really improve children’s lives.  At our school, it labeled social conditions.  It created embarrassment.  We lived in a working-class neighborhood in that steel town.  Most of my classmates had parents who were shift workers, mothers and fathers who passed each other in the night.  Their children walked home to empty houses after school.  There was no money for pocket-sized tissues.  No one had time to comb or braid hair in the morning.  As my mother would say, theirs was a “catch as catch can” life.

And Darrell needed support, not ropes.  He needed parents who had time for meetings with counselors and teachers who could offer sympathy and lessons in behavior modification instead of punishment.  Surely someone knew that fifty years ago.

I checked Facebook to see if I could find him.  Sure enough, there he was—smiling for the camera and holding a gun.

I wonder if he was thinking of Miss Winkelman.   

Friday, May 10, 2013

Sixth Grade: English Major Math

When our sixth-grade teacher announced we'd be doing story problems, I could hardly wait.  Math with words?  What could be better?  I loved stories.

The problem on our homework sheet had something to do with speeding motorboats.  I told my dad I didn't get it.  He said he could solve it but not in a way that would make sense to me.  He said something about algebra.  Then he drew a picture with boats and a clock face.  There were arrows and something about mph.

"Do you get it now?"  he asked.

"No," I said.  "Where's the story?  Who's in the boats?  What does the lake look like?"

He laughed and explained that wasn't the point.  I'm pretty sure he mentioned x and y.

The rug had been pulled out from under me.  I wish I could say I'd moved past it, but I still harbor a grudge against whoever linked story with math.  I may not know a lot, but I know when a story is not a story.

It wouldn't be that hard to welcome literary folks into that mathematical tent.  Just hire English majors to write the copy for the math people.  Create a real story that begs to be be solved without numbers in the answer, but you'd have to work the problem in order to write the story answer.  Simply a shift in focus.  Because I don't know how to provide the particulars, I'll just resort to blah-blah-blah for the facts that would generate the kind of x and y stuff that warms algebraic hearts.

On Monday at blah-blah-blah o'clock, Zoey boards a train in Chicago to visit her sister Lisa, a student at Macalester College blah-blah-blah miles away in St. Paul, MN.  The train goes blah-blah-blah miles per hour, making a blah-blah-blah minute stop in Madison.  Meanwhile Jack, a graphic designer at 3M, leaves his office at blah-blah-blah o'clock, driving down I-94 at blah-blah-blah miles per hour, to hear Randy Sabien play music at Dunn Brothers Coffee blah-blah-blah miles away on Grand Avenue at 8 PM.  When Zoey's train arrives, she and her sister plan to go there, too, for coffee and macaroons.  The fates have already decided that Zoey and Jack are destined to fall in love if she arrives in time to drop her mitten at the counter and if Jack arrives in time to return it to her.  Is this pivotal meeting possible?  How could Randy, who loves macaroons, figure in?

Now that's a story.

English majors would gladly work calculations to see if a rendezvous with love is in the cards.  Upon finding it is, people who write effortlessly would appreciate the chance to describe the meeting.  English majors know the value of two hands touching over a wool mitten.  If it isn't possible, they'd eagerly grapple with the near miss and the pending mystery that could include Randy.

English majors know we are all x looking for y.  However long it takes.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

You Never Know about a Poem

When I was in the ninth grade, Mrs. Billman announced we’d be reading poetry and passed out mimeographed sheets fresh off the press.  We held them to our noses, sniffing the sharp chemical odor, becoming momentarily light-headed.

She’d given us ee cummings’ “anyone lived in a pretty how town.”  It begins: 
                        anyone lived in a pretty how town
                         (with up so floating many bells down)                    

Mixed-up punctuation.  Misaligned parts of speech.    I thought I’d finally damaged my brain, something we were warned about from breathing that damp purple ink.  Nothing made sense.  Surely the Correct Police would storm in and seize these pages.

But no one groaned. 

No one complained. 

No one whispered that cummings was an idiot. 

We were spellbound. 

For the next hour, she performed a teachable sleight-of-hand, asking questions with no apparent right or wrong answers.  She had us suggest possible punctuation changes.  She asked how a pronoun could be a name.  She asked why it mattered.  Hands flew into the air.   

We forgot that we hated poetry.

In Manchester Junior High School, in the far right front classroom in this picture, my world cracked open.  I understood the power of unexpected words in unexpected places in unexpected patterns.  Mrs. Billman explained that breaking grammar and syntax and punctuation rules required knowing them first.

I was skeptical. 

After class I asked her if cummings really knew how to use a comma.  She assured me that he did and that he’d made deliberate choices by avoiding rules.  “Writers know what they’re doing, Karen,” she said.  

I think she knew I would become a writer.  She wanted me to feel every last page-tugging option that awaited me.  She knew the tiniest comma or the shortest adjective could whisper in my heart, posing a beautiful possibility.

Only a ninth grader bent on learning how to craft a meaningful sentence would have asked that question instead of rushing to lunch with everyone else.

Maybe that’s why I love picture books where boundaries crumble.  Sentences float.  Phrases peek.  Words skate up and down the page.  It’s a matter of artistic and editorial choices.

And I learned the value of those choices from e e cummings.

And Mrs. Billman.    

Friday, April 19, 2013

Second Grade: Winning The Lottery

After reading about my kindergarten experience, a mother wrote to me because she worried that her own kindergarten daughter might be learning to coast as I did.  I told her my second grade experience made up for the lackluster beginning.  It was definitely a winning lottery ticket.

Mrs. Miller was cutting edge for the 1950s at Sherman Elementary School in Ohio.  In first grade, we sat alphabetically in wood and wrought-iron desks, complete with ink well holes, in bolted down rows.  In a requisition coup that must have stunned her colleagues, Mrs. Miller got those antiques removed from her classroom.  We sat in clusters of desks with independent chairs, and she switched us up all the time.  I was constantly with different kids.

Brace yourself.  It gets more outrageous.

We were allowed to talk to each other.  We could move freely around the room.  We could go to a hallway drinking fountain on our own.  We knew we'd been given an inch.  No one was crazy enough to take a mile.

She pushed the piano in the hall into our classroom every day.  We wrote songs, inventing melodies and lyrics.  Then we'd figure out dance steps and hand motions.  We were up and hopping and twirling and laughing while composing.  She loved following our lead.

Surely Broadway Bound, she announced we were good enough to write a play about nutrition.  We were divided into food groups.  I still remember our overture's tune: We are some of The Seven Basic Foods.  Eat us every day.  We are very, very good for you.  We help you run and play! (Big finish.  Form two quick rows with the front row dropping to its knees.  Jazz hands.) I was bread, and I still remember the huge, oddly formed piece I drew on paper with its rich, brown crust.  We researched from library books she brought in on a rolling metal cart.  Who knew wheat and yeast could be fascinating?  No slice ever danced with more meaning.

Then there was the memorable day she asked us to start bringing in boxes.  For two weeks we stacked them at the back of our classroom, imagining the wonders ahead.  Finally she took us on a walk through the neighborhood.  We visited a grocery store, the fire department, a variety store, a park, and a soda fountain.  She took pictures of each site and put us in groups to construct our assigned place from boxes.  We studied those photographs for colors, shapes, and details that would have left Frank Lloyd Wright beaming.  Every spare moment was devoted to working on those boxes, taping and stapling and painting our locations.  Then we placed them on a gigantic grid of streets and sidewalks.

I'd give anything for a picture of our project.  I'd love to see just one of our class plays.

But I carry their joy, along with dozens of other second grade adventures.  Over fifty years later I remember our ambition.  Our inventions.  Our faith in ourselves.  And I can see Mrs. Miller smiling, proud as punch to be in that room with us.  

In her creative hands, school wasn't inflicted on us.  It was created with us.

And to think so much glorious education could come from a shoe box.   

Friday, April 5, 2013

Still Sorting and Folding

I know SCBWI members haven't wondered what happened to me after my first essay appeared twenty years ago in their bulletin (Read my previous post.).  For those who are thinking about giving up on writing, it might be worth knowing, however, that I finally got published.  So, yes, it's possible.

Money and awards don't roll in.  Editors and agents don't call. Hollywood hasn't offered a movie deal.

Well, what was the point, then, you might ask.  I wondered that myself for a while.

Shortly after I wrote that 1992 essay, I found a new editor in the bulletin's "Publisher's Corner" and began sending her picture book manuscripts.  She asked to see more, finally found one she loved, and called.  I was thrilled, but after many, many, many months, it was clear the project would never happen for complicated reasons.  She wrote me a beautiful letter, urging me not to stop writing despite the disappointment.

But I stopped.  I was heartbroken. I couldn't see the point anymore.  Also, my life had dramatically and gloriously changed because we'd adopted a baby girl from China.  It was easy to shift my focus to her.

Then when she was in kindergarten, she asked, "Mama, did you ever want to be anything?"

She caught me.  I thought I'd been successfully hiding behind play dates and bake sales, but she'd been wondering about me.  I explained I'd wanted to be a writer once and actually read her that almost-published story.  "It's good," she said.  "Write another one."  She believed so completely in me that I started again.  I had, in fact, been wondering about her, too, and the mystery that brought us together.  I began writing a fanciful journey for her.  My picture book, Sweet Moon Baby: An Adoption Tale, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2010.

When I sat in the Random House lobby after meeting my editor, I understood success had nothing to do with my fame or fortune or mahogany paneling or a crisp white blouse--the details I'd envisioned in 1992.  My success was about showing my daughter how a person collects the pieces of a broken dream and tries again.  That was the point.

At a bookstore signing, a little girl said I was the only famous person she'd met.  She told me she wanted to be an author and asked me what writing was like.  I told her it was like doing laundry, only you sort and fold words daily.  She smiled and agreed.  She said she wrote stories about her friends all the time.  That was the point.

When I read my book at a school assembly, an adopted Chinese girl announced, "I'm the real sweet moon baby."  She had found a metaphor to hold in her heart.  That was the point.

A mother bought my book to support local authors but was puzzled when her young son, who was not adopted or Chinese, repeatedly wanted her to read it at bedtime.  She asked him why and he explained, "I like how all the animals help the baby get home.  I would help her, too."  That was the point.

Now I understand why books for children matter.  I understand why I write them and that the point is far greater than my own success.

I just keep doing it.

It's that easy.

It's that hard.

Whether I ever get a second book published or not.

I mean until I get a second book published.