Where Lily Isn’t – a read-aloud

So, what have I been doing with all my free time while sheltering-in-place? Sewing masks. Doing puzzles. Reading endless emails about COVID-19…

And, I made a video! With so many kids staying home all day with their families, it seems like the least I can do to help out.

I have to admit, I’m new, and not entirely comfortable with, recording myself. My video is not perfect, as I am not perfect, but it will do. I hope.

After the reading, I encourage kids (adults too, if you are inclined) to send a drawing of a beloved pet. I will post them on this blog. If you know of any children who might enjoy listening and participating, please pass it on!

Thanks!

Stay safe, and stay healthy.

Our Brains are Story-Making Machines

Take a look at these two images. If you give it a second, odds are your brain will start to construct a story as to why those images are next to each other. Is there a connection? Is there a story here?

It isn’t too hard to start to imagine how these two images could tell a story, but according to David Linden, a  professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, your brain will automatically start trying to figure out a narrative even when I show you something like this.

No matter how improbable, your brain wants to make a connection.

Linden says you can’t help it. It’s what comes naturally. Linden believes the brain is hard-wired to tell stories.  It’s a subconscious function that automatically kicks in. A survival mechanism. After all if you see this:

And then this.

Well, it’s nice to have a brain that is quick to analyze cause and effect.

And isn’t that the essence of story. Connecting one action and to another to another, all the while examining why and how and what to help us figure out how to live?

In my last post, I looked at the book “How Pictures Work” by Molly Bang, where she does a great analysis of how our minds can make stories out of abstract shapes if they are in the right relationship to each other.

Simply placing images side-by-side will kick speculation into gear. But what happens when the relationship gets more complex–as with the Heider-Simmel animation?

Developed in 1944, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel, experimental psychologists at Smith College, created it to investigate how our brain can make complex inferences from relatively little data.

The two investigators simply told their subjects to watch the (very short) movie and “write down what happened.” Almost every one of the undergraduates saw the shapes as animate characters in a relationship.

I won’t tell you what most of them said, but there’s a good summary of the experiment and some of the findings here. But before you go, check out the animation yourself and see what your story-making mind tells you.

If you want to share, I’d love to hear the story that you saw!

 

 

 

 

 

Hats, Hats and More Hats

Hat12

Before any musings about creativity, let me just say this: Be safe, stay well. We have an extraordinary health emergency unfolding locally, nationally, and globally; it’s a good time to defer to the ferocity of pathogens and to honor the advice of experts. I’ve been working on some poems (for adults) that are a bit glib about scientists (what they can’t know about The Soul) but in the last few weeks I’d say it’s the scientists who will tell us the truth about The Body.  Let’s try to support in any way we can the local health professionals who will be asked to respond to the crisis in ways we can hardly imagine, and to help out those who have dwindling resources to weather the storm. Let’s put pressure on our lawmakers to be thinking of “the least of our brethren.”

I keep thinking of Steven Johnson’s wonderful book, The Ghost Map, which tells the story of a terrifying epidemic of cholera which broke out in London in 1854. Officials obfuscated and ignored  it, not unlike what’s happening 150+ years later with Covid-19. If you haven’t read that book, see if you can get hold of it and read it now – it’s reassuring to know that scientists can uncover answers that are not politicized and can focus on finding solutions.

I guess I’ve been thinking a lot about scientists and artists in general, their covalent bonds. Both are attracted to mystery, I think. Both are attentive to detail. Many of the finest people in those two fields are shot through with astonishment at the real, touchable world we live in. Unlike Walt Whitman, who (uncharacteristically) asserted that poets had a corner on the astonishment market (at least in this poem) I think both types “look up in perfect wonder at the stars.”

Wonder at the Stars

Both scientists and writers are curious and creative. What is observable and what is not intrigues them both: the bird in the tree, the bird in the head, the bird in flight, the bird as a metaphor, the song of the bird – the long, looping red thread you see below. How we look at the world if we’re engaged and reflective.

Scientists 2

 

Speaking of engagement, wonder, creativity, curiosity, and the touchable world, I saw a show recently at the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham which draws on all four. It’s titled The Global Language of Headwear: Cultural Identity, Rites of Passage, and Spirituality. You might think it odd to say that headgear speaks a language, but it’s true, isn’t it? Can we always translate what’s said? Well, we can use our imaginations. And like any exhibit that pulls samples from around the world, it helps museum-goers understand the commonality of diverse cultures: a desire to celebrate, a need to mourn, to play, to be colorful, to stay warm, and (maybe unfortunate but entirely human) to distinguish status.

Here are some of my favorites, with little commentary:

Hat4

 

Hat1

(A Child’s Hat)

Hat2

Here are some closer up, to catch the detail:

Hat7

Hat5 Close

Hat6 Close

Hat11 Close

At the exhibit, many of the hats were paired with photos of the delightful people wearing them:

Hat8 Man

Hat9 Man

Hat10

Just look at the joy and pride on those faces. Look at the smiles! As I’m writing this post, I’m also listening to the most recent press conference about the pandemic. Sorry to be a cynic, but what I hear is people congratulating themselves about how they’re addressing — better late than never? — this pandemic. Listening to it is irritating me. Such a lot of self-praise. Such hubris. Argggggghhhhh!  I’ll take artists and scientists over politicians any day. (Well, this recent exception:Katie Porter, Rep.-California, she’s a hero.)

Once again: Stay safe, be well. If you’re over 60 and staying home in general (as I am) let’s exercise our imaginations, examine our obsessions, trust our creativity, indulge our writing eccentricities, get out into the brisk spring air from time to time, look down for a few tulips, look up for a few hats, look everywhere for smiles to brighten things up. Be astonished.

Reading the Times

WE’RE SITTING TIGHT here in Seattle, at the U.S. epicenter of the coronavirus, while news of Boeing’s 737 Max crisis, the Democratic primaries, and the stock market’s volubility swirl around us.

How to stay calm in these stressful times? Curl up with a good book.

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From its first sentences, a good book opens a door into the story and you are welcomed in. Everything in the ‘real’ world – from big concerns, like global warming and homelessness, to the quotidian, like the dog’s teeth that need brushing, and piles of laundry, and unpulled weeds – everything fades away. You may find yourself with that other Laura, settling down to sleep in the loft of a Little House in the Big Woods, or howling with a wolf pup on a faraway mountainside, or summoning an owl messenger to Hogwarts with a certain boy wizard.

Stories give us a chance to live forward and backward in time; to inhabit other places, be they real or imagined. We can put on the skin of a dragon or a fox or another person. In stories, we can experience things that are way too scary or infuriating or heartbreaking to experience in real life. If, subsequently, our own lives serve up fear, or anger or heartbreak, sometimes it is a story that helps us through, offering information and comfort.

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The wonderful irony is that while a story can offer refuge from the ‘real’ world, it also has the amazing power to connect. We humans are story people. I wrote about the chemical reason for this in my last post.

When we share our stories – in both reading and writing – that connection leads naturally to empathy, an empathy that sends us back to the ‘real’ world refreshed for the challenges ahead. I like how Barrack Obama put it: “The thing that brings people together to have the courage to take action on behalf of their lives is not just that they care about the same issue, it’s that they have shared stories.” I hope other politicians know about this.

WE MADE A RUN to Costco Sunday and I can assure you that should we be quarantined because of the coronavirus, we have sufficient maple syrup, guacamole and toilet paper for the duration. More importantly, should the weight of the current news cycle become too heavy, the Seattle Public Library offers an escape to ebooks and audiobooks, all easily downloaded from the comfort of our isolation.

We’re up to the challenge, here, holding down the northwest corner of the map. But a little bibliotherapy may be necessary.

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The characters from Little Wolf’s First Howling, as featured in the Mazza calendar last year. Thanks to my sister Kate Harvey McGee for the lovely colors.

 

 

 

 

Crankie

As I get older I get crankier.
By that, I mean more interested in small theaters with moving panoramas- also known as Crankie Boxes.
Like picture books, they tell stories through images as well as words.

Moving panoramas were popular in the mid 19th century and they ranged in size from small to enormous.

Last October I went with Mare Blocker to a Crankie Fest at the NW Puppet Center. I liked the show so much I went back the next night. Mare and I were both inspired to make crankie boxes of our own.

For information on all things crankie there is an invaluable website – The Crankie Factory. It includes history, videos, instructions on how to make a crankie box and the scrolls. Thank you Sue Truman. thecrankiefactory.com

On the Crankie Factory Website were miniature crankies made by Paul Fleischman. Here is a movie. What a wonderful surprise! I have had the privilege of illustrating three of Paul’s books. It is a small and crankie world.

The shows at the Crankie Fest were a combination of moving panoramas and shadow theaters. My niece Zoe visited in October and we experimented with shadow theaters in cardboard boxes.

Zoe’s Haunted Hat Shop

my witch in the woods

I asked artist and woodworker Michael Zitka if he would build me a real wooden Crankie Box, following the instructions on the Crankie Factory website. A few weeks ago he delivered it. These are the innards.

I cut out a piece of cardboard to show the outside shape and our cat Ruby approved. Mike then cut it out of wood.

The Crankie is now named, painted and ready for the curtain to go up. Here is the front of Teatro Paprika:

and the sides:

I have the cart and am ready to put a horse in front – I need to get crankin’!

painting by Tatiana Mavrena

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………p.s. On Thursday March 12th Margaret Chodos-Irvine and I will be celebrating our new book Where Lily Isn’t at the Secret Garden Bookstore , 2214 NW Market St. in Ballard. Please join us there at 6:30, and bring an anecdote to share about a pet you love or have loved. Thanks.

 

Here Comes Lily!

Where Lily Isn’t is here! And we are having a party!

If you live in Seattle, Julie Paschkis and I invite you to come celebrate with us on Thursday, March 12, at 6:30pm at Secret Garden Bookstore. Please bring a picture or anecdote to share about your pet, past or present.

It was two and a half years ago that I had tittery jitters about starting work on the images, and now the book is finally out in the world. Of all the books I have done, this is one of the ones I am most pleased with. It deals with the difficult subject of loss, but really it is a book about the indelible mark love makes on our hearts.

We hope you can join us on March 12!

Every Once in Awhile, a Pause

This week I’m going to recommend a movie, and I’m recommending it for a reason that’s a little odd.

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The movie is 1917. It’s one of the few movies I’ve gone to a theater to see in the last couple of years, and that’s because I tend to like quiet, small films, easily viewed via DVD. But I’ve always been drawn to books and movies about World War I, and everything about 1917 suggested it was going to be a “big” movie, in need of a big screen.

First impressions were right: it’s a powerful movie, deserving of a big screen, beautifully shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins, and it’s exhausting. Part of my exhaustion was due it being filmed as if it were one long unedited take, the action always driving forward, forward, forward. I was caught up and tense for almost the entire movie.

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“Almost” – that’s the key word. Because the two scenes I found the most powerful were the quietest, and those are the scenes I want to write about and recommend to you. Those are the scenes that pause and step back from the action for a brief moment. For  writers aiming at page-turners, thinking about constant forward movement, maybe it would it be worthwhile to think about pausing for a quiet moment from time to time.

About half way through the movie, a soldier — desperate to get a message through enemy territory to a battalion of British soldiers on another front line — runs through a burning village in France. German soldiers, feigning a retreat, have destroyed their own ammunition and left the entire village in flames. It’s a scorched earth scenario.

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Hoping to escape snipers, the soldier runs into the basement of a building and discovers, in the darkness, a young woman who is caring for someone else’s baby. The woman begs this soldier to stay and comfort both the baby and herself for a moment. Against his better instincts, he draws close to them and begins to recite a poem  – “The Jumblies” by Edward Lear.

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An anti-war poem by Edward Lear? The silliest British poet of the 19th century? The soldier delivers this nonsense poem in the most mournful way, and the disturbing music that has accompanied all the running, shooting, exploding, pushing, and pounding scenes of warfare, is silenced. Watching this scene, I could suddenly take a breath. The entire theater audience was stilled.  And I was amazed by the words of a poem I thought I knew thoroughly.

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Here is the first verse:

They went to sea in a Sieve, they did,
In a Sieve they went to sea:
In spite of all their friends could say,
On a winter’s morn, on a stormy day,
In a Sieve they went to sea!
And when the Sieve turned round and round,
And every one cried, ‘You’ll all be drowned!’
They called aloud, ‘Our Sieve ain’t big,
But we don’t care a button! we don’t care a fig!
In a Sieve we’ll go to sea!’
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.

Of course, Lear’s poem deals in nonsense. Sam Mendes, who wrote the script and directed 1917, must believe war is also nonsense —  lethal nonsense.  The Jumblies are going to sea in a sieve, “in spite of all their friends could say,” and they will “all be drowned.” You hear the word “drowned,” but it registers on your heart as “killed.”   The soldier’s recital of the poem — was it only the first stanza? I think so  — is soft, sorrowful and melodic.  The foolish bravura of “we don’t care a button” and “we don’t care a fig!” comes through full force. And then comes the sorrowful refrain: “Far and few, few and far”  which suddenly sounds like a dirge.   The entire poem can be read here.   [ From the second of six verses : “And every one said, who saw them go, / ‘O won’t they be soon upset, you know! / For the sky is dark, and the voyage is long, /And happen what may, it’s extremely wrong’ “]

The second quiet scene is at the end of the movie. The young soldier, not sure of precisely where he is, joins a group of other soldiers listening to a single one among them singing “Wayfaring Stranger.”

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Like the audience in the theater, the soldiers are completely silent while they listen, whether it’s because they’re too exhausted to speak or because the words of this song suddenly have a new meaning for them. I could only find one clip of the song scene from the movie, but it will give you a feel for the paused moment. And here is a version that is similar, sung by the wonderful Doc Watson.

I really do hope you’ll see the movie. After all, Sunday the Oscars will be on – 1917 is nominated for Best Picture. In addition, it’s never a mistake to observe what a quiet pause can contribute to a story that moves relentlessly forward.

 

Story Chemistry

“In many shamanic societies, if you came to a medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions: “When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop being comforted by the sweet territory of silence?”     – Gabrielle Roth

I think she’s got it right – better mental health through dancing, singing, being enchanted by stories, and comforted by silence. To which I would add two more questions: When did you stop gardening? and When did you stop hanging out with your dog?

But that story thing. That’s what’s on the plate here today. Stories. From daily incidents – what elementary school writers call “small moments” – packed with meaning and humor and pathos, to the big arcs of a lifetime that spool out of the ephemera of past generations. Through stories, we connect. It is one of my favorite things about being human.

Turns out there is a chemical reason why we find stories so satisfying, according to neuro-economist Paul Zak. Zak measured his subjects’ brains’ oxytocin before and after watching character-driven videos. The oxytocin levels took a definite jump.

His verdict: human beings are “wired for story.”

You know that pleasurable feeling you get from a good story? That’s oxytocin synthesizing in your brain. In further studies, Zak found that the more oxytocin a person released, the more likely a person would be willing to help others, for example, by donating money to charities associated with the video’s narrative. This mechanism will play out repeatedly Sunday in Superbowl commercials whose stories will tug your heartstrings and then your wallet, all in 30 seconds flat.

Zak wrote, “Many of us know from Joseph Campbell’s work that enduring stories tend to share a dramatic arc in which a character struggles and eventually finds heretofore unknown abilities and uses these to triumph over adversity; my work shows that the brain is highly attracted to this story style.”

Zak noted people respond most strongly to narratives with beginnings, middles and ends that used dramatic tension to sustain attention. That’s the basic structure of many Superbowl commercials – but also of typical picture books. Here are some examples from our BATT  group:

Margaret and Julie P’s recent Where Lily Isn’t, the tender story of a little girl struggling with the death of her dog.Screen Shot 2020-01-30 at 6.31.38 PM

Bonny’s The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael, where a small boy finds a surprising way to deal with a scary bus driver.

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My sister Kate’s and my Little Wolf’s First Howling about a wolf pup finding his voice.

Screen Shot 2020-01-30 at 6.32.16 PMThe same story structure is also found in a spare form in this poem from Julie L.’s Imaginary Menagerie, illustrated by Julie P.:

Firebird

Who will bring me golden apples?

Calls the firebird

From her silver tree.

Who will sing me a golden song?

All day she waits

In the tsar’s garden.

Who will set me free? Who?

If given a feather

Bright as heaven,

Would you?

I still wonder why stories have this oxytocin-releasing affect on our brains. Perhaps over the eons, as humans evolved, stories were necessary to survival. I like that hypothesis. Meanwhile, let’s just enjoy the pleasure of good stories, as they spark our ability to connect, to empathize and to make meaning.

Where Lily Isn’t

For 17 years my husband Joe and I had a little dog named Lily.
When she died her absence pressed against me. I missed her in general, and I missed her specifically and strongly in all the places where she had been.
Our house was full of all the places where Lily wasn’t.
 

Laura Godwin, my editor at Holt, suggested that I write a book about that. So I did, from the point of view of a child.  This is how it began:

Where Lily Isn’t

Lily ran and jumped and

barked and whimpered and growled

and wiggled and wagged and 

licked and snuggled.

But not now.

Now, next to my bed in the morning 

there is a little rug

where Lily isn’t.

I showed the manuscript to Laura Godwin. She was interested in publishing it, but wondered how I would illustrate it.

I had painted Lily before.
She was a model in Here Comes Grandma –

and in The Great Smelly, Slobbery, Small-Tooth Dog.

She even graced a label for pickled green beans.

But I found myself unable to illustrate this book.

Luckily I knew who could. At that time Margaret Chodos-Irvine was living in London. We had been sending each other wordless letters (you can read about those letters in her blogpost here and in mine here). Margaret sent me this wordless letter when Lily died.

She knew Lily – and me. I asked Margaret if she would be interested in illustrating Where Lily Isn’t. We submitted it to Laura Godwin as a team and we were accepted!

In her art Margaret conveys the loss and the love that I wrote about.
Her illustrations are spare but warm. She manages to show what is there, and what isn’t there.

There is a lot of white space which conveys a sense of loss.

The stencil and brushed shapes are expressive.

Margaret hid little references in the book – such as mugs made by my mother on the kitchen shelf, and reference to a drawing by my nephew Benji.


This is the first time that I have written a book without illustrating it. Now my friendship with Margaret is also part of this story of Where Lily Isn’t.  It is a stronger book for being told with both of our voices.

I am not particularly religious. Religion doesn’t help me to understand death. But I truly believe that animals and people live on in our memories and through our stories. Love lasts longer than any physical presence.

This is how the book ends:

The house is quiet with all of the sounds that Lily isn’t making.

The house is full of all the places where Lily isn’t.

But here inside me –

that’s where Lily is,

and where she always will be.

I hope that children and their families will see themselves and find comfort in this story.

p.s. Here is link to a blogpost that Margaret wrote about illustrating this book. And here is a link to buy the book at Secret Garden Books in Seattle, or from Amazon. Thank you.

ANT and BEE

A while ago I wrote about a book a friend showed me from her childhood.

This post is about a book that another friend showed me from her childhood, but this book brought back flashes of memory as soon as I saw it. It was a book from my childhood as well, long forgotten.

ANT and BEE: An Alphabetical Story for Tiny Tots (Book I) by Angela Banner, illustrated by Bryan Ward, first published in the U.K. in 1950.

There is nothing quite like the feeling of recognition that happens when you come upon a book that you haven’t seen in maybe, fifty years. It is like the way a certain scent will suddenly take you back to a long-ago visited place; little bells tinkling in the back of my brain announcing the arrival of an old friend.

The book is small – roughly 3 ½ x 4 inches – which suits it’s subject matter and adds to its charm. It is straightforward yet silly. Realistic yet completely implausible. But it is not cute. It maintains a dignity in spite of its diminutive size and subject. Maybe it’s the hats…

The opening endpaper states:

Ant and Bee is a progressive ABC written as a story with simple words, some of which are printed in red and some in black. The words in red are to be called out by the child when it has learned to spell them out and to pronounce them. A grown-up then completes the sentences by reading the words in black as soon as the words in red have been called out by the child. Encouraged by the grown-up, the child will soon learn the words which it must read before the story can progress. In this way, the child will feel an interest in helping to tell the story and will, at the same time, gain confidence in reading and building up a small vocabulary.

That’s a lot of instructions for such a small book. Apparently Banner wrote the book as a way to help her son learn to read. This probably helped sell the book in the ‘50s, but it seems a bit bossy for today’s grown-up readers.

Here is ANT.

And here is BEE.

They live in a CUP.

And so on. Here are more images that I particularly like.

I loved finding this book again. But do I love this book now because I liked it when I was young? Is it charming only because of nostalgia? And I wonder what I often wonder when I read a book published before 1980: Would it be published now?