Thursday, March 24, 2005

Some days are more productive than others

A few weeks ago, at one of the librarian workshops, I was asked what a typical day looks like. That's such a hard question! Becky refined it to ask what a day without performances is like. Still hard.

Today was a pretty productive day:
  • Haircut at 8 a.m.
  • Home to breakfast with the newspaper (tea with milk and sugar, toast with butter and neuchatel cheese). Lit a fire in the woodstove. Fed and patted the cat. Let the cat out, let the cat in.
  • Checked e-mails until I heard thunder. Turned the computer off.
  • Vacuumed the house, cleaned the bathroom. Remembered that the word for dust bunny in French (at least in Belgium) is "mouton"--sheep! I had a flock under my bed.
  • Patted the cat some more. Turned the computer back on. Checked e-mail, played a little solitaire. Talked to a friend and my sister briefly on the phone.
  • Had lunch (steamed kale, carrots and tofu in a sauce of umeboshi vinegar, mustard and olive oil, the last bit of stollen, one chocotoff). Read. Let the cat in, let the cat out.
  • Went to my tax advisor for the yearly visit. Worried a bit as usual, but it's truly just fine.
  • Stopped at Crafty and Company to say hello to Chris.
  • Continued on to Z's Divine Espresso to write in my journal and drink mocha. Forgot to ask for decaf. We'll see how that works for me later on.
  • Erranded around for a while, first by myself, then with my sister. Yakketa blabbeta.
  • Stopped at the library to look at the DVDs.
  • Home. Got the woodstove going again, patted the cat, checked e-mail.
  • Supper (corn tortilla quesadilla, steamed asparagus with lemon and butter).
  • Wrote two thank-you notes, one contract, three invoices. Addressed, stamped and sealed all. Checked more e-mail, wrote responses to a few, deleted many.
  • Let the cat out, played solitaire.
  • Remembered to write blog entry.
Now it's time for bed. First I'll let the cat back in. The Messiah is on the radio, a really great rousing section. That, combined with the afternoon's caffeine, may mean that I'll be reading for a while before sleep.

That's today. Who knows what tomorrow will be like.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Writing at the JDC

Have I mentioned a million or three times how much I like the variety of my life?

This week I've been teaching creative writing at a Juvenile Detention Center, with the totally cool Young Adult librarians from the Johnson County Library (they just were written up in Library Journal!). Well, sort of teaching. Mostly just encouraging, listening, connecting, and writing with a small group of kids.

I like working in JDCs. It's weird at first, making sure I have nothing in my pockets and am not carrying anything dangerous (an ink pen, for example, or the fold-up scissors I've been carrying for years), having to go into a series of locked hallways, being eyed by the staff and kids. Once I'm past that part, when I'm with the kids, I usually have a good time. These kids have done some bad things, some have made terrible decisions, some have been caught in awful circumstances, but they're not much different from the kids I see on the outside.

We started by writing down Natalie Goldberg's rules for writing practice, from her book Wild Mind. I like to have everybody actually write these down, because they seem to go in the pen hand--pencils only in the JDC--and up to the heart and brain that way. Some of the rules are "keep your hand moving," "be specific," "don't worry about punctuation, spelling or grammar," and "you're free to write the worst junk in America."

Then we started writing. I made sure the kids knew the other rules: no swearing (so none of us would get in trouble), and no writing about their charges. I also let them know that we would be reading the pieces out loud. That's always a tricky one, but essential.

We began with a neutral topic, coffee, for three minutes. We couldn't believe that the wind-up timer really worked, so when it went off, I set it again. The next day I brought an electronic timer. The next topic was candy, for five minutes. From there we dipped our toes into scarier topics, like darkness. Today we wrote a poem about death. In between some of the pieces, I read some of my favorite poems (a few are at this link) and some pieces written by kids in detention. I also talked about the process of writing.

We were supposed to have two separate groups, but as happens in institutions, the plan changed at the last minute. The first day we had two groups, seven and six, and the other three days we just had long sessions with the same kids. They didn't even want a break, just wanted to write.

So that's what we did. We wrote on specific topics, some I gave the kids and some they suggested. We wrote a couple of poems together. We wrote about some old snapshots I handed around. We played a ridiculous pass-around story game in writing. I read poems. They read poems. We wrote. We read aloud. We laughed. We talked. We wrote.

I was sorry to say goodbye today. The core group dropped to four, but these kids were dedicated to putting themselves on paper. They were respectful to me, to the librarians, to each other and to the writing. Though of course I hope this helped them in some way, I have no idea what they'll take from these four days--I'm not in charge of that. Still, I wish them all well.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Kansas is a BIG state

I grew up in New England, in Rhode Island and Vermont. When I lived in Connecticut as an adult, it was a big deal to drive two hours to go to Boston. Now I live in Kansas, where two hours isn't all that far.

Kansas is a beautiful state. People who drive through it as fast as possible often don't see this. It's subtle, not the breathtaking beauty of New England or the Rockies, but lovely all the same. Last week I drove out to western Kansas. I went through the Flint Hills on I-70. I love the colors in that stretch of land, different in every season. Sometimes they're burnt orange, sometimes gold, sometimes a brilliant green. On another trip, I saw the burning of the fields at night, long fingers of fire reaching for miles.

On this trip, the sun went down around Abilene and it was dark by Salina. I still had hours to go to get to Norton, up in the northwest part of the state near Nebraska. There's not much artificial light, so the stars fill the sky.

After my workshop on Thursday, I left Norton, driving straight south to Dodge City, about two and a half hours. Up in the north, it's hilly (hence the name of the town Hill City), but dry, dry, dry. The fields have irrigators in place, of course. As I drove I watched the tumbleweeds skitter across the road. Was that a pheasant I just passed? As I went further south, the land flattened out, becoming the landscape people think of as Kansas. You can see forever. The weather was fine, though very windy. When I got out to buy fuel, I held onto the gas cap as I pumped, or it would have flown across the parking lot. On other trips, I've seen thunderstorms far off in the distance, impressive natural fireworks illuminating the sky.

After my workshop in Dodge City on Friday, I did indeed "get out of Dodge." I drove west to Garden City to stay with storyteller Margaret Meyers and perform at a house concert with her that night (I got to hear her tell a wonderful Icelandic story, among others). The drive from Dodge to Garden was a straight shot, past stockyards and fields, with that hot flat horizon in the distance. Margaret said she'd heard that there are 300 days of sun in Garden City. It's greener than the surrounding area, but still very dry, and all but the hardiest of trees have a rough time of it. Both Dodge and Garden are supported by stockyards and meat packing plants, so there's a certain aroma present in both. Once when I was out in Garden City, I heard a teacher say, "Yes, my daddy always said that's the smell of money." Beef, it's what's for dinner.

I drove home through Great Bend. The road into Great Bend from Garden City took me past oil rig equipment suppliers and farm implement stores. Still flat, still dry but it was beginning to get hilly again. Occasionally the soil was reddish, sometimes tan, and in the fields I saw rich dark loam. I love watching the horizontal strips of color--the verge of the road, the fields, the blue sky.

A few years ago I traveled from Dodge City to Ashland in June, during the wheat harvest. I'd pass huge combines and tractors in the fields, watch fountains of golden wheat pour into trucks. Suddenly I found myself in a red rock valley, with mesas and buttes, completely different from the landscape a few minutes earlier. I looked at the map to find that I was in Big Basin, a 1.4 mile bowl on Highway 283.

Anyway, yesterday from Great Bend I headed up to I-70 again and home. In the four days, I traveled about 900 miles by car. Today I think I'll go for a walk.

Librarians rule!

What a week I just had! On Tuesday, I told stories at a couple of schools in Holt and Kearney, Missouri. I've been to these towns before, so kids remembered me. I heard a second-grader (age 7 or 8) say to his teacher, "We heard her before! She's hilarious!" Guess I have a reputation.

Then on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday I gave the first three of seven workshops for public librarians around Kansas, in preparation for the summer reading program "Dragons, dreams and daring deeds." I got to hang out with about 200 librarians in all. I like working with librarians, not just because I used to be one myself. I still think of myself as a librarian, even though I've been a storyteller for longer than I was ever a librarian. I was a Slavic cataloger (!) for two years and a children's librarian for five; I've been a full-time storyteller since 1993.

At each workshop, I met inspired librarians who enjoy what they do and truly want kids to love books, reading and the library. We pooled our ideas on the theme as well as on storytelling and puppetry. I know this is going to be a fabulous summer, or as a kid once wrote in a letter to me, "alsom". Marshmallow catapults (I don't think anybody's going to do the flaming pumpkin trebuchet, though one intrepid librarian has plans to catapult a TV set), Medieval insults, dragon puppets, stories of kings and queens, knightings, tea parties and much more are in store for kids all over the realm.

I'll write about the realm in the next post.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Jet lag is almost over

Home. Though this trip to Belgium was one of the best so far, I'm happy to be home. I love this life of traveling around telling stories, and I love my house, my cat, my own bed. This morning I got up early (thanks to jet lag) and made a fire in the woodstove. The cat is basking on the rug in front of the stove as I write.

It was great fun to see my friends in Belgium, and especially to stay with Marie and her family. We've known each other for over 20 years and always fill the visit with lots of blabbing--though after I leave we remember things we didn't say. We tell each other our stories of past, present and future. I try to describe my life here in the US, but I know it won't be clear to Marie until she comes to visit (hint, hint).

There are several things I like to do while in Belgium: eat chocolate, go to "Le Grand Mechant Loup" (a children's bookstore in Louvain-la-Neuve), buy notebooks and pens, have a chicken curry sandwich, eat a waffle from a street vendor. These waffles are not the light and airy confections Americans think of, but heavy and sweet, with sugar in the interstices (love that word). This time I didn't burn my tongue, amazingly enough.

On every trip, my suitcase weighs a ton on the way home, from the chocolate and books I bring back. This time I tried to be restrained, but still had 23 kilos of baggage to check (1 kilo=2.2 lbs). I think the limit is 25.

Though I have several other things to do today, I'm tempted to have a look at the books I bought. I try to find collections of folktales in French, especially with stories I've never heard. Here's this year's haul:
10 Contes de Turquie (collected by A. Uzunoglu-Ocherbauer)
24 Contes des Antilles (collected by Olivier Larizza)
14 Contes de Russie (Collected by Robert Giraud)
Contes et legendes de Belgique racontes aux aux grands qui les ont oublies (no author cited, but this is put out by Jourdain le Clercq Editions, as part of the series "Le patrimoine de nos enfants")
Les philo-fables (by Michel Piquemal and Philippe Lagautriere)
Contes populaires de Lorraine, compares avec les contes des autres provinces de France et des pays etrangers (collected by Emmanuel Cosquin)

This last one is a treasure. Cosquin was a folklorist who lived from 1841-1919 and who collected stories from one village in France. After each story, he goes into great detail, comparing the version with others from all around the world. Cosquin had an incredible breadth of knowledge, citing stories from Cambodia, Lower Saxony, Flanders, Russia and elsewhere. This edition was republished in 2003. It's more than 700 pages to chew on.

Before I chew on that, though, I think I'll go get a Chocotoff (Cote d'Or). Yum!