The Magical Book

When I was a second grader, my school held a fundraiser to fill some empty shelves in the school library. Rather than just asking parents for money, the school had each child select a volume from a table filled with new books, take it home and ask Mommy and Daddy to puhleeeeze buy their sweet little offspring a book. After reading their new acquisition, the child would to donate the book to the school library so it could be enjoyed by all.

As class 2-A herded past the book tables, my ADHD brain locked on to a book wearing a bright yellow dust jacket with the title in bold red letters:100 Pounds of Popcorn by Hazel Krantz.

The cover illustration closed the deal: Four kids making a huge mess while popping mass quantities of popcorn. The random messiness made those kids seem more like me, and the fun they were having made me want to be more like them.

Sold.

However, when the day arrived when we were to donate our books, it became apparent that I hadn’t been properly briefed on the etiquette of school fundraising, for I committed the mortal sin of refusing to surrender my book to the librarian.

I’d already developed somewhat of a reputation by then (in 1962, ADHD was still known as “Rotten Little Brat Syndrome”), so when I made a bit of a scene over the librarian attempting to steal my book, the case was automatically escalated to the principal’s office. I’d already spent so much time there that I wouldn’t be surprised if even today there’s a chair in the waiting area bearing a brass name plate in my memory.

When my case came up on the principal’s docket, I stated my position in clear and certain terms: It was my book. I’d chosen it from the book table with my own grubby little paws. I paid for it with cash my mother gave me to buy a book. I’d even written my name inside the cover with a red pencil (though I don’t recall if I wrote it before or after they pressed me to donate it). I loved my little book, and the librarian couldn’t have it. End of discussion.

The battle escalated, as such battles are wont to do. When gentle reasoning failed, the principal hinted at the possibility of eternal damnation (being a Catholic school, they  could get away with that), and when all else failed, she pulled out the biggest weapon of all: a call to my parents. That threat almost worked, but one glance at my book’s cover renewed my resolve to endure any punishment required to win my case. After the threatened call, my father grudgingly agreed to buy a second copy for the library. He later extracted the price from my hide.

What drove me to fight so stubbornly for that book?

Reading 100 Pounds of Popcorn had revolutionized my eight-year-old life. Before that book, I thought everyone in the world was just like me. I had no idea that other families were different. In the pages of 100 Pounds of Popcorn, Hazel Krantz transported my tender heart to a world very unlike the one in which I lived.

To most, the Taylor family would seem unremarkable. A father, a mother, eleven-year-old Andy and his eight-year-old sister Sally Jean. On the way home from the beach, they see a huge bag of popping corn fall from the back of a truck, and being a moral, law-abiding type Mr Taylor tries to return it to its rightful owner. The owner isn’t able to retrieve the bag before it would spoil, and offers to let the Taylors keep it if they would like. Andy sets out to start a popcorn business with the help of his kid sister and several friends, and they all learn the hard way that there’s a lot more to selling popcorn than they thought.

Okay, so it’s a nice little story. How did that revolutionize my life?

The first time I read that book, I waited with tense anticipation for what I knew would happen. I waited, but what I expected never came. I read it again, just to make sure I hadn’t missed something. Then I read it again just because I didn’t want to leave the magical world.hidden in those pages, a world  where Andy’s father never yelled at him, never threw things in anger, and never once hit his wife or either of his children. Andy made some mistakes and learned lessons the hard way, but his father never called him stupid or any of those other names I’d expected. And Andy never once had to stop and discern whether his father was drunk or sober and adjust as needed to avoid his wrath.

In the pages of 100 Pounds of Popcorn, Hazel Krantz gave me a most wonderful gift. A glimpse of a world where children were free to be children, to learn and grow and live with all the hope and possibilities they could handle. I couldn’t explain it then as I can now, but that brief visit to normality changed me. It awakened my ability to dream, to imagine, to envision a better world than the one in which I’d existed.

Is it any wonder I fought so hard to hold on to such a magical book?

When God started talking to me about writing for children and young teens, I didn’t want to discuss it. I didn’t want to go back and revisit the wounds of my childhood. A dear friend and mentor (and highly successful children’s writer) finally took me aside and told me that those wounds equipped me to write things that nobody else can write, not even her. She then gently but firmly kicked my backside and asked me to quit making excuses and start doing what only I can do. (Thanks, Nancy. I needed that.)

Shortly after I returned home from the conference where that discussion occurred, I spotted my ragged, dog-eared copy of 100 Pounds of Popcorn on my bookshelf, took it down and read it again, just as I’ve done hundreds of times before. And I remembered the magic.

And then I started writing for tweens and early teens—because somewhere out there, there’s a boy or girl who needs that magic.

Father’s Day, Hats, and Hand Grenades

fathersdaysignI suppose it would have been appropriate for me to post about Father’s Day a little earlier than 7PM on Sunday, but frankly I didn’t plan on writing a Father’s Day blog post this year. Then two things happened to change my mind.

First, my Pastor read something from the pulpit this morning. Then, I stumbled on this great Father’s Day picture and just had to share it with y’all.

While the casual observer might think this hilarious photo is out of character with the rest of this post, in a weird and wonderful way the two go together like steaks and charcoal. I’m quite certain that when my daughter Sara sees this she’ll roar, because she and I have such similar senses of humor that we usually can just look at each other, instantly think of the same punch line, and burst into simultaneous laughter while everyone else is wondering what’s so funny.

Sara, who is now 30 years old and just finished her eighth year teaching German to elementary school kids, is fond of saying that she is a fascinating study of nature versus nurture. The interesting thing is that when people who know us learn we are a blended family they always assume she’s my blood and Sharon adopted her, when in fact it was I who adopted Sara on December 18, 1992.

Which brings us to the second part of this post, the part that happened first. This morning, my Pastor read something from the pulpit. I recognized the piece before the first sentence reached the back row—a 500 word essay Sara wrote last year when she nominated me for the Arkansas Baptist News Father of the Year award. Here is what she wrote, without a single jot or tittle edited by me:

Most people just take the father God gives them at birth.  Not me.

God knew I needed a father I could touch to understand how much I am loved by Him.  After all, a woman’s image of God is often a replica of her image of her earthly father.  Since 1990, I’ve had a clearer image of God’s love because of my father.

I was nine, in 1989, when my mama met him.  She loved him a lot.  She asked if I loved him too. Until then, every man I had ever loved had gone away and left me and my mama behind.  I wanted my mama to have him.  I wanted to love him, but I was afraid he’d leave her, so I wouldn’t let myself. After all, it was my father who had abandoned me after my parents divorced in 1987.

About a year later in July 1990, my mama married him, but I was still afraid to love him.

It took some time, but eventually, I learned to trust him.  I asked him to become my father, legally. I was fourteen when on December 18, 1992, he stood before a judge, telling God and man that he chose me; that he wanted to be my father.  I wanted that too.

It’s been over fifteen years since that day.

I didn’t know it then, but I was broken inside, when it came to understanding what it meant to have a father who loves me and really does want me to be his daughter.  God knew that, and He always provides.

My father had been prepared, by God, to have a daughter.  He wanted a daughter even though there hadn’t been a girl born into his family in many generations.  God knew that he’d have a daughter and gave him the desire to be a little girl’s father.  God gives us the desires of our hearts.

At times, I have felt forsaken, abandoned, and so alone that I couldn’t see the presence of anyone around me–even God, Himself.  Thankfully, God put His skin on my father to help me learn to see Him when I feel alone.

As I have learned to trust him, I have trusted God more too.  I’ve always known, in my head, that God wants to tuck me in at night, wipe away my tears, walk hand in hand with me, and be my Father.  I can say that in the past fifteen years, I’ve been able to move that knowledge, slowly, from my head into my heart.

People often say that it takes a “real man” to be a father.  If you’re adopted, there’s more.  Because it takes a VERY special kind of “real man” to be a father to someone else’s child.

I’m exceedingly grateful that I know a “VERY special kind of ‘real man'”.  He’s more than a father to me.  He picked me to be his daughter.

His name is Dan Case, and I love him a lot.

–Sara Case, Fathers’ Day, 2008

Even though I’d read this before—more than once—I will admit to shedding humble tears. I am so very blessed, and so thankful for God’s amazing restoration and grace in my life, that I’ve found it difficult to find words to express myself. If you know me, you know that anything that can shut me up so effectively is a mighty big deal.

I love you, Sara. Thanks for a wonderful Father’s Day–and for the privilege of being your father.

Writer Coaster

Life is like a roller coaster–you’ve got your ups, you’ve got your downs, and just when you think you’re on a straight, level stretch, an unexpected curve throws you around a little. We have moments of anticipation as we climb the hill, and moments of either exhilaration or terror on the way back down.

The past couple of weeks have been a fine example of that roller coaster in action. First came the unexpected exhilaration of learning that I’m a finalist in the ACFW Genesis Contest (a national competition for unpublished novelists). The excitement came with a deadline: I had 48 hours to review the comments of the first-round judges and polish my entry before resubmitting for final round judging. Deadlines like this one are always adrenaline-laden thrill rides for me, and I honestly had a blast polishing and fine-tuning my entry.

Then, came a balancing heartbreak. Wookie, my long-time writing partner, creative consultant and quadruped muse, died.

WookieWookie has been a part of my writing life for eleven years. Back when the words “blog” and “Google” were not yet invented and I was sending out a daily email and playing with web site ideas, she provided many moments of inspiration and insight, not to mention stress relief–there’s great relaxation found in the purring of a kitten. She spent hours sitting on the back of my high-backed office chair, providing her creative services. Even in her old age, though terribly weak and frail, she provided consulting and therapeutic services from one of her favorite places of late, curled up on my lap between my belly and laptop.

I knew she wouldn’t be around forever. I even knew she was in her final days. What I didn’t know was how it would affect me when I stepped out of the bedroom and found her lifeless, furry form stretched out on the floor in the middle of the upstairs hall. Deep inside, I knew she was gone before I ever went looking for her, when I arose to answer nature’s call and she didn’t come into the bathroom and demand that the water dish be freshened. She hadn’t been snuggled on the bed with us either, though there had always been times when she preferred a bit of space and napped in the hallway. When my bladder awakened me, before I ever climbed out of the bed, I sensed it. When I found her in the hall, a wave of peaceful sadness hit me, but not one of surprise.

What did surprise me is how difficult it’s been to write in the five days since Wookie’s death. I’ve been incredibly busy with day-job projects, which provided a convenient excuse, but even in those moments when I’ve tried with all my might to make the words appear on the pages, what little has come forth has been nothing more than bilge. I’ve had so much that I’ve needed to write–thank you notes to Genesis judges, blog postings, the other 80,000 words of the novel I’m working on currently–and I’ve barely been able to write emails.

I sit here writing this, and I can almost see Wookie’s frail frame climbing up the chair, pushing with gentle authority until I move my left had out of the way and let her through to her destination. I recall the way she took over my lap at will, even in the trembling weakness of her final days, settling gingerly into her spot, struggling against her discomfort, determined to hide it from my notice. The way she purred when she found just the right spot, and looked up at me with as much adoration as a cat could stand to express. We understood each other, and even on the last evening of her life she inspired me as we shared what would be our last such moment of closeness.

Writers often find healing in their craft, and I’ve found healing in writing this little blog entry. I’m sure it’s grammatically imperfect and rife with the wickedness of excessive adverbs and passive voice, not likely to win any contests or impress any publishing power brokers. But as I write these words and contemplate my empty lap, the tears I so desperately needed to shed have come forth. While Wookie would certainly offer critique and editorial input, I believe that she would approve. I know that tomorrow, when I open my laptop to write, the words will come again, and Wookie will join the gallery of faithful felines who’ve taken up residence in my heart over the years and took a sliver of my heart with them when they left.

Wookie, however, took more than a sliver–she took a whole slice.

And Then There Were Three

An incredibly encouraging sign appeared in my kitchen this morning. It was something I haven’t seen in a while, a phenomenon that spoke to me loud and clear about God’s grace and His passion for “healing the broken hearted and bandaging their wounds.” (Psalm 147:2)

As I doctored my coffee, Wookie asked for–in her usual demanding tone–a taste of half-and-half.

Well so what? Your cat asked for cream. Big deal!

Yes, it was a big deal. Wookie hasn’t asked for a drop in nine days. I gave her a little one morning a few days ago, and she didn’t waste it (she’s never met a dairy product that she doesn’t like), but she was rather half-hearted, as though drinking her cream out of obligation rather than desire. This morning’s demanding tone warmed my heart the way the bell on an ice cream truck warms the heart of a child.

BlondieYou see, nine days ago, we lost a dear friend and family member. Blondie, one of Wookie’s feline cohabitants, was sick and went to the kitty doctor for help… and she didn’t come home. Reading what I’ve just written, it strikes me how we humans tend to soften the reality of death with quaint little phrases like “passed away” or “at rest” or the ever-spiritual “gone home to be with Jesus.” But this is one of the ways in which cats are smarter than humans: Wookie knew, the minute I walked in the door (if not before), that her sister Blondie was dead. So did Tingy and Marconi.

Just like the affected humans, each of our three remaining felines grieved in their own way. Tingy paced around the spare room, where Blondie was hiding out when I went to take her to the vet. Marconi, strong man that he is, withdrew to his office (under the bed) and mourned in solitude. Wookie lost her taste for cream. I came home and quietly put the empty cat carrier away, sat in my favorite recliner (where Blondie was fond of joining me for lap-time), and wept in temporary solitude. It wasn’t long before Wookie and Tingy joined me, Wookie in my lap and Tingy on my chest, nose-to-nose.

Blondie was a gentle soul. She was rescued as a kitten by Helping Hands for Little Paws, our favorite animal rescue organization. She was one of only two who survived from a diseased colony of feral cats. She was a beautiful and elegant feline, one that I couldn’t even begin to imagine in the wild, though her instincts were strong. Her personality was quiet; she would sit with us in the same room for hours and could come and go undetected. Every now and then she would crave a little lap time, and climb whatever obstacle stood in her way to have her place in my lap. And then, when she was finished, she was finished, and she moved on.

Blondie spoke infrequently, and of course only when it served her purpose. Most mornings, she would appear in the kitchen as I prepared our morning coffee, and request her morning portion of cream in a gentle and unassuming voice. Being who I am, the only reason she ever had to ask twice was her own impatience. But she was a generous and giving soul, as well. You see, there are times when we don’t give Wookie cream because she… well, let’s just say she seems to have her moments of lactose intolerance. If we set a bowl of cream out for Blondie and not for Wookie, Blondie would have just a taste and leave the rest for her elder sister. I’ve seen days when Blondie didn’t even sniff at the bowl–she just gave Wookie the high sign and walked away.

I miss Blondie tremendously. It took me these nine days to come to the place where I could write this. But when Wookie came to me this morning and asked for cream, I knew this would be the day. Just as Wookie is finding healing from her broken heart, I am finding healing for mine. And yes, writing critics, I used passive voice there on purpose–we are finding, not have found. Because healing isn’t an event, it’s a journey.

See ya later, friend.

It’s a sad day for me, a day of mixed emotions and inner conflict. Today, the remains of one of my dearest friends in the world, Christopher Kota, will be laid to rest here in central Arkansas. I miss my friend, and that in itself is enough reason for sadness. My inner conflict stems from the fact that, as my family, friends, and church are celebrating Christopher’s life, I will be somewhere between Cincinatti and Ashville, North Carolina, my bountiful frame crammed into a far too small airplane seat, and my grieving heart still in Little Rock. I’ll be on my way to the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers’ Conference in Ridgecrest, North Carolina. The trip has been planned for nearly a year now, and it’s where I need to be . . . but still, I wish I could be with those who will be celebrating Christopher Kota’s life. His is a life worth celebrating.

Christopher KotaI’ve known Christopher for around five years now. Ours has been a wonderfully indefinable relationship; we bonded almost immediately, and even when separated by great distance he’s been close to my heart since the day we met at Parkway Place Baptist Church.

Christopher loved a good debate, and at times, we were nearly polar opposites on the issue of the moment. But, we had the sort of rare and delightful brotherhood where we could disagree in love without harming our friendship. We saw the world through the filter of our own life experience, and the paths that our lives took prior to our meeting were much different. Yet there was always a sense of unity in our diversity. We shared a common passion—the “wonderful grace of Jesus, greater than all our sin,” to quote the old hymn.

And now, my friend Christopher, the dearest and best friend I have, is gone. The hole in my heart is so great that it defies description, and if you know me, you understand how very significant it must be to render me speechless.

The mourning of my heart today is overwhelming. Tears come easily, but my tears are not shed for Christopher. They are shed for nine year old David, who has lost his grandfather, his male role model, and his best buddy all at the same time. They are shed for Margaret, who has lost her husband, and for Manju, Sekhar (aka Bobby), and Jen, who have lost a father. Any my tears today are, selfishly, for me, and for all the rest of us who have no choice but to go on living in this world without Christopher Kota.

But I will not weep for Christopher Kota. Today, as we are learning to cope without him, he is dancing and rejoicing before God’s throne, free from all of the limitations of his earthly body, celebrating the one who gave him life, who sustained that life for 66 years, and who brought him safely home to live eternally in the presence of his Lord. How could I begrudge him that wondrous joy?

Proverbs 10:7 says that “The memory of the righteous will be a blessing,” and Christopher’s memory will certainly be a blessing to me. Even from the grave, his passion for the things of God challenges me to grow deeper in my spiritual walk. I will warmly remember his smile and his hearty laugh. But the most precious memory will be the delight of his hugs and his greeting whenever we would see each other. He would wrap his big arms around me in a warm embrace and say, “Oh, my God!” to thank God for our friendship. I will live the rest of my life in anticipation of the day when I will once again feel Christopher’s loving embrace, and hear him speak those words over my shoulder, “Oh, my God.” But on that day, Christopher Kota will be looking over my shoulder and speaking his thanks directly toward God’s throne.

I will not say goodbye, Christopher—I’ll see you later.

 BTW, Christopher’s family has set up a website so that his family and friends both here in the US and in his native land of India can share their thoughts and remembrances. Check it out at http://www.christopherkota.com/ .