Company, Canons, and Correspondence

Three things.

First, long-time Frederick, Maryland friends Carl and Linda did arrive on Tuesday, with friends from Anguilla, and we had the most wonderful day, eating together in Irene (our new gathering room), climbing Stone Mountain together, and wolfing down root beer floats afterwards. Our Anguillian friends had never had a root beer float! One of them (I won't say who, but it was not the four-year-old) had TWO! heehee. Root beer floats have that effect on folks. Remember, Blue Bell Ice Cream (Breyers will do) and Barq's root beer, as Ruby Lavender tells us. Accept no substitutes.

We are ridiculous. We climbed Stone Mountain in 96-degree heat. Why? Because it's there! And... hey, we don't look too worse for wear, do we? The root beer floats really helped. They are medicinal.

Thank you so much for taking the time to come visit us, friends. What a wonderful day. We'll never forget it.

Second thing: Canons. Tomorrow I'll leave you for the weekend thinking about your own personal reading/writing canon, so I thought I'd try to define what, for our purposes, "canon" will mean. Your thoughts are welcome.

For many years I have read, on listservs and in books, have heard folks talk at conferences and in classrooms, about canons. What books are necessities to have read for... whatever purpose. There's the Western canon and the Biblical canon and many, many more, and they are all subjective... to a point. Can everyone agree, for instance, that one should have read all of the Harvard Classics to be a well-read, well-rounded person in the world? Does it matter? Who decided on this list? Might it ever change? Etc.

And, if one wants to write for children, what books should one read? Is there a children's books canon? A YA canon? Some say yes, some say no, and isn't it always fluctuating? There is endless debate about a canon of children's literature. Which list is the best? Which books are must-reads? And who are the authorities that tell us so?

I think you are your own best authority. We can (and I always have) cull lists from pillar to post, we can ask for recommendations, we can read to our heart's content, and we can learn from everything we read. But what is most important to you may not be most important to me. And vice versa.

There's a difference between reading for enlightenment, for learning, for education, and reading something that profoundly informs or changes your life. THIS is the canon I'm after now, after 50 years of being a reader in the world.

And you don't have to wait 50 years to begin assembling a personal canon. You can begin now. What books go on your list of books that have defined your life in some way? You would not be the same person if you had not read these books... and each book for a different reason.

Some of my canon includes children's books. Some are adult books. Some are novels, some are non-fiction, some are spiritual, some are how-to, some are the books that appeared at the right time in my life and that changed the very way I thought or looked at the world, or taught, or wrote, or parented.

I'm going to try to begin roughly at the beginning, but these books won't be in chronological order. I'll choose one or two for each "personal canon" post this summer. I'll tell you why they are important to me. That "why" is a story.

And -- this is important: As much as I want to share these books with you, I want you to share your choices with me. This request ties into number three on my list today, correspondence, so I'll just segue into correspondence now.

This listing and storytelling won't be the same without some dialogue back and forth. If you're keeping a blog, will you link to mine and announce this personal canon challenge? Or will you send this blog in an email to friends who might be interested, and let's get a dialogue going. This is meant to be fun, and informative, and enlightening for you (and me! us!), as you uncover your own canon -- one book at a time.

Let's see what kinds of personal canons we can come up with in August -- one person's memory will spark another's, and we'll learn a lot about one another and about ourselves, too. I won't always have a personal canon post in August, but I'll sprinkle them in, and I will so look forward to the conversation.

In the Free Online Dictionary, I find:

canon: noun:
-- a basis for judgement; a standard, a criterion
-- a group of literary works that are generally accepted as representing a field: "the durable canon of American short fiction"

You are the field -- your entire life. You get to choose what is acceptable for your canon.

In the Miriam-Webster Dictionary, I find:
-- a sanctioned or accepted group or body of related works; canon of great literature.

You sanction, and you get to decide how these works relate. For our purposes, then, let's make a personal reading/writing canon read this way:

The personally sanctioned group of literary works that form the standard and criterion for [your name here]'s life.

Anybody want to tweak this? Feel free. Let's make it as clear and concise as possible.

And lastly, correspondence: My laptop was in the shop for five weeks, and along with it lots of email. I'm back in business now, and trying to catch up. Most of y'all are shy like me and correspond through email instead of the blog. I love hearing from you in whatever form it takes, although I'm more reliable sometimes through the blog these days than I am in regular email.

Thanks for coming along for the adventure! Be thinking about your personal reading/writing canon. I know just where to begin tomorrow. I've got book number one right here beside me.

Songs in the Key of Life

Thank you, Stevie Wonder, for the assist on the title of today's post.

When Jim and I met in the Sixties, we were in high school. We both loved music. I sang in the chorus. Jim played trombone in the marching band. And one day, after school, Jim came to my house, sat at my family's genteel piano, and played "Sunny" by Bobby Hebb. Jim's version included a wildly enthusiastic, energetic jazz improv between verses.

My mother rounded the kitchen corner, dishtowel in hand, to peer at this 17-year-old gangly boy with the thick black glasses and Beatles haircut who was completely lost in the music: his eyes were closed, his jazz-face was pained, his head wagged in time. One long foot stomped the pedal while two great-big hands mauled the keys.

Our piano was never the same, and neither was I.

I know you've felt this "never the same" way about a piece of music, a song, an experience that a song delivers or defines... what song comes to mind first? Next? Capture those moments in your notebook... in fact, let's start creating a personal canon of music to go along with the personal canon of books. Each person's canon will be different, and each canon will tell a story... many stories. Many songs in my personal music canon have made their way into my books. This will be especially true about the Sixties Trilogy.

My music canon is wide and varied, but I'll stick to just a few songs related to Jim for this post, since today is our one-year wedding anniversary.

When we were teenagers and inseparable, The Beatles's "The Long and Winding Road" was our song. When we met again, late in 2001, after a thirty-year absence, the first song Jim played for me on his piano was "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." "It's one of my favorites," he said. Mine, too.

We romanced each other with music. Didn't you? Care to share the title of a song or two?

We're still romancing one another with music.

Our shared personal music canon now includes "The Girl Next Door" (which was originally "The Boy Next Door," sung by Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis), and "Embraceable You" (which was one of my favorites, so Jim made it one of his), and "The Nearness of You."

Our canon includes the silly, sweet (and quite amazing) song Jim wrote when he proposed, "Debbie Marie." I'm working on a link to upload it for you to listen to, but for now you can listen to it here at CD Baby. A bit of the lyrics:

I've had my fun like a young man will do, and now it's time to say forever;
I just want to be with Debbie 'til the end of time.

It also includes the words "collard greens" and "biscuits."

Who knows "Polka Dots and Moonbeams"? -- extra credit if you've heard of it. It was written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke in 1940, before Jim or I were even gleams in the eyes of our parents.. our parents were still kids themselves... teenagers, about the ages that Jim and I were when we first met.

I'd never heard this song before I met Jim again. (Tommy Dorsey owns the first 1:45 of intro in the clip below -- it's worth the wait for Sinatra... this was one of his first big hits and that velvet voice is to-die-for). This song is my anniversary present to Jim today:

"Now in a cottage filled with lilacs and laughter,
I know the meaning of the words 'ever-after'."

Polka Dots and Moonbeams to you today, Jim. Thanks for everything, especially the laughter and the music.

Cat Days of Summer

Gus has had it. It's hot. He's old. And he's waiting for the heat to break.

I feel sorta the same way, except that, unlike Gus, I've got tons to do in the midst of the heat. I can water the garden twice a week, and do. (We're still in the midst of a drought.) But mostly I stay inside in this heat and humidity, where I'm surrounded by projects.

The house needs putting back together after all the construction, and the papers that are stuffed into boxes (and that decorate my office right now) need going through so that they can make their trip to the University of Southern Mississippi (hey, y'all!), and the house needs cleaning and the novel is blasting strong (so of course all I want to do is sit with it and let it come and come and come), and yet there is so much administrivia and mail and paperwork to do, research is ongoing, and there are friends to visit (yesterday we celebrated Mahathi's 18th birthday), and lunches to make -- and it's too hot to cook, so here's lunch these days.

And, there are naps to take.

How do you choose what project gets done first? It's 7am as I start this entry, so watering gets done first. Then, a house to straighten, as friends Carl and Linda, from Maryland, come by today -- it will be so very good (look at those qualifiers! What's a better construction? TREMENDOUS -- it will be TREMENDOUS, STUPENDOUS!) to see them. It will nurture my missing-my-friends soul. Jim and I are jockeying for the favored position on the lunch menu ("I'll make lunch!" and "No, I'LL make lunch!" then, "We'll make lunch together!"). Neither of us is jockeying for any position in the clean-up that needs doin' around here. No problem; our friends come to see us, not our debris. I hope!

One of the advantages of being self-employed as a writer is I can shift my schedule around so I get to see friends when they are coming through town.

It's also one of the dilemmas.

Can you relate?

When I wanted to write essays, lo these many years ago, I read essayists, especially those who wrote about families hugging their knees as they wrote, because that was my situation. I read a great book by Marjorie Holmes (now out of print) called WRITING ARTICLES FROM THE HEART: How To Write & Sell Your Life Experiences. (Look! It's a dollar at Thrift Books! I have purchased much of my sixties research from Thrift Books.)

I keep my dog-eared, underlined copy on my personal canon shelf. Marjorie Holmes wrote personal essays for McCall's, Family Circle, Woman's Day, Readers Digest and more, and she wrote this book to tell me how to do the same.

"Keep a notebook," she admonishes on page 22. Ha!

Not all her advice is relevant today. On page 151, under "How To Get Along With Editors" she writes:

"Submit only clean, double-spaced, original typewritten copy on good, white paper. Never use erasable bond or colored paper or onion skin. Never submit carbons or photocopies."

Well... it's relevant in spirit.

But the reason I pulled this book off the shelf this morning is because, even though I feel like Gus these hot summer days, I have lots to do and lots of deadlines breathing hot air down my neck. And I want to be reminded of what Marjorie says about getting it all done, on page 158:

"Sooner or later, writers or would-be-writers have to face the fact that the world will simply not ever stop to let us write."

Amen, Sister, Amen. Marjorie outlines a six-step plan to help with the fallout from this truth. Number 5: "Be patient with interruptions. Do everything you can to keep them at a minimum, but stop fighting back when they occur. It only wastes valuable emotional energy and time. Spare yourself and everyone else by maintaining an attitude of stoic but cheerful acceptance. Then get back to work and do the best you can."

Haha! This always makes me laugh out loud. Oh, my. Is my staff an interruption? Are friends? Birthday celebrations? Watering the garden? Children? Making lunch? It depends on how you look at it. I prefer to think of it as the Stuff of Life, and I try to embrace it all.

I have had to learn this, though, and I continue to learn it on days like today, when, after priming the writing pump for weeks, writing forward and back, uncovering and discovering Franny's story, talking with editor Kara and uncovering even more (whew!), this 1962 novel, the first in the Sixties Trilogy, is itching at my fingertips for attention during this morning's writing time, and I'm going to be busy -- happily so -- with the lovely blessing of friends and family. I won't even have to be stoic. I am going to fall right into this day with great gladness and rejoicing for whatever it brings me.

And then, as Marjorie advises, I will get back to work.

Life cannot be contained and organized in little boxes. We really wouldn't want it that way -- would we? Life is a messy glory, as Uncle Edisto says.

I know you know what I mean, yes?

Here comes a day like no other. Bring it on, I say, bring it on. But let me water the garden first...

The End of Construction

Sing the title of this entry to "The Eve of Destruction" by Barry McGuire (which I have been listening to today as I write):

"But you tell me, over and over and over again, my friend --
You don't believe we're at the end of construction..."

But we are -- we are! The basement is done. The sewing room is beginning to come together -- slowly we are ferreting out the fabric and notions and baskets and yarns and needles and projects, and finding space for them on the shelves in the new room.

This sewing machine is probably 30 years old. It does what I need it to do: straight stitch, zig-zag, button holes, forward and back.

The desk is an old distressed door with a glass top, and the drawers are separate old pieces cobbled together -- one's an old-time small refrigerator, with the drawers lined in tin.

We left the ceiling as-is and spray-painted it the trim color. It gives the area a country-cottage look (and an industrial look, where the ductwork glides through).

This whole area is downstairs near the back door and the stairs... it's an aggrandized hallway, really, that we've turned into a sewing/creative area. We had three prairie-style windows put in this wall, to bring in light.

Lots of old finds at Kudzu mostly (thank you, Susan, for the bookcase!) -- and there's a chair I brought from Frederick that's probably 30 years old, in the corner. Soon we'll sort out the fabric and find the rest of what we've squirreled away, waiting for this day to bring them all into one place.

The washer and dryer used to go against this (unfinished) wall.

Longer view. You can see the "refrigerator" cabinet under the door desk here, and some of the exposed duct work. Behind me is the door to the "media room" which is our new family room that Jim Williams built LAST summer. Now there is no television upstairs (save in Hannah's room) and I like it like that.

The summer before last, JimW. rebuilt our kitchen. The family room came after that. This house has been under construction for almost three years, almost continuously (well, it seems that way sometimes).

Jim enclosed the carport this past January and made us a gathering room. He created a new carport with a river-rock bed and a tin roof. What didn't he do?

We'd get up in the morning, and there would be Jim Williams... or Israel, who laid the wood floors in the kitchen and family room, or Jose, who did all the drywall, or Alfredo and Mike, who did all the painting, or Stoney, who was a strong second, every step of the way. I got to where, at one point, I made coffee for everybody in the morning, and sometimes lunch. I loved it. I'm not sure they did!

Do you know what that glass bottle is? It's an old dampening bottle to use when you're ironing -- remember those? My mother had one... I can still remember her ironing and sprinkling a pillowcase that got too dried out in the towel she'd rolled it in to keep it damp, and then the sizzle of the iron as it glided across the cotton. I also remember my mother saying, "Permanent press is one of the greatest inventions of all time!"

The back door of the house is directly behind me (the door desk is to the left). The windows in front of me look into Jim's studio -- they are interior windows we put in, in order to give Jim some natural light and air in his studio -- he has no other windows, but he has a bonafide room. The table in front of you is one of those old enamel-top tables that expands -- it's tall, and it will be my cutting table. The door to the left leads to the stairs (and to Jim's studio, if you take another right before going up).

I couldn't resist this 8-foot long kindergarten table, scarred with the writings and cuttings and scribblings of hundreds of five-year-olds over the years. Salvaged at Kudzu. Underneath the table is an old toddler's toy box. It has a pull handle, and a bell dings as it rides along. What will go in here? Yarn, perhaps. Books for when my staff visits, perhaps.

We left the floor concrete and painted it the same color as the trim of the house. I'm sure my neighbors will love it. We plan to have a pickin' party when we get everything put together, and invite the neighbors for an open house -- hope our next-door neighbors come. We like our neighbors.

Jim's studio looks bare right now, but not for long, as he unloads crates and moves back into a space he can really create in. See the interior windows to the right? The floor is bamboo.

The other side of Jim's office. He chose this blue, and I liked it so much I used it in the sewing room for some of the walls -- the others are painted hyacinth. The bookcase unit to the left was built by Jim Williams and sits under the stairs. The couch is from Kudzu, probably late Sixties -- another Sixties memory.

And one more Sixties memory before I let you go for the weekend. This is the door that leads upstairs. I've hung some of my apron collection here. William Steig wrote a book (I think it was his last) called WHEN EVERYBODY WORE A HAT -- do you know it? It's a wonderful picture book autobiography. I look at my collection of aprons and think, "When everybody wore an apron." I wear them now. And the pink one on the right? I made that apron for my mother. Cut the fabric, sewed it, cross stitched the butterflies and the M.K.E. initials onto the pocket... another memory I can take with me into the land of fiction. Does Franny's mother wear an apron? Yes, she does.

Thank you, Jim Williams, for so many things: For working with a woman on a budget. For being so good at so many things -- even plumbing. For hiring excellent subcontractors to do so many other things. For all your woodworking and cabinetry and design and construction skills. For your willingness to hang in there through my pattern language way of thinking-through design, and your enthusiasm for the process -- and your suggestions for fixes that would make an already-drawn design work even better. Thank you for your good housekeeping! And your work ethic and your trustworthiness. Mostly... thank you for your friendship.

I have a home in Atlanta that I love.

I know a place....

I Know A Place

"From the dawn of man's imagination, place has enshrined the spirit." -- Eudora Welty

If you are Of A Certain Age, you will recognize the title of this post as a song title as well. Sung by Petula Clark in 1965, it's one of the songs on my playlist for the Sixties Trilogy, and it's your notebook assignment for today.

"I know a place where we can go..." Where? Where will you take us?

In 1995, I took a class from a fine poet named Nancy Johnson at Frederick Community College. I had been publishing essays -- personal narrative writing -- for years in newspapers and magazines, I had been writing magazine features and had even been a magazine editor, but now I wanted to turn my attention to fiction. Nancy taught me (among other things) that fiction grows naturally out of personal narrative -- the old "write what you know."

Now I tell my students that story comes from your head, your heart, and your gut: what you know and remember, what you feel, and what you can imagine.

It's hard to write fiction without first understanding your personal narrative -- who you are and where you are from. This is especially important to know when writing with children. It's hard for fourth-graders, say, or middle-schoolers (aren't they beautiful?) or seniors in high school to sustain a fictional world when they haven't explored their own worlds, their own hearts, when they aren't telling their own stories and understanding that those stories have heft and meaning and importance.

One of the first assignments Nancy gave our class was to write about a place. She had us LIST places first -- places we had lived, visited -- every place we could remember, large (Mississippi), small (the fort I made under the stairs), it didn't matter -- but a physical place.

This is where notebooks come in handy. I listed and listed -- I brainstormed away -- nothing was off limits. This exercise was meant to get our memories flowing onto the page so that we could SEE them, physically, and choose one. One. Try it. List... then choose one. Circle it. Choose one place you know, and write about it.

Don't skip the listing step. I still, to this day, begin writing by listing. When I listed for this exercise, "Mississippi" was the word I circled. It was the place I chose to write about. I narrowed it down to Jasper County, Mississippi, and all the summers I spent there with my grandmother (the real Miss Eula), surrounded by the smells of summer and people who would populate my dreams for years to come.

I wrote a poem (more on this Nancy Johnson exercise another day -- if I forget, remind me), and from that poem I began a picture book called MISS EULA GOES TO HAWAII. I sent that picture book manuscript to Liz Van Doren at Harcourt Brace in late 1995, and in February 1996, Liz called me and asked me if I'd be interested in working on this story with her.

Would I? Would I! From the beginnings of trying to write for children to the day of this phone call, ten years had passed. Ten years of rejections, nibbles, more rejections, reading what I wanted to write, practicing, giving up, beginning again, joining a writer's group, leaving a writer's group, finding online support, finding solid resources (including this class at FCC), finding like-minded souls to travel with, and just plain hanging-in-there and refusing to give up -- perseverance. I had stories to tell -- I knew I did. I just needed to figure out HOW to tell them. Listing in my notebook helped me get started.

Two years into working with Liz on this picture book, she still had not bought it, the story got longer and longer, and I found myself writing a novel instead of a picture book. Liz gave me good advice at this point: "Let go of your memories, and tell me a story." And I learned to do that, to make that fictional leap. But all my memories -- all those lists -- were trusses for my stories. Without them, I would have no stories to tell.

I left my day-job (freelancing everywhere) in 1997 in order to focus on what would become LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER. All told, it took me three years to get it right, to make it sellable, and another two years of revision before the book was published in 2001. Along the way, I wrote FREEDOM SUMMER, my first picture book, and sold it to Anne Schwartz at Simon & Schuster. It, too, comes directly out of my life and those notebooks that help me capture my life so I can SEE it, in front of me, in words, images (photographs help), thoughts, doodles.

So.... what places do you know? And which one would you choose to write about today? You don't have to write a novel. Or even a picture book. Not even an essay. How about a sketch? A poem? One paragraph of one moment in time you experienced in that place?

You can see some photos of Ruby's town, my Jasper County, here. I went back and took photos last summer. There are also some photos here, at my Life Notice on my website.

The places I'm showing you today were taken last week, during my scoot through Prince Georges County, Maryland; Frederick, Maryland; Washington, D.C.; and western Maryland. I've used my notebook to journal about each stop. I have photographs. And boy, do I have stories.

Any one of those memories I could mine for story. The present echoes the past... or does the past echo into the future? What I know is that my personal narrative -- my history -- informs my fiction.

RUBY is fiction, of course, pulled from personal narrative (as is LITTLE BIRD and ALL-STARS). RUBY narrates a place I knew, remembers it in the golden light I loved to remember it in. FREEDOM SUMMER is also fiction, also pulled from personal narrative, and it narrates that same place in its not-so-shiny light. Both stories are true emotionally. And that's what I'm going for, in my fiction: emotional truth.

Fiction starts with discovering the emotional truth of your own life -- which can change, actually, with a deeper understanding of the people, places, and events that have defined you.

So pick that place. "You're gonna love this place I know." You can hear the song, sung by Petula Clark, here on YouTube. (Volume up! You can dance better that way.)

List, list, list. Pick your place. Pick one experience there. One clear moment in time. Circle it. Write short. Be true. Use telling details, and all your senses. If you need to write long at first, that's fine... you can cut later, and you can revise as your reason for writing about this particular place emerges... this is a gift of process.

Then write me -- share it with us -- what place do you know?

Place is the backbone of story.

Over and Over... Now

Many years ago, I read Charlotte Zolotow's OVER AND OVER to youngest daughter Hannah... over and over. To everything there is a time and a season; everything begins again, over and over, every day, every year.

Hannah loved that book. So did -- do -- I. It is part of my personal canon. I want to do several posts on personal canons and hope to do that this summer -- what books influenced you most as a reader? A writer? A teacher? A parent? A human being. Be thinking about that.

I look at Hannah now -- here she is, above, home on a break from her work for the Obama campaign (home in Atlanta, to hear Obama speak), with her friend and fellow volunteer Andrew -- and wonder how those books her father and I read over and over to her have influenced her, as she makes her own choices in the world.

Here is Mark, who grew up with my older kids. Now he is growing a family of his own. Over and over. Look at those intent, intense eyes! Full of joy and pride. And, is there a hint of exhaustion? Maybe more than a hint... lovely, though, so lovely.

Life repeats itself, and we grow older, our children grow older, the cycle begins again. Our lives have meaning to the extent that we tell our stories, save them in some form -- writing is just one way. But it is our job to share these stories.

Look at this reader, sharing her stories with me! After my Urbana Library gig last week, when almost everyone had cleared out and, almost two hours later, it was time to pack up and go, this reader, who had waited and waited for a chance to be heard, shared her thoughts about LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER and EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS. Look at her expression, and look at her hands... she had me completed captivated. She was so earnest, so intense. She saw things in the books that I never intended to put there. That's what's exciting about giving up a book and putting it into a reader's hands. The story belongs to the reader then. And, the reader can not only relate her own experience to the story, she can tell her own stories -- she can share a bit of her own heart. I treasure this give and take.

Over and over, story is reborn, refined, remade. What is your story?

What is THIS guy's story? Ha!
Jim meets Moose, at friend Sue's home.

Find an old photograph -- or a new one -- these are all new photographs from last week -- and tell your story. So many of you wrote me to say you had had heart palpitations over Frankie Avalon -- well... what was that like? Tell a story.

Tell a story of old places. I remember, over and over, mowing this grass, for 25 years... I know intimately the terrain around each tree. Now I am learning a new terrain, in Atlanta, a new garden of my own construction, and I am making new memories, new stories.

Over and over I revisit old friends. We break bread together and catch up with one another, telling story after story.

Over and over I play Bingo at the fireman's carnival under the stars, using corn kernels for markers. Ten cents a card, three cards for a quarter, and a big two bucks for a single winner of any game of Bingo. I won! I won! (I do not win, over and over!)

Over and over, I run into old neighbors, new neighbors, folks who are full of stories to tell.

Over and over we get the chance to tell our stories, until.... we don't anymore.

One of my very best friends in the world has just had that choice taken from her. Her mind is not cooperating with the rest of her body, and her stories lay mute for now. How I miss her, even though she is still here.

We never know. We never know when, over and over, we are no longer able to share our stories.

Share now. Share while you can. Look at all these pomegranate seeds... so many seeds -- stories -- inside each fruit. Dust off that notebook. Sketch out some memory, some moment, give it some meaning. Tell your stories, while you remember. There is no better time or place than now. Over and over.

The Long Re-Entry

Here I am. So much goodness, this past week. Lots of research, for one thing....

Iverson Mall! We went there, Jim and I. "It's so SMALL!" I spurted, incredulous, because the place was such a Big Deal when it was built. And it loomed so large in my memory.

Oh, how I remember Marlow Heights... occasionally we'd eat Sunday dinner after church at the Hot Shoppes here. The Hot Shoppes is no longer here, and neither is the piano store where my father and mother bought our piano, but I remember well this shopping center -- I'll bet the sign hasn't changed in all these years.... what do you think?

Lots of reconnecting with family -- Jim met some of my family. "You've got a good man, there," said Sandy. "So do you," I said about her new husband... my how time and life changes us.

How I love these folks... every one of them, even though they all didn't make it into the end-of-day photo op.

And, because I know that family is a circle of friends who love you, I count these folks as family also, who showed up at the Urbana Regional Library to cheer me on -- it was Old Home Week -- I'll post more photos of our great gatherings later this week, and I'll link to the rest on a Picasa webpage album.

I met more of Jim's family. Look! I have lovely, loving nieces and nephews! Family galore... right in Baltimore, right under my nose those 25 years I lived there, and now, right inside my heart. What sweethearts. "We've been waiting for you!" said Bernie. Be still my heart -- here I am!

We couldn't stop taking pictures of one another...

...or the harbor at Fells Point in Baltimore, where we ate dinner together.

Dessert at Maggie Moos... all over.

There's more to show you: "old" family, new family, friends galore, good food, the Urbana Carnival, library programs, and lots and lots of stories.

AND... I want to ask you something... something that relates, I hope, to your own life and your own stories, as I show you these photographs... so until later this week, then..

In the meantime, here's where I'm clicking this week, as I research and write forward in Book One of the Sixties trilogy. Any of this familiar to anyone?

Frankie Avalon singing "Why, Because I Love You." Oh, puleeeze! Someone say you know this song. I woke up one morning this week with this song in my head and knew it must be part of Book One, and when I asked Jim, he said he'd never heard of it. Yes, it's saccharine, and it's silly and it's SO FIFTIES... but that's the point. I'm using it (among other things) to showcase the great change from the fifties to the sixties. Who knows this song? It can't be just me....

"Tammy" sung by Debbie Reynolds. My mother sang this song (it was from TAMMY AND THE BACHELOR, 1958), mostly to my little sister Cathy, who loved it (or she loved that my mother sang it to her, but still... I well remember it).

Bert the Turtle teaching us all how to "Duck and Cover" I saw a film like this one, in third grade, and it petrified me. So, of course, Franny has seen this film, as has her brother Drew.

Guide to rat finks
(you are right, all of you who answered the earlier quiz!):


Unstrung Heroes takes place in 1962 and has only a passing reference to the Cuban Missile Crisis, but the uncles in this movie remind me of Uncle Otts in END OF THE ROPE.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

Word Wealth Junior: (Franny, Our Hero, loves Word Wealth Junior)

Thanksgiving 1961 -- the Les and Stella Thacker family

Celebration of the flight of Friendship 7/John Glenn, Feb. 1962

History of Andrews Air Force Base in Camp Springs, Maryland.

I was there, at Andrews, this past week, and also got to walk through my old schools, both Camp Springs Elementary and Taney Junior High (now Thurgood Marshall Middle). Went by the old house in Frederick, in Camp Springs, went to western Maryland... more photos later this week. I want you to think about your own past, your own stories, and how you can capture them on the page.

I'm visiting my past with the intention of writing a novel that is purely fiction, but based on the past, especially my own memories of my own past. Is it autobiographical, this novel? I don't know yet. I know that it's historical fiction. 1962. Now I have landmarks, recently revisited, and I am writing ahead, full blast, ready to talk with editor Kara later this week, and ready to make this story a reality, a book you can hold in your hands.

Here's Where I'll Be This Week; Thanks, Mom

I'm traveling, all next week. Come see me, if you are in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area!

Tuesday, July 15, I'll be at the Urbana Regional Library in Frederick County, Maryland, at 3:30pm. This is a public program, so come out and visit with me, as I talk about turning my life into stories and ask you to do the same...

I'll bring lots of photos so you can see how I turned my aunts into chickens and my brother into a girl, and my Mississippi childhood into the landscape of the Aurora County novels. We'll laugh and share important thoughts about how every moment we live is worthy of story.

This trip is a homecoming for me. I lived in Urbana, in Frederick County, Maryland, for 25 years, in the same house all those years, where I raised a family and began my career as a writer. Sweetheart (now, husband) Jim visited me in Urbana for several years, and he'll come with me as we visit old haunts and enjoy suppers and lunches and breakfast and coffees with many, many friends and family. I can't wait.

This is the reward that comes on the heels of such a long stretch of writing the new novel in the Sixties trilogy... and one Sixties picture book. I owe pages to editor Kara as I start off on my journey, and I have made sure that she has plenty to read while I am gone, so we can Discuss All on my return.

On Monday, July 15 (the day before my Urbana Library appearance), I'll be speaking at the Adams County Library in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, at 2pm. This, also, is a public program, where I'll be speaking to kids who have read LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER for a summer reading extravaganza, and I'll be happy to see any other faces that show up, as I talk about RUBY, how it came to be, and how -- once again -- I use my life to create my stories. I'll ask you to do the same.

I'll be doing research next week as well. I lived in Prince George's County, Maryland -- so close to Washington, D.C. -- for seven years, from 1961 through 1968. There were no malls at the time -- I remember my mother driving down Suitland Parkway to pick up a catalog order at the only Sears and Roebuck in the area, just inside the D.C. line -- It was on Alabama Avenue, I think.

And, oh, how I remember Iverson Mall opening and me begging my mother to let me go there to shop with my friend Anne, and oh how she didn't want me to go -- neither did my father: "What are you doing there? Are you going to WANDER AROUND? WHY? Do you have a particular item in mind to purchase?"

I didn't.

Today we think nothing of "shopping." In the early 1960s -- before malls -- shopping was destination- and item-driven. Malls were a big change -- really! -- in the way Americans shopped.

I did go shopping at Iverson Mall that year, against my father's wishes, and I remember how foreign it felt. Oh, how AMAZING -- one can just... SHOP! What does that mean???

I didn't know.

So, not knowing what else to do, and wanting to please and appease, I brought back a small token of thanks for my mother -- a mirror that was also a bobby pin holder. And, here's the most important thing I remember about that shopping expedition:

Until she died in 2003, my mother used that mirror I bought her at Iverson Mall to tweeze her eyebrows. Oh, how many evenings over the next thirty years as I visited my mother in Mississippi, I watched her, fresh from the shower, wearing whatever nightgown a daughter or daughter-in-law had given her, sitting on whatever green plaid couch, I watched her pluck errant eyebrows as she watched the latest recorded movie my father wanted us all to see on VHS.

That mirror was a symbol (and she knew it) of my love for my mother. It was our secret present, one of many (and some of those presents, she gave me), in the midst all the sturm and drang and hesitation and danger and change, change, change that the Sixties (and my adolescence!) brought.

Go-on, said my mother, this woman born of the Depression and make-do, use-it-up, wear-it out... go be with your friends at this new thing, this mall, go WALK AROUND with a few dollars in your pocket, and we will figure it out.

These are some of the memories that will never leave me... and they are all tied up in this house on Coolridge Road, Washington 23 DC., in the early 1960s... the days I want to recreate and investigate next week. The days when my brother and I locked my sister out of the house -- and shed! -- (in the snow, while she was barefoot -- Oh! I am so sorry!). The days when my brother and I tossed the spaghetti onto the ceiling and watched it stick... and fall.

All those days of childhood innocence and then not-so-much-innocence, the days that FREEDOM SUMMER is born from, the days that my Mississippi memories are based upon, the days that the Sixties will not let me forget. The days of Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis and Doctor Zhivago and "Hey there, Little Red Riding Hood," and camping in a family trailer in Burnsville, North Carolina, and "It's a Grand Night For Singing."

I'm writing about those days in THE END OF THE ROPE, the first novel in the Sixties Trilogy, that takes place in 1962.

Denise Dubose was the student who had glasses thicker than mine. Ann Jones loved Julie Andrews -- had a scrapbook all about her. Judy James was tone deaf. Margie Gardner had a collie who looked like Lassie. Fred Woody (another Fred!) had a RACCOON. Gale Morris and I, next-door-neighbors and best friends, used to argue over who's yard that telephone pole was in... she gave a carnival for muscular dystrophy and I was convinced she kept the proceeds. She grew rock candy in her basement, which I thought was ultra-sophisticated and cool. Her mother served warmed tomato juice to the kids in the neighborhood who Christmas caroled each year.

My father worked at Andrews Air Force Base, where he became chief of safety for the 89th MATS. My friend Jeannie Cross's dad was a navigator on Air Force One.

We ducked and covered under our desks in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis, stood in the bitter, biting cold to wait our turn to walk past John F. Kennedy's casket in the rotunda of the capitol, made countless trips to The Smithsonian and the monuments and Fort Washington, with Mississippi family in town, including my grandmother, the real Miss Eula. I had no idea we were creating such history.

When I was ten-years-old in Camp Springs, just out of fourth grade, in 1963, I sat on the picnic table, up against the white criss-cross fence in my back yard, with my grandmother, one early Sixties summer, and counted the cars that traveled down Allentown Road in Camp Springs. We counted 567 cars in one hour, a number that astounded my grandmother (who lived in rural Jasper County, Mississippi, the setting for LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER). She was so astounded, and the hour was so meaningful, that I have remembered that number ever since.

Today, 567 cars travel down the now-widened Allentown Road in probably five minutes. When the road was widened, not long before we moved, the county put stakes in the ground, in our yard, but I did not notice them when I ran through the yard during a game of tag and fell across one of those stakes, gouging a huge chuck out of my shin -- the indentation is still there. It had almost healed by the time Halloween rolled 'round, and I begged my mother to allow me to trick-or-treat that year. She did.

The road was widened. And our beagle, Flops, died on Allentown Road.

Allentown Road was our marker and our boundary. My brother road his bike down Allentown Road to get a haircut at the new shopping center near the new 7-Eleven. My father bought building supplies from the local hardware store, Pyles Lumber Company.

I spent most of my 25-cent weekly allowance on books that I ordered through the Arrow Book Club in school. I remember clearly buying a biography of FDR through Arrow Book Club in the mid-Sixties.

"Are you sure?" my mother asked me, as I showed her my form and asked for just another fifteen cents so I could reach the required sum. "A biography of Roosevelt?"

Earnestly I nodded my head yes. I was so sure. And my mother gave me the extra fifteen cents. When that book came, in the small stack of Arrow Book Club books I received that month, I read it cover to cover. Twice.

Drew, Franny's 9-year-old brother in END OF THE ROPE, loves John Glenn and wants to be an astronaut. I can see how my life is playing itself out, in fiction. As I write a story that is entirely made up, I want to be as historically accurate as possible and -- even more -- I want to be as emotionally accurate as possible. Hence, my remembering.

So... I go home. Home to those days of brand-new yellow/green bicycles for my brother and me one Christmas, and a brick house painted white, and a gravel pit at the end of the road in the woods. A school that no longer exists as a school. And fellow travelers who will meet me in Camp Springs, and help me remember.

I'll be photographing and asking questions. I'll be refreshing my memory and I'll be creating new memories for my characters.

And, when this work is done, I will be revisiting the home I created as an adult, for my own family, in Frederick County, Maryland. A trip home would not be complete without stops at the major crossroads of my young-mother life, and my children's lives.

Husband Jim and I will go to all the old Frederick County, Montgomery County, and Washington, D.C. haunts. I will have my camera -- AND MY NOTEBOOK! -- at the ready. We'll also try to take a day and drive into western Maryland, where I spent so many years with my children, where we will float in the lake at Rocky Creek Gap State Park, and visit Penn Alps and New Germany State Park, and Yoder's Market in Grantsville, Maryland... places I have taken Jim before, so places he now remembers as well. We may even have time to visit our good friends at Frostburg University -- will y'all be around next week? Let me know!

I won't have the laptop with me. It has been in the shop for three weeks with a defective battery compartment closure, and a defunct hard drive. It will be ready for pickup on Monday, but Monday won't work for me -- we will already be on our way.

So I'm taking picture book manuscripts with me on this trip, and I will write in longhand... which I always do when I'm working on picture books. I'll check in when I can -- from libraries and from friends's houses -- but mostly I'll see you in a week, when I'm home and have lots of stories to share.

Good reading, writing, and notebooking to you all. Good memories. Even memories of the tough times. I'm wading into wonderful memories, and memories of the tough-times as well. It's all good, as Uncle Edisto tells us. We need the bitter with the sweet. All of it.

So let me soak up all of it, and see how it falls out, in my stories. You will do this as well -- will you not?

I hope you will. Let's compare notes -- and stories -- when the week is up. Just reading this makes me dizzy. I may need a vacation to recover from my vacation.

Weekly Reader

I think I'm turning into Aunt Bee. I looked in the mirror this morning and thought, "Aunt Bee. I'm Aunt BEE!" Let us not go here today.

I was up very early this morning, reading and researching, and one thing online led to another, the way it does, and soon I was reading "26 Things You Can Do RIGHT NOW to Manage Your Anxiety"at a site called Peak Oil Blues.

This depressed me. I did not realize I was that anxious. Then I read, in this article from The Guardian/UK, about America's love affair with the car (again, all this started as Sixties reading and sort of morphed), " "Suburbia has been unsustainable since its creation."

Come back, Aunt Bee! I wanna be Opie's age again!

Or do I?

In the early Sixties, the suburb was becoming king -- it had been growing and growling, monster-like, since Leavittown days. Gas was cheap, and Americans love-love-loved their big ol' cars. My father bought a new car every three years. He traded in the Olds for the Desoto, the Desoto for the Imperial, traded in the Chrysler for the... hmmm... what was it? There was a VW bug tossed in for good measure, along the way. I thought this was just the way it was done. I didn't realize that people could buy used cars and run them until their engines sputtered and wheezed into the junk heap.

Which is what I'm doing, although it may not be cost effective anymore. My car is 15 years old this year. I bought it used. The gas mileage is so-so. And it costs me close to $60 to fill my tank now. I guess that makes me anxious. Or depressed. Or... mindful, at least. I remember my father buying dishes at the Esso station, while he gassed up. A free glass with every fill up -- we bought the whole set of dishes once.

All apropos of nothing. Just thinking about those Aunt Bee days, the way we never were, supposedly, and listening to myself now, as I say, "When I was your age...." ::cringe, cringe:::

To lift my spirits, I read great writing. One of my heroes, Wendell Berry, is interviewed in The Sun this month. Somehow he manages to tell it like it is without depressing me. Favorite quote from this interview: "I don’t think we’re just stories — we’re living souls, too — but we’d be nothing without stories."

I feel better already.

Berry writes quite a bit about sustainability. I'm interested in sustainability today, on the planet, and at the page. I'm trying to write forward, revising what I've got so far, on the page, and pushing into new territory, trying to sustain my energy and focus not only for this story, but for the myriad of other tasks that lie on my desk asking for attention.

Kinship, community, connection. How do we create it, how do we sustain it? It's what I write about. I try to write even when I'm anxious, even when I start to resemble Aunt Bee.. here I am, at the page today.

I think I'll put me up some pickles.

(Rat fink -- that's right, y'all are on the ball and know your Sixties trivia. Thanks, too, for the nods to worry birds, marbles, green plastic army men, and TROLLS!)