Today I retired

Today I retired.
For eight years since my son entered first grade I’ve been running the Scholastic Book Fairs as a parent volunteer. Twice a year for a week I introduced students from kindergarten to 8th grade to the best books published for young people. From picture books to easy readers, from chapter books to middle grade and even young adult novels, from the big names in children literature to more recent authors, I’ve discovered year after year some of the best written stories offered to children in the US.
Today since it was my last book fair, I got a retirement gift.
Students made me a book filled with funny and warm small notes. I read them all, able to put a face on most names. I’ve met many boys and girls before they could read fluently, I’ve read picture books to them, I’ve helped them to pick their first chapter book and I’ve congratulated them when they purchased their first novel.
Today I retired from eight years of book fairs and I already miss my customers.

Liberating First Draft

“I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.” James Michener

In my dreams I am too. In real life, I love writing the first draft of a story. Especially with a deadline. Last November, I signed up for this crazy event called NanoWrimo. The goal is to write 50 000 words in a month.
Fact is I wrote more than 50 000 words just on time for Thanksgiving dinner.
Then of course I had to start the revision of what Anne Lamott calls the shitty first draft.
I am fully aware of the flaws of my first draft and that the story that will emerge won’t have much to do with the flow of words that poured out of me for a month.
Yet I love my first draft and refuse to give it a bad name or to be snotty and ignore it five or seven drafts later.
A first draft is similar to a downhill hike.
This is as liberating to write without thinking as it is to walk without struggling. Besides, this is trully exciting to click on the word count at the end of the day and to discover with pure joy that yes, today 2000 words have been written.
I have two completed novels and countless picture book manuscripts that are now out either with an agent or an editor and I know that if any of them likes my work enough to take a chance with me, I will have to revise and rewrite and I am up to the challenge.
But earlier this month I was missing a first draft and just couldn’t wait for November. So on May 1st, I started my own NamoWrimo. I couldn’t say no to the moment when my fingers hit the keyboard and open a blank page.
I have now created people I won’t ever meet in real life but if I’m clever will be as alive as any human I know. I have invented backstories for them and concocted plots that if I’m careful with my craft will be believable.
And if I’m determined to sit every day behind my desk and write 2000 words, I will by the end of May have a first draft, full of flaws and mistakes but also full of promise.
But that is another story.

Memories of Nairobi

For Christmas, my daughter offered me Say You’re One of Them from Uwem Akpan. By then the  book had already received multiple awards and national recognition. I didn’t read it immediately but finished it today two days after I turned the first page.
As I was reading the collection of beautifully crafted yet brutal stories telling of contemporary African children, the trip I made to Kenya in the late 80s rushed to my memory.
Africa was a continent I wanted to discover and Kenya was then a safe and exciting country to explore. I joined an expedition that left Paris for Nairobi where we met the two guides who accompanied us for two weeks through the Maasai territory where we camped and discovered the African wilderness.
I remember the streets of Nairobi filled with men, young and old, sitting on the sidewalks, talking and watching people pass by.
I remember accompanying one of the women of my group and searching for hours cluttered shops for feminine hygienic products.
I remember odorant markets that sell food and drinks, although we were reminded to avoid them if we didn’t want to get sick.
I remember the bus ride along the bumpy roads that took us to the wilderness.
I remember the sun playing hide and seek in the savanna.
I remember lionesses hunting zebras and antelopes.
I remember a giraffe paying me a surprised visit on a night trip to the makeshift bathroom.
I remember pink flamingos covering Lake Victoria and mosquitoes swarming over us, hungry for fresh blood.
I remember sumptuous sunsets which tainted the sky in colors that can’t be named.
I remember snow topping the Kilimanjaro and a sky bigger than earth.
I remember eating papaya for breakfast and drinking tea at night around a fire that kept wild animals at bay.
I remember waking up before dawn to watch female monkeys taking care of their babies with tenderness and patience I believed only existed among human beings.
And of course, I remember the long legged Maasai children running to us, flies flocking to their eyes as they showed us with pride the necklaces and bracelets they made with tiny colorful beads.
They carried a mix of seriousness, innocence and playfulness not that different from what I saw among the Parisian children I babysat. Intrigued by the way we looked they reached for our light skins and our blond hair. Only days later, we reached Mombasa along the Indian Ocean.
I had heard of a market walking distance from the hotel where we stayed and since I was tired of being with my group 24/7, I wandered away.
I remember countless unoccupied men sitting in clusters and observing the only white woman who hadn’t thought for one second that she was displaced in this very male place. None of them talked to me and I returned to the hotel made for tourists like me. I clutched the plastic bag that held the chess game I chose for the man I would marry a couple of years later and the colorful fabric I still use today as a tablecloth, feeling the burn of the men’s glare on my back.
When I left Kenya in the fall of 1986, I promised myself to return. Instead, I moved to the US in 1990 and never returned to Africa.
The first story in Owem Apkan’s collection takes place in now day Nairobi and guilt and shame tug at me because the memories I have of the city don’t include slums, violence, extreme poverty and galloping demography. Apkan writes about corruption, children who take adults’ decisions while being only twelve years old.
Did I miss all of that because I was a tourist, too young to see beyond what was before my very eyes? Was Africa already on the verge of collapse and did I live the following years, ignoring the signs already showing emerging problems? Unemployed men, countless children, lack of hygiene and threatening drought.
It is convenient to visit Africa and keep beautiful pictures of sunsets and wild animals. It is disturbing to read Uwem Apkan and realize that I haven’t really seen Africa.

May 1st and Lily of the Valley

When I was a little girl growing up in France, May 1st was a special day. Sprigs of lily of the valley were sold everywhere in the streets for a modest sum.
My mother didn’t buy any since our garden had filled with not only lily of the valley or muguet in French but daffodils, tulips and other spring flowers.
King Charles IX started the tradition when he received a sprig of lily of the valley as a lucky charm. Much later in the early 20th century, the flower became the symbol of la fête du travail or Labor Day in English.
That day, thousands of people march through the streets of France with banners and microphones, gathering all unionized workers.
This year, their number has decreased. The different unions disagree on so many issues that so they chose to walk independently. The sans papiers or undocumented immigrants living in France were invited to join the demonstrations.
Today, all across Europe people marched as well. According to the French papers Le Monde and Libération, from Germany to Turkey, from Greece to Spain, the same angst for jobs and social security was palpable. Greece and Russia exploded with violence while most demonstrations went peacefully in the rest of Europe.
Asia saw its share of incidents in Macao and Indonesia where police and protestors clashed against each other.
Here, in the US, people didn’t wait for May 1st but instead picked April 29 to march on Wall Street reclaiming justice. The vast majority of Americans opposed the bail out of the banks and financial industry. Now that information about significant profits has been released, it is a wonder violence didn’t erupt also at home.
Today, like in Paris, protests in favor of immigration brought thousands in the streets of Los Angeles.
This morning, I read that two sprigs of lily of the valley were sold for as much as four euros all over France. With unemployment skyrocketing, many French didn’t buy the symbolic flower of Labor Day.
Then, I thought, one thing is sure: my mother certainly hasn’t changed her habits. Today she must have picked sprigs from her garden and made a beautiful bouquet. She could have sold it for 100 euros. Instead she did, I’m sure, what she has done every May 1st. She put a couple of sprigs in each room of her house.
After all, lily of the valley was first meant to be a good luck flower.

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