Thursday, May 21, 2015

In the Deep Woods: Our Endless Numbered Days

I was a little afraid to read Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Full (Tin House Books, 2015), because I thought it might bring up bad childhood memories.  I was also serving on a grand jury at the time and felt like I was hearing an over-abundance of traumatic family stories.  I decided to give it a go one morning as I rushed to catch a bus.  I had about 30 minutes of reading time on the ride and if it was too disturbing, I could pass it on to someone else.  Instead, I was gripped by it.  When I got out of court that day, I was grateful that I’d just missed a bus home so I had an extra 20 minutes to read what proved to a compelling novel so skillfully written that I missed my home stop twice while lost in the story.

The narrator, Peggy, was lured at age 8 by her survivalist father from their home in London for a holiday at Die Hutte, a place he’s described to her often as a perfect place to live.  Her mother, a German concert pianist, was away on tour. 

The holiday turns into an arduous journey.  Peggy wants to go home, but her father tells her his worst fears have come true.  Peggy’s mother is dead.  The whole world has been destroyed.  They are the last living humans.

Peggy, her doll and her father arrive at a decrepit cabin deep in the Bavarian woods.  It wasn’t the gingerbread house Peggy had been led to expect:

“Its wall hung with wooden shingles, and where they were missing, dark gaps grimaced like a mouth with knocked out teeth.  The front door hung open at an angle, and the single window had warped and popped its glass.  The only thing to remind me of home was the bramble that scrambled across the roof and dropped in loops through the gaps in the shingles that were nailed there too.  Searching for light, the bramble had reached the window and now stuck its blind tendrils out, beckoning us to join it inside.
“Saplings sprouted unchecked against the walls, so it appeared as if Die Hutte, ashamed of its disheveled appearance, was trying, and failing, to hide behind them.  I half expected a trail of breadcrumbs to lead off into the trees that pressed in from both sides.”

The book opens when she is back home, at age 17, trying to adjust to the fact that the world is very much alive, her mother loves her, and her father had lied.  Fuller braids past and present together in a vivid, harrowing narrative that wears the grim beauty of a fairy tale.  Peggy even changes her name to Rapunzel, or Punzel, as she and her father make their way to Die Hutte. 

Life in the woods is brutal.  Her father had already groomed her for a survivalist life – taught her how to find edible plants and mushrooms, how to trap and skin animals.  His introduction to daily life in the wild is brutal, but he also made her a piano:

“The piano was clunky and crude, but I thought that maybe it was the most beautiful thing.  Despite all the whittling, many of the keys stuck together and continual playing gave me blisters and splinters.  Several times my father took it apart to shave off a sliver and pack it all together again.  And yet I could press a key and hear the note it made, release and the key would pivot back to a resting position and the sound would stop.
“The creation of the piano had taken the summer and the best days of the autumn.  We should have been gathering and storing food and wood for the winter and, too late, we discovered that music could not sustain us.”

They come close to starvation, but they subsist.  And years pass, their sense of time reverts to sense of season.  Their teeth rot.  Punzel’s long hair becomes a mat of tangles.  One day, she finds a pair of boots and her search for the owner ultimately leads her back into civilized life.  Fuller's plotting kept me enthralled through to the end.

As I read the book, I reflected on the human need for story, for illusion, for making sense of what may ultimately be unfathomable.  The characterization of story and music, the way Peggy uses them to make life more manageable, is part of the magic of this book.  The magic is old and not necessarily kind – more of what the old original Grimm tales were like.  They enchant and mesmerize but are frightening and troubling, too.

And as her story progresses, you see and feel how the way Peggy/Punzel has made a story for herself that has lightened her unbearable burdens. 

This is not meant to be a settling or calming book, but it’s deep and thoughtful, alive and haunting.  It captivated me as I pondered the especially challenging cases I was hearing on the grand jury, the stories people told, how a loved family member can suddenly become an abuser.  People and families are so complicated.  If we couldn't create stories, how would we survive? 

Claire Fuller is an artist and writer who lives in Winchester, England.  This is her first novel.  You can read more about her by clicking here.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Rilla Alexander and Her Idea

I got the opportunity to meet the children’s book maker Rilla Alexander at Green Bean Books recently.  She was there to read her book Her Idea, (from Flying Eye Books) a lively picture book about how to work on all those wonderful ideas we have.

I went with two boys from my neighborhood, Bridge Meadows, Tomas and Noah Tanatchangsang, ages 5 and 9, respectively -- though they look much older with their mustaches bought for $1. at the Green Bean mustache vending machine.

Rilla engaged the boys immediately and talked with them about their own art.  They talked about dragons, dinosaurs and making books.  She showed them a recent sketch of an alligator of hers on her cell phone.   

The book she was going to share with us came from ideas about a book with eyes, a book about ideas, and a book that is a book about books.  All merged together in Her Idea

It stars her alter ego, Sozi, a little masked girl, who has lots of ideas.   

Her Idea has a die cut cover for the ideas to jump in and out of.

Karishma stopped by earlier and enjoyed the interactive elements of the cover

Take off the book cover, and you see its personality.

Sozi has boatloads of ideas.

She's all gung-ho to work on those ideas.

But working  proves more difficult than Sozi realized.
She dissolves into lethargy with so many wadded up pieces of paper they become a big beast.  But a book brings her hope and a way her capture her ideas.
And other stuff, too!

I love that Rilla writes books that honor books.  Her first book, The Best Book in the World, was about the way a book can pull you in, even in the midst of the busiest of days.

For Her Idea, Rilla designed little idea toys.

She brough squillions of ideas

She also brought a big book for us to fill with ideas.

Noah's idea was to go to the moon to see the stars

Tomas's idea was for a yellow tricerotops named Banana

Her Idea is a fun read for kids and former kids alike, because we all have great ideas up to the point when we have to work on them.  Rilla has a great video on the creative process and this book on Vimeo, which you can see here:

We had such a good time with Rilla's presentation, Tomas asked me if we could go back next week-end to see that cool lady again.  Unfortunately, we don't get to see Rilla right away, but we can always go to the programs at Green Bean, an independent children's bookstore here in Portland, Oregon.

You can find out more about them and their events here;

It's easy to get lost in a great book

And a great book gets a good laugh!
Rilla is from Australia, has lived in Berlin and is now a resident of Portland, Oregon.  She’s a designer and graphic artist whose work has appeared on everything from “toys to teacup to busses and buildings."  Her website is here:  

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Friday, May 15, 2015

Some Notes on Grand Jury Duty

When I started my month of grand jury duty, the spring allergy season was fully upon us.  The jury room was stocked with utilitarian boxes of tissues that were thin and hard to pull out of the box.  They were grainy and flimsy.  After using them for a few days I got a chapped nose.

Seven of us started our jury service to county courthouse on a Wednesday.  We heard a lot of identity theft and car theft cases.  Then we heard a few difficult testimonies where victims cried – a slight woman with translucent skin whose husband beat her.  A homeless rape victim told her story in a hardened smoky voice.  I could hardly bear to watch them struggle with the damned tissue box only to dry their eyes with scratchy paper. 

When I went to get my medicine at the pharmacy that week-end, I bought two boxes of super soft luxury tissues.  I never buy that.  I’m happy with what I get at the Dollar Tree, and even that was better than what was in the jury room.  The ones I bought were labeled soothing and healing.  They released easily and felt velvety against my skin.  One of the allergy sufferers in the room practically danced with delight when I’d brought them in.

I put together this journal entry during jury service to help keep in tact my sense of balance and compassion.  Toni Bernhad writes beautifully about dealing with chronic illness, and while I served I got the feeling that the whole world has a chronic illness .
Each morning I saw the chaotic entry way, where everyone had to take off jewelry, belts and shoes.  I got a pass to get in without being searched.  I use a wheelchair, though, so I had to go in through the back accessible entrance way.  It was also the prisoner entrance.  If a prisoner was being taken in or out of the courthouse, I had to stand aside while armed sheriff’s deputies came out and stopped pedestrian traffic. 

Once a woman walking by was so lost in thought that the deputy had to stand directly in front of her and wave his arms in her face.  She seemed irritated that something blocked her path.  She argued with the deputy for a while, but eventually waited like the rest of us while the shackled man was transported from the sheriff’s car to the courthouse.

The sidewalk traffic went back to normal, as if nothing happened, and I waited for the courthouse security guard to let me in the building.

It’s an older building.  Many tears have been shed in the somber halls and courtrooms.  In the grand jury, you don’t hear a full case, only what the prosecutor presents.  I heard from police on the scene, witnesses, and victims.  We had to decide if there was enough evidence to indict the person arrested for the crime.  Then they’d start the process for either a plea bargain or a trial. 

We heard one rape case with a juvenile victim.  She was shaky and cried a lot.  She wiped her face over and over, then worried the tissue in her hands, knotting and rolling it as she testified. 
It made no real difference that I’d bought good tissues, but it was the one piece of the process I could soften.  For myself, too.  I can’t watch the victims cry and not cry myself.  

I thought about the thin tissue layer between a blessed day and a cursed one -- how one cursed day changes the course of your life.

But we have to breathe, even when there are irritants in the air. 

Often we don’t see them, but they make our eyes water nonetheless. 

All of my notes became part of the court record and I wasn’t allowed to doodle on those, but I kept a small 3.5 x 5 inch sketch book to keep track of the case numbers and got to doodle a bit on those.  Ii couldn’t sketch any of the people that testified or the jury members, so I stuck to borders and a few quick sketches of things in the jury room.

Our break area

Vehicle code tome

On the last day we had the world's most boring Skype testimony

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Sunday, May 3, 2015

The 12 Lessons for Greatness

January of last year, I was invited to join the YuhuHugs team and help create a series of stories and essays that would help kids deal with tough situations successfully.  YuhuHugs is an innovative, international team that created the Dreamhut, an interactive indoor-playhouse designed to awaken a child’s creativity.  Their motto is “Play more, be more.”  I love that!

During the planning for the Dreamhut, they worked with their children, getting ideas from them on what would make a perfect play environment.  Both parents and children on this team knew the power of stories.  Soon, two storybook children arrived in their collective imagination, young Yuhu and Hugs, who came to spark dreams and adventures. 

That’s where I came in.  I wrote stories about Yuhu and Hugs, and essays about the 12 values for parents.  What’s resulted is the 12 Lessons For Greatness.

The project was so successful, the team decided to offer the books to everyone and not just to those who bought the Dreamhut.  Now the books are available both as ebooks and print editions. 

Yuhu and Hugs are neighbors and best friends.  Young Hugs and his dog, Lucky, are naturally optimistic, while Yuhu has a harder time seeing hope when she’s faced with challenges.  This is not helped by her rather pessimistic cat, Jinx.  But Yuhu is excited by life, she just can't keep still.  Even her name is a little celebration – woo-hoo Yuhu!  Life is too short to waste even a minute without some sort of activity going on.  Obviously this leaves little time for mundane tasks like picking up and organizing.  Yuhu's dad drives a truck all over the country.  Her mom is a writer.

Hugs on the other hand, loves to keep everything in its place.  Hugs loves to hug people.  He’s a natural pacifist, has a way with animals, and wants to travel all over the world, into outer space, and even to the bottom of the ocean.  His father is a doctor and his mother is a pet psychologist.

Both families have grandparents, uncles, and aunts to deal with.  Their families are multicultural and sometimes things can get confusing for the kids.  Yuhu and Hugs learn new things everyday – and with a little magic, wonder, and optimism, they learn life’s most valuable lessons.

I live in an intergenerational community called BridgeMeadows, set up to support families with children adopted out of the foster care system.  I mentor children in art, reading, and writing.  I spent a lot of time while working on the 12 Lessons for Greatness talking with the children at Bridge Meadows about values.  I was interested in what they thought of each story and any insights they had.  They had plenty!  I think they made the stories better. 

In the stories, there are surprising characters:  a grandmother who works with monkeys, a grandfather who plays wheelchair basketball.  There are talking animals, trips back in time, and flights into outer space. 

In the series, they learn about:

This sounds like a lot of heavy information to teach a child but Yuhu and Hugs make the lessons delightful.  They have fantastic adventures but they also have to deal with everyday situations.
If you’d like to get more familiar with the ideas behind the 12 Lessons for Greatness, look at the Play More Be More website.  You can order the books there, too.

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Sunday, April 19, 2015

Beautiful Passage of the Week: Girl in the Dark

This passage is from the book Girl in the Dark by Anna Lyndsey, 2015, a memoir of a woman with such extreme light sensitivity that she must stay in absolute darkness most of the time or she suffers from extreme pain.  She developed it later in life, just as she was developing a new relationship.  It's a story of chronic illness, and a bit of a love story, too.  This short passage is a reflection on lost friendships:

"Friendship plants itself as a small unobtrusive seed; over time, it grows thick roots that wrap around your heart.  When a love affair ends, the tree is torn out quickly, the operation painful but clean.  Friendship withers quietly, there is always hope of revival.  Only after time has passed do you recognize that it is dead, and you are left, for years afterwards, pulling dry brown fibers from your chest."

If you'd like to see more of it, here's a link to NPR's first read.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Emotional Calculous: How to Be Human By Florida Frenz

“Emotions can be broken down into logical pieces most of the time, but what’s hard to grasp is the cause and effect relationship that comes with the emotion.  When a person is sad (the cause), they might cry, listen to slow soft music, contact friends as an effect of the sadness.  It’s a bit more complicated than simply subtracting two, isn’t it?   Still, there are even more complicated situations than that such as looking at an effect and guessing what emotion caused it.  Then, there’s the ability to do that for the feelings of others.  Honestly, don’t you think all those normal people do emotional calculous every day without realizing it?”   
~Florida Frenz

How to Be Human: Diary of an Autistic Girl, by Florida Frenz (a pseudonym), is an extraordinary look into the life of a 15 year old girl with autism.  Although her diagnosis was pretty grim at age 3, the work she did with her parents and her therapist, Shelah Moss, helped Florida become more comfortable in what she came to understand as an alien world.  She explains herself this way:

Though Florida was diagnosed with autism and “mental retardation,” her family and support team were able to break down and address each of her learning and socializing issues.  They tackled each problem as it arose.  When at age 8, Florida realized what it meant to have autism and how different she was from other children, she began working to overcome those parts of her autism that kept her isolated from the rest of the world.  How to Be Human is the result of that process.  Moss says, “She is a gifted artist and writer so using art seemed like an obvious tool to help her work through understanding what, to her, were foreign concepts.  Each picture represents hours where we discussed or read about or role-played different scenarios.  The pictures represent eight years of growth.”

Florida generously shares her hard earned lessons:

I still have trouble figuring out faces.

This is a wonderful introduction to what it’s like to have autism, but even more so, it's re-introduction to how hard it is to be human.

We all have trouble with bullying ourselves

You can see there’s lots of humor and insight in Florida’s writing.  It humanizes her.  She has autism, she feels like an alien, but she’s a unique and lively girl, too.  I’ve read her book to 6 and 7 year old girls, and have had a 12 year old girl read it.  All of them could identify with the struggles Florida has with the calculous of human emotions.  The art is funny, inviting and inspiring to them.  I’m using it now in a class on journaling for adults to show what a powerful means of expression drawing can be.
All of us struggle with how to figure out when someone is being truthful.  Florida’s insights about bullies, cliques and true friendship are touching.  There's a rare honesty and authenticity in this slim primer.

If you want to understand what it’s like to have autism, this books takes you right to the heart of the matter.  Of if just you feel you might have accidentally wound up on the wrong planet, it might help you feel like you belong here after all.   

The book is beautifully bound and fits nicely into your hands.  Creston Books is a small independent press publishing beautiful and innovative books for children of all ages.  They're having their books printed in the United States, so that's pretty cool.  You can see their catalog by clicking here

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Saturday, April 4, 2015

Eternity in the Flowers

It’s hard to do a proper review of everything I read and love, so occasionally, I’m going to post an excerpt or picture from a book I love here on my blog. 

This is a meditation on death from the book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon, which I picked up again and can’t put down.  The narrator, Christopher, has autism and was accused of killing a dog.  He is trying to puzzle out who really did it and it leads to many other puzzles that he was unaware of until he started trying to be a detective.  I like this passage, particularly now, when spring is here and all the plants are reviving and blooming and we all feel a sense of hope being resurrected from the earth:

                What actually happens when you die is that your brain stops working and your body rots, like Rabbit did when he died and we buried him in the earth at the bottom of the garden.  And all his molecules were broken down into other molecules and they went into the earth and were eaten by worms and went into the plants and if we go and dig in the same place in 10 years there will be nothing except his skeleton left.  And in 1,000 years even his skeleton will be gone.  But that’s all right because he is a part of the flowers and the apple tree and the hawthorn bush now.
                When people die they are sometimes put into coffins, which means that they don’t mix with the earth for a very long time until the wood of the coffin rots.
                But Mother was cremated.  This means she was put into a coffin and burned and ground up and turned into ash and smoke.  I do not know what happens to the ash and I couldn’t ask at the crematorium because I didn’t go to the funeral.  But the smoke goes out of the chimney and into the air and sometimes I look up into the sky and I think that there are molecules of Mother up there, or in the clouds over Africa or the Antarctic, or coming down as rain in the rain forests in Brazil, or in snow somewhere.

--Mark Haddon