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St. Paul and his old stories

My four-year-old asked me to spell “Oshkosh” for her the other day. We moved from there a few years ago; it’s a common enough word in our house, I suppose. Weird, but so are kids. I went with it.

“O-S,” I said, waiting for her. “S is like a snake, like this.” I drew one with my finger in the air. She copied it. “Then H.” You get it.

“Look! I spelled ‘Oshkosh’!” she said. She held it out to me: “I miss Oshkosh.”   

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I keep no fewer than 754 items on my coffee table at one time.

Bull-oh-knee, sister.

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Wonder upon wonder; wonder after wonder

This semester, Mrs. H’s sixth-graders at Mt. Hope School in Lansing are “doing journalism” with me. While I’m volunteering there twice a month, I’ll be helping them form story ideas, learn to ask good questions, and write a story about the world around them.

The first day of our lesson, I turned the corner from the folk-tale lessons we did this winter. The two topics aren’t totally unrelated. A lot of information’s conveyed in a newspaper or storybook: what the writer values, what the culture considers important. The difference in reciting The Little Red Hen or writing about cafeteria fare is simply enabling a student to investigate what’s important to them.

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Like when I was an editor at a daily paper in Wisconsin, all good stories begin with some wondering. Any sentence that begins with “I wonder” is fair game — it’s like pitching a dozen story ideas to an editor and letting her choose the best one. 

“I’ll be your editor. So, what do you wonder about?” I waited. No one bit. “OK, I’ll start: I wonder how long some of the teachers at this school have been teaching. I wonder how the district can keep up with old school buildings.” Hands started going up. “Yes! What do you wonder about?”

“I wonder why cafeteria food is so bad,” someone said.

Another: “I wonder why this school building has a bomb shelter in the basement.”

“These are great. What else do you wonder?” Three-quarters of the kids’ arms shot up.

“I wonder why all the rich people live on this side of the street and all the poor people live on that side.” Oh. That got heavy fast.

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A Big Nag, a namaste, an invitation

The Big Nag began a couple months ago; January maybe?

Let me back up. One morning, I was in one of Lansing’s elementary schools on a preschool tour. Louisa’s old enough to go next year and I’m old enough to see the value in free childcare, should we get in (please, sweet baby Jesus). This particular building is a public Montessori school called Wexford. Sounds very British (it’s not). Its neighborhood is near ours; it’s full of small, tired houses and potholes. Koi swim in a small pond outside the front door.

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On our visit, the principal walked Louisa and I by another fish tank in the lobby and into a preschool/ kindergarten room. I’d braced myself to see typical preschool fare: glitter glue, blocks, someone crying. I have children; I know what this looks like.

Instead, hear me: all was quiet. Children’s bodies lay in a loose circle on a big piece of carpet. Their little eyes were closed; they inhaled and exhaled at the teacher’s yoga instruction. We watched, mesmerized (my children are never this quiet, not even in sleep). After a minute, the class returned to “pretzel legs.”

Namaste, they all said.  

“What’s that word mean?” the teacher asked.  

A boy said, “It means, I see the good in you and you see the good in me.”

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We told stories

Dave set up a video camera last Friday in Mrs. H’s class. The sixth-graders  nervously milled around, found their seats. One girl’s hand went up as a volunteer to go first. “I just want to get it over with,” she said to the floor, a smile on her face.

She stood in front of the camera, waited for the three-two-one signal from Dave. “My story is,” she said, putting her hands inside her sleeves and swaying back and forth. When she was finished, we clapped and the others looked around to see who would volunteer next. She collapsed into her seat, smiling, and began twisting her hair into a bun.

Twenty kids went after her, each looking at their classmates or out the windows behind us, each retelling tales they’d spent weeks on as part of a Friday afternoons storytelling project I led in their classroom over a semester or so.

Their hard work was my reward. The story-collector in me heard so many that afternoon: so many folk tales, so many yarns woven with laughter and personal style. For really, a story doesn’t live on a page any more than people do. Sharing stories is what brings them to life.

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The universe is expanding

Two days ago, we thought the heater was broken: a scent like rubber burning pervaded our morning. The repair man charged us $85 to do something vaguely mechanical, the equivalent of making sure the heater was plugged in, turned on, running in MS-DOS mode. “Nothing wrong,” he said. “Maybe it’s not your heater.”

The smell persisted, filled our house. My thumb cranked up the Plug-Ins, put boxes of baking soda behind the couch.  

“Maybe it’s a skunk,” Dave suggested, stupidly naming that which I was content to pretend wasn’t happening. “Maybe a skunk sprayed the dog.”

“Shut your mouth.” I’m always, always a supportive wife. “That cannot be it.”

That was it.

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Telling stories, or what makes us human

Once upon a time, a mermaid, caught in a net, begged a poor fisherman to take her home with him to live. No, he said, I can’t. I am a lousy fisher; I have too many mouths to feed already! But she pleaded over and over: Don’t throw me back!, and finally he relented and carried her home, tucked under his arm (for do you know? Mermaids are quite small in real life). 

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His wife initially protested, but the mermaid’s charm warmed the woman. The family widened the circle for her; she became the daughter and sister they’d wanted. Most days, the mermaid sat outside, watching silently from a cart (she can’t walk with the fin). She loved to watch people talking, working, playing, singing there in that Italian seaside town. 

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Can a person deduct library fines as a child care expense? Asking for a friend

I ran the river trail this morning at dawn (which is not as early as it sounds, please hold your applause). A mallard honked at me, a squirrel scolded. I was otherwise alone, dodging icy patches and thinking about how each day now, until June, will be longer than the day before it, a miracle of earth’s tilt I only try to understand.

(Two days ago: “It’s because the sun starts to move back north, really slowly,” I told the kindergartner. “But the sun doesn’t move. The earth moves,” she said. And my index finger moved in front of my mouth like a harmonica while I thought. “Yes. Snack? Is it snack time?”)

Anyway, I’m grateful, is what I’m trying to say. Extra sunlight, little snow, and a book deadline all landing sweetly in January.

A week or so ago, this was not the case: Dave was in Dallas for an ill-advised week-long work thing; Louisa was puking. I was trying to write a sermon for Jan. 3 and 4; somehow I racked up $2.60 in library fines, completely out of character. “My life is falling apart,” I whined (with self-awareness).

“I think library fines mean you’re doing all right, relatively speaking,” a friend said. I have kind friends.

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Anyhow. As I finish the last edits on The Year of Small Things and perfect the yearlong elevator pitch for the book that I’ll have to give between now and its release (early 2017), I wanted to share some truths about writing a book you may not have considered:

  1. The number of singy-song movies you can tolerate your children watching increases the closer you get to deadline.
  2. You will incur massive amounts of library-fine debt over said sing-songy movies.
  3. You will become so tired of defending your theses that by the end of the book, your left eye will twitch when you hear key phrases or words such as “the,” “is,” and “and.”
  4. You will rob Peter (the savings account) to pay Paul (child care). Then you’ll spend 10 minutes on the Goog’ looking for the origin of that saying.
  5. You will do the math and realize that you worked the last 18 months on a book for less than ha’penny an hour.
  6. Because you hate math anyway, you’re OK with this.
  7. You’ll start to doubt all your prior convictions, such as “I hate listy blogs,” “Berry Kix are for kids,” and “Brownies are a ‘sometimes’ food.”
  8. Your fears vacillate between this being the last book you’ll ever write and this being simply the first book you’ll ever write.
  9. When a financial planner asks if you plan to “go back to work” when the youngest is in school, you choke on your gum.
  10. You’ll overhear your oldest telling her friend that “My mom writes books,” and you’ll wonder how on earth you pulled this off.

Coming later in January: No more list posts, thoughts on writing a book that new monastics will read, and more. But first ……. I go back to my writerly cave.

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