Friday, August 22, 2014

Tomatoes and ducks and stories

This is one of those summers when it seems to help to remember Anita Silvey's story at the Book-a-Day Almanac of  Robert McCloskey sitting in his apartment in New York City trying to draw a couple of ducks he had adopted. It must have been around 1939.  The Nazi army was on the march. People were suffering in many places.

But Robert McCloskey wanted to tell a story about a family of ducks finding a home. I have wondered many times if he ever had doubts about this work, these ducks. And if he did, how did he overcome them? I'm glad he did. How many hundreds of thousands of kids have loved the story of Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Oack, Pack, and Quack? And a story of family finding home is just what we need for the hard times.

These are hard times, too. So much horror. So much suffering.  Every week brings a new outrage.

In "The Testing Tree" Stanley Kunitz writes:

In a murderous time
   the heart breaks and breaks
      and lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go
   through dark and deeper dark
      and not to turn.
I am looking for the trail.
   Where is my testing-tree?
      Give me back my stones!
Perhaps what we do in a summer like this, while "looking for the trail," is just keep doing, writing our stories, picking tomatoes, saving seeds, showing up. Saving seeds is a balancing thing. We look at the mucky water, the mess, and hope that something will come of that, something nourishing, something that reminds us that the earth is a place of gifts, too.

It seems trite, perhaps too easy, to say that stories are balancing things. But they are. When my brother used to be upset as a child the old uncle who lived with us would tell him a story of a fishing trip they were going to take. They'd discuss the bait, they'd talk about the fish, they'd talk about the stream. They planned that trip many times. And they never took it.  We love to think of getting away--and coming home to Boston Gardens, of triumph over difficulty, of a good stone soup made with neighbors who thought they had nothing to share, of a woman who sowed lupine seeds, of a Knufflebunny found.

What we put against the dark is the best work we can do--out of the mucky fermenting, the slime, we hope to make something good.

Before we sharpen the pencils and go back to work, how about a song from Harry Belafonte and the Muppets? It works for all times--especially the hard ones.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

When the world is too much with us

Some weeks it just seems like "the world is too much with us," as Wordsworth said, not with the getting and spending necessarily, but with the unbearable sadness of one who made us laugh, the suffering on an Iraq mountaintop, in hospitals and huts in Africa, in Gaza and Israel, the outrage in St. Louis. It seems almost frivolous to be thinking of making books for children.

But the world will keep tumbling along--and the children will keep coming and growing and needing and waiting for our best books. So it was especially heartening to me to read this morning this wonderful book by Jamaican poet Olive Senior--Anna Carries Water (Tradewind, 2013).

The book is the story of Anna, the smallest in her family, who wants more than anything "to carry water on her head."  We don't all carry water, but we do all want something more than anything, especially the smallest of us want to do something that means we are not quite so small.

Olive Senior gives us a character all children can relate to and I'm glad that my grandchildren, who only have to climb on a stool to turn a tap, can read and care about this girl who carries water with her other family members. Carries, "Water for cooking and drinking./Water for washing dishes./Washing faces./Cleaning teeth./And for washing dirty feet at night before putting them into clean beds."

I love that washing dirty feet detail. It speaks of love and care and tucking in at night. Tucking in at night crosses borders.

Read this story and see for yourself how Olive Senior makes a neighbor of Anna and the illustrator, Laura James, gives us vibrant colors and almost-magical birds. Any book that gives us more neighbors, gives us a friend in a faraway place who has wants and spills and triumphs is fun but not frivolous.

Also not frivolous are these portulacas, who (sorry for the personal pronoun but I do think of them as friends) just volunteered in a little corner of our yard.

And these Swiss Chard, most generous of vegetables.