In March I traveled to Bucharest, Romania to help lead a conference for children's book writers and illustrators. Over twenty talented authors and artists attended the event, and I got to talk about one of my favorite things on this planet--creating picture books for young children.
The children's book market in Romania--at least from what I've been told and what I experienced--is primarily made up of translated books that were first published in other markets. Some of them are translated well, some of them poorly. Many of them do not reflect the unique population or culture of the people in that country. And those books that are written by Romanian authors tend to be for an older child--for a child who can already read independently. So there is this lovely little void, ready and waiting to be filled with books for very young children, written by Romanians themselves.
For two and a half days, I was a teaching, mentoring cheerleader. We talked together about child development. We went over the key factors to consider when writing for young children. We dissected really good books, musing over what makes them connect to the young child. We investigated negative space in art, in music, in speech, in book design. We considered the current market, and brainstormed ways to move forward...
I am so glad I went. It was one of the hardest things I've done in a long time. Not because of the content. Talking about picture books was easy and energizing, but preparing for my time away, right on the heels of a natural disaster in our community, required all of me--my physical; spiritual; emotional; and psychological self...
After the last session of the conference ended, I was thrilled! It couldn't have gone better. It was worth traveling half way across the globe to be with such beautiful, gifted people. Before I returned home I had two days to spend in Bucharest with my friend. We toured the city in the snow, ducking into churches to warm up and soak in the prayer, flagging down taxis to speed us across town (I posted a few photos and thoughts on my instagram page...). We visited an artist's home studio, drank tea, ate traditional food, toured Ceausescu's private home, and bought Pascha gifts. I would love to return in the fall some day with my family, and tour into the mountains and down to the sea, and soak in the loveliness that is Romania...
So much has happened during these few short months of 2018. I'm hoping I'll have time to digest some lessons I've learned before any new exciting events come my way.
It's really hard to be creative in the midst of disaster.
Post fires and floods all I really wanted to do was talk to friends and family, clean my house, pray, and find ways to help my neighbors. Looking forward felt impossible. I found a way to work during this time, but it was one of the hardest things I've ever done. For weeks and weeks I had this horrible fog over my heart and very little available creative energy.
It is possible to go an entire week on 14 hours of sleep and not die.
I didn't sleep on the plane, or when I arrived in Bucharest. I slept two five-hour nights when I was there, but that was it. I didn't sleep on the way back, but instead chatted with a three-year-old for the entire return flight to LA because his poor mom was trying to quiet his one-year-old brother who had an insistent scream. When I arrived home I didn't have jet lag. I just went straight to bed and that was that. I think I had secret sleep angels who watched over me the entire week while I was away.
The Istanbul airport is not for the faint of heart.
A delayed flight meant missing a connection, which meant making new arrangments in other parts of the airport. I probably walked seventeen miles (slight exaggeration) zigzagging through the Istanbul airport in the middle of the night. I pulled a man's hand out of my purse. I got lost three times. A nice fellow named Mert came to my aid around mile fifteen. I finally holed up in a private lounge (best 30 Euro decision ever) and drank tea while I read for many long hours.
Talking about kids books makes me happy.
You know, sometimes when you do things for a long time you forget why you started doing that thing in the first place. I love kids. I love talking to kids in airplanes for 14 hours. I love writing books for kids. It's good to be reminded.
Lesson Number Five
Romanians, who live in Romania, are brave.
The people of that country have been through the ringer. From being a soveriegn kingdom, to being communist, to moving toward democracy, Romania has quite the political past... The people are warm hearted, welcoming, and gentle, but I also noticed that they are distrustful, and avoid being the one to say or do something different. So many countrymen have fled for a variety of reasons. The struggle of staying, and trying to put a country back together, is real... The Romanians who remain are brave to the core.
We studied Finnish all year. We saved money for longer than that! I have always wanted to travel to Finland, to see the place where two girls, who had a fairly profound influence on me when I was young, grew up. Raija lived with us when I was ten. Leena when I was thirteen.
Here's some of what we saw (and, yes, we stayed in log cabins, and took saunas--some of us were even brave enough to jump in the freezing lakes [naked]--and we ate pickled herring)!
Places where people pray:
So many lakes:
We even stopped in Reykjavik, Iceland:
And visited Estonia for a day:
And tried to take a family photo (third time's a charm).
We realize how fortunate we are to be able to safely travel across the world and see these beautiful things, and travel safely home again. I had very few expectations of the trip, and came away feeling like the people who live there are pretty fortunate! (Of course we visited there when all was warm, and blue, and lush, and friendly...) If you've ever been to Finland, I'd love to hear a story or two of your time there.
My husband works in Seattle even though we live in Santa Barbara. So, every now and then, since homeschooling and our eleven-year-old are very portable, we move the whole shebang 1000 miles north.
I've made it a habit when we travel to try to connect with folks that I have gotten to know online. Maybe I'll make a point to meet with a work colleague who helped produce a book with me, or someone who has championed my stories over the years, or perhaps I'll meet with someone who shares in one of my loves (reading, writing, gardening, baking, kids, etc...). These face-to-face meetings--even if they're just an hour at a coffee shop--change things. Suddenly, someone who used to be a profile picture is a living, laughing, scarf-wearing human. Sometimes when these meetings happen, I'll look at them and almost see a tether between the two of us--a thread that is joined by time, and space, and beating hearts. Suddenly we are not just words. We are wrinkles (or not!), and we are warm, and we sip our coffee, and we are so completely three dimensional, and we are NOW, and we are communion. We are not just "friends." We were already a part of the whole--a part of being sick and well, a part of being old and new--but when we are side by side we are actually in communion, breaking bread together, drinking, sharing words...
I was thinking today, imagining in the (near) future, a time when most work and learning will be online. A time when Amazon delivery people will be threading through our streets like little ants. A time when therapists will have a mental health pyramid. We will need just enough face-to-face interaction in our lives to keep us mentally stable, and if we get that, then the other hours of cruising Facebook, of watching riveting television series, of posting pictures on our Instagram pages might be (somewhat, grudgingly,) allowed. But if we have too little of that real life human awareness and contact, then our eyesight will diminish, our mental capacity will waiver, and our concept of reality will fade into pixel dust...
I'm an introvert, so I really could live inside a turret and drink tea and watch movies and write books all day long. Thank God, though, that I'm old enough to have learned. Real people are amazing! They are living, walking, images of God Himself! They are complete, unique, amazing creations, and I'm glad I know a few of them. I'm hoping to know more. In this time of bizarre divisiveness, and political and personal unrest, I recommend that you travel to the next county over and meet someone new. Someone that you thought you knew, but until you see them up close, you realize that you only knew the middle paragraph on the fourtieth page of the entire book.
Mammoth in the summer. Forests, lakes, ski lifts that zoom you up thousands of feet. My favorite coffee shop ever (cause there are tables galore for spreading out to write...). Yosemite not far away (don't go in the summer--it's a zoo). This was our first trip to the Mammoth Lakes area ever as a family, and we feel fortunate that we were able to make the trip...
And if you have a boy and a dog who like to swim...
Happy end to summer, everyone!
We rented a teeny little house, packed our bags on Pascha afternoon, and headed to Seattle on Bright Monday. Ten days in Seattle. I was hoping for some rain, but, seriously, all we got was Santa Barbara weather!
We visited with my oldest son, Andrew, who is adorable, and is already a much better writer than I am. Walked through the Japanese gardens and the Flight Museum. Saw The Jungle Book. Drove off to the Olympic National Park for the weekend where we bathed in hot springs, hiked to a waterfall, ate breakfast in Forks, played on the beach, and said hello to a very large tree. We also got to hang out with the most awesome little people at St Katherine's Orthodox Mission where I was invited to read When God Made You and watch them all make art... and Seattle is just a diverse, fascinating, beautiful place--a good place to homeschool on the road. I feel so fortunate that we were able to go, and that my husband who commutes 1000 miles a few times each month got to just stay put and drink tea in the morning with me...
Hope you're all doing well.
Sending my love!
I used to cringe any time my parents would say that we were headed to the desert. I grew up in Southern California, near the beach. Heading to Palm Springs for vacation, most of the time in the summer, wasn't my kind of change. We had a swamp cooler for air conditioning, and I was always sunburned. And fainted. Bleh...
But later in life I married a young man whose entire, enormous family lived in Phoenix. You know, love. I guess I loved him more than I hated cacti!
Now, in my wisened middle age, I've learned to say no to Palm Desert in July, and yes to Scottsdale in March! Plus, I still love my husband, and maybe it's because of him that I've done an about face--now I stare at the wide swaths of natural desert beauty and simply marvel.
The varied textures are what catch my eye and tug at my heart... When you look past the spines and thorns and gravely ground, you find such ingenuity and beauty...
So here's to early March, to blooms and thorns, and the promise of spring. Wherever you are, I wish you well!
When I was a little girl living in Southern California, my parents purchased a home in the desert. It was off of Bob Hope Drive in Palm Springs. That house was on a cul-de-sac, and three other families we knew from Santa Monica also had houses there. The kids outnumbered the grownups by about five to one. We played a lot of Kick-the-Can late at night...
The house had a swamp cooler, and the cul-de-sac had a pool. Over the block wall was the desert, and in the desert there were snakes, and beyond the snakes were date palms. Pretty interesting stuff for a seven-year old!
However, I'm a redhead, and fair-skinned, and really am more built for the Lapland than the desert. In fact, if I'm dehydrated, and it's hot, I faint. I have a lot of fainting stories. I didn't really like our trips to the house off of Bob Hope Drive. The beach in Santa Monica was nice. The beach was always cool and breezy and didn't make my face flush red for days. And why did we always go to Palm Springs in the summer? Why not November?
So when I married a man whose family all lived in Arizona, in Phoenix, in the desert, I started making up names for the place. I called it the Arid Zone. I complained when there were June weddings. I added to the fainting stories.
But you know? I'm older and wiser now. I'm not 16 going on 17 anymore, and I've figured out how not to faint. I am admitting today, publicly, to all Meyers everywhere, to all desert dwellers in the universe, that spring in the desert is about one of the most amazing things going. If you ever have a chance to visit Scottsdale in March...
You Should Go!
The only bummer about heading to Nashville with my daughter for her school audition last week is that I searched Santa Barbara high and low, for two months, for a new travel purse. I searched LA too. I never found one. I am a bag lady, and having the right purse is a priority.
It's so odd--this penchant of mine--because I really don't care about fashion, or clothes, and have no idea how to wear makeup, and often just sweep my hair up because I hate static... But purses!
Is it because of all the pens and notebooks, chocolates and knitting needles I can tuck away inside, making me feel like Jane pretty much anywhere I go?
Is it the promise of going somewhere? I do like going places.
Anyway, we headed to Nashville with my old clunky purse, which meant I was ducking into leather stores all over the city, but honestly... all I found were cowboy boots.
If you've never been to Nashville, then you should say yes next time you're asked to tag along. Parking is super expensive, and Broadway and Third reminds me of the Las Vegas strip, but other than that, it's a beautiful town. Music everywhere. Wonderful restaurants. Nice, southern people. Welcoming rental car attendants, coffee shop barristas, and college girls with puppies.
Being with my daughter is always an adventure. Just like I used to do handstands and cartwheels everywhere, she seeks out good acoustics and plays and sings anywhere she is allowed.
And if the puppies and the music aren't enough for you to plan a trip, I bet you didn't know there's a parthenon in Nashville! Oh, my.
A parthenon with fabulous acoustics.
With a giant gold Athena inside...
I am not making this up. One can not make up a giant, gold Athena. Nashvillers being as sweet as they are, they (the security guards) asked Mad to play her ukelele and sing in the room right beside their beloved Greek goddess.
It was magical--the sound spun all over that space, up, down, around, bouncing off those eight pounds of gold and her mighty shield.
Madeleine's audition and day at Belmont turned out just the way it should have... And we were able to see a show at the Ryman...
But if you don't finish your stay in Nashville at church, then I say don't go. After all that music, and food, and meeting new friends, our morning at St Ignatius Orthodox Church was literally the best few hours of our entire time in Tennessee. Like a balm, the prayer of that place still lingers inside of me...
It's hard not to romanticize this place that has been a distant part of my family for a hundred years. There is so much myth and mystery mixed with real life--that I hardly know where the legend leaves off and the real stuff begins. In a nutshell. My great, great grandfather left Les Aldudes, a valley in the Pyrenees mountains on the border of France and Spain, back in the late 1890's. So many young people left at that time--and he came to California and eventually made a life for himself there as a baker.
By 2005 my French Basque cousins had almost all moved away from the valley, seeking work in busier parts of France, and the house (for Basques identify deeply with their homes) went on the market. The nostalgic Californians (my brother, dad, and uncle), 100-years-removed, bought it.
Basques being an extremely loyal group, treat us like family when we return. I am the only one who speaks French, and few in the community speak English, which makes me the Official Translator when we visit. My dad's an extrovert; we often joke that my college education, which had a lot to do with France and French and chaussons aux pommes, keeps paying off in terms of real words. So Many Words!
One of my favorite memories of this home was when I was eighteen and studying French in Angers. I traveled there for Christmas to stay with my cousins and was stunned when I realized that presents had nothing to do with the holiday--just church, just family, food, and reflection. That has always stayed with me, and I had a small hope that my family and I could walk into that space once again, leaving behind the city's bustle and focus on stuff, and just come here and be...
Our time in Les Aldudes is always a reminder of life lived a different way--so close to nature. This trip we were able to pray a bit more deeply, to rest and laugh, and spend time each day in the hills.
Romantic as the house may seem, and it does have awesome bones, truthfully it's a bit like camping indoors--what with the wallpaper literally dropping off the walls in chunks, the carpet so thin we're always tempted to just peel it up, and a heater/hot water system that requires manual administration... Plus there's the one bathroom that has an awful brown/pink color combo going on, and the other with carpet actually on the ceiling... :)
But who cares about the carpet and the wallpaper? I don't. I just hope it doesn't take us another nine years to save our money to travel there again...
On second thought, even if it does, I'm glad that such a place exists, even if I can't often be there. I believe that prayers make this world a better place, and that beauty combats evil by the moment. Just the fact that Les Aldudes, wrapped this moment in frost and ferns, exists adds goodness to you and to me.
Our trip to Normandy was simple. It was the time in between England and the Pyrenees. It was the one place in France my dad has always wanted to visit. It was a short time of remembrance and reflection, another nudge toward understanding human sacrifice.
I'm not a historian, nor someone who enjoys the study of war; I don't believe in glorifying past battles, only learning from suffering, and hopefully making bridges from struggle to peace.
We stayed in Bayeux, which allowed us two experiences. Time to visit and pray in the cathedral, and a chance to wander Omaha Beach and visit the memorial of WWII.
We are away from Santa Barbara for these two weeks of Christmas break. Canterbury was our first stop--to see where our oldest son, Andrew, has been living and studying these past months. Here's a little tour of the place he called home...
Douglas. Always on the search for a fabulous meal, since he's a foody, and a great amateur chef. He was cheered by all the holiday parties that were in full swing in the various restaurants. Even though we couldn't get in to many places we'd read about, he liked that Christmas was being celebrated by people being together... (Salt, was awesome, though...)
Me. Tea. Always tea. So much tea! I love tea... :) Also, the English have crazy good manners. Manners matter. John Ronan, who struggles with social stuff, rose to the occasion! Bravo, little man. Manners didn't seem to matter quite as much late at night, when the men hung out in the streets singing, swinging their beers back and forth to their off-key melodies.
Andrew. He didn't trust English barbers. Which is why his hair was still bush-like upon our arrival. Canterbury, according to Andrew, is very much a college town and is surprisingly diverse. He'll miss the quirky shops, and the view of the cathedral that he could see as he walked to and from the town.
Madeleine. She liked the mixture of young and old, and felt that Canterbury is a place where people live well. She'd like to return and maybe even live in England at some point? She brought along her red ukelele and joined the other street entertainers for an afternoon. An extra thirty pounds in the pocket is always nice...
John Ronan. He liked this small city because they spoke English--because he got to buy four new books--because Louise, the innkeeper had nice manners and left cookies in the room.
My parents. They sum up the city as quaint, charming, cold, windy and alive. My mom said it felt so much like old England--she almost expected Tiny Tim to be walking the streets, and my dad says the cathedral is a must, plus he liked our innkeeper, Louise, who was so lively and attentive, and who cooked us very good and proper breakfasts each morning...
Off to France!
For a long while, the keys to the house in France have been buried in a basket in our junk drawer in the kitchen. Surrounded by rubber bands, measuring tapes, foreign coins, and packets of soy sauce, they have just been another idle, unusable item that sits and waits for its time.
It's a really long story--the story why my dad, my brother, and my uncle purchased the old family home in the French Pyrenees. Nostalgia is probably the best explanation--a strong sense of home, even though we're a hundred years removed. Kind of a romantic, immigrant tale. I'm not complaining!
It's just that France is so far.
The last time we traveled there as a family I was five months pregnant with our littlest. The littlest is now almost nine. But guess what?
We've saved our pennies for all these years, and now we're planning for two and a half weeks abroad. A few days in England, to gather the oldest who is studying there. Then across the channel to Normandy, then south. All the way south. As-far-as-you-can-go-south. And God willing, we'll be celebrating Christmas in Les Aldudes, a village of 300 beautiful souls, plus the sheep. (If you want to join us, here's a home for rent :) )
Those keys that have been in that junk drawer now hang from our baker's rack, in anticipation of old wooden doors, and unused locks. The heat will be turned on--the house will once again have lights that glow through the windows at night, and we simply can't wait.
Long ago, when I was just 18 and spent a Christmas with my French cousins who lived there, I had the most glorious Christmas ever. Two magical three-hour meals, the whole town crowded into the village church to sing, morning walks, and not one present under the Christmas tree. In fact, there was no Christmas tree!
Can you imagine?