The book is Sam’s story of going into a third grade class and teaching creative writing. In one portion, the classroom teacher asks Sam if he has any homework for the kids, and Sam remembers what he calls “the best assignment I was ever given. One that changed my life.” He tells the kids that on their way home from school, he wants them to, “Notice something new, something you’ve never seen before, some little thing you’ll be glad you saw.”
The other day, I got home from the store, walked into the kitchen with my hands full of bags, and saw this out my window.
This parade of paddle boarders was heading down the dead-quiet lake. There were at least a hundred of them, with boats escorts, and music, because all parades have music, right? I felt a little left out. Why didn’t anyone invite me? I googled and discovered they were a group benefitting Dam that Cancer, and they were paddling dam to dam on Lake Austin to raise money to help families dealing with cancer diagnosis. That’s over 20 miles of lake to paddle, and they’d been at it since early morning.
It was easy to notice that particular “something new,” but some days I may have to try a little harder, pay attention. I found this on the bathroom wall at BookPeople.
Wow. I’m in love with hash browns, too! There was more.
Who knew such wisdom could be found on the bathroom wall? Then I found these in the bathroom at the new Royers Pie Haven.
I love this “notice something new” idea of Swope’s. It reminds me of one of my favorite book characters. In Clementine by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Marla Frazee, Clementine is constantly being called into the principal’s office because she isn’t paying attention.
But Clementine is paying attention. She’s paying attention to the clouds out the window, or the fact that the lunchroom lady is sitting in the janitor’s car and they are kissing. Clementine is constantly “noticing something new,” paying attention, just not to her teacher.
Now that summer is upon us, I hope to have lots of time to notice new things, at least one a day. And I hope it becomes a habit I carry with me into busier times. As a writer it’s essential, and as a human, it’s a pleasure. I’ll allow my eyes to gaze out the window, my steps to slow on the sidewalk. You never know what you might find.
If someone were to look at the google search activity on my computer, they might be puzzled. Banana sticker images? Leila’s hair museum? A video uploaded to YouTube on December 20, 2010 about Marilu Henner’s superior autobiographical memory? These are all things I’ve researched in the past six months while working on a middle grade novel, and I love it. I love where my writing leads me. Today’s work led me to the Cathedral of Junk in South Austin.
I took notes and lots of pictures and asked a few questions of the artist who made, and continues to make, it all happen, Vince Hannemann.
The Cathedral is 25 years old, and exists behind a quirky little house on a fairly ordinary looking street in South Austin. When asked to name one of the things he was most proud of, Vince said, “My building permit.” The structure seemed sound to me, as I crept all around, walking up and down stairs and under arbors made of twisting metal and repurposed mattress springs. It was solid.
When I asked Vincent what his grand plan was, he said, “I can’t tell you that.” It is the line many writers will give you if asked about their current work in progress. I sense that Vince’s work in progress will continue to progress and progress, growing up and out and winding around his yard. But also growing in, becoming more dense as he adds something here and there.
And when I asked if he could tell me where Darth Vader’s head was, he nodded. “Sure.” He could tell me where pretty much every piece of “junk” could be found. After all, this was his creation, and he knows it intimately.
In addition to getting some great ideas for my novel and my characters, I found this space required me to slow down. The slower I went, the closer I looked, the more I noticed. If I could only apply this to my whole life, not just the backyard at 4422 Lareina Dr. It is the purpose of cathedrals, I think, to encourage us to be still and notice and wonder.
The entire place was an act of trust. While some items were secured with wire or concrete, others were just tucked in here or there. Hundreds, probably thousands, of people visit the Cathedral of Junk each year. Vincent trusts that they’ll leave stuff where they find, and for the most part, they do. To me, this place was about redemption. Things that would otherwise be forgotten were being used to delight and to inspire. What better place for that to happen, than in a cathedral?
Research for this novel has led me all sorts of interesting places. What’s it about? I can’t tell you that. Not yet. But I’ll tell you this. I sure do love what I do.
I have always been passionate about finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. The theme creeps into my books, into this blog, and into pictures taken spontaneously on my iphone, as I’m struck by some such ordinary, extraordinary thing.
Something I heard today made me realize that there are two ways to think about the ordinary being extraordinary. One is the whole David and Goliath story, where the ordinary looking person does something extraordinary. Like the story about a little eight-year-old girl who sold lemonade to raise over $100,000 to end child slavery.
And that’s wonderful, fantastic, and amazing. But when I heard the story, it also made me feel like a bit of a loser. I mean, what have I done lately? While these kinds of stories should be celebrated, I need to remind myself to look for the extraordinary in the truly ordinary. Like a carrot seed. I can relate to the lowly, tiny, strangely shaped carrot seed.
I remind myself that mysteriously held within the trappings of this little seed is something marvelous. This week I had the privilege of working in the Genesis Gardens in East Austin. This is a little embarrassing to admit, but I’ve never picked a carrot, so Mike showed me how to take a flat head screwdriver (no, I didn’t need an expensive tool out of the pretty gardening catalog) and sink it down beside the carrot to loosen it, and then carefully slide it up, out of the ground.
I cannot tell you how satisfying it felt, to pull up those carrots. To see this long, orange, weirdly shaped vegetable come rising out of the ground. I can’t say it as sweetly or as well as this little girl Ella (who is six, by the way). She explains how she pulls at the “bottom of the top” to reveal a “beautiful orange carrot (well, once you wash it off).” I wholeheartedly agree. And they all came from that seed that looks a little like a sticker burr. Amazing. The extraordinary in the ordinary.
I write all this because I want to point myself and others not just to the stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, but to the ordinary people doing ordinary things (like picking carrots) which are actually pretty extraordinary things if we open our eyes and really think about what might be happening. What might seem ordinary, like sitting around a dinner table, can become an extraordinary place where laughter and stories are created and family ties are knotted just a little tighter. A kind word to a stranger in a parking lot who’s dealt with a screaming baby for the last half hour can bring that stranger to tears and brighten her day (I was that stranger, and I still remember that incident, all these years later, and make sure to do the same for other weary mothers).
We may never know the extraordinary affect an ordinary smile or encouraging word may have on someone. We may never see our seeds sprout, no articles or spotlights or recognition. But that doesn’t make it any less important. We can arm ourselves with ordinary flat head screwdrivers, or ordinary words, and unearth treasure.
When I volunteered to drive on a field trip for Nate’s class, I was unclear what exactly we’d be doing, something about geometry and building a gazebo. We drove way out past the airport, curled around the east side of town, and turned on Hog Eye Road. Where were we going again? Something about Mobile Loaves and Fishes, but wasn’t that the organization that drove trucks around town, giving food and clothing to the homeless? We turned at the entrance, where little wooden birdhouses were attached to the fence, then drove down a dusty driveway and parked in some grass.
It was here that we met Steven Hebbard, Coordinator of Genesis Gardens.
Steven explained that the land we were standing on would someday be filled with small homes, a village, really. The Mobile Loaves and Fishes web site says Community First! will be “a 27 acre master-planned community that will provide affordable, sustainable housing and a supportive community for the disabled, chronically homeless in Central Texas.” The space is designed for 100-200 people to form community, and 80% of them will come from the street.
Which sounds great, but big. I couldn’t quite get my head or my heart around something like that. How? When? What if . . . I needed something smaller, a part of the story that could be wrapped within the designated 32 pages of a picture book, something I could chew on. Like a garden, and the garden is Steven’s specialty.
Five years ago Steven found himself with a community garden plot in a notoriously bad part of town. He rented a house a few blocks down, where he lived with a few other guys, and determined to love the land, his neighbors, and God. He says, “The way I like to think about it, once I got my fingers in the soil, my arms were pulled in, and then there was nothing for it but let the rest of my life follow in after.”
For two years, at least once a day, he harvested fruits and vegetables from his garden. As he walked the two blocks home, he’d stop and ask his neighbors if they wanted some squash or a melon. Slowly but surely, he built community with the people around him. He realized that all this growing he’d been doing wasn’t just about fruit and vegetables. It was about homemaking, which turned into village-making when he started working with the Genesis Gardens in the Community First! project.
Steven believes that working and respecting the land together builds the kind of community that lasts over time. The work and the respect help drive out weeds, and weather storms. So here we were, off Hog Eye Road, hearing Steven’s vision. I’d never heard the term “chronically homeless” before, but that’s the group they are reaching out to, people who can’t seem to get themselves off the street. Who have formed a community that has grown in some pretty rocky soil.
When someone is tough enough to endure poverty, lack of shelter, lack of food, and lack of respect, all while dealing with their troubled pasts, whether loss of job or family, addiction or abuse, they have to grow a pretty tough community to get by. Like a cedar tree, they do what they can to survive. What would make them want to step away from this street community that they’ve worked so hard to cultivate?
How about some squash? Some chickens? Rabbits? Okay, how about squatting side- by-side, digging in the dirt, tending soil together. How about working all morning with a volunteer, sweating together, and then feasting together on food grown in the garden, cooked over an open fire. Steven explains that they “host the only slow food meal in the City of Austin where the hosts are homeless and the guests are housed.” Every Saturday they serve up delicious cowboy coffee and dutch-oven breakfast tacos after a morning of volunteers and homeless working together in the garden. It’s hard to tell who is who when you’re both sweaty and dirty and tired and hungry.
Maybe living and working with dignity in an environment that isn’t just functional, but beautiful, would draw the homeless out of their old, destructive communities and into a healthier one. Community First! is all about building a creative space in which to live in healthy community. Chicken laying boxes are made from old drawers that are painted and tiled.
Someone took extra time to decorate the frames around the windows of the rabbit shed with reclaimed wood, and paint stripes on the roosts in the chicken yard.
There is art out here, on Hog Eye Road, just as necessary to the human soul as food and shelter are to the body.
There are trellises made from old bamboo, and benches made from beautiful reclaimed wood, reminders that lives can be reclaimed, too, with a little help.
Steven walked us through a grassy meadow, past some scrubby cedar, and talked to our freshman kids about the cotton farms that once existed on that same land. How the land got overused, and terrible dry years came and blew away all the good soil that was left, and the rural people left their land to move to big cities. They were displaced. In a way, they became homeless. He talked about how the land fought back, with tumbleweeds, then short prairie grasses, cactus and foxtails, then shrubs, post oak and ash juniper.
The plants struggled to survive, doing what it took to hold on to water and grow roots. Today, the land we were standing on had nearly twice the percent of organic matter as the best organic farm in Austin, and now, the homeless are returning. The land has been cleared, it’s being cared for, and hope is in the air.
Steven challenged our kids to use their geometry skills to come up with a gazebo that didn’t just provide cover, but could serve other functions as well. Perhaps they could design a roof that would channel rainwater to a collection barrel. Near the gazebo site are terraced gardens that will catch and hold water to combat drought conditions.
Steven opened our minds and stretched our creativity to think big, dream big, and then get down to work to make it happen. Next week, I’m going to volunteer in the garden, harvest a few vegetables, meet a few new friends. Who knew I’d find the beginnings of Eden, out on Hog Eye Road?
It’s funny the things you remember from a vacation. Sure, you remember the big events you went there for. The dives, the snorkeling, sand the perfect texture for drizzle castles and the water so clear you didn’t have to wear a mask to see the fish swimming all around you.
But there are other details you remember, too, little happenings you couldn’t have anticipated that make the trip something more than what’s promised online. Nobody told us about the cutest little hermit crabs in the whole wide world.
Nobody told us we’d find the biggest hermit crab in the world, either.
And nobody promised we’d come upon a pod of dolphins not once, but twice. There were dozens of them, their back fins slicing through the water, racing our boat, and beating it. One swam right side up and another upside down, the mirror image, just under the bow. Several of them jumped out of the water entirely.
As we rode at the front of a motorboat, our legs hanging over the sides and hanging on tight as it sailed over waves and slammed back to the water, we saw flying fish, their silver bodies catching the sun. We passed weathered old fisherman in weathered old boats, out for the day with their nets. We were told Honduras used to be second only to Texas in fish exporting, but that’s changed with the higher water temperatures and the bleaching of the coral and disasters like oil spills.
Nobody told us about the flying fish or the picturesque fisherman, and nobody told us about the Santa Claus of Roatan, otherwise known as the Banana Donut Man. We first saw him on Day One, as we hung out on the beach. He wore a hat woven from palm fronds, and he had a big plastic container tucked under his arm, and he called out, no, he sang out, “Ba-naaaa-na Donuts.” There were others selling sunglasses and bracelets and parasailing rides and cigars, but this man was different. For one thing, he looked just like a very tan Santa, and for another thing, he sang, he bantered, and he had friends. People up and down the beach called out to him. So that night, on our way down the beach to dinner, we stopped him for a few donuts.
He lifted the red lid, and inside were the donuts, sprinkled with sugar, only a few left at the end of the day. He gave us a deal, 4 for $5. How could we refuse? He explained that his wife made them, and he may be back tomorrow. Quite the salesman, he left us anxious, hoping we’d see him again as we bit into the moist, sweet, fried goodness that is a banana donut. Lo and behold we found him the next day, and we got to meet his wife, too.
She even shared her secret recipe. Use whatever donut batter you usually use (I need to find me a donut batter recipe), but instead of regular milk, use coconut milk. Add a few very ripe, brown and speckled bananas. She uses metal chafing dishes to fry them up. She just lays them across two burners on the stovetop, and fills the bottom with oil, making twelve at a time. Delicious. We got 7 for $10, and snacked on them the rest of our stay.
They tell you about the crystal clear water and the fine sand and the amazing coral reef, but they can’t tell you about the other stuff because it’s not guaranteed. But these other things, they are what make a vacation worth taking, worth remembering.
You may notice that Stories in the Street looks a little different. What would have taken me weeks to accomplish took my daughter a day. You can now easily access specific stories, posts relating to Rebeka or the adoption or travels, by clicking on that word under the book header. You can get to the beginnings of those stories, or see the posts written during our trip around the world in 2007-2008, by going to the links on the right sidebar.
Looking at these stories from a distance, I can see things I couldn’t see while in the middle of them. There is one thing they all seem to have in common; the idea of “getting off the bus.” You can see this literally in one of the most recent stories. Two months ago, we were getting ready for our trip to Rwanda. While there with our team of thirty, we traveled in a bus each day to various locations. Often we were traveling to visit a sponsored child. When we arrived at our destination, the sponsor family would get off the bus and walk off with a translator to find the house, while the rest stayed behind.
It was such an a amazing experience, getting off that bus filled with cameras and water bottles and people who spoke English, a little bubble of westernization, and visiting our sponsored kids’ homes. To sit on a makeshift bench or the floor, the only light streaming through the windows because there was no electricity.
No home had more than two rooms, separated by a curtain. No home had a working toilet. They were so remote, I marveled at how our bus found them. For our visit with Javinvier, the bus stopped near some stores. We got off and walked past the buildings, down a hill, over a small stream, past piles of banana trees and a few rotting piles of trash, then back over the stream on a rickety bridge, through the gate of a fence made from plants, and we were there.
We gathered around a small fire outside, listened to his grandmother speak of her love for her grandson and the small child she’s recently begun to care for. And we hugged her, and our boy Javinvier, who has grown so tall and works so hard at school.
We took family pictures with mamas and siblings and aunties and uncles, and began to understand the impact sponsorship was having on the entire family. This child was learning to read, to speak English, to do math and science and understand the bigger world outside their dirt walls, and we were now part of their big family in a way. The distant relatives from over yonder, across the ocean.
These visits were joyful and teary and filled with hugs and holding hands , but it wasn’t always our turn. When the bus stopped for someone else’s home visit, we had two choices. I had two choices. I could lean my head against the window and gaze at the curious crowd gathering outside, feeling shy or tired or overwhelmed. I could take notes in my journal, stay removed. Or I could get off the bus.
Getting off the bus took effort. There were hands to hold, songs to sing. It was hard to communicate sometimes. This was the opportunity to make a fool of myself as I did the hokey pokey or acted out an animal for them to guess, oinking to make them laugh. It was the smiles I was going for. Those beautiful smiles. They were worth getting off the bus.
And the hands. They want to touch you. Look at you. Examine your arm hair. They want to be the one who gets the coveted spot right next to you. If you sit, they want your lap. They are needy and eager and most are totally uninhibited.
Getting off the bus, I was soon engulfed in a sea of children, and as I looked around I saw the muzungus had spread out, little islands of white in seas of dark bodies, each a little microcosm of love and affection, if only for a moment.
It was hard to step off the bus sometimes, but it was good. Getting off the bus, being brave, being present, is so very good.
Each day I have the chance to “get off the bus.” I can be brave and send out that manuscript or write that new story. I can let go of dignity and comfort and be vulnerable to get to know someone better. I can sit around the virtual fire of a coffee cup and take time to talk. And I can hold a hand. All it takes is the ability to see the opportunity, take a deep breath, get off the bus and step into story.
I intended for my next blog post to be about home visits in Rwanda. I have all these great pictures I wanted to post, of the different sorts of houses our sponsored kids live in, and what it’s like to be on the bus while someone else does a home visit. The kids that gather, their mortal fear of puppets, and their love for stickers and arm hair. But what’s on my mind, as I sit in the waiting room at Arise Medical Center, is not home visits, so I’ll save it for another day. Here’s a picture. I can’t wait to tell those stories.
I have definitely spent more time in hospitals this past year than I ever have before (except maybe those ten days I spent in the hospital when my appendix broke). First with Rebeka, as we went in for surgeries and subsequent cast changes. Then with Clay, about a month ago. Those of you who haven’t heard about his daring (Clay says “dumb”) banister feat and resulting broken ribs and punctured lungs missed a great story. Maybe someday I’ll do a blog post about it.
But this morning, it was Alayna we checked in, for jaw surgery. We’ve been meeting with her oral surgeon for over two years, and we’ve known for over a year that jaw surgery was in her future. It has been carefully planned between the end of dance team football season and cross country season, and departing for college. Her biggest concern leading up to this morning was whether or not her braces will be off before she goes to college, but I imagine there will be more immediate concerns once she wakes from anesthesia. We’ve been armed with a very large bottle of pain medication, liquid since she can’t take pills. Alayna hasn’t been able to bring herself to smell it.
We couldn’t help but remember and compare the hospital experiences of Alayna and Rebeka. Rebeka always arrived with “Georgie” (her Curious George stuffed animal) and her little baby doll (the one Clay sat on). Alayna arrived with her purple unicorn pillow pet.
But while Rebeka was deathly afraid of needles, Alayna tolerates them just fine. She just looked the other way when they inserted the IV this morning.
We never saw Rebeka’s IV inserted. She required Versed (a medication that makes you very sleepy and kind of happy) before she would even put on the “clown nose,” with its flavored orange smell that would send her off to dreamland. They inserted here IV back in the OR, It was a difficult procedure since her veins were small and hard to find, due to the arthrogryposis. One time she even had to have the IV inserted in her jugular because they couldn’t find a vein.
Because Alayna could have her IV inserted first thing, they delivered her Versed by IV. Rebeka always took hers orally, and it tasted horrible. She would be armed with a couple paper towels to wipe off her tongue (no drinks allowed), and there was lots of complaining and horrible faces when she took it. We remembered how scared she was, that first time she went in for the operation. No amount of preparation could have prepared her, or us, for that moment we kissed her cheeks and they wheeled her through the big swinging doors. That first time, she couldn’t speak much English. She was so afraid. That first time she didn’t take Versed, but she did every time after.
Alayna was big smiles just moments after the Versed hit the IV. She started giggling and covered her face, laughing, which made us laugh. Part nerves, part hilarity, I had tears rolling down my face, same as when they took Rebeka back. It was a good way to go to surgery, I think, laughing this time.
As they wheeled her away, we called, “Goodbye” and saw her hand flop in a wave from over the back of her bed.
As we waited, I tried not to think about the cuts her doctor was making in her jaw. I completely trust him, but still, he was cutting her bones apart Re-adjusting them. Three hours, and lots of prayers, later, we got a call. He was “closing her back up.” With Rebeka, we always scrubbed in and were with her as she woke up. Maybe because it was a children’s hospital. But here, we won’t see her until they move her to her room. I was anxious, wondering if she was afraid as she regained consciousness. Wondering if she hurt. She is eighteen years old. She signed her own release forms. I was sure she’d be fine, but all those protective instincts were tilled up to the surface, and I don’t like waiting.
So much of life is spent waiting. As a kid, we can’t wait for Christmas morning. I’m waiting for a book contract. Alayna’s waiting to hear from colleges. And I had to wait all morning to see my girl again. She can’t wait for the swelling to go down, and for the braces to come off. But I’m trying not to spend so much time looking forward, I forget to notice the here and now. We have plans to watch a movie this afternoon. Alayna will be on the receiving end of sweet friends and family in the days ahead, sending love and prayers and encouragement and soup recipes (liquid diet, two weeks). This has been a forced pause in the holiday hustle and bustle. I’ve realized, as I remembered Rebeka and received sweet texts and taken time to just sit still and pray for my daughter, that sometimes the wait, itself, is worth the wait.