When We’re Not Writing

Lessons from our Fathers

Last April, a flooded basement put one third of our living space out of commission. Like many others in the Chicago area, we were faced with the ordeal of salvaging, cleaning up and rebuilding–again.

As my husband took off for a five-week trip to Asia, I was left to try to reconstruct our sons’ bedroom. On more than one occasion, I was brought to tears wishing that my father was still alive. Dad would have known how to do this. Dad would have come down to help me. Dad could have fixed this.

I recruited friends from church to help me put up drywall. Perhaps I should rephrase that–Greg and John put up drywall, and my son and I helped. Once it was in place, I spent Mother’s Day taping and mudding. Unfortunately, I had never done this before, and the book on drywalling that I had checked out of the library wasn’t as helpful as I had hoped it would be.

Still, I kept at it, and halfway through the room I realized that I begun imitating what I had seen Dad do when patching holes in our plaster walls at home. By using the same kind of  pressure on the drywall knives that Dad had, I was getting smoother walls. Too bad I was working in the closet by this time.

Lessons from our fathers stay with us long after they have left us. What a blessing when we discover a lesson that we didn’t even know had been taught.

In Plank Road Winter, Hans’s father dies in the Chicago Fire. But as writers, and as daughters whose father died six years ago, we know that Hans will continue to learn lessons from his father.

Thanks, Dad, for all you continue to teach me.

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Children’s Literature Pilgrimage, Part III

Lucie climbing Cat Bells

As we continued our 25th wedding anniversary trip, my husband Franklin and I drove up to the beautiful Lake District, home of poets and Beatrix Potter. I had visited Hill Top Farm back in the 1980s, recognizing the door and dresser that make their way into some of the Peter Rabbit books. This trip, we skipped the farm, as we were headed further north, to the town of Keswick. Little did I know that we would be in Beatrix Potter land nonetheless.

We wanted to hike, not just drive through the beautiful countryside, so we made a climb up Cat Bells, two large hills on the shore of Derwentwater. Those of you who know your Beatrix Potter books will remember that she writes “I have seen that door into the back of the hill called Cat Bells–and besides, I am very well acquainted with dear Mrs. Tiggy-winkle!”

We had picture-perfect weather as we climbed the hillside, and just like Lucie, we hiked “along a steep path-way–up and up–until Little-town was right away down below–she could have dropped a pebble down the chimney.”

Emily climbing Cat Bells

I could have dropped a pebble down the chimney.

The view from the top was lovely. Looking out over  Derwentwater, we could see Owl Island, and imagine impertinent Squirrel Nutkin rowing over to it with his friends.

Squirrel Nutkin rows to Owl Island on Derwentwater

Here I am on nearing the top of Cat Bells, with Owl Island in the lake below.

The The Lake District is certainly a place that begs to be painted. Every sculpted green hill, every stone fence guarding another  flock of sheep, every foxglove and sparkling lake sings with beauty. I can see why Beatrix Potter loved this place, and treasure her art all the more as I look beyond her whimsical creatures to see the idyllic setting in which they lived.

Now I must go find Jemima Puddleduck–I believe there is a lovely painting with foxgloves in that book.

The boat took us around the wrong side of the island–we didn’t get the high fells in the background.

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Children’s Literature Pilgrimage, Part II

Is the eagle carrying a Hobbit?

The second stop on our children’s literature pilgrimage was Oxford, a place of learning for almost 1000 years. We went for lunch at the Eagle and Child, where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien met to discuss their writing. Sitting in the cozy room with an angled ceiling, fireplace, and warm, aged woodwork, I imagined these literary giants chatting about their work. From this little pub the worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth grew.

After lunch we discovered that Oxford was celebrating the 150th anniversary of Charles Dodgson telling Alice a story about a girl falling down a rabbit hole–and ending up in a Wonderland.  (It would be two years before the book was published under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll.)

We joined hundrends of children and townsfolk in Christ Church Meadow (where the real Alice once played)  for  “The Caucus Race”–Oxford’s answer to the Olympics.  The celebration featured performers from the Cirque Bijou leading us in games, song, and dance, and was part of the London 2012 Festival–cultural events put on in conjunction with the London Olympics.

The water balloon toss

What is a Caucus Race? The Dodo led us as we sang, “The best way to explain it is to do it. Do it!”

People got wet in the water balloon toss, followed Alice in “swimming to shore,” and sang and danced.

I’ve always been particularly fond of Dodo birds.

Alas, I did not have a Wonderland costume to wear, but many people did.  There were Alices in every size.

Alices in Oxford, England, celebrating the 150th anniversary of Charles Dodgson telling the story of Wonderland.

What fun it participate in a cultural event celebrating such a classic children’s story. Since it has been a number of years since I read the books to my own children, I plan read myself down the rabbit hole this summer.

Many thanks to my husband of 25 years, Franklin Ishida, for taking all the photos on our trip. Spending an afternoon in Oxford dreaming of Narnia, Hobbits, and Wonderland was a great pleasure–and a reminder of the power of good books that can carry us into other worlds, and stay with us for generations.

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Children’s Literature Pilgrimage, Part I

My husband and I just traveled to Europe to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. Though completely unplanned, our days in England proved to be a children’s literature pilgrimage. We spent only a day in London, as we had both been there before, but we did make a special stop at one particular railroad station. Can you guess which one?

Our hotel was right across from Paddington Station, so we can give a nod to that brown bear in wellies and a duffle coat. But we also swung by King’s Cross Station to seek out Platform 9 3/4. How glorious to see that it really exists.

Though there is a Harry Potter World and many filming sites to see throughout England, this was enough to bring the book to life for us.

On my way to Hogwarts

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The Champions

March Madness. Last Saturday I drove up to Madison, Wisconsin, to watch basketball at the Kohl Center. No, I was not there for Badgers–I was there to see Racine Lutheran High School play in the Division 5 State Championship game. I had been hearing all year what a great team they had, and I was thrilled to actually be there to see my nephew, Ty Demuth, play.

The stories were true–the team played very well together, seamlessly passing the ball and working to get the shot. Though Racine Lutheran led throughout the game, the score remained close–and got too close in the last seconds. Just before the buzzer, Sheboygan Lutheran shot a three-pointer and won the game.

I now have a new appreciation for the term “stunned silence.” While cheers were exploding on the far side of the Kohl Center, we purple-clad Racine Lutheran fans stood in silent stupor. We watched our players, still scattered on the court, come to grips with what had just happened.

Nobody writes books or makes movies about the team that comes in second. But maybe we should. They played like champions, and were gracious in defeat. I wonder, too, if our character is not better defined by how we handle life’s disappointments, than how we handle the triumphs. The rejected manuscript. The lost job. The chronic illness. The broken relationship.

Ty was quoted in the Racine Journal Times after the game. “It’s a life lesson,” he said. “You know, we have challenges in our life and we’ve got to get over them. This is one of them.   “Soon, all will be back to normal and good and everything and we’ll be happy again. But this is a sad day.”

A bittersweet day, for sure. But Ty and the rest of the Racine Lutheran High are champions in my book.

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Japanese Girls’ Day Tea

Last Sunday, I celebrated Japanese Girls’ Day with my daughter, Louisa Mei. Since she is  one quarter Japanese, we have honored this holiday all her life. We display the Japanese emperor and empress dolls that her great-grandmother in Japan sent her when she was born, and host a tea party.

This year, in a break from tradition, we did not invite Louisa’s friends. Instead, we invited a few neighborhood women and their young daughters. What a joy to have preschool and kindergarten girls in the house again! (Though having teenagers is terrific, too.)

It seems like just yesterday, my husband and I were the family with young children on the block. Now I am the not-so-young lady bringing out the china and crystal and lace to host tea parties!

In Japan, Girls’ Day is a day to pray for the happiness and healthy growth of your daughters. Following that theme, we served caterpillar cookies, and Louisa Mei folded origami butterflies for each of the young guests to take home.

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