Sunday, December 22, 2013

wintry world

Narnia, by Elliott

We hope you all are enjoying this wintry world, finding time to imagine and play.  Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 20, 2013

guardians of childhood

Nicholas and Julia and I have an understanding.  Well, it's mostly Nicholas and I.  Julia, unfortunately, has encountered the issue at a younger age, due to her older brother's expressed skepticism.

Some time ago, when Nicholas asked if there was really a Santa, I paused for a bit, and then said:

Before I answer that, let me ask you something.  Sometimes there are questions that you would rather not know the answer to.  Is this one of those questions?

Nicholas started to speak.  Stopped.  Closed his mouth.  And walked out of the room.

Aside from the occasional knowing look that I sometimes get from him in the rear view mirror, we have never spoken of this again.


Each year, we try our very best to highlight and protect for our children a love of, respect for and enjoyment of this season.  And to focus on believing in the magic.  Without the commercialized aspects of the holidays.  By doing so, I feel we are trying to protect their very childhood.

Last year at Christmas time, we took the kids to see William Joyce's Rise of the Guardians movie, a rare treat at the theater.  Since then, I have borrowed and read each of his Guardian picture books and novels.  In fact, I'm reading one of them right now.

Now, mind you, I have always had a rather half-hearted approach to the Guardians -- the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, Jack Frost, the Sand Man, and Santa Claus.  It has always felt a bit dishonest actually.  And in some cases, it seems to promote a focus on materialism rather than on the metaphor that the Guardians are supposed to promote, at least in terms of my understanding of them.

But the idea of there being Guardians of Childhood is fascinating and meaningful to me.  There is so much in the world, in the media, and in children's very own lives that is pushing them too soon out of childhood.  So I guard my children's childhood fiercely.

William Joyce -- author of the Guardians of Childhood books, a series which is comprised of picture books, middle grade fantasy books and the film -- is a man with an interesting mind.  And I am a bit intrigued by him.  His sense that childhood is an entity that needs to be protected.  Of a struggle between good and evil, and that the sensibilities of children, their willingness and ability to believe, these qualities are what offer the best protection from darkness and evil.  Joyce talks about his desire to elaborate upon these characters, these well used, but previously minimally known heroes, here.

But there is something about Joyce's Guardians that has made me a bit more of a believer in these characters.  Or at least in the metaphor which they stand for.

For example, I love that Joyce has given the guardians slightly different names.  Like North, instead of Santa.  And that the Sandman is Sanderson Mansnoozie.  I think I married a Mansnoozie.  Somehow this renaming makes me like them more.  A name that is removed from the commercialization of Santa.  A dream maker who knows the power of dreams to overcome struggles appeals to the psychologist in me.  These new names allow me to connect more with them.  The elaborated why did they become who they are makes me understand them, and therefore believe in them, or even just want to believe in them more.  And I think the wanting to believe is more important than the believing itself.

Because, now that I know that they are in cahoots?  Now that I know they hang, and are of the same hood?  A relationship and history between them that is messy but based in history like family, that I never considered before?  Now I know that I can write a note to the Outback bunny asking if perhaps he could keep an eye out for Elliott's tooth (lost in the snow) when it melts in the Spring -- while said bunny is hiding eggs in the backyard.  And then could he pass it on to Toothiana.

And I know that it was perfectly reasonable to make masking tape arrows on the floor of our house with its fireplaces in every room.  To show North where he was supposed to go on Christmas Eve.  Definitely not down the chimney that led to Nicholas' bedroom.  Because to Nicholas at a young age, the idea of a man showing up in his bedroom while he was sleeping was totally terrifying.  And if he had been loud and caustic and thickly accented like North?  Well.

See?  To protect their very childhood.  To allow them the freedom, time, and opportunity to grow, imagine, and wonder without the noise, overstimulation, distraction, and saturation of our adult world.  What I hope is that, by connecting with creatures, nature, the earth, they will be motivated in the future to protect and guard what they believe in in their own individual ways.  And every act that Jonathan and I can do that shows them what we believe,  and that that we still have things we believe in. Despite what common sense, reality, and the nature of being a tall person might contradict?  Hopefully our beliefs and choices to believe get noticed by them.  At least on some level.

* * *

Last night, Jonathan was down on the river shoveling snow for hours.  We had a system going where he would text me every few minutes and let me know he was okay while I was up in the house with the sleeping children.  It was dark down there, and we have a rule that no one can be on the river alone.  We were breaking that rule, he and I, after days of sub-zero temperatures.

There are 18 inches of snow down there.  But he had discovered that if he scooped off the fluffy dry snow, underneath was a smooth and perfect ice surface.  And with some warmer temperatures and rain in the next few days, we wanted to get the fluffy snow off so the rain could hit the ice and then later freeze, hopefully, into a lovely skatable surface.

Texts coming in every five minutes, him telling me he was okay, not at the bottom of the river, and us making digital plans for a fabulous holiday break of skating parties and night skating, firepits and s'mores, and on and on.  I was imagining a huge area being cleared, given how long he was at it.

This morning I went down, thinking I would add a bit to what he had done last night, knowing also I could use a little fresh air and exercise.

Um.  I texted Jonathan.  This can't be safe.

Don't go out on that, he responded.

Was it wet like this last night? I texted back.

No.  Frozen solid and dry.

How exactly does a river unfreeze over night?

And, with that warm up, melt all of our planning for the upcoming holiday break.

I must admit I plopped my snowpanted bottom down in a snow pile and pouted for awhile.  Camera in lap.  Disappointed.  And if you don't believe me, here is my bottom print.

If anything, given that the rain will likely make the snow banks created by our shoveling hard and permanent, it might have been better to have done nothing.

We should have let it be.

So I went down later in the afternoon.  This time I tried to notice the good.  And I did.  I noticed the beginning of a foot trampled path down the bank.  That will get more and more travelled as the cold returns and we spend more time down there.

I noticed a small area just next to the pool.  That if it gets a bit of rain, and is left unfiddled with?  Will be a very nice area to skate upon.

Well.  I took a deep breath.  Maybe we could pass it off as an intended runway for Santa and his sleigh.  Or a frigid lap pool.

Then I turned to a chuck chuck noise and saw in the snow beside me wood chips.

And looked up.  And saw where they had come from.

But, most importantly, I walked down the bank a bit.  And saw a promising area, just around the next bend in the river.  Something like one of the dots on North's globe that mark the places of light, where a child still believes in the Guardians of Childhood.

All we need?  A visit from Jack Frost.

For me, it is those spots of unfussed with au natural ice.  These, I hope, will grow and expand and connect with each other.  So we can have our unbounded and free river skate, up and down the river, following its curves, hopping over its bumps, circling about the brambles in the middle of the river.  Giggling and skidding and falling and bobbling.

And I think it can still happen.  I believe.

But more importantly, perhaps, than us getting out there on the ice, listening to the crisp pings of crackling ice in the moon light?  Is that our children saw us trying.  Saw us trying to make it happen for them.  Saw us excited for it, working on it, dreaming about it, and yes, messing it all up.  Because this is something they dream about all year long as well.  

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


The time between Thanksgiving and now has been a bit of a blur.  Of usually happy, but sometimes bleary, busyness.

I purchased two rolls of rather unusual wrapping paper from the Honey Exchange the day before Thanksgiving.  And had not found the time to use it since.

But yesterday, feeling the cold whipping through my down parka, I did.  I just wish I hadn't waited until the snow was as deep as my knees to get out there.

My children's wagon, used less these days to pull a short legged child about the street, or through an orchard, or to walk to meet Daddy's train, has been used for all sorts of new jobs lately.  I use it to help carry the heavy wet laundry to the line.  And to carry my beekeeping equipment down to the beeyard.  And to move the firewood from the stack to the back door of the house.  Though it says it is all terrain, clearly snowy terrain was not included in all.  And they don't seem to sell a sled runner adapter kit.  

So I stuffed my pockets with the tools I would need.  Put on my snow pants.  And mittens.  And a hat.  A very different kind of bee apparel is required in the winter.

All the birdhouses, and every roof we can see, are wearing hats, and dangly earrings (or icicles). 

As I rounded the corner of the bee yard, I saw how much snow had fallen on the hives the other day since I was last out here.  Two snow storms ago.

I intentionally had chosen a dark color to paint the hives, as was recommended to me, so that I would not have to wrap them as so many beekeepers do here in Maine -- especially if their hives are painted a lighter color.  Some say black tar paper maximizes solar gain and heat absorption.  And some seem to feel it helps with the drafts.  

Having felt the strong winds blowing through our very walls here in the past few days, I was feeling like the hives could benefit from a bit of supplemental draft care.  But first, the sun out and the wind not blowing, I decided to take a look at what I could observe that might tell me something about how my bees were faring.  

The first thing I noticed were several dead bees, in front of one of the hives, in the snow.

And some dead bees just outside the bottom entrance.

When I was last out here, it had been a warm day.  Well, warm for December in Maine.  And I had pulled out the bottom board and found a lovely circle of flakey light colored debris, about six inches in diameter.  I did not have my camera with me that day, or I would show you a picture.  It looks like what they tell you the debris from a colony in a small cluster would look like.

At the state beekeeping conference in November, I had heard a woman talking at my table about how she had monitored her colonies last winter, that you could listen to the hive boxes with a stethoscope and hear where they were in the boxes as they moved about over time, moving toward honey supplies.  I was curious if I would be able to see the debris indicating where their activity was when I returned a few days later, and whether it would have moved a bit.  And so, I went around to the backside of the hives.

And took a quick look.

The light colored flakes are cappings from honey, so they are eating.

And the darker colored flakes are from emerging brood. So they are raising brood.  So far.

Today, there was debris again, and in a central area, though not in the definitive pile that I had found last time, likely because only a few days had passed since I last cleaned the bottom boards.

I took a quick peek at the bottom screen.  More dead bees, but I don't think too many.

So I closed her right back up again.

I hefted each hive.  As my teachers had told me to.  They felt heavy.  A good sign, that there are still stores of honey in there.

Now for the wrapping.

The last time I wrapped something in tar paper was when, each fall, my family would head up to our camp and wrap tar paper around the bottom edge of the building which was supported by cedar posts and sat up off the ground.  My grandfather believed this helped protect the camp, and kept the earth beneath it from freezing as hard and thereby shifting and disrupting the level and support of the camp.

I remember those rolls of tar paper.  And the very dangerous rusty nails that stuck out of the pieces of wood, nails he would save and hammer into the top edge of the tar paper.  We had an annual joke about whether our tetanus shots were up to date.  I think it was this task that gave me the most practice with a hammer.  I also remember that there were rather complicated and well marked directions about what piece of tar paper and what nail shim went where, fitting around the camp like a puzzle.

I know this makes me lazy, and probably seems a bit pathetic to some, but I thoroughly enjoyed the precut rolls of tar paper that we purchased from Phil at the Honey Exchange.  Because once out there in the bee yard in the snow, with mittens, a camera, a hammer, and a box of brads?  Alone with only one set of hands?  There was no way I would have been able to measure and cut or even carry out there a full roll of tar paper.  So thank you Phil, for your perfectly sized tar paper pieces.

Ok, so it wasn't until the second hive that I figured out how to get a snug fit, by nailing one end, pulling it around the box, and then attaching the other end.

Don't worry.  I went back and redid the first one more snuggly.

Oops.  I planted some brad seeds for next year.  Don't be surprised if there are nail bushes blossoming in my photos come Spring.  

Strangely, while I was working, a few bees came out of the entrance and promptly died in the cold.  It likely had something to do with the hammering, and occasional muttering and ouching going on outside.

But it was sad to watch them do this to themselves.

So I decided it was time for me to go, before I caused more death.  So I cleaned up my tools and headed out.  

Walking away, entrances cleared, wrapped snuggly and tidily, I felt that -- though a bit late -- I had done another thing that might help them get through the winter.

Later in the day, the kids and I headed over to see Phil to take care of important business.  To sign up for a sophomore beekeeping class in January for me.  And to purchase our teacher gifts for the kids.  

Jonathan wrapped it up with his characteristic flourish.  Which looked nothing like the wrapping I had done earlier in the day.

Over the next few days, we will be finishing our holiday preparations and having much time with family, friends and with just us.  And hopefully a good deal of snow and ice to play on.  Bundled and layered and well fed, so we can enjoy it.

Wishing you all a peaceful and Merry Everything as you get it all wrapped up, so you can enjoy the time together.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

wizard trees

I have been having a bit of a one sided conversation with Anne Ursu, children's book author.  She does not know me.  But through the world of social media and her writing, I am feeling a bit in a relationship with her.

I recently read her book Breadcrumbs, a sort of modern day fractured fairy tale version of the Snow Queen meets Narnia meets...well...lots of different children's books.  I loved it.  Especially because, as I read it, I felt as though I was being surrounded by many of the children's books I loved as a child and have loved reading with my children.  Like a blanket.

But also, Anne Ursu is a smart and intuitive woman.  And she says things like this:
Now, the world is more than it seems to be. You know this, of course, because you read stories. You understand that there is the surface and then there are all the things that glimmer and shift underneath it. And you know that not everyone believes in those things, that there are people—a great many people—who believe the world cannot be any more than what they can see with their eyes. But we know better.
Anne Ursu, Breadcrumbs

And this.

It’s a plié. You do it on all the positions. It’s very good for dramatic moments. 

Anne Ursu, Breadcrumbs

She's funny.  

And she's, says the Mainer in me, wicked smart.  I have been reading her thoughts about middle grade and young adult literature.  And she makes me think.  In very good ways.
By taking curse words out of context and hand-wringing over sex and darkness in books, we’re completely denying the realities of teenager’s lives—pretending if we keep them from curse words we can keep them pure and innocent. That draws a gulf between kids and their parents—forcing kids to present the same sanitized version of their lives to their parents that their parents are trying to hand them. And in the space between the sanitized version and the truth, that’s where the real darkness lies.
She said this here.  Worth the read.

Last week I was working on something else.  And doing some research for yet another thing.  And was having trouble pulling my thoughts together.  It was all a bit confuzzled up there.

And then, I realized that all I needed to do was to choose to not be confuzzled.  To give myself some moments for quiet, to pull in, to ground myself.  And do a bit of reading.

It’s all going to be okay. She would like to hear that now, even if it was a lie. Because some lies are beautiful. Stories do not tell you that.
 Anne Ursu, Breadcrumbs

And so I reached for Anne Ursu's Real Boy.  And sat down and began reading it.  And was immediately plunged into the mind of an intelligent reader (hers -- not mine), a thoughtful mindful human being, and a talented writer.  Once again.  It was a world I had missed since finishing Breadcrumbs.

The first thing I noticed upon opening the book was the picture, by Erin McGuire, at the beginning of each chapter.

This is how Ursu speaks of trees:

the ground beneath our feet is home to more untapped wonder than the skies above our heads

I have to say my breath caught, as I turned and looked out the window at Sylvia, our ancient enormous and beloved silver maple tree.

She is our Tree.  She likely predates the house.  And the house is 230 years old.  Centuries old, Sylvia still stands. There are no other trees of this age nearby.  And so, there must be some reason, a story behind why she is still here. I think the answer lies in what we cannot see.  She magnetically draws people, people who have not climbed trees for decades, but who were once those children who spent hours crouched in the bendy upper branches of a tree of their childhood, to get out of their car and climb her with only a rhetorical may I as they do so.  It's funny to me that Sylvia beckons to some to climb her, to touch her bark, to gaze about from up in her branches and see what they can see from up there.

For me, Sylvia inspires me to think and wonder, given the enormous span of her branches.

The girth of her trunk.

The gnarly old and thick bark that seems to bubble and twist and move even as you stare at her.

What must she look like underground?  Just what tortuous and far reaching root system must be necessary to hold her upright.  I imagine her root systems poking through the foundation of our house.  A tendril reaching all the way across the yard to the graveyard, perhaps reaching one of our house's previous occupant's hands and holding it, thus providing the connection between before and now.  Her roots working their way under the barn and under the street.  Sipping from the river.

These pictures of Ursu's wizard trees as chapter illustrations depict the world above as reflected in, suggestive of, provided by the underneath.  In The Real Boy, the trees infuse the earth with magic.  Sylvia, our wizard tree, reaching every corner here of the earth, but also of our minds, her shape redefining how we depict tree,

She causes me to wonder about what is down there.  Below.  If ever such a tree there was, a wizard tree, Sylvia is one.

By pulling me under, drawing me into her underworld in my mind, she thereby infuses me with a chance to flip upside down, stand below ground and look up/down from below.  To pass from a world of sky and air, to that of solid earth.  Above reflected below, and below imagined above.  Grounded, quiet, and hidden, I can better see the magic of the world above.  She is wise.

I wonder what Sylvia would look like if she pliéd right now.  For drama, of course.

I am still reading The Real Boy.  And I have a few moments before I need to get up and tend the family.  So excuse me.  I am going to go spend those moments with Anne.