Category Archives: Children’s Book Critique Group Blog

Best Best Friends Grow Up

 

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In 2006, my second self-authored children’s picture book was published. It was inspired by the friendship I observed between my daughter Clare and her best friend, Mary. They first met in preschool. I believe it was love at first sight.

They graduated preschool together twelve years ago. From that point on, they have gone to different schools.

Clare and Mary preschool graduation

Until this year, when they attended the same high school as seniors. This June, they graduated together once again.

Mary and Clare at graduation ii

In spite of making new friends and even living in different countries for a few years, their friendship has held up (it helps that their parents became good friends at the same time). They are both strong young women now, readying themselves to go off to college. They will again be going to schools in different countries. I hope their friendship continues into their adulthood. I think it will. They have a history of friendship with each other that goes back to toddlerhood. How many of us have that?

Not to mention a book named after them.

M Chodos-Irivne-BBF-character studiesClare and Mary posing for BBFM Chodos-Irvine-Best Best Friends-pg 31Clare and Mary BBF at All 4 Kids

I will miss them both very much. They are still inspiring to me. Fare well, Clare and Mary! I’m sure you will go on to inspire others.

Signatures, Technicals, Showstoppers

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I’ve been binging on The Great British Baking Show lately and wondering why. I’m no baker, that’s for sure.

In my family, we fall into “categories” for cooking, and my grandmother was the baker. When she died, several years ago, my sister and my daughter took on the “baker” role. I suspect I’m in the meat-and-potatoes category, or maybe it’s soups. My extended family members all like my soup; it’s all about the lime juice and salsa I add just before serving. Not star-power cooking, but it will do. I don’t long to be a baker, that’s definite.

So if I’m not that interested in improving my baking skills, why watch the Great British Baking Show (aka TGBBS)? Two reasons stand out:

#1: The amateur bakers are all so nice to each other. This is not similar to American reality TV shows like Project Runway, where competition gets ugly (and apparently the uglier, the better, because if things are too nice, viewership plummets and producers go crazy.) Honestly, I think half the reason I watch TGBBS is because I am so disheartened by the nasty stuff going on in politics right now, I find TGBBS a huge relief – everyone polite, everyone sweet. The worst that happens in this show is that a tower made of cookies falls over, or sticky buns won’t come out the pan they were cooked in.

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Yes, people get judged and one person has to go home at the end of each episode. But there are lots and lots of hugs when someone is headed home, and no one’s career as a baker is ruined, because no one on the show is a professional baker. So there’s some tension, yes, but not much. It’s all about nice, sweet people trying to make the most delicious baked goods they can. No one gutting health care, no one tweeting inanities.

#2: I see a parallel between the effort to produce good baked goods and the effort to create interesting stories. After all, creative people, no matter what they’re creating, interact with their material in certain ways. On TGBBS, the contestants work to respond to three different challenges each week: the Signature Challenge, the Technical Challenge, and the Showstopper Challenge. I think writers do basically the same.

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A “Signature” bake involves presenting something that is uniquely YOU. On TGBBS, if the “genre” is Breads, then a Signature bread must be produced which reflects the baker’s personality and or personal traditions in some way. You see a contestant with science-based inclinations using a ruler to measure the absolute uniformity of dough for bread sticks. Think of it as a modus operandi.  If flair, rather than science, drives someone’s Signature bread stick production, then we might see plaited dough woven together in dark and light stripes. Or if the challenge is a meat pie, we see a contestant whose background is East Indian use unusual spices to enliven hers, while someone more traditional produces a straight-up Cornish pasty.

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This sounds to me like what writers talk about when the conversation turns to “voice.” We recognize certain writers – we know if an essay was written by David Sedaris or Oliver Sacks, not because the subject is different but because their voices are uniquely theirs. As a writer, you don’t want to sound like everyone else. You want to sound like YOU. Your voice, your signature – uniquely yours.

“Technical” challenges require the bakers to follow recipes and rules. Everyone gets the same ingredients and the same recipes. Sometimes the recipes are a bit vague, allowing for different results based on the bakers’ interpretations of the rules. But essentially it’s about seeing how each baker does with restrictions, that is, with less innovative and more formal tasks.

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Anyone who’s ever written a villanelle or a sestina, anyone who has had to produce a line of iambic pentameter and/or follow a rhyme scheme knows what a technical challenge is.

And I think we all understand the phrase “showstopper.” For this, the bakers must take a category (writers work in genres) and  produce something out of this world, never tried before, something attention-grabbing. It’s like a “signature,” but with an added dollop of wow. Very hard to do well, and many baking disasters occur in this phase of the episode of TGBBS. Bakers are going all out, taking risks. So for anyone trying to write the Great American Novel. Also true for any creative effort. Stopping the show with a showstopper is no easy task. Some of us never attempt it, some of us wouldn’t miss it for the world – instinct guides us at this point, I think.

So…The Great British Baking Show. It’s so much fun to see the smiles on the faces of the bakers who have handled a challenge well. So sad to see things go wrong. So nice to see the camaraderie and support and genuine affection among the bakers, no matter whether one baker is doing well or whether the cookie tower (or short story, or picture book, or illustration, or novel, or….) has crumbled.

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As writers, we know those challenges; we know those feelings of joy and frustration. I’ve had my share of sticky-buns (in my case, poems) that wouldn’t come out of the “pan” they were cooked in.  I’ve also had my moments of being declared the equivalent of Baker of the Week. I do my best to produce a well-baked poem – sometimes it works, sometimes not.

And even if I didn’t see writing parallels behind every croissant, I’d still be watching The Great British Baking Show. From time to time I need to avoid (one hour at a time – I’m not greedy!) whatever foolishness is  currently dominating the news. Who knew British bakers would come to my rescue???

Lunch with the Ladies of Mazza

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It was a cross between Parents’ Night at elementary school and a rolling party. Parents’ Night because we spiffed the place up and hung my sister Kate’s and my best artwork on the walls. A rolling party because these ladies were primed for a good time even before their big bus pulled up to the bottom of our driveway.

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I hung my sister Kate Harvey McGee’s paintings down the hall. Kate illustrated Little Wolf’s First Howling with me and I wanted the visitors to see her pastels.

Last month the Mazza Institute Study Tour landed in Seattle to begin their visits to NW children’s book illustrators’ studios. Most of the tour members were from around Findlay, Ohio, where the University’s Mazza Museum holds an amazing, diverse collection of original artwork by children’s book illustrators. Every summer they take a tour to a corner of the United States and visit illustrators’ studios. Julie Paschkis and I thought why not invite the group to lunch on the first day of their journey? Lunch for 40 on our patio. Why not?

Luckily, fellow BATTerinas Bonny Becker and Margaret Chodos-Irvine, as well as author/illustrator Dana Sullivan, signed on to help. And John, too, of course. (Our other BATT member, Julie Larios, was doing a tour of her own while teaching at Vermont College’s alum retreat.)

We greeted the enthusiastic busload of women and their leader, Ben Sapp, with peach bellinis. Mostly our guests were former teachers and librarians who now work as docents at the Mazza Museum. Several collect children’s book art themselves. Right away, we connected. Picture books matter to them like they matter to us.

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Margaret set out the buffet of sandwiches and salads while our guests helped ferry drink ingredients out to the patio. 

Over a luncheon prepared by Julie, Margaret and Bonny, we talked books and illustration and illustrators and heard about past Mazza tour adventures. Though we had ample leftover food, the ladies managed to polish off all the Prosecco.

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Bonny says we can see the back of her head in this photo. Ben Sapp, John and Julie and I are standing, left to right, in the back.  

Dana led a “Great Book Giveaway” trivia game. (“Name the four Little Women.” “Name four cats in children’s books…”) These ladies know their children’s book trivia! Later he posed with director Ben Sapp.

After lunch, our guests toured my studio, viewed artwork, bought books and tried their hands at gouache resist.

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It was a lot of fun. As we walked our guests back down the hill, I had a chance to tell director Ben Sapp how thankful I am that there is a place in this world like the Mazza Museum that values children and stories and especially the art of children’s books. It’s the culture of a world I want to live in.

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Loading up the bus after lunch and the studio tour. Dana says they rolled away singing “The Wheels on the Bus.”

Over seven days, the Mazza Study Tour ladies met 15 illustrators. In Tacoma: Ben Clanton and Wendy Wahman; in the Seattle area: Julie Paschkis, Margaret Chodos-Irvine, Dana Sullivan and me; on Lummi Island: Nina Laden and Paul Owen Lewis; in Olympia: Nikki McClure; in Portland: Carolyn Canahan, Nicole Rubel, Maggie Rudy, Kate Berube, Alison Farrell, and Zoey Abbot Wagner. Such a rich variety of illustration styles and media. I wish I could have trailed along.

After the luncheon, as we took down tents and put artwork back into flat files, I thought back. Who would have guessed 25 years ago in Keith Baker’s Picture Book Illustration class, that two of my fellow classmates – Julie Paschkis and Margaret Chodos-Irvine – and I would create a critique group that grew into Books Around The Table, and that over the years together we’d all publish 70? (maybe more?) children’s books AND end up hosting 40 ladies from Findlay, Ohio, for lunch?

It was a memorable experience, but John and I had expected that because my old studio was on the itinerary 10 years ago, the last time the tour came to Seattle. Some of this June’s guests had been on that tour, too.

I hope in another ten years they will roll through again. I’ll have the peach bellinis waiting.

Go Outside!

It’s July. It’s good to be outside.
Step out!

illustration by Rudolf Mates from A Forest Story

Ride your bike.

Edward Gorey

Julie Paschkis – Out for a Spin

Everything is better outside. Eat outside.

illustration by William Steig for Sylvester

illustration by Hedwig Sporri-Dolder for Hinderem Bargli

Climb up high.

illustration by Alois Carigiet for Florina

Dive down.

illustration and poem by Julie Paschkis for Vivid

Dance around.

Yevgeny Rachev 1900

Baba Yaga by Ivan Bilibin

Maybe go fishing,

illustration by Chris Raschka for Fishing in the Air

or explore an island.

illustration by the D’Aulaires for Ola

Read a book.

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Or listen to a story.

illustration by Rudolf Mates for A Forest Story

Take a nap on the grass.

illustration by Hedwig Sporri-Doldi for Hinderem Bargli

Or sleep outside for the whole night.

illustration by Kathleen Hale for Orlando the Marmalade Cat

Stop looking at this screen or any other screen. Go outside! You might even float away.

illustration by Wm Steig for Gorky Rises

 

 

What Would Betsy Ross Do? The Exhibit!

Last night was the culmination of something that started nine months ago – the opening night of “What Would Betsy Ross Do? The New American Flag Project,” a community art project that evolved from my reaction to the 2016 United States presidential election.

You may have seen my call to participate on this blog in December last year.

This is my artist statement from the show:

The morning of November 9, 2016, I woke up feeling intense anxiety with an image in my head that I had to go do something about.

I started piecing bits of fabric together in a concentric pattern. I stepped back and looked at the piece, and it occurred to me that I was redesigning a new United States flag based on what I saw this country becoming – an endless circling of opposing forces. It was cathartic.

Then I started wondering what other people would do with the same idea. Regardless of how they voted, what did they think? The Stars and Stripes are meant to symbolize unity and balance, but do they still accurately represent our country now? What would Betsy Ross’s flag look like if she were to create it today?

I sent a note out to friends and artists whom I thought might be interested. As more people began to respond, I looked for a gallery to show the work. I am very grateful to Cora Edmonds and her staff at ArtXchange for stepping forward to host the show.

Some participants are professional artists. Some are not. Some are people I know and some are friends of friends or relatives of friends. Others came to the project through social media connections. And some are students of teachers who brought the idea to their classrooms.

To all of those who participated, I thank you for your thoughtfulness and your efforts. You gave me my wish; to see what other people think, to bring together a community of creative people, and to heal through making art happen.

Art may change the world we live in. Or it may not. What is important is that it gives us a way of dealing with the world on our own terms.

Initially, I just wanted to see what other people would do with the idea of redesigning the U.S. flag for today’s America. Then I wanted to bring people together to share the experience of making art that makes a statement. Then I wanted to find a way to exhibit their works for the public to view.

I got all three.


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Along the way I connected with a varied group of people, some of whom I knew and others whom I’d never met. I led a workshop for middle school students at Coyote Central (two other artists led art classes with young people as well). I got to work with the dedicated staff at ArtXchange Gallery.

The opening event was the icing on the cake, or perhaps the cookies.

I feel very fortunate to have been given the idea, the opportunity, and the support.

To see all the flags individually as well as the artists’ statements, please visit the ArtXchange Gallery website.

In addition, fifteen of the artists contributed to printing a collection of postcards with their images from the show. Proceeds from the sales of these packets will be donated to the ACLU at the end of the exhibit.

Cora Edmonds at What Would Betsy Ross Do? exhibit with postcards

As I write when I sign copies of Apple Pie 4th of July – make your own parade!

Oops – Yet Another Missed Deadline….

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Lately I’ve been missing all kinds of deadlines. Won’t go through them all, but it was my turn to post here at Books Around the Table on June 16th and it’s now June 23. Ah, well. And ah, darn it. How does this happen – time passing at warp speed? And why does it happen more and more often?

My last post had to do with a Big Move (sold our house of 30 years, moved to a new town) and all the packing and unpacking involved (still only about 33% unpacked.) In the middle of that move, I flew off to an Alumni Mini-Residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts, had a ball, recharged my writing batteries, saw colleagues and former students, delivered a lecture about the importance of reading like a writer, led a workshop, won a couple of items at the Alumni Auction (proud to contribute to the fund-raising), marveled at the glass-enclosed lounge in the new faculty residency I’d been hearing about (lovely design but….impossible to sit around in your p.j.’s talking to friends at night with the lights on….), had an important conversation with a friend and colleague that I’ve only known slightly but now I know quite well, then took the bus down to Boston, saw my daughter and her family (grandson is now ten years old, how on earth did that happen??? Ah, yes, that phrase again: “warp speed” ) for a few days, flew home day before yesterday, unpacked suitcase, began to unpack boxes again….

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Whew! Life got busy and days just evaporated. I only noticed tonight that it was my turn to offer up a well-considered thought or two about writing and or/the writing life for Books Around the Table. Well, what I’ve just described — that is my crazy writing life. Filled with curiosity and activity, but basically amorphous. Or, better said, shaped into periods of creativity book-ended by 1) chaos or 2) fallow times. I have friends who offer up the advice “BIC” (meaning “butt in chair”) and they follow their own advice – they sit themselves down and work every day. And they produce good books. I can’t seem to do the BIC thing.

Maybe because writing isn’t really a career for me? I’ve begun to wonder about that.  Writing is more a curiosity-satisfying activity for me. I love it, but it doesn’t really put food on the table for me. I’m unambitious – that’s sometimes good, sometimes not. And friends who know me know I don’t punch the clock well. But I’ve been writing in-between all the moving and traveling, so it’s not all fallow. I’ve written a series of poems called “What She’s Been Thinking Lately” about what a woman who lives a little too much inside her mind. Each poem is about what this woman has been thinking about lately – mainly about stars, tiny houses, medical research, space travel, bog bodies, the roots of Western Civilization, sink holes, mind control, biometric authentication, tissue engineering – things like that. She isn’t me, but….I’ve been thinking about those things lately.

Like I said: life has been haphazard and chaotic. Curiosity survives. I do like to share, so I remain part of Books Around the Table – and my BATT friends put up with me when I miss deadlines. I’m in awe of each one of them – they’re artistic, organized, energetic, productive, thoughtful friends. Then there’s me – often scattered, lost in thought, overbooked, late to the table, under-productive, absent-minded.  One of the nice things about “the writing life” is that you have writer-friends. So I want to say this to them officially: You know that woman I mentioned in that series of poems? She’s been thinking lately about friendship. And she’s very grateful her friends put up with her.

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A Tale of Two Izzies

1. First, a game. We have been gardening up a storm here in preparation for the Mazza Institute visit to my studio and wherever I work in the garden, Izzi makes herself a fort. See if you can spot the spaniel.

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2. Second, mucking about in murky morals.

“I might have lied,” said Izzy. “But let’s not get bogged down in the facts.”

Does that sound like a clip from a recent White House statement? Perhaps something Kellyanne ‘alternative facts’ Conway might say?

Nope. It’s from my book Frank and Izzy Set Sail, published in 2004 by Candlewick Press. Lately, my grandson has taken to this book. (Like Izzy, he loves ukuleles.) My daughter, who has been reading it several times a day, pointed out the connection between Izzy’s relationship to the truth and the present administration’s.

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Which led us to wonder what other children’s books espouse less-than-honorable behavior.

In my book, Izzy’s lying has a bad influence on Frank – later in the story he says, “Could be my grandma was a pirate, too.” He’s trying out lying. My intention is humor, not to encourage kid-readers to lie. I expect kids will be in on the joke. But it gives me pause in light of present events.

Does it matter – when you think about how stories shape the character of our small readers – if immoral behavior is not addressed? There are consequences when Peter Rabbit steals from Farmer MacGregor. He is sent to bed without supper. Whereas Max in Where the Wild Things Are returns to a warm supper. Hmm. Perhaps this reflects a softening of parental attitudes between 1902 and 1963? (Kellyanne Conway was born in 1967 so we can assume she was read Wild Things when she was a peerie lass.)

What other characters in children’s books come to mind? Any other liars, thieves, tantrum-throwers? Or sexist, bigoted, disrespectful, ignorant narcissists? What is the cost of immoral behavior in picture books? Does it matter?

 

 

 

Drink Ink

Schreibmeisterbuch is a nice chewy German word that means Writing Master’s Book.

My friend Claudia collects them.  These books date from the 1700’s and were used to teach penmanship. Some are printed and some are manuscripts. They are filled with examples of beautiful script,

and ornament,

and playful doodles.

Here is lettering from another of Claudia’s books, from a different part of her library. The delicacy and rhythm of the line contrasts with the solidity and singularity of the rose.

Here the lines become the flight path of insects.

All of these images inspired me to fool around with my own fountain pen again.

With a pen I have to pay attention and let go at the same time. If I am too tight the line has no life or joy. If I am not paying attention the line has no purpose. In every drawing I can see where I erred in both of those directions, but that leads me to draw again.

When I am drawing I think with my hand as well as my mind. A pencil line feels different than an ink line. (For more on that subject please go to this older post: Pencils, Pens and Brushes).

Today I type more than write. But there is joy to be found in real ink.

Saul Steinberg

In his blog The Technium, Kevin Kelly writes that old technologies never die. They continue to exist in some form somewhere on earth.

Drago Juric 1974

The old technologies are often slower but still fulfill their original purpose, often in a more pleasing way than the more modern iterations. Care for a boat ride, a balloon ride or a trip on United Flight 3411? It depends on why you are going.

Utagawa Yoshitora

I like that I can use the new and the old.

I can draw pencils with a fountain pen and scan the drawing, or take pictures from a schreibmeisterbuch with my phone and send them to you. Please raise your monocle and take a closer look at your screen!

African Prints Fashion Now!

Julie Paschkis, Deborah Mersky and I just returned from a field trip to Los Angeles to see African Print Fashion Now! at the Fowler Museum.

All of us are fans of the large and varied category of fabrics known as African prints. Deborah first introduced me to them many years ago when she brought some pieces for Julie and me back with her from a shop in New York. Then Julie gave me some yardage from Vlisco for my birthday.

“African print” is an umbrella term for commercially produced, patterned cloths made for the African market. The most prestigious, true “wax print” is a complicated process using wax or resin resist.

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Many African prints, including some that say ‘genuine wax’, are printed with simpler processes such as roller or screen printing. They are still very appealing. 

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The designs often carry symbolic meanings, and are chosen to communicate the cultural heritage and status of the wearer. Many motifs appear frequently in different designs. Keys and locks are common.

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Some have political or popular figures.

IMG_3293I always like the ones with birds.

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These two were designed with a similar theme in mind, over fifty years apart.

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Some are electronic.

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Fans are popular.

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Some designs are geometric and others floral. Many are both.

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It seems as though nearly anything can be made into a beautiful print cloth design.

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I’ve rarely seen African prints for sale in Seattle, but London fabric shops have a large clientele for African-style material. My collection grew substantially while I was there.

IMG_1148IMG_1143IMG_1141IMG_7782Julie and I even went to Helmond outside of Amsterdam to visit the Vlisco factory for a bit of viewing and shopping.

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Established in 1846, Vlisco is the premier producer of African prints. It was hard to leave with only as much as we could carry. 

The origins of these prints can be traced back to painted and printed cottons from India for trade between South Asian and East Africa. These then inspired batiked fabrics in Indonesia. Later, Dutch and British manufacturers started producing mechanically made wax-resist prints for the Indonesian market. When the Indonesians rejected their products, preferring their own hand-dyed cloth, European manufacturers shifted their market to West Africa.

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There, they began to work with local traders, most of them women, to provide goods that reflected the cultural values and aesthetics of their clientele. During the 60s and 70s, newly independent African nations opened their own factories. More recently, Asian companies have flooded markets with more affordable designs, many of them knock-offs of Vlisco and other well-loved patterns. This has hurt the European and African companies, but has also increased the global awareness of African print textiles.

Both men and women wear clothing and accessories made from these fabrics.

Below are a few pieces shown in the exhibit.

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Here are two more that I saw in shop windows in Montreal recently.

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Why do I like these prints so much? Perhaps because of their connection to the printmaking techniques that have always appealed to me. Or maybe because of their playful and bold designs. They are as illustrative as they are decorative. I use patterns and color on clothing to add to the story in my children’s books too, but mine aren’t quite so bold.

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I think what appeals to me most is the anything-goes approach to pattern design.
Fashion is always a form of personal expression. These fabrics just sing a bit louder than gingham or chambray.

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A Big Move

This is the photo we’ll call BEFORE:

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And this the photo which can only be called AFTER:

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My husband and I  just sold our house in Seattle (bought it in 1987, raised our three kids in it, still love it) to start a new phase of our lives 90 miles north in Bellingham, not far from the Canadian border.  We found a new house to fill up with old stuff (I mean, treasures….) and I know I should be thinking of this as an adventure. Still, it’s hard to empty out a house you’ve lived in and been happy in for thirty years. The bedroom that was once my youngest son’s room now looks like this:

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When I say something in it, my words reverberate and echo across the space, which hurts.

I hosted my last Books Around the Table meeting here on Wednesday, having kept one tablecloth in reserve for the occasion. Haven’t packed up the kitchen yet, so dishes were available for our lunch together. It felt almost normal. And not all the shelves are empty; some are actng as Grand Central for the fragile stuff, waiting for bubble wrap:

 

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There used to be books on all these shelves, of course; my books are all packed up in boxes. And boxes. And boxes.

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I own a lot of books, as do my BATT friends, as do most readers of this blog, I’m sure. And I like them to be everywhere:

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I feel like telling my books as I pack them, “Hold your breath, stay calm, see you soon.” Crazy, right? But we’ll be moving into the new house slowly. Here is the BEFORE photo. So empty.

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We need to get the carpet up, re-do the mantle, lay down maple flooring, paint the walls. It might be awhile before we get to the bookcases, and to putting books on the shelves.  Once books fill the house, I’ll believe it’s home. Then I’ll be able to go out on the deck with a cup of coffee, sit down, look out at the view, and think about the future. I know, the sky looks threatening. But I’m hopeful.

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