Ack, it’s been too long! I’ve been busy, though–busy writing some new books AND some new essays for the wonderful Kveller.com. Check these out while I migrate my blog over to the brand spanking new bethain.com. It’s all shined up and ready for the release of Izzy Kline Has Butterflies, my new novel in verse for 3rd-6th graders, coming March 7th from Random House! Don’t forget to also follow me on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram for MUCH more up to date info about all things Izzy, Starring Jules, and some grown-up stuff too.
Here’s a good, old-fashioned Tin-Can Stilts type list for you. Go on, check it out, buy some books for your kiddos, pass ’em around. Onward toward empathy and understanding… http://www.kveller.com/16-books-for-kids-adults-on-navigating-disabilities-special-needs/
So excited to share this sneak peek of my new book! (Now, just a quick 6 months to go…sigh.)
A couple of years ago, my daughter’s fourth grade teacher had the kids in her class work on a small piece of writing about a moment in their life—didn’t have to be a big one, but a memory, an adventure, something that had stayed with them. For weeks, they wrote and edited and re-wrote. They even critiqued each other’s work in the workshop method, writing positive but constructive things abut one another’s work. In the end, the (exceptional) teacher had the collection bound into a hardcover book, called The Stories on Our Minds. I love this collection. Partly because it is a time capsule of their young lives through little moments—from my daughter’s zip-lining piece, “Zip, Zip, Ziiiip!” to someone else’s “No Good, Very Bad Dentist,” and my personal favorite, “Tia Claudia Comes to Visit”—but also because it shows how one little moment can get to the heart of…
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Some people stay with you. The girl in my fourth grade class who carried a purse, wore high heels and an occasional swipe of lip gloss. The skater boy with the hair in his eyes who in 7th grade made me snort with laughter all the way through my first public speaking assignment. People I never saw again, but who became part of my childhood nostalgia. Likewise, as an adult, when all things start to lean toward permanence there have been people who I thought would be fixtures but who turned out to be fleeting, inspiring a grown-up nostalgia for the smells and ambiance of early adulthood that I didn’t realize was possible.
In those early adult years before I was a writer or a wife or a mother, I was a children’s book editor, a job that any 20-something formerly obsessive reader of E.B. White and Paula Danziger would literally walk through fire for. And by and large it lived up to the hype. I had after all, only recently worked in Human Resources at Goldman Sachs where neither I, nor my creative juices had exactly gotten going. And now, I was getting to work on beautiful books with beautiful people—some authors, some illustrators, but also agents, and production editors and designers and marketers and publicists and you get the idea. Wonderful and creative and committed people at every turn.
I would eventually be laid off, sent off to have babies and become the writer I actually meant to be in the first place. But there was one acquisition—one project, one person—that stayed with me from those days, and who to this day, makes me feel like I had landed exactly in the right place at the right time even if for a short burst.
Sitting across from Elisha Cooper at Spring Street Natural in 2003—the Soho hot spot where I had learned how to pronounce quinoa correctly—I thought, and likely even said to his face, that this guy was the real deal. This guy with his effortless watercolors, his poetic point of view, his dry humor, his smiling eyes—he was real and I felt lucky that he, had chosen us to publish his next couple of picture books.
His book Magic Thinks Big, acquired by a lucky editor before me–about an imaginative cat who, in his mind, takes a ride across the lake on the back of a moose and who feasts on salmon and has a picnic with some bears–would soon become the punctuation of my own daughter’s days. It is a sleepy book that proved perfect for one bedtime after another. The book Elisha and I would work on together was similarly sleepy but entirely literal and poetic, a farewell to the day—as a father walks his child down the street toward the water saying goodnight to the people and the creatures and the objects that have all done their hard day’s work—baking if you’re a baker, wheel-barrowing if you are a gardener, hustling across telephone wires if you’re a squirrel.
When Booklist suggested in a starred review that it was reminiscent of Goodnight Moon, I thought back to the quinoa lunch with Elisha and how he had said that very day that this book was going to be just that, a modern, urban take on Goodnight Moon. Like Magic, Elisha thought big.
Many years later, long after the layoff and even longer after I had two children and something of a writing career, leaving the city and so the buzz of children’s publishing for a town, as I like to say, with a Main Street and a parade—I ran into Elisha right here in my beloved library, on my beloved Main Street. We sat next to each other at a table with our little name cards propped up in front of us and kids came to meet us both but ended up swooning over Elisha’s personalized illustrations, lining up to see if this magical guy could figure out if they were more of a cat or a moose person.
In the in between spaces, Elisha and I caught up and I noted that although his hair had greyed, his eyes had remained rather lit up. And this was especially so when he told me about his new book—not a picture book at all—a memoir, a collection of vignettes that tell the story of his daughter’s cancer diagnosis and what it meant for him as a father, a husband, an artist, a human.
I love this book. Hate that there was a reason for it to be written but am grateful that it exists as a testament, not only to this experience and his mighty kid (and her mighty mother), but as a picture of fathering and of getting from one side of something to the other with new wisdom and new depth of emotion and with an honest portrayal of what fear and worry can make an otherwise normal person do—throw birthday cake at a lawyer, as it turns out.
It might be unpopular to say so but fathering is different from mothering—fathers have different goals and different takes on what’s to become of their kids and especially, in my own experience, of their daughters. Elisha the father is interested in building rough and tumble girls with character, girls who can throw the crap out of a ball (or an apple), girls who are familiar with Yankee stadium and the Yale playing fields where both he and their soccer-star mom had found each other. In terms of men parenting girls specifically, the chapter called Orchard is a must-read, wherein, among many other keen and heartfelt observations, he describes raising children in olive grove terms, a take on “it takes a village”—everyone growing everyone, he writes.
As much as this book is about cancer and how it uproots what a parent knows and is familiar with, and even as it uproots them literally from a city and a home that they know, it is also about how every experience of parenting takes you somewhere new that you didn’t know was there before.
There is a passage in the book where Elisha describes his own mother as “fiercely protective…wildly generous” and I think yes, that’s what this is. Even when his legs buckle with expectation of bad news, even when he, in the previous passage, wishes his daughters broken legs and broken hearts so that they might be resilient, he is protective; and when he acknowledges the family history and the privilege that has provided him with a secure enough backup plan and generations worth of stories and contribution, he is intent of giving his family everything in return. Wildly generous indeed.
He himself breaks and is put together again as the memoir ebbs and flows, but when falling into a chair in the doctor’s office, his legs buckle, and wonders about whether he has the strength to bear this, it is his reverence for the strong women in his life that reminds me of the particular father I am dealing with here. His self-awareness, his kindness, and his honesty about what any person can tolerate and how he went about tolerating this particular unfairness, is a gift to anyone who is wondering how to move forward through the unknown.
Nostalgia for me is people and places that make certain moments in my life worth contemplating—the girl with the purse, the skater boy, to begin with but also Magic’s fat-cat journey read aloud at bedtime to my tired toddler who is now a robust 11, the Good Night Walk and the quinoa, too. And now this, being able to read my old friend’s book and thinking fondly about the people who come in an out of our lives and leave gifts behind. In Falling: A Daughter, A Father, and a Journey Back, Elisha Cooper draws a watery but somehow crystal clear picture as he does, of what it is to be an artist and a father, and a writer, and a husband. It’s a picture of falling, yes, but the artistry is in the getting back up again.
He says again and again that he will give his children everything, and he has and he will give more still. Thankfully, though, he has a little left over for the rest of us, too.
Read this book!
(And then read each of these with your kids: A Goodnight Walk, Magic Thinks Big, 8: An Animal Alphabet, Train, Farm)
I have a good friend who is more of a hippie than I am—more believing in afterlife and auras and juicing
and in taking long, deep breaths. And while I guzzle coffee with milk and she sips lemon water, she talks a lot about a book called The Artist’s Way. I know it well. I have bought it for many friends over the years—poets mostly, people who look at the world through open and evaluating eyes, people with things to say. But I just glug, glug my coffee and listen as her voice gets high and turned on by the book’s assignments the way some writers do. Because while you might think I would be one of those people, I am not.
Like many writers, I spend a lot of time not writing. I need groceries for God’s sake. I have beds to make, carpools to drive, volunteering to do. Never mind the fact that I have kids who are in school almost never between snow days and sick days and holidays and the short school day. When, at 2:30 on the nose, my kids run toward me in their backpacks across a crowded gymnasium filled with cheerful moms and caregivers ready for the next thing, I see a whole other day stretch out in front of me. What to do? Playdate? Music lessons? Get a headstart on the colonial diorama I know is coming our way? Family composting of their half-eaten lunches for an organic vegetable garden? When you work creatively, when you do not have an office and a 401K and train to catch, you are not only left to your own devices more, you are often expected to play a more dynamic role at home and it gets a little confusing.
Confusing as in having a compulsion to exercise as part of my work day by either attending certain morning-interrupting gym classes or enjoying the occasional therapeutic walk with a friend. I could do without them. I could go straight home from morning drop-off and write. But again, I do not. I have things—besides writing–that I want to accomplish and that in some ways I feel expected to accomplish given that I don’t have a typical day job—committees and projects and a community to be a part of, newspapers to read, yoga poses to nail.
Which brings me back to that pesky The Artists’ Way. I know, I know. It’s a classic. Maybe you have it on your bookshelf, too–its dusty thickness representing another stage of your life. Dog-eared and highlighted and devoured by you then, it sits now as a tribute to the person who intended to get up and write, censoring the Censor (with a capital C!) by waking before the sun was up, writing before you could think too much, do too much, distract yourself too much from the job at hand. You see, you are supposed to write in the morning, spilling out of bed before the day gets in the way. Before the caffeine can kick in and sharpen you, censor you, and preclude (presumably) your very best writing.
But what is the job at hand, exactly? Is it the writing? Or is it the grocery shopping, the cleaning, the cooking, the volunteering, the fretting over the kids’ schedules, their woes and their smooth transition to the Common Core curriculum? There are so many jobs to do and they all start bright and early. And the day goes late—with nighttime activities like homework, dishes, and the binge watching of Breaking Bad. (I know.)
And really, how does a mother “spill” out of bed anyway? Lurching is more like it. Startled out of a too-short night of sleep by an 8-year-old in need of waffles and socks, only to spend the next 18 minutes dragging an 11-year-old out from under her covers and into an outfit and pulling her hair, tangled with sleep and spit, into some semblance of a ponytail. And there’s the yelling and the snack-packing and the last-minute trips back into the house for a reading log or a forgotten violin. And it all feels like a cartoon rumble until 12 minutes later when it’s all over—and the only people who have done any spilling of any kind are the 8-year-old (his juice) and the kids and the husband who have by now spilled out of my car and into a schoolyard and the train station, respectively.
I am alone in my car and I could go home and write, but there is that pesky Censor. To me, the Censor never (okay, rarely) says, your writing isn’t good enough, that sentence is a mess. Give it up, you imposter.
It says this: You have no fresh fruit at home, you have no plan for dinner, you didn’t go to the gym yesterday and the PTA is short volunteers for the 5th grade mixer. Get it together, man. (My Censor is still a hippie.)
So I’m home today, dealing with the minutiae of running (or being run by) a household and I should be writing this novel that I am loving writing. And I would be writing more of it except I had to check Twitter to make sure the entirety of my writing peer group is well ahead of me (they are) and I had to check Facebook to make sure my mom peer group is well ahead of me (they are) and I had to write this blog piece. Because I keep thinking about that spilling out of bed line and the morning pages and the water with lemon and I feel like I am missing the Artists’ gene. So I have to work this thing out.
I don’t write first thing in the morning. To be perfectly honest, I never did, even before kids and their early morning waffle needs. I write when I have a minute, in between carpools and sick kids and holidays and homework. Mine are mostly afternoon pages, and some are midnight pages but most of them are uncensored and all of them are tucked somewhere inside the creases of my life, like the piece of paper you might have torn off to mark off a passage of The Artist’s Way or some other prescriptive writing book. (I’m more of a Stephen King On Writing kind of a girl as it turns out—tell me your deep, dark ways, and I’ll tell you mine.)
And this will get tucked in there too, and maybe that novel will get published and someone will dog-ear some of the pages, never having one little inkling that the page they love the most was probably not written in the thick of an early and sluggish morning, but somewhere else. Somewhere less quiet and more frenetic. Somewhere with less spill and more thrust.
Somewhere in between making a bed and making a mark.
Stay with me while I work this out.
Watching the new Star Wars movie with my husband and kids this weekend was a mess of long lines, popcorn and sticky booster seats. Kids having imaginary light-saber duels in the lobby nearly knocked me over. Aggravating, yes but exciting to see everyone so…excited.
I didn’t realize until I was standing in line with 150 other people how much of a geek I was about the whole thing. I also didn’t realize until my kids were hopping around in the standstill line, begging to go in already, how lucky I am to have kids that have nostalgia in their little 8- and 10-year old bones.
So in we went at last, and I confess I took a phone pic of the iconic scrolling recap for what reason I have no idea—sometimes we do spastic things when we are geeking out. Anyway, here’s the thing: in a perfect storm of childhood indoctrination, this movie manages to be both (yes) derivative and forward thinking at the same exact time. The same storyline as A New Hope, it is a whole lot of in-jokes and old fashioned Han Solo snark. But it is also something else entirely. A cast so bright with color and estrogen, I felt my heart racing from the first glimpse of Rey, a dewy, capable, young hero with fight in her every step.
To be fair, the Star Wars franchise started out this way—Princess Leia for all her snakes and bikini wearing, has always been a fierce female lead. And true to the torch-passing themes laid out in this chapter, our new girl utters a sentence strangely close to but with far less flirtation than the “Aren’t you a little short for a storm trooper?” of her forebear when new guy Finn makes a feeble attempt at machismo rescue upon meeting her. Strong women abound this time around—not just Rey, who is Leia, Luke and Katniss Everdeen, wrapped into one fiery ball of can-do, but others too. Maz Kanata is played to perfection by Lupita Nyong’o, high-ranking Captain Phasma is played by Gwendolyn Christie, Dr. Kalonia, the rebel doctor is played by Harriet Walter, and the rebel fighter pilots themselves are a veritable Benetton ad of gender and race. And Finn, our new accidental hero and possible love interest for Rey, is a young Black man interested mostly in escaping a system too brutal for him to bear. It’s perfect.
To contrast all of this light and optimism is of course the Dark Side, or the First Order, which is as fascist a regime as any in Star Wars (or human) history, complete with swastika-derived imagery and a Nazi nod to ye old Seig Heil posture and salute.
The whole thing is just a blast honestly. And while my racing heart had lots to do with the action and the stakes, it also had to do with the profiles of my own two kids as the screen lit them up with adventure and possibility. This is how messaging gets entrenched in young minds—when enthusiasm meets values-explicit commercialism. (See: Frozen, for example. Props where props are due, friends.) But it occurred to me, possibly when Kylo Ren pulled off his mask and revealed himself to be hipster actor, Adam Driver, that the last time I felt this riled up about something that had set out mainly to entertain me, was this past summer when—two days before it became the most hyped Broadway show in history—I saw Hamilton in its final night of previews.
Now, if I were a real Star Wars nerd I might have known that Adam Driver was going to be our new Darth Vader, but as established, I am a poser—making only fleeting references to the Star Wars of old with a Leia’s bikini reference and zero nuance. I’m okay with this. So back to Adam Driver. The night I saw Hamilton, Kylo Ren sat in my row. In his baseball cap, he was more Lena Dunham’s Brooklyn, than George Lucas’s galaxy far, far, away, but still—you see the connection. He and I were at Hamilton together. And together, we watched as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s production took aim at everything we know to be true about our founding fathers. What he did—we all know by now—is lay a Millennial filter on top of a musty old picture. In a post-racial, post-gender, post-everything explosion of talent and rigorous story and truth telling, Burr is black, Jefferson is black, Hamilton is Puerto Rican, the women have things to say, and the dancers are yup, a veritable Benetton ad of gender and race.
And it’s derivative and forward-looking at once. Telling an old story through a new lens, lighting us up with new ideas and new ways of thinking about old themes, our trusty forefathers becoming complicated and brilliant and flawed right before our eyes. Fighting against a controlling empire that is interested mostly in power and acquisition and eventual manifest destiny, they are the Resistance, rebels seeking justice and order and a workable financial system.
Here we go: it all ends in a duel in Weehawken, but on that stage, those guns might as well have been light-sabers, because there was a mess of light and dark in play and it all gets a little hazy because it’s fluid. All set to dense and precise rap and hip-hop lyrics heavy on Run DMC and Eminem influence, it is Yo MTV Raps meets Les Miserable meets ahem—Star Wars. Likewise, the entire cast of The Force Awakens could have broken out into Hamilton’s “My Shot” (…you’ve got to be carefully taught) and it wouldn’t have seemed wrong. Different, but not philosophically wrong. Orphans Hamilton, the Skywalker twins, Rey, Finn—all on a journey, looking for a legacy.
What is right and what is wrong, where we were and where we’re going next, what things once looked like and what they look like now. That is what it means to be current. And that is what we mean when we say Millennial—it isn’t all hipsters and craft beer. It is nodding to the past, living in the present, and planning for the future at once. Not understanding this is what makes Donald Trump look old and irrelevant (blustery and funny but not as charming as Hamilton’s King George as played by the pitch-perfect Jonathon Groff) not just to the Millennials but to me, and to my own kids. Because, their nostalgia notwithstanding, any kid who sees The Force Awakens isn’t looking for a Trump, she’s looking for a Rey or a Finn, or a Maz Kanata for that matter.
So, yeah, I worked it out. I saw Hamilton with Adam Driver, my kids saw The Force Awakens with Adam Driver and suddenly it all makes perfect sense.
My new hope, sitting here writing this, is that I am not the only crossover audience for these stories of scrappy game-changers, stories of awakening both, forces both. My hope is that there are more of us on board this rickety Millennium Falcon.
See what I did there?
When I turned 21 I cried all afternoon, tucked into the bay window of my college room, in the corner of the upstairs of my college house. Caught in between a waitressing shift and the mid-July heat of Waltham, Mass, I had taken the night off to have dinner at Joe’s in Boston and to then order legit drinks at some pool hall nearby. Jillian’s maybe. I played pool a lot in those days, and smoked cigarettes and listened to the Dead and the White Album with my feet hanging out of the window of my college boyfriend’s Volkswagon Golf. I read Peyton Place and thought about turning phrases one day the way Grace Metalious could—Indian summer is a like a woman.
It was the most grown-up 21st birthday on record I’m pretty sure, which is, I imagine, why I cried. I didn’t cry that way when I turned 30. I had a husband and a six-month old and a shirt that fit and a table at an Upper West Side restaurant filled with people I liked and family-style Italian. 30 didn’t feel any different than 29. If anything, 30 was validating. It was time to be 30.
The next time I cried was at 32, when my grandmother—a challenging and angry old woman by then, (formerly challenging and angry, too, but also other better things)—died at the crack of dawn on my birthday. It’s possible of course that she died before midnight, on the 15th. We don’t know. But I think it was the 16th. I think she thought about calling me at 7 am and singing to me as she had every birthday my whole life long and that she died just before she could. I cried because it was so shocking—she was 90 yes, but willful and strong and present, not dying, not dead. I cried because she wouldn’t meet my son who had been born just three weeks prior. I cried because she would never call me on April Fools Day again either. She would never know that I had more books on the way—good ones, important ones—and that despite her temperamental nature, it was her love of my writing that made me trust her until the end, and in some ways helped me trust myself, too.
So, it makes sense that I cried that year.
And I didn’t think I’d cry now at 40 the way I cried at 21 because not many people get to 40 in such great shape—not physical shape incidentally, given my arthritic knees and sudden onset sun spots—but metaphysically, 40 is an incredibly happy place for me. I’m grateful as can be.
And yet, it is midnight and 40 is here now and with it, this brand new decade and here I am feeling those 21 year old feelings. Youth giving way to age. A lump in my throat. Dinner reservations and camp trunks and to do lists and yes, I’ve read every last piece of inspired this is 40 writing there is. I get it. 40 is great. 40 is the new 30. The new 21 even. I’ve written about it myself. And it’s all true. You get to be who you meant to be at 40—you can stop trying so hard, hang out only with people who make you laugh and who make you feel understood. You can eat bread and m&ms today and know that tomorrow you won’t because you know yourself now. You’ll get it back together because you’ve gotten it back together before.
So, I wasn’t going to say any more on this topic. I was just going to have a big party and smile and thank God and the universe for bringing me to this day. Until I realized, about 20 minutes ago, that I had a tiny little something to say about it. 40 is not just a number. 40 is a real thing, and it is okay to cry about it if you have to, for a minute, or a day or two, because transitions are hard. And this a transition. I have to stop being in my 30’s now the way a child has to stop playing tag and head back inside when recess is over. And recess was good, man.
My 30s were really, really good to me, too. Recess good. I got two kids and my own book series out of my 30s. I got an apartment and then a house in my 30s. I got closer with my family, closer with old friends, even closer with new friends.
So I’m heading inside from recess toward the unknown and I’m thinking, there could either be a boring math lesson around that corner or maybe a new student from a far off place, or maybe a special project with tempera paint and clay. Maybe it’s someone’s birthday and there will be cupcakes and a read-aloud. I don’t know. You never know.
All of the sudden I’m not going to cry though. Because that’s it. Recess was good. It did the trick. Accomplished what it was meant to do, and now I’m all filled up with fresh air and ready to take a seat after running around with my friends. I’m ready. Even if there is no cupcake. Even if it’s math.
It would be so nice to hear my grandmother’s voice this morning. It might even be nice to stick my feet out the window and smoke a cigarette, while, I don’t know– while my guitar gently weeps. That’s nostalgia for you. All music and feet out the window, no tears.
You don’t get those things back, though. You just get to take them with you to the next thing and the next thing is right now. So, I’ll happily soak up the whispered happy birthdays of my sleepy kids, the bear hug of my husband, the Facetime with my nieces. I’ll take this bright, sunshine-y day, too, and all the days to come over the course of this next decade. And I’ll carry it with me to the next thing after that, too.
I’m ready. Time for math (and cupcakes).