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Here  You Are, Alive

And that is just the point . . . how the world, moist and beautiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. “Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?”
                                                                                                                     —Mary Oliver

“Here you are, alive.”

And to that fact, I don’t believe there is any more serious response than pure rejoicing.

I don’t remember doing a whole lot of rejoicing over pure aliveness when I was a child. I did, I suppose, what most children do, accepted my life as an unasked for gift, one that was important simply because it was mine.

We were not a particularly rejoicing family. My parents were responsible, certainly. Hardworking. As a family we were courteous and respectful most of the time. And I do remember with real affection my mother’s tuneless humming as she went about her household tasks, especially in her beloved kitchen.

I also remember, carry in my bones, in fact, my father’s deepest philosophy expressed in a single statement: “Life is a dirty deal.” He had supporting arguments, too.

I listened, of course. How could I not? I was curious, bemused, silently skeptical.

Maybe it was my mother’s humming and the way she sometimes said, “Oh, Daddy!” in a tone of gentle disgust when he said such things that made it possible for me to stay skeptical.

6_3cloudsStill, I was the kind of child who paused on the red-slag road halfway up the hill to turn back to gaze at clouds piling and piling behind me, too caught in their beauty to hurry away from the approaching storm. I was the kind of young adult who rose out of the dark thrall of existentialism to decide—simply decide, because I knew there could be no proof—that my life mattered. Mattered for no reason except that I felt it did, though I knew my father would have told me that my feelings proved nothing at all. And so I decided to matter and decided, too, that if my life mattered, the lives around me had to have significance as well. Because surely I couldn’t be the only creature to possess such a gift.

In the years upon years that have followed, the gift has been sharpened—I can even say blessed—by an evolving and inevitable acquaintance with death. Can any of us truly appreciate the sweetness of the air that fills our lungs before we have met death?

My comment on it all now? Past the deaths of both of my parents, past the death of my son, past the deaths of too-many friends . . .

Only that nothing is more sacred than life in all its forms. My own life, the lives of my daughter, my partner, my grandchildren, my friends. My dear little dog. The life of the lilac bush blooming in front of my house and of the dandelions so exuberantly blessing my lawn. The lives that are no more and the lives that are not yet. The life of this blue and white planet, moist and beautiful as Mary Oliver reminds us, and of this ever-expanding universe.

All sacred.

Year after year, I have lived into this knowledge, and now I have found a way to put my belief into words. I have framed my comment on being alive. My hymn to the universe. A kind of 21st century creation myth. All gathered into less than 450 words as the text of a picture book to be called The Stuff of Stars.

The Stuff of Stars says that the creative impulse that exploded with the Big Bang goes on exploding, unfolding, innovating still. It says that life comes out of death, that we have planets only because stars died, that we have humans only because dinosaurs died, that we have children only because our ancestors died, making room, making room.

It says that we are all made out of the same stuff. Butterflies and giraffes. Redwoods and moss. Leaping water and steadfast stone. All stardust.

The Stuff of Stars says that that you and I are stardust come to consciousness, at last, and that is the deepest wonder of all.

What a privilege to have gathered the skills to speak my heart’s truth in such a simple form.

What a privilege to be alive!



More Writers Needing Writers

vcfaFrom time to time I find I need to mention the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I mention it because, though I no longer teach there, the program is very dear to my heart and because I’m convinced it’s the best of its kind in the country. Well, in the world if we want to cast that wide a net.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll add that I was one of the founding faculty and the first Faculty Chair as well as a longtime teacher at VCFA, so I’m not exactly unbiased.

Not everyone can commit to the rigor and expense of graduate work, and I don’t want to hold an MFA degree up as the only way in. It isn’t. Most of the faculty who teach at VCFA arrived at their publishing careers without any academic training in writing whatsoever. We simply learned by doing. But it is, for many of the participants, the best possible short-cut to writing success.

And it is something else. Apart from teaching writers how to produce truly professional work, VCFA connects writers with other writers.

Most students leave the program with lifelong bonds in place, bonds with people who share the same language, the same vision, the same world, and that is probably as valuable as the two intensive years of working with mentors. To reinforce those bonds, VCFA students each summer set up a mini rez, a brief residency on campus while the regular residency is in session, where they can hear inspiring talks from other writers, meet with editors and agents, and most important of all, reestablish their bonds with one another.

I am including here a response to my last blog about my own experience of reconnecting with my fellow writers. This by Jane LeGrow, a graduate of VCFA’s low residency MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. It says it all:

Your post is timely; I just returned from the Alumni Mini Residency at VCFA.

Although I look forward to reconnecting with my VCFA friends each year, I was feeling ambivalent about going in the days before the trip. I’d been trying for months to finish my current YA novel in advance of the Mini Rez, but my work life has recently exploded and gotten in the way of my writing. It’s a temporary situation (I hope) but very frustrating and stressful. I began to think, “what’s the point of going? Everyone’s going to ask what I’m working on and I’m tired of trying to explain why I’m not done yet.” I didn’t have a finished manuscript, I didn’t have a pitch prepared for the agents and editors, I didn’t even have a reading prepared.

But I gave myself a pass to just go and listen. And my writer friends surprised and delighted me yet again with their sympathy and encouragement and almost magical ability to rejuvenate my shriveled little soul. These are my people and they reminded me that I’m not alone and that what I’m trying to do is not only possible, but vitally important.

We talked about our writing dilemmas; they took seriously my concerns about how to make the sentient squirrels in my story ‘work.’ And I wound up participating much more than I expected and even connecting with a bunch of new writer friends.

By Sunday I found myself wishing I didn’t have to go home. On the drive home a verse from Mike O’Connor’s wonderful translation of Chia Tao kept running through my head: “When I find you again it will be in mountains/ this morning I lose you once more to farewell.”

I’ll see you next year, my beloved writer tribe.

And I’ll conclude by saying, may every writer out there have such a tribe.

Writers Needing Writers

vcfaWriters need other writers. I’ve recently returned from a trip to the Pacific Northwest, a time of re-gathering, refueling, reacquainting myself with myself. A time of reestablishing my connection with other writers.

It’s not travel that refuels. Not for me, anyway. In fact, it’s not travel I seek at all. I am at core a homebody. I love my life, my home, my study, my routine and have little need to wander. On this trip in particular the magic lay in reconnecting with much-loved friends from my years teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

I flew from Minneapolis/St. Paul to Portland, Oregon, to meet Ellen Howard, a long-time friend and travel companion. Then she and I took Amtrak to Vancouver, B.C.—a spectacular ride; the tracks border the ocean most of the way—to meet Sarah Ellis.

Lots and lots of talk in between patches of exploring Vancouver. (Are you going to retire . . . ever? What would it mean to retire? Can we stay current in this changing world? What makes middle-grade fiction—that traditional base and current step-child of juvenile literature—so compelling?)

celeb_CalifThen Ellen and I re-boarded Amtrak for Seattle where we stayed with Laura Kvasnosky. More exploration, more good talk. We also took photos of Mr. Geo, the guiding character in my Celebrating the 50 States books, in various classic state-of-Washington environments to support the publicity for the upcoming book and gathered at a picnic with some VCFA folks.

Back in Portland we attended Ellen’s writers’ group where I saw more former VCFA faculty and met a couple of them the next day for brunch and a walk through a delicious book store.

Then home. Remembering deep kindnesses such as the banana bread Sarah had waiting for me when we arrived. It was gluten free, and since I’ve been gluten sensitive for years it was a delight usually forbidden to me. And then in Seattle, John, Laura’s husband, made gluten free popovers one morning, something I’ve never had. As you can tell, I was well fed.

But far more importantly, my soul was fed.

We talked and talked and talked. Good talk. Easy talk. Important talk. I grow weary sometimes with being a writer in social situations. What occupies my mind and my heart is too strange to bring into normal conversation.

I appreciate the moment when someone, trying to draw the quiet person I am into a group conversation, says something like, “Are you still writing?” I appreciate it because I know the question is meant to be polite. But it’s like being asked if I’m still breathing, and I find any kind of response difficult.

Perhaps even worse, if more appropriate, is “What are you working on now?” Because I know the truth is no one really cares what I’m working on now unless that someone is my agent, an editor the work is intended for or . . . another writer. When I try to answer such a question in a normal social environment, if I respond with more than a three-word sentence, I can always detect the instant when the asker’s eyes glaze over.

Writers care about one another’s work. The struggle, nearly 200 pages into a novel, to rethink and reframe the entire piece, is comprehensible. The need to make a whiney, needy character likable is an important point of discussion. Insights into today’s picture-book market—if anyone actually has such a thing—are fascinating.

And so now I am back home and, thanks to my generous hosts, I am heartened, energized, filled to the brim . . . and ready to climb back into the cocoon of my daily work.

And I am grateful.

Grateful for my good friends who fed me in multiple ways.

Grateful for writers everywhere who create the world I live in. 

Grateful, especially, for those who read this blog. You help me know, even in the quiet world of my study, that I am not alone.

Thank you!

Going into the Story

art by Jadson José, Wikimedia Commons

art by Jadson José, Wikimedia Commons

A few weeks ago I talked about an e-mail I received from Maia. She was responding to a young novella of mine called The Very Little Princess. And she said she “wanted to go into the story.”

We all recognize reading that way. How often have I looked up from reading a novel set in a warm, sunny clime to be surprised at the snow outside my window? (No longer, thank goodness. Our intractable Minnesota winter has finally melted away.) Or found myself feeling uncomfortably guilty from inside someone else’s badly behaved character? Or had to give myself a shake when I set a book aside before I could return to the present and the dinner waiting to be prepared?


Art by Cécile Anker, 1886

I remember reading that way most intensively as a child, swallowing books whole and then emerging, dazed, into my own small world, which, curiously enough, was still waiting for me.

I heard a description once of a toddler who, on being read Goodnight Moon, set the book on the floor and stepped on it, clearly trying to enter that green room. The child burst into tears when she found she couldn’t climb into Margaret Wise Brown’s world that way.

What is the point of giving over our psyches to stories? When we read, when we write, are we simply escaping the Minnesota snow or the narrow constrictions—perhaps even the ethical ones—of our own lives? Certainly that’s part of what we’re doing. But escape, while it has a bad name—literature labeled “escapist” is certainly not held in high regard—is surely the first step toward something much larger.

It depends on what we escape into. Something that enlarges our view of the world, of ourselves? Something that enlarges our hearts?

I once read about a man who said, “I don’t like music. I don’t want other people putting their emotions into me.”

First, I was stunned that it is possible for anyone not to like music—all music—in a generic way. Second, I wondered why experiencing others’ emotions might be so threatening.

We are community creatures. Solitary confinement is the worst punishment that can be visited upon us. We actually need to feel not just our own fear and lust and tenderness and boredom but our neighbor’s, too.

Obviously, we do that by living among other human beings. But we can extend our experience, our empathy, our understanding by going into the story, too, experiencing other people’s stories, by experiencing art of all kinds.

It’s what we writers of fiction do every day we sit down to work. We move inside someone else’s world, experience someone else’s feelings. If our stories are effective, it’s what our readers do, too.

What a privilege it is to create worlds for others to inhabit.

What satisfaction there is in expanding our own consciousness through building new worlds for ourselves.

Still, I wonder sometimes. What becomes of a life that is spent inhabiting imaginary others? Would it be better, somehow, to be crafting cabinets or tilling a garden? In these long hours I spend intertwined in story, am I escaping my own life?

Oh . . . you were expecting an answer? Sorry. I don’t have one. Only the question, followed immediately by the urge to return to the latest world I’ve created.