Gratitude Day 1: Maggie & Marley

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There is a Gratitude Challenge going around on Facebook right now.  It encourages people to spend a few minutes each day reflecting upon their blessings, and then posting about them.  Last week I was nominated, and I have decided to accept the challenge.

Sorta.

I am blessed to say that listing 15 things, people, moments, or experiences for which I am grateful is an easy task.  So I’ve decided to transform this task into a writing challenge for myself.  Can I carve out some time for the next 15 days to write about these moments of gratitude?  I will certainly try!

On this Day 1 I am grateful for literacy.  For education.  For great authors and their amazing books.

Books that changed my life, like Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret  when I was a a child and A Thousand Splendid Suns as an adult.  Books that change my students’ lives, like Speak.  Books that kids love but adult try to prohibit… like The Fault in Our Stars.  Books that bond my family, like Harry Potter and Matilda.  Books that keep my son up into the wee hours of the light… from his early reading days of Ready Freddy to his annoying phase with Diary of a Wimpy Kid to all the sports book he now inhales by Tim Green and Mike Lupica.  And books that keep my daughter up into the wee hours like… um…. hmmmm…

To be honest, there haven’t been any.

Until now.

Bring on Marley.

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It’s not that Maggie doesn’t like books.  She is first to leap onto the couch during family read aloud nights, and the silly humor of Mo Willams has always been her favorite.  But Marley is the first book she’s read on her own that has made an emotional connection for her; the first book to teach her the power of falling in love with a character in print.

Maggie came home from her school library with the young reader adaptation of Marley and Me by John Grogan.  I’ve read the adult version and know the basic plot:  crazy cute yellow lab puppy (Marley) becomes the heart of a family.  But those of us who have endured Old Yeller and How the Red Fern Grows know how this ends.

I knew we were in trouble when Maggie asked, “Why did my librarian say this book is sad?  It’s soooooo funny!!”  She proceeded to read me the part where the author met “Clearance Dog,” the breeders’s nickname for Marley:

He plowed full steam into me, throwing  a cross-body block across my ankles.  Then he pounced at my shoelaces as though he was convinced they were dangerous enemies that needed to be destroyed.

She was laughing so hard she could hardly get the words out.  Clearance Dog.  Shoelaces as enemies.  Good stuff when you have a new puppy of your own that acts the same way.

Fast forward a few weeks, and all was calm in our home.  It was the 9:00ish hour, and the kids were upstairs reading.  I too had retired with a good book, and Clark was downstairs watching TV.

Cue the wailing.

The screeches from Maggie’s room were so intense that everyone raced to check on her.  Even Sam.  Based on the intensity of her outburst I fully expected to see blood, but it turns out her trauma was purely emotional.

It was grief.  Pure, unencumbered, intense grief.  She had finally read far enough into the book to realize that poor Marley was not immortal.  I’d tried to prepare her, but she insisted she could handle the book.

Clearly she had fallen in love with Marley more than we realized.  She has since finished the book – more tears were shed, but thankfully they were less intense.  And she says it was worth the read, even though it ripped her heart out.

I hope Marley is the first of many characters Maggie will grow to love on her own, and someday she too will realize what a gift it is to live in a country where literacy is a core value.


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Get Lit: And the Mountains Echoed

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I’ve decided that my monthly book club meetings (and corresponding dinners) are so incredible that it’s time to start blogging them up.  My Get Lit book club has been gathering for nearly a decade, and our monthly meetings always fill my tank.

Last year we were too careless with our title selections.  Our rambunctious, festive meetings became so much fun that selecting the next title turned into an 11th hour afterthought.  It created a bit of a spiral:  not the best book = not the best book chat.

We decided we’re too smart for such behavior, so this month we purposefully picked a book that would provoke great discussion and inspire amazing food.  The winning selection was And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini.

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I was the host for this month’s gathering.  How ironic that the Chugach mountains surrounding my home started to echo just as everyone arrived.  The wind howled, causing our windows to creak and the house to tremble.  But we were warm and safe inside the kitchen, which bustled with conversation and smelled like cinnamon and coriander.  There were barely enough burners on the stove to contain all the steaming pots, and we all took turns slicing and dicing on the cutting board.  The winds whistled through the mountains and slammed into the house, but our laughter was the only thing that echoed inside.

The book was good, but the food was incredible – so let’s start there.  In honor of the book, we all decided to make an Afghan dish.  We found an excellent Afghan food blog, which is where most of us selected our recipes.

Here was the spread:

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You are looking at vegetable biryani, bolani (sweet potato Afghan turnovers), two versions of salata (an Afghan salad, one rough chopped and the other in a food processor), cream cheese spread, aush (Afghan soup), naan, and little bowls of mint chutney and yogurt.  Oh, and a rogue pumpkin muffin.

We were all amazed at how easy these recipes were to make.  Basic, simple ingredients and a few favorite spices created intensely flavorful dishes.  There are some amazing cooks in our group, but on this night everyone’s food shined.  Let’s just say that no one left hungry.

After dinner we moved into the living room (it was truly the only way to stop eating) and started to chat about the book.  It was such a complicated, interwoven tale that we decided to make a character map:

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The characters were so interconnected, even more so than we realized while reading the book.  The ripple effects of their decisions were impossible to contain.  We all wanted more:  too many stories were started, but left unfinished.  Maybe someday Hosseini will return to Adel, Gholem, Thierry, or Thalia.  Or maybe he’ll leave the details of their stories to our imaginations.

The discussion easily flowed out of the text and into our own lives.  Would it truly be a gift to forget those we have loved but lost, or is the pain of life’s adversity essential?  How could any mother abandon her child?  What role do siblings play in our own lives?  What stories do we share with our own children?

I enjoyed this book, but it didn’t rip my heart out like Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, which is one of my favorite titles of all time. Ever.  But I do feel that And the Mountains Echoed  put our book club back on track.  The company is always impeccable – how could it not be with such a strong, intelligent group of opinionated women?  But this time the meal and the discussion were equally rewarding, and the questions we raised last night have echoed in my mind all day.


All Buggy Eyed

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I tell our children that reading is a gift.  A gift that cannot be stolen, and one they will have for life.  I firmly believe it, too.  History has a tragic track record of denying people the right to read in an attempt to prevent them from revolting against oppression.

Ironically, there are many amazing books that best illustrate this point. Take Nightjohn by Gary Paulsen – it is based on a true story about a fugitive slave who knew how to read, and valued the skill so much that he would sneak back to the plantation each night to scratch letters in the dirt with a desperate slave girl.  He vowed to teach her to read despite the great risk to both their lives and limbs (the punishment for slaves caught reading was the loss of an appendage).

Another great example is The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak.  It is about a girl growing up in Nazi Germany whose foster father sells his beloved cigarettes on the black market so he can buy books to teach her to read.  She goes on to steal books from public book burning bonfires and treasures each title more than her own life.  Break out the tissues for this one…

Sadly, there are modern-day examples too.  Just look at Afghanistan, where girls and women are still denied an education.  I will never be the same since reading A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.  The story goes back several generations, but I have to wonder how different the tale could have been with a literate population?

In some societies, literacy is revered.  In others, it is feared.  Which would you choose?

Maybe these firm beliefs explain why I get so emotional as I watch my own children emerge as readers.  To know that they have this gift… this skill… this most essential part of their education… it is priceless.  I don’t care whether they learn at 4 or 5 or 6 or 7… as long as they learn.  Not only to read, but to love reading.  To appreciate the gift that it is.  To know that they relish the stories we read together as a family now, and to hope they will someday pass the same tales on to their own children.

Luckily, my children’s teachers value reading as well.  Sam’s 2nd grade teacher assigns 30 minutes of reading on a daily basis.  I’m grateful that he is free to pick any text imaginable for this homework.  Some days we conquer it out loud as a family, whether it be through Harry Potter, Superfudge, some funky fairy tale, or a classic myth.  Other days he devours a Sports Illustrated magazine.  Most days he doubles the minimum because he reads in bed every night before he falls asleep.  He crawls into his top bunk, clicks on the nightlight, and away he goes.  He’s done this since he was a toddler:

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As for Maggie, she has been truly blessed with a master teacher for her kindergarten year.  All Anchorage School District kindergartners are required to study insects.  You know:  six legs, three body parts, several life stages.  Spring is in the air as Maggie’s classroom is full of wheat grass, ladybugs, and caterpillars that are at this very moment metamorphosing into butterflies.  (And yes, she knows what “metamorphosis” means.  I don’t think I knew until I read Ovid in college!)

How brilliant that kindergartners study metamorphosis so thoroughly, because at what other age does a human schoolchild go through such a remarkable change?  This year, I have watched my daughter metamorphose into a reader and a writer.  She has officially cracked the code.  And that is precisely what has me all buggy-eyed tonight.

As a culminating project for the insect unit, Maggie’s teacher told the kindergartners they were all entomologists who had discovered a new kind of bug.  They were required to create a 3D model of their discovery; the project was wide open, but it had to meet the basic criteria of an insect.

We helped Maggie dig through our refrigerator and recycle bin for the three body parts, and once she picked what she wanted I did help with the basic assembly.  (Sharp knives were required in a few instances.)  Otherwise, this project was her own: she was in charge of paint, colors, layout, materials, and details.  I envisioned 6 cute legs coming out the side, but she insisted the thing would stand.  I imagined big fluffy butterfly wings, but she wanted little designer card stock ones.  (Sometimes I think she makes it a point to refute my every suggestion…)

At any rate, here it is, without further ado:  her insect homework!

I introduce you to the "walebug"!

The head is a CoolWhip container, the thorax is a half gallon of orange juice, the abdomen/stinger is a paper towel roll, and the legs are nails.  Throw in some pipe cleaner antennae and custom designed card stock wings and it’s a way cool bug.  But her write up was what really got me choked up:

In case you wanted to learn more about the mysterious walebug...

The terrifying thorax face - watch out, predators!

Watching Maggie do her “guess and go writing” (as her teacher calls it) was magical.   She was perched on the kitchen floor, hunched so far over the paper that her unkempt hair hid the scrawling pencil, but I could still hear her methodically whispering out the sounds one by one as she moved her ideas to the page.

When she finally finished she cleared her throat and proudly marched her homework over to her Dad.  “Do you want me to read it to you?”  she asked.

He took a quick glance and replied, “You don’t have to.  I can read it myself.”

And then he did.

What a gift he gave her!  Her sense of pride will sustain me for at least a week.  What could I do, but sit on the other end of the couch and wipe my buggy-eyed tears?