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Snow Day

Watch101 Dalmationsing snow fall reminds me of a scene from one of my favorite books as a kid, 101 Dalmations. Pongo and Missis have rescued the puppies from Cruella DeVil and are escaping across the English countryside.

Missus said, smiling, “How soft and gentle the snow is!”

Pongo was not smiling. He cried, “If they sleep on until it has covered them, they will never wake—they will freeze to death beneath that soft, gentle snow! Wake up, pups! Wake up!”

In another of my favorites, The Call of the Wild, Buck the newbie sled dog finds himself alone on a Yukon night. With drooping tail and shivering body, very forlorn indeed, he aimlessly circled the tent. Suddenly the snow gave way beneath his forelegs and he sank down. Scall of the wildomething wriggled under his feet. He sprang back, bristling and snarling, but a friendly little yelp reassured him. A whiff of warm air ascended to his nostrils and there, curled up under the snow in a snug ball, lay Billee.

Another lesson. So that was the way they did it, eh?

Snow. To Missus the romantic, it’s beautiful. To Pongo, “one of the keenest minds in dogdom,” it’s deadly. And to Buck on his steep learning curve, it’s a fact of nature to be endured or put to use. Decades after I read those books, the dogs’ different perspectives still come to mind as I watch my own dogs in the snow.

Great literature lives in you forever, and that’s why children need it. So that for the rest of their lives they can see the world through others’ eyes. So that snow can be a thing of beauty, danger, and refuge, even as they, like every other kid from Virginia on North today, mouth those magical words.

snowdogsSnow day!







Good dirt, cheap

I need to buy some good dirt, cheap. This seems a very strange thing to say.

In Knoxville, we have a friend with an urban farm. One day, when we were moving her portable chicken coop, she scooped up a handful of dirt. “See how it holds together?” she said. “This is good dirt.”

Margaret made that dirt. By composting, and moving her chickens, andtree and dirt rotating crops. Margaret’s been in that house for over twenty years, and I doubt she ever had to buy dirt.

Sigh. Bob and I compost, but we’ll probably have sold this house by the time we make enough good dirt for our dream garden. If we want serviceberries and dogwoods, we have to buy some dirt.

Buying dirt, because composting isn’t fast enough, got me thinking about my latest encounter with kidslang. Every year my sixth graders do a project about friendship. They start by listing slang terms for “friend.” Three years ago, BFF was tops. A year later it was BFFL, Best Friends for Life. Now it’s BAE, Before Anyone Else. Apparently, “no one” says BFFL anymore.

Who knew? My grasp of kidslang is like our compost barrel. Way too slow for the age of social media.

One of my favorite dictionaries, Slang through the Ages, categorizes slang by century. And why not? Shouldn’t words last more than a year? Wouldn’t you love to run out to Kroger’s for some cackling farts? (That’s 17th century slang for eggs.) But imagine writing a dictionary of twenty-first century slang. The words are outdated before we finish typing them. We occupy our slang the way we occupy our houses: they’re home for a short while, and then we move on.

Meanwhile, does anybody know where I can get a truckload of good dirt, cheap?

Fruitcake Magic

ornamentsMom says we’re late taking down our Christmas stuff. Past January 6, she says.

But I like a lingering Christmas. The reds and greens. The goofy kitsch. Peruvian decorations and Tolkien’s Christmas book and an Elvis mouse who sings “Jingle Bell Rock.”

Mom’s right, though. The holidays are past. I know this because the final scrap of the most important Christmas tradition disappeared into Bob’s stomach a week ago. I speak of Mom’s annual masterpiece, the Christmas fruitcake.

FruitcakeMouse gets a bum rap. The Science Museum of Virginia just celebrated its fifth “Fruitcake Science” exhibit. “Watch fruitcakes stand up to blowtorches!” No thanks. My Mom is English. She knows from fruitcakes. Nuts, fruit, dark batter. Drenched in brandy and set to age a month or more. My Mom made TWO fruitcakes this year, carefully divvying them up between her four adult children, because otherwise all hell might break loose.

Mom baked them clandestinely. She blanched and slivered almonds, gently folded nuts and fruit into batter. She greased and floured the angel food cake pans. By the time I offered to help, the cakes were already wrapped in foil and aging in the fridge.

To paraphrase Gandalf, mothers “are amazing creatures. You can learn everything about them in a month, and yet after a hundred years they can still surprise you.” And when I try to figure out why an 87 year-old with bad knees would tackle this huge job alone, I remember a song made famous by Mercedes Sosa. “Like birds in the air,” the song goes, “my mother’s hands arrive early. Wood and flour, and the oven heats up, and the ordinary becomes magical.”

At 87,Cake Mom’s still the white wizard at the heart of our Christmas traditions. Thank God for that!

(And yes, Mom. We’ll take down the decorations today.)

Resurrection food


My favorite Bible stories involve resurrection and food. In one, Jesus revives a young girl and tells her parents to give her something to eat. In the other, Jesus himself has been resurrected, and he cooks breakfast for the disciples.

Resurrection is a blockbuster miracle, but what about the mustard seed miracles? Like Jesus telling those awestruck parents, “Give her something to eat.” Or laying out charcoal and cooking breakfast, making eating—that most biological act—part of the miracle.

Which brings me to oliebolen, Dutch apple fritters traditionally served at New Year’s. I made some the 31st, but my sister made them New Year’s Day, using a recipe my Dad wrote down 30 years ago. She said his recipe didn’t use an electric mixer. You just stick your hands in the batter and mix it up.

When Fran told me that, I saw Dad’s hands and heard his laugh. Just as my first bite of oliebol Tuesday night transported me to a New Year’s Day in 1975, biting into a greasy, still-hot fritter as Dad laid it on a paper towel-lined plate.

Food breaks the shackles of time, as Marcel Proust knew:

When from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest.

Food is magic. Eating is religious. My New Year’s resolution is to find our way back to the dining room table, where we’ll make some miracles together.

Happy New Year!

Of Cabbages and Kings

In A Wrinkle in Time, Meg Murry sets out across the universe and her launchpad is a vegetable garden. That’s where she returns, too. Having tesseracted to a distant galaxy, she reappears in our world in a broccoli patch.

I’ve been thinking about Madeleine L’Engle lately. And about vegetables, since yesterday, when I sliced a red cabbage in half. Because of all the beautiful things in yesterday’s beautiful day, that red cabbage was the most startling. The moon last night was lovely and luminescent, but not startling. The red cabbage, on the other hand, was a sneak attack of the magical into the ordinary.cab1

In a recent email from Sojourners magazine, Jim Wallis writes, “Hope is not a feeling. It’s a decision.”

Which means, I think, that you have to seek goodness and beauty in the ordinary as well as the extravagant. In the broccoli as well as the supernova, in the cabbage as well as the Christmas cradled moon. I don’t guess we can persevere against all the evil and heartbreak in this world if we don’t, every now and then, slice into a red cabbage and delight in its humble heart.




Slices of Life

A writer writes. That’s one of the rules. It’s also one of the ways we keep going when the storytelling or blogging or essaying well runs dry.

In the immediate wake of my father’s death last month, I published this on my Facebook page:

My father, Henk Schmidt, passed away Sunday night. Many of you did not know him, but if you know me or my family you know something of who he was.

We (my two brothers and sister and I, as well as my mother) were all with him at the end. Though the final week was very difficult, his passing was peaceful and I am grateful that we were able to be with him.

He was a wonderful, dynamic, charismatic, giving, stubborn, difficult, funny, talented, creative, liberal, loving, hard-working, passionate, generous and outgoing man who adored his wife and family. All of that. He was not perfect. He was human. But he was a magnificent human being, a lion of a man, and we will miss him very much.

It was the journalist in me, I supposed, who emerged to make that declaration. I also wrote an obituary for Dad, again playing the journalist.

The writer –the novelist, essayist, even the blogger — has been more silent. And this has surprised me. After all, I wrote about the death of a parent in my first novel, Useful Fools. I would not have expected to find it so difficult to write about Dad’s death, and yet I have. Even in my handwritten, ultraprivate “morning pages,” I’ve had nothing to say about this most important loss. A sort of writer’s block, I guess.

When I was in college, I had a grand passion for Wordsworth.Tintern Abbeycould make me swoon.  And Wordsworth’s definition of poetry–“emotion recollected in tranquility”–has remained with me all my life, though I sort of outgrew Wordsworth. And maybe Wordsworth is right. Maybe I need to wait for tranquility before I can really write about Dad’s death.

What worries me is that I may never find that kind of tranquility.

Because the tranquility I need is not the calm after a storm. It’s a faith in the integrity of my own writing. Honestly. What I’m afraid of is what I’ve always been afraid of about writing. That there may be something fundamentally dishonest about the writing process.  That we delude ourselves when we think we can capture life in words. Because we can’t. We just can’t. Not a single life, let alone life in its multitudes, can be rendered truthfully in words. Which is why my Facebook post may have been the best I can do. A series of adjectives, not all of them laudatory. A statement of loss. No attempt at the fiction that I was telling anyone the “truth” about my Dad. Just an impressionistic flow of facts and feelings. The best I could or can do.

And yet.

A few days ago a friend asked me why I didn’t speak at Dad’s funeral. I told her that I build my monuments in the written word. And it is true that Dad will emerge periodically in my fiction. Slices of him. But they’ll be fictionalized. They won’t be a real attempt to portray Dad. And I want, I really want, to write my monument to Dad. Maybe to use that impressionistic, initial overflow of feelings. One word at a time, I want to build Dad that monument.

Because my dad was a writer, too. Of fiction. Of poetry. Of amazing letters and sermons and eulogies. Unpublished, all of them. But he wrote. And though, in the wake of his death, I have questioned, over and over, whether I should keep writing at all, when there are so many other good and valuable ways to spend my time, ways that would honor my father’s life, I think that I want to write because that’s part of what he gave to me, part of who he made me, part of how he’ll live on in me.


I’m wearing my black hoodie today. So what if hits 90? Trayvon Martin is dead, guilty of walking while black, and his killer isn’t even guilty of manslaughter. We should all be wearing sackcloth and ashes today.

Trayvon Martin went to the store to buy some Skittles and stumbled into America’s awful crossroads of racism and demented gun laws. Because he was young and black and male, he caught the eye of a man who was looking for trouble and was, unfortunately, armed.

Put on a black hoodie. Look yourself in the mirror. Ask yourself: would George Zimmerman have come after me? We’ll never know exactly what went down that day. But we all know Trayvon is dead because of his race, his gender, and his youth.

And because George Zimmerman had a gun. Whether or not Zimmerman had the “stand your ground” law in mind when he got out of his car with that gun strapped to his hip, today he’s a free man because Florida law says that if you go looking for trouble carrying a gun, it’s not your fault if an innocent boy is killed when the trouble fights back.

Happy Birthday, Malala

Yesterday was Malala Day, the sixteenth birthday of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl the Taliban tried to murder for demanding her own right, and the right of all girls, to an education. She spoke before the United Nations Youth Assembly, and her speech is damned humbling. Inspiring, too, but mostly humbling.

I heard a piece on NPR about the speech and then I went onto Youtube and listened to the whole thing. And after I dried my tears, I asked myself: where do kids get that kind of inner power? Where do they get the courage to believe in progress, to act for change, to insist upon hope? Even, God help us, after being shot in the head?

I write and I teach and I’m a parent. It’s so easy to reduce my job to 500 words a day and the struggle snag an agent. To making sure students master the preterite and know how to order an enchilada. To getting my son to bed on time and making sure he has a decent breakfast. But I listen to Malala and I realize that working with kids, writing for kids, parenting a kid, gives me an opportunity to foster a miracle. Not to create one. Fundamentally, Malala is who she is because of her own choices. Nobody made her that smart, or that brave, or that tough.

But people helped her along. “One child,” she says, “one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world.” If the Secretary of Education said that, it would be boilerplate. When Malala says it, it’s a call to arms.

Not the bang-bang kind of arms. The kind of arms that hug, and hold, and help children rise so that they can see the great big goodbad world out there, and believe they can change it.

Happy Birthday, Malala. And thank you.


Things I never knew about my teachers

Like, they can’t wait for summer. And, they love snow days as much as kids do.

I only know these things because I’m a teacher now. When I was a kid I thought teachers hated snow days. Unh-unh. We wear our pajamas inside out and put salt on our windowsills and spoons under our pillows right along with our kids. Don’t get me wrong. I love my job (most days, anyway), but snow days are a gift. I love them.

I also used to think my teachers hated summer. Not because they adored us, but because some profound teacherly instinct drove them to strap kids to their desks and stuff their brains full of . . . well, stuff. Now I know the truth. I’m thrilled that summer’s coming. Because I love summer. I love not having to race to school before the first bell. I love being able to eat lunch whenever I want. I love going to the beach! And I love knowing that if I am at school and working out some cool new unit, I won’t have to stop just because a bell has rung. I can work hours and hours and nothing will interrupt me.

I also (truth) love sleeping in, occasionally. And having time to work on my latest novel.

But . . .  summer is also, in late April and early May, a terrifying prospect. The last day of school looms. Bad enough that I have to get my fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh graders through their curriculum. That’s okay, really, because if I miss something guess what? I’ll be teaching them again next year. (Or my new colleague will, but at least we can talk about it. Patch the holes, as it were.)

No, what’s scary is those eighth graders, going out into the big wide world of high school. Eek. Have I taught them enough? Are they ready? HAVE I FAILED THEM? Kids think “failing them” mean we put F’s on their report cards. But for me, to fail a student means something different. It means I haven’t given them what I’m supposed to give them, taught them what they need to know, or even, perhaps, I’ve done some damage to their young souls. Because when my eighth graders leave in early June, anything I’ve forgotten to teach them, any harm I’ve done, will be beyond my reach to repair.

So. I haven’t written much here lately because the reality of those graduating eighth graders smacked me in the face a few weeks ago. And of course my panic is making me overload them with work, in hopes that I won’t fail them. I need to calm down. I need to enjoy their last days in middle school, and let them enjoy me. I need to show them that these past three (and in many cases five) years of teaching them and watching them grow up have been, not just the kind of hard work that makes me long for snow days and summer, but an absolute gift. I need to try to bless them the way they’ve blessed me, by letting me be their teacher.

And if that sounds sappy, so be it.

Thoughts turn to angels all around us

I don’t actually know what Story will become as digital technology shapes our literary future. I don’t have a clue. I’m not a geek. I still remember the day a friend told me and a few other girlfriends, all of us freelance journalists in the Wild West of Peru in the early 90s (drug wars and terrorism, a tragic time but we felt so very much alive) that something called the World Wide Web was going to change the way the world accessed information.

We laughed and poured her some more wine.

At that point some of us were already filing our stories via modem. Dial-up, of course. But I strung for the august Times of London and the only way to file for them in 1990 was by dictating the story. I’d get up at, like, four a.m., dial London, get put on hold (wonderful Baroque stuff, no muzak for the dean of  British publishing.) Finally, some sweet-voiced girl would come on, so Brit you could practically hear the peaches and cream, and I would dictate my story while she typed.

That’s how I cut my teeth in writing, as a journalist reading my stories aloud over a crackly Third World phone line. So most of what I think about the future of Story is probably bullshit. Therefore, I reserve the right to change my mind and contradict myself as often as I want. I’m making it up as I go along.

According to a guy I saw at an educational conference, today’s “screenagers” speak “DSL” (Digital Second Language.) These kids like quick changes, visual learning, and interaction. (Which sometimes makes us teachers very, very crazy. But like moths during the Industrial Revolution, we must change our colors in order to survive.)

Another guy at the same conference said compared print literacy with digital literacy. Books, he said, provide a linear view of the world and allow “users” to access reality in a temporal fashion. Digital literacy, on the other hand, provides a networked view of the world and allows users to access reality in a spatial fashion.

Sure, this is eduspeak, but it got me thinking. If digital literacy develops a more spatial, networked way of learning and thinking, digital natives may actually be better positioned to understand complex, non-linear narratives than print natives are.

Proust, anyone?