Back Yard, a Mother-Daughter Collaborative

I am pleased to post about another collaborative work between my mom, Dorothy McCuistion, and me. Our book, Backyard, is currently on display in the Collins Memorial Library at the University of Puget Sound. I wrote the poem in the book, below, which contains images of growing up on a site that contained lead, arsenic, and other toxic chemicals, unbeknownst to my family.

The visuals in the book are paper lithographs of family photos, some showing

the demolition of the ASARCO smelter stack in 1993. Also included are parts of the county health department questionnaire sent to affected neighborhoods a few years ago.

Dorothy has two books in the Puget Sound Book Artists annual exhibit, from June 2 – July 30, 2016, at the Collins Memorial Library. She is a print maker, painter, and is an all-around great gal and gold-star mom. We are having so much fun working together, and we have another work in progress.

*  *  *

 

Backyard

 

We had our hands in it, from the very beginning.

A new brother on the grass,

a shiny black beetle,

a rusty railroad spike.

We dig until we get to the end of the sand in the sand box, and then dig some more.

You can get to China, you know.

 

Fast food containers are filled with mud food to entice the neighborhood children, who refuse.

Parents are pulled outdoors for a puppet show, conceived and produced in a single afternoon.

The sprinkler is left on too long and we squish our toes in puddle marshes.

 

We pluck snap peas from stringy vines and pop them into our mouths.

The raspberries parade along the wooden fence, beneath the old pear tree.

See how the earth provides?

 

Dad pays us to weed beneath the rhodies, and I torment the cat until he attacks and flees.

Later, I pet him, his black fur mottled with dust.

My brother blindly mows the grass through allergic tears.

Fourth of July picnics repeat.

 

August nights bring that familiar ache as the light retreats

from our endless days of play,

theater curtains drawing shut as if by giant hands.

 

Spying,

dreaming,

this yard holding all of it,

the bittersweet wonders of childhood.

I read a book about a girl who saw something others did not, and wanted to be her.

Something was suspicious, after all,

but it was not what we thought.

 

 

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Civilization, Also Known as Morning Meeting

What does it matter if a child remembers the name of a parallelogram

If he cannot lend a hand to his neighbor,

and reach out when she has fallen on the black top

knee bloodied,

snot running free,

braids wild,

to offer her a Band-Aid,

or open the on the way to the school nurse,

who has the ice?

 

What does it mean if a child can decode the words VUP and MIN

If she cannot look her friend in the eye and say

I didn’t mean to hurt you,

are you ok?

 

And not always sorry,

necessarily,

just

 

I see you.

I see what I did to you,

and it was not right

but I want to make it so.

 

Can she shake a new hand and meet eyes

and say,

Nice to meet you,

What is your name?

 

Does he notice there is a food wrapper on the ground in the park,

that was not his in the first place?

Yet he stoops to pick it up,

reflexively

like breathing,

zooming to put it in the trash, hummingbird-like,

before bounding off to play.

In less than a heartbeat

he is not at all worse for it, no.

Slightly better,

in fact.

 

Friend,

Earth,

 

I see you,

I notice.

I’m sorry.

I’m listening.

 

I Resign

To Whom It May Concern:

I’m writing to formally resign from my teaching position.

I will miss the many incredible colleagues I’ve worked with over the years. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching alongside a driven, thoughtful, intelligent and tenacious staff. They conduct their work with humor and heart. They regularly work overtime. The teachers push themselves for excellence, and ask that of their students.

But, the drive for student achievement, and the ways in which the district chooses to pursue this comes with costs. During my nine years here, a widening gap grew between what I was being asked to do, and what I believe is right for children. As I worked to fulfill the requirements of the curriculum and the obligation of the instructional minutes, it became more difficult to meet kids at their developmental place in life.

I got to the point where I did not feel good about much at all. I constantly worried about student reading data, even though I met with every child in a small group nearly every day. It was not enough. Most students were still not reaching grade level, an all too common story in high poverty schools.

I stressed about how tight my transitions were, and about the wasted time. I began to think of teaching citizenship and social problem solving as “extras,” when in fact, these skill sets make up the underpinnings of our society. The use of visual arts to express learning, and other thematic, project-based instruction was difficult to manage within the strict curricular framework. There was less and less time for me to give students what I feel they need, and fewer opportunities to teach in the ways I love.

I hated the guilty feeling that crept in each time I gave my kindergarteners or first graders a second recess. Principals would scold us if we took the kids out too frequently. The minutes to play weren’t allowed in the schedule, even though their bodies need it. After all, the CDC states that kids need 60 minutes of exercise per day. Other schools in North America are getting wise to the ways that fitness can be used to boost student performance and mood, as documented in the work of Sparkinglife.org.

Class sizes consistently hovered around 30. Parents were not able to come in and help. A one-to-thirty ratio wasn’t effective, and I felt it. This invisible weight sat on my shoulders all the time. I grew increasingly insecure about my teaching abilities, and thus, unhappy. I felt more and more like the square peg in the round hole.

I had been hoping to eventually return to the district, and was holding out hope that class sizes would come down, and daily physical activity would increase. But, this hasn’t happened. As I reflect on my work with the district, it comes down to the lack of those two essential elements that have made it difficult for me to feel good about my work with children. How this translates, on an everyday basis, is too many restless kids in one room who are not ready to learn. This was painfully obvious during the afternoons.

There is a light at the end of all of this, and that is the new teaching opportunity at my neighborhood school. Nineteen of the twenty students are grade-level readers. They get two lengthy recesses per day. I’ll be able to teach in ways that are more in line with what I believe. I hope to find the joy in teaching again, and maybe get more years out of this career, yet. I’m ready to find out.

Sincerely,

Jefna

The Muse

It’s a rush when the muse visits, so hopeful and divine. She has been sitting on my shoulder a lot lately. Don’t worry; I’m not developing a neck problem. The muse is not that heavy. That’s because she’s made out of rainbow sparkles and kitty whiskers! Usually I am out and about when she drops by, and often when I’m with my kids, so I quickly dictate the idea into my phone and then send it to myself. I love getting email from the Muse!

This week I was at the computer when it happened. Not surprisingly, the Muse came when I tried something new. I registered for a November writing challenge called Picture Book Idea Month, or PiBoIdMo. Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? (Registration is closed, but you can check it out here.) It was started by author Tara Lazar as a companion to National Novel Writing Month, or Nanowrimo. During the 30 days, picture book writers push themselves to generate one book idea per day. Blog posts by other authors are put on the PiBoIdMo website to motivate participants to think and stretch in new ways.

The funny thing about taking part in it is that picture book writers are not supposed to put their ideas online. Rather, we are to keep track ourselves, using the honor system. At the end of November, writers sign a pledge stating that we did indeed do it, if we want the brownie points. All ideas are proprietary and must be protected, which is why there is no sharing. It reminds me of playing the game Password. I can tell you what my ideas are about but not verbalize them precisely. (Actually I can tell you. But then I would have to kill you*.)

I admit that the secrecy seems to run contrary to the “we’re in this together” aspect of the PiBoIdMo challenge. It reminds me of the parallel play of toddlers. I suppose that’s the writer’s life, in a nutshell. Writers are all alone doing their thing at the same time. Once in awhile we lift our heads up to make eye contact with one another to mutually acknowledge our shared activity, before looking down again. But, I can’t complain too much since I have a lovely writer’s group to talk to, and they are great at keeping secrets.

This is my first PiBoIdMo and I discovered inspiration very quickly during some of the great “pre-posts” prior to the official kick-off. I discovered Tara Lazar’s list of interesting words, which got me playing with humorous pairings and phrases, amusing sounds, and rhythm. I’ve never written that way before, and it was so much fun. Ideas were running around in my head and I was suddenly inspired to write an alphabet book.

When I was in graduate school studying to become a teacher, I attended a class on children’s books. The instructor said that many picture book authors attempt to write an alphabet book during their careers. I imagined that I’d like to try it out one day, but I never felt inspired. ABC books are an old concept, perhaps representing the most well worn path of all in children’s publishing. It is easy to think that all alphabet book ideas have been done before, because so many have.

However, I was surprised this month when it seemed to happen sort of magically. But it was not out of the blue, though, since I read something that inspired me. Trying something different often leads to something, well, different! Imagine that. (Note to self: Keep this in mind when confronted with writer’s block in the future.)

There is nothing quite like a good writing day. Sometimes I just laugh out loud and the hours spin by. Each new idea shows me that I am growing and developing my voice, and that there is always more to say. It is wonderful doing something I love so much. And, the only way to improve is to do more of it. Thanks, PiBoIdMo!

*Joke: not an actual threat.

The Worst Query. Ever?

PUBLISH THIS MASTERPIECE, I BEG OF YOU, FROM MY BENT AND ACHING KNEE!

This is a compilation of things that don’t belong in a query letter when seeking publication. It’s like a greatest hits of what not to say. So, naturally, it was was fun to write.

Dear Madame Sirs, and all Employees hitherto,

Hello and may I please introduce myself? Once again, and to be clear, we did meet in the convention center bathroom last May. What a coincidence that I had to go at the same exact moment as you! (All weekend long, imagine that!) During those precious moments, I provided you with a verbal account of my life story, some jokes, and finally, a copy of my manuscript, a comedy about nurses, pets, cheese and the mining industry. I slid it under the stall to you. I also provided you with extra toilet paper. Does that ring a bell? Ding-a-ling!

Enthusiastically, I hope we have put that little encounter behind us and let bygones be bygones. (Do over!) Therefore, I humbly seek the opportunity to send you my latest word-child, just birthed from my mind’s womb. Fortunately for you, that opportunity is right now. Here it is! Ta Da!

Keep reading. Please. Make your eyes continue to travel from left to right, down this page. If you do that, your world will transform. It will morph into something new and unidentifiable. After you read my semi-non-fictional autobiographical young adult picture book, your former ways of thinking and feeling will be turned upside down. Have you ever stayed awake for more than three days? The end result is much like that. Like doing drugs. Have you done any? Yes?! It will be like the best drugs you have ever taken. If that happens to be only Tylenol, consider my story to be the Tylenol that comes on golden hand, through parted clouds, straight on a sunbeam and into your open mouth. Say Ahh! My book will be likened to the Great Drug From the Sky! As you may already suspect, this masterpiece will alter the landscape of literature as we know it. Forever.

Perhaps you did not receive it all the other times I sent it? Check your spam settings (you never know what other little gems are in there), because I send it every morning at 10 am. I’ve done this the past 17 months in an effort to be predictable, which I hope you will appreciate. I am dependable! Relentless! Yes, we both know that’s what it takes to get published these days.

So, dear penpal-agent-editor, just imagine me, silently jogging up behind you after work to give you a hearty slap of congratulations on the back. [Illustrator’s note: SMACK!] I choose you, the esteemed one-and-only to whom I bequeath this work. Believe you me when I tell you that you are going to LOVE THIS. So, buckle your seatbelt and put on a pair of rain pants! Take hold of my hand—never mind the clamminess–and let me lead you into a dark, uncharted, unforgettable, nail-biting literary frolic deep into the tangled avant-garde of my subconscious.

My oeuvre is a lot like Harry Potter. In terms of word count. I am talking about that whole series, not just book one. It is also like Mr. Potter’s franchise in terms of potential for a big audience and an avalanche of money. My masterpiece contains action, adventure, fantasy, science fiction, drama, romance, and a dash of autobiography (mine). And, because it is what it is–a manual for life–I dare say it is a self-help guide with deeply satisfying spiritual elements. Truly, it defies all categories! Barnes and Noble will need to rearrange the furniture to make room for this whole new genre! I will also mention that my mother says my book reminds her of watching Bob Ross paint on the television, which is to say it is intensely soothing and hypnotic.

Who will read this book, you ask? Well! Pull up a chair and I will tell you right now: PEOPLE WHO READ. My fan base is growing, even as I write these words. I gain one new Twitter follower every couple of days! In fact, my dog and neighbor’s baby love this so much that they fall into a deep and peaceful sleep whenever I read it aloud. (Rapidly, I might add.) Think about the calm and tranquility we can give to humanity with this book!

Here’s a nutty idea. Let’s play pretend for a moment; you do not like it. This is hard to imagine, but I suppose, not impossible. Therefore, would you like me to write a something else? Your biography, perhaps? An account of my own personal, deepening depression? The History of Chalk? I will happily tweak to your preferences. My wish is your command!

I bow to you now, and sign off with deepest thanks for your time, and at least one minute of unbroken eye contact,

Yours truly,

The writer who is changing society, oodles of words at a time.

On Getting to This Place

I’m writing and drawing again. It feels wonderful. After the first time in years, I’m excited about what I’m doing with my time. This is thrilling. But, it’s not all “hugs and bunnies” as an old friend would say. I’m working hard at learning new things, sharpening my drawing and writing skills, practicing Adobe Illustrator, as well as becoming familiar with new social media. Of course, I’m tackling it all at once, and it’s overwhelming. Reinvention isn’t easy!

To get to this place in myself, my critic and fear of failure had to be turned off. In a relatively short period of time over the past year, I was able to crank down the valve on all the critical doubting that usually poured into my mind. I won’t say that faucet is completely “off,” but enough so that I allow myself to get down to business, creatively speaking. It occurred to me that if I didn’t get to work soon, when would I do it? These first 40 years have passed so quickly, and if I’m lucky I’ll have at least 40 more…and that’s not much! So, I am proceeding with a “sense of urgency,” as good teachers say in the classroom. Unhappiness, in its strange and useful way, helped me to realize that I’d lost the love for my job and I figured I’d better go about finding happiness elsewhere. It’s a good thing I knew where to go–into a blank Word document and a box of art supplies.

I know that I’m my own worst critic. It seems that most people play this role for themselves. The way I see it, I am just one among many in a large community of self-doubting haters! Case in point: I bet the grammar in these sentences is terrible. The thought that someone will read this, criticize it and point out my mistakes is completely terrifying. It will likely feel fun and good to that person to do so. However, I know that if I stay afraid then I will never create. The fear of not producing is finally outweighing the fear of not becoming a “maker,” of not telling the stories I need to tell. So here I go, communicating about my process right here. Me no care if you no like. (So go ahead, make your remarks! It will probably make my writing better.)

Lately I’m also becoming familiar with the cold, dead stare of Fear. Mostly, it’s the fear of being unoriginal. It’s scary to think that my ideas will be copies of others, or that I will not produce anything unique. Again, this is a plight of all artists. On one level, I know this is a common experience, and yet, on another, it is an extremely solitary place in which to find oneself. My critic mutters, “What if I’m no good? What if this is just like that other _____? Why am I even trying?” I try find comfort in the fact that all human beings, all artists, are riffing off the ideas of one another. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants, which is really another way to say that we’re all lifting one another up, toward the sky, into the stars, and up to the swirling universe of creativity and invention. And that’s where the magic happens, up there!

I have told a few people that my days of working as a writer and artist are usually an emotional roller coaster. Each day, by the time I pick up my children at school, I’ve been though so much, and it’s all in my head. Sometimes it’s exhausting. Other days it’s exhilarating. It’s funny to try to explain this out loud to other parents. I hear myself trying to explain this process and I realize that I sound a little nutty. At the end of the day, I feel extremely grateful to have some time to explore this way of working and thinking. (God bless my husband for being such a good sport.) I’m listening to myself. My being is literally yelling Go! Go! Go! And it feels right.

-Jefna

Some of my inspiration:

“Every artist is a cannibal/every poet is a thief/all kill for inspiration/and then sing about the grief.” -Bono

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” –Ira Glass

Books: On Writing by Stephen King, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

Everyday Birds!

My parents are both artists. My dad has mainly worked in ceramics and my mom, Dorothy, has works in a variety of media. Lately she’s been drawn to printing and book making. She invited me to work with her on this pop-up book. It’s called Birds Everyday.

She prepared, cut, and bound six books by hand. Two were purchased by art collectors at the Bainbridge Arts and Crafts gallery when it was on display. The book was also shown at a Puget Sound Book Artists exhibit, in the Collins Library at the University of Puget Sound. Below are photos of the pages (a bit out of order, I apologize!).

Here’s the complete text:

Birds Everyday

Rummaging, skittering, the towhees dart amidst the undergrowth.
Quarreling, contending, the hummingbirds meddle at the blossoms.
Inquiring, discerning, the Steller’s Jay spies our picnic.
Surveying, anticipating, the red-tailed hawk perches atop a pole.
Soaring, sailing, the seagull catches the wind effortlessly, like a kite.
Flirting, circulating, the swifts descend into their chimney for the
night.

 

Birds Everyday
Birds Everyday
Birds Everyday
Flirting, circulating, the swifts descend into their chimney for the night.
p1_towees
Rummaging, skittering, the towhees dart amidst the undergrowth.
p2_hummingbirds
Quarreling, contending, the hummingbirds meddle at the blossoms.
p3_jay
Inquiring, discerning, the Steller’s Jay spies our picnic.
p4_hawk
Surveying, anticipating, the red-tailed hawk perches atop a pole.
p5_seagull
Soaring, sailing, the seagull catches the wind effortlessly, like a kite.