Monday, August 31, 2015

Dog Days

As fans of the movie Throw Momma from the Train can attest, the night was sultry

photo by Tony Alter

And sultry is a good way to describe the Dog Days of Summer—those fry-an-egg-on-the-sidewalk days at summer’s end, just when we’re all in a mood to fill the bathtub with ice and lemonade and dive in.

How did the Dog Days get their name? Is it because at this time of year, you can see dogs panting and seeking shade under shrubs and bushes?

photo by xlibber

Actually, the reason is far more mythic than that. In this season, the constellation Orion rises in the morning—and with the celestial Hunter comes his trusty dog—Canis Major.

In fact, Sirius--the brightest star in Canis Major--is also called the Dog Star. Since the hottest days of the year coincided with the rising of the Big Dog (and the Dog Star), the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans came to associate the weather with the stars.

Parthenon, AndyLiang

The poet Homer alludes to Orion's Dog in the epic poem, The Illiad:

    Sirius rises late in the dark, liquid sky
    On summer nights, star of stars,
    Orion's Dog they call it, brightest
    Of all, but an evil portent, bringing heat
    And fevers to suffering humanity.

Of course, we have to remember that Homer was penning these words in a house with no refrigeration or air conditioning or ice cream. No wonder he thought the Dog Star was bad news.

photo by paata

In some ways, I identify with those wacky, star-gazing ancient Egyptians. Before we moved back to the city, we lived in the country for sixteen years--on flat farmland away from city lights and city distractions. I never thought I would like living someplace that flat, but what it lacked in rolling hills, it made up for in spectacular scenery. We only had to look up. 

Each morning we could watch the red sun rise from the earth, and in the evening, we could watch it sink into the horizon. In summer I could stroll up our long driveway at night at look at Scorpio and Sagittarius, strung like Christmas tree ornaments across the southern sky. 

In winter, the landscape wasn't much--endless brown and gray and too much mud tracked into the house. But the sky-scape was ablaze with Orion, Taurus, Gemini, and Canis Major. In a place like that, the spinning pinwheel of the heavens is a bigger part of your life. Looking at the Milky Way, I felt like a small speck--but a small speck who is part of a grand and glorious design.   

Pharoah's Dog - Tesem

Since we moved, I have been suffering from too much time indoors and from stellar deprivation. For me, the biggest blessing of Dog Days is that the Hunter and the Dog return from their long absence in the glare of the sun. And although I left many dear friends behind when we left the country, my oldest friends--the stars--are with me still.

Egyptian sunrise--photo, Geagea

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Quilts: Stitches in Time

Every quilt is a story.

Sad to say, this butterfly quilt has spent most of its life in a garbage bag, waiting to be finished. My Aunt Doris made it for me when I was a child, but for some reason, no one ever finished it by binding the edge. I don’t remember exactly when the quilt was passed on to me, but I had every intention of finishing it myself--especially when after three boys, I finally had a daughter. 

Yes, I intended to finish it. I intended repeatedly. I intended fervently, but the bag was put away in a closet, and other projects (mostly computer-related) distracted me from this sewing job. Now and then, I would stumble upon the bag and think once again, I really need to put the binding on this quilt. Not that I knew how to do a binding, but it didn’t seem like it would be the stitchery version of rocket science.

This month I finally got up the gumption and went to Hancock’s Fabrics to buy some quilt binding. Hot pink seemed like the best match. I watched YouTube videos about how to do a quilt binding and then plunged ahead—making several mistakes. Apparently, it’s harder than it looks in the videos.

But with perseverance, I wrangled the binding onto the quilt, and in early September, I plan to present it to my daughter’s daughter for her third birthday. Her mom has just gone through a divorce, and they are making a new start in a new home. Amanda has a new room and a new big girl bed, and I think this quilt will be lovely for it. 

I remember lying in bed as a child under various quilts, made by my mom or her sisters. On a luxurious Saturday morning—before getting up to watch cartoons--I would stare at the little fabric pieces, magically joined together in kaleidoscopic patterns. Aunt Doris sewed clothes as well as quilts, and I could recognize scraps from cloth she had used to make a dress for my mom or a shirt for me. How odd to see all those little memories put together in a sort of fabric version of stained glass.

I especially remember one quilt that my family had made—a friendship quilt with appliqued blocks from various quilters, joined together and signed in embroidery.  It was tattered and torn by the time my sister-in-law gave it a new home after my parents passed away, but I’m sure she is preserving it as a piece of family history.

Okay, I had to take one picture of the binding!

As far as I know, all those family quilts were made by hand—pieces cut out and sewn together with fingers shielded with thimbles—then quilted, also by hand. Perhaps some of the bindings were stitched on treadle sewing machines, but I’m not sure. I don’t think my mom ever used a sewing machine. It took a staggering number of stitches to join all those little pieces of the top and then combine the layers together. Stitch, stitch, stitch. A lot of work went into these bed covers.

A double wedding ring quilt, made by my mother

I picture my mom and the other women quilting--a pot of green beans bubbling on the stovetop, a pie in the oven, and laundry dancing on the line in the backyard--making a sort of patchwork against the blue sky. And as if all the housework didn't quite satisfy their thirst for hard work, these women filled "leisure" hours with quilting. Apparently, the human spirit longs for beauty, even if forged from the scraps at hand.

I hand-hemmed the binding on the underside of the butterfly quilt, and it took a gazillion stitches--but only a mere fraction of the number of stitches in the quilt. They are stitches through time, joining families and generations and traditions and stories together in the colored pieces.

Until this humble binding project, I had never been a part of making a quilt. But with the butterfly quilt, I also inherited a stack of Grandma’s Flower Garden blocks that someone assembled. I'm thinking that my mom started this quilt and then had to stop when she injured her hand. I recently read that Flower Garden quilts are seldom made anymore because they are labor intensive. Maybe this would be another way to ease into quilting without the major commitment of doing it all by myself. Even with all the years that separate us, My mom and I could finally make a quilt together! And better still, maybe my daughter will help.

Grandma's Flower Garden, by Arria Belli

As an adult I discovered other quilts, not like the Kentucky farmhouse quilts of my childhood. Such as the Amish quilts with their use of more black pieces, giving stark contrast to the other colors. Or the art quilts by contemporary artists creating striking designs in abstracts.

Dawn Nebula Quilt by Michael F. James
Contemporary quilters create such phenomenal designs. But I recognize that the country quilters, with their simple patterns are also great artists, creating works that illustrate how the disparate pieces of our memories and our lives are stitched together by the loving and skilled hands of God to make a work of lasting beauty.

Robert Hillestad Textiles Gallery
Michael F. James

But my granddaughter doesn't have to think about all that. She can just sleep with the butterflies and with an inter-generational hug from Aunt Doris and Grandma.  

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Book It!

Reprinted from Cookies & Milk
a children's feature in SW Ohio newspapers

Where can you find dragons and dinosaurs, vampires and volcanoes, wizards and wildebeests, aliens from outer space and famous people from earth history — all under one roof?  

No, not in a new theme park from Disney-Pixar, but right down the street or around the your own local library! 

Huntington Library, by Aaron Logan

A library is a place of wonder and discovery — where fairy tales can come to life. Just open a book and plug in your imagination!

Do you have questions — about how computers work or how to become a champion rollerblader? The library has answers.
Are you looking for something fun to do? The library has a million good stories to share and fun programs just for kids. Do you have a bad case of the book report blues? The library can cure you — and show you all kinds of cool media to help with your homework.

Seattle Central Library, by Bobak Ha'Eri

Many ancient people revered learning and collected books and scrolls in libraries. In the great city of Ninevah in ancient Assyria, over 30,000 clay tablets have been discovered. They were once part of the Library of Ashurbanipal. Can you imagine having to check out your books in the form of heavy clay tablets? I hope you brought your camel to help carry them home!

Cuneiform tablet, by Fae

The most famous ancient library was in Alexandria, Egypt. This vast library featured lecture halls, meeting rooms, and gardens. It was a sad day for the world when this library burned down in a mysterious fire. 

Benjamin Franklin, painted by Jean Baptiste Greuze

The first public library in the United States was established in Franklin, Massachusetts. The town of Exeter had been re-named in honor of Benjamin Franklin, and the city asked Ben if he would like to donate a bell for the townhall. Since Ben felt that “sense” was more important than “sound,” he donated a collection of books  instead. And so began the first library in the New World.

Not far from Franklin, the city of Boston had the first pubic library with a special section just for children. The Children's Room, opened in 1895, placed more than 3,000 books within the reach of children’s small hands. The Boston Library also was the first to introduce storytellers in their Children’s Library.

Children's library books, by Trevor Mantemach

People of long ago would declare an “Eighth Wonder of the World” if they could see all the treasures available in your local library. And your library card is the “golden ticket” to all of this entertainment and information, all of the world’s best stories. 

Let’s book it on down to the public library today!   

Burlingame Library, by Kglavin

Monday, December 1, 2014

Because of Kate DiCamillo

Every well-written book is a light for me. 
When you write, you use other writers and 
their books as guides in the wilderness.   
                          – Kate diCamillo

To me, Kate diCamillo looks like Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail. And her children’s books seem like the sort that Meg -- I mean Kathleen Kelly -- would write. Her stories are whimsical, touching, funny, serious, and altogether wonderful.

Kate Dicamillo
Katrina Elizabeth DeCamillo was born in Philadelphia in 1964. In childhood, she suffered from chronic pneumonia, and her mother took her to Florida to recover. Her father remained behind to sell his orthodontist practice. But years passed, and he never joined his family.

At age thirty, Kate moved to Minneapolis and found work as a “picker” on the children’s floor of the Bookmen’s warehouse. 

That first winter in Minnesota, the worst on record, Kate was suffering from "dog withdrawal." On her author site, she says, “I was living in an apartment where no dogs were allowed, but there weren't any rules about imaginary dogs. So I made a dog up, the best dog I could think of: a smelly, friendly, big old mutt.” And so Kate’s first book was born—Because of Winn-Dixie.

Winn-Dixie is the story of a ten year old girl who adopts a furry, smelly, and very loud dog after she and her father move to Florida. The book, published by Candlewick Press in 2000, was a Newbery Honor winner for 2001 and was awarded the Mark Twain Award for 2003. In 2005, the novel was adapted for film, starring Jeff Daniels and AnnaSophia Robb. In 2012, the School Library Journal included Because of Winn-Dixie in its list of the top 100 chapter books of all time. 

Not too shabby for a writer's first book -- but that was only the beginning.

The next year -- 2002 -- Kate published The Tiger Rising, which was a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. In 2004, she won the Newbery Medal for The Tale of Despereaux, and in 2006, she won the Boston-Globe--Horn Book Award for Fiction, for The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. The list goes on, and it's hard to imagine this children's author publishing any story that doesn't win an award.

Why is this writer so successful, with an audience comprised of both children and grown-ups? I think it's because her underlying theme is hope, even in hopeless situations. Her characters are on a quest. India Opal Buloni (Winn-Dixie) is trying to find out about the mother who abandoned her. Despereaux (a small mouse with big ears) loves light and words--and he dares to love a human princess. Edward Tulane is a china rabbit who journeys to the bottom of the sea and around the world, searching for home. Kate's stories are charming and whimsical and multi-dimensional. And a great deal of fun to read.

In 2014, Kate was appointed to a two-year term as National Ambassador for Children's Literature by the Library of Congress. Her latest book, Flora and Ulysses, won the Newbery Medal for 2014 as well. 

In this story, Flora watches in horror as her next door neighbor, Mrs. Tickham, accidentally vacuums up a squirrel with her super-suction, multi-terrain Ulysses 2000X vacuum cleaner.  And not just any squirrel, mind you. This squirrel is a superhero. And a poet. What can anyone say in such a circumstance but "Holy bagumba!"

Kate says that books are "guides in the wilderness" for writers. Kate's books are certainly a guide and an inspiration for me. I guess that if a mouse can dare to love a princess, I can keep hoping to someday write a story as wonderful as as the ones she writes. 

It's because of Kate diCamillo that I keep trying.

If you want to be a writer, write a little bit every day. Pay attention to the world around you. 
Stories are hiding, waiting everywhere. You just have to open your eyes and your heart.
                --Kate diCamillo

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Back to Berk: Dragon 2 Rocks!

Sequels. They suck.

At least, that's the rule of thumb. A bad sequel seems to detract from the original rather than adding something to it. Take the  Rocky sequels. Please, take them.

Or imagine a sequel for Field of Dreams. Shoeless Joe and his pals, who are actually zombies, declare war on the Heartland, terrorizing cornfields everywhere. Spoiler alert: In a heart-wrenching conclusion, Ray’s dad says, “Kid, you are such a loser. I never loved you, and you throw like a girl.” 

Or Titanic II, in which Rose, regretting her decision to toss the Star of the Ocean overboard, takes up deep sea diving and falls in love with her instructor Maurice. Sadly, Maurice is only after the jewel, and—84 years after the big boat sank—Rose joins Jack’s ghost in the icy north Atlantic. Jack: "Maurice? Really, Rose? You fell for a guy named Maurice?"

Yes, sequels suck. But there are a few shining exceptions to the rule, and How to Train Your Dragon 2—from Dreamworks Animationis one of those!

Jay Bachurel
the voice of Hiccup
You have to understand that I love-love-love the first movie. I love both the narrative voice of the story and also the narrator's voicein this case, Jay Bachurel, the voice talent for the main character, Hiccup.

In the first movie, set in a wild world of Vikings and dragons, Hiccup aspires to be a dragon slayer like his father Stoick, the tribal chief. But when he befriends a dragon named Toothless, he has a change of heart and teaches his tribe to love dragons and to train them as mounts.

In the sequel, Hiccup is again our narrator: "This is Berk. The best kept secret this side of, well, anywhere. Granted, it may not look like much, but this wet heap of rock packs more than a few surprises."  It certainly is a surprise when Hiccup and Toothless stumble upon an ice cave that holds many mysteries. They soon discover that Berk faces a horrific new threat to their way of life and, in fact, a threat to all the dragons. 

Described in these bare-boned terms, it may sound like just another please-God-no sequel. Bear in mind I am biting my tongue to keep from giving anything away. Trust me. Dragon II is charming and beautiful and poignant. Some people are even saying it's better than the original. 

I can only tell you this: if you loved How to Train Your Dragon, I think you will love this sequel as well. Just don't forget to take some tissues. . . . Just sayin'.

These delightful movies are based on a series of books by Cressida Cowell.

Series. That's a great word. I guess when a sequel actually works, it becomes a series! And I understand there is to be a third movie in this series.

Can't wait!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Picture This!

What’s your favorite picture book? The Story of Babar? Bill and Pete Go Down the Nile? The Very Hungry Caterpillar? Where the Wild Things Are

Picture books tell a story with words and pictures together. Although usually written for children, these short books can be enjoyed and appreciated by people of all ages. Whenever you read one to your favorite child, you should thank a man named Randolph Caldecott, father of the modern picture book.

Caldecott was a British artist who lived in the 19th century. Although he died young, at only 39 years of age, he had a great influence on children’s art. Many of his illustrations featured bright colors, humor, and a sense of motion—as if the characters are about to leap right off the page.

A Caldecott illustration

When Caldecott was only six, his mother died. That was the same year he began to draw. Although his heart was damaged by rheumatic fever, young Randolph loved the outdoors and sports. And he took every chance he could to enjoy both.

He did well in school, even though he doodled in his textbooks and spent his spare time exploring the countryside. At age 14, he finished school, and his father arranged for him to get a job as a clerk at a bank in Whitchurch, Shropshire—not far from his home. Of course, what Randolph really wanted to do was to be an artist, but he kept in practice by drawing sketches of people around the bank. And the bank job gave him a lot of free time for hunting, fishing, and art.

Randolph knew that his whimsical drawings would never hang in art museums alongside Rembrandt and Van Gogh. But there was a growing need for illustrations for newspapers and magazines, and he was hoping to break into that market.

After a year in Whitchurch, he saw his chance. A fire broke out at the Queen’s Railway Hotel. Caldecott had to go to the scene and draw the burning building. Then he sent his sketch by rail to the Illustrated London News, where an engraving was made from his drawing. The illustration ran in the Dec. 7th issue, a few days after the fire. His name didn’t even appear on the sketch when it was printed, but the important thing was that his art had been published. He had made the first step toward a new career.

Over time he had more illustrations published, and he began to create children’s books as well. He used few words and let the pictures help to tell the story. Picture books of today use techniques that Caldecott pioneered.

And the dish ran away with the spoon....

Finally, he was able to quit working at the bank. He moved to London to pursue his art full time. And although his paintings might not hang on the walls of the world’s great museums, his work was loved and appreciated by many—including the artists Gauguin and Van Gogh.

Today, one of the most prestigious awards in art bears Caldecott’s name. Each year — beginning in 1938 — the Association for Library Service to Children has presented the Caldecott Medal to the artist of the "most distinguished American picture book for children." The honorees have included such well-known artists as Jerry Pinkney, Gerald McDermott, Leo Leoni, David Macaulay, Tomie dePaola, Maurice Sendak,  and Dr. Seuss. 

Owl Moon, a Caldecott winner

Look for the Caldecott emblem on picture books in your local library — and remember the kid who doodled in his schoolbooks, Randolph Caldecott.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Seventy Sacraments of Ordinary Life

Guess you could say that I "don't know much about theology."

I do know that the Catholic Church acknowledges seven sacraments: Baptism, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick. (And I know this only because I consulted the Great Oracle, Wikipedia.)

No argument here. But I can't help thinking that the sacraments number closer to seventy than seven, that even ordinary, ho-hum life is brimming over with sacramental moments.

Like the sacrament of work. The work that sustains us is certainly a holy thing. The same God who said, "Remember the Sabbath" also said, "Six days you shall labor." The work of the farmer, the weaver, the grocer—the bank clerk, the janitor, the doctor—are they not all sacred and blessed when done well and with a grateful heart? When the dishes are cleaned until they shine, when the fence is mended to be strong and sturdy, surely this is sacramental.

I also find a sacrament in art—creating it, appreciating it, or helping someone else to create it or enjoy it. Bless that priesthood of piano teachers and grade school art teachers who open new windows to the spiritual for children. When the poem is pared until it sings, when the wet clay yields to the potter's hands, this is sacramental. 

And there's the sacrament of service. For all who lay aside, for an hour or a lifetime, their own plans to help someone else--the cake bakers and card senders, the volunteers at the soup kitchen, the guy who stops by the roadside to change your flat tire. Angels, every one.

But there are so many more. 

There's the sacrament of our senses--eyes that really see, ears that really hear--and a heart that counts its treasures in diamonds on morning grass and silver on the undersides of maple leaves. Surely, as a famous poem says, "The world is charged with the grandeur of God"--a beauty that radiates "like shining from shook foil." Gerard Manley Hopkins understood the sacrament of seeing.

I believe there's a sacrament of friendship and a sacrament of parenthood. I have a friend who has devoted years of her life to homeschooling her nephews and to helping them to be all they can be. Daughters, cousins, uncles, grandmothers, boyfriends, mentors, pet-owners -- shouldn't every relationship we have be infused with love, the very nature of God?

Add to these the sacraments of prayer and reflection, the sacraments of birth and of dying, and the simple sacraments of looking at the stars in wonder, or picking peaches from the trees and canning them in clear jars that sparkle in the sun. 

Truly the categories run together like colors in a sunset--until we have to admit that, even when no incense is burning and no choirs are singing, life is itself "an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace."

Seven sacraments? Seventy? Might as well count the sand on the seashore, for life is precious and amazing and delicious--a gift from God. And that's sacramental.