“Extra Yarn”

As someone who aspires to be a “real” writer when I grow up, I try to be an avid reader as well – to enhance my vocabulary, experience a variety of writing styles, and maintain a general awareness of what is happening in the literary world. However, since my book club has not exactly taken off here in Austin yet, and since my children occupy SO MUCH of my time, the authors on my recently-read list are more reminiscent of Silverstein and Seuss then Steinbeck and Salinger. Although, I still need to get some more mature materials back into the rotation, I’m not entirely disappointed by the deluge of picture books that flood my home after every trip to the library. I love children’s literature. I always have. As a matter of fact, the story I have been working on for longer than I care to admit is a children’s story – one that took me years to even begin writing because I didn’t want to start with an idea that had been written a hundred times before. I wanted something unique and subtle and surprising. A story with hidden layers that keep revealing themselves even after the bazillionth read (since that is how many times children usually ask you to read their favorite stories… every week). As surprising as it may seem, I think I’ve got the idea that meets this tall order, and one day I will finish it. Until then, I will leave you all to wonder about it in suspense, since this post is not about my story. (Hows that for a tease?)

This post is about another story I recently discovered that has so many of the qualities I aspire toward when writing, that it immediately became a source of inspiration and set my creative juices flowing. It is simple and beautiful, clever and subtle, and has layers upon layers of lovely messages for young people. Or it can be taken at face value and seen as just a cute little story that is accessible to even the smallest of readers. After the first time I read it, I liked it so much I was buzzing as I looked at my son and said, “That is what children’s stories are meant to be! I love it!” But I didn’t have to tell him that. He seemed as taken with it as I was – with wide eyes and a deep grin at each turn of the page. And don’t even get me started on the illustrations! So perfect.

The story is called “Extra Yarn” by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen.

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It is about a young girl who finds a magic box of yarn that never seems to run out.

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And she uses it to make herself and others happy.

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She presses on in spite of teasing and doubters…

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and even bribes.

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It tells how happiness cannot be bought or taken from someone else, but is something that you have to make for yourself – and definitely something to be shared.

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It is about self-assurance and contentment.

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And most of all beauty.

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If you have not already read it, please go get this book and read it to your children. If you don’t have any children, read it to yourself. What have you got to lose besides fifteen minutes of your time. Because, in my opinion, we could all use a little extra yarn.

The Juggling Act

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Looking at this oddly overwhelming drawing whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed somehow makes me feel better. I found it years ago, and, sadly, I can’t seem to find it again to properly credit the artist. But if a picture is worth a thousand words, this one tells quite a story about everyday life as an adult – a perpetual balancing act of everything that’s important. So many balls in the air, and the consequences of letting any of them fall can be great. Yet, somehow, we manage to do it – and not just survive, but often thrive. We grow, we grow people, we help them grow.

My oldest son told me the other day that he didn’t want to grow up (but he still wanted to have birthdays, mind you!) When I asked him why, he said ’cause grown ups didn’t get to have any fun anymore. I, of course, told him that wasn’t true and reminded him of all the fun things we have done together. But it’s not just pictures that speak louder than words. Actions do too. And somehow, my actions are portraying life as boring, busy, and work filled. All work and no play makes Jane a dull girl.

His declaration got me thinking. I admire people whose enjoyment of life is evident. Who wear joy on their sleeves like a beautiful accessory and brighten every room they walk into. I’m not talking about the fun or thrill seeking type, who shirk responsibility and look down their noses at anyone who chooses to tie themselves down with it. Don’t get me started on those people. I mean the people who manage to do the daily juggling act, and make it look fun. Because it is fun after all. Not each individual piece of it, but as whole picture, it is. And when I see something I admire about someone else, but don’t see it in myself, I have some work to do. I need to do better about not sweating the small stuff. Occasionally letting the little balls fall so that I can keep the big ones up. And showing my son that this juggling act of life, even as a grown up, can be a lot of fun. Who’s with me?

Growing Art – A Garden of Much More than Plants

There is an art museum not too far from my home – although, I must admit, I am lucky to live in a place where nothing is too far from my home. However, with two small boys in tow, I am not prone to frequent its subdued, quiet, sacred halls. The natural history museum, yes! The children’s museum, absolutely! The art museum, not so much. That is, not until recently. About a year ago, the museum architected a large outdoor space they called “The Art Garden“. It is a collection of manicured, multilevel garden beds, regularly dispersed with outdoor art including statues, glass art sculptures, artist-designed furniture, and water features. There is also a large open grassy space with a stage at one end where they regularly host concerts and other presentations. And at the center of this astonishing space is the one feature that makes it such an appealing choice for those of us with little people. There is a children’s fountain complete with tile mosaic underfoot and a continuously changing pattern of water sprays that is sure to delight not only the children, but all those looking on.

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I recently took my boys there for some “cultured” play time, and as I sat back and watched them run and jump and frolic in the water, completely un-self-conscious or even aware of all those looking on, I began to ponder the nature of art and its effect on those who view it/participate in it. This is a place where art is grown. The plants themselves are part of the art and they are growing and changing every day. The culture surrounding this space is something that is gaining momentum all the time and growing into an effectual catalyst for the revitalization of downtown. But the thing that struck me the most was the fact the children themselves, growing, developing human beings, became a part of the art of this place as they played. It wasn’t just the parents sitting and watching their children play. There were others who sat and watched, without the hindrance or distraction of smart phones, books or other shields between them and the outside world. They simply watched, as youth and exuberance and vitality displayed itself in front of them. And they drank it in. You could see its effect in the lines of their faces and the change in their posture. Art is meant to refresh – mind, body, and soul. To speak to hearts, situations, and cultures. To effect change. And these children – mine and others – were doing just that.

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It is humbling and awe-inspiring to be the care taker of such valuable works of art. I hope I can manage, every day, to fully appreciate their worth.

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Pearls Before Breakfast – Training Our Minds To Take Note

On days filled with plumbers and toilets, caulk disasters and puke, sometimes its hard to see past all of the shit (literally) to the beauty that I try so desperately to draw out with this blog. I have been mining my days and thoughts lately trying to seek out positivity, not just to write about here, but to adjust my own mindset and derail the doldrums. So far, I can’t seem to find many gems, but at least I’m digging.

In the mean time I wanted to share an article that I recently came across on Facebook. The article, a Washington Post piece entitled “Pearls Before Breakfast,” generated international discussion about how we perceive and appreciate beauty, art, and music, and eventually won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 2008. It addressed the idea that context can play such a huge roll in how we discern beauty. That outside of the contexts in which we expect to find it, beauty can be elusive and our appreciation or even awareness of it can be minimal if we do not train our minds to take note.

Here is a brief summary, verified by Snopes, of the extraordinary story:

“A man stood in a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

Three minutes went by and a middle-aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried up to meet his schedule.

A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping continued to walk.

A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work.

The one who paid the most attention was a 3-year-old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk turning his head all the time This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.

In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars.

Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston and the seats averaged $100.

Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and priorities of people. The outlines were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?

One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be:

If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?”

Perhaps we should all take a little more time to stop and smell the roses . . . hear the music . . . watch the sunset . . . be drawn in.

Surprising Indulgences

Yesterday was a day of surprising indulgences for a working mother of a two-year old. Personal time and relaxation are both commodities that are hard to come by at this stage of my existence. Yet miraculously, my day started with a glorious half hour of quiet solitude complete with a cup of french vanilla coffee and a cinnamon bagel. This was after I had the privilege of sleeping in till almost 8:30 since both of my boys slept till 9:00. The worrisome part of me wanted to go in and check on my little man since this occurrence is so rare, but my more rational side won out as I let him sleep and enjoyed my quiet, solitary breakfast. The level to which I savored this event is almost (but not quite) sad.

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This was not even my only spoiled moment of the day. After a long and fulfilling morning working outside in the yard as a family, I got Aiden fed and in bed for his nap and then drew a hot bath with epsom salts, candles, and book and proceeded to soak away all my muscle aches, tensions, and worries and simply relax. As I laid flat on my back with only my nose and mouth above water, I began to contemplate how very lucky we are. There are so many things we take for granted. Little things like being able, at a moment’s notice, to fill an entire tub with enough hot water to completely submerge ourselves. As little as 60 years ago this would have been considered decadent. The only way you could have such a bath was if you heated all the water on the stove first (after chopping and bringing in enough wood to do so) and probably shared it with other siblings or family members, hoping you were the first in line. My mother remembers living in a house with no indoor bathroom! Even today, in other places in the world, such extravagance would never even be considered. Yet I simply turn a knob and don’t even think twice about soaking my cares away. We are indeed blessed. How many other simple, everyday activities do we take for granted. How many conveniences that we see as basic necessities were never even available to our parents or grandparents? How many of them will still be available to us tomorrow? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know that today I am grateful.