Thursday, December 24, 2015

Ohio Christmas Letter 2015: Settling In

People told us we'd be bored when we moved from Minnesota's Twin Cities to Milan, Ohio, a village in northern nowhere.

Small and quiet. Nothing to do. No place to go.

Neighbors greeted us with cookies, a calendar, tomatoes, strawberry jam, flowers--all local and lovely and tied with ribbon. We've moved seven times and never experienced such hospitality. Anywhere.

Cliff connected by riding his bicycle to the square each Tuesday for the vintage car show. He quickly learned the best country vegetable stands, the names of nearly half the residents, and was urged to run for the school board. He discovered repairing our lengthy picket fence would take more than one season because passing residents kept pausing to admire his efforts. A local carpenter even stopped to help replace the brittle gate.

One evening Cliff rushed inside from walking the dog, determined that I follow him back to the nearby historic cemetery, saying: "It's a surprise! You have to see this!" And he was right. Under the star-filled sky, swarms of fireflies, gleaming reminders of our childhood summers, sparked and splashed against the blackness. "Remember us," the souls seemed to call. So we did, as we strolled among the beautifully carved headstones: Ohlemacher, Mead, Cummings, McLane...

For Labor Day, we celebrated the annual Milan Melon Festival, complete with a parade of marching bands, dance teams, scouts, veterans, and queens representing various lakes, cheeses, grapes, and apples. For me, the award-winning teenaged twirlers stole the show. Pausing on hot asphalt, they tossed batons into the air, higher than Main Street's three-story buildings. Then with a glance upward, they caught those silver flashes with nothing more than five fingers and a smile. The crowd cheered, even for the rare missed catch. The world is filled with good people indeed.

We created a flurry of excitement this fall when a construction team tackled the boxed gutters on our red brick house built in1859. They removed a rotten corbel, and for three consecutive nights I heard something in the attic. "The wind," Cliff said. "Wind doesn't scamper and scratch," I insisted. The worker returned to place the new corbel, and a snowy owl flew out of the vacant opening, its enormous wingspan nearly knocking the man off his ladder. Neighbors gathered and assured us years had passed since such an owl had been spotted in the area. A rare and magnificent creature, he hoots to us occasionally, thankful for the brief lodging, I assume.

Last week I made my social debut at the local adult book club. Although I'm not a joiner by nature, I can, if nothing else, read a novel and talk about it. With the colorful Christmas lights twinkling above me as I walked along, I expected to pass Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed singing Buffalo Gal, if you know their classic film It's A Wonderful Life. Inside our restored Carnegie library, a tree made from artfully stacked books decorated the lobby. Children made garlands of paper light bulbs to honor Milan's famous citizen, Thomas Edison.

That's the kind of town we've come to. Big things don't happen here. We're not on anyone's map.

But it has everything I need.

As I get ready for bed each night, I hear the town square bell chiming the hour while a speeding train hums in the distance. Best of all, from our upstairs window, the Milan Presbyterian Church bell tower is our nightlight. Its jeweled stained-glass windows cast rainbows across our sleepy hearts. When Maggie (who, by the way, is a glorious success at the College of Wooster) was four years old, she once told me she was bored. I confounded her by saying, "Only stupid people are bored." For us, life has never been better. But we're the kind of people who are devoted to hand painting a fence and gathering wild bittersweet from the woods.

Wherever you are on whatever map, we hope the same happiness for you.

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Friday, November 27, 2015

About Motherhood

Because I began motherhood late in life, a woman asked me why I bothered at my age. She said my world was predictably arranged. "Why invite chaos?" she scoffed.

I cobbled together an explanation that probably didn't sound any more convincing than a beauty pageant contestant outlining how she'd achieve world peace.

This November, the traditional month of thankful thoughts, I finally figured it out. Twenty years ago, when that woman confronted me, I had no idea about motherhood. I could never have known how breathtaking it would be to have a daughter who filled in my pauses and finished my sentences.

I see now that it began early on, after we'd returned from China. At eleven months, Maggie babbled in Chinese baby talk. She didn't understand English, but she found a way to speak beyond words. As we napped side by side one afternoon, she sat up suddenly, put a tiny hand on each side of my face, and leaned down to stare into my eyes. I held still as she peered into my soul and promised that she knew me and would forever be on my side.

She was my Merlin.

I realized the depth of her little-girl commitment when we watched Disney's Beauty and the Beast for the first time. In the tavern scene with Gaston, she quickly said, "Mama, don't look," and reached up to shield my eyes. Because she already understood I was upset by stories about animals dying, she didn't want me to notice the walls were covered with the mounted heads of wild game. She protected me through the entire song.

When she was a fourth grader, we took her to a parade. A float with dancing girls rolled by with their organizational slogan scrolled along the side. Maggie asked, "Mom, isn't that apostrophe in the wrong place?" Cliff laughed and said, "Well, she's your daughter without a doubt."

In keeping with our punctuation theme, an odd thing happened when we sold our house last summer. My best friend Laurel had sent me a New Yorker cartoon that I taped to our refrigerator. During an open house, someone took it. It was a loss that could only make an English major suffer. I whined for days. Then it miraculously appeared. Maggie had searched for it online and printed it off. Just for me.

When Cliff and I recently visited her at the College of Wooster's Parent Weekend, she said she had a present for me and handed over a pocket-sized Gideon's New Testament. Because we're not a religious family, she explained. Two boys were distributing them on campus, and she felt terrible over what happened. Polite students were accepting them, not wanting to be disrespectful, but later she'd find the books tossed into trashcans. It pained her. "I know you like little things, Mom, so I kept mine for you." I do love miniature objects. She's watched me move a thumb-sized elephant around the kitchen counter for years. A three-inch by four-and-a-half inch collection of Psalms and Proverbs delights me, but she knew how deeply I'd appreciate her concern for the boys.

Her spirit radiates through my life.

So this Thanksgiving I recited my dad's traditional dinner blessing: For what we are about to receive, may we be truly grateful, and keep us ever mindful of the needs of others. Amen

I looked at her across the table, knowing I was grateful, not for pie and potatoes, but for my daughter. Twenty years ago I was honestly clueless about motherhood, thinking the value centered around what I could offer a child. I had no idea that a baby born on a summer night in China would be the gift I had always needed to receive.

She had everything to offer me.

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Monday, October 12, 2015

The Unlikely Truth

Whenever I was ready to give up on something, my mother always said, "Where there's a will, there's a way." I believed her.

It took years to understand she didn't mean it would happen instantly. I've spent a lifetime discovering how much I had to learn, how often I had to fail, and how much I had to depend on the wisdom of others. Instantly? I wish.

When my picture book Sweet Moon Baby: An Adoption Tale was published, I felt obliged to thank three significant people: Florence Parry Heide, Jane Yolen, and Bill Moyers. Florence, an award-winning author, showed me the way early on and insisted I keep my chin up despite rejection. We'd once been neighbors, and she was an easy phone call away.

Jane, another celebrated children's author, took years. Maggie loved owls, so Owl Moon was among her first favorite books. Countless readings showed me the strength of practiced simplicity in a text. I finally met her in March. A happenstance click of a computer key led to a devoted friendship.

I knew all along that Bill Moyers was an impossible reach. When I first started writing picture books, I saw his PBS interview with mythology scholar Joseph Campbell. Listening to them showed me the irresistible pull of a hero on a perilous journey. I realized children's stories required the same epic struggle.

That became the storyline in Sweet Moon Baby: An Adoption Tale.

Still, thanking Bill Moyers was highly unlikely. Celebrities at his station in life are understandably distanced from the little people. Even if I found a contact address on the internet, my note would likely go unnoticed among thousands. I hoped for someone with a public television link. No one ever appeared.

But unexpressed gratitude circles a person, despite the passing time.

Then on Maggie's high school graduation day, I turned to watch her enter beneath the arch. There he was. Several rows behind me. In a pink shirt.

Bill Moyers.

His granddaughter had been Maggie's classmate the whole time, but I never connected the dots on that last name. During the reception, I tactfully avoided approaching him, knowing a potentially embarrassing moment would not be correct. But the aligned stars glimmered too brightly for me to ignore.

We could have chosen other seats on that expansive lawn, and I would have missed him entirely. We didn't. I asked Cliff what he thought the odds were on this intersection, and he said it was a bet no one would ever take.

It wasn't that Bill Moyers needed to know about my appreciation. He had shelves of awards. But I felt duty-bound to tell him my writing turned a corner because of his influential work. Given a direct path to his door, I sent a note with the book. He answered with a handwritten note in the gracious way you would expect. It turned out he truly did need to know about my book. My mother would have said, "Honey, you're walking in mighty tall cotton now."

That's the unlikely truth about gratitude. Sometimes it generates a fate of its own, one far greater than our disbelief. Mine took matters into its hands, flying a famous man all the way to Randolph Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota, on a day in June.

And making sure he'd wear a color I'd see.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Maggie Graduates and Then Some

My daughter amazes me.

Of course, I'm not the first mother to say that. Even my own mother thought so when she said, "Karen, I always knew you were an exceptional child, but you weren't nearly as outstanding as Maggie."

I didn't take offense. I understood what she meant.

Near the end of Maggie's senior year, she was invited to join the Cum Laude Society, an honor organization with admittance based on continued academic success. In a class of 90 students, only eighteen were selected.

She was puzzled.

As she studied the invitation for a celebratory dinner with parents, she explained, "It's not like I worked for this. I just did what you and Dad always said: 'Try your best.' What about the kids who try and try and never get high scores? They've worked a lot harder than I have. What's their reward?"

That's how she thinks, not about herself, but about the larger picture. Things are rarely black or white for her because she knows gray holds considerable meaning.

Many parents believe grades are the gods of success, with inclusion into Cum Laude the pinnacle of achievement. They ground their children for low test performance. They reward them financially for high GPAs. They send them to tutors to improve exam scores. In those families, numbers are everything.

Cliff and I never asked about her grades. Years ago he said to me: "If you're more invested in her homework than she is, no good will come of it." While it sometimes made me crazy in the short term, I understood the big picture of his intent. A child had to be intrinsically motivated to succeed. Otherwise, it was a shell game.

Interestingly, her principal made a statement about each student's inclusion in Cum Laude. Hers began with: "Maggie is smart, perceptive, and responsible." He commented on her concern for social justice, her impact on her community, her empathy for people of various backgrounds and circumstances. He noted her ability to speak her mind while being respectful and her willingness to ask questions no one else was willing to ask. He called her "bright and determined, conscientious and creative."

That had nothing to do with numbers.

At the school's final awards assembly, she received the Dramatics Trophy. Years ago I was a high school theater director who made the same annual decision. A senior always stood out for onstage or backstage contributions, so I cried silently during the program when her director announced:

"There are few individuals who continuously give over 100% every moment they exist on and off stage. Whether during rehearsal or performance, you are the consummate professional, giving selflessly and tirelessly to every cast and crew, no matter the role. You embrace every production with bravado and an astute attention to detail and true love of the theatrical arts, whether acting, stage managing, or directing. Your abilities and dedication have grown beyond all expectations."

I never had a student like Maggie who excelled at all three.

Awards are great, but I'll tell you what makes me the proudest. Maggie stage managed the spring musical and finally realized how to avoid the behind-the-scenes problems of a limited facility. She purchased neon glow sticks and taped them to the hazardous intersections. She designated the blue ones as crew necklaces so they were easily spotted as the "helpers" for whatever emergencies arose.

Over the years, I've repeated several of Maya Angelou's quotations to her, hoping she would learn that significance in the world depended on her understanding of herself and others. "People will never forget how you made them feel," Angelou wisely wrote. I know people will forget Maggie's starred name in the graduation program to denote her Cum Laude status, but many will remember her glow sticks, not only because they ended the crashes, but because they spotlighted their backstage camaraderie. She had the sense to honor it by making them feel exceptional. Who wouldn't want to work alongside her?

There in the darkness, her brilliance beamed in neon blue. And it had nothing to do with numbers.

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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Sudden Angels Part 6: Two Butterflies

Last Sunday I ripped my closet to pieces, looking for a scarf.

I was getting ready for a farewell lunch with my friend Nancy and was determined to wear the gift she gave me at Christmas. I had finally bought a colorful blouse to match it because I haven't worn anything but black and white for years. I thought wearing her gift would be a significant statement about our accidental friendship--how she'd gotten me out of my shell, how she'd gotten me to wear something bright.

Because we're both children's authors, we were seated several years ago at a long table with our books at a kindergarten teachers' convention. I'd recently moved to Minnesota and knew almost no one. Wallflower that I am, I was frozen in my chair.

Then Nancy walked down to my end and introduced herself, the kind of risk with a stranger that paralyzes me. We chatted tenuously at first, but I was smiling by the end. Our quiet personalities breathed easily with each other, as if we were always an intentional discovery, safe and understood in the way of true friends.

Back to the scarf. I looked everywhere, getting more desperate. Because we move next week, I knew it would likely be our last lunch for a long time. Maybe forever. You never know. That scarf was nowhere. So I reached for my standard black and white clothing, feeling guilty, worried that she'd think I didn't appreciate her thoughtful gift.

We had a long lunch, catching up on the good and bad things we'd been through during the past months. Several hours passed, and still we hadn't covered everything. We returned to my house and exchanged hugs and promises at the front door. She got in her car and delayed, rummaging in her purse or whatever.

I stood on the step, waiting to wave goodbye. I waited and waited while she searched.

Then a tiger swallowtail butterfly flew up out of our lilies. Its beautiful yellow wings shimmered in the sunlight as it zoomed toward her car and zipped up and down the length of it in a spontaneous blessing.

There was more.

From the other garden, a monarch darted over the lawn toward the first one. I know butterflies are becoming rare so seeing two at once made a breathtaking moment. The swallowtail backed away. The monarch circled closer until they flew in arcs, crisscrosssing each other's paths. I believe it was an orange and yellow ballet about unexpected friendship.

Later that day, I found the scarf behind a pile of shoes, but it didn't matter anymore. Now I understood the gift was not the scarf. It was Nancy.

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Monday, July 13, 2015


I don't know how many times I walked by without seeing it.

An evening stroll three years ago with our dog Maria finally got my attention. She darted left, yanking me toward the wrought iron fence. I thought she'd spotted a scurrying chipmunk.

Now I'm not so sure what quick creature charmed her. When I looked down where her nose strained through the fence, I saw a fairy village nestled among the flowers. It was sweetly complete with several houses. I was mesmerized.

When summer comes, we visit often, noting how the accessories expand as the fairies prosper. This week our trip coincided with our neighbors' young children. As they approached, Luca (who's probably 4 1/2) called, "Karen, you have to believe." His sister Petra (who's likely 3) ran to point out the tea set. Their sister Filomena (who recently turned 1) watched wide-eyed and silent. I told them that Maria found the spot before I did, and they looked at her with wonder, imagining the possibilities of a dog who sees fairies. "I haven't seen them yet," I said, "but I know I will."

"You have to believe," Luca repeated. "They're very, very fast." Like a flash, he pointed into the branches behind us. As we turned, he said, "I might have seen one!" Petra wanted to know why it didn't fly down to the houses.

Abby, their babysitter, and I looked at each other. I let her take the lead. "Maybe it was afraid of Maria," Abby suggested.

"She would look as big as a dinosaur to a little fairy," I added. The children nodded their heads.

Petra slipped behind the fence. "The chicken fell down," she explained, righting it by the henhouse. I assured her the fairies appreciated her help. She beamed.

Our adventure over, they headed east for home. Maria and I went toward the Mississippi. I thought about that, how I walk west, my eyes always up, expecting the wide, rushing river to be our destination. Somewhere in our American gene structure, we're programmed to believe all good things are toward the horizon. We are pre-ordained to believe powerful things happen in the distance.

But a lot is going on at my feet. If I'll stop and look.

We'll soon be moving away, and these children will forget us, the people next door with the dog who spotted fairies. So I'll have them come over for popsicles with Maggie and me. I'll tell them the tiny tent in our garden doesn't get visitors anymore because of Maria. I'll ask them to put it in their yard for the traveling fairies. They will because they believe.

That's how a meaningful life begins. A boy who believes he saw a fairy flitting through branches will grow up to believe he can master a geometry problem that seems impossible at first. A girl who believes straightening a toppled chicken will help a farming fairy will grow into a girl who confidently helps a friend solve a hard problem. Filomena, quite possibly, will believe that amazing things happen anywhere.

Inevitably in a year or so, they'll ask their parents where the little tent came from. I hope Joe and Katie will say, "From a neighbor who believed in fairies, but more than that, she believed in you."

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Monday, June 29, 2015

Sudden Angels Part 5: Nan

This is how I first saw Nan--bent over and busy.  I only knew her as the blonde head among blossoms, clipping and trimming, garden debris flying behind her.

For three years, I walked our dog Maria in silence past her house. So I was startled one morning when she emerged from her garage as I turned down the alley. Face to face for the first time, I told her how much I admired her flowers. She thanked me. We both moved on.

Once our parallel lines intersected, however, we kept colliding on the sidewalk. We chatted. She invited me over for coffee.

I told her what a talent it was to grow lovely flowers. She said it was luck and persistence. "You try something here and watch. If it doesn't grow, you dig it up and move it elsewhere," she said.

Nan told me what a talent it was to write stories. I said it was luck and persistence. "You try this and that with a character, and if it doesn't work, you move it elsewhere," I said.

Out of nowhere, we became friends. Sometimes it happens like that. You wonder why you ever hesitated. In short order, as our stories unfolded, I understood how similar our lives were thematically. There was endless comfort in that. But not for long.

When we put our house on the market this spring, our agent brought in a professional stager who, in that Martha Stewart way, wanted our household turned perfectly inside out. Streamlined and gleaming. All colors coordinated.

"We have to add pops of red outside to attract buyers," I wailed to Nan, who understood by now that I had no talent for landscaping. "I'll pick you up in the morning," she offered. For an hour, she led me down the greenhouse aisles, holding up pots of this and that, asking if I wanted something with more yellow. Or something that trailed. Or something fluffier. At the end, she grabbed tiny white pinprick blooms to add something soft and airy "to set off the red in the geraniums and begonias."

She wasn't singing "Bippity-Boppity-Boo," but I felt the transforming breeze from her wand.

Because I had another real estate brushfire to extinguish across town, she promised to show up the next morning with tools and potting soil to plant everything so we could make the photographer's deadline. And she did. I returned home to brilliant reds in all the right places.

The house sold in a day. Now I have to leave Nan.

Here's what I want you to know about angels. They are not always vertical travelers who sail down on golden rays, as we're led to believe. They can exist on the same horizontal line we travel, bent over among the lilies, waiting to be noticed.

Nan's power was more than those artfully arranged red flowers in our yard. Because of her, I was no longer a stranger in my neighborhood. Someone knew me. Someone watched for me.

Being recognized is a blessing.

I simply had to summon the courage to offer a compliment. Because even angels need kindness.

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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Something about Elephants

When it comes to elephants, children aren't afraid. Although huge, they seem approachable. Maybe it's because they don't have claws or fangs or scales. Maybe it's because that curling trunk and tail are odd but happy features.

And who doesn't want to whisper into those enormous ears? A secret could be lost in there forever.

Maggie was crazy about them when she was a little girl. Her comforter was imprinted with Victorian zoo elephants in elaborate gazebos. She had a collection of souvenir elephants. When her class made kitchen magnets for the parents, she drew Ella, her favorite stuffed animal.

When Cliff taught first grade, it was an elephant who finally turned the tide with a difficult class. They were a group of mismatched spirits given to arguing, refusing to compromise with each other. Knowing it would be a long, unhappy year, he decided to show them the value of creating a community by creating a gigantic task that could only be successful as a group effort.

An elephant saved the day.

They studied India as a lesson in geography and culture. Traditionally kids drew maps or gave historical reports about the country, but these were solitary endeavors. Cliff changed it up by announcing they would draw a life-sized Indian elephant and divided them into groups: the eye committee, tail committee, front leg committee, etc. They researched their assigned dimensions, a process that forced them to talk to each other. Then he asked them to bring in newspapers, which tells you this happened before the days of the internet. As a class, they estimated how many sheets they'd have to tape together to form a large enough surface to draw the animal. They pushed all the tables and chairs against the wall, another maneuver that required them to work together.

Each group had a roll of tape and stack of newspaper. Each member had to get a turn taping. More cooperation was required because everyone couldn't hold the tape at once.

Then they realized the eye couldn't be drawn until the head was sketched in. The tail couldn't hang in midair. The stomach had to wait for the leg placement. Much conversation ensued. Kids were patient with each other. Markers were handed back and forth. They positioned themselves around the perimeter and began to cut--without bumping each other.

Instead of accusing and blaming, the room was filled with giggles and silence as the elephant took shape. The scraps were collected, and it became a lesson in recycling, too.

When the amazing animal was drawn, Cliff extended the lesson by asking questions requiring educated estimates and concrete actions like: How many children can line up on the length of a trunk? How many of your feet equal the length of the elephant's foot? How many hands fit on the eye?

Children once determined to get in front of each other, scooted over for someone else to add a little hand. They guessed together and listened to each other.

Yes, they created a huge elephant. More importantly, they learned a huge lesson about the power of cooperation.

Any teacher can present facts. Any teacher can grade fill-in-the-blank worksheets. Only a remarkable teacher can create invaluable life lessons. With the help of an elephant, he showed a class how to see each other.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Truest Clock

My husband Cliff has been retired for almost a year now. He served forty-one years in elementary education at public and private schools. During that time, he taught everything from pre-school through sixth grade and spent half his career as a principal.

Never once was he wrong about anything in a school. Ever.

Cliff had the rare ability to sit in a classroom for thirty minutes and tell you if the teacher was any good. Then he'd tell you which children were over placed, which were troubled, and which were falling through the cracks. But he wouldn't develop a list of issues and walk away. He'd tell you how to address them. He'd give you a Plan A to improve each case, and if that failed, he'd suggest Plan B. He was known to trot out Plan C and D, too. Cliff never gave up with anyone who was willing--adult or child.

After he'd been at a school for a year, he could pinpoint the flaws in the curriculum, the staffing weak links, and the dark reality slinking beneath the fancy mission statement. He gave vision to schools that were wandering. Grateful teachers insisted they learned more from him than any education course. Devoted parents worshipped him for showing them how to appreciate their own children.

I have never encountered anyone else like him in the school business.

Make no mistake, however. Not everyone listened. Many resisted his advice. Still, many apologized when they finally understood he was right and that the contentious issue was never about him at all.

Early in his administrative career, he found himself twisting in the wind over a problem that would leave someone dissatisfied, no matter which decision he made. His seasoned head of school said, "You have to stand for something at the end of the day. That becomes your North. Never lose sight of it."

Cliff understood he would always be King Solomon, demanding the baby be cut in half, in order to save it. A master of paradox, he consistently chose to do the right thing for the child, despite prevailing pressures. He knew a child was infinitely more than a commodity, a test score, a trophy. A few years ago, an admiring colleague nicknamed Cliff "Don Quixote" because of his relentless courage in the face of arrogant supervisors, jealous contemporaries, and selfish parents. One after another, Cliff faced those ignorant windmills in his weathered armor.

I recently heard a celebrated businessman explain his findings after interviewing thousands of leaders of all kinds of organizations around the world and their employees. He discovered the ultimate traits of a leader are truth and trust. Intelligence and skilled spin-doctoring pale by comparison. In other words, generosity and honesty win the day, and these are the virtues that develop with experience, perceptive experience.

You can't learn that from a book or a PR firm or a high-dollar consultant. You can't strong arm your way around what's real.

You carry it in your heart. Or you don't. No one can teach it to you.

Children always found the truth in Cliff. It shows in these two sweet notes from students.

Mr. Clark, you plan a lot of fun things. You tell a lot of nice storys (sic). You are so creatof (sic). I'm never afraid to talk to you because yore (sic) nice to me. You make everyone in school feel happy. No one else is like you.

A school without Mr. Clark is lonely.

The school dedicated a row of apple trees in his honor, and those new sprouts meant more to him than gifts and a luncheon. He understood the value of time and the power of growth--in trees, for sure, but more importantly in the children who play beneath their branches.

When he was at a school in Illinois, the Rockford Register Star invited him to write about education.

By Cliff Clark

When our antique mantle clock quit ticking after we moved from Wisconsin, we felt certain that we had ruined the delicate timepiece. But we took this family heirloom to a master clock maker who discovered that it merely needed to be placed on a level surface and then it would run again. Indeed, the clock needed time to balance, not new parts.

The same can be said regarding children. When they are put in a "level" space, they, too, can find balance and harmony. With this balance they can better accept the challenges that lie ahead and probably even survive the rat race we call adulthood.

Frequently I have spoken to children about the inner time we all possess which sometimes pays only veiled regard to the calendar and birthdays. The speed at which the clock ticks can generally be adjusted only by the grade in school where the child is placed. This is the same clock that determined when we walked, talked, fed ourselves, learned to tie shoelaces, and it continues to run throughout our lives. We owe it to our children to help set the rhythm of the clock's ticks. Every child's inner clock is  unique.

A child's journey begins when adults become aware of the whole child during his or her first school experience. Too often we become extremely excited by the academic prowess displayed in our children. At the same time, we are sometimes unable to see equally important emotional and behavioral considerations.

All three are important facets of the the developing child. When one is out of balance, the child falters. When two are misaligned, the child fails. Unfortunately we are apt to focus on intellectual performances as the only measure of success. We forget that a forest is more than one tree.

Noted child psychologist David Elkind refers to the "hurried child," who is a manifestation of "over placement" in school. Often inordinate peer pressure is applied to the immature child who can't keep pace with classmates and also experiences organizational and social difficulties. The immature child might be encouraged to assume more responsibility but is unable to move forward BECAUSE of that immaturity. Many believe tutoring during the summer will provide a chance to catch up, forgetting that those other classmates will not hold still developmentally.

Early childhood classrooms frequently have this sign: Childhood Should Be A Journey, Not a Race. Keeping that significant statement in mind, you will find there are many master clock makers at your child's school. Listen to their collective wisdom and to your own heart to ensure your child's safe journey through childhood.

A life can offer several careers, several homes, and even several spouses. There is only one childhood.

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Monday, March 30, 2015

Two Mothers, Two Daughters, One Moon

I used to think I turned the pages of my life, but not anymore. Not quite at least. Now I believe circumstances and faces and objects steadily float past me, and the trick is learning which details have meaning and how to catch them.

When we adopted Maggie from China, I became a stay-at-home mother. I'd had careers, but nothing ever stuck. I'd always been waiting for something else.

During our first year, Maggie and I did pretty well at home, all things considered. She'd spent the first eleven months of her life in a huge Guangdong orphanage, so the quiet of our house and my constant attention surely kept her surprised.

I was an only child who had briefly babysat when I was in high school. Clearly, I didn't know up from down about children, but I knew our world had to expand.

We tried Mommy and Me Gymnastics. The college-student instructor was beside herself with frustration. For one thing, I was old enough to be the mother of the other mothers. Next, we owned no athletic clothes. Class began with screaming children jumping into a pit filled with foam blocks. Maggie whispered, "I don't want to jump into a hole, Mama." I couldn't disagree.

We tried an art event. Maggie didn't want to draw the assigned lesson. I finished hers while no one was looking.

I re-thought my outreach plan. We went to a bookstore, where our clothes were suitable. We loved sitting. We loved quiet. We loved books. That's where we found Owl Moon by Jane Yolen.

Each time I got to the part where the little girl sees the owl, Maggie placed her hand on the page. I have no idea why. But her tiny fingers showed me a book can find a child's heart.

Money was tight in our house on one income, so I told her the book lived in the store, but we could visit it. Because it was a Caldecott winner, they kept copies on hand. On every trip, as I pushed her stroller through the door, Maggie said, "Find it." I knew which book she meant.

So when I tried to write an adoption picture book and the plot stalled, I returned to Owl Moon and realized one economical sentence after another took that little girl on an important nighttime adventure. There was my map for Sweet Moon Baby: An Adoption Tale. 

When it was published, it was difficult to know if my book mattered until an author event brought a particular family to my autograph table. The father chatted with me while his adopted two-year-old Chinese daughter flipped through the pages of her book, clearly looking for something. She stopped at the picture of the baby floating away in a basket. She pressed her little hand on the page and smiled at me. She thought she was showing me a picture. I knew she was showing me her heart.

It was a recent, accidental click on my computer that led me to a page about Jane Yolen's Picture Book Boot Camp at her Massachusetts farmhouse. Knowing that points were surely converging, I enrolled for four inspiring days about writing and publishing. More significantly for me, however, I learned Jane took fifteen years to write Owl Moon, and the unnamed girl in the story is her daughter Heidi. I struggled for years to write Sweet Moon Baby, and the unnamed girl in my book is my daughter Maggie.

I went a long way for these details:

The moon is forever the moon, a shining mirror of everlasting promise.
One daughter looked at it and saw an owl.
One daughter looked at it and saw a home.
Two mothers looked at it and saw their daughters.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Making Black Sheep: The Group Consequence Fallacy

One evening Cliff delivered popcorn to Maggie, who had stayed home from school with a cold that day. Her first grade teacher had sent the treat. She cried.

It took a while to understand her distress, but the popcorn signified a special reward party that she'd missed.

The teacher kept a set of tally marks on the board to measure good and bad student actions in the class. Good things received checkmarks. Bad things meant checkmarks were erased. When the class achieved the designated number of plusses, they got a popcorn party. On the day of Maggie's absence, the long-awaited event was held.

She missed the reward. Receiving stale popcorn in isolation was hardly the same experience.

Cliff was dismayed by such a public checks and balances system because he knew the hazards. Misbehavior was called out, embarrassing the guilty child. Well-behaved classmates were "punished" for the infractions of others because the checkmarks they had worked to earn were erased. Over time, it's typically repeat offenders who are continually guilty of lost points. Consequently, they are resented by the other children. They become the black sheep.

This kind of group consequencing makes the other children responsible for monitoring and mentoring their impulsive classmates, never an effective idea. How often in life does the disorganized child turn in his homework on time because he wants the others to be rewarded? When does a mean child hold back a cruel comment, knowing a handful of popcorn hangs in the balance?

In group consequencing, the teacher's hands are clean because children are expected to do the controlling and reforming. The misbehaved are supposed to be magically transformed or humiliated into modeling the better choices of others.

Who is the paid professional in the classroom anyway?

Because Cliff was the middle school principal, he spoke with the lower school principal about the matter. She admitted she was aware of the situation and had mentioned it, but he continued his program. She urged Cliff to see if he could make any progress since his own daughter had been punished by the reward system.

In his most thoughtful manner, Cliff, who knows every last thing about developmental behavior and how to build a cohesive classroom community, explained the dark side of blackboard tally marks. He  discussed the negative self-images that develop from public shaming. He illustrated the benefits of working one-on-one with problematic children to turn their attitudes around privately. He detailed ways to help children contribute positively to a group. He talked about the power of getting the parents onboard to change inappropriate steps they might be taking at home.

Change doesn't happen overnight, but it takes the burden off classmates who are truly helpless. Left to their own devices, Cliff explained how damaging underground student retaliation could become--with no one winning and someone getting hurt.

Maggie's first grade teacher didn't argue or ask questions. He simply shrugged his shoulders and said, "The system works for me."

When Cliff reported his results, the lower school principal shrugged her shoulders, too.

People discuss education constantly--academic excellence, teacher unions, standardized tests. It's a lengthy list.

But none of that matters if schools aren't willing to roll up their sleeves and develop children who are intrinsically motivated to do the right thing.

And you can't get there with a popcorn party.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

When Plan B Fails

I know about parenting books. I've referred to them for things like teething, temperatures, and tantrums.

Looking back, now that Maggie is in high school, I believe those were the easy times. The really big things that happen in the teen years are not so neatly covered. There's no easy way through these disappointments or resentments or misunderstandings. These are life's bitter-pill lessons.

I long for the years when it was just me, a baby, a thermometer, and chapter three.

Maggie came home last night, discouraged by a faculty decision. She was devastated because she'd followed her father's advice: Always have a Plan B. She'd presented the teacher with her Plan A. If that didn't work, she handed him her Plan B. He said he understood.

The next day he handed her Plan C.

She wondered how it collapsed and why the teacher would get it wrong. She was so certain she had all her ducks in a row before the meeting.

There isn't a book on the face of the earth with the right answer.

It was up to me, armed with a cup of coffee, to help her corral those honking ducks. So I reminded her of the adage that the journey is more important than the destination. But the journey is the hard part, I told her.

You thought you were headed to India with the right map in hand, only to realize you'd ended up in Peru. After wailing and whining, all you can do is settle down and recalibrate.

Whatever happened, you have to make another decision. Stay put and make the best of it? Return home? Get another map? Resent the person who sold you the wrong map?

No one ever knows. No one. Especially the people who are convinced they know precisely what you should do.

Sometimes those unexpected detours turn out to be the best thing. While you're puzzled under a Peruvian shade tree, hopeless and alone, the carriage of a lifetime can stop and offer a free ride. Getting sidetracked can be a blessing.

How do you know? You don't. Blessings always come disguised as something else--something that wasn't intended, something that's a last resort, something that's impossible.

Still, mistakes can work magic.

Ultimately, you have to believe in yourself. You have to be brave, even if it requires pretending. Courageous folks learn to find the way, step by step, map or no map. By flashlight or full moon or candle, there's a passage through the dark. Even if it means crawling on your hands and knees.

Decide. You have to know at the end of the day that you tried like crazy to organize those wing-flapping ducks. And even if they're still zigzagging ahead of you, at least they're running for the horizon.

And the horizon, the place of promise, belongs to no map. It defies paper. It is the clear, vertical space ahead that only your eyes can define, that is colored your particular blue. The horizon is different for everyone.

Even for ducks.

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Friday, February 6, 2015

Saved by Nancy Pearl

Be honest.

It's February, and those ferocious New Year's Resolutions have crashed.

You haven't lost 12 pounds, exercised for 30 minutes daily or cleaned the closets. Me either.

Change-worthy improvement, however, is still possible. I realized this at Starbuck's. If you stand there long enough, you'll find wisdom.

On the cup sleeves beside me were Oprah's sentiments:

Your life is big. Keep reaching.
Live from the heart of yourself. Seek to be whole, not perfect.
Know what sparks the light in you. Then use that light to illuminate the world.
You are here not to shrink down to less, but to blossom into more of who you are. 

I tried to imagine my big life. Write a novel? Visit The Orkney Islands? Learn to tap dance? All of the above? Do I start today or can I wait for better weather?

I've been down that embrace imperfection road. I get sidetracked every time. I'm the one straightening street signs and picking up litter in the ditch while everyone else dances barefoot in the rain.

Illuminate the world? It's a little late for me to become Mother Teresa. Could I just say kind things each day to a dozen random strangers? Would that count?

I'm all for blossoming, but more of me might not be the best thing in all circles. From my previous post, you'll understand that Trader Joe's might be reluctant to receive more Karenness.

Don't get me wrong. Oprah's concepts rise like chai-infused steam from my hopeful better self. If I were on a slow boat to China with no obligations or distractions, those would all be fine truths to seek. As it is, I only fret myself into paralysis over these big-picture goals.

By this point in the year, I need a quick fix.

Again, Starbuck's holds a cut-to-the-chase solution. In their "The Way I See It" series, legendary Nancy Pearl, Seattle librarian and author of the Book Lust collectionoffers productive, guilt-reducing wisdom on cup #169:

Life's too short to read a book you don't love. At age 50 or younger, give a book 50 pages to see if you like it. Over 50, subtract your age from 100 and that's the number of pages to read before you bail on a book you're not enjoying. And when you turn 100, you get to judge book by its cover!

There's a life-changing strategy you and I can manage if you're a reader, too. Having felt duty-bound since childhood to finish every book I start, I'm thrilled to have a smart woman let me off the hook. She assures us that libraries don't record who finishes a book, nor do they award a Reading Bravely Though Bored Badge.

Go ahead. You're allowed. If you need to practice, deliberately check out a library book that you know isn't YOU. Follow her recipe and BAIL. Notice that she didn't use FAIL.

Maybe that's how you'll blossom this year.

(The closets can wait.)

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Saturday, January 17, 2015

My Trader Joe's Moment

To be fair, this day was a long time in the making. I just happened to be at Trader Joe's when lightning struck, so to speak.

I stood in their checkout line on a bustling Friday. Ahead of me, the Crew Member chatted up two young women, all yoga pants and fleece, in their casually pretty way. As he finished their purchase, he switched into high gear about their long hair and how he'd love to re-shape it if they made appointments with him because he was really a stylist.

I waited.

He went on and on about the salon and his talents. And their gorgeous blonde hair. They giggled.

I waited.

He swept his hands through the air, leaned in close and whispered more compliments. He handed them his card.

I waited.

The woman now behind me waited. We muttered to each other about the other long lines, realizing we could do no better to the left or right.

STILL, he talked. As they scooped up their bags to leave, he stopped them, desperate to extract a promise that they'd schedule an appointment. They were coy but encouraging. "I'm so excited!" he said. "You're beautiful!"

Then he turned to me and asked how I was on this fine day.

"Better, now that you have time for my groceries," I said drily.

He waltzed my cart forward, grinned, and said, "We give all our customers the personal attention they deserve." His hands did not float around my graying curls. He did not lean in to murmur coiffure confidences. He did not grace me with his personal card.

What a snake oil salesman, I thought.

"I'm sure you appreciate that, too," he said.

"Not quite as much as you might think," I said pointedly. The woman behind me hooted.

Realizing he'd just engaged two of the witches from Macbeth, he changed the subject to the wonderful sparkling pink lemonade I purchased for my daughter. I did not go on to add that she, too, was young and looked ravishing in her size 0 clothes and had gorgeous long hair.

I was silent. I paid and walked, fuming, toward the door.

Then I decided not to let him get away with it.

Perhaps you think I was overcome with jealousy, but the young women are blameless. The problem was his conduct, trolling for hair clients in a grocery store while inconveniencing other customers. And then he assumed his charming wink would smooth my ruffled, elderly feathers. When you get to be my age, you've finally had your fill of dismissive male behavior.

I remembered the sixth-grade boy who was furious whenever my grade was higher than his. When I scored 99% on the Greeks and Romans test to his A-, he sought revenge at recess, bouncing a ball off the brick wall beside me as I walked along. He landed it inches from me, nothing that would get him in trouble, but pounding his rage at me with each smash.

Then there was my score on a college history test, accompanied by praise from the professor as he put it on my desk. The boy beside me spat, "I bet a girl like you never leaves the library."

Nor have I forgotten my first job and the morning when several men introduced themselves and began telling demeaning jokes about women. When I didn't laugh, one said, "Well, I can see you don't have a sense of humor."

So I stopped at the service desk and lodged my complaint, asking: "Is Trader Joe's opening a spa? Is a marketing campaign underway?" She assured me it was not and that she'd talk to him. Then the other woman of a certain age who'd stood in line behind me stopped and said, "Good. I see you told her what happened." I encouraged her to add her own "double-double-toil-and-trouble" two cents.

In a perfect world, the manager would have asked for our receipts and reimbursed us. Or she would have given us gift certificates. Or she would have offered an apology at the very least. But she seemed to want the moment over as quickly as possible and us out of there.

That didn't surprise a girl like me.

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Sunday, January 11, 2015

What My Daughter Learned on the Mayflower

The Chinese are credited with a valuable tenet about learning.

Maggie's kindergarten teacher Ms. Spry practiced it perfectly. In her capable hands, education was an art form that proved the lasting worth of this quotation.

In November, to help them experience the Pilgrims' Mayflower journey, each child was assigned to be a real person from the ship's role. Ms. Spry helped them research their biographies.

Maggie was Rose Standish.

On the day of the sail, the children climbed into the classroom loft that served as the boat. Maggie told us they pretended sleeping. They pretended cooking. She was young, so the details of what all they pretended to do were sketchy. I seem to remember there was pretended fishing over the loft railing.

But that morning before she left for school, she asked me for band-aids. She stuffed all of them into her pockets, explaining that Rose Standish helped the sick Pilgrims. In Maggie's kindergarten mind, a nurse would have band-aids. I think she actually applied them to the sick and dying because they didn't come back home at the end of the day. She helped how she could.

She told us the Pilgrims who died onboard were buried at sea. In reality, they climbed down and were taken away to another room by the teaching assistant. Maggie saw how it got less crowded on the Mayflower. She saw how food and drinking water decreased. She felt how sad it was when one of her friends didn't survive and vanished.

Try as she might, band-aids didn't always work.

For several Thanksgivings, she told us the harrowing story of the brave Pilgrims and how she had a husband named Myles. She closed with: "Rose Standish tried her very best, but she got sick and died, too. It was sad." We even bought her a Mayflower plate for her annual turkey dinner because the journey was so real to her. She knew their story because she "lived" it.

Now in high school, she told me last week that she had turned a zippered case into an emergency supply kit filled with candy. I assumed it was for her "emergencies," but she said she kept it for other kids who were having a bad day. She has always been a sympathetic listener, gently holding the heartbreaks and worries of others who seek her out for advice and understanding. She's discovered the offer of chocolate works wonders.

Who wouldn't appreciate sweet foil-wrapped kindness on a bad day?

I'm sure those sick Pilgrims loved their neon band-aids, too.

Once Rose Standish, always Rose Standish.

Not because she heard a lecture or took a test or wrote a report on her life, but because she was her.

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Monday, January 5, 2015

2015: Dear Karen, Stop. Now. Love, Your Brain

I'm always searching for signs. When I can string together enough curiosities to see a pattern, I announce I've found a truth. When I looked back on the past year, I finally saw it. Inside my own head, I found a curious pattern, and, like it or not, I have to accept its truth.

Twice I experienced Transient Global Amnesia (TGA).

The first episode happened while I was cleaning up the garden. I carried leaf bags to the alley, turned around to step through the garage door into the backyard, and nothing made sense.

I was Alice falling down the rabbit hole into a nonsensical world.

I didn't understand why the clippers were on the sidewalk in front of me. I didn't know why I was outside. Cliff was raking in the front yard and said I came out the porch door and announced, "I don't know what I'm doing."

He and Maggie put me in the car. As we sat in the ER, I kept asking, "Why are we at the hospital?" They explained. I asked the same question again. A series of tests determined my brain was normal, and in three hours, my memory returned. Doctors said a shut-down of short-term memory was extremely rare and would probably never happen again.

It did.

Although the second episode was different, the sensation was identical. I raced through my brain for information, opening one drawer after another. Valuable files were empty; papers were scattered everywhere. Nothing had labels. Lost inside my own head, I couldn't connect the dots on anything because I couldn't remember what I was looking for. When short-term memory shuts down, nothing sticks. The brain becomes a sieve. In three hours, I was fine again.

The neurologist said there was only a 3% chance that it would happen a third time. Science has no explanation for TGA. It might be a side effect of statin medication to lower cholesterol. I've stopped taking it. It might be caused by strenuous exercise. That would not be me. It might be the result of stress. At one point during my first hospital visit, a doctor asked me to describe my life. When I was finished, she said, "Wow. No wonder your brain shut down." Bingo.

Before each event, my mind had spun on a hamster wheel of worry--crazy worry that raced from anxiety to panic. I've always been a master juggler of stress, but I'm now over sixty, the average age for TGA to strike. My brain is no longer nimble. Both times it picked up an item that eluded my catching ability. Three apples were juggle-able, but the added fourth, a pineapple, was the tipping point. My brain collapsed. Fruit rolled everywhere.

Or something like that.

So for 2015, I'm sorting and sweeping and stopping. I can't do everything. I can't control everything. My brain, realizing its cautionary whispers weren't getting through to me, flipped the switch and turned out the light. My brain needed darkness for a nap. Temporary amnesia was its only ticket.

A brain has only so many choices.

In 2015, I'm looking for reasons to stay calm. Sort, sweep, stop. I need to simplify my stressors, not multiply them. I smiled when I found this apt quotation:

                                      I've got 99 problems and 86 of them are completely 
                                      made up scenarios in my head that I'm stressing about 
                                      for absolutely no logical reason.

My sign. My truth.

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