Spring Fever

According to Wikipedia, the major league
baseball season
begins in April and lasts until September. In my old stomping grounds, Washington, D.C., a glorious new baseball stadium, Nationals Park, is about to open (who remembers watching the Washington Senators play at Griffith/RFK Stadium in the Sixties? I do.). In 3 days, 23 hours, 27 minutes and 5 seconds, according to their website, the Atlanta Braves play their opening game (against the Nationals!).

But here, just up the road from Turner Field, we've got everybody beat. At my house, the Whiffle ball season has already begun. Here's Jim, standing in the batter's box, next to the blue chair (which is the strike zone and substitute catcher), doing his best Babe Ruth imitation, pointing to where he's about to hit that Whiffle ball.

And here's Jim watching that Whiffle ball float by. Sort of like Cleebo, in the clinch, in THE AURORA COUNTY ALL-STARS, eh?

We play serious Whiffle ball. No, we don't. But on Easter Sunday, spring fever smacked us silly. We rose to the challenge.

Some of us actually hit the ball. And all of us had a good time...

...even those who stole the ball after it was all over.

I found this old teak table at Kudzu in Decatur and brought it home. We ate Easter dinner on the back porch at this table; I gathered the Lenten roses and nandina from my gardens.

Spring is everywhere in Atlanta -- the Bradford pears are already done blooming and have leafed out. My dogwoods are about to pop. The forsythia is long gone to green. Soon the pine pollen will coat the world with a golden glow (or is that "goo") and the grass will be thick and feisty again. The riot of color that is Atlanta in springtime is about to careen at fever pitch through the month of April. I'm going to careen right along with it. I've got spring fever, myself.

I've been moving bricks and digging in the dirt and pulling weeds and organizing cabinets and throwing out stuff and watching my carport floor turn red and climbing Stone Mountain and eating my vegetables and listening to good friends play music and writing about all of it in my notebook, keeping list after list, plotting and planning and figuring and cataloguing and more -- it's my way of organizing my mind and my world in the midst of all this green, this spring, this possibility.

And, I'm writing. I'm in the midst of a challenge, actually, that I want to share with you after I've returned from Florida. Tomorrow I fly to Orlando, where I'll speak to teachers at the Polk County Reading Association -- it's their first conference and I am psyched to be their speaker. They are expecting 250 in attendance -- they are off to a great start -- yay, Polk County teachers! Good for you.

I'm back Friday, when we'll celebrate Hannah's 22nd birthday. Maybe we'll play Whiffle ball, if I can convince her to give us back the ball.

A couple of updates:
-- Comments are turned on.

-- WW: I have hit the dreaded plateau -- what do y'all do here? But hey -- I'm holding steady at -22 pounds.

-- Remember my next-door neighbors who hated my new house colors? They spent part of their Easter weekend planting trees on the property line between our houses. I made myself go out and wave. It's okay. They waved back. If I can express myself, so can they. So be it.

Happy Spring, everybody. Thanks for hanging out with me here.

Little Altars Everywhere

Long before Rebecca Wells published her book of the same title in 1992, I knew what "little altars everywhere" meant, because I'm a Southerner, and because I've had altars all over my house, all my life, long before I understood the meaning of what I was doing or had a name for it. I'll bet you've got little altars everywhere, too. I was thinking about altars this morning, as I began finally, here in March, to put away the ornaments on the little tree I put up this Christmas as an adjunct to the big green one; the little tree that became an altar to my three Christmases in Atlanta, or was it an altar to family, or love, or to a chunk of my past I could arrange by Christmases?

The picture above is what the tree looked like in December. In January, I moved it to my bedroom and put it on my dresser, so I could admire it a little longer. This morning I decided it was time to put these ornaments away until next Christmas, when I'll bring them out and they can surprise and comfort me all over again.

Every ornament tells a story: Here's the sax player I bought in New Orleans in December, when I was visiting Coleen, here's the nurse bell that made Hannah and me laugh so much we had to buy it, here's the clown that reminds me of Jim, here's the orange ball I couldn't say no to, here are the pine cones that said "us," here is.... you get it. There are also a couple of very old glass ornaments -- a bell, a ball -- that my former mother-in-law gave me one Christmas. They mark another period in my life -- and in hers, long before I came into it. I like to think of that. Then there is one glass icicle I bought when I was married years ago to someone else... the icicle represents those years, not because it is cold, but because it is beautiful -- you can see it, with it's blue/green/red tip. The years this icicle represents had their icy elements, I'll admit, but mostly, I am learning to love what those years brought me -- all those years and all the messy glory.

I have learned that I am the sum total of all my life experiences and all the people I've met, and I want to honor that, somehow. Ram Dass says that he has little altars everywhere, too, and that he has a picture of George Bush on one of his altars, to help him develop compassion for him! I am not nearly that highly evolved, but I liked what this said about learning to love, because it's what I'm trying to do, too. I'm learning to love as well. Aren't we all?

So I'm trying to integrate all my life experiences instead of accepting some and pushing away others, so I can see that it's all necessary, as Uncle Edisto says in EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS. Uncle Edisto calls it "the messy glory," and says "Open your arms to life! Let it strut into your heart in all its messy glory!" to which Comfort replies, "I don't like messes." That's me, Comfort, not wanting messes or surprises or pain or hurt or disappointment... but of course, it's part of life. I have to learn this again and again.

"It is what it is" sounds loony, but somehow I get it in a way I didn't yesterday or last year or ten years ago. Something like that. So onto my ornament tree go reminders of times and even people that weren't always the most comforting, but that are now integrated into my days and my history, and so, are precious to me. Even the pain is precious. If that makes sense.

As I started to wrap each ornament in tissue paper and box it away, my eye caught the trinkets on my dresser -- jewelry, I suppose it is, but mostly it's not fancy-enough to be called jewelry... still, these are the few pieces I own and love to wear now and again, especially when I'm traveling and working, because it's as if I take a little piece of my life with me on the road.

I took those pieces and hung them on my ornament tree this morning. Look closely and you can see, on the bottom left, the charm bracelet my mother gave me the year I turned 12, and the C-141 Starlifter jet charm -- my father flew C-141s into and out of Vietnam for two years; before 141s, my dad flew C-130s. Right above the C-141 is a heart carved with my initials and a boy's, a boy who liked me so much more than I liked him -- there is a story here. Next to the charm bracelet is a bracelet featuring shoes from a museum exhibit that my editor Liz and I attended in Philadelphia one year while at a conference. Liz bought me the bracelet as a gift, insisted I take it, said it would remind me of that day, and it does. I wear it (the day and the bracelet) and take Liz with me to Las Vegas, Chicago, San Franciso, and beyond.

Right in front of the white button necklace is a bracelet handmade by Kate Fortin, a best-friend of my daughter Hannah. To the upper right of the button necklace is a bracelet given to me by the Brandon, Mississippi librarians, at a dinner that Harcourt hosted while I was on tour for ALL-STARS in September. These librarians say they are my biggest fans; I am their biggest fan, that's what it is, and I wear this bracelet so I can take them on the road with me, too.

Here's a clearer view, maybe... do you see the watch near the top left? That's a bracelet that my husband, Jim, gave me on his high school graduation night. Even though, after we went our separate ways, I would not see Jim again for 30 years, I managed to keep this watch (and that was a feat, considering the path my life took when I was a young adult). It no longer works, but I still wear it.

Here's a photo of the other side of the ornament tree. You can see that button necklace - bought it just recently on a day's outing with Hannah, and will remember that day when I wear this necklace.

See the pearls? They were my mother's. I wore the brown string bracelet near the bottom to San Antonio IRA a couple of years ago, where my editor friend Allyn put it on while a little gaggle of us sat outside with on a balmy May day after the conference. Margaritas decorated the crowded table. Allyn admired my bracelet for a moment, sat back in her overstuffed chair, and said, "So, Debbie! How's your life?" and we all swapped stories. I take some of that day, some of those Harcourt folks, with me, whenever I wear that bracelet. And believe me, given the cataclysmic changes at Harcourt this past year and how much I miss my friends, these memories are precious, precious... and some of them are held forever in this bracelet.

Likewise, when I wear the necklace to the right of my mother's pearls (I wonder if you can see it; it's a dark silver square on its tip, right in the middle of the mirror), I think of how my cousin, Carol, came to be with me at the MLA -- Mississippi Library Association -- in Tunica two years ago. She took good care of me. It was the first MLA since Katrina had devastated Mississippi libraries, and I was delivering a speech to my librarian friends, and I wanted it to be meaningful. I had titled it, "What Have You Lost?" I was nervous, and I was so glad Carol was with me.

"HERE!" Carol said, as she squirted something-or-other into my palm so I could try and tame my out-of-control hair just before we went downstairs to the convention and speechifying time. "Keep it," she said, handing me the bottle. (Hmmm....) Then, as I was agonizing over what to wear -- nothing would fit -- Carol gave me that necklace to wear and told me to keep it. I considered it a talisman. It calmed me (especially as I discovered that Catherine Nathan had figured out how to print my speech for me, and Ellen Ruffin could jiggle the slide presentation).

That necklace represents more than a moment, of course. It represents a lifetime of years in Mississippi, many of them with cousins and aunts and uncles, especially with Carol, and all those childhood summers.

For the moment, I have made an altar of these jewelry stories. I was going to post today about personal canons, and share with you some stories of books that have informed and influenced me as a human being and a writer, ask you about your canon, and I will do that soon. I am interested in influences, in altars, in stories. I'd love to hear about yours. I'll bet, if you looked around with intention, you would find that you've created little shrines, little altars, everywhere. I challenge you to write about them, about their importance to you, or about why you choose the altars you choose. Take one of your little-altars-everywhere and write about it, just as I'm doing here -- you can jot down your thoughts in your notebook, or write it out longhand, if it suits you, take pictures, paste them in your notebook, share with a friend, discover the connections.

In HANG THE MOON, the 1966 novel in the Sixties trilogy that I'm working on now, I have a character named Partheny, a very old woman, who teaches 13-year-old Margaret about little altars everywhere, because she has them -- literally everywhere. At some point, Margaret realizes she does, too. That everyone does.

What's important to you? Where are your altars? Are they "official," like the ones in churches? Are they tiny? Hidden? In your heart? Over the moon? Inside? Outside? And... why? Why do you choose to combine certain elements in certain ways, thereby making an entirely new story out of them? That's what we do as writers; we take a little from here, a little from there, and we craft a story. Somehow, elements that did not make sense together, come together beautifully -- the way all the different elements of ALL-STARS make a novel, for instance: baseball, Walt Whitman, dance, Jackie Robinson, friendship, Sandy Koufax, a dog named Eudora Welty, "Our Town" by Thornton Wilder, soap operas, little girls in tutus, and an old recluse with a secret.

THE AURORA COUNTY ALL-STARS is an altar full of so many things I loved about the world, so many things I didn't understand, and the questions I had as a ten-year-old child. These elements come together in a structured way within the pages of a book, just so, in much the same way I hung the trinkets on my ornament tree. In much the same way I try to capture my days in my journal, or keep a list in my notebook.

We catalogue our days by telling our stories. We collect our trinkets, we fashion them into movement, song, art, words, work, play, memories. Then we give them away, because, in the end, that is all we have to give: our stories. Little altars everywhere.

We're Rattled but Okay, thanks

[AP photo by Dave Martin]

My phone's been ringing this morning, and we've had a deluge of "are you okay?" email -- so here I am, to say we're okay, we really are, and there were no serious injuries reported last night as storms ripped through downtown Atlanta, uprooting trees (here, in the City of Trees), blowing a hole in the Georgia Dome (where thousands were watching college basketball playoffs -- Alabama vs Mississippi!), shattering skyscraper windows and sucking furniture out of hotel rooms, overturning cars parked on the street, collapsing at least one building in Cabbagetown, and scaring the pants off everybody in the Atlanta area.

My husband, Jim, had an early-evening gig downtown, playing piano at the Commerce Club, for a convention of dentists. This morning those dentists can't get into the Georgia World Congress Center -- it's closed. (The AP photo at left was taken at the World Congress Center by Phil Coale. Teachers, this is where IRA meets in six weeks!)

Jim had just driven out of the city as the rain that had been falling all day turned into a downpour and the wind began to howl. He got home in time to have birthday cake with us, to celebrate son Zach's 26th birthday.

Zach works at Thrive, a trendy downtown restaurant located near the CNN Tower. He was off yesterday, but a friend called him from work, seconds before the windows blew in the restaurant, to say, "Hey, Dude! It's a tornado!" and the phone went dead. A half-hour later, Zach managed to get back in touch. A tornado hasn't been verified, but the winds were clocked at 60 mph, and there are tons of stories to be told today. We're expecting more storms this afternoon: stay tuned. The morning sun has already given way to grayness, and the birds are seeking shelter.

But what a glorious, sunny morning it was!
Everything was wet and shining in the sun, everything looked washed -- my Aunt Mitt used to say to me, "Don't you love a good, hard rain? Afterward, it smells like God has washed the earth -- just smell that dirt!" And she'd take a long deep breath. Then, so would I. We'd stand at the end of her sidewalk after a rain, taking in the smells of the soaked orange, pebbly Mississippi dirt that was her driveway.

We have needed rain for such a long time, here in Atlanta, and March has been blessedly wet. We still have a long way to go here, to stem our drought. March is our wettest month, and always, storms in Atlanta are spectacular, but whoa... such a roar last night. When the second set of storms rolled in at 1 am, I got up to watch and wait. At dawn I heard Cleebo wailing outside, home from a three-day walkabout. And this morning, the world is wet.

I have long wanted to write something about weather. We are fascinated by it. We depend on it. We live by it, even though we have found ways to skirt around it -- we air condition and heat our homes, we build shelters and get out of the rain, we talk about how hot it was yesterday or what cold front is moving in, we want to see photos of devastation, we are just plain fascinated with weather. So.

How would you write about weather? Give me some ideas. Where is my notebook? Weather, that's your assignment. John Ruskin said, " Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather." Do you agree? Or do you think like Carl Reiner: "A lot of people like snow. I find it to be an unnecessary freezing of water."

I agree with Carl. And I love the words of Langston Hughes -- I leave you in his good company:

"Let the rain kiss you. Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops. Let the rain sing you a lullaby."

We're okay today, rocked in the cradle of the storm. You?

Reader Response, Writer Response

Home again, home again, and having dinner with family -- nothing is better. I did have a wonderful time in Las Vegas with teachers and friends, and want to tell you all about it, as soon as I rest up a bit. For now, here is a photo of a "character trading card" from EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS, one of many cards made by students at UNLV reading LITTLE BIRD and LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER.

Part of the assignment included creating an icon that would be used in the four corners of the picture (here it is a peach -- good choice), and "words that define me" -- in this case, "enthusiastic, careful, organized, talkative, neatly dressed, tearful, and a Mamma's boy." Wow. I love seeing how readers respond to characters I have created.

Here's another response to the character of Peach. Immediately, you can see the visual difference -- I love both of these physical renditions of Peach, and I can see at a glance how a different reader has a different response to the same literature. I can see something about each reader's heart and talents, too, as I read these cards... it's like a call-and-response in music, but it's happening with literature.

Another part of the assignment was to offer a found poem that suited the character. Here's the poem one student selected for Great-great Aunt Florentine:

"This is the beginning of a new day. You have been given this day to use as you will. You can waste it or use it for good. What you do today is important because you are exchanging a day of your life for it. When tomorrow comes, this day will be gone forever; in its place is something that you have left behind . . . let it be something good." -- anon.

Isn't that just what Great-great Aunt Florentine would have believed?

I learned so much at this conference. I don't think I really understood reader response until Nancy Johnson read to us some pages from Katherine Applegate's new book HOME OF THE BRAVE and asked us, "what's bubbling up for you right now?" and asked us each to write or sketch or color our thoughts, which we then shared with a partner. What was bubbling up for me was completely different from what was bubbling up for my partner. It was amazing to hear the different responses around the room.

I've always thought of reader response as mostly MY response to literature. What I didn't connect to was the power in comparing all readers' responses to one another's and seeing the mosaic of thought in one room enrich us all in our understanding of not only what we read (which is enormous, in itself), but in our understanding of one another and our individual selves as well. Boy-howdy, my world has been rocked. Click, click, click.

It was amazing to come to a conference and be TAUGHT. It's one thing to be inspired, and I was inspired this weekend. But you know... it's another thing to be taught. Good teaching is such a rush -- for the teacher and the student. And here's another thought -- you are teaching well if you are also learning, at the same time... don't you think so? And that learning! It's such a privilege.

I am still sifting all I learned and admiring those I learned from. Who said that we are all each others' teachers? I believe this. I learned something completely different from my friend Tawni, when we spent the day after the conference together, talking and catching up with the past ten years, remembering our past together, a past that stretches back to when we were teenagers.

Each moment is a learning moment if we take the opportunity to learn what is being offered. I was offered so much this past few days, I'm having trouble taking it all in. Here is Nancy Johnson, reading to us. She guided us through a morning full of surprises, full of ways to help our students and ourselves respond to literature in meaningful, insightful ways.

It was my turn in the afternoon to talk about a writer's response to her life and how that response has turned into stories.

I was almost overcome on Saturday as I listened to Nancy talk about the power that a teacher has to know, to see, to understand her students through reader response -- I understood how it could work. And I concluded my own remarks with sharing my realization that, if I had had teachers who understood this concept of reader response when I was growing up, I might have felt seen and heard and understood by them in a way that would have prompted me to make different decisions as a young adult. I might have done more thinking for myself, might have understood myself more, might have... might have... well, might have. It's not that I have regrets -- and overall, I think I had good teachers. It's that I'm still trying to understand, still learning. And now I see something new: what power is held in reader response... what empowerment.

Here are Nancy Johnson and Cyndi Giorgis, who was our host, and who is a wonderful teacher as well.

In a few days I will write a part 2 about this experience, as I sift it a bit more. I feel as if I can barely string two sentences together right now, and there is so much catching up to do; always the re-entry is bumpy. So off to bed I go tonight early. Response. I want to think about response and the many ways it can be interpreted. There is a reader response, yes, and also the response to one's life, to a conversation or a remark or a look or a situation or... maybe all of life is about that call and response, that point of choice.

I'm the One Wearing the Crown

I had so much fun in Chicago last week with Scholastic Book Fairs folks... so much fun that I had to come home and recover most of this week! First off, Robin Hoffman crowned me the Pomegranate Queen and here I am wearing my crown and standing with the fantastic sales consultants at Scholastic Book Fairs Midwest Regional Office. We made a grand morning of it, swapping stories and getting to know one another.

Then it was time for a tour of the warehouse, courtesy of Marvin Parrott, Operations Manager, and Jerry Zibton, Inventory Manager. Scholastic ships out 8000 book fairs from this location each school year and services four regional branches: Chicago, Madison, Bloomington, and Milwaukee.

Every two hours, 20 Fairs are packed and moved through the entire "flow" of operations in this warehouse -- unbelievable. Recognize these cases?

Here is Rosie, packer extraordinaire. She can pack five fairs in an hour -- whoa, Rosie! Rosie's got a picture book case here...

...while Carol packs a case of novels -- that's ALL-STARS that she's putting into the case right now.

Holly shows me where Deborah Wiles's novels are in this vast warehouse.

Right here. Scholastic Book Fairs has showcased every one of the Aurora County novels and has helped put my books into the hands of young readers across the country. RUBY LAVENDER was on 26 state book award lists, and so far LITTLE BIRD has been on 24 -- what a boon to have the Book Fairs participate in getting books to schools and readers.

After a lovely day in the offices and lunch at Tony Spavone's (we're talkin' Chicago, here: wisecracking, balding guys (not Marvin and Jerry at right) standing at the buffet, carving roast pork in the middle of a weekday -- it was all good), we traveled to Bolingbrook Country Club, where Scholastic had planned a luscious late-afternoon event for teachers. I wish I'd taken photos of the food! Some teachers brought young fans to see me, which I loved --

...and, after speaking to teachers and signing signing signing books, scintillating sales reps (and I do mean scintillating) and I enjoyed a great get-to-know-you dinner together (we shared love stories, among other things) before wending our respective ways home through spitting snow.

Thank you, teachers, for coming out on a cold Chicago evening to meet me -- it was my pleasure to spend time with you! Thank you to everyone in the Midwest Region for making this day memorable and for taking such good care of me. Thank you, Roy Schlegel, for being such a gracious host. Thank you Mark Dudy and Marianne Bost and Kristi Leahy for all the engineering -- even down to the baked goods. Thank you to the entire team!

Here's a last photo of me and my friend Robin Hoffman, Scholastic Book Fairs' National Community Relations Manager, who makes events like this happen all over the country. We like to eat together, as you can see from this blog entry (scroll to the bottom -- don't we look even younger and skinnier now? Smarter, too. Ha.).

We'll be together at IRA as well, when I get to say hello again to my SBFs friends from the Southern Region in Atlanta. Can't wait for May.

And now... time to pack. Tomorrow, Las Vegas. Las Vegas! I've traveled quite a bit, but have never been to Vegas. As many of you know, my love affair with Elvis runs deep and true -- in fact, he's a major character in HANG THE MOON, my 1966 novel (which is part of the Sixties Trilogy).

I've been to Tupelo, Elvis's birthplace, and to Graceland in Memphis, but I've yet to visit Viva Las Vegas. I'll bring my camera. I'll be working with teachers, students, and librarians on Saturday at UNLV (as well as Nancy Johnson and Cyndi Giorgis -- more on this later), but Sunday will be a play-day with a dear friend I haven't seen in years. I hope I hope I hope we find several Elvises. The more sequined, the better. Thankyouverymuch.

Catch you on the flip-flop.