Saturday, March 21, 2015

Places of Your Heart

Corey Primus was married to my beloved sister for many years and is the father of their four amazing children. Although they have been divorced for a long time now, he is much respected and loved by our family.
Corey is an award winning song writer, musician and performer.  As long as I have known him, which is thirty-five years now, he has belonged, like a child lost in wonder leaping in leaves, to music. His songs, which possess a unique clarity all his own, shine with benediction and transformation. Just as a dancer prays by dancing and a painter prays by painting, I think Corey prays through his music, his songs, and his voice.

Please listen to his original creations  including the beautiful 'Places of Your Heart', and also to the wonderful music on his sound cloud:

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Green, Greener, Greenest

Are you wearing green today?

I wore a green shirt to work today. Gem wore a tie emblazoned with shamrocks. Neither of us has any ancestral connections with Ireland, of which we’re aware, anyway. However, when it comes to St. Patrick’s Day, we’re delighted to celebrate with the Irish.  Many of the children taking part in the Spring break activities at my book store were also clad in a bit o’ green.
Perhaps the greenest of green children’s books are the “Frog and Toad” series, written and illustrated by Arnold Lobel. Frog And Toad Are Friends (1970), Frog And Toad Together (1972), Frog And Toad All Year (1976).  These ‘I Can Read’ early readers are winners of both the Newbery for distinguished writing and the Caldecott for excellence in illustration. They are classic works of children’s literature. Filled with wisdom and laughter, friendship and silliness, these stories possess a gentle magic. Frog and Toad fly kites, take long walks, ride bicycles, read to each other, swim and cook, and clean Toad’s very messy house. They dream and imagine, are brave and hopeful, and goad and tease each other with an old-fashioned courtesy that is nonetheless still amusing today.

And, they’re green. Well, of course, you may be thinking. After all, frogs and toads, by their very nature, are green. But the illustrations in these books take that greenness to another level; everything in them is tinted, shaded, coloured and imbued with every hue of green imaginable. This includes the walls of their houses, their furniture, their clothes; the food they eat, the very air they breathe on the pages. Green, greener, greenest. How this is achieved is a remarkable feat of artistry.

Apparently, these characters were inspired by boyhood summer holidays when Arnold Lobel spent much of his time observing frogs and toads in a nearby pond. He found the creatures beautiful, interesting and comical, and years later they would form the basis for his lovely tales.

“You can keep your willpower, Frog. I am going home to bake a cake.”
―  Arnold Lobel, Frog and Toad Together 
Actually, cake sounds rather good right now. I think I shall do likewise, and ice it with a little greenish butter-cream, by way of adding  some Froggish- Toadish (and Irish) charm.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Valentine Roses

I would like to share a moment of Valentine heart with you.

My husband comes from a Dutch immigrant family. His mother, whom our children called Oma, was a tall, robust woman with a big heart. Loud voiced and opinionated, her actions sometimes surprised me with a gentleness that belied her more usual stance.

Once, many years ago, she took me with her to visit an elderly Dutch lady from her church. This venerable woman, in her mid-nineties, was wonderfully spry. In addition to keeping a small vegetable garden and attending her flower beds, her little house was meticulously clean. That day, as I got out of the car, I saw a tiny, white-haired creature busy painting her fence.

My mother-in-law admonished her a little, "Minnie, you shouldn’t be doing that. Can’t your son-in-law do it for you?"

The little, stooped figure straightened up, made a dismissive gesture, and said something in Dutch, which was translated to me as, "He who has butter on his head, should stay out of the sun."

I must have looked baffled, because she attempted an explanation, "Da son-in-law be only 70, but he be tired all da time. Och!"

As she motioned us into the house, we passed the rose bushes which had been the especial love of her husband, Henk, who had passed away several years ago. Minnie took a pair of scissors from her apron pocket and snipped two blooms.

Perched on an aged wing chair in the living room, I watched as she placed the richly red roses in a vase next to a picture of a smiling old man holding a small dog. For a moment, her hand trembled against the velvet labyrinth.

"Yah. Old fool love da roses.", she said.

My eyes met those of my mother-in-law, who was unloading the almond cookies she had brought with her, and putting the kettle on in the adjoining kitchen. She was smiling, and her eyes were full of an unaccustomed softness.

Later, as we drove home, she told me that Minnie had once told her that several months before he died, Henk, fearing a heavy rain storm would destroy his last roses of the season, had gone outside to cut them. "Minnie told me she followed him out into the rain and held an umbrella over his head while he did this."

I was nineteen and passionately, newly married. I couldn't imagine anyone old being romantic. That is, until that moment, listening to my mother-in-law's words.

That benediction of late roses lives in me, still.

May each of you seek always  to discover the joy and beauty of your own Valentine moments.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Xander's Panda Party

Xander’s Panda Party, by Newbery Award winning, Linda Sue Park, and illustrated by Matt Phelan is a little gem of a book. Written in wonderfully mesmerising rhyme, it is a delight to read aloud.
Xander’s original idea is to plan his birthday party for pandas only, but he quickly realizes that would make it a party of one. So ....
Xander adds all the bears to the list … but … Koala protests. She’s a marsupial! Does that mean she isn’t invited? This leads to his expanding the guest list to include all of the mammals in the zoo.
But then:
"Soon Rhinoceros sent word:
'It may sound a bit absurd,
but I won't come without my bird.'"

'Xander felt a little blue. He chewed bamboo, a stalk or two. He fidgeted
and paced the floor, then scratched an itch and paced some more.
Finally, a firm decision: Xander's brand-new party vision.'
(The double page wordless spread of Xander delivering invitations to all the animals in the zoo is wonderful. )
The essential mathematical and scientific concepts of identifying, sorting, grouping and classifying are introduced in a very clever, engaging way.  It is also a story about inclusiveness and diversity shown in a format which is gentle, amusing and appealing.
"What a party! What a ball! Lots of new friends, tall and small! Every creature at the zoo…"
As folk singer Bill Staines sang, "All God's critters got a place in the choir!".
As ‘”Xander's party plans went from grand to even grander”, this story has got me thinking about the trend in children’s birthday parties in general.  When my children were growing up, these were simple affairs by today’s standards; cake, balloons, presents, games like pin the tail on the donkey. We generally adhered to the one guest per child’s age idea. My sons both celebrate their birthdays in mid-August so their parties were always held outside in our back yard; apple bobbing, the slip n’ slide, three legged races, sack (pillow case) races and the like.  A couple times we had a piƱata; kids adore candy raining down from above.
My daughter is a January baby so her parties were held indoors, but consisted of some similar activities, games and also crafts like creating friendship bracelets. The party she remembers best is her seventh, which featured dressing-up. For this, I merely placed a huge box filled with an assortment of old clothes; primarily ladies’ dresses, shoes and hats for the girls to dress up in, in the center of our rec-room, alongside a basket filled with costume jewellery. I also set up a large standing mirror so they could see themselves, and preen and prance before it. It was a huge hit, and Sarah-Beth remembers it with delight.
In those days my children felt that McDonald’s parties were the ultimate in sophistication and were thrilled to receive an invitation to one. Our family didn’t visit McDonald’s often, so for them, this was a real treat and a novel idea. Gradually, children’s birthday parties seem to have become elaborately themed galas with custom cakes, expensive gift bags and party favours, solar powered bouncy castles, petting zoos, and over-the-top activities.  Parents feel a lot of pressure and competition to provide the ‘perfect’ experience.
Last year we were invited to a first birthday party for the one year old granddaughter of a friend. It was princess themed and there were at least sixty people in attendance. At one point, the sweet little thing was dressed in a multi-layered, frilly tutu and tiara and placed on a plastic sheet by herself with a large whipped cream cake especially made for her to attack and ruin while a professional photographer took pictures. The amount of gifts was unbelievable, and the food fabulous enough for an Oscars Party! By the end of the event, the little princess was in tears and her parents looked frazzled.

The cake below is a far cry from one of my own typical kids' birthday cake efforts which usually consisted of a home-made slab cake of some sort, slathered in icing and decorated with smarties.
                                                   (from Google images.)
I pray the day will prevail that this trend will reverse and simpler birthday parties become in vogue once more.  
In Xander’s words:
“A celebration invitation – food, fun and conversation!”

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Wind in the Willows


The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame. Published in 1908, this book is a great literary treasure.  I first became entranced by its gorgeous prose and imagery when I was eleven years old, and my teacher, Mr. Ballard, read it aloud to our class. Nominally a children’s book, it actually continues to grow in depth and beauty as we age. Indeed, it is one of those rare books that grows with the child into adulthood.

This is a book which speaks to that place within us which can be defined as holy. Its sense of the mystical, the unnamed, the unknown, that in us which responds to beauty and deep, unfettered joy, permeates the whole of the book. Gradually we come to know that when awe, reverence and beauty defines our lives, we possess the transcendent ability to overcome limiting margins. There is also a delicious humour throughout which delights all the senses.    
The Wind in the Willows is a tale of seeking the meaning of happiness, of friendship, of honour and of peace. Mole, bored with spring-cleaning and infected with humdrum, decides to go on a holiday. He encounters the River:

"Never in his life had he seen a river before -- this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh .....  All was a-shake and a-shiver -- glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spell-bound by exciting stories sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.”  

Mole then meets Rat, who invites him to go boating on the river and share a picnic.

“There he got out the luncheon-basket and packed a simple meal, in which, remembering the stranger's origin and preferences, he took care to include a yard of long French bread, a sausage out of which the garlic sang, some cheese which lay down and cried, and a long-necked straw-covered flask wherein lay bottled sunshine shed and garnered on far Southern slopes.”

Along the way they encounter Badger, Toad and Otter. Each character is gradually honed and distilled and refined through their conversation, actions and the way they experience every aspect of the day’s adventures. Toad’s manic search for happiness is a foil for the others who each define and seek it differently. What constitutes sanity, happiness, peace? There are so many layers of redemption, forgiveness, fulfillment and transcendence in this tale.

“All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.”

Kenneth Grahame is the grand master of alliteration and word play. His coupling of words is brilliant; “chatter and bubble”, rustle and swirl” as they meander along the river "chasing, chuckling," "gurgling, glints and gleams." The words are truly bewitching. We are entranced by them.  Our senses "a-shake, a-shiver” as we become alive to his gorgeous passages of prose.
"This day was only the first of many similar ones for the emancipated Mole, each of them longer and fuller of interest as the ripening summer moved onward. He learnt to swim and to row, and entered into the joy of running water; and with his ear to the reed-stems he caught, at intervals, something of what the wind went whispering so constantly among them."

All you who love the art of the word, whether it be written, spoken, composed, sang, painted, sculpted, photographed, prayed, eaten, danced … please read the wonder that is ‘ The Wind in the Willows.’