The Fallen Leaves of Books

Turning the last page of Judith Thurman’s biography, Isak Dinesen, it falls gently to the ground like the descent from a cliff in a dream. The Dane’s life story grips, yanks, pulls, twists at the branches of the mind and heart, then tears loose and floats into the soul of one’s being. She’s lost inside her bourgeois family, leaves them for unknown east Africa, finds her secret self among the animals, the vast open land, the accepting spirituality of the Kikuyu and her prominent role on the coffee farm. She loses this whole life, but carries her new self back to her original home Rungstedlund in Denmark to tell this story, and others. What if her story had not been told? What if we had never had the privilege of being swept into her first words from Out of Africa?

“I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong hills.”

The myrtle wound around the base of trees below my window is flaked with layers of leaves: ocher, tarnished-gold, buckskin-brown, with a hint of barn-red. Fall books cover the floor to make way for winter: Olive Kitteridge, The Portable Nietzsche, Half-Broke Horses, Gilead, Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2, The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Anything from Anna Quindlen coming soon, I hope?

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Communicating Effervescence

When I think of the word effervescence, I am skimming on top of the water in my aqua kayak on the lake, remembering the wide, flat female loon I saw more than three weeks ago still sitting loyally on her eggs, beak down on the sand…waiting.

A few minutes ago, I paddled in silent, slow motion towards the mother and her two babies. They let me get quite near before they skirted away from me. But as one of the little ones took off, he doused one webbed foot and shook it off, spraying tiny beads of light-filled water into the air. “Hello, goodbye,” the baby loon seemed to be saying to me.

I blinked, took in a deep breath, and moved on.

As a kid, I was lucky to have summers on the water–some years the icy North Sea waters of the Skaggerak in the south of Norway. One of five, we would clamber down the cliff over the rocks after our long-legged Norwegian mother. Mom would scout the water for jellyfish, the kind with long, colorful, poisonous stingers. Coast clear, she jumped in, let out a high pitched “Eeeeeeeeee,” turned immediately on her back and kicked furiously at the water till a halo of white froth spurted the sky behind her. “Come in, come in,” she teased.

Courage to own a scintillating moment, I leapt in holding my nose, screamed “Eee,” and kicked up a little foam.

A kiss between my husbands’ lips and mine sets my heart to rumble–a train racing backwards towards the fresh smelling boy I knew once, and forwards to the man distinct to me now. The train traverses time blazing a track over low sagebrush, sparking twigs to fire in the dry heat of night, a constellation of glowing embers panning out to a geometric pattern against the dark.

Three Steps to Creativity

Observing three-year old children in free play as part of my first teaching job opened the magic of their imaginations to me. I noticed they

  • Choose what interests them
  • Use what’s available to create (including the teacher and other kids)
  • Take risks to figure things out

After using all their vitality and resources, they need a nap.

Four years later, the principal of my new school, Hunter College Elementary School, suggested I devise my own way of teaching my gifted four-year olds to read.

What interests four year olds most?

Self/family/home. Five year olds? Machines, snakes, caterpillars, boats, kites. What better way to learn to read than to make a book? The kids started with a word like me. They wrote out the word and drew a picture of me above it. Next, Mom, Dad, brother Joe, sister Kate. Pretty soon, they had a bunch of pages, which became their first homemade book and…they could read it! Book two was another self-made book about what interested them the most. From there to picture books.

Lesson 1: Spend your creative energy on things that fascinate you.
I put this plan for creativity to use myself when, two years later I sat down with a legal pad and a pencil at my desk facing the Delaware River ten months after my son was born and wrote the words: gifted, or just your average weirdo? These last six words became a book. The question I was trying to answer was: Do gifted children learn differently from other children? My observations had taught me that if gifted children are forced to conform in their learning, the result could be disastrous. Some children go overboard and take on the identity of a troublemaker becoming a behavior problem.

According to psychologist and educator of gifted and talented children, Joseph Renzulli, the highest level of learning is when “the learner assumes the role of the first hand inquirer, the student thinking, feeling and acting like a practicing professional.” This is why writing a book to learn to read worked.
“I am an author and artist. I can write, draw,” the gifted four-year olds at Hunter said to themselves. “I want to know the words I’ve written. If I know them, I’ll be able to read my very own book!”

Lesson 2: Design something that gives you a product.
The word DESIGN fascinates me. Like the Kindergartener building a fort, the designer joins his imagination and knowledge to create something for himself, but that others can see and use. “I designed an energy efficient city,” an eighth grader said. I designed the set for a play,” a ninth grader said. How can the designers ever forget how they have used their minds, if the process to get to product was so energizing, so thrilling? The designers also had to deal with ideas that did not work, before they came up with the ones that did. They learned to handle frustration because they were invested in “seeing” their product, and having others “see” it. Have you ever watched a kid build a structure from blocks only to knock it down, and start all over again?

Lesson 3: Understand your failures build your success.

After using all your energy and resources, take a break.

Should I Begin a Website?

Should I begin a website? That was the question. So I asked my first editor: Laurie Wagner Buyer and she said, “It’s a good idea to have a web presence.” I thought about it for a year. I should (pluck). I shouldn’t (pluck), and so on. I kept an eye on her website, which changed dramatically for the better in front of my eyes. Wow!

More about that in a minute.

How did I meet Laurie? At the Ozark Creative Writers Conference a few years ago. A tall handsome man stood at table where–presumably–his books were for sale. I picked up a book of poems, not his: Across the High Divide. I leafed through it. The title “Running out of Thread” caught my eye. Within seconds, I was glued to the story about the end of a romantic relationship. “Who wrote these beautiful words?” I asked the tall man. He said, “Laurie Wagner Buyer. She’ll be back shortly. You can speak to her yourself.”

The lovely Laurie returned. We talked about her poem. When I asked, she said she did editing/mentoring work, handed me her editing business brochure, Creative Adventure: A Guide Service for Writers. Shortly after that, I sent her the first draft of my memoir Jewels that Speak. I sensed it was in capable nurturing hands.

Back to Laurie’s website. Every now and then, I checked in on her. I wanted to see how the presentation of her books was unfolding. About a year ago, I noticed a change. How to describe it? Comparing one library to another is the closest I can get. Some are dead and some are alive. Her new site leapt off the page, bursting with information about Laurie’s writing life: her books, her editing, her events’ calendar, and some personal sharing. If you wanted to see the full spectrum of Laurie’s work, a touch of the keypad gave you that wealth of information. It keeps evolving.

A few weeks ago when the last pluck told me I should, I studied the website to see who designed and maintained it: Deborah Kunzie of Garlic D’zign powered by keZoor. That’s how this website began.