Category Archives: Children’s Book Critique Group Blog

On Angels and Hankies and the Plague

IMG_1194Noticing cobblestones – the wonderful patterns, a few stones missing….

When I was teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I often asked my students to begin their semester with me by telling me where their attention had come to rest recently. This usually produced blank stares, and I had to further explain: I was asking them to tell me what turned their heads, what had they been looking at and noticing recently, what pulled at them so hard that they couldn’t walk past it, what bit of information had come in randomly which they couldn’t let go of, what compelled them to pause and wonder, what made them investigate further.

IMG_1548Began noticing clouds, began looking up photos of terrifying clouds.

I didn’t want anything philosophical, at least not at the surface level, and I didn’t want to hear about anything they were using for a current creative project. I just wanted to hear about physical objects or facts about the real world – where their “attention came to rest” that had little to do with anything else they were involved with. This would help me as a teacher, not only to see how well they could articulate their quirks and idiosyncrasies (and tangentially, to see if they could handle prose) but to open up a conversation about obsessions – my having come to the conclusion early on that artists are, in general, obsessive about unusual things.

IMG_0878  Began to collect old photos of long-gone orchards.

Cherry Orchard, San JoseSigh. Another ghost orchard.

I also thought that once students noticed what they were noticing, they would begin to see patterns emerge, and patterns could tell them a lot about who they were as artists in the world.

IMG_1038Patterns everywhere, even in stacks of firewood…

If my students remained confused, I offered examples of my own: I once bought an old postcard of handkerchiefs in a store window. I found the postcard at a Paper Ephemera fair and couldn’t put it down. A whole storefront window full of handkerchiefs on display: so unusual, so marvelous! Even thinking of it now fills me with pleasure. That was something I could not just “walk past” – I bought that postcard.

Another example: the Plague.

Black DeathThe Plague – I couldn’t get enough of it. The more gruesome, the better.

I developed a fascination with the Black Death  – how it spread across Europe in the 14th century. I had a whole stack of books checked out of the library. I looked up primary documents from the time, I researched art work – simple woodcuts sometimes, or complicated images of it in religious iconography and architectural decoration. My obsession with it was feverish – I needed to learn more about something horrible and mysterious, something that I had only a marginal interest in until it suddenly grabbed hold of me and would not let go.

IMG_1127Shiny jars and lids turned my head…

That kind of thing – that was what I was asking students about. Once explained, the writing exercise took off – most students provided me with fine descriptions of all kinds of unusual things, and they were glad to be reflecting on the question. But for some students – quite a few more than I anticipated – even the explanation and the examples were not enough.

IMG_1164as did a small man on a large vase…

It seemed impossible to me that they were not stopped in their tracks by anything – that their unique perspective on gazing (from which place “voice” comes) never made them catch their breath and STOP. So I looked for a more plausible explanation: was it possible that they were unaware of what caught and held them – were they not paying attention to what they paid attention to?

IMG_1185and the twenty days of the Zapotec calendar: crocodile, lightning, shredded meat, deer, water, knot, monkey, loofah, heart, cornstalk, eye, thunder, humid, drip, lord…plus a few question marks.

I think that’s dangerous territory for someone who wants to write – a lack of attention to your own physical responses to the things of this world, and an inability to list (inarticulate as that list might prove to be) what you’ve been noticing.

IMG_1229Couldn’t get enough of this camel, either. Especially those lips. Looked up “camel” in the encyclopedia.  Lots to know.

The photos I’m inserting into this post are of things that caught and held my attention this year. I might not be able to articulate the “why” behind my fascination – sometimes it seems to be a simple aesthetic response, sometimes my gaze turns to an object at an instinctive level, sometimes it’s quite clearly intellectual. But I do like to try to ponder the puzzle of what caught me in the first place.

IMG_1343Looked up “fireflies,” too.

If you haven’t been noticing what you notice, try taking a simple digital camera with you (or use the camera on your phone)  whenever you go out, and make a record of anything that turns your head and makes you pause.

IMG_1582Patterns, even in popsicles.

Reflect on it, think through what the fascination is. With those handkerchiefs, so beautifully displayed in that vintage photo, the effect was one of tremendous grace, similar to the effect on me recently of an organ played in the great cathedral of Mexico City.  Angels sang, and up the song rose, up into the domed ceiling, echoing around, filling me up.

IMG_1898What is it about watercolor paint tins? So messy. So gorgeous.

That sounds absurd. Or maybe not. Maybe someday that window full of hankies will make their way into a poem. For now, I’m only grateful for getting swept off my feet by that photo. Linen hankies – a whole huge window full. Angels sang.

Window Display - HankiesAbraham & Straus Department Store, Brooklyn, circa 1895.

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It’s Poetry Friday again, and I have some thoughts about wandering and coming home (as a follow-up to my post here on August 29th about a planned trip to Oaxaca) plus a favorite poem by Nelson Bentley, over at The Drift Record today.  To head over there, click here.

AUTUMN DUET: 1979 SONORA / 2014 SEATTLE

In 1991, the singer Natalie Cole created the album Unforgettable: With Love. You have probably heard of it, since eventually it sold over five million copies. The title track featured her singing a duet via electronic elaboration with her father, Nat King Cole, who died in 1965.

In a similar spirit of collaboration, I wrote today’s blog with my dad, Harvey McGee. It’s based on Dad’s account of autumn in the California foothill town of Sonora, where he was editor and publisher of the Union Democrat from 1959 until his death in 1998. His part appeared October 2, 1979, as his Sierra Lookout column. My part – an account of early autumn 2014 in Seattle – is in italics.

logo guy2.fhTHE SWEET, mossy smell of summer no longer drifts up from the creek in the late afternoon.

Twice now, the ravines have been flooded briefly with the sharp scents turned loose by moisture on brown grass. But it was only light rain, and the fields still crunch underfoot.

We’ll have to wait longer for the deep, heavy aroma that rises when the year’s buildup of twigs, pods, eaves and seeds is brewed by a soaking downpour.

Meanwhile, the light scents will do, especially when mixed with crisp mornings, soft yellow afternoons and blazing sunsets.

foxlogoTHE SWEET, piney smell of sunsoaked Douglas fir no longer flavors my late afternoon walks.

Twice now, rain has pounded our metal roof with downpours worthy of Hawaiian monsoons, releasing the heavy scent that rises when the summer’s buildup of twigs, pods, dry grasses and seeds is brewed by a drenching shower.

 (I love that there’s a word for this aroma: “petrichor,” the scent of rain on dry earth, a word constructed from the Greek, petros, meaning ‘stone,’ and ichor, the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology. Even in Seattle, a rain elicits this lovely fragrance at summer’s end.)

The sun slants low at the end of day, flooding the garden with golden light.

(I just learned today that the Japanese have a word for sunlight shining through leaves of a tree: komorebi. This time of year the angle of light in the Northwest is prime for komorebi.)

autumn light

logo guy2.fhTHE MOSQUITO that whined in the bedroom all summer as soon as the lights went out has now gone. He’s been replaced by a buzzing, hopping creature that disappears when the lights go on.

And the weekend traffic lined up at the stoplight has changed again. Summer’s stream of family-loaded station wagons has trickled away, and now the lineup is dominated by pickup-campers, their cabs filled mostly with men and rifle racks.

foxlogoTHE DISTANT whine of power washers and weed-whackers yields to the hum of leaf blowers.

Streets fill with yellow school buses again. We hope the traffic snarls caused by summer road repairs will soon be over.

logo guy2.fhTHE SWIMSUITS draped on the back porch railing have been dry for weeks, and I can drop onto the nearby lounge chair without first removing a soggy mound of towels.

The ivy bed is reviving, now that the dog has stopped sleeping away his afternoons there. All that lush poison oak has retreated down its long stems in preparation to burst forth with even greater viciousness next spring.

foxlogoTHE GARDEN has its last hurrah. We harvest beans and tomatoes and plant kale, lettuce, spinach and garlic for winter crops while the dog snoozes under the camellia.

logo guy2.fhTHE GLOW of football field lights floods the early darkness. Listen and you’ll hear that whistles and chanting voices have now joined the background din of barking dogs, spinning tires and straining log trucks.

All that remains of the grandchildren’s vacation visits is an occasional plastic block, left for painful discovery by a barefoot grandparent.

And in the mailbox there’s a Christmas catalog.

It’s autumn.

foxlogoTHE GLOW of football field lights floods the early darkness. Listen and you’ll hear that whistles and chanting voices have now joined the background din of barking dogs, spinning tires and planes flying overhead.

The grandnephews are back in school. All that remains of our Camp Runamok campfire is the charred spot on the driveway gravel.

And in the mailbox there’s a Christmas catalog.

It’s autumn.

 (I think I’ll give Natalie and Nat King Cole the last word: It’s Unforgettable.)

Points of Entry

From October 11 until February 22,2015 I am going to be part of a show of children’s book illustrators at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art. The show is called Points of Entry.paschkis penguinA few weeks ago Greg Robinson – the executive director and curator of the museum – came over to my studio to pick out work. He explained to me that the museum did not just want to have framed finished paintings up on the wall. He wanted kids (and adults) to have a way into those paintings.

He plans to accomplish this by showing sketches and false steps, digressions and diversions as well as finished book illustrations. This approach just feels right to me. In my life I do a lot of things – I make food and share it with friends, I paint for the pleasure of painting, I paint to illustrate stories,  I paint designs for fabric. All of these activities are connected and they spill into each other and feed each other.  There are mistakes and false steps along the way. It is an unusual opportunity to show the whole interconnected process. Paschkis happy family An example of Greg’s approach is how he plans to show Apple Cake, a book I wrote and illustrated in 2012. Apple Cake Cover   The original seed for this book was my Great Grandmother’s recipe for Apple Cake. The text of the book is mainly the simple instructions on how to bake the cake. (The story comes in the wild ways that those instructions are carried out.) Greg asked me to track down the original recipe card. I wasn’t even sure it existed because Lily Jane Powell didn’t use written recipes, but my mother had a card that her mother had transcribed, battered by time and pin pricks; that card will be part of the show. apple cake recipe card   One of the paintings in the book shows Alfonso getting a bit of salt to put in the cake. (My grandmother didn’t use salt but I do.) Paschkis salt painting That painting of a whale inspired this quilt, which will also be included.Paschkis JonahsBrother   So you can see the generous and open way that Greg and the museum are mounting the exhibition, and why they are calling it Points of Entry. This is all in keeping with the overall philosophy of the museum. The museum shows mainly artists from the northwest and it shows not only paintings and sculpture but also crafts and book arts. I will be in good company in this show: the other three illustrators are Woodleigh Marx Hubbard, Jennifer K. Mann and Nikki McClure.

Pug in a Pail by Woodleigh Hubbard

Pug in a Pail by Woodleigh Hubbard

TWO_EGGS_jacket art 150

from May the Stars Drip Down by Nikki McClure

from May the Stars Drip Down by Nikki McClure

I hope that if you are in the Seattle area you will take the ferry over to Bainbridge Island and visit the show. Admission to the museum is free, and you can walk from the ferry terminal. There will be an opening from 2-5 on Saturday, October 11th. Come dip your toes in!

Nikki McClure paper cut

Nikki McClure paper cut

In The House of Illustration

blake-arrow sign

I have been living in London almost three weeks now. My jet lag has worn off. My post-flight cold is gone. I am settling in and learning how to get around this amazing city.

For my first post as “foreign correspondent” for Books Around The Table, I chose to visit Sir Quentin Blake‘s “Inside Stories”, the inaugural exhibition at the recently  opened House of Illustration gallery space.

House of Illustration was begun in 2002 by a group of UK illustrators, led by Blake, to establish the world’s first “home for the art of illustration.” Over the next decade, the founders worked to raise awareness and garner funding to find a permanent home. In July of this year, they opened its doors in Granary Square, near King’s Cross, London.

House of Illustration’s gallery and education space is the place to see, learn about, and enjoy illustration in all its forms, from adverts to animation, picture books to political cartoons and scientific drawings to fashion design.”

Blake pledged his massive archive of original drawings and illustrated books to House of Illustration, so it is fitting that the opening show be of his work.

I know Sir Quentin Blake’s work best from his illustrations for Roald Dahl’s books, but he has done hundreds of others (not all of them for children) that many of us from the US aren’t as familiar with. It was a wonderful opportunity to see so many of his illustrations at once, but even more valuable to see his thoughts, notes and preliminary sketches included as well.

blake-entry

The entry to the exhibit immediately immerses you in Blake’s world with a floor-to-ceiling drawing of his studio space. The case beneath presents you with insights into how Blake approaches his art.

Blake-What does

(You must excuse the poor quality of these interior photographs, as I was surreptitiously snapping these shots with my smart phone on the sly. I risked admonishment for you, so please don’t turn me in to the authorities).

blake-clown

blake-the essence

Q Blake-sketches for the Twits

Q Blake-Mr & Mrs Twit

One entire room was devoted to Michael Rosen’s Sad Book. This was the part of the show that impressed me most deeply. Blake managed to balance sadness and joy with delicacy and subtlety. Perfect in its gentleness. I’m still thinking about those images.

Q Blake-Happy Sad face

Blake-Sometimes sad

Blake-one candle

Blake-many candles

Blake defines illustration as “drawing with a purpose.” That is the most accurate, least condescending definition that I have heard to date. It doesn’t try to fit it somewhere along a hierarchy between fine art and craft. It just says what it is.

And this is just the beginning at House of Illustration. There are four more exhibitions scheduled through June 2015, and I plan on being here for all of them. Stay tuned!
To view two BBC interviews with Sir Quentin, visit this page, and this one.

The Big Why

Christian Krohg  [Norwegian Realist Painter, 1852-1925]

Christian Krohg
[Norwegian Realist Painter, 1852-1925]

Why do you write? It’s a question asked of me recently and I was surprised by my answer.

It was asked by Linda Urban in a presentation she gave recently at the Whidbey Writer’s MFA program. Linda is the author of three middle-grade novels including “The Center of Everything” which got a lot of Newbery buzz last year.

Linda talked about finding your “big why?”

There are smaller whys. The reasons that underlies any individual story. Why are you writing it? Why does it matter?

And there’s a big why. Why do you write in the first place?

I was surprised to realize that there’s a link between the two for me. I’ve written all kinds of books from a picture book about the first ant in history to take a day off to a to a novel about a lizard who wants to be an artist to the stories of a grumpy bear and his friendship with an exuberant mouse.

I wouldn’t have thought they had much in common. But Linda’s question got me thinking about my work in progress—a new middle grade—and about what I most want kids to get from my work.

I think children’s stories do have a different tone, purpose, motivation, “ground” than adult stories and therefore have hopeful endings and characters who are growing rather than living lives of quiet desperation.

young buddhist

For me the most profound purpose and role of stories for children is “encouragement”. In the most fundamental meaning of that word. To give courage. The courage to live and enjoy and accomplish.

Because as a child you are a stranger in a strange land. What is this place? Why am I here? Am I safe?   Where am I going?   Am I capable of being in this place? Are the people around me capable?   Is life fun? A curse? A blessing?

A child doesn’t know. We don’t know. Stories are our way of exploring those questions. They are a way to experience a thousand lives and possibilities in one life.

To me that is the endless fascination of story. Why do we tell them in the first place? Why do we have such an appetite for stories? T.v., radio, books, movies, conversation. We are forever telling and listening to stories. They obviously serve a basic need. Yes, they are entertainment and they should be, but what do we find “entertaining” about them? They entrance us because they address our most fundamental questions in an interesting way.

Even a concept picture book serves this purpose. Say a playful rhyming book about color. Part of what it’s accomplishing is telling a child, a reader that life is fun. Life is interesting. Look. See. Enjoy. Isn’t this a fascinating place?

That’s the “why” behind an ant taking a day off or a lizard being willing to dream big or a bear who learns to celebrate friendship, birthdays and sleep-overs.

Gregory Muenzen

Gregory Muenzen

Children’s stories don’t have to paint a perfect world—in fact if they are too unrealistic they fail because children recognize we are lying to them–but they should present a world that is worth living in. Why would we feed our children a diet of cynicism and despair? As we get older we can entertain grimmer possibilities, but not as children. I think that’s why parents instinctively shield their children from certain stories and I think as writers we generally recognize that we want to accomplish a certain tone in our stories. It’s not because we’re not sophisticated enough to see beyond bunnies and happy dancing flowers and wee little elves. Stories for children are generally positive and playful and hopeful and joyful, because we recognize that is our basic purpose. To bring back word from adulthood to children that life is okay. You can do it. Come on in.

For me, that’s my big “why.”

 

 

Editing

Screen Shot 2014-08-22 at 11.14.41 PM

“Boldly and bluntly simplify the subject so as to reveal its true essence.”
– Kiyoshi Saito, (1907-1971)

I have spent the last three months preparing to move from Seattle – where my husband and I have lived since 1986 – to London, England. I fly out at the end of the month. These last few weeks have been a lesson in letting go.

I have been going through everything we own to clear the house for incoming renters. I have picked up every object, pondered it, and decided whether to ship, store, or discard it.

This has gotten me thinking about the process of editing.

Editing your life is like editing your own personal narrative. I am an accumulator by nature, but not a collector, nor a hoarder. The difference is that I enjoy getting rid of stuff, if only to clear the clutter to let the better bits shine.

When I am writing I follow the same process. I have less confidence in my words than my imagery, so I don’t mind keeping my words to a minimum. If I can prove to myself that every word has a reason to be there, I feel I have created the cleanest, least cluttered prose possible. It’s less risky that way. Clear the knick-knacks off your literary shelf.

Screen Shot 2014-08-22 at 11.15.36 PM

In my artwork I am constantly editing and revising. I strive to follow the words quoted above. Kiyoshi Saito is a contemporary Japanese woodblock artist and a master of selective visual editing in his imagery. Choosing what details to include and what to leave out reveals the aspects most elemental to an idea.

Get rid of the lesser bits. Pack them away or let them go. Only set your choicest pieces out for display.

My next post will be written from the UK. Just think of me as the Books Around The Table foreign correspondent for the foreseeable future. I look forward to exploring new territory and sending back the best bits to share with all of you!

And now, back to packing!

Screen Shot 2014-08-22 at 11.17.17 PM

 

Three

In July I painted this Green Summer Day,Paschkis Green Summer Dayand these Ripe Red Apples.Paschkis red ripe applesIn the back of my mind I was remembering something the editor Elizabeth Law mentioned in a talk years ago. She kept a piece of paper pinned up by her desk that said simply; “Red, ripe tomatoes.” It reminded her of how powerful words could be, and every manuscript that she accepted had to deliver as much punch as those three words.

The phrase is evocative because it brings to mind color and taste, but also because it consists of three words. Three is the magic number.

How many billy goats are there?
De Tre Bukke Bruse (The Three Billy Goats Gruff) 1

How many bears?three bearsThere are Three Stooges, Three Musketeers and Three Blind Mice. Witches and fishes grant three wishes – not two or four.Paschkis three fish wishes

I have read that the power of three comes from the Christian religion: the father, the son and the holy ghost. But it could be vice-versa: the threeness might give power to the trinity.
Another theory is that three is a powerful number because the triangle is such a stable form.Paschkis Twist triangleHere are some images from a wonderful book published in 1963:three by three 1963In it the story of a day unfolds in threes.three by three roostersThe extra text on this page was written (many years ago) by my sister Karla who brought this book to my attention (a few weeks ago).three by three huntersThe sun has different expressions as the day goes on. The three foxes have remarkably similar expressions.three by three foxesAnd of course there is:Book of Three

Do you agree that three is an especially powerful number? If so, please tell my why. And enjoy a ripe, red tomato while you think about it.botanical-flore-des-seres-et-des-jardins-de-leurope-tomato-solanum-sp

p.s. If you are interested in adjective order here is an article from Slate. It explores why it sounds normal to say BIG GREEN CHAIR and odd to say GREEN BIG CHAIR, for example.

p.s.s. If you are a close observer of this blog you will know that it is Margaret’s turn to post. Don’t worry – she will be writing next Friday instead of me.

 

Once upon a time…

Time, time
Time, see what’s become of me
While I looked around for my possibilities

Paul Simon – A Hazy Shade Of Winter Lyrics

timetowrite1

I’m on Whidbey Island right now at the 10-day residency for the low-residency program I teach at–an MFA program in writing with a special track for children’s and young adult writers.

We’re a small program—only about 50 students. And that’s deliberate. The goal is to have small classes taught by working writers in poetry, fiction, non-fiction and children’s/young adult. It’s funny but each residency will tend to have a theme for me. An idea or issue that comes up again and again.

This year it’s time. Time in our writing, time for our writing, the timing of our days.

This residency one of our speakers was Linda Urban, author of three middle-grade novels including “The Center of Everything” which got a lot of Newbery buzz last year. One of the things Linda talked about was the use of time in our stories. And offered some exercises to help us play with and understand something about how time is conveyed in writing.

For example, set the timer for two minutes and write a scene from a familiar fairy tale (Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty) in first person, but either in past, present or future tense. At the two-minute bell without pausing start writing in a different tense.

It’s interesting to see how the pace, mood and sense of distance changes with the tenses. Future tense is oddly ominous. Past reassuring. Present urgent and unsettling.

Another exercise is to expand time. Set the timer for five minutes and take a moment in your story and write the whole time about that one moment.

This wasn’t an exercise of Linda’s but of a student who teaches writing to children, Amy Carlson. She has her students start with the moment they are in—this moment of putting pen to paper and asks them to write backward in time from there back to the moment they woke up. According to Amy, this sets different wheels in motion in our imaginations since our brains aren’t used to thinking backward in time. It’s an exercise to free up the imagination. (Amy says the walking backward can do the same thing—challenge and wake up our brains.)

Not just time in our writing, but time for our writing has come up again and again. Do you set your writing time up by words written, hours spent, specific task? For everyone it seems to be a little different.

One speaker suggested a goal of 500 words a day. I know writers who aim for five pages a day. Writers who sit down diligently for four or six or eight hours. Writers who write for 15 minutes a day.

This morning at breakfast, poet David Wagoner talked about the prolific novelist Anthony Trollope who wrote early in the morning for an hour and a half before he went to work. Trollope’s goal was to write 1,500 words in that time. Two hundred and fifty words every 15 minutes. At this rate he produced some 47 novels and numerous short stories and non-fiction pieces. As he noted, “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.”

Even so, three hours a day total was apparently his maximum. “Three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write. “

And from what I can tell most people, like Trollope, seem to have about two to three hours in them. So what do writers do with the rest of the time?

Mostly, we look around for our possibilities.

 

 

 

The Complete OED – Not Concise, Not Compact

OED“Compact” – from the Latin compactus, past participle of compingere meaning to put together closely (com+pangere = to make fast, to fasten.) Used as an adjective = Having the parts so arranged that the whole lies within relatively small compass, without straggling portions or members; nearly and tightly packed or arranged; not sprawling, scattered, or diffuse.

The word was used in 1676 by someone named M. Hale: “The Humane Nature..hath a more fixed, strong, and compact memory of things past than the Brutes have.” Since “the Brutes” can’t talk, I’m not sure how Mr. Hale came to his conclusion. Even so, the idea of “compact memory” intrigues me. I like the way it sounds – almost counter-intuitive. Can memory be compact? Maybe, maybe not. I feel a poem coming on….

OED 2

All this gets jotted down in my notebook because I just inherited from a beloved aunt a complete 20-volume set of the Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition – definitely NOT the “compact” nor the “concise” versions. It sprawls, in fact, and I’m having fun with it. Never thought I would own the complete set, pricey as it is, though I used to dream about it, especially when I was studying poetry in grad school, exploring language at the level of the word, the syllable, the glorious etymologies. My friends and I sometimes gave each other writing prompts that involved the OED, searching through the surprising etymological roots of a given word, then spinning the root a new direction, gathering fresh images and using phrases in surprising and odd ways (and what does “Say it new” really involve if not oddities and surprises?) The OED is perfect for exploring the “brute” side of language (i.e. its wild-animal, unpredictable nature and its “straggling” and “diffuse” parameters.)

Etymology is not unlike genealogy – both words and people have roots that ground them, histories which make an effort to explain them, and spirits which animate them. Both are subject to interpretation, despite the precision with which editors of dictionaries and encyclopedias (as well as genealogical experts) like to operate.  Here’s a typical OED entry, with guides for how to read it.

oxford-english-dictionary-pageI’m so grateful to have this 20-volume “toy” to play word games with (more ambitious than it sounds) and I hope my aunt comes to me in some form or another (a seal or heron is nice, though my dad actually claimed the latter when he died, and my grandmother the former….) so I can thank her. I like the idea that the people I’ve loved and lost come around in one form or another in an effort to stay in touch with me. They bob up or pass by (“passant = passing, transitory, transient, fugitive”) regularly when I’m at the beach, and I’m grateful. I’m sure my aunt will come to me  though I’m unsure still what form she’ll take. I’ll be on the lookout.

The OED set I now have is practically brand new, and I wish my aunt had been allowed many more years to study it and enjoy it. I found a paper tucked into Volume XVI (“Soot – Styx” – I even love those words on the cover – nicely matched, aren’t they?) which has the word “Spirit” written on it, along with the definition. In my aunt’s handwriting, it says, “Spirit – OED – the animating or vital principle in man (and animals); that which gives life to the physical organism in contrast to its purely material elements; the breath of life.” Indeed, the etymology goes back to the root “espirare” – meaning “to breathe.” The word “inspiration” has the same root.

We like to understand and define things. We like to know where the edges are and we usually like things tidy. Life isn’t always like that. Sometimes, it throws the whole 20-volume set at us, and we don’t feel like “the whole lies within relatively small compass.”  As a writer, I work with words, characters, history, roots.  And I work to make sense of things (isn’t that what “story” is – a desire to make sense?) When you lose someone you love, you tell yourself a story that more or less makes sense of it. But in 1898, someone named Illingsworth said, “If matter and spirit are thus only known in combination, it follows that neither can be completely known.”

I can live with that. Some of our stories present the compact edition, “tightly packed or arranged.” Some sprawl. A passing cormorant – a seal, a heron – lingers near us the next time we’re on the beach. We define what we can, and we leave the rest to mystery.

James Murray, principle editor of the OED, in his Scriptorium (also NOT compact.)

James Murray, principle editor of the OED, in his Scriptorium (also NOT compact.)

A NEW CHAPTER

For the past 37 years, my husband John left our house every Monday through Friday and headed south to Boeing for his job in public relations. I worked at home.

It was a good fit for both of us. I like lots of quiet time to write and draw and follow my thoughts. He likes the interaction of communication around issues like airplane production and financing and the intricacies of the Export-Import bank.

But now John has retired. We took a celebratory hiking trip to Lake O’Hara, British Columbia, but beginning today we will both be at home.

photo

Hiking near Opabin Lake above Lake O’Hara.

Luckily, Julie Larios’ husband Fernando retired a few years ago. He offered John a surefire strategy for sharing space with a wife who gets lost in her creative ether: wear a cowbell. That way, he explained, your creative cohabitant hears you coming and does not jump out of her skin when you clear your throat and she is suddenly aware of your presence.

Perhaps some of our BATT blog readers have more suggestions for John and me as we begin this new chapter? I am all ears.

Maybe that’s the problem. Ironically, as I write this, I am distracted by the radio playing in the kitchen. Argh! To calm down, I remind myself it is John I have to thank for the idea of this blog — and for cleaning up the kitchen…

P.S. If you are in the Seattle area – a wonderful event takes place this Sunday noon to 4 at Dunn Gardens: Mallets in Wonderland, http://dunngardens.org/upcoming-events.  John and I are running the White Rabbit’s Zucchini Racetrack. The gardens are transformed into a magical Alice’s Wonderland with croquet courts, beer & brats lunch, lots of children’s events and sunshine. All for a good cause: the preservation of this historic Olmsted-designed estate.