Hope for February: ESPERANZA RISING and Esperanza Spalding

Tiny snowdrops dusting the ground under giant trees bare of leaves and a gray sky. Kriegshoven, Germany © Laurel Decher, 2016
Hopeful signs: Tiny snowdrops dusting the ground under giant trees bare of leaves under a gray sky. Kriegshoven, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Hope keeps cropping up. This weekend, hope took the form of an audio book, a YouTube video, a walk under gray skies, a skit, and a newspaper article.

Last night I listened to the first part of Pam Muñoz Ryan’s ESPERANZA RISING with Trini Alvarado as narrator. I’m looking forward to the rest!

ESPERANZA RISING the kind of story I like: the 13-year-old Esperanza has to find courage to take a big risk, to make a new life in a new place with her family.

She has a big challenge in front of her because it’s 1930 and the Great Depression is coming.

While I listened, the relationships between the characters gave me hope. Early in the story, Miguel and Alfonso and Hortensia demonstrate their friendship with Esperanza’s family.

In Mexico there’s a big divide between Esperanza and Miguel, but what will happen when they get to California?

My eldest sent me Esperanza Spalding’s 2016 performance at the White House. Esperanza sang about choosing hope with Louis Armstrong’s ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET.

At the YMCA last night, there was a skit about the exiled tribes of Israel returning to Jerusalem from Babylon. When they got to Jerusalem, things weren’t quite the way they’d hoped. They experienced hardship in their new life.

Many people are making a new life in Germany right now and many are facing unexpected hardship. Many others are helping. It’s an adjustment for everyone.

The choice to hope has to be made again and again. In January, we learned about a shocking incident in the Cologne main train station. I found hope in the courage shown by refugees in this article (sent to me by my friend Jane Joo Park).

The U.S. Declaration of Independence describes the unalienable rights given to all of us: the right to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

We aren’t promised happiness, only the right to pursue it.

We have the right to choose hope, if we’re brave enough to do it. Let’s help each other to hope.

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Noblesse oblige, libraries, trees, and cyberbullying prevention

Castle with towers and moat and red and white patterned shutters. Burg Satzvey, Germany.
What can you do with your heritage? Noblesse oblige for the modern age. Burg Satzvey, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Yesterday, I visited a nearby village and strolled through the public part of the castle grounds of the lovely Burg Satzvey. It was built in the early 1300’s and now hosts jousting and other medieval-sounding shows for the entertainment of the populace. Half-timbered houses cluster around the castle and a large church stands just up the hill.

How do you decide what to do with a castle, if you inherit one? In medieval times, the castle protected the village folk and probably provided a secure marketplace for trading. The size of the modern parking lot and the shops (now closed for the winter) inside the castle say that some things don’t change. Using your inheritance in this way probably has pros and cons. We also saw a bench securely chained down in front of a village house. The tourists around here must be eager for souvenirs.

But the noble family could have made a different choice: they could have left the castle to fall down into a romantic ruin. For example, the abandoned vineyards on the Mosel are called “Brazils” because so many vintners left the area for warmer climes.

One person’s decision can influence a whole village.

My own experience is that people move around much more in the United States. Many people volunteer and serve their communities in all kinds of ways. Some give to their communities in large-scale ways. Andrew Carnegie gave us libraries. I just found a new book I want to read about him.

Wangari Maathai of Kenya planted a tree, and another and another, and eventually won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. Read about her story in the picture book PLANTING THE TREES OF KENYA.

Or what about teen Trisha Prabhu’s app to prevent cyberbullying? Listen to her TED talk here.

We’re sometimes quick to dismiss our own experiences and education. Burg Satzvey gave me two questions for myself that I pass on to you:

  1. What is our heritage and how will we choose to build on it?
  2. What moves us enough to take a first small step?

_________________

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Half a Library: 6 Libraries That Changed My Life

Librarian with hand on bookcase full of books in a new library room with table.
A new library is born. Hard-working librarian who made a half a library into a whole.

In 1775, James Boswell wrote, “A man will turn over half a library to make one book.” I’ve turned over half a dozen libraries in the service of my current work-in-progress, but library fever started much earlier. After all, where does anyone get the idea to write a book in the first place?

It all starts when you get a library card. I got mine as soon as I could write my first and last name in shaky capital letters. My family name had 9 letters, so it required some study.

The first library I remember vividly was in my elementary school. If I close my eyes, I see the tables and chairs, the built-in bookcases, the expanse of carpet and the steel knob you had to touch, after crossing the carpet, to get out of the library. I learned that the price of reading was shocking, but I paid it willingly, again and again.

The second library was in my Junior High School. Alphabetical fiction covered three walls and branched out into freestanding bookcases. I started with Joan Aiken’s MIDNIGHT IS A PLACE, Lloyd Alexander’s THE BLACK CAULDRON, Susan Cooper’s THE DARK IS RISING. . . and worked my way around. The school was overcrowded, troubled with drugs, and plagued by mashed potato shortages. Some days, we ate gravy for lunch. I didn’t mind the gravy, but the other things made me search for, and find, refuge in the library.

The third important library in my life was at the University of Utah. A friend had gotten a job, that paid money, to shelve books.

This was for me.

I filled the job application with volunteer orchestra ‘experience,’ hoping to suggest reliability. The gentle interviewer hired me because I’d rescued cassettes from our family tape recorder on long car trips. In the Audio-Visual Department, I played records and videotapes for people ten hours a week. A side effect came in the form of a dozen roses from a mysterious admirer at carrel #6. The only thing I knew about him—judging from the orange hair on his records—he had a cat. Libraries are full of people to meet.

In my fourth library, the Charles Babbage Institute, I met the inventor of the first hand-held calculator. The Institute needed a graduate student to transcribe an oral history (basically a recorded interview with the questions taken out) for Curt Herzstark. His name describes him perfectly: Herz and stark mean heart + strong.

Imprisoned in the Buchenwald concentration camp, he somehow got permission to invent things “after hours.” In his Austrian accent, he described the invention of his calculator. He talked about a calculator in the shape of a glorified pepper mill, ten hours a week, for a trimester or more. His voice stopped when I took the headphones off, but I felt the Buchenwald atmosphere for hours afterwards.

The fifth library to capture my imagination is the one belonging to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. They have 900 illuminated manuscripts from 300 B.C. to the 19th century. That’s a library. I washed my hands, checked my book bag at the door and promised to use nothing but pencil while I was in the room.

In return, I touched five books that were 1000 years old or more. The corners were soft and wrinkled—like a piece of leather that has been bent back and forth too many times—where the thumbs of the monks must have fit. They probably dripped tallow on them.

In exchange for writing my whole name and enduring the shock of a library door, I found a refuge, got a dozen roses, visited a concentration camp and the 11th century. That library card really paid off.

The sixth library is where it gets interesting. My husband researches bats and other small mammals in West Africa. A few years ago, his work took him to an isolated village in Sierra Leone with no school or library.

Friends have been generous with books of all kinds. In my husband’s office, there was—literally–half a library. The other half has grown over the years. The local field-biologist-turned-librarian built shelves to hold the books and put up a roof to shelter the readers.

Now the village has a little library. How long before some reader turns half of it over and writes a brand-new book?

I can’t wait to check it out.

Young people reading books at a library table in a one-room library in Sierra Leone.
What will come out of this library?

 

References
Boswell, James. LIFE OF JOHNSON. New York:Oxford University Press, Inc. (Oxford World’s Classic Paperback). 1998, pg. 613.

This essay originally appeared in the January 2, 2009 issue of catapult magazine under the title “Half a Library.” The archives don’t seem to work.

Why we need broken things: lowering the risk of creation

Teapot with new wire handle on a round beige teapot with a cracked lid.
Broken things can be an invitation. Image © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Accepting imperfection is part of what makes us human. I’ve watched this video about the beauty of mistakes about five times already. I first saw it in a great Coursera course about creativity. Neil Gaiman’s commencement address says something similar: make mistakes and make good art.

Moving from one country to another with my family, I’ve thought a lot about the broken things. There’s this desire to take the “best” things with you. New markers, clean erasers, favorite books, jeans with whole pockets and shirts with all their buttons need apply.

In a nutshell, this doesn’t work. Junk is an inescapable part of civilization. First of all, there’s that odd phenomenon that happens with every move. The things you know you left behind came with you and a few things you knew you wanted can’t be traced. But even if you don’t move, your existing, fully-functional belongings will be happy to wear out, develop holes, break, or shrink.

Presto! Fresh junk.

For example, we have a chronic teapot problem. The tile floor and the tea lite stove conspire. Yes, empty tea pots crack under the heat of a single candle. We’ve proved it repeatedly.

At the Second Hand Kaufhaus (Kaufhaus=Department Store), I bought a replacement teapot for 20 cents. It was the “right” kind for us because it was designed to have the handle on top rather than on one side of the teapot. Only it didn’t have the handle.

Small triumphs give us courage and self-esteem. We bought molding and copper wire and paper covered wire and my youngest and I made this handle. I sawed my finger a very little bit with the dull saw, but my youngest and I were very pleased with ourselves. I wrapped it and put it on the shelf as a Christmas present for my husband.

Unfortunately, the present fell to the floor before making it under the tree. When my husband opened it, the lid had broken neatly in half.

But then came a surprising reversal: He spent Christmas afternoon with Patex glue, bonding with his “new” teapot.

(Epidemiology caveat: Not sure it’s healthy to drink tea made in a glued pot. I didn’t search PubMed to find out.)

Do we need a certain number of broken things? After this experience, I wondered if a small amount of brokenness and disorganization in our lives is an invitation to participate.

It’s a kind of redemption. When we imperfectly repair a teapot, we invest ourselves in it. There’s a little glow every time we use it that says, “I saved that.”

“Craftmanship of risk” is a concept from David Pye and mentioned in the beauty of mistakes video above. When we make something new, we don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s an element of risk: maybe it won’t work. Maybe it’s all for nothing.

A broken thing is an invitation to create. It invites us to take a risk. If you have a brand new house with newly painted, perfect walls, you might have to overcome inner resistance to mar the perfection with a hole to hang up a picture. A broken thing or an imperfect thing is closer to our level.

“People are beginning to believe you cannot make even toothpicks without ten thousand pounds of capital. We forget the prodigies one man and a kit of tools can do if he likes the work enough.”

–From Barb Siddiqui’s review of David Pye’s THE NATURE AND ART OF WORKMANSHIP published in 1968.

If we like the work enough, if we find joy in it, even with its imperfections, we can make marvelous things. Broken things are a way to practice.

There’s another bonus to broken things: If we’re willing to fix them, that usually means someone wants them. That’s a built-in audience.

 

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What must be said: hardware, broccoli, and love

Drilling a hole in the wall with an electric drill while vacuuming the dust.Last night I learned a dear friend died. She and her husband helped us when our first child was born and were both friends and second parents to us. That’s when she inscribed a copy of THE ENCHANTED BROCCOLI FOREST cookbook: “In our hearts, you’ll always be our neighbors.”

The news reminded me about grief, that black feeling of a hole opened in the night. It’s so palpable. I’d forgotten how it lies inside us like a block of granite and how many tears it takes to melt it away.

My mom died almost 10 years ago. My dad made a memorial service with stations showing parts of her life: lab work as a chemist, travel, family, church etc. I think he wanted to show her off one last time. What struck me at the time were the number of things in her life that were interrupted. I saw for the first time how rarely we have the privilege of finishing.

This new grief brings up familiar questions: What are we here for? What must be done before we go? What must be said?

Before she died, my mom stopped doing certain things, stripping wallpaper or re-organizing junk. But a little later on, she added some back in. “Going to the hardware store seems like it gets in the way,” she said. “But actually it’s what life is.”

I love you, Mom!

I love you, dear neighbors!

I love you, husband!

I love you, my children!

I love you, Dad!

Going to the hardware store now to get a bulb for a friend.

Wishing you all broccoli, hardware, and neighbors during this holiday season and beyond!

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Thanks for your interest in my work! If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.

The Power of the Silver Pen: Journals, Photos, and Collections Help Order Our Lives

Stacks of journals with dates on bound edge
Chronological order can give a sense of structure. ©Laurel Decher, 2015.

Marie Kondo’s THE LIFE-CHANGING MAGIC OF TIDYING UP explores the benefits of de-cluttering at a level I can’t attain but it reminds me that things help us find out who we are. The things I like and don’t like, need and don’t need, are like mirrors that reflect information back to me and help me plot a course for the future.

Yesterday, I was inspired into action by three different work surface danger zones (and maybe by a bit of NaNoWriMo-related procrastination).

A pile of St. Nicholas’ Day surprises and Frankfurt Book Fair papers cluttered one. The others were the usual tangle of electronics, a confused mix of health insurance papers, coupons, “good” Bible verses, book and restaurant recommendations, and notes for current writing projects.

I didn’t expect to descend into the 10-year-old child, re-organize-the-desk-drawers level. When my children were that age, they each got to sort binder clips, markers, and other desk-y things scientist Grandmas keep, to create great organizational beauty.

In the course of swapping epidemiology books from the near bookcase for writing books from the far bookcase, I came across my collection of filled journals. I usually have a pocket-sized one with me and a book-sized one for writing that needs more elbow room, which means I always have more than one journal going at a time.

When I moved to Germany three years ago, life was so disrupted I wrote in whatever was handy. To normal people, this wouldn’t be a problem, but it made me feel lost. After a pocket journal is filled, it looks just like any other pocket journal, so if I needed to know something later about this time of upheaval, I wouldn’t be able to find it.

Since my inner child was in charge, a silver pen was just the sort of bullet I wanted to re-store the chaos of my pocket journals. I printed the date range on each one. The dates overlapped in all kinds of messy ways, just as I knew they would, but the shiny months and years captured them for me.

My journals had sections for my children’s funny quotes. I showed them to my youngest who chortled over the wisdom of 4-year-olds. That inspired the resident photographer to sort slides and we ended the evening with a home slide show.

We are grateful for our life here and we also still grieve for the life we left behind. According to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

Photos and journals help us process our grief, make time for gratitude, and give us courage to move forward. They help us re-visit the beloved people and places we left behind.

For us, the change was voluntary, but violence and hardship have forced refugees fleeing to Germany to a much greater upheaval. I don’t know how they will process their traumatic losses or if silver markers will offer any comfort, but I wish them healing for mind, body and soul. For us, I hope we will be able to offer help when called upon.

Have you tried organizing your own personal space recently? What unexpected dividends came to light?

Are you more of a journal person or a photo person? What medium helps you to re-group?

 

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What’s it like to visit historical sites for a story world you’ve only imagined?

Men in red and gold and blue medieval woolen tunics accompanied by shield and spear bearing knights
The Middle Ages come to life in Arezzo, Italy. ©Jan Decher, 2002.

After I moved to Germany, I planned a trip of a lifetime to visit the physical places in my children’s adventure story set in the early Middle Ages. I wrote the story with spreadsheets, maps, Google, and libraries. It was a work of imagination based on research.

The itinerary included the most important and accessible places in the story:

  • Bologna (nearest airport and unexpectedly beautiful)
  • Casa Cares near Tuscany (a family visit to this retreat center brought me to Arezzo and the story)
  • Camaldolì monastery (an 11th century monastery and hermitage)
  • Arezzo (Birthplace of Guido d’Arezzo and my main character’s home. Site of an annual medieval festival that clothes the whole city in the Middle Ages.)
  • Pratovecchio (a beautiful medieval town with arcades)
  • Poppi (site of an ancient castle, and on the route my characters traveled over the mountains)
  • Classe (known for its byzantine mosaics and churches. Site of the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinaire with the mosaic mural of a shepherd with sheep that Bella admires on her way to Venice.)
  • Ravenna (the modern city near Classe and the sea. Organic market under the arcades with medlars, sausages, ricotta cheese and Napoleon squash.)
  • Pomposa Abbey (a powerful medieval Abbey, today much further from the sea)
  • Venice (colors, light, flavors, a museum of boats and the beginning of the sea journey)

I hoped to collect images, recordings, and maybe video to use on a new website. My husband and child #2 are photographers and agreed to be pressed into service.

My goals for the trip were to experience my story world with all five senses and to resist the temptation to go overboard and drive my family crazy.
What actually happened surprised me. Here are some quotes from my trip journal:

Imagination: How does it work? What is it good for?

“I’m constantly adjusting to two sets of ‘memories’: the set from a visit here in 2002 with my parents and the set from Bella’s [my main character’s] imaginary journey.”

“My husband said, ‘Your imagination is important’ meaning, it needed to be recorded and cared for in the midst of confusing landscapes and facts.”

Validation: I got some things right.

“I felt hopeful for the first time in a while when I saw Guido d’Arezzo’s house is close to the church and the park with the Medici fortress. It is downhill to the piazza grande from there.”

“The friendly man in the tourist office agreed that the Cathedral School might have been up where the Medici ruins are now.”

It was so much fun to talk to someone who knew and cared about the real Guido d’Arezzo. I had no idea how much it would help me with the story to get that boost.

Fortune from a Baci chocolate: ‘Metti il cuore in tutto ciò che fai.’ Or ‘Put your heart in everything you do.’

Disappointment: Some things have changed since the 11th century. In many cases, the particular medieval landscape I wanted to photograph didn’t exist any more. The places that felt most like my story were sometimes in the next village over.

“We didn’t get to Camaldolì because we would have been too late getting home.”

Note: we drove a car and my characters walked, went by donkey or in a litter. So much for the spreadsheet distance and travel time calculation!

“The winding roads slow the pace of modernity. Not that much faster than Bella.”

Generosity: the balance between getting it perfect and letting it go

“My husband is very generous to take me places when he would like to sit in the sun and talk to people.”

The experience: What it feels like to travel in unknown places:

“Luke Skywalker could drive a rental car through tunnels surrounded by trucks traveling at top speed. The Death Star is nothing to this.”

“My daughter’s order of ‘latte freddo bianco’ [cold white milk] came with a teacup and saucer and a spoon.”

“A list of things that could bother Bella: mosquitoes (+ malaria), fog and poor visibility, the smells of pig farms and old fish, injuries, cut fingers, blisters, wasp stings, the feeling of being cheated, the need to re-group, trying to recall what she’d seen, angry drivers. . .what is the medieval equivalent of a road with a slow bicycle, a Vespa between lanes, a heavy truck in front and another passing from behind?”

I never expected to walk around in my imaginary world with my family. It was hard to talk about things I hadn’t put into words before and to make a claim that my imaginary people existed in a real landscape. It was magical for me and I think it helped my family understand better too.

This trip reminded me that a story is a kind of hospitality. We invite people in and try to make them comfortable before they embark on adventure.

What makes you comfortable when you set out on adventure? What sparks your imagination?

Adventure Awaits. Click here to enter your e-mail. See behind the scenes of THE WOUNDED BOOK.