In February, before the virus pandemic crisis gripped the world and turned everything upside down, I attended the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference in New York City. It is always a great pleasure to be in the company of people who are anywhere from incredibly famous, published writers and talented illustrators, and the people who aspire to be.
The Grand Hyatt hotel held several hundred people who have all sorts of ideas in their heads for stories and pictures that will educate, delight and inspire children and young adults. Kudos to Lin Oliver, the executive director, Sarah Baker, the associate executive director, and many others who worked to give us all such a wonderful opportunity and conference.
James Patterson spoke about inspiring kids to become readers, after being introduced by the legendary Kwame Alexander. We learned from people like Jerry Pinkney who talked about the idea of connection and getting to the heart of each story with his illustrations.
Kate Messner spoke about curiosity and wonder. She talked about how wondering sent her in directions she never thought she would go in. As she talked, I was doing my own wondering. Wondering if I could connect with people who could help me learn and research about a particular topic that I would like to write a book about. Just as I was doing my own wondering, Kate asked the audience to take a moment to think about something they wonder about. Had she read my mind?
Breakout sessions on many topics were filled with eager minds, and I came out of the sessions with new story ideas and ways to write them. People of a variety of interests had opportunities to get together, awards were given, jokes told, connections made. An agent/editor panel gave valuable information and insights.The illustrator showcase held magic in every portfolio I viewed. Derrick Barnes closed out the conference on Sunday afternoon, pledging to write the Blackest book ever, as he talked about his love of writing for black children.
People are creating stories that change lives, speak to kids in different ways when they feel different than other kids, who want to learn about the world and beyond, or just want something that makes them laugh and sparks their imagination. The world is hungry for stories, fiction and non-fiction. Conference attendees have an endless supply of desire to create these books, and their enthusiasm is boundless when they meet.
While I was in the city, I seized the opportunity to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, and see the New York City Ballet perform at Lincoln Center. I filled my brain, fed my soul and got ideas for stories to write, things to learn about, be inspired by. Be curious about. I wonder what I should do first?
P.S. I’m so grateful that we were able to have the conference before the virus arrived and is virtually changing every aspect of our lives. I’m appreciative of all the people who are working to take care of us, those who are sick and those who are trying to stay healthy. People who are working in the stores that are open, night and day, to keep things stocked as best they can. People who are trying to maintain order and decency on our streets. I’m sure there will be stories written about the brave, the lost and the way something that we can’t see can change the world.
I grew up on a hilltop farm in upstate New York, run by several generations of my family. A lot of the land has been sold off, but family still has the old 1800’s farmhouse and makes maple syrup in the sap woods. I didn’t realize how lucky I was until recently. Even though we didn’t have a lot of money, we had lots of land and a small dairy operation, where my dad worked his butt off, and my sister and I weren’t much help. Mom taught first grade, and I have no idea how she managed to keep track of a bunch of kids and teach them anything. I don’t think I inherited the teacher gene.
I walked the fields, streams, woods and hills of that land, usually with a dog by my side, lands no longer accessible to me. I knew which ones to avoid where the cows and an occasional bull might be, avoided the electric fences. We ice skated on ponds and streams and tobogganed on the hills in the winter. Grew a garden and ate beef and venison, pasteurized our own milk. I played with cats and kittens galore, between the barn cats and the house cats, but we lost a lot of them to the road. My tiny grandma lived on the farm and made the best molasses cookie you could ever have. I swear the woman always had a paring knife in her hand and an apron on. She had to cook for a lot of people sometimes when laborers like the “threshers” came through.
We had Jace, a “hired hand” who was there long before I arrived, and he was there when my father was born in the early 1920’s. He was a bachelor, no kids, served in the military. Enlisted in the army on December 3, 1942, with two years of high school education. Jace was a kind, quiet man who was in some ways a grandfather to me. He liked gardening, making things with his hands and smoking his Camels. He and Dad would hunt. He would see me at the end of a field, waiting for a ride on the tractor, and oblige me a quick trip on the big John Deere. He once told about driving a team of horses into the barn and the floor falling through. I don’t know how he got them out, but he did.
I looked into his history a bit recently, and was surprised by something I learned. About the same time, I heard an interview on the radio by a famous, successful entrepreneur who told about being about 5 years old and his mother dropping him off at an orphanage. Clinging to her skirt and begging not to be left there. I couldn’t imagine going through that as a child. He certainly overcame but never forgot.
As I looked into Jace’s records, I found that in the 1910 census he lived with his parents and a brother. But something must have happened after that, as in 1915 when he was eight years old, he was in an orphanage. In 1920, he was in the orphanage as well. In all the years I knew him, I never heard about his childhood and that part of his life. He wasn’t an orphan, but whether poverty forced his mother to put him there or some other factors did, I don’t know. How afraid a child must be in those circumstances. How did this man live with us for decades and I never knew? I don’t recall ever meeting any of his family.
Life wasn’t ideal on the farm, by any means, but I count myself lucky. I knew a lot of freedom and no one ever gave me cause to worry I would be forced to live in an orphanage. I hope he counted us as family, as I considered him to be.
Recently attending a children’s book writers and illustrators conference in New York City gave me a lot to ponder. Speakers and participants in the conference and my other experiences around the City were inspiring and thought provoking. Like a tapestry woven of a thousand threads of memory, I thought of my experiences that connect me to these people and places I’ve encountered.
An African-American cab driver and I shared remembrances of 9/11, where he was driving in Manhattan with a passenger when the World Trade Center towers were attacked. I remember standing outside on top of one of the Towers in 1987 with my co-workers, visiting NYC from upstate. I could not imagine what the people went through within the Towers and the people there who witnessed it all, and the brave responders who charged toward the scene instead of running in the other direction. The 9/11 Memorial and Museum is an incredible tribute and place of mindfulness, if you ever have an opportunity to visit. So much to learn and absorb, and say a prayer or leave a rose at the pool on the plaza if one is so moved.
A hotel waitress told me about growing up in Poland, not having running water as a kid. I wish I could have learned more about her story. My life on the family farm wasn’t what one would call luxurious, but looking back, I had it made in our drafty old farmhouse even if the water exploded with sulphur gas when we turned on the tap and tasted horrid.
A cab driver from India told me he how experienced hunger back at home. I got the impression that his life here was an improvement. We talked about farming and more on our short ride.
Speakers at the conference told stories of their lives, not all “sunshine and lollipops” as the old saying goes. Their stories no doubt influence their storytelling.
Associate Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke. Born in the Bronx, her parents came from Puerto Rico. Father had a third grade education, was an alcoholic, didn’t speak English and was a tool and die maker. Mother was a telephone operator and a practical nurse. They married during WWII. They lived in a South Bronx tenement before moving to better housing. The Justice was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age seven. She knew she wanted to be an attorney as early as age ten. No doubt her experiences, hard work and her determination made it possible for her to reach her esteemed post and carry the responsibility she holds today.
Elizabeth Acevedo, an Afrolatina whose parents came from the Dominican Republic, showed her grit and incredible talent as she spoke to the audience. She is a National Poet Slam champion, a teacher, and has a best-seller list book, “The Poet X” among other writings and accolades. I could hear the power in her voice. Her strength and her own story shine through in her work.
Christopher Paul Curtis, author of “Bud, Not Buddy” for which he was the first African-American to win a Newberry Award, and the award-winning “The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963.” His recounting of some of his childhood experiences was amusing and no doubt shapes his writing. He lived in Flint, Michigan and worked in the car industry among other jobs, along with authoring several award winning children’s books.
Jarrett Krosoczka who’s mother died of a heroin overdose, was raised by his grandparents who took legal custody of him when he was three. He didn’t learn the truth of his mother’s addiction until he was in the fourth grade. His many books include the “Lunch Lady” series and “Good Night, Monkey Boy.” His graphic novel, “Hey, Kiddo” speaks of his own experience with addiction in the family, something so many young people can relate to.
Elizabeth Partridge spoke about writing “Boots on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam,” including the personal stories of eight people. It is written for the age twelve and up audience, offering food for thought about this time in history and a long, brutal war. As a child, I remember seeing the casualty numbers told on the evening news broadcast, worrying about people I knew who might be drafted and have to go, and the reporting on the protests against the war. Her words brought me to tears.
Jane Yolen, author of hundreds of children’s books, has written “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” “Briar Rose: A Novel of the Holocaust” and “Mapping the Bones” about the Holocaust. She provides a voice through her fictional works for those who suffered and died from this real horror. My visit to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam showed me the place where a young girl wrote here diary, a moving piece of how a Jewish family suffered and died in the Holocaust.
I saw a blind man who became a lawyer but found his tenor voice that has made him famous and loved. Andrea Bocelli performed at the Metropolitan Opera along with their orchestra and other fabulous opera singers, to an enthusiastic audience. The years of dedication, study and practice that must have gone into being able to perform for us—I can’t imagine. Probably any of the people on the stage could have been anything else for a career, but they give us their gift of beautiful music.
I visited the Tenement Museum for a “Irish Outsiders” tour by our group’s guide, Kyle, following the life of an Irish family in 1869. The Moore’s lived on the fourth floor, without running water, a bathroom, and heat only from the kitchen stove. They used outhouses in the basement-level, outdoor area where the only water spigot was, and carried coal up to the fourth floor, three room apartment. They faced much discrimination, including from their neighbors, many of them German who disliked the Irish Catholics. Available jobs would have been as bricklayers, domestic servants and in the hotels. We learned from Kyle about the life of this one family that was typical of what many others experienced. I would like to visit more of the Museum to learn about the Jewish, German, Italian and other residents. How would I handle living as they did? What if I had to leave my homeland to live in a strange place of different cultures, lifestyle and languages? How would I handle the discrimination they encountered? I can’t imagine.
On last year’s visit to the Dunbrody Famine ship in New Ross, Ireland, it helped me learn what it would have been like for a family fleeing their home to try to escape disease and the 1840’s Hunger years when the potato crop failed. Many still lost their lives in their attempt to survive and cross the ocean. I wonder how it was that my Irish ancestors came to be in what was then the ghetto section of a city in Canada during the years of the Hunger. I keep searching for answers. Also a visit to the Kennedy Homestead in Ireland reminded about how an Irish family came to the United States and years later gave us a President.
The children’s book conference reminded me how so many talented writers and artists are creating books that may just entertain and delight kids but also are tools for kids to learn about history and navigate life. Someday they might write and draw their own wonderful stories.
We women can be anything we want to be. “The fairer sex” can still be “fair” and be strong, intelligent – great. We can be doctors, astronauts, mothers, writers, scientists, teachers, artists, etc. The list is endless. We have to be determined, willing to work and enthusiastic.
We can be strong, physically and emotionally. I see women who have gone though hell and back who are survivors, no matter what. I see women who are strong in whatever sport they train in, or just being strong enough to get out of bed in the morning when just taking that first step hard. One foot in front of the other, actually or metaphorically. I see women who have worked damn hard to reach the top of their profession.
Earlier this year I attended a college Commencement and heard one of the most inspiring speeches of my life. Ruth Johnson Colvin, founder of Literacy Volunteers of America (now ProLiteracy Worldwide), born in 1916. Yes – that’s 1916. She’s still active in the organization, has many honors and awards, and received an honorary Doctorate at the ceremony. I can’t even imagine… She had a fantastic message for the graduates and the audience. First, she gave a lesson to us about being illiterate, holding up a sign with letters on it that gave us the feeling of what it’s like to be unable to read. She told them to never stop learning and to put down their cellphones and live. She spoke of the exercise regimen she does because she wants a good quality of life. I think a lot of us, adults and students alike, have forgotten about some of these concepts.
Young people received their degrees in areas of study I didn’t even know existed. Some will go on to pursue higher degrees before they can start their careers. They can have life experiences out in the world that I can’t imagine and make a difference in our world. Some may not have the most exciting careers, but I hope they find satisfaction working in an area that serves them well. They will all make mistakes along the way. I hope life teaches them lessons not learned in a classroom, without too much hardship. Few will make it to the moon, but they can reach for the stars. Many of the guys are likely learning about what it takes to strive, overcome and achieve from the example set by their mothers and other strong women in their lives.
I’ve challenged myself to learn new creative skills over the past few years. I returned to college to earn a degree in a completely different area from my decades-long career. Being the oldest kid in class was a bit different from my past college experience. Learning has allowed me to write, illustrate and self-publish three children’s books — so far. I recently put my third one on Amazon, called “Rylie’s Grand Mouse Ballet.” My other two are “Bird Shoes” and “Sheep?!” I couldn’t create these books if I hadn’t made the effort to learn some new skills. I haven’t learned rocket science yet, but you never know. As inspiring Ruth Johnson Colvin says, “Never stop learning!”
It has been an first-class week here in the Finger Lakes, as Canandaigua hosted the annual Finger Lakes Plein Air Competition and Festival. Dozens of juried-in artists descended on Ontario County, New York to paint outdoors for several days. Several have competed here previously. Dedicated volunteers based at Canandaigua’s Pat Rini Rohrer Gallery did countless hours of preparations for the festival and staffed the associated events, bringing the whole project to life.
I had the pleasure of being on a team tasked with photographing them as they worked, in varied locations and weather conditions. Some of them probably weren’t surprised to see me pop up wherever they were, my camera in hand. We found them enjoying the views of Canandaigua Lake, our city streets, Sonnenberg Mansion and Gardens, local wineries, and beyond into the countryside. Then their work was judged, exhibited and many sold to an appreciative audience. Their varied techniques and uses of oil, pastel, watercolor and more amazed me. Their paths to follow their artistic passions have been varied. They are as nice a group of people as they are talented as artists.
Award-winning artist and teacher Ken DeWaard came from Maine to judge the event. Stephen Doherty competed and also gave an excellent painting demonstration. He has been editor of magazines such as PleinAir and American Artist. Well deserved top honors went to Chuck Marshall, Yong Hong Zhong and Jim Laurino, with several others earning honorable mentions for their beautiful art. Our local artists Cindy Harris and Judy Soprano did wonderful work. Locals even had a chance to compete in a a quick paint-out event.
My personal experience painting plein air has had its ups and downs. Seeing the artists works reminded me that I need to dust off my own equipment and get out there. I need to practice and remind myself of some of the instruction I’ve received in the past from exceptional artists. How to see, for instance, is more than just looking at a tree and deciding it has green leaves. Changing light and weather conditions require a thought process and making decisions before the brush even touches a canvas. Paying attention requires giving something of oneself to what is around you and deciding what is important and what is not, for which you may receive something in return for your efforts. Even being brave enough to wipe the paint off the canvas completely and start over may be necessary, and that’s okay, too. I’ve also been fortunate to learn a few life lessons from the people I met during the competition. Sometimes the lesson is just to start and then keep going.
As I keep consistently adding birthdays, for which I am grateful, I notice things that have changed about myself. I am surely wiser about things than I once was, but creaky noises come from my knees, and I’ll never benchpress 120 pounds again. Maybe I can’t remember names and what I did yesterday as well as before. I think about what’s going to happen to me as the years march on, not knowing how many years or what quality of life I may have.
I know people who have set a goal for how many birthdays they want to have, often with a quality-of-life caveat. I’ve seen in my own family how body and mind can become cruel masters of our abilities to function and to enjoy ourselves. Doctors can be quick to hand out prescriptions for medications that may not be needed or can do more harm than good, before patients are willing to change how they treat themselves. Every pill has a price. I’ve read a well-respected doctor’s commentary that said studies show 60 percent of people over 65 take five more more prescriptions. One in five take ten or more. One in 20 take at least 15. Some people benefit from physical activity, doing things that use their brains, or having a pet, more to lessen their focus on their personal problems, rather than taking antidepressants. I am NOT saying that some people do not need medications to treat their conditions, or that anyone should just stop taking medications their doctors prescribe.
I watched a show about people in their 90s who are active and able to do things that I never could and likely never will. Their spirit may have been crushed in the past, but they keep going, striving, living. One woman at the gym recently told me she is 89 years old this year, with double hip replacements. It made me wonder, how many more decades will I be there working out? Jeez, I’ve been doing this for 40 years already!
I also heard that while the body can reasonably last until about 99 years, generally life expectancy is about 12 years less, so we’re leaving 12 years on the table. Someone born in 2015 could live on average to about 78.8 years. Social Security calculations estimate that I might live to between 86 to 88 years, based on my gender and year of birth. They say a man at 65 today can expect to live until about 84 (on average), and a woman to about 86 (on average). And one of every four 65-year-olds today could live past 90, one in ten past 95.
I see people ruining themselves with their lifestyle choices and/or the hand they have been dealt with illness and injury, genetics and circumstances. Some manage to overcome terrible obstacles. Some are able to wring the life out of every year, with what some might call “hard living” and make it beyond 100.
I guess that I’m not looking to reach a number, to meet a particular age. I hope I can keep learning, loving, creating, moving, enjoying and growing as much as I can. Maybe I can manage a better way to give back to the world than what I’m doing now. There is so much anger and division in the world these days, perhaps I can find a way to bridge the gap a little between the people around me. Hatred and bitterness can’t do much for enjoying our lifetime sharing this earth. I’ll give it my best shot. Might just need a few extra naps and keep using my mind and body as much as I can. I’ll expect a positive life, not a life expectancy figure.
We often have preconceived notions of what we are and what we can or can’t do. We are raised a certain way, make mistakes, put ourselves down. We pat ourself on the back for a success sometimes, knowing we have the innate skills or abilities to accomplish something, or tell ourself we cannot reach a goal. A family member recently reminded me of this when we were looking at his late grandfather’s dog tags from World War II and reflected on the life his grandfather led. He remembered his grandfather as a man who was strong and tough, and that remembrance made him consider how we can be strong in our lives as well. He also reminded me that some things that weren’t meant to be valuable, like those tags, can be very valuable to someone else, as they are to him. Those dog tags represented something more than just metal pieces with names and numbers on them, tethered together with a chain. They saw the horrors of war along with a man who was, after all, only human—a man who had to be tough before, during and after a war that took so many and ruined so much. The tags represent a human who persevered, survived and can inspire his descendants to be strong and do the best they can.
Other times we consider the notion of what others think we should be that is not true to who we are. I know an artist who has a very distinct style and she proudly shows it in her paintings. I can always walk into the gallery and pick out her work, standing out from the others. She told me that her personal art style is more important to her than whether people like her work or not. She is sticking to what she does and isn’t trying to create something that isn’t “hers.” Maybe someone will see her work as a masterpiece or not nearly such. She feels blessed if a viewer likes her art enough to buy it, but if her style doesn’t suit someone else, that’s fine, too. She isn’t afraid to be the artist she is. Vincent van Gogh tried different styles of painting in his early years, dark paintings of peasants, before he painted the rich, colorful masterpieces that we know as his own style developed. If he hadn’t persevered to keep trying, even though he suffered and knew failure, and his sister-in-law saved his letters and works, would we have these incredible works today?
We all suffer wounds in our life. Nobody comes out unscathed. I recently read about psychoanalyst Jung’s theory that we may suffer an awful experience, a “wound,” but that from that experience we may find our unique gift or ability, or path that we are meant to follow. Our experiences can shape us, but they don’t have to be the end of us. They can give us pain, but they can also give us the courage to find what makes us special.
“The eye needs a place to rest.” When painting a few recent compositions, a floral arrangement, a crow in flight painted in vibrant oils, etc., I remembered what my favorite art teachers told me. Everything in a composition shouldn’t be so busy that the observer can’t find a place of stillness.
So it is in my Yoga practice as well, for the so-called “third eye” of the mind. The pace of life, the swirling, messy cloud around us at all times, may bring us joy, anger or confusion. Or all of these things can happen at once. Stilling the mind is a challenge for me, no matter how long I practice. “Monkey mind” tries to take over constantly.
I was recently doing an oil painting of a floral arrangement, brightly colored with strong values. I remembered that I needed that “restful” place in the composition and softened some of the background and other areas. I let the flowers be the star. Much better.
I made choices as I painted, just as I have to make choices in life. We are always thinking of all the things we have to do or want to do, some of which can be harder than hell. Positive practices that give us a chance to slow the racing pace of life can give us the power to go harder at the things we want to do or must do (whether we want to or not).
Stillness within and without is as important of an accomplishment as going out and doing those big challenges. Chaos comes at us from within our own thoughts and choices, from stuff that happens to us and in our families, from turning on the TV or computer-everywhere. We forget to pause and make sure we have a chance to settle into a calm place, even if it is only for a brief time, breathe and slow the noise that goes on within and without. One may be reenergized and able to focus better on tasks after such a practice.
Some of the places where I find rest are within my exercise practice, or when I take time to walk in nature, or when I have a paintbrush in hand. The old saying “stop and smell the roses” is true. It might be the quiet time in the morning when I’m having that first cup of coffee, before the day gets rolling with responsibilities and worries. Everything will still be there when you finish letting the mind have a bit of rest, but I think you’ll be a bit stronger and more energized for it if you let the “mind’s eye” get a break regularly.
I’m inspired when I witness people willing to help themselves. I was at my local Anytime Fitness recently, doing my usual workout routine. In the gym’s classroom, a group of members toughed it out through a rigorous “burn” class. Some of them have physical issues that challenge them, but they persevere to make themselves and their quality of life better. Other members were exercising in their chosen manner. Nobody had to be there, and they probably could think of a myriad of other things to do instead of coming to a gym. It reminded me of how easy it is to give up, sit down and not bother. No one else is going to pick up that next dumbbell for me or do another ten minutes of cardio. When I leave the gym, no one else is going to push me to paint a better oil painting or learn how to use a computer program for me. I have to do it or learn it with my own mind and effort. I often have to ask for help, but ultimately I must meet the challenge.
One member, Austin, told me about his life and his struggle to maintain a healthy lifestyle. He retired from one career but took on another job after a period of sedentary living. He knew he had to make a change. His one-hundred pound weight loss didn’t happen on its own. He worked for it. He hasn’t been perfect but he gets it that nobody else is going to do it for him. Others have told me their own stories and remind me how hard some people have to work to keep going.
It’s easy to quit. It’s easy to not even make the effort to start. I’m not just talking about exercise, but so many other things in life. Maybe it’s a skill you want to learn, a relationship you want to improve, or something about yourself you know has to change. Nobody else should or can do it for you. You have to start by showing up for it. You want to make your health better? Show up the first day, then the next, and the next. Lift a dumbbell, strap on the gloves and hit the bag, get on the treadmill. You sacrifice, maybe your favorite food, or you cut back on it and eat something more nutritious instead. You push yourself to take the first step, then another one. You pick up the book, go to the lesson, make a phone call. You start. You fight for it. You do it for you. If you are a better you, you are better for others, too. You can always find help along the way in your life endeavor, but you’re the one who has to make it happen.
Maybe tomorrow you can build on what you did today. Put on the gloves. I bet you can do it.