Spring Fling Writing Contest

Just recently I’ve begun to enter writing contests for children’s picture book writers. I love the challenge each contest presents because of the word limit restrictions. The following is my entry for the 2022 Spring Fling Writing Contest hosted by Kaitlyn Sanchez and Ciara O’Neal.

In Spring There Were Wings

by Julie Lerczak

For five long years, Lily lived beneath the water –first as an egg, nestled among the lotus.

Then she developed into her nymph body.

But Lily would transform many more times.

Every spring her body began to feel tight and cramped.

Then, a split formed along her spine, and a new body pushed its way out.  

Changing was frightening at first, but such a relief when she could stretch out.

Lily felt more changes coming. But this time she needed more than a stretch of the legs.

She crept from the water, up a cattail stalk.

CRAAAACCCK, went her back and out spilled her new improved body with two giant eyes, four glistening wings, and a long blue abdomen. 

It was her finest metamorphosis!  

Her wings began to twitch then beat rapidly.

She leaped into the air, ready to explore the world… a dragonfly, at last.

On the Wings of Spring

Everyone seems to identify different heralds for the changing seasons. For instance, many people feel spring has arrived when they sight their first Robin. For others, spring may be marked by the first budding trees or blooming crocus. For me, it’s when hundreds of thousands of snow geese make their annual visit to the Illinois River Valley.

I became an Illinois River Valley resident about 30 years ago when  I came to the region for a job. Quickly, I fell in love with the rural scenery of the area. But the wildlife and the river itself have really captured my heart and have given me a strong sense of place. Now when I think of seasons, I instantly, think of what happens in a river valley as a flyway for migratory birds. Near where I live there is a network of backwater lakes connected to the Illinois River and such habitats are major draws for migratory birds. These sites include The Nature Conservancy’s Emiquon Preserve, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Emiquon Refuge and Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge, and the State of Illinois’s Anderson Lake and Banner Marsh — all located between Peoria and Havana, Illinois. Here one can find American White Pelicans, Tundra Swans, Canada Geese, Snow Geese, occasional Sandhill Cranes, Egrets, Herons, Coots, Grebes, Bitterns, about twenty species of ducks, and another twenty or so species of shorebirds. I’m sure I’m missing some kind of birds group here. The list goes on and on.

Of all of the spring migrators, the most dramatic arrivals are the Snow Geese that stream in flocks numbering in the tens of thousands. They arrive over a 3 or 4 week period between February and March coming from their southerly wintering grounds which range from North Carolina to Mexico. While Snow Geese follow one of four major flyways (The Pacific, Mississippi, Central, or Atlantic flyways) the ones I see follow the Central or Mississippi Flyways and they are probably returning from the Gulf of Mexico. Skein after skein gathers in farm fields to rest and nibble on scattered corn kernels that litter the fields. Then as if all had reservations to be at a specific location at one particular time, they take off and head for the backwater lakes for more feasting and resting. En masse, they crowd the waters – a wall-to-wall reunion of squeaky honkers. This year counts in our region have been estimated between 500,000 to one million. This congregating area is perhaps one of their last few resting points before making the final push home to their spring mating grounds in Canada’s northern tundra. 

Sometimes I can hear the flocks flying over my house at night. If I step out into the dark, I can spot the fine white lines of their V-formations as they trace through the sky. How they see and know where to go is part of their mystique. Like other birds, they have magnetic receptors behind their eyes that help orient them North and South. It’s also believed they use the sun’s position and constellation patterns as maps for their journey. These tools allow birds to navigate established flight paths used for generation after generation over thousands of years.

What I like best about my spring heralds are their massive numbers. Yet despite there being so many, the majority of Midwesterners have never seen or heard of them. That’s because the geese follow the river flyways so closely; people in the heartland, who aren’t near rivers, don’t get to see or enjoy them. Traveling individually or in small flocks, they could be easily missed. But being larger birds traveling in huge groups, they stand out. Of course, many other bird species travel in numbers just as great, perhaps even higher (such as starlings, warblers, and ducks). Still, their smaller sizes make them disappear in the vast skies.

The opportunity to see these large flocks reminds me of historical accounts of Passenger Pigeons. Early explorers and settlers described the massive flocks of Passenger Pigeons as being so great that they could take days or several hours to pass overhead. Sadly, now Passenger Pigeons are extinct – the result of over-hunting, and this is magical phenomenon is one we can never experience. 

Snow Geese are actually a problem species for Canada these days, as their populations have risen. The result is that their large numbers have caused incredible destruction to Tundra vegetation. Efforts to cull their population with hunting have proven to be ineffective. With a million eyes in every flock, watching for predators, it is nearly impossible for hunters or natural predators to draw close enough to significantly reduce their numbers.

Despite being a conservation challenge, seeing Snow Geese in large numbers is still a thrill and an opportunity to witness something natural at its peak of survival. But, it’s something we shouldn’t always count on being here. Just as millions of Passenger Pigeons, Carolina Parakeets, or American Bison once pulsed upon this land, we may one day find that Snow Geese too could disappear. Making time to drive to backwaters and flyways during migration season is a magnificent gift you can give yourself, your family, or your friends. It’s a wild goose chase you’ll never forget or regret.

This month under Recommended Reads I review How Do Birds Find Their Way? By Roma Gann — an older, but excellent children’s book offering insights into bird migration.  And for a little fun while teaching children about bird migration, check out my Activities section. There you’ll find instructions on how to make a Snow Goose Mobile.

What is Love?

It’s February already. The month we celebrate Valentine’s Day and everyone we love. Suppose I were to ask a hundred different people to describe what they feel love is. In that case, I’d probably get a hundred or more different answers. And yet, despite these different responses, the feeling we each get when receiving or performing loving acts is the same… an overwhelming sense of warmth, love, affection, and connection to one another. Not only do those we love matter to us, but WE too matter when we are with them.

When we are children, we feel and see love when we are cuddled, teased, and pleased by the people around us. Love secures and encourages us to grow. As teens and adults, we experience the flutters, blushes, and attraction of physical love, making us feel beautiful and significant, propelling us. And when we grow old, love becomes the comforting intangible treasure that we cling to with gratitude, as it emboldens us to accept what lies beyond this life on earth.  It seems that Love is a moving force, always driving us forward. 

I see and feel love in the most minor and subtle things – like when my husband says, “I’ll cook dinner for us tonight.” Or when we go for a walk, and he silently extends his arm, reaching for my hand. I feel love when my daughter calls me, and even if there isn’t much to say, love hangs in the air between us. And I feel love when my granddaughter hugs her Papa and me when it’s time to leave from a visit, and she holds on tight, not wanting to let go. We feel what we mean to her, and we hope she knows how powerful our love for her is too.

There are a gazillion ways to see and express our love for one another and this world. Love is packed somewhere in every day. But unfortunately, our world has become very good at ignoring it and focusing on the saddest, most tragic, or heinous incidents in humanity. Some days I read headlines and within seconds am overcome by story after story of unbelievable acts of hatred and depravity. Sometimes these horrible truths sink deeply into my brain, and I find myself becoming more negative, skeptical, or just plain angry.

To not be consumed or changed by the anti-love stories the world hurls at us, I think we must instead make ourselves ask, where is the love? Why don’t people know love? Who and what fails them? How can anyone survive in a world without love? I know I can’t. I want to wake up in the morning with a heart that asks, “What will I love today?” I am reminded of Mr. Rogers’ story about his mother telling him, as a child, that in a world filled with dark and scary things, “look for the helpers.” So I guess “look for the love” would be a similar strategy.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone did this? So, I have this idea. What would happen if I made up my mind to anchor every day of this month on the word LOVE. What if every day of February, and heck every month after that, for the rest of my life, began by asking myself, “What will I love today?” 

I could make this the first step of each day, like taking a vitamin, and giving it just as much importance as showering, getting dressed, and waking to be part of the world. I could keep a notebook, jotting down where I’ve found examples of love, or note my efforts to express love — a record of love accountability. If I made a conscious effort to look for love every day and review it before going to bed at night, I might sleep better and learn to walk in love more and more throughout each day. My awareness of “love” would be increased and hard-wired into my brain. If I mirrored that to others, they might want to join me.

What is love? Love is a cornucopia of feelings, and our interpretation of love changes with time. Love is also in our actions, choices, and how we perceive things. My challenge to you all is to hang your days on LOVE. Carve out a minute for awareness of love every day, and keep moving toward it. We have nothing to lose.

This month’s Recommended Read is The Love Letter by Anika Aldamuy Denise (Harper Collins, 2019), a sweet story about the domino effect of love actions.

And if you’re looking for a “love” project to share with your children, check out my activities page for how to make a colorful Valentine Heart Suncatcher

Moving Forward

It’s been a bit challenging for me to write my first post for the New Year.  After a bitter battle with returning breast cancer, my mother slipped away from us on December 28th.  The hole she has left behind is massive, and for now, it is hard to imagine moving past the pain of losing her.  Yet I know somehow I will.

So how to begin the New Year, focus on my writing, and think about writing for children is the task at hand.  One thing that came to mind as I mulled over the possibilities was to write about how my husband and I end each year and begin the New Year by writing and reviewing the last 364 days. 

Throughout the year, Tom and I make our daily and weekly notes of appointments, travel, birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, etc., in our little pocket calendars.  We also both keep journals.  And we both are active in social media and our blogs.  Each of these avenues presents opportunities to record happenings in our lives, from mundane to extraordinary and unexpected occurrences. 

Finally, when December 31st rolls around, we set aside some time to scan over the year’s calendar entries, Facebook, Blog posts, and journals and make a list of the monthly highlights.  Either on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, we sit down with a glass of wine and read each other’s Year-in-Review lists.  It’s always a happy and reflective experience.

We started this tradition about 6 years ago when we were snowbound in our home and had no desire to be out in public celebrating New Year’s Day.  The process was enjoyable, so we decided to make it an annual tradition.  Several things make the Year-in-Review such fun.

1.) Looking at everything you’ve done over the year really shows you how much you can accomplish and how fast time flies.

2.) You have a record of triumphs, failures, surprises, sad events, and other important turning points.

3.) Small events or happenings that might otherwise be forgotten are there to remind us of life’s daily sweetness.  e.g., “Today I picked eggplant from the garden, and tonight we will enjoy eggplant parmesan.  Or “Today I sat on the porch, and a hummingbird hovered in front of me, pondering the feeder hanging near where I sat.”

4.) Sometimes, we remember events differently.  Often this makes for some laughter, as my husband and I recount the same incident perceived in radically different ways.  However, we also find we fill in the blanks with each other’s accounts, enhancing the other.

5.) Reflecting on all that has occurred builds our gratitude for each day.

6.) Reviewing the year together strengthens our bond to one another and makes us happy to be partners in our life’s journeys.

It strikes me that such an activity would be a good thing for families to adopt.  Why not keep a family journal, where someone in the family or several people could write quick notes about each day?

There will be many days when not much happens.  And there may be other days where so much excitement happens that everyone wants to put down an entry.  A family could also make it into a privileged game.  Each week, someone is designated to be the memory keeper and writes something down for the days in that week.  Then on New Year’s Eve, make some popcorn and hot cider and sit down to read the Year-In-Review together.  Enjoy the memories of what you’ve shared together.  Both good and bad times will make you even stronger as a family.

Admittedly I did not want to participate in our Year-In-Review this year.  My mother’s passing left me feeling too sad to go through the process.  My grief over losing her and my memory of all her struggles seemed to overshadow everything.  But my husband encouraged me to try anyway, so I did.  And much to my surprise, it helped me.  While the calendar and journal entries documented my mother’s sad decline, they also showed me something else.  I saw that peppered throughout the year; there was still beauty.  There were still pleasant surprises and kind acts from friends, family, and neighbors.  There were still magnificent sunrises and sunsets, changing seasons, growing seeds, and singing birds.  Of course, life is sometimes harsh, bumpy, even nightmarish.  We all take our turns walking through dark valleys.  But life is also always beautiful around this.  We can return to beauty while we grieve.  And we can hope for and believe in better days. I believe my mother would want her family and friends to have such hope and live as much as possible with grateful hearts for all life’s wonders.

This month, my Recommended Read for Children is an older children’s book about entering a new calendar year:  The Stars Will Still Shine by Cynthia Rylant. I have found the sweet and simple lyrical words to be a comfort at this time in my life. In fact, any family looking past difficult times and trying to move forward in this New Year will appreciate the book which reminds us to be joyful for all the world’s beauty that still surrounds us.

A Seasonal Gift

It’s funny how our ideas on the best things in life change as we age. When I was a little girl, the best thing in my life was Christmas time. My Decembers were filled with anticipation for celebratory things like decorating the Christmas tree, family gatherings, sledding parties, and exchanging Christmas gifts.

But things have changed. While I still enjoy the sparkle and giving traditions of the season, I have discovered other enjoyments that I treasure during this time of year. My December thoughts now turn to the landscape and the hidden gifts within. My hungry eyes drink in scenes of fleeting natural beauty, and I ponder the miracles of their making, such as frosty fog or the intricate details of a snowflake. 

Winter months where I live on the flat, “tablelands” of Illinois can be pretty stark-looking. But I’ve learned that the barren appearance of the landscape can be deceiving.  All is not as it seems. There are treasures to be found.

About ten years ago, just 3 days before Christmas, a friend, who shares a love for birding, reported seeing a Snowy Owl on top of a telephone pole on her drive to work. When my husband and I learned this, we tore out the driveway. Then, we followed her directions to the site where this great creature was last seen.

The day was cold, foggy, and a bit drizzly. Visibility was not good. As we drove down the country highway and I looked out across the fields and the long line of telephone poles, I thought locating the owl would be like finding a needle in a haystack. It could have flown off anywhere since the hour it was first spotted, and our chances of seeing it were slim.  But then suddenly, there she was. High atop a pole, watching cars pass by. We held our breath as we slowed down the vehicle. We couldn’t stop because there was traffic behind us. So we drove a short distance and turned around to head back. We pulled off onto the shoulder of the road, where we could take a closer look. But when we got closer, the owl grew wary and took off, gliding over a field –disappearing into the fog. 

The entire experience lasted perhaps only a minute or two. But it was a minute of complete mystical magic. We had been given a tremendous gift – the opportunity to come face to face with a visitor from the Arctic reaches of our continent — a brave and beautiful creature, driven on a thousand-mile mission for a lemming — an animal that no doubt had also laid eyes upon polar bears, arctic foxes, and the dancing northern lights of the Aurora Borealis.  All other traditional thoughts of the Christmas season went out of my head at that point, and Decembers have never been the same since. What we experienced that day touched me profoundly and helped me realize that there are so many magnificent everyday gifts surrounding us.

Since that incredible first sighting, I have been privileged to have two other Snowy Owl sightings over the years. So, for me, December now marks the beginning of a 4 month-long quest to find Snowy Owls.

My husband and I go for drives in the country, scanning the ground for white lumps, which our spotting scope often reveals are plastic shopping bags littering the countryside.  We also check out the tops of every telephone pole and fence post.  So many times, we’ve raced to a place where a snowy owl has been spotted, and then we can never locate it. Often we return home and learn that someone else was in the same place and photographed it just minutes before or after we were there.  Snowy Owls are the elusive pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

It has been about six years now since I’ve seen one. And though I am frustrated that I haven’t seen one in a while, I know I will have the privilege again. Diligence will pay off. In the meantime, while I search, I will enjoy other precious December gifts.  There will be snow buntings eating grain spilled along the roadsides, bald eagles perched high in naked trees, and prairie grasses preserved in crystal. These are just some of the wonders the season gifts to us. We only need to train our eyes and minds to receive them before they disappear.

Turkey Terror

One of the things I’ve always loved about driving across the Illinois countryside is seeing large flocks of wild turkeys in spring and fall.  When I was a girl, turkeys were the stuff of legends. We read about them at school associated with the pilgrim’s thanksgiving stories, and the turkey was special meat served just once or twice a year at Thanksgiving or Christmas time. I never saw wild flocks of them when we drove through rural areas to my grandparent’s homes.  Turkey populations were possibly threatened or in decline at that time, as were the bald eagle and whitetail deer. But since then, conservation efforts have helped them to make a comeback. 

People’s views on eating turkey have also changed. It is now favored as a low-fat, heart-healthy eating option. People eat turkey meat all year long, but roasting an entire large turkey is still a holiday tradition.

Seeing flocks of turkeys grazing in fields always transports my mind to another time. I try to imagine living long ago as a pioneer. What must it have been like when the head male in the family proudly dragged home the large bird, tossing it at his wife to dress for supper?  I know from having turkey-hunting friends that there is more to hunting a turkey than pointing and shooting. Turkey hunters rise early and are in the woods by sunrise, hidden by their camouflaged gear, near turkey roosts in trees that the hunters staked out and observed months in advance.

Turkey hunting is only permitted at short and very specific times of the year. Hence, hunters have limited opportunities to take them. And the weather is often a challenging factor on these hunts. While some hunters may take a turkey in optimal conditions, fickle November and February are often rainy, snowy, windy, or sleeting, affecting their abilities and success.  Nevertheless, determined hunters pursue the great birds by hiding silently, waiting, and enduring whatever conditions until the turkeys descend from the trees to begin their day. One friend told me of waiting for turkeys to wake and having one fly out of a tree at high speed, knocking him over. He said it was like having a 40-pound bowling ball hurled at you.

Spring-time turkey hunting is possibly trickier as male turkeys gather up their harems for mating season and can be pretty protective. Their large bodies can be quite formidable, and their spurs can do some damage if they are feeling overly defensive.  A male turkey won’t hesitate to chase a perceived threat.

About a decade ago, I learned first-hand about turkey aggression.  My husband and I enjoyed a small flock of fifteen wild turkeys that started passing through our little farm.  Sometimes they came very near the house, inspecting our flower beds and fire pit area. I could stand just a few feet away watching them from the kitchen window, amazed at their size and lack of fear in a human habitation area.  While the flock eventually moved on and stopped coming around, three of the young turkeys – a male and two females, decided to remain in the woods near our home. They frequently hung out with our neighbor’s free-ranging chickens across the road. We all found this amusing and the neighbor, a hunter, was quite happy to welcome them to the chicken yard. 

What was most amusing is that our neighbor had a few dogs that ruled the neighborhood, and the dogs accepted the turkeys and vice versa. Soon when the dogs chased cars down the road, these turkeys learned the trick, and they too could be seen chasing vehicles coming down the road. “Those turkeys think they are dogs!” I said to my husband. But those turkeys weren’t chasing cars for fun. Instead, they grew up on our road and regarded the area as their territory.

When mating season rolled around about a year later, the male turkey became possessive and protective of his tiny harem.  He was determined to see that no one came within 200 feet of them.  I couldn’t go out to retrieve letters from the mailbox without him barreling down on me, chasing me back into the house. I was alarmed by how fast a speeding turkey can move.  I got so nervous about getting the mail that I would watch out the window for a while, making sure the coast was clear before venturing outside. Ultimately, when turkeys lurked, I drove my car to the mailbox, grabbing the mail from my window. 

The little gang of turkey toughs then decided to claim our yard as part of their territory.  They would wander over to graze around our patio area in the early morning, then jump up on the roof over the kitchen. They would walk around the roof from one side of the house to the other. If you exited out the back door, they could hear you open the back door and would run across the roof, then come fluttering down after you if you tried to step out of the house. We literally had to run to our cars for safety.  The situation was rapidly becoming unbearable. I had never imagined being challenged going in and out of my home at will by a threatening wild animal.

One day, I got home from work, and my husband had not yet arrived home.  When I pulled into the driveway, I had a lot on my mind and forgot about the turkey situation.  I parked the car, grabbed my purse, and was about to open the door, when suddenly, out of nowhere, there staring back at me was the threatening male turkey. “You go home!” I shouted at him, but he just kept standing there staring. I could not open the door without it touching him, and he could easily have pinned me into the car.  So I just sat there.  I honked the horn a few times, trying to scare him, to no avail.  I then thought, surely these creatures with brains the size of a pea have short attention spans and would wander off, bored in a few minutes.  So, I laid back my car seat to be out of his sight, and I decided to be real still, so he would think I’d gone away and he’d go home.  I laid there for 20 minutes! And when I sat back up, there was his face, looking at me through the window!  He was a turkey not to be reckoned with.

‘This is nuts!  Be a woman. Use your superior brain and shoo him off!’ I said to myself.  I looked around me for something – my MacGyver moment.  In the back of my SUV, I had a sheet of foam core that I’d purchased for a project. I would use it as a shield. I took a deep breath and slowly opened my door, sliding the foam core between myself and the turkey. As I got out, I pressed the foam core up against him so that all he could see was the mass of white, and I kept pushing him away. I had to turn a bit, then walked backward toward the house, holding the foam core up to block him. He was puzzled but kept advancing, like a bull determined to gore a matador with a red cape. I yelled and cussed at him, but he was undeterred. At last, I made it to the door and managed to slip into the house with a racing heart. 

This aggressive turkey nonsense could not go on much longer. So, I started googling how to hunt a turkey and where and how to get a hunting license. I even went so far as to read about how to pluck and dress a turkey.  Fall turkey hunting season would soon arrive, and Thanksgiving was not far away.  I began to form a plan. Then I came home from work one day, ready to do battle, and there simply were no more turkeys.  I never knew for sure what happened, but I strongly suspect that while I was at work, my neighbor, who had welcomed them into the chicken yard, took matters into his own hands. He was perhaps home, happily preparing them for his Thanksgiving dinner.

You would think I might dislike turkeys after these experiences, but I don’t. I still thrill at seeing them. Now, I’m just a little bit wiser and more respectful of their intelligence, habits, and stealth abilities. Benjamin Franklin suggested a turkey would be the perfect national symbol of strength.  He likely had seen them in action to come up with this notion. Frankly, Mr. Franklin, I know where you were coming from. But in the end, I’m happy we instead bestowed that honor on the Bald Eagle. And I am quite pleased to eat turkey on Thanksgiving and throughout the year!

This week’s Recommended Read for little ones is Turkey Trouble written by Wendi Silvano and illustrated by Lee Harper.  And for some holiday fun, under the Activities section of the blog, you will find a Find the Lurking Turkeys challenge and A Thanksgiving Turkey Coloring Sheet.

A Love for Leaves

Although I treasure the beauty of each new season, fall and spring are my particular favorites. Flowers, shrubs, trees, berries, fruits, and vegetables all burst with color at this time, turning the landscape into a virtual kaleidoscope.

When autumn trees explode in their last hurrah of yellows, reds, and oranges, I am reminded of some of my happiest childhood memories. As a kid, I loved helping to rake the backyard leaves into massive piles. My brothers and I would dive into the sea of crunch and color and take turns burying one another in a leaf pile. I can still feel and sense the magic of being enveloped in leaves, deeply inhaling their smell and absorbing the intensity of their colors as sunlight filtered through them. I must have only done this a small handful of times when I was small, yet the memory of it all was so satisfying and remarkable that it is with me still today. I would dive and bury myself in a leaf pile now if it weren’t for my age and the worry that my neighbors would think I was insane. Honestly, though, what if? Would it be so ridiculous to see a senior citizen reliving her past, lying on the ground while her husband buried her in leaves?

Years ago, I watched a PBS fundraising presentation of author Leo Buscaglia, giving a lecture on LOVE. Leo is a lover of everything and talked about teaching his students to not miss an opportunity to live in and love the magic of every moment we get. He would make his students gather up leaves and dump them on the floor of his living room and walk-in them, smell them and bask in their glory. At the time, I thought, what a mess to clean up! But now I get it, and I can only love him more for it. Why not do such a thing? It would be an opportunity to make a beautiful memory of a fleeting gift from nature. And as for the mess, that would be fleeting too. Making time to savor the beauty of something is not only a way to heighten your appreciation for nature’s magic, but it’s also a way to love and nurture yourself. I, for one, feel healing and power when I surround myself with Mother Nature’s wonders.

I suspect my love for fall leaves has been inherited from my mother. For as long as I can remember, she was a leaf-presser. All of the biggest, heaviest books on her bookshelf contained pages stuffed with leaves and flowers sandwiched between sheets of paper towels. She would press the leaves then later craft them into pictures that she framed. 

She didn’t restrict this hobby to just pressing fall leaves. She also pressed flowers from her perennial garden as well as charming little weeds. Over the years, she and I have visited her book-pressed leaves many times. We’ve mined them to craft notecards or pictures or just look at and reminisce about favorite trees she and Dad planted in the yard. In her dining room, there is a wall with six large framed pictures featuring her leaf-designed art.

Today, it is chilly, and fall colors are at their peak on my street. I will walk down to the little park at the corner and collect some of the prettiest leaves I can find, then press them in her honor. I will carry on her tradition of keeping the best pieces of fall preserved to enjoy throughout the year. I will try to recall the species of trees each leaf comes from and use some for crafting. Lately, making nature impressions in clay has become one of my favorite activities.

Fall is only here a few short weeks, so grab your loved ones and get out there to wallow in it. Toss and shuffle through the colorful leaf confetti that nature has blessed us with. Collect some of the best leaves you can find, and press them for crafting. Make a point of learning what trees the leaves come from. Make leaf mandalas, leaf crowns, leaf rubbings, or press them in clay to always remember them. Savor this spectacular seasonal celebration of life and color before all becomes dormant. It will all be gone way too soon.

For a fun fall activity, check out my Activities section of the blog to learn more about making leaf mandalas. This project can be done anywhere, by anyone, at any age, with leaves or any natural materials of your choice. This week’s Recommended Read is on The Leaf Thief by Alice Hemming, illustrated by Nicola Slater.

Weathering Storms

I’ve fallen behind in posting blog entries lately, as my energies have focused on assisting my mother. She has been battling numerous health issues.  It is a rather dark period for us as many of her ailments are chronic, and our questions about the causes of her symptoms go unanswered.

At times like this, it’s hard to know what to do for a loved one. What words should be spoken? What acts of comfort can be offered?  I remember so many times when I experienced illness as a child. My saint of a mother spent sleepless nights holding up my head over a bucket or stroking my hair, tenderly whispering that she loved me.  When I felt my worst, she was always there to reassure me that this would pass and she would not leave me.

Now it is my turn. And though I am limited in what I can do for her, it seems to be of comfort, to just be near sharing in her periods of quiet distress and prayer. No matter how old we are, we all want our mothers when we are ill. Even our mothers long for their mothers and to be mothered from time to time. It’s hard to be an eternal pillar of strength. We may grow up and grow old, yet the children we once were still live inside us. So when we feel vulnerable, we long for the protection and even guidance we once received from a parent.

How can we help our children when they are ill or feel frightened and vulnerable when their loved ones fall sick?  Perhaps it is just time, being still with one another — and facing life’s trials together, that is most helpful.

This week, I listened to an interview with Jane Goodall on the radio. She is soon to release a new book about hope.  When asked what gives her hope, she said that human intellect and our ability to change the way we think and approach things give her hope that the world can become a better place.  She then explained that we are constantly conditioned to think outward, look at the bigger picture, and place our actions in a broader context. That’s all well and good, but sometimes the big picture can overwhelm us and feel like a tornado coming at us. Instead, Goodall prefers to look at the small picture, the good things that an individual can do, or the small accomplishments we can control. These things surround us, and if we start to focus on one small act at a time before we know it, we begin to see that all the little acts can come together, forming something positive. We can think of our best energies growing out of us, spreading out to the broader world like a “tornado in reverse.” 

I pondered her philosophy as a coping strategy for facing illness.  Today, when I visited my mother, after listening to her express her sadness and stress.  I said, “Hey, I know something good today, Mom.” She raised her eyebrows, “What?” she asked.  And I said, “We are still here, and we get to be together this day.  We are warm, clean, fed, safe, and stable for the moment. This is a good place to be right now. Let’s not think of lovely yesterdays and uncertain tomorrows. Let’s just focus on the blessing of today and this moment.” 

If we practice this every day, maybe we can make a “reverse tornado,” preventing a storm of destructive thoughts and emotions from tearing us apart. Perhaps, by focusing on the small blessings we see around us, they will encircle us, forming an invincible whirlwind force of strength, helping us to face the days ahead.

This week’s book review is A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead and illustrated by Erin E. Stead. It’s the perfect story for young readers who feel ill or know someone going through an illness or challenging time, highlighting the importance of being there for those we love.

Pumpkin Time

It’s that time of year again when trees turn brilliant colors, and autumn leaves begin to fall like confetti.  Like so many people, one of my favorite things to do this season is visiting the pumpkin patch at our nearby apple barn.

I always looked forward to when my parents would take my brothers and me out to pick our Halloween pumpkins as a child.  There was only one kind of pumpkin everyone could buy in those days – the traditional Jack-o-lantern pumpkin.  But today, there are so many more varieties available. Blue, white, pink, green-striped, yellow, splotchy, warty, jumbo, minis, you name it.  In all, there are 147 varieties to consider. 

Pumpkin decorating techniques have also changed since I was a child in the 60s. When I was young, you simply carved your pumpkin with a steak knife. Now, people carve them, paint them, glue things to them, decoupage, or stack and dress them. There seems to be no end to what you can do.

The memory of agonizing over the perfect pumpkin to take home is still fresh in my mind. Once we made our selections and lugged the great orbs home, we dived into the delightful mess of scooping out the seeds and goop from the pumpkin’s innards.

We planned out our pumpkin’s faces by drawing patterns on paper and left the handling of knives and carving to our parents.  Our pumpkins’ faces were simple, with triangular eyes and big happy grins. But, again, this is unlike how pumpkins are carved today, with special miniature scoops, punches, saws, and elaborate designs.

Besides enjoying the magic of making a Jack-O-Lantern, we equally enjoyed roasting and eating the pumpkin seeds. In those times, pumpkin seeds or “pepitas” were not readily available in stores.  So eating fresh roasted pumpkin seeds was a particular treat.

I like that traditions change and expand over time. I like that you can choose from many pumpkin varieties and decorate with them in imaginative ways. I like that pumpkin spice coffees, donuts, pies, candles, air sprays, and hand lotions are now offered throughout the year but are especially celebrated in autumn.  And perhaps most of all, I love that it’s okay to be an adult and still love picking out a pumpkin to decorate and put out on the front porch.  Pumpkins stopped appearing on my parent’s porch after we kids grew up and moved away. Today, it’s common to see just as many adults as kids in the pumpkin patches.  We don’t have to stop loving pumpkins because we grow up.

I no longer buy just one orange pumpkin for the porch. I now buy a variety of types and disperse them throughout the garden and front and back doors.  Even though I now have six pumpkins, I still want to buy more.   In my view, it’s not a waste of money. When the season is over, I can crack them in half and put them in the backyard for the squirrels and other neighborhood critters to feed on. 

The availability of more pumpkin varieties encourages me to revisit one of my happy childhood memories.  But this time, I get to expand on the fall ritual; I am in charge. I am the child and the adult, with money in her pocket, a driver’s license, and the ability to decide when I need more pumpkins and when I’ve bought enough. And really, I never get enough.

This week’s recommended read for children is, Little Boo by Stephen Wunderli, illustrated by Tim Zeltner — a tale about a little pumpkin seed that can hardly wait to grow up to become a Jack-O-Lantern. And be sure to check out my Activities section for some seasonal Pumpkin fun.

An Introvert’s Path

I love children’s books that can provide a snapshot of familiar feelings and situations in our lives and offer ideas on how one might navigate these experiences.  This week’s blog is about introverted personalities.  I was inspired after reading a picture book that never labeled its main characters as introverts. But being an introvert, I immediately identified with them.  You can read the review for On the Night of the Shooting Star by Amy Hest under the Recommended Reads section of this blog.

For the better part of my life, I have longed for acceptance and closeness with people.  I mean, who doesn’t?  Right?  And yet, despite this need, I am often drained and overwhelmed by people, feeling the need to pull away and be alone. It turns out that this odd paradox is normal behavior for someone with an introverted personality.

Being an introvert can be a challenge for a child. We are conditioned to believe that the cogs that turn the wheels of this world must function in the same way to operate machinery most efficiently. As a result, introverts are pushed to be someone else or do things that don’t feel natural. We are often mislabeled as being shy. While introverts can appear to be closed off or even bashful, they are quite capable of being team players and performers. But introverts also always need to balance social demands with a fair amount of space and quiet time for introspection. 

As an introverted child, I often felt different from other kids in my classrooms and even my own family. Honestly, the norm was to feel out of sync with others, though I tried to be pleasing and what I thought people expected of me. I followed all the rules, got good grades, did my chores, said my prayers, and played nicely with others.  But still, I would have to say that my overall impression of childhood was feeling tremendous pressure to conform to be accepted and feel loved. 

Because it was difficult for me to be all things to all people, I struggled with fear of failure and doubted my abilities. Low self-esteem is another common trait found among introverts.  You know you can bravely be what is expected, but for only so long until your mind and body say flee.  The pulling back is hard to explain to people. Introverts can shine bright, but like candles that burn down to a nub, they can reach the end of their wick.

Introverts can also sometimes have difficulty making lasting friendships. Fortunately, introverts aren’t rare. They’re everywhere! But often, they are challenging to find and connect with because they wear the required masks and perform the required dances we all do to get through life.  I’m happy to report that I have enjoyed many wonderful friendships with both extroverts and introverts over the years. However, these relationships did not always happen quickly or easily. It took a long while and many uncomfortable experiences before I learned that I didn’t have to make myself into someone I wasn’t and follow the crowd to have friends.

People, if you have a child, or know someone who tends to be quiet, unsporty, unjokey, tends to be a loner, or refuses to be part of the clique- be patient. Be kind. Trust me. They want to please you. But they also need to be true to themselves.  They are processing.  Introverted personalities are common and not defective. Introversion is not a mental illness. Instead, it is a trait that we can be born with, as integral to our individuality as the color of our eyes or skin.

If there is one thing I can say to the parent of an introverted child, it’s don’t push too hard. And don’t worry.  Love, friendship, and opportunities will find a way. Just be there along the sidelines and keep telling them you love everything about them. Honor their quiet and space. Reassuring love is all they need to be encouraged to step outside of themselves when the time and need are right.