Monday, December 31, 2012

Tree Toppers Tell the Story

The title tells a lot about your poem or story or book. It should make your work stand out.  It is the first thing a reader or editor or agent will see.  It is often the last thing to go on my final draft.  A really good title adds something to the work.

That Christmas tree topper can say a lot too.  It too is often the final adornment on the holiday fir.   The crowning touch.  When I was a child the honor went to my dad.   My own children used to argue(in true Christmas spirit) over who would get the privilege.   The tallest usually won out.  I have a vivid memory of the year they worked together...the youngest child downed in Santa's cap perched on the shoulders of the oldest.  Still because the tree was too wide he could not reach the top of the tree.  Ingenuity won out and with two broom stick handles one in each hand, he was able to grab the angel and guide her to her perch.  There's a story there and it needs a title.

The ornament on top of the tree might address a theme.  The traditional star might represent the star of Bethlehem.  The angel could reference the angelic hosts.  Like books, some trees are more heavily themed than others.  The all white tree,  topped by a snowflake,  elf and miniature toys topped by Santa.   Like a story the possibilities are endless...a cross, a dove, an apple.   Endless possibilities, endless meanings.  A roll of toilet paper?  See the previous post in this blog.

A title takes some thought, some work.  So does the top trim on that special evergreen.  A friend out here on the Navajo reservation topped her tree with a lamb this year.  I wish I had thought of this.  I have come to love sheep on the reservation...they are nearly sacred animals part of everyday life.  On the reservation "sheep is life."  My friend told me she usually puts a snowman on top of the tree.  She couldn't find it.  The lamb is a dog toy.  I like that too.  This lamb kind of reminds me of Sherry Lewis and Lamb Chop(for those of you who are old enough).

Since we moved out to the Southwest, our tree has been topped by an angel but I was not thinking angelic host.  It was the Southwest that inspired my angel made of corn husks.  You buy the husks in the grocery store here.  They are used to line the hole for the special Kinalda cake (featured in an earlier post on this blog).  Corn husks are also used to wrap Kneel Down Bread another traditional Navajo food.  My tree has many Navajo ornaments so the theme carries through the tree...subtly connecting theme and place.

My outdoor tree made with weathered wood collected on the mesa behind my house is topped with a  branding iron I found at a swap iron star enforces the western theme, ties into place, and grows out of the voice of this author.

So how will you top your tree in 2013?  It can take a year to come up with a great title...and that perfect tree topper.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Traditions: Some Things Don't Change

Actually some things do change.  Now a days I am as likely to go to my laptop and google the Food Network for a recipe as I am to scour my cookbooks and old recipes.  Really the options are


                                               OR THIS:

Believe me my files on my desk top (I do have one labeled Recipes) don't look much better.   So Google it is.

Unless I am baking cookies for the holidays.  Then I need those recipes that have become traditions in our family:  Mint brownies, ginger snaps, lemon bars, raspberry diagonals, nutmeg logs....

Those recipes are easy to find in my hard copy "files".  They are yellowed, brittle and stained written on index cards or scratched out on scrap paper meant to be recopied one day(hasn't happened in 25 years).   Actually some of them have been typed and filed on my desktop...somewhere.... but when I am baking for the holidays I prefer


They are recipes handed down over the years from family and friends.  Some have been translated.  Lard the size of your fist  =  a cup of shortening.  And baking soda as the last digit on your pointer  = a tsp. of baking soda.

Some of these recipes crumble in my fingers but they are part of the Christmas tradition for me.
Each year I scramble to find the favorites and stumble upon another and another and inevitably make too many and too much.

I begin just after Thanksgiving and have had  to find new places to hide the tins and foiled batches of cookies from husband and kids deprived of homemade cookies all year long.

One year  a roll of toilet paper appeared on top of the Christmas tree with the message:  If you want the angel back, give us the mint brownies.  The toilet paper stayed on top of the tree until Christmas eve.
The recipe I kept a family secret and only made those brownies on Christmas.  When the youngest finally wheedled it out of me for a special school event the brownies began appearing as birthday gifts and at other special occasions.  The rest of the kids were disgusted(the very ones who planted the toilet paper on the tree in fact).  I had broken a sacred family tradition and proved their suspicions about who was the favorite in the family.

Now my daughter-in-laws have the recipe, neatly typed and attached to emails.  The mint brownies and all those recipes are from a time long before computers and Internet, long before I began writing my manuscripts in long hand, typing final drafts on a typewriter... I still pull out the old yellowed index cards, the recipes that have been copied and re-copied splattered and brittle and with them the memories of friends and families and Christmases past.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Henna for the Holidays: The United Nations of Chinle

Who knew Chinle would be such a cosmopolitan place?  People from all over the world.  And I don't mean just tourists who come from everywhere to see Canyon De Chelly.

We are very lucky to have neighbors from Pakistan, Taiwan, Thailand, Jamaica, the Philippines, Nigeria and Kenya, Canada, Belarus not to mention Navajo of course, to name a few.  And right now I count 8 returned Peace Corps volunteers from around the world as well.

Imagine the food we have at pot lucks!  Imagine the potential for sharing customs and cultures.  Tuesday evening found me at my neighbor's home drinking green tea with cinnamon and cardamon and eating  fresh made snacks from Pakistan.  I had my hand decorated with henna.

   What a lovely way to bring on the holiday spirit.   And the weather outside only added to the cozy indoor sharing of stories art and customs.

Lucky we are to live in a community rich in diversity and beauty.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Perfect Get-Away: Aqua-Ventura, Portugal

Around about this time of year many of us begin yearning for the perfect get-away.   Here is where Steve and I were in Portugal last July with friends Jonny and Vio who provide a unique way to enjoy this country with warm and welcoming hospitality, great food and options to hike, kayak, surf and relax.

From sheep to castles, Portugal has it all:

And did I mention the food?   Surf side, in the home with Jonny and Vio or cafe and restaurant.

Here is an excerpt from my writing on their website:

Jonathan and Vio have managed to bring the magic that is Hort de Gloria to the Algarve of southern Portugal. The trade off, if there is one, is the charm of pastoral farm country for the energy of the sea. A ten minute walk from the ocean, their home decorated with treasures from South Africa, Spain and Morocco is your home for as long as you stay. The dining table fashioned by Jonathan from rare South African rail ties is the center of life in this vibrant house- hold. 

Woofers, young enthusiastic volunteers from around the world have followed the family to an idyllic Portuguese landscape. The kitchen bustles with woofers, family and guests cooking vegetarian meals or fish or meat if that better suits your appetite with fresh ingredients from the market in Vila de Visbo five kilometers away. The same eclectic collection of music from around the world that was a part of Hort de Gloria is the background for boisterous banter around the stove. But if you prefer to find a quiet space in the sitting room or out on the veranda that abuts the garden in both the front and back of the house no one will complain. 

For more of what I have to say and more about what Aqua- ventura has to offer go to their website and begin planning your next adventure: 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Trash to Treasure (again)

If you follow my blog you might know I collect stuff...most of it junk...sometimes I even put it to use.  I always have big plans and sometimes I follow through( kind of like my writing).

When I first moved here to the high desert the landscape took some getting used to.  When I walked in the early evening, if the sun was just right, I noticed the entire side of the mesa sparkled.  What was this mystical phenomenon of the desert?  Maybe there was a poem there or a whole book?

Silly me.  It was glass...everywhere there are broken bottles and bits of glass.   Duh!  No poem there...or maybe still...

Even worse I was appalled to find heaps of trash out there on top of the mesa...  I know this is disturbing...At first I tried very hard to ignore the trash heaps.

But part of me loves trash.  I attribute this to the fact that on "dump days" when I was growing up, my father used to take us with him.  We were allowed to bring home one thing we found in the smoldering heaps of junk...I still have my little white ceramic elephant with a red rose painted on the side.

I have mostly managed to ignore the trash and enjoy the beauty.  Part of me says I should DO something about the trash but the problem seems too big.

Reena usually finds a favorite stuffed animal to toss around and drag part way home.... and OK I find treasures too...Back in July I realized that these bed springs would make great Christmas trees.

It took me a little while to put two and two together...the bed springs and the glass (it's the same way with writing a poem...kind of...SO that is what I was writing about! And this line just needs to bump up against that one.)

But first there is this.  My laundry room kind of looks like a poem or picture book in the beginning stages (figuratively speaking of course).

But then it all comes together, these ideas ...the ones I cannot let go of....some work out. Some eventually get tossed.  

I am kind of happy with this one.  Bed springs + broken glass = Christmas tree.   Although I get it that to others it might just look like a bed spring and broken glass.  Or it's OK if you see a Christmas sculpture too.

I see holiday sparkle and maybe a poem or essay about life on the mesa...or both.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Still Learnin': School Visits Can be Humbling

Last week I visited Fox Chapel Country Day School in Pennsylvania.  Kind of humbling.... I didn't get top billing but birthdays are important.

And check out the Tap-Taps kids had made.

And Painted Dreams.

These kids were well prepared even though it was first day back to school after Thanksgiving break.

Me: Krick
Students: Krack

This is how story telling begins in Haiti.  A promise between storyteller and audience.  And stories I told.  From my life growing up, life as a writer to Haiti, Malawi, Kenya, and the Navajo Nation...

As I have said these kids were well prepared and there is always one stumper question from the audience.  These questions often have to do with my age or how much money I make...but one thoughtful fifth grader in this group wanted to know:

What is the most important thing you have contributed in the countries where you have lived?

Wow!  I stuttered something about my husband being a doctor and saving lives...but what have I done?  A humbling question.  I guess the most important thing I have done is that I have made friends and I have come home to share what I have learned from kids around the world with kids in the US...maybe that is something....

And a postscript here:  It was Native American month in November.  Note the bulletin board:

Students at Dine College on the Navajo reservation once asked me what I had been taught about American Indians growing up...Ahhh...hmmmm...Not much I had to admit.  Most of what I knew I learned myself from books...Another humbling question...Maybe things have changed since I was young?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Traditions: Things that Don't Change...much

It is Thanksgiving at the Williams home.   My youngest son knows to come home from college with his own favorite blanket, quilt and pillow.  He knows that there might not be a bed for him at the inn.  And he knows if there is a bed it probably won't be his.  In fact he doesn't know who might be in his bed or put it another way he does not have a bed in our house that is his own.  Some things never change.

A week or two before the holiday I have the traditional meltdown because  my husband has just suggested we ask a few more people to the table.   The melt down is part of the tradition.  In the end  more is always the merrier.

I arrived home late Tuesday evening to find the house neat and clean and well stocked with all the trimmings.  Never mind that the 20 pound turkey clearly marked "five days to defrost" had about a day and a half to get un-frozen.

And so began the turkey coddling and care...cold bath for a few hours, daring to set it out on the kitchen table for a few more, back in the frig just in case the turkey has a melt down.... too early.   All that tension about how everyone at my table is now going to die of salmonella.  Part of the tradition.

I have just found out that my niece and nephew are now vegetarian and vegan...well some things do change but "don't worry Auntie".   So I didn't, mostly.  At least THEY would not be taking the food poison challenge.  But really did I NEED a twenty pound-er?

As it turned out that partially frozen bird was done early.  You could hear my shriek across the street.  That little plastic sucker in the turkey breast never pops up on time and this year the little red circle appeared early?  I COUNT on the turkey being late.  Tradition.

The mashed potatoes were gooey and lumpy.   I have learned not to cry over lumpy potatoes.

As tradition dictates, the gravy was too thin but I have my own secret...the traditional packaged gravy mix...just add cold water.

And yes like every other year there was one dish left in the oven and never missed at the table...this year we found the extra pan of stuffing a day later.

The squabbles over which kind of cranberry sauce, smooth or whole berry or homemade?  What you do or do not like in your stuffing.  Not enough eggnog, the lumpy potatoes and thin gravy, the favorite dish that is missing this year...It wouldn't be Thanksgiving without.

My son who lives in Taiwan now still says it was always his favorite holiday...."That was the day when the  house smelled good and warm.  We all sat at the table and ate and you could take a nap(I thought he was just lazy and now I find he was relishing the holiday) and wake up and people would still be eating...then we all walked in the park...and ate more, right?  The late night turkey sandwich...better than Christmas."

When I was growing up the turkey had to be killed that morning...thus I do know that turkeys are not born with pop- up timers.  My Grandmother was dictator of the kitchen and the special down- home southern stuffing had to be just so. I regret that I never learned the recipe but not the loss of stress that went with getting it just right.  After dinner the women in ruffled aprons washed and dried dishes in an assembly line while the men snored on couches in front of Football.  Until...we children jumped on them begging for a walk before desert.  Adults told stories around the linen white table and we children listened even if they thought we didn't.

Now at our house we have guitar music and singing and poetry.  It has become part of our tradition.

We always have a few new faces at the table and miss those who will never be with us again.   The table shrinks and expands with family and friends who grow up, join us with new family or move on to new adventures....Now a-days we SKYPE family who could not make it.  

We are always Thankful to be together with whoever comes to the table and for the food lumpy,  too moist or dry or otherwise... in abundance.

Thanksgiving.  Tradition and memories.  And make no mistake, the cook always gets her own bed in her own room whenever she is in town.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

NCTE 2012 Las Vegas: Books and Bling

It may have been Vegas with the lights and bling but at the booths and at the workshops it was all inspiring, energy and passionate dedicated teachers, librarians, parents, writers, publishers and editors.   All offering great hope for education of future generations.
Many thanks to Eerdmans Books for Children for making it possible for me to be a part of this conference.

The bling was pretty much all outside.

Except for the inside where there was more sensory overload with music and lots of smoke.

Flashing lights a must.

 New York was there too!
This is where we stayed...NOT my usual B and B choice.  The cost of a room was not bad but did you want to actually breathe too?  That will cost you extra.

And of course there was the gambling.  It took three minutes to loose $30.  And I could have had three more books for that cost.  Silly me.

But then there was the real reason I has there.

I was part of a program that explored the use of books to help children understand and perhaps take action on issues of social justice.  I had the honor of speaking with writer Deborah Ellis and illustrator Floyd Cooper on a panel.  Books That Make a Difference:  Kids Taking Action for Social Justice.

 This is a big topic.

I used three of my picture books,  Circles of Hope, Four Feet Two Sandals and My Name is Sangoel and stories of children I have known around the world in my presentation: Dreams, Hope and Loss in Everyday Life of Children Around the World.

Here is a tease:  "I have lived with and worked with children who are aids orphans, children who live on the streets, sleep in trees.  Young children who must find a way to earn a living, children who must be the adult in the family.  Children who have lost everything including their country and sometimes even their name.  These children have taught me much and they inform my writing."

It was an inspiring and thought provoking workshop.  And I even got to sign books!

I came home with much to think about, lots of writing ideas and look what I get to read and share: