Tuesday, January 26, 2016

On Loving Libraries

Six years ago, when Jennifer and I first landed in England with our two-year old in tow, I had something of a panic attack. And when I say 'something of a panic attack,' what I mean is a panic attack.

It all settled on me, seemingly, in an instant and I freaked out over leaving home, getting rid of all our stuff, packing up our toddler and moving abroad for Jen to work on her PhD and me to work on writing and live as close to the bone as possible without a car and without a drying machine and without, essentially, that often helpful thing called money.

After we had landed, those crazy questions and panic-inducing curiosities lifted off: What if the little house we rented was a scam? What if it wasn't real? WHAT IF IT WASN'T REAL!? What if we couldn't make ends meet over here? WHAT IF WE COULDN'T MAKE ENDS MEET OVER HERE!? What if we both failed in our endeavors and we ended up royally messing up our first child? WHAT IF WE BOTH FAILED IN OUR ENDEAVORS AND WE ENDED UP ROYALLY MESSING UP OUR FIRST CHILD!?

After a red-eye flight, we landed in London at seven in the morning, got our luggage, piled into a small black cab and went on a two hour drive to York's train station. From there, we piled out of the black cab and piled into another cab that took us to a small hotel room at the Priory Inn because the little house we were going to be renting wasn't ready yet.

(If it was even REAL!)

It was four o clock in the afternoon, and we sat in a small hotel room and my chest started to feel tight and I started to have that freak out feeling.

But then we left. We went to the York Public Library in the center of town. After walking the mile to get there, it was clean, well-lit, warm, and children's picture books abounded. We stayed there, sheltering from the rain that had suddenly started, reading books to Tyler and to ourselves.

The picture books quelled my panic. The library calmed my nerves. Seeing such a beautiful place, that was FREE to enter and FREE to explore and so welcoming and so kind and so warm and so DRY made me want to cry.

The panic subsided.

We didn't yet have any official mail with our names and address on it yet (if our address was even going to be a real place), but when we explained all this to the kind librarian, she said not to worry and gave us our library cards.

For free. Access. Warmth. Inspiration.

And this is why I love libraries.

Even though we are back in the States now, and we have cars we can drive and more stable lives, I still get that feeling of salvation and transcendence and possibility and warmth whenever I enter a library with our kids.

Picture books! Novels! Memoirs! Space to read, and writer, and ask questions, and find stories and examples and hope and maybe, just maybe, fight back the panic of fear and worry that life sometimes throws our way.

This is why I love libraries, and why whenever a hard rain falls or some dark inner turmoil rises, walking into a library opens a crack for me where that beautiful thing called hope can squeeze through.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Blasting Off Into Imagination

Five years ago, when my oldest son was 2, a laundry basket sat nearby us on the floor just before bedtime. Already, Jen had created the giddy habit of pushing Tyler around in the laundry basket all over our small carpeted apartment as he shouted wildly.

And so, when I should have been getting Tyler into the bath and the bedtime routine, he instead climbed into the laundry basket and looked up at me with wide, wondering eyes.

"Bedtime?" I asked.

"Not yet!" Tyler shouted, and then proceeded to bounce up and down in the laundry basket.

And so, instead of talking with Tyler about the importance of following routines and getting good sleep, I grabbed hold of the handle and proceeded to push. (Does this explain possible sleep problems now...hmmm...we'll deal with that in a subsequent post!)

Tyler's head tilted back and we raced around the apartment, turning the laundry basket into a jet, a boat, a bulldozer, a rocket ship, a fire truck, and more. With each new imaginative sequence, we changed our accompanying sounds and motions and let loose.

Twenty minutes later--me breathless as an out-of-shape Daddy and Tyler breathless for an in-shape screaming little guy--we both flopped onto the floor near the bathroom.

"Bedtime?" I asked.


Later that night, when Tyler was finally asleep in his crib, I sat down at the desk and began journaling. But instead of writing about the day at school teaching, or a cool conversation Jen and I had shared, or about the book I was reading, or about the weather (Get the weather in! Hemingway always exhorted), I wrote a poem.

It was a very simple, short poem that essentially walked through the stages of our little imaginative adventure.

So it is especially fun and with great gobs of gratitude (what do gobs of gratitude look like? I imagine them to be like handfuls of strawberry jam ready to be propelled onto giant-sized pieces of toast) that I wait with excitement to see the picture book Bedtime Blastoff! be released on January 26th.

Even though the poem was written in a single night after our play, it proceeded to go through more than a dozen revisions and still take 3 years to get it towards its journey of becoming an actual book. But what I most appreciate is the small ways wise people helped to fiddle with each phrase, wonder about each scene, imagine the imaged with fresh perspectives--people like my wife, Jen, who is the catalyst for the idea in the first place! And people like my agent Ammi-Joan Paquette whose excitement and work with the manuscript helped it reach its eventual publisher. And people like editor Orli Zuravicky whose energy and zeal and interest propelled it towards its finish.And to awesome artist Mike Yamada who brought the scenes to vividly to life!

But what I am most grateful for is Tyler. And children. They come ready to any situation with the innate and infinite capacity to imagine. A piece of wood can become a talking robot; a laundry basket can become a host of vehicles; a tree can become a space station; anything can be transformed into something beautiful, jovial, miraculous, and fresh.

And I still see glimmers of this kind of willingness to imagine in my 7th graders, too. When they write creatively, when they let go of the worry about a grade and delve into the hope for a new world, their eyes sparkle and they seem somehow free.

Jen and I talk often about how to balance all the little necessities of life--the worries about paying bills, the to-do lists of parenting and teaching and finishing degrees and laundry (laundry, always laundry, aaaahhhhhh!) with the need for imagination. And it isn't always apparent how to do so, but when we go on a family hike up a mountain or climb a massive rock along the trail, we all start to feel like the mountain might be something more than a mountain, the rock might be something more than a rock.

Our lives are imbued with a sense of symbolism--that what we do in our most basic, physical ways can actually represent so much more. And it's this ability to leap from logic to liberty--to live, for a while, with the symbol rather than the definition--that energizes us for the to-do lists of normal life.

And this possibility is what excites me most about parenting and teaching.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Imperially Marching to Elmo's Song

With a 7-year old and a 2-year old at home, we go back and forth between the graces of Elmo and the terror of Darth Vader. Watching my two sons be riveted by each, though, the thing that surprises me most is how they're finding joy in the other's favorite.

Last week, before bath time, Tyler and Ben were both in the living room and we were all dancing our hearts out. Initially, we marched and pivoted and jumped and turned and 360-ed in the air as we listened to the Imperial March of Darth Vader's destruction.

Then, we segued into a giddily gleeful romp to Elmo's Song, roaring the words aloud as we cascaded across the carpet.

Each song brings with it a certain amount of engaged interest, and as we danced our way upstairs for bath time, the two songs seemed to synthesize so that we sang a gobbled, garbled mash-up of Elmo and Darth Vader each marching and playing the piano and somewhere amidst the whole big mess laughter erupted.

Though I would never remind him of this outright, my 7-year old son will still sit and be enraptured by Elmo's song. And my 2-year old son can already say "DARTH VADER SCARY!" with big eyes ready to pop out of his head and bo-ing to the wall on the other side of the room.

Their delight in the music of the other reminds me that fun isn't always about what seems 'cool,' or even about what makes sense (as our mash-up taught me). Delight is about finding surprising ways to interact with all that we experience in our lives. Delight is about dancing goofy moves to scary music, and accomplishing some serous tasks--bath!--to the accompaniment of some goofy music.

As a teacher and as an adult, I think I have a lot to learn from imperially marching to Elmo's song. There is joy and delight to be found in rather serious places, and there is a great sense of purpose to goofiness. And maybe our efforts to try to consistently separate the two should be re-examined.