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Friday, December 20, 2013

My Ragtag Nativity

 One of my most beloved birthday gifts is a nativity set given to me decades ago by my parents.  I was born in December and a few days before my birthday, my mother and I were out shopping together. Lord & Taylor had a number of nativities on display, but there was one exquisite papier-mâché set that I really loved. Mary was so delicate and beautiful, her expression so loving and serene. How delighted I was when I unwrapped my final present that year ~ the beautiful papier-mâché holy family... 
The following year I was equally thrilled to unwrap three kings crafted in the same delicate papier- mâché. These were the last three, my mother said. One of the kings is damaged, but we took it anyway. I looked. All three kings seemed perfect. Look again, my mother said. I looked again, but didn’t see anything wrong. My mother looked at my father and smiled. The kneeling king was missing a hand, she finally explained, and a gift too! We bought it anyway and your father fixed it.  
My father was one of the most talented people I knew. A commercial artist by trade, I knew him best as a science-poster-advisor who patiently turned into a bulletin-board-advisor when I began teaching. My father died many years ago, but the gift of the third king, the kneeling king, is a perennial reminder of his unfailing creativity and enduring love.

Lord & Taylor eventually discontinued carrying nativity sets. For nearly a quarter of a century, I’ve searched everywhere for additional pieces of the delicate papier-mâché creche. Two summers ago, on a visit to Italy, my daughter and I even traveled to Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples, the narrow street in the heart of the city known as Nativity Row.  At Via San Gregorio Armeno hundreds of nativity sets ~ the sacred and the secular ~ the affordable and the extravagant, are squeezed into tiny stalls while merchants and artisans hawk their worth.  My daughter and I checked every crowded corner, but my delicate nativity must be one of a kind. 
No matter. Throughout the years, I've supplemented my starter set with some equally incomparable treasures. 
There’s a clay dog lovingly made by a 3 year old curly-top, as well as a marble horse and sax-playing wooden dog, both carved by my beloved cousin Tommy. There’s a wooden duck that once belonged to an elderly neighbor, and porcelain angels that belonged to my godmother. Two of my favorite pieces are a shepherd with a flute and a three-legged lamb that belonged to my mother. There’s woolen sheep and woolen deer, wooden giraffes and a tightly wound straw dog made in Peru. My most recent acquisition is a willow-patterned elephant. The elephant belonged to my father-in-law and  was one of four items which he kept with him during his travels. I like to think that after a lifetime of traveling, my father-in-law's porcelain elephant has finally arrived home.
 unwrapped & eagerly awaiting placement
  Even my surrounding Christmas village is unique. I’ve a few frosted trees, but the ones I love best are the construction paper ones that were cut and decorated by little hands. I love my paper-bag gingerbread house and the gingerbread house candle given to me by my husband before we were married.

  Few pieces of my nativity are perfect. Most are chipped, cracked, wrinkled or torn. More than one angel has a broken halo or a scratched wing. A few of the animals are unable to stand unless I lean them against the manger wall. I guess my ragtag nativity is not much different than we followers of the Christmas star. In a few days we’ll welcome Christmas. Maybe some of us will be perfectly prepared. More likely, we’ll welcome Christmas with our own ragtag hearts a bit tired and worn, perhaps even a little broken. No matter. Like the gift of my kneeling king, love makes all things perfect.

waiting for Christmas

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Albert & Me

     Though it’s still officially fall, the days continue to grow shorter and the air colder. If I look to the right, out my front door, I see some brown leaves still clinging to trees, but if I look to the left, out my back door, I see only a tangle of leafless brown branches.  A few red berries add color to the yard, but it’s clear that we’re waiting for winter. There are those who love winter ~ and those that don’t. Not a flake has fallen, but already some dread the snow, the cold, the early evening darkness. I'm in court with Albert Camus. In the midst of winter, Camus wrote, I found there was within me, an invincible summer. 
     I wrote this lullabybefore I ever realized that  Albert and I were kindred spirits. 

A Winter’s Lullaby

This time when winter comes
We will not be afraid,
This time when winter comes, 
We know we will be brave.

For we know, in the snow,
Is the soul of summer rain,
Bitter winds may blow,
But spring will come again.

So close your eyes my child, 
It’s been a long, long day,
Rest a little while,
We’ve come a long, long way.

This time when winter comes,
We know we will be brave.
This time when winter comes
We will not be afraid.

♫ ♫ 

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Veteran of Washington Square ~ An Open Letter to Veterans Everywhere

In honor of Veteran’s Day, I’m dedicating this blog post to veterans, especially Veterans of the Vietnam War.
The Vietnam War raged throughout my childhood and into my young adult years. Colorful memories of hayrides and sleepovers, schoolwork and marathon phone conversations are interspersed with blurry black and white snapshots of maps and battles ~ those broadcast on TV and those explored in Friday afternoon current event articles. I hated the war, though not for any deep, idealogical reason. What I hated were the ugly pictures, the angry words, the pep rallies turned into peace rallies that were spoiling my fun. To quote Scarlett O'Hara, War, War, War! It seemed that was all anyone talked about.
Many years later, I was reminded of my youthful attitude towards the war. I was in New York, walking towards Washington Square, wearing my favorite blue cotton dress, the one with the soft wide belt that cinched my then very-tiny waist. Even now, decades later, I can still feel the breath of spring, the bounce of youth. My heels click-click on the cobblestone street. I’m young, free and happy. The world is waiting for me...
...and then I see him. A burly, wheel-chaired veteran sitting under the arch at Washington Square. My clicking heels accentuate the leg stumps he doesn’t try to hide.  All those current event articles, the ugly pictures in magazines and on TV ~ but for the first time, I understood how very little I knew about the Vietnam War, how very little my life had been impacted.
  Writers are rescuers. We save events, moments, people and feelings from being swallowed by time and forgotten. I’ve long outgrown my blue-cotton dress and clicking heels but I never forgot my Washington Square Veteran or the lesson he taught me.  In homes and classrooms, on street corners and in capital buildings, we debate the pros and cons of conflict. But in every war, there are those who give so much more than their opinions.
     His appearance in my novel, All the Broken Pieces, was my way of honoring and thanking the Veteran of  Washington Square for sacrificing his youth and his innocence.
We lost a big piece
of ourselves in Vietnam,
and none of us will
ever be the same,
but we did some good too.
We made a difference.
  I wish my Washington Square Veteran could see this post or read my book. I hope that he has found some measure of peace. Whatever one’s opinion about Vietnam, or any war for that matter, all veterans deserve our respect and gratitude. From the deepest recesses of my heart, I wish them peace. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Abandoned Paths

Decided to write another blog post for October ~ mostly because most everything else I wrote today landed in my virtual wastebasket. Some days are like that. I’ve spent hours agonizing on a description only to discover that it doesn’t really matter what kind of plant is growing on the hillside or what kind of caterpillar wears a coat of brown and black.  My character is on a different path; there are no plants on the hillside. No caterpillars either. 

I’m finding out that life is the same way. We think we’re on a certain path, walking towards a certain goal, surrounded by familiar guideposts. But then, something unexpected trips us up and for a moment, we find ourselves lost. Maybe the map we’re holding is outdated or maybe someone we counted on has let us down. Now where? Now what?

If I take a break and take a breath, I’m confident that my character will find his way. More importantly, even the abandoned path has enriched him. His wanderings and false starts make him more real and deepen my understanding of who he is. Where he is not going helps me to understand where he is going.  

Perhaps our own abandoned paths and outdated maps serve the same purpose. I like to think so. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Vague Stirrings & Faint Grumblings


     The leaves have started to turn and already some crunch beneath my feet as I walk.  Despite the gallant efforts of sunshine during the day, dusty lavender and yellowing wisteria affirm the presence of autumn. Soon the birds that have remained to face winter in New York will gather at the feeding lodge in my yard. Together we’ll begin our journey into winter.
     I believe I’ve finally settled on some characters to accompany us, but the stirrings of a new narrative are always a bit vague and tentative. Part of me still lingers in Haiti.  I wonder how Serafina is getting along in the world - I often think about Matt and his family in Vietnam. The story I'm researching now is closer to home, but I've still lots of research to complete and the characters I have begun to imagine remain fragile specters of possibility.
     Writing requires patience. Some days words spill on the page, but some days, especially in the beginning, words are slow and uncertain. Characters need to be coaxed from the shadows and I’m easily distracted by the good-bye call of the wood thrush, the fluttered fall of a leaf. Some days, not so poetically, a faint grumbling in my stomach leads me from my writing table to investigate the refrigerator or pantry.
     Hopefully, by the time the leaves are fully fallen, words will be spilling on the page. By then, birds may gather at the feeding lodge without reminding me that my own stomach is grumbling and perhaps I should investigate.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Haiti, land of faith, love and hope

In my last blog, I promised to share a little of what I learned from writing Serafina’s Promise. Since Serafina hits the bookshelves in a few days, it seemed like a good theme for my September post.

I knew very little about Haiti before that Tuesday in January three years ago, when a powerful earthquake rumbled through what the media repeatedly described as the poorest country in the western hemisphere. The emerging and deeply-disturbing details horrified me. How could such desperate conditions exist less than two hours from the Florida coast? 

Days, weeks, months after the earthquake, Haiti continued to be tagged the poorest country in the western hemisphere.  Years into recovery and the label remains. Haiti, reporters often say, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere - as if this were somehow her official moniker -  the way we are officially the United States of America.

I don’t dispute the facts. More than half the population of Haiti lives in poverty with little or no food and limited access to fresh water. Relief efforts are hampered by policies and politics. The cycle of  hardship and suffering continues. But, if one scratches beneath the statistics, one finds a different Haiti - the Haiti where a struggling but proud people build families and communities based on faith, love, and hope.  It’s hard to imagine how hope can survive such desolation; the fact that it does is a tribute to the spirit and resiliency of the Haitian people. You beat the drum and you dance again, Serafina’s mother tells Serafina in one of my favorite Haitian proverbs.

People often think of writers as creators. We create characters who don’t really exist and then make up stories about them. Naturally it would seem to follow that we’re in complete control. We can make our characters go where we want them to go and do what we want them to do. In truth, it doesn’t work that way. We create the characters, yes... but somewhere along the writing line, our characters, like the humans they reflect, develop personalities of their own. Writers may choose the circumstances which their characters face - but a character’s emotions and reactions are elemental fibers. Writers twist - pull - dye - but we cannot change the fiber of a character - or a country. 

Serafina took me by the hand and led me through a country betrayed by nature and by forces both internal and external. She showed me a ravaged countryside where one must wake before dawn to gather water and often go to bed with an empty belly. But Serafina also brought me to a city alive with color and music. She showed me a culture rich in tradition. She shared her petty grievances and her grand hopes - what I learned from Serafina was that children growing up two hours from the coast of Florida are not very different from children growing up here.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

I'm Back!!!

      Since my hard drive self-destructed and my backup malfunctioned, I've had to bring in a professional in order to access my website again. As he twiddled and tweaked, he sent me looking at other website and blogs to see what other authors were doing on their sites. WOW! I’ve got to say some websites - some blogs - are creative masterpieces - I’ve seen books that fly across the page (very clever) and crawling insects (never on my site)...I’ve heard some jazzy rhythms (I liked that) and realized that some authors are so busy visiting, skyping and signing, that my own “crowded” calendar is actually a bit bald by comparison. On the other end of the spectrum, I noted the trend (which I’ve been told is not all that new) towards sleeker, crisp white sites...
    in the end, those of you who have visited before will notice that my new site is pretty reminiscent of my old flying crawling insects (never any crawling insects). Basically, I’ve stuck to the same simple layout which, for whatever reason, feels like me. I did update some pictures and rearrange some links, and I’m thrilled to introduce Serafna to the world. I hope she makes as many friends as Matt did.
     In my next blog entry, I hope to talk more about Serafina - and about Haiti. Just like teachers learn from their students, authors learn from their characters, and Serafina has taught me that the tiny island nation she calls home is so much more than the sum of its tragedies.
     We are ~ each of us ~  so much more than what we are left with after the destruction, malfunctions and mistakes we have encountered or made... a good thing to remember as we embark on a new new season, a new school year ~ or a new website!