On Friday night I donned black and mingled with the literati at the lovely Leitich Smith home. Greg and Cynthia hosted a launch party for Cyn’s new novel Tantalize and it was a swanky delight, complete with vino, Italian cream cake and a glossy, hardcover copy of the book! 
Most gratifying, though, was being in the company of other writers and talkin’ shop in such an easy, intimate way. There was no particular focus but so much good conversation about all things books and blogs, libraries and letters, editors and endings.
I felt like I was brushing elbows with the muse, just being there amongst Mark Mitchell, April Lurie, Brian Anderson, Brian Yansky, Frances Hill, Don Tate, Jeannette Larson, Nancy Jean Okunami and many others. When I left, I knew more than I had when I arrived – about myself, about my work-in-progress and about these amazing and generous talents. I was a good deal fuller on cream cake, too.
The next afternoon, I took off on an overnight retreat with my Goodness gals. This is the Mama-Artist group I wrote about when I launched this blog and let’s face it, I can’t hardly breathe without ‘em anymore.
We settled into a lovely, spacious home loaned to us by a Goodness grandmamma, and ho boy did we settle. We’d brought food enough for a week, and wine and yoga mats and a massage table and journals and markers and music and more. The eggplant was so garlicky, the chocolate so dark, The Hustle so easy to remember after all these years.
(Yes, we danced The Hustle and lemme tell you, we were good.)
In the morning, waking up from deep sleeps with no little folks asking to be fed (except two remarkably satisfied nursing babes), we turned to talk.
We talked and listened for seven hours straight – I kid you not – in our loosey-goosey round-robin way. This equates to nearly an hour devoted to each one of us. An hour – to share our latest projects, tease out worries, weigh suggestions – during which the mutual respect and admiration were thick as goat’s cheese.
Oh, the sense of well-being and privilege and contentment – I cannot do it justice here.
What I can say is that what I got this weekend is what I wish for everyone – a community of people who love me and love my work, and the time and space with which to really, truly appreciate one another.
I wish this for writers who work off-stage, alone with our own thoughts, a few too many hours every day.
I wish this for mothers who work under the blinding lights of judgment and exhaustion and threatened immortality.
I wish this for women and for men, for students and for teachers, for workers and for leaders.
I wish this for my own girls, now and when they grow up to be whoever they’re meant to be.
Which reminds me. When I arrived home from my kinship binge, there were two dirty daughters and their dad – just back from a camping trip to Enchanted Rock where they’d backpacked their gear in, spelunked in the limestone caves and crevasses, and sung under the stars.
They hadn’t missed me, they said, but were glad to see me. They wanted to know what I’d done. Ditto.
More community. How lucky can one gal get?

The Holiday Season Rolls On

At our house we’re equal-opportunity revelers. We throw ourselves into not just Halloween, Christmas and the 4th of July, but Hanukah, Mardi Gras, Chinese New Year and the Hindi ritual for brothers and sisters. Nevermind that we’re not Jewish, Catholic, Chinese or Hindi; we’re not even Louisianan, and the closest thing to brothers around here are our two male cats.
Still, anytime our girls hear a hint of observed merriment out there in the world, they’re compelled to bring it home and embrace it. They wouldn’t dare let so much as a solstice pass without hauling home a stack of appropriate library books, hanging banners on the front door, making cards and gifts for neighbors, and helping us turn dinner into a thematic commemoration of the day at hand.
Some of the appeal, no doubt, lies in the holiday bootie. I mean, who wouldn’t want a big old hunk of King Cake, or a dish of candied almonds, or a thin, red envelope with a crisp dollar bill inside?
And then there’s the equally attractive notion of ritual. There is something so satisfying in gestures, words, food and music that are more symbolic than literal in nature. There’s no logical necessity for ritual, and that’s the beauty of it. It answers to our deeper, more mysterious needs for reverence and recognition of all that we find most exquisite and important in the world. Ritual is poetry off the page.
Kids aren’t immune to this pull. The opposite, in fact. Toddlers often want an almost liturgical refrain running through their days – cuddle, eat, rough-house, read books, cuddle, eat, rough-house, read books, cuddle, eat.
Life itself is so stunning, popping, fresh and new; ritual grounds a kid. Even an ordinary family dinner can accomplish that, so when you add candles, place cards, and a Sanskrit chant or an Indian dessert, you’ve got everyone at the table truly present and connected.
But here’s where it gets interesting at our house. While these ceremonies help settle us into ourselves, they also serve to transport us completely. It’s partly through this holiday smorgasbord buffet that our kids are becoming world travelers. Nothing – outside of real air-miles and books – takes us so completely into other countries, cultures and communities.
This morning, putting away a stack of CDs we’d been using to celebrate African American history month, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like if more folks (world leaders, say) truly understood each other’s customs and values and traditions – embodied them, even. Can’t you just see the guys at the G8 summit, singing, snacking and making brotherly bracelets for each other?
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go get a good look at March, and her holidays, on the kitchen calendar.

Tid Bits

Children’s author Cynthia Leitich Smith is back up and running on Blogger — phew!! — and her new baby Tantalize has hit the shelves! 

Visit her and take a peek at the fun interview we did together a couple of weeks ago, too.

The 11th Carnival of Children’s Literature is up at Mother Reader. My January piece on Empty Baskets is included, as is a lot of other rich reading.

Mary Lee, over at A Year in Reading took my utensil post from a few weeks ago and ran with it! She’s got egg slicers, chopsticks and whisks, oh my! 

There are also strong posts by both Mary Lee and Franki on the whole Newbery issue. (I especially love, “Teaching is not for sissies!”)

What took my little family so long to plunge into the world of BabyMouse?
Elder daughter read this graphic-novel-for-girls three times within the first week, each time with more vivid expression and hilarity! 

I’ve never totally understood the format, which probably qualifies me as a square, but my husband is a major TinTin fan and I think I may become a convert now that we’re all up in arms about Felicia Furrypaws over here. 

All for now…

Poetry Friday — Mary Oliver

And speaking of “noticers”, a belated Valentine goes out to Mary Oliver – 
beloved poet, queen of noticing.

Oliver sees “great hands of light…” and “clear pebbles of rain…” and “the broken cupboard of the clam…”
She asks, “How does any of us live in this world?”
She asks, “What is the name of the deep breath I would take over and over for all of us?”
She asks the fire to “put on its red hat and sing …”
Her poems pay attention to mushrooms and geese and the tongues of toads, to music and to stars. 

They behold, she beholds:

How blue is the sea, how blue is the sky,
how blue and tiny and redeemable everything is, even you…

The Noticers

Yesterday, the mail brought a packet of appreciations from 50-some kindergartners I visited with recently. We’d spent a morning reading A Sock is a Pocket and exploring my Writer’s Vest, (a.k.a. khaki fishing vest stuffed with pens, shells, tea bags and other little trappings of the trade).
Each time I share this book, there’s a moment when kids get it, the whole pocket-metaphor thing. And when they do, they practically have to sit on their hands to keep from levitating with ideas.
I love when that happens, partly because that’s how the writing of this manuscript was for me. Once the concept stuck in my craw, I could not look at socks or bowls or caves or breaths in the same old way. Everything became a vessel for something else. I swear to you, it’s an addictive little game, kind of like UNO only you don’t need a deck of cards.
One of the teachers, whose note accompanied the childrens’ yesterday, wrote, “They could not stop thinking about pockets all day!” She added a half-smiley face and a “thank you” tinged with tiredness and the teensiest bit of irony, like I’d introduced them to pure-sugar pixie sticks or something.
But really, there is nothing more gratifying than when kids are at their most uninhibited – both energized and attentive – so completely connected to their experience that you can almost see new synapses being clicked on.
I think it is this wakefulness that we’re most afraid of losing to standardization – and rightly so. Kids need to be players, co-creators, in their own learning. And when they are, they come up with gems like these:
Your body is a pocket for your bones.
A tree is a pocket for a scared cat.
The past is a pocket for a dragon.
Fresh, vivid metaphor. From kindergartners, mind you.
There’s been an awful lot of discussion in this country lately about who are the “deciders.” But it seems to me there is something more fundamental than decision-making. First, there is awareness, perception, taking note. Before any dotted lines are signed or buttons pushed, there is (there should be) a time for absorption, for paying very close attention

I’m making it a habit to ask kids like these kindergartners to be good “noticers,” because I think if they are – if we all are – the decision-making will become a little more organic, a little more intuitive, a little more right.