Monday, December 31, 2007

It's Not Goodbye...

I've brought you some pictures. Pictures of Aurora County: the real Aurora County, Mississippi, which is Jasper County, Mississippi, where my father was born and grew up, and where my stories take place. This is Louin, Mississippi, the real Halleluia of LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER and THE AURORA COUNTY ALL-STARS; this is Comfort's Snapfinger, Mississippi. Look closely and you'll see my grandmother's house (not the pink one) -- she's the real Miss Eula -- and the path that Ruby takes from the house to town.

I grew up summers here. These pictures were taken in July. Louin was a thriving town in the Thirties before the Depression hit. It was a tiny town like Halleluia when I was a kid. Today it's... older. More tired. But I still love it.

It's almost midnight. Almost 2008. I'm hanging on to the last hour and forty-nine minutes of 2007. It's hard to let go.

And it was a hard year. Well... maybe hard isn't the word. A challenging year. But what year isn't? As Uncle Edisto says in EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS, "Open your arms to life! Let it strut into your heart in all its messy glory!" yes, yes, yes.

Let's see, messy glory: I lost one editor this year, and then another. But I watched THE AURORA COUNTY ALL-STARS come into the world with lots of joyful noise, and I ran right behind it, on tour... everywhere, it seemed, for so long! It was a pleasure and a pain, and a complete joy.

I met new friends. I visited with Eudora Welty and William Faulkner, read ALL-STARS on Thacker Mountain Radio, drove through the dark night through the Mississippi Delta with Jim Allen, doggedly planted my gardens through the long, dry summer in Atlanta, got married in July to a long-time love, paid for my daughter's last year in college, saw my grandson for the first time in five years, made quilts for my grandgirls, visited kin, welcomed family, watched the rain fall through Christmas week in Atlanta, and criss-crossed the country, teaching.

Not in that order. It's late... stream of consciousness is taking over. My husband is gigging on New Year's Eve, of course. He and his bandmates are jazzing the year in for party-goers somewhere here in Atlanta. I'm going to get a long, hot bath now. I have played in my closet for the past two days -- with all the traveling I did this year, I scarcely got unpacked before I packed again, and I ended up just throwing everything in the closet at some point. I bought a dresser this summer, but I never had the time to fill it. So it felt so good, as one year was ending and another beginning, to gather my clothes -- every piece of clothing I own -- and sort them, wash them, dry them, fold them, hang them, make a pile for Goodwill, and make a pile for IRONING, can you believe it?

I kept thinking of my mother as I buttoned all the buttons on each shirt I hung, just the way she taught me to (and just the way I rarely do), as I folded each blouse just-so, a third this way, a third that way, now fold in half and give it a pat... and I found myself remembering how often I would come home at the end of a school day and see my mother ironing in the family room, watching ANOTHER WORLD. She ironed everything and taught me how to iron as well -- collars and sleeves and pillowcases and... well, I got a hankering to iron; I miss my mother.

So I ordered my drawers and closets, and then tackled the mountain of paper in my office -- another catastrophe of the tour. I found things in that mountain I'd forgotten I had... things I didn't know I had. If you haven't heard from me and have expected to... well... you will. I found it. Them.

Once I had the office ordered, I made myself a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup for supper. Ate it on a tray with a tall glass of cold milk and watched an old movie (TOP HAT, Walter) and smiled. Sighed. I never eat grilled cheese sandwiches anymore. Comfort food. Good. Muenster cheese is the secret. Lots of muenster cheese. Sssssh.....

It's so blissfully quiet here tonight. Not at all like the raucous, lovely years when I had four kids at home and made egg rolls for an army on New Year's Eve, played charades with the neighbors' families, and went outside at midnight with the kids to bang wooden spoons on pots. No, not like that anymore. Everyone is grown up. Everyone is away. Everyone is finding his or her life. And so am I. It is good.

It's a good year, when one delights in what is joyful and grows, even Grinch-like, through challenges. It has been a good year; and it's hard to let a good year go.

It's hard to let you go, too. You've stuck with me through thick and thin this year, on the '07 Book Tour for ALL-STARS; I have so appreciated your good company. So I'll tell you what I'm gonna do. I'm going to migrate you over to One Pomegranate, if you are already a subscriber to the '07 Tour Blog. If you are already subbed to One Pomegranate, you need do nothing -- you're already there. If you are a subscriber to the Tour Journal and have not subbed to OP, you will be receiving an email in the next couple of days from OP, asking you to confirm your subscription to OP -- One Pomegranate.

If you don't want to be subbed to OP, do nothing, and you won't receive further emails. If you do want to sub to OP, click on the link provided in the email, and that's it. Easy peasy. From then on, you'll receive your blog posts from me as One Pomegranate. And you won't hurt my feelin's if you've had enough and need a rest. Come back and see us now and again. We'll keep a pitcher of sweet tea in the fridge for you. We'll keep the front room picked up ----------------------------------------------

You don't need to unsub from the '07 Tour Blog. This blog will remain active and online, although I won't be posting here, as the '07 Book Tour is officially and completely and terrifically over. What a run we had with ALL-STARS -- thank you so much, so very much, every one of you: booksellers, readers, teachers, students, librarians, parents, kids, drivers (Hey, Jim Allen! Hey, Carol!), friends and family, and a Grand Slam thank you to Harcourt Children's Books, especially everyone in marketing who put together such a fabulous tour and worked so darn hard to make sure it came together so splendidly. My baseball cap is off to you, gods and goddesses, all.

You can scroll down and read specifically about each bookstore, each bookseller, each school, each town, each conference, each MEAL I ate, just about... happy sigh, I'm so glad I kept an accounting. I will not forget you. And you will not be allowed to forget me! I will keep coming back, hoping you will welcome me back into your lives, bookstores, schools, libraries, homes, with the next book, the next story, the next time.

You were more than awesome. Meeting you all this year was like playing in Dodger Stadium with Sandy Koufax, listening to Vin Scully announce the play-by-play, sitting in the stands under the lights during a night game, watching the ballet of a perfect game.

It was a symphony true.



Saturday, December 29, 2007

Amoxicillin and Blogging

My daughter says it's stress-related (she should know). My friend James Walker used to call it "a punctuation mark." You know what I mean. I'll bet you've been there: getting sick as soon as you can let down your guard or stop all the movement or, for me, finish up the many months of tour/travel/schools/conferences/company/holidays.

I did fine until the night after Christmas, when I knew I was coming down with... something. We drove through the night from Charleston, S.C. to Atlanta, and I felt punier with every mile. I woke up the next morning to a fever and sore throat and finally got myself to the doctor when swallowing became impossible. Upper respiratory infection. Strep. Pass the antibiotics and other assorted meds. I've been down for the count for two days. Better this morning. Fiddling with One Pomegranate, getting ready for launch.

You know... keeping a blog was Harcourt's idea for the launch of THE AURORA COUNTY ALL-STARS. I was reluctant -- so reluctant -- to join the hordes of bloggers in the nusphere. What did I have to offer? And why should anyone (including me!) bother to read what I wrote? I knew little about blogs or blogging, but since I'd done the tour journal for EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS and it had been so warmly received, I committed to this blogging thing, "but only for the tour!" I said. Folks at Harcourt replied, "... you won't know how you went without one for so long!" No way, I told them. I was such a curmudgeon. And they were right. Way. (Thank you, SteveH and Roseleigh. You may forevermore say "I told you so.") But how to make a blog useful and meaningful? That has been the experiment.

I've been feverishly (ha) reading blogs for months now, trying to get my head around what makes them work -- or not work. I love the sense of community I find in blogs that work well. I rarely read comments on these blogs (and I know from personal experience that most comments come to me in email and not directly on the blog). But after reading hundreds and hundreds of blogs over the past several months, I can feel when there is a community gathered around a certain blog -- can't you? I can feel when there is a give and take, a sharing of ideas, a meaningful conversation. I'm now convinced that blogging can be and is an essential communication tool.

The blogs I've enjoyed most are very focused. I've already mentioned Orangette. Here's her blog description: "a blog-style collection of stories, often autobiographical and always gastronomical." She posts once a week. I know I'm going to get a story and a recipe -- a doable recipe for me -- each Thursday.

I love Angry Chicken, too, Amy Karol's blog. Always something to make with your hands -- I like reading about cupcakes in 1/2 pint jars or vintage aprons. I printed out her gift tags this year and affixed them to Christmas presents. My favorite: "I totally want to get one of these for myself, so let me know if you don't want it." I bought Amy's book for Christmas this year and affixed this tag to it when I gave it to my daughter.

Then there's Keri Smith's blog. Friends and I have had so much fun at Keri's site this season, becoming guerilla artists. My friend Jo Stanbridge has been making tuckboxes. I've made the little magic books. Mostly I love Keri's voice and sense of simplicity. Her openness and honesty feeds my soul. Here's her take on blogging. It's the Nov. 15 entry.

There are more blogs than I will ever find or read. I see that I gravitate toward cooking, gardening, hand crafts, home, and steer clear of politics and other writers' blogs. Why is that? Maybe I want comfort reading from blogs, or how-to, or inspiration. And maybe, just maybe, I have a bone to pick with writers' blogs. I've read dozens of them, and I want to know: What are we doing with our blogging, writers?

With few exceptions, we don't talk about our process or what we're writing... it's as if it's a big secret and we're protecting it from... what? Exposure? Being stolen? Watching the story leach out of our minds and never be captured on paper? Diluting the story? I don't know... certainly there's nothing wrong with not talking about process -- heck, I might not be able to do it, when it comes right down to it, but I want to try. Because... I'm a writer. It's what I do. So I'll write about what I do and how I do it.

What a departure! I've been as secretive about my work as the next writer. So let's see what happens. I'm rethinking everything,including blogging, here at the end of 2007, a fabulous, challenging year.

So. A blog that chronicles the writing experience -- creating a writing life. That's what I want to do at One Pomegranate. I'll talk about writing from life experience and I'll chronicle the work in progress, as well as my teaching, gardening, cooking and, well... my life. It feeds the writing. And vice-versa.

So much of writing isn't actually pen on paper. It's Moments plus Memory plus Meaning. I talk about this a lot when I speak. We take moments from our lives and, using the memories we have (and those memories change over the years) of those moments in time, we assign them meaning (which also changes) -- we create stories from those moments. A post from One Pomegranate that illustrates this well is the Caroling Post from Dec. 22.

Perhaps I am naive and will discover I'm a fool, as I try to chronicle this process, but I hope not. Just as Keri Smith writes about being an artist and Orangette offers up recipes, I want to chronicle the wonder of how a life turns itself into stories. Not for self-aggrandizement; for sharing. For hearing your stories in return. For connection and community and kinship.

Blogging is how we are finding one another in this ever-bigger world, how we are discovering like voices and minds and hearts. I want to be a part of that discovery. So I'll write about what matters to me, and I'll keep looking for you, your voice, your mind, your heart. It's a symphony true, this searching, in whatever form it takes, as Walt Whitman wrote, as Norwood Boyd and Elizabeth Jackson said, as House Jackson learned. A symphony true:

After the dazzle of day is done
Only the dark, dark night shows to my eyes the stars
After the clangor of organ majestic, or chorus, or perfect band,
Silent, athwart my soul, moves the symphony true.

Time to take the amoxicillin. I can swallow today. My fever has broken. I am out of bed and out of the woods. Life is good.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Christmas Cross-Dresser

Story at 11.
Over at One Pomegranate.
Happy Holly Daze!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve Cake

I love putzing in the kitchen and futzing in the garden as much as I love writing. I think. Yeah, probably I do. The cooking and gardening (and sewing and knitting and...) feed the writing. I just haven't had the time this year for much putzing or futzing (potsing and shooshing, in (mispelled) Danny Kaye/White Christmas language).

So here I am, a domesticated writer, on Christmas Eve, offering you a banana cake for Christmas. You can find the recipe at Orangette's food blog. Her recipes are tantalizing, but it's the writing I read her blog for. I read about shopping for muscles at Pike Place Market with a friend or savoring the delights of cookies, and I am treated to Story with a capital S. I love her Stories... which is what I'm all about, as you know from reading One Pomegranate (where I posted a story about Christmas caroling and the meaning of EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS a couple days ago).

I'm not surprised to learn that Orangette (her name is Molly) has a book coming out next year -- I will be in line to buy it. I love reading cookbooks. Occasionally I make something from them. The photo above is Orangette's Banana Cake with Coconut Cream Frosting. Here is a look at how it turned out for me. It was as easy to make as Orangette promised it would be, and it was as delicious as I'd hoped it would be. (Plus, it's gorgeous.) It's a dense, sweet, bread-cake affair -- Hannah and I didn't need the icing to fall in love with it, but when we said so, Jim piped up with "I LOVE the icing!" so there you have it. Some of us are icing fans, some of us are purists.

I omitted the rum, and substituted vanilla in the icing -- still fantastic. We cut huge wedges of this cake for ourselves last night, and ate it in front of the fire. We left plenty for you. Help yourselves. I'm going to adapt and add this recipe to a bevy of home-made directions I'm compiling for... something.

I've been wanting to write an Aurora County Cookbook, for one thing. Comfort has been shoving recipes in my face, so has Ruby's mother (well, she waves them), and even Finesse has gotten in on the act. She does an interpretive dance -- you should see her movements for "stir vigorously."

So maybe I'll tell some new stories in a new Aurora County book some day. Often, when I visit schools, I'm treated to all the foods from my Mississippi/Aurora County novels -- it's amazing to see spread on a checkered tablecloth at lunchtime Mrs. Elling's Chicken and Potato Chip Casserole, Comfort's Funeral Brownies, Aunt Goldie's Prune Bread, Great-great Aunt Florentine's Fried Chicken (Ruby would be aghast), Uncle Edisto's Tuner-Fish Sandwiches, and even a round tray of Ritz Crackers and Vienna sausages! I have eaten more devilled eggs and Moon Pies, and have consumed more Ruby Lavender Root Beer Floats than I can count in schools this past several years. It's all been good. (And hey, I'm off the road now and have lost a whole 7.6 pounds so far -- congratulate me. Let's not think about how far I have to go.)

Whether or not I write the cookbook, I'll be experimenting in the kitchen, in the garden, and at the page this coming year. I'm looking forward to what the new year brings. I'm letting go of the old year with glee -- but more on this next week. Happy Every Thing to Every One. I'll see you on the flip side of Christmas. Whatever you do this week, at some point... have some cake.

Thursday, December 20, 2007


Heavens, it's the holidays. (Thank you for this beautiful present, Sarah!) All routine goes out the window in December, and life as we know it is suspended until January. And, right here in Atlanta, it's snowing! Over at One Pomegranate you can read the story. It's mind- boggling what we'll do here for a little holiday spirit.

I can't even concentrate on telling you the rest of the Canterbury Woods story. So I'll just sketch for you here some of the notes I took while I was there. Pretend it's a connect the dots game and you'll be fine.

From a handwritten list on chart paper in the gym (where I did all-grade presentations my first day). How many of these techniques do I use/talk about/teach? Most. Here they are:

--vocabulary instruction
--high-level questions
--note taking
--small group instruction
--cooperative learning
--technology used by teachers and students alike
--assessment and remediation

Cathy Case, sixth-grade teacher, was brave enough to sit down with me after day one and tell me, after my session with her kids, what "hit" for her students... and what didn't. From that conversation, I rearranged and punted in a different direction the next day. Better. Much better. This is team teaching -- I could hear her, she could tell me. We're both confident in our abilities, we both want to learn how to do even better, we each respect the other's skills. I was able to point out to her some of the more subtle things I was doing, using children's literature, to reach her students -- things she could expound on in the classroom later. And she was able to tell me how to better reach her particular classroom of learners. Excellent.

These two boys are doing what I call the talking/listening part of writing their stories. Hands in the yoga of writing. One talker/reader, one active listener. They will reverse roles next.

There is cognitive coaching going on here at Canterbury Woods. Collaboration. And -- this is important -- people LISTEN here. I was amazed at how much meaningful conversation I had with Barbara Messinger, the principal (in some schools I never even meet the principal), and how many times, during a conversation with any given team member, I realized I was being heard. Really listened to. This is no small thing. It means children are being heard, too. As I saw how intently I was being listened to, I immediately thought to sharpen my own listening skills. This is how it works.

Terminology used at Canterbury Woods that I will incorporate into my classroom management techniques:

Six-inch voices
knees to knees (eyes to eyes)
If you can hear me, clap once (twice, three times)
sometimes we could look for...

From Matt Radigan, from his Teach for America experience:
"Work smarter, not harder"
and more:
Thumbs up/down
Fist of five (four, three, etc.)

Overall, I learned so much here because faculty and staff are not afraid to say what they see, to ask high-level questions, to listen, and to learn. It's a dream for me, as I am always asking, always reaching, always wanting to learn, the perpetual student. It was a great teaching experience.

Back to your regularly scheduled holidays... but you haven't heard the last from me this year! Still working on One Pomegranate, still fiddling with the look and feel of it, still finding my voice.

Thanks so much for all the mail, y'all. I am slow to respond, but I carry you all in my heart -- I do. I'm a sketchy personal correspondent, I admit it. I appreciate all you have to say about the blog -- both blogs -- and I'm glad you'll come with me as I continue blogging on One Pomegranate. Thanks.

And now I need an egg nog.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Re-Examine All You Have Been Told

I'm still processing all I learned at Canterbury Woods Elementary School in Annandale, Virginia (outside D.C.) last month.

I came to teach personal narrative writing to the upper elementary grades, with a focus on grade 5, since fifth graders take the SOLs, or Standards of Learning, test (The Test) in the spring each year.

You can see me here, giving some directions to fifth graders, with some prompts written on my chart paper in the background, and an interpreter for the hearing impaired in the background -- at times we had three interpreters in the room at once, all walking around following me when I was walking around... we were like a tiny parade in the classroom.

I got used to them quickly, though, and it was clear that the students were used to this.I have been teaching in the classroom for close to twenty years, and I am still learning, still learning. Still re-examining all I have read, all I have been told, all I have experienced. Still discovering my mentors, making my own determinations, finding my own voice.

It's a thrill to feel myself stretching and growing as I am standing there in front of a classroom of writers, as I have conversations about the day with teachers, as I prepare myself for the next day with students, as they ask me hard questions or struggle with their stories... and I have strong opinions about the teaching of writing, and about teaching, period.

These folks have strong opinions, too. Here are Lisa Vasu, who teaches ESL at Canterbury Woods, and Matt Radigan, who is a counselor and instructional coach. There are three of these instructional coaches/mentors at Canterbury Woods. Principal Barbara Messinger has set up her staff in such a way that she has created a base of staunch support for her teachers and students... and they take advantage of that support. It's fantastic.

Until I can tell you more, just know that Lisa and Matt are amazing. When students begin to master their English skills, Matt gives them a congratulatory high-five and says, "You've been Vasued!" Matt comes to CW from Teach For America and from D.C. charter schools. He's full of energy, enthusiasm, and smarts. And he has good hair.

I'm still processing all I learned at Canterbury Woods; moreover, I'm processing HOW I LEARNED IT. The environment I was immersed in for four days was an amazingly open and generous one -- the conversations were rich and deep and meaningful. I will never know everything I need to know -- will any of us? -- about the teaching of writing or about improving my own writing, but when I know I am learning something that is key to my understanding, I am exhilarated by the thought.

I am a perpetual student. In every way. As regards the teaching of writing, the best learning labs for me are schools that are wrestling their writing programs to the mat, always learning. They bring me in for a sustained period of time to work with teachers and students. I get to share what I have learned. I learn from them as well.

I have had wonderful and difficult experiences in many schools over the past twenty years, but two experiences stand out as the best and worst over that time. And interestingly enough -- both the best and the worst have taught me so much. Life is like that, too -- I guess I shouldn't be surprised that teaching is the same way.

Canterbury Woods is one of the best teaching/learning experiences I have ever had. I'll be sharing with you why I think this is so -- I'll tell you what I learned.

By contrast, one of the most difficult teaching experiences -- and this was just a few years ago, in an elementary school not far from Canterbury Woods -- taught me the most as well. I'll talk about this, too. I remember going home at the end of each residency day and crying with frustration, filling a notebook with what happened and with what I'd learned and with ideas on how I could change things up and make the teaching more relevant, more directed, more prescriptive for this particular environment. It ended up being a great week. It turned me inside out as a teacher and a student.

In the meantime, I'm still processing. Still learning, while I'm enjoying time with my family this holiday season, home home home. I've written more about this on One Pomegranate, which is where I'll continue to chronicle my teaching thoughts in January, and my travels, and more.

Next: How we set up the residency at Canterbury Woods Elementary School, and why it worked so well... how teachers and staff are turning teaching on its ear and giving it a polish --- and what a difference it's making in the growth and learning of not only students, but faculty and staff as well.

There is a Cavafy poem I love called "Half the House." It's about growing and learning, and at first glance it doesn't seem like it makes sense, perhaps, but I find it distills my thoughts about teaching. And living. You can find the poem online, including at One Pomegranate's latest entry, this date.

I'll leave you with Whitman's words from the preface of the first edition to LEAVES OF GRASS. They are the words I use to open THE AURORA COUNTY ALL-STARS:

"This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul."

Go forth with an open heart. Learn.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Take a Peek...

Okay. I'm almost ready. If you'd like to take a peek at One Pomegranate, go right ahead. You can also sign up now for this new blog on email or as an RSS feed, if you want to... there are links on the left to help you. I'll post to it as I practice getting ready for the big launch, and you can help me by giving me feedback, if you please. If you want to wait, that's fine. I'll be reminding you again before I phase out posting to this Tour Blog. So, we've got a little double-blog-dipping going on right now. But I decided to go ahead and do it this way, so we can have a little crossover time, and then, voila.

So what's over there that I want you to see? Well... I got married yesterday... 36 years ago. December 11, 1971. I was 18 years old. He was 17. That's us in the photo above. We're at Jones County Junior College in Ellisville, Mississippi. I have no idea how much my life is about to change.

Yes, I know I've said I got married this past July... there's a story there. And here's another -- see that tiny baby in my lap about halfway down the entry? His name is Jason. He's 33 now. He arrives in Atlanta tonight. I haven't seen him for too long -- so I'm going to be a bit scarce once he arrives, but I'll be back. I wanted you to have this story, in the meantime. Don't forget me.

And don't forget to tell your stories -- how many times have you heard me say this at schools, conferences, etc? It's my broken record -- we are Pomegranates: So Many Stories Inside Each Fruit.

Monday, December 10, 2007

We Are Pomegranates

This... is a pomegranate. When I was a kid living in Hawaii -- my dad was an Air Force pilot stationed at Pearl Harbor -- a pomegranate tree grew in the yard next door to our house in Foster Village. Its fruit draped on leafy branches across the fence into our yard, and I longed for those pomegranates. My mother said they didn't belong to us. I asked her if I could have the ones that fell on the ground on our side of the fence, and she gave me permission to take those, as long as I didn't pick any from the tree. I didn't know then that the ones that fell were the sweetest, the most ripe.

I languished in the yard some days, with a book (is that possible?), sitting on the moss that grew under the banana tree, waiting for those pomegranates to fall. They were exotic, and full of mystery. We had moved from Mobile, Alabama (where I was born) to Hawaii when I was five -- now I was eight -- and I had never seen fruit like this in Alabama. I remember my surprise the first time my mother broke one open for me -- all those soft seeds, like round red pearls! All that sweet goodness that dribbled down my chin, my neck, and under my shirt as I took a bite. I loved the texture of a pomegranate, its shape, its flavor, its smell. It was full of possibilities, like we are, like our stories are, falling ripe from a tree after much hard work... our day-to-day lives that we chronicle for ourselves and one another.

I've been thinking about possibilities lately. I've been thinking about those pomegranates. I've been thinking about what I've learned as I've blogged this book tour and my travel to schools and conferences in 2007, as we've launched THE AURORA COUNTY ALL-STARS into the world. And I've made some decisions.

We're coming to the end of the year and certainly we're at the end of the ALL-STARS book tour; it's time to change things up a bit. I want to wrap up the year's traveling stories for you, particularly I want to show you the good work we did at the writing residency at Canterbury Woods Elementary School in Fairfax, Virginia in November. Soon, I promise.

I want to look back at the year. I hope to write about traveling, writing, making a living in the arts as a self-employed person, and I'll write about cooking, eating, gardening, family, and friends. The usual.

And I'm going to bring this blog to an end as I do that, probably at the New Year in January. I invited you on a journey -- the book tour -- and that journey is over. But I'm not leaving you, oh no. You can't get rid of me that easily.

This blog will stay live, right here online, although I have no plans to post to it after January. I'm creating a new blog which you will be able to link to easily right here on this page -- I'll let you know when it's time. It's called One Pomegranate. Yep. One Pomegranate. "So many stories inside each fruit," that's my description. Each fruit being each one of us.

And I am the Pomegranate Queen. Hey -- it's my blog! I get to be Queen. I am "One Pomegranate." And so are you. You'll see.

One Pomegranate won't be that much different from this blog, but then, it will be. I'll travel next year, but not nearly the way I did this year. I'll be home more in 2008 than I've been home in the past seven years. I've planned it that way. Finally! And I have plans.

In One Pomegranate, I'm going to chronicle writing the next book. Books. You're going to hear a lot about the Sixties, among other things, since I'm going to be researching and writing about the Sixties, and I'm going to ask you what you think. I'm going to ask you about... well, lots of things. I'm going to find my voice, my way, on a blog I create myself with the intention of making connections. With you, with the world, with myself, with story.

In 2008, I'm going to hang with family. Garden. Cook. Be a friend. Climb Stone Mountain. Eat well. Sleep well. Get healthy. Write well... I hope. Research. Teach. Write. Write. And write some more. I'm a writer who misses writing. And I've learned, as I've blogged this year, that we can use blogs as a way to get to know one another and ourselves. I want to experiment. Be juicy. Tell stories. Online and on paper.

I hope you'll stick around and be juicy with me. So many stories in every fruit. What are yours? Do they resonate with mine? In all the travel I've done since 2001, I can tell you that I resonate to your stories -- we are much more alike than we are different.

Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Rhodes has said, "Story is the primary vehicle human beings use to structure knowledge and experience." Story. Not only the stories we read in books or hear in songs or watch in movies. Story -- guess-what-happened-to-me-today story. It's what we blog about every day, we human beings. What thrills us, delights us, angers us, saddens us, scares us, informs us, changes us... story. It's the air we breathe.

I love what soldier/author/teacher/minister Frederick Buechner has said about story -- and I believe he was talking about the very thing we do with blogs and journals and phone calls and visits and "guess what happened to me today!" Here's a bit of what he says:

"My story is important not because it is mine. . . but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is yours. Maybe nothing is more important than that we keep track . . . of these stories of who we are and where we have come from and the people we have met along the way because it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity . . . that God makes himself known to each of us most powerfully and personally . . . to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but spiritually. I not only have my secrets, I am my secrets. And you are yours. Our secrets are human secrets, and our trusting each other enough to share them with each other has much to do with the secret of what it means to be human."

I hope you'll hang out with me here through December, and migrate with me for a new adventure at One Pomegranate. It will be the next leg of our journey -- Our Story -- together.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Press, We Got Press

While I'm recovering from this travel exhaustion/flu/whatever it is, I'm passing on a couple of links for you. The first is from the The Student Printz, the campus newspaper of the University of Southern Mississippi, and it tells you more about the event I just came from, only in much more erudite terms. Great newspaper. Here's the article.

The second is a review of ALL-STARS by Donald Harrison for the San Diego Jewish World News. (Their motto: "There's a Jewish Story Everywhere.") I'm thrilled with this review - it's thorough and thoughtful and... different. Here's a bit of it:

SAN DIEGO—When Jewish families speak reverently about the great Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax, typically the story told is about the time that he declined to pitch one particular World Series game because it fell on Yom Kippur. The story reinforced to us as children the point that there are some things more important than the routines in our day-to-day lives, and even more important than our Little League teams.

In this book for young readers, Koufax again serves as an example, but his observance of Jewish ritual has nothing to do with it. Twelve-year-old House Jackson broke his elbow in an unfortunate collision with would-be ballerina Frances Schotz, a major misfortune for the Aurora County All Stars, which perennially lack sufficient players to sustain a full season. Benched, House reads and re-reads a story about a time in Koufax’s career when the Dodger great pitched an important game notwithstanding the fact that he was in terrible pain.

Koufax is only one of the baseball role models in this book; another, similarly important to the resolution of the plot, is Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in the majors. In Aurora County, Mississippi, local folks pointed to Robinson and regretfully told the story of the great-grandfather of Frances Schotz—the still living, still athletic, Parting ‘Pip’ Schotz.
You can find the entire review here. I will say, too, that I knew Koufax refused to pitch the first game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. As a writer juggling lots of balls with ALL-STARS (pun intended!), I had to choose what to put in, what to leave out, and I chose to focus on who Koufax was by showing his determination to be the best he could be and to do right by his team, even in the midst of an elbow that turned black, and fingers that were tinged with gangrene -- he never complained, he never explained. He did his job. He retired before he was 30 -- his arm was worn out. He was a stellar ballplayer; he remains a stellar human being. I modeled my character House after Koufax. See if they don't have the same strong, steady, silence, the same dedication to a cause, the same honor and dignity. Koufax is House's hero. My hero, too.

Reviews are so subjective, don't you think? I always say that when a story leaves my hands, it no longer belongs to me. It belongs to the person who reads it, and each reader brings his or her own sensibilities -- her own prejudices, too -- to a book. "It's not for me," is a refrain that a good friend of mine uses when a book is being touted as excellent by so many people, but he just can't see why -- he didn't like it. "It's not for me."

And that's true: Every book is not for every reader. We have such different tastes. But I think there IS a way for readers to read like writers, to learn to appreciate a story for how it is told.

For instance, ALL-STARS is told in the tradition of the Grand Southern Storyteller. It spins out and reels you in. It might even seem meandering or leisurely at points, as one reviewer has pointed out, but then, the writer knows what she is doing, all is purposeful -- she is honoring that southern storytelling tradition, and she is also honoring the serial novel tradition (talk about meandering!) of cliffhanger endings, great suspense, multiple sub-plots, edge-of-the-seat conclusions, a cast of characters to rival ULYSSES, mysteries revealed, secrets kept, betrayals turned to advantage, and... dead guys.

It's a huge undertaking with so many balls in the air to be juggled well, so many ends to tie up (or leave hanging), and so much emotion to be mined -- the Victorian serial novel is not all that different from the Southern gothic! It was grand fun and a great challenge to try my hand at this Southern Victorian Serial Novel Form (as I began calling it) and bring it to young readers.

As a reader, I love to find a story that takes a traditional structure and bends it, shapes it, augments it, gives it a personal stamp. I settle in for the ride, knowing I'm in good hands. Reading like a writer: It's an important skill to master, especially if one is reviewing. "What was she trying to do here? How well did she do it?"

Reading for sheer pleasure is yet another skill. We were talking about this in our NCTE workshop last month in NYC -- reading like a writer, reading for pleasure -- can they be one and the same? How do we read and appreciate what goes into a story well told? Given that we are such different people, how and what do we appreciate, and how does that appreciation carry over into our own writing?

I was delighted to read Donald Harrison's review in the San Diego Jewish World, in part because he had discovered something new to write about, something other reviewers hadn't touched on. There are so many layers to a novel; it's a thrill to see them uncovered by readers. Thanks, Donald Harrison, for this appreciative -- and very different! -- review.

Back to bed for me. Hack hack. Sniff sniff. It has turned cold in Atlanta. We keep a crackling fire going all day. I can sit in front of it for a morning, an afternoon, mesmerized by the flames and the warmth, working away on my laptop from time to time, but not today. Today I must rest this head on a pillow. More dreaming.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

A Researcher at Heart

So we did great work together at USM -- what a wonderful day. In the morning, 350 students from surrounding areas: Gulfport, Macomb, Miselle, Hattiesburg, and more. How gratifying to see the response to this first invitation from the de Grummond Collection folks and the University to the public schools to come meet an author.

Students ranged from third through seventh grade. Each group had read an age-appropriate Deborah Wiles book. They knew their characters! They knew the stories. And I was so pleased to make their acquaintance. Thank you, teachers, for preparing your students, and thank you, students, for your glowing presence!

We had a good hour together, after which (and after a fun lunchtime full of good food), I spent two hours in the McCain Library and Archive, reading through letters, diaries, notes, memos, of Freedom Summer workers in 1964 Hattiesburg and Holly Springs. I read through ledger books and letters, recipes and photographs... I was totally blown over to hold these original items in my hands. I have never done official research in a primary source archive, so I depended on archivists Diane Ross and Danielle Bishop to see me through. And they did -- what knowledgeable, friendly, helpful folks.

My cart was just inside the door when I arrived at the Cleanth Brooks Reading Room just outside the archives. I surrendered my coat and bags and took my laptop and notebook and a pen to the table I'd selected by the windows. Here's the sign that was on my cart. It's official: I'm an official researcher.

Here's Diane with my research, all together on a cart, in boxes, pulled from the archive, and waiting for me to sit down, one box at a time, and go through these treasures.

Primary sources! If I had had access to this sort of archive as a kid in school trying to learn about primary and secondary sources, I would have "gotten it" immediately. What a great field trip this would be for kids who are learning about history and how we gather it, catalog it, care for it. It's amazing to sit down with one of these boxes, open it, pull out Folder 1, and see, right in front of you, the actual handout that was given to students on campuses across the country about the Freedom Summer Initiative, the flyer that brought students to meetings on campus, that lead them to sign up for training, and to be sent to Mississippi to work for the summer. In my book FREEDOM SUMMER, I write about 1964 Mississippi, about the year the pool was closed so it wouldn't be integrated after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. I write about my memories. Now I have more stories of 1964 to share as I write the first book in a trilogy of novels about the 1960s for young readers.

Here's Danielle, patiently watching me put one box at a time back so I can take another to my table.

I barely got started on this research -- I will be back. My Sixties Trilogy will be so much richer for my having spent time with real stories of real people doing real work in 1960s Mississippi.

I skipped dinner in favor of research (I was always this way) and had to rush to be at the auditorium in time to give my speech to the honors forum.

Here are David Davies, Dean of the Honors College at USM and Ellen Ruffin, Curator of the de Grummond Collection, and moi in the middle. We are celebrating after my speech -- a successful first collaboration between the Honors College and the de Grummond Collection, and the first time a children's book author has spoken at the honors forum. I was honored to be asked and delighted to be there. Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who made this day possible.

As readers know, I tend to leave things in my wake on my travels. I've been mostly on the road since September 6. But now -- I'm home. Still, I left my phone charger in the hotel room in Hattiesburg. It's the last thing I'll leave somewhere this year, as my travels are over. Over! The tour time is officially over, and I can't believe I managed to chronicle it. I can't believe I actually did all the things I did, met all the wonderful people I met, gained all the weight I gained, and learned all the things I learned -- I'll need to process for a while. Folks on the road took great good care of me -- I can scroll down the pages of this blog and remember them all, all those stories...

I woke up yesterday in Hattiesburg, however, with a scratchy, growly voice, and aches all over. Big aches. I'm still coughing. I'm wondering if my body held on for Dec. 5, when it knew I would be Done. I got up and drove to New Orleans yesterday. Hugged Coleen goodbye. She was dealing with the delivery of a ten-foot Christmas tree AND she was heating me soup! I took a taxi to the airport. Flew home to Atlanta. And there was Jim. There was my husband. Smiling. Hugging me home. It was perfect.

I'm submerging for a few days. Sleeeeeeeeep, Deb. It's okay. Your work out there is done. It was good work. And now is the time for dreaming.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Compassion, Kindness, Willingness

This is my daughter Hannah, working in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans in March 2006. I could show you photos from each trip she's made, photos she has taken on the same spot to show perspective, but instead I'll just mention that Louisiana and Mississippi still need help. Driving north from New Orleans to Hattiesburg, Mississippi yesterday, I saw the FEMA trailers and the blue tarps that I saw in July, that I saw a year-and-a-half ago, and the view from the highway hasn't changed all that much. There are still abandoned homes and apartment complexes whose window-eyes gaze back at me, open and empty. Parking lots are empty. The roller-coaster at Six Flags lists toward the highway and looks like a Tinkertoy left out in the rain. If you've been following this blog, you'll remember Billy Sothern's reading of DOWN IN NEW ORLEANS, on Thacker Mountain Radio from Oxford, Mississippi. I highly recommend his book for a look at what happened in New Orleans in 2005.

New Orleans is a city of such visual -- and visceral -- opposites. Coleen and I had dinner at Galatoires on Sunday afternoon, at her insistence. It was as magnificent as she crowed it would be. "Real New Orleans people eat here," she said, and true enough, I saw lots of Old New Orleans as the restaurant filled up with folks with means, coming to dinner.

Then I drove out of town the next morning, passing these scenes off Esplanade, just outside the French Quarter.

When I arrived in New Orleans on Saturday evening, the sun was setting and we drove past the Superdome.... such memories it brought back, such stories are held now, in that place, stories that have nothing to do with football games. If you haven't seen the Spike Lee documentary about Katrina and New Orleans, do rent it and watch it. There are still so many stories to be told.
Coleen and I were at the main post office on Monday morning, where there is a huge display of photographs and write-ups, as Comfort would call them, of those lost in Katrina. These tributes were hand-written or typed -- I could have stood there all day and read them. Wish I'd had my camera with me -- it was a work of art, this wall of tributes.

I did stop at the St. Louis Cemetery (#3) yesterday, on my way out of town, to pay a tribute of my own.

I'm working in Mississippi today, all day long, with kids, teachers, parents, friends. Folks in Mississippi never miss an opportunity to tell me that they were hit just as hard by Katrina, even though they don't always get the same press. It's true, they were. Driving up highway 59 into Mississippi -- well away from the coast -- it still amazes me to see the forest on either side of the highway stripped of its leaves. Sticks -- that's what's left of the trees. They are snapped in half and stand there, at attention, like a ragged popsicle-stick forest, on either side of the interstate.

I know we're making progress in Katrina-ravaged places. It still seems like it's not enough. Conversely (those opposites), I am so touched by the countless stories I've heard about people's generosity... their kindness, compassion, and willingness to help.

So I'm back in Mississippi, back in the deep south, the land of beautiful and terrible contradictions. The good folks at the University of Southern Mississippi have invited me here to tell my stories. Ellen Ruffin (who became my Cousin Ellen as we worked together at the Mississippi Library Convention last year, as we worked together.... well, lots of times)... Cousin Ellen is the curator of the Lena Y. de Grummond Children's Literature Collection here at USM. I'm excited to say that my papers will soon be housed here -- all those drafts of RUBY LAVENDER, EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS, THE AURORA COUNTY ALL-STARS, FREEDOM SUMMER, ONE WIDE SKY and more... correspondence with editors, rough drafts of maps and other materials I used to create the books -- it's an honor to know that I'll be in such good company --

Think Ezra Jack Keats, H.A and Margret Rey (Curious George!), and Kate Greenaway, just for starters. I have known about and loved this collection for many years -- my love affair started long before I had a book published. I knew there were treasures here.

I've also known for years about the civil-rights-movement treasures carefully collected and stored at the McCain Library at USM. I've got two hours of research time scheduled here this afternoon -- be still my heart! Oral histories, photographs, artifacts... this is a perfect way to end my touring days this year and jump-start the writing of the Sixties trilogy, which has been waiting for me patiently, for months.

Or maybe the perfect ending to those touring days is the speech I give tonight to the Honors Forum and anyone else who cares to attend. I'm going to talk about being from the deep south and what that means to me in all its conflicting glory.

I'm going to talk about my young adulthood and what a shocker of a swamp I found myself in at 18, right here in these Mississippi stomping grounds, when I discovered I was about to become a young mother in the deep south -- it was 1971 and becoming a young mother without being a married woman was a disgrace. Boy did I feel it.

But -- just like those opposites that Uncle Edisto talks about in LITTLE BIRD -- there was beauty in that time as well. I'm going to talk about my journey from Jones County Junior College in nearby Ellisville, Mississippi, how I had to by-pass college at Southern when I would have dearly loved to have been able to get an education there -- or anywhere -- and how I ultimately found ways to care for myself... and my family.

People helped me. Compassion, Kindness, Willingness -- they are powerful forces for change. Powerful forces for good.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Sunday Morning in New Orleans

I'm sitting at Community Coffee in a comfortable, overstuffed chair with a non-fat latte, on the corner of St. Philip and Royal, in the French Quarter. I'm staying with Coleen Salley, Friend Exemplary and Storyteller Extraordinaire. We were supposed to start an oral history of Coleen's life. We'll do some of that.

But first we've got to make some headway on these umpteen boxes of Christmas decorations.

Coleen's home is on the French Quarter House Tour this Christmas. She's going to have seven trees up for folks to peruse. Seven!

The courtyard below is where folks have gathered whenever ALA or IRA is in New Orleans. Coleen hosts a party. Several parties. This is her "back yard" or patio... courtyard.

Last night we went to Irene's for supper. "Honey, this is Queen Coleen," announced Coleen when she called to see if we could have a table for two. "Come now? That's great! We'll be right over." We had a two-and-a-half-hour dinner at Irene's, where the entire staff made over Coleen... and who wouldn't? She's a New Orleans Goddess in every way.

We're having fun. It's gorgeous here. Lots to tell you about New Orleans, about the week at Canterbury Woods -- I'll post photos soon -- and about the trip to Hattiesburg, Mississippi tomorrow, where I'll be speaking at the University of Southern Mississippi Honors Forum on Tuesday evening.

But first -- I've got some Christmas trees to decorate.

Edited to add some photos and the breaking news below.

We climbed into Coleen's Honda and got lost trying to find Ralph's, a nursery near the river and the railroad tracks. Coleen flagged down this bicyclist. "Honey, can you tell us where to find Ralph's Nursery?" The bicyclist frowned and said, "You mean Harold's?" "YES, Honey, that's it!" The man waved -- "Follow me!"... and we did.

The friendly folks at Ralph's aka Harold's gave us the greens we needed to decorate the creches. This is the stuff of oral history, whether we're gathering it seriously or not. We're certainly living it. Back to work!