Tuesday, March 31, 2015

pictures to words to images to...story

from The Right Word, Roget and his Thesaurus
words by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet

Ever since I had an opportunity to experience Winky Lewis and Susan Conley's project, Stop Here.  This is the Place, I have been thinking about the connection between words and images.  And the dialogue that occurs between them.  It is something that I have learned to better understand, and am still learning a great deal about, since I began writing blog posts.  And I think about the writing that I do and where it begins, from thoughts that emerge as words on the computer screen to those thoughts that actually come from making meaning of images from our family life.  The image-based versus text-based stories of our lives, the medium will shape the stories told and offers different places for ambiguity and openness for a reader to project themselves or distance themselves from a story.  But mostly, I am struck by the many different ways that a person can create their own stories and connections with the world, speaking in a language that is true to them.

As I look about the house here, it is obvious, by the books stacked beside each of our beds and the tipped over library book piles in the family room, that we are doing a good deal of reading here at home these days.  Julia and I both have just finished reading Fish in a Tree, by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.
I watch a mind movie of her taking a stick and drawing a line in the dirt between us under a bright blue sky.  She's dressed as a sheriff and I'm wearing black-and-white prisoner stripes.  My mind does this all the time--shows me these movies that seem so real that they carry me away inside of them.  They are a relief from my real life.
from Fish in a Tree

There are some children, for example the main character, Ally, from Fish in a Tree, who see the world in pictures first. Or who transfer what they feel and see into images.  These images offer a fuller picture, sometimes a more comfortable or safer view, than just the words could for them. Elliott is one of these children as well.

the books Elliott is currently reading

Before Fish in a Tree, Julia read Rain Reign, by Ann M. Martin.  She finished it late one night and carried it into my room and plunked it down on my nightstand.  You are going to want to read this one, she said, and went to bed.
My name is not a palindrome because if you spell it backwards it's E-S-O-R, not R-O-S-E.  But it does have a homonym."
My father said, "Don't get started on homonyms, Rose." 
So I said, "Did you have any favorite foster brothers or sisters?" 
"Yes," said my father after a moment. 
"How interesting, " I replied.  "Did any of their names have homonyms?" 
from Rain Reign, by Ann M. Martin

The next morning, at breakfast, Julia said between bites, You know, Ally from "Fish in a Tree" and Rose from "Rain Reign."  They remind me of each other.  Even though Ally sees everything in pictures and Rose likes to play with words, they seem like they could be friends.  And that the friends, who each of them eventually make in their books, could all be friends together.  Because they all like each other after they start to understand why Rose and Ally seem a little different from the people around them.  

After Julia headed off to school that morning, I went and got the book I had been reading the previous night when she had delivered me my next reading assignment: The Right Word, Roget and His Thesaurus.  Words to images, images to words.  The dialogue of the children's picture book, when done well.  When the two parts of the book coming together tell the story better and more fully than just one alone.

And children, and adults as well, are performing constant mental conversions or translations back and forth between how they view the world and the experience they are having or the book they are reading.  Image to text to image to words.  For all three of our children, and for most children, they are developing a fluency that allows them to move between words and images in ways that I am slow to keep up with sometimes.  It probably begins with their being read to and eventually their own reading of both the text and pictures in their picture books.  And, fortunately for all three of our children, the rise of the graphic novel has kept them completely hooked as they each become more sophisticated in their reading of both text and images.   I think this must support a more flexible interaction with the world, allowing them to experience and feel and see so much more than what is told.  Because sometimes, the most important part of a story is in what we see rather than the words that tell the story.  Many times, the visual seems a more direct link to what we can be made to experience and feel.

Elliott recently returned home from a rather epically bad day at school.  He sniffled while I passed him a snack in the kitchen.  A pencil and a scrap of paper lay beside him on the counter.  And I watched while blood sugar returned and he turned that tragic tale he had just told me into a comic strip, complete with humor and frustrated utterances and slapstick physical comedy.  He smiled to himself while he worked away on it and then looked into my eyes as he slid it toward me.   We laughed together for a few minutes, what had been so totally terrible now looking a bit more humorous and certainly now making for a very good story.  And then he skipped off to join Nicholas and Julia in the family room, leaving that terrible awful no good very bad day, and the scrap of paper, behind with me.

* * *

On Julia's bedroom bookshelf, sits a graphic novel that I bought for her a year ago, Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas.

In the land of families with more than one child and parents who had boxes of children's books before we had children, who owns which book can be a tricky and sometimes contentious subject.  But this book, I purchased specifically for Julia.  It was and still is a perfect choice as well.  Julia is currently working on a research project on Jane Goodall and she keeps referencing this first book she read about Jane and two other women scientists.  And the stories she experienced in Primates in graphic novel form.  

Though I, unable to contain myself, have borrowed quite a few others from the library now to go along with it.

And I know, that in a few months, in a few years, when I think about Julia's research project on Jane Goodall, I will remember that she taught me more about Jane than I knew myself.  I will remember some of that information about her work and life.  But probably, hopefully, even moreso, I am going to remember the image of Julia standing in front of her class presenting her project.  And the sigh she lets out once she finishes, her breath held and tight in her chest. While her voice is louder and stronger this year, it still requires we be attentive and quiet to hear her.  Mixed in with these visual, auditory, and visceral memories, because yes, my heart will be in my throat too while she presents her project, will also be the visuals of our books at home, spilling out across the floor.  Of artwork and doodles begun, abandoned or crumpled, and eventually returned to at the dining room table, of primates and the jungle and a young woman who wrote her own story.  It's all imagery as well, part of their landscape of home.  Layered on the stories and books and experiences, excitements and hurts, of their everyday lives.

And, yes, I will also hold this image of the day Julia was home sick from school and doing a bit of online research.  When images, videos, and animals moved across the screen for her, connecting her with a person and a place and a creature that she has never met or experienced, but feeling as though this being was connecting with her, across the screen, out from a page, through an image.  This image I will remember well.

And that this connection, and wherever it may go, or even may not go (because that is possible, too), all began with a book, images and words, words and images.  Moving about her mind in whatever way she connects with them. 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

the thick of it

Twice a week, I look forward to reading the essays edited and published by Jennifer Niesslein on her website, Full Grown People. These are the essays that stick with me for days after I have read them, carrying the whole beast around heavy on my chest or just a small spark or nugget that wraps itself around my thoughts and redirects them, depending on where each essay takes hold.  But take hold they invariably do.

I was fortunate to have an essay selected to be included in FGP's first anthology, Greatest Hits, Volume One, first as a print book, and now available as an ebook, too, through Amazon and Smashwords.

I love what Jennifer says about the intent of the website and anthology:
“The thick of life” stuck with me. Because that’s really what those decades between being truly young and truly old are, aren’t they? They’re not the thin broth of youth, waiting for ingredients; yet our lives aren’t solidified, either. We’re getting more acquainted with the hard stuff—the deaths, the limitations, the realizations that we can’t make people be who we want them to be—but we also have the hope, the smarts, and the gumption to take what we’ve created of our lives so far and evolve.
Read more here.   And there are some lovely words about the anthology here.

And also, wonderful news for the twitter world, Zsofi McMullen will now be tweeting for the website, a contributor to the website and to the anthology, and one of my favorite writers to read these days.  Her essay, Inked, and what it reveals about marriage in this stage of life, was one of my favorite essay reads in quite some time.
I also realized how it’s possible to know someone so well, and yet not at all. How everyone’s life is full of topsy-turvy roads and blind spots and how sometimes the person we think we know best is the one who will surprise us the most. Sometimes the person we love wants lots of tattoos.
And now, it's Sunday.  And we are in the midst of a home improvement project here.  In our 250 year old house, sorting through the moving boxes and files and documents accumulated over the course of our adult life together and even from our separate childhoods.  Recycling our files from the graduate programs and degrees we do not use, and yet in many ways use the lessons learned from those programs every day.

Then there are the spats and arguments that are likely to occur when we try to get the roll of carpet from the driveway, 20 feet long that roll is, up three flights of servant stairs with sharp small turns through the maze of our home's 18th century floor plan will likely be loaded, each of us a bit raw, our thoughts on the files we have recently sorted about where each of us has been and where we are now.  Pulling out old insulation and wood, finding treasure and foul debris in the eaves, allowing our three children to help and dealing with the fact that their help is mostly no help at all.  Being reminded that I need to feed these helpers and care for them and make sure their homework gets done, despite my desire to do this other thing, which is also for them.  

But the process.  The cleaning out, making meaning and room for growth.  It is for me, for us as well.  And turning this space into a place for our growing children and for Jonathan and I, to grow.  To fill it up with what comes next.

It's the thick of it here, right now.  Ever changing, busy, full of loss and life.  Messy, frustrating and disgusting, and fumbled through together, it is fun and ever changing and the next part of our story.

I am headed back up there now.

Friday, March 27, 2015

endless perplexity

Psst.  Come here. I found something.

I spent a few hours working on the stairwell that leads from the second floor into our attic space, the area we are slowly converting into an open play space for the kids.  I was cleaning out the old insulation.  A curious combination of foam insulation, blown in wool insulation and what I think is old horse hair and whatever other materials have been used for the past 250 years to try to keep a wood fire heated home warm.  Now that we have spray foam insulation on the attic roof and walls, the old insulation in the attic flooring and stairwell to the attic is no longer needed.  

I started with one side, where now moist (yes, ew!) cardboard had been tacked to the underside of two enormous hand hewn beams and then used as a holder for some pretty terrifying loose insulation placed between the two beams.  Clearly, many generations of mice (let's say mice, yes, though I wonder... No, definitely mice) had decided that this was almost as cozy a place to raise families as our silverware drawers.  I removed the cardboard, the insulation materials and all its, debris, and vacuumed and disinfected the whole thing.

Ah.  Better.

I found this shoe horn in there.  

And a buffalo nickel, from 1923.  Pretty cool.

Don't look at my hands in these pictures.  It has been a long cold winter.  And I had to wash my hands many, many times during this process.  Ew.  But Elliott points out that my hands look a lot like this picture of Grandma Moses'.

I then removed the foam board insulation panels from the wall on that side of the stairwell and found these beautiful wide planks, a feature some of the homes built from the timber on their property in this area have in their attics.  Throughout our neighborhood, these boards are hiding in attics and are worked into the paneling in some of the downstairs rooms, often in defiance of the requirement that such huge eastern white pine trees automatically became the property of the King of England to use in the mast trade.

I then moved on and removed the insulation from the other side of the stairwell.  That's where I found it.

Come closer.

It is the January 20, 1860 edition of The Congregationalist.  Read this description of it below.  Yes, Harriet Beecher Stowe was a special contributor.

Every time I go sit on the stairs with my flashlight from my iPhone on, I find something different on the pages of The Congregationalist pasted on that wall.  And I wonder about the story behind how this paper came to be placed there.

Mrs. Stowe's new book.

Webb Co. pianos.

A demonstration that even in 1860, our country's educators were dealing with changing standards and curriculum.

PERMANENT UNIFORMITY cannot be secured where there are issued every few months "different and conflicting" editions of the same book.  The use of such a book works the ENDLESS PERPLEXITY of both teachers and pupils.
And my personal favorite.  Oh my.  So excited was I to find this one.  

Day and evening.  Special Advice as to Occupation, &c.
Phrenology, when studying psychology in graduate school, specifically when studying the history of the science of psychology, was considered the beginning of attempts to understand the links between brain and mind.  Phrenology was the beginning of neuropsychology, the concept of localization of brain functioning, or that behavior, emotions, all human functioning is controlled by specific regions of the brain.  Intricate brain maps were created depicting just where in the brain such virtues as  benevolence, secretiveness, sublimity were located.  In the late 18th century early phrenologists read the shape of a person's skull, believing the person's possession of such virtues could be estimated by the contours, shape, and bumps of their head. 

Which lead to such creepiness as this:

Franz Josef Gall, early phrenologist, 1796
And this:

Now debunked, it is the beginning of the story of psychology.  And it represents, for me at least, just how much of the craft and art of understanding people is determined by who the individuals in any interaction are.  The reader or interpreter hears, feels, and interprets based on their own interests, skills, and proclivities. 

Oh my.  This is very good too.

Never has it failed, in a single instance to effect a cure...medical effects and medical virtues...In almost every instance where the infant is suffering from pain and exhaustion, relief will be found in fifteen or twenty minutes after the syrup is administered.  
I am wondering about the alcohol content in this soothing syrup.  Or worse.

And these homesteading and agricultural advertisements seem so perfect to be on the walls of this home.

So that was 1860.  When you could have an appointment with a phrenologist then dash down another street and buy a piano.  And purchase the latest book from Harriet Beecher Stowe.  And you could get advice about homesteading and gardening and cooking.  The Civil War was about to begin, young men were about to leave their homes and go fight in its battles, while here, in our front hall, a room was created to hide former slaves as they moved along the Underground Railroad in a small space beneath the stairwell.  Upstairs, religious newspaper was hung.  I find myself reading the walls of this home again, getting to know this home more and more with each project, each a window into its history.

I wonder what 2015 will look like to someone who lives here in the future.  I wonder what, 155 years from now, we will have lost and left behind here.  That someone else will find and try to make meaning of.

I found this note on the floor today.  Find Owls.  It could easily blow down between two floor boards and be found in 155 years.  Will someone be excited and think that there was an ornithologist living here?  That this is clear evidence that at one point owls nested in the woods along the Stroudwater River?  And that for some reason, on a hot pink post it note, this curiously colored small scrap with an oddly sticky strip along its upper back edge, said ornithologist needed to remind herself of the need to find them? As though I might forget?

Or perhaps they would decipher that it was just that that pesky book on owls we had taken out from the library was missing.  And the writer needed to spend another morning looking for it while the kids were at school.  Both are good stories.  And telling of our life lived here; both hold clues to what life here actually is for us.

And so, though it probably says more about me, the reader, than it does about the lives here of those before us, I will continue on reading the lumps and bumps and imperfections of the walls of this house.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

an introduction to: stop here. this is the place.

I am so pleased to have a post on mamalode this week.

And I am especially happy to have my post be about a collaboration between two friends, Winky Lewis and Susan Conley.  Writing the piece, An Introduction to Stop Here.  This is the Place, I got to spend some time talking with each of them and to be with the book they are creating -- an extraordinary collaboration between them using Winky's images and Susan's words.  The book, and the videos and images and stories associated with the project, create a world, a quiet world of thoughtfulness, all focused on the tender fleeting time of middle childhood.  When special lovies and animals can know us better than humans, when we climb into trees and practice keeping secrets. When bodies are lengthening and faces are changing and we can’t look at our children, listen to them, respond to them, without getting our own selves involved in the mix.

This book has not been far from my thoughts since I began reading it. And has remained with me as I spend time with my own children.  And has held some quiet around those moments for me.

So, please hop over to read about their project.  And then take a look at their Facebook page to learn more.  And follow them on Instagram, and Medium, for more stories. And help spread the word about their project.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

the sweeting they required

Elliott is just finishing up a research project on Grandma Moses.  We have a number of books about her out from the library right now, including a book of black and white prints of her art, titled Grandma Moses American Primitive, with an introduction written by Louis Bromfield, published in 1946.  

draft of Grandma Moses' portrait, by Elliott

About six or seven years ago I began hearing from friends living near Williamstown, Massachusetts, stories about a wonderful old woman who lived on a farm and painted pictures which she sold along with the jams and preserves she "put up" during the summer.  She was, they said, prouder of her preserves than of her pictures and when she was asked the prices of her painting she countered with a question "what size do you want?"  The price depended on the size.
from the Introduction, by Louis Bromfield

The prints in the book are mostly in black and white, but I love the hand written comments from Grandma Moses on the facing page of each print.  Detailing a bit about what she is depicting in each print.

...had to depend on maple sugar and honey for all the sweeting that they required.  

It's March 22, 2015.  Maine Maple Sunday.  It is only our third year of collecting sap and boiling it down into syrup here at this home.  And every year, and every boiling is a little bit different.  Different taste, different color.  And different methods of boiling down the sap and different hands involved in the process as well.

Homemade, handmade sweeting.  

from Grandma Moses, My Life's History

Our honey supply has actually held out through this winter.  With still a bit more to go.  And now, we add our first two quarts of syrup from our first boil.  And though we clearly do not have to depend on our syrup and our honey for our sweetness these days, it has quickly become a tradition that we all depend upon.  It's our form of art, making things from here.  And we value it by size as well.

Bringing in the Maple Syrup by Grandma Moses, 1939

Friday, March 20, 2015

kiwi woreure

Kiwi Woreure (warrior), by Elliott, drawn during school drop off time

I am so sorry.  I ruined it, yes I did.  I did indeed forget to bring the beautiful drawing that you, Elliott, made for me during school drop off time, in from the car when I got home that day.  And so, it was sitting on the passenger seat, what used to be a very safe place to leave things, until Nicholas, who got so huge and now rides in the front seat next to me, opened the door.  And it is mud season here in Maine and everything is muddy and wet, or trickily icy and crackly again as it was today.  And so, when Nicholas, your five-years-older brother, the best model for me of where you are headed in growth and size and appearance and mind, opened the passenger door, the frigid wind blew in.  He immediately began telling me about running in the neighborhood around school for Lacrosse practice and I think he might have even started talking before the door was open, he was so excited and physically-exhausted-happy.  Somewhere in that noise, your paper must have blown onto the floor of the car.  And I noticed Nicholas did not have a hat on and his enormously long legs were bare and his feet swung fast and sloppily into the car.  And landed on your picture.  And it was not drawn with permanent markers.

I was reminded.  Of just how soon I will no longer receive piles of art work to bring home from school with me each morning after I give you a kiss goodbye.  And that there will be no more public kisses.  Just waves and sometimes, if I have hit a snarky witticism just right, or I artfully land a warm and just right loving comment that fills us both back up with the history of sweet moments and gifts between us - which is rarely - I will receive eye contact and a smile as you pull your own sports duffle bag and Lacrosse stick out of the back of the car and disappear into school without me.

I will no longer be able to quantify just how good a weekend it was for you by the volume of pieces of paper filled with your doodles about the house on Monday morning.  Which have all of your beginning attempts to be funny, though creatively spelled.

You are right.  I should have taken better care of your art, of your gift to me. And I agree.  I am not sure you are going to ever be able to reproduce that kiwi warrior.

So today I did.  I brought home the seven characters you created for me while we sat at the table, other children arriving around us.  Drawn while we were sitting close and chatting, but also during the moments when I was quiet and pulled away from you a bit physically, stepped back and perused the books, when a friend came along and wanted to chat with you.  Because that is the work of drop off time, too.  For you, of disconnecting from me and connecting to them.  

I spread your characters out on the table.  And saw that you are reworking that kiwi warrior.  Trying to recreate what you thought maybe you were only going to get right just that once, the one picture that got ruined.

And as I spread out your pictures, I found another picture, of a mother kiwi, and her baby in a nest below ground.  And I think maybe you have forgiven me for ruining that other picture.  This drawing I am going to be sure to protect and save, because I know the ink is not permanent, and that, with time moving so fast, it is five very full and short years until our goodbyes are quite different.  Still loving and connected and doing my best version of the dance of trying to get it just right as I send you off each day into the world.  It is possible you are not ever going to be able to make this picture, the one I just found tucked in the bottom of the stack, again, or that you won't want to.  Because we will be off in our next phase together, trying to learn how to tell each other jokes and tell each other we love each other in different ways, and at only the just right moments.  And it won't be so much about the mommy birds and their nests anymore.  It will be different kind of time, when the mother puts on her armor and becomes more of a warrior.