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afterearthOn Friday I learned that the editor who agreed to acquire The Deep has since left the imprint. Another editor is willing to take a look at the manuscript, but the acquisitions board has decided to pass on my book. On Saturday I went to see After Earth (spoilers ahead); the reviews haven’t been good, but I’ve been wanting to see this film ever since the previews started last year. I’m not a huge fan of Will Smith (he’s talented but overexposed, in my opinion) and I didn’t enjoy his last collaboration with son Jaden, but After Earth intrigued me. I didn’t know M. Night Shyamalan was the director, nor did I realize that Will Smith came up with the story himself. I knew it took place long after humans had abandoned Earth but I didn’t know there was an alien menace…basically I decided to see the film because I’ve never seen a black family in space on film. Yes, there’s Uhura from Star Trek but I was never a Trekkie and I didn’t care for the recent film prequel—now that I think about it, I’m not sure I can even name any black women who got to be in space in something imagesCA8FZJ3Bother than a miniskirt. Can you? The women in After Earth (Sophie Okonedo and Zoe Kravitz) were mostly treated like eye candy, which was annoying, and the film was a bit slow and poorly written. But it was fairly original—at least it felt “new” to me because I haven’t seen a teenage black boy in a space suit fighting aliens. As Kitai, son of a gifted and revered military commander who’s injured in a crash, Jaden Smith gets to be on screen alone and much of the time he’s frightened, making mistakes, and desperate for the help his father can’t provide. We even see him cry, which is important since black boys aren’t often seen as vulnerable in our society. All boys face penalties for showing weakness, and so I liked that Kitai wasn’t stoic like his father and in the end rejects a military life despite learning he is actually stronger than he thought.

As I watched the film, I thought about my books and the kind of intervention I’m trying to make in the field of sci-fi/fantasy. My writing is rooted, in part, in an understanding of the history of misrepresentation of black people, yet when white editors/readers/reviewers engage with my work, they don’t always “get it.” And that’s ok, in a way, because I’m not writing for them. I wonder how the Smith family feels about After Earth and the reviews it has received so far. I understand why Will & Jada Pinkett-Smith founded their own production company, and while I don’t like silver platters, I appreciate their decision to develop projects for their kids to star in. If they waited on Hollywood, Jaden and Willow would be nothing more than sidekicks to white actors who may or may not have as much talent. I hope kids of color go see this film; it’s solid family fare, and who knows how long we’ll have to wait for another film that lets a slender black boy be the hero…

PS Jada, please do for black girls what Will’s doing for black boys.

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art with heart

It is COLD up here in Toronto but the snow, when it falls, doesn’t seem to stick. This morning my cousin and I took a leisurely stroll through the nearby cemetery and I snapped this shot—I know many Americans think Canada’s climate is comparable to Siberia but it’s not really that bad. It was balmy when I arrived on Thursday and still fairly mild on Friday when my cousin Bethany and I went to see the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario. We admired her art, questioned her devotion to Diego Rivera (who slept with dozens of women during their marriage, including her SISTER), and then bought some pretty earrings for ourselves at the gift shop. We both turn 40 this year, and it’s amazing how you never seem to run out of things to say to someone who’s known you your entire life. I’m actually surprised at myself—I’m not a very social person, but I’ve done a lot of socializing this weekend and it’s been great (though tomorrow will likely be a day of silence). After the exhibit we had lunch at our favorite health food restaurant and then stopped at a grocery store on the way home to pick up butter tarts (yum!) and a Christmas tree! Once the tree was up we found Frida on demand and watched the film, which ended just as our guests arrived for dinner. My cousin felt we should celebrate my 40th birthday, which was in October, and she asked people to bring a poem with them instead of a gift. My cousin Anna’s children made me lovely, glittery cards and wrote out “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou; my cousin Laura gave me a poem I had given her years ago—Martha Graham talking about the artist’s purpose:

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time. This expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost. The world will not have it.

It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.

No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.

Words I needed to hear right about now…My cousin Juli came straight from her long shift at the hospital and after dinner we talked about travel and the difference between planning a vacation and embarking on a journey. I haven’t done the latter in quite some time but hope my Xmas trip to London will contain some magic and/or adventure. The trick is being OPEN to the possibilities, which I’m often not—I’m too tired, or too busy, or too cranky these days. Being here in Toronto has helped me to think about my next book project—what does it mean to write about/or from within an archipelago? When did I first step foot on or see an island? My earliest memory is of The Little Island (written by Golden McDonald, aka Margaret Wise Brown, and illustrated by Caldecott winner Leonard Weisgard), a book my kindergarten teacher/mother shared with me. “All land is one land under the sea”—that’s the line that has stayed with me to this day. When you’re an introvert you generally try to keep things separate, but no woman is an island and even if you do try to compartmentalize you still end up with a chain of little islands that are nonetheless bound together. This weekend has been a pleasant sort of jumble. I spent Saturday with my mother and she sent me off with a peanut butter & chocolate birthday cake, which I have shared with my many cousins (one of whom is taking me to the airport in an hour). I have no contact with my three siblings, all of whom live in Toronto as far as I know, but I have an enormous extended family and thanks to them I’m going back to NYC feeling very blessed. Tomorrow it’s back to work, back to grading, and onward as we march (drag ourselves) toward the end of the semester…

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let it rain

When I was here in June, I asked when it rains in Nevis. The answer must be: July. My morning hike was canceled due to the rain, and I sat on the porch trying to wait out the downpour before venturing into town anyway to submit my citizenship application. There’s a bit of a problem: my father was born an Elliott but changed his name to Hood, and I was born a Hood but added Elliott to my name. I’ve got documentation to support my name change, but nothing to prove that my father really is my father. I guess I’ll have to check with the Canadian government. Right now I’m content to just sit here in the dark listening to the rain and the occasional crack of thunder. I’ve packed my suitcase, which is mostly empty and very light now that all the books are gone. I gave my last copy of Bird to my cutest cousin in Nevis, Yakira. What a sweetheart! She made her own little book by copying down the lyrics to a hymn she sang at church, and she made me a postcard in yesterday’s workshop for kids. When I asked her what games she liked to play, Yakira said sometimes she ties a sheet around her shoulders and pretends to be a superhero! Not a princess, a SUPERHERO. Clearly, we share the same genes! I had lunch at my cousin Rodney’s restaurant with another cousin I recently met, Clayton. He’s a poet who spent a good portion of his life in Toronto. We talked about what it takes to be an artist in a small place, and I told him about my afternoon talk yesterday where the issue of “deviance” came up. I presented on The Hummingbird’s Tongue to a small but diverse group of Nevisians, most of whom are writers themselves, and we speculated on the perception of mental illness in the 1940s. Another cousin recalled knowing of people who were “off” when she was growing up, but neighbors knew how to “call them back” (sometimes by sprinkling the person with water, sometimes by just softly calling their name). So you had to be pretty far gone to be sent to the asylum in Antigua, though Steve Manners (far left) recalled that anyone who didn’t follow the strict moral code in Nevis could also be “shipped off”  back in the day…

Ok, it’s late and I need to crash. Rodney sent me home with two extra johnny cakes but I only had room for one—they’re SO good! And she rightly pointed out that I’ve gained weight since my visit last month…Rodney’s an amazing cook—and a peace broker here in Nevis, where political tensions are high. We also share a love of birds…so good to meet so many kindred spirits here in Nevis!

This evening my host, Mrs. Sonita Daniel, came by bearing gifts—a lovely hand-painted tile with a traditional Nevisian home pictured on the front. Then she drove me over to Brown Hill, the village where my father grew up. We saw the Pilgrim Holiness church he attended, the community center, and many of these small wooden homes that look to me like the perfect writer’s abode. Maybe one day I’ll have a little home of my own here…

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That’s how I feel. Not because I attended church at 8:30 this morning for the first time in…ages. Not because my aunt keeps the TV tuned to a Christian station, so while eating the delicious black-eyed peas and rice she made especially for me, I actually heard 3 additional sermons. Not because I slept through the night without being woken by a barking dog or crowing rooster. I feel blessed because when I went for a run yesterday morning and wasn’t sure just where I was, I saw a sign that said Craddock Road and instantly oriented myself because I knew that was where my step-grandmother grew up. I feel blessed because when I step out on my terrace, I have a stunning view of Nevis Peak (and a flamboyant tree)—but am not overcome with guilt when I choose to spend the afternoon indoors working on a novel set in Brooklyn. I don’t feel rushed this time around; nothing feels as urgent (because I know I’ll be back soon) and more things seem possible. Last night, after I facilitated an informal workshop for parents at the Prospect Community Center, one of the participants thanked me for coming and concluded her remarks with, “Welcome home!” And I blurted out that this trip has truly made me feel at home here in Nevis—I’m still an outsider, I’m still learning the history and the culture and the customs. But I’m also being myself. And when you can be who you are—your true self—and feel that you are accepted by others, that’s when you know you’re home. In that community center, when I was surrounded by mothers who formed a book club in order to learn how to develop a love of books in their children, I felt like I had something to offer. I brought the books I purchased in NYC and spread them out on two tables; then I asked each person to take no more than one minute to look the books over and select one that jumped out at her. It was so interesting to see their selections—and flattering, too, since three of them selected books I’d written and self-published! We talked about how to extract meaning from a book cover or title in order to attract a child’s attention, and we talked about how to read so that the child’s curiosity is piqued. Then I handed out copies of Ship of Souls and read part of a chapter aloud. The women then voted to make SoS their first book club selection (bumping The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to September)! I think I’m going to start a book drive. I’m hoping all my author-friends out there will be willing to donate a copy of their book to the fledgling children’s library at Prospect Community Center. We need art up on the walls, and shelves installed, and books to put on the shelves…and a few computers couldn’t hurt. Sunday is a day of rest but tomorrow there will be work to do! I’m giving three presentations at the credit union across the street from my guesthouse. Even if only a couple of kids show up, I’ll still feel blessed because I’ve found a way to be useful to my new community. [Photograph of the Nevis Book Fair by Ryan D. Maynard/ Refined Digital Media]

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I need to reboot my brain. On Thursday morning I submitted my chapter on magic in NYC parks—it still needs work, but it was time to let go so that I could turn my attention to the five other projects I hope to complete this summer. On Thursday afternoon I ordered a final proof of One Eye Open and started the e-book conversion process. I’ve had “coming soon!” on the Rosetta Press blog for over a year now, and I think it’s finally time to let the book live, warts and all. That night I started working on my slideshow for The Hummingbird’s Tongue; I’ve been invited to attend the inaugural Nevis Book Fair on July 27, and this time I’ll be presenting before children and adults. The director of library services kindly helped me find a guesthouse in town, so I’ll be spending another week in Nevis at the end of the month. That got the wheels turning—I’m supposed to be working on The Deep (Nyla’s story), but instead I’ve been designing a logo and blog for Black Dog Arts. Ultimately I hope to open an arts center in Nevis, but for now I think maybe I’ll start a nonprofit and try to collaborate with existing institutions on the island. Yesterday I heard from the SKN Culture office and my request to participate in the UNESCO Slave Route Project has been forwarded to the minister of education. Maybe I can meet some administrators while I’m in Nevis later this month. Once I get my letter of good conduct from the NYPD next week, my citizenship application will be complete—another thing I can do while I’m there. And since my friend Rosa will be in Antigua at the same time, I may be able to fly over from Nevis and inquire about my grandmother’s alleged institutionalization there. More digging…

Now I think I’m ready to turn my attention back to The Deep. Though I just started reading Leonard Pitts Jr.’s Freeman, so maybe it makes more sense to work on Judah’s Tale. The summer ends in six weeks! I was fussing and fuming about that fact yesterday, but it makes more sense to just get busy and make the most of the time that’s left. And accept that everything I hoped to accomplish this summer may get done later rather than sooner.

 

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If I really was a bird in a previous life, I think I might have been a bananaquit. Yesterday while I was eating breakfast in the open air dining room, a tiny bird flew up to the railing next to my table. Then it flitted to the next table and the next and the next—and each time it tried to use its beak to prod the lid off the sugar jar! A bird after my own heart. I realized today that I haven’t had anything sweet since I arrived—no cake, no cookies. So I broke down and had a candy bar (which required me to walk over to the main office on my stiff, sore legs). I didn’t do much today. Woke at 3am again and finally got up since it was clear I wasn’t going to fall back to sleep. Dozed a bit this afternoon and then put on my bathing suit and lay out in the sun. I keep thinking about my grandmother’s birth certificate—we thought she was born in St. John’s Parish but it turns out she was born in Gingerland (great name, right?). The certificate was signed by Jane Hanley of Crab Hole—could that be Rosetta’s grandmother? My great-grandmother? I also discovered that the most famous writer in Nevis, Amba Trott, is an old family friend; I haven’t seen him since I was a child, but his first wife up in Canada put me in touch with him and we’re going to meet tomorrow hopefully. After I visit the Alexander Hamilton House, the police station, the registrar’s office, and the hospital (to see if there are any medical records for Rosetta). Hopefully I can visit my cousin’s school on Tuesday, and on Wednesday I head home…

I bought a new instant camera for this trip, but have hardly taken any photos. And then when I do, I can’t post them online–frustrating. I need to get someone to take some pictures of me over the next couple of days to make sure I’m part of the official record…

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Pa’s name is Denny Elliott!!! This has been an unbelievable day. My body is sore and a bit bruised but I feel incredibly blessed. Unfortunately, I woke at 3:30am and couldn’t fall back to sleep—too many ideas percolating! I had breakfast at 7am to make sure I’d be ready for my pick-up at 7:30; the waitress in the dining room marveled at my desire to climb the mountain and said her teenage sister climbed it, then came home, fell into bed, and cried. And now I know why! Just a few words about Nevis Peak: it’s very steep (or, as I like to say, “practically vertical”). Now, I have zero experience climbing mountains and I am not super fit, but I’m no slouch either! My guide, Evenson, didn’t break a sweat, didn’t use the guide ropes, and wasn’t covered in mud by the time we got back to the bottom. I, on the other hand, was out of breath before we even got onto the mountain and that hike up a modest incline was *nothing* compared to what lay ahead. I realized within about half an hour that I was *not* going to complete the hike—imagine climbing the steepest stairs you’ve ever seen—two or three at a time. Then imagine those steps covered in slippery mud! I was naive, I guess—the peak is covered in rainforest and so as we climbed, the ground became wet and mucky. Sometimes there were ropes that you could use to haul yourself up the rocky mountainside; other times you simply grabbed roots on the ground. Evenson gave me plenty of breaks and pep talks, but we were eventually overtaken by a British couple with TWO KIDS who were loving the adventure. The wife warned me about the challenge of getting back down, and she was right—mud, roots, dripping foliage, slick tree trunks, and a wet rope to help you repel down the mountainside! I was covered in mud, I slid and slammed my hip into a tree (but Evenson stopped me from falling into the ghut). I have some lovely photos, and am proud that I even made it halfway—and I’m grateful that I didn’t seriously hurt myself! Know your limitations. That’s my motto. I seriously doubt I’ll be able to get out of bed tomorrow but if I can, I’ll be parking myself in that hammock on the beach…

Peak Heaven is absolutely wonderful—three generations of the Herbert family run the site and it’s the perfect place to learn about Nevisian history and culture. Kathleen picked me up from my hotel and we talked about the importance of developing and supporting native-run initiatives. There’s a piece of land for sale not too far from Peak Heaven, and I would *love* to open an arts center that could collaborate with them on their many community-based projects. I’ve already chosen a name for the center: Black Dog Arts…

I’ve met so many wonderful people here and today when I showed Mrs. Herbert the photo of my great-grandfather, she suggested that I talk to Rodney Elliott since she would know whether we were in fact related. Kathleen kindly drove me over to Rodney’s lovely cafe in Stoney Grove; I pulled up a stool at the bar, brought up the photo of “Pa” Elliott on my camera, and handed it to her. Rodney looked at the image, looked at me, and asked, “Why do you have a picture of my Pa?” You could have knocked me OFF that stool—it was like an episode of one of those genealogy shows! I quickly pulled out my notebook and started making a family tree. Turns out Rodney is the sister of the head librarian here in Nevis, and their father was my grandmother’s brother! And just as Rodney finished listing her siblings for me, her brother drove by in a black pick-up truck—she hollered to him and he came in to meet me and to inspect the photo of Pa. Both were surprised to learn that an Elliott could be so “clear” (pron. “clair”) when the Elliotts are known to be dark, but my forehead apparently removed any doubts. Rodney gave us some passion fruit juice to drink and shared some of her family photos; she’s certain I’m related to plenty of people over in Rawlins, so I definitely want to spend more time there. On the way back down the mountain I looked for a souvenir—something that will last longer than my aching muscles. I found a purple seed that opens like a star. Time for me to plant a seed in Nevis, I think.

Tomorrow will be a day of rest but Monday is going to be busy—my other cousin, Vannie, asked me to visit her school and I can’t *wait* to meet some Nevisian kids! Then I want to visit the registrar’s office and see how many birth certificates they can find for my ancestors. I’m hoping to be able to trace our family to a particular plantation, and my aunt told me yesterday that my great-grandmother lived in Braziers—a village named for a former estate. This afternoon another cousin in Canada, Carlene, sent me a priceless photograph of my great-grandfather Joseph Hood. I’m being inundated with assistance and I am *so* grateful. Before I left NYC I was feeling anxious and a little upset, and I realized that I was missing my Dad. I missed him when I went to Nevis for the first time in 2003 because he was still alive then and I wanted him to introduce me to his homeland—to keep me from feeling like such an outsider. But my Dad had been diagnosed with cancer by then and a trip simply wasn’t possible (not that he offered to go, and not that I asked); he attended my graduation from NYU and then I went off on my own the very next day. This time around I felt angry, resentful, and hurt—I still don’t fully understand why my father kept so much of his childhood from us. I know the mystery surrounding his mother bothered him; maybe the shame made him want to stay away and stay silent. But he rarely passed down any of his good memories, and I know there were some because he recorded them in his memoir. But then he died, and there are so many questions I can no longer ask him…which is why I’m so grateful that my other relatives are willing to talk to me. Almost every door has opened since I arrived in Nevis. I don’t know how my father would feel about my prospective move (back) to Nevis. He wanted to escape the past, I think, but sankofa means “there is no shame in going back to retrieve something of value you left behind.” And there’s value here…

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Ah…a day of rest! On Friday I wrapped up my last Harlem workshop with Behind the Book. The students had finished reading Ship of Souls, and when I asked if they had any questions, it turned out most of them wanted to know what would happen in the sequel! I should have recorded my answers to all those questions because I actually sounded like I’ve got a clear sense of the narrative. Now I just have to make time to write it! The students did a great job developing outlines for their own magical stories and, as usual, several of them asked me whether Ship of Souls would be made into a film. I could have shown them the audio version of the book, which came out last week. I received my copies in the mail but have only listened to a couple of minutes so far. I think of an audio book being a lot like a radio play, but I don’t think there are any sound effects in the reading of my novel.

Yesterday I spent most of the day in the Bronx with four other Lee & Low authors and illustrators: Tony Medina, Katie Yamasaki, Mark Weston, and G. Neri (via Skype). We had a small group of kids, parents, and educators for Family Literacy Day, but they were amazingly attentive considering our presentations lasted from 10:30am to 1pm. Then each participant got a signed copy of Bird, Honda: the Boy Who Dreamed of Cars, I & I Bob Marley, and Yummy. Lee & Low’s sales manager, Abe, did a great job organizing the event and it was nice to see families resisting the lure of a sunny Saturday in order to focus on books and art. I like meeting other authors, but meeting artists is a totally different experience—it’s a blend of awe and envy because I can write a decent story, but I can NOT paint a beautiful picture. You should see the incredible murals that Katie has made all over the world—and she’s working on another with women prisoners at Rikers Island right now. After the event ended, Katie, Tony, and I talked about the publishing industry and how easy it is for some to divorce multiculturalism from social justice. We discussed the Trayvon Martin case and the news that “minority babies” now make up the majority of births in the US. Ten years from now, will those children be able to find their mirrors in books? Not unless we continue to press for change in the publishing industry. I connected with a few allies this past week, which is just what the doctor ordered—it’s too easy to feel isolated and discouraged…

Today: rest, read (I’m halfway through Toni Morrison’s Home), write out a summary of The Deep, and then prepare for tomorrow’s school visit. Just five more to go…

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Last night before leaving work I checked my email and found an unpleasant message from across the border. I didn’t bother to respond and instead headed straight to the bakery where I bought a slice of banana cake. I could have done grading on the train ride home, but instead I mused over that email and the neverending drama that is my relationship with my sister. I’m heading to Toronto next week and my mother arranged a little get-together but now I’m pulling out. What’s the point? If you can’t be genuine in your relationships, then you might as well keep your real self to yourself. I got home and found my mailbox crammed full of books–I ordered 25 of Ruth Chew’s 29 books and three or four arrive every day. When I’ll find time to read them all, I don’t know, but the semester wraps up in three weeks and I’m already trying to make a work plan for the summer. I’ve got *18* school visits lined up for the month of May. And I should find out soon whether or not I got the grant to finish Judah’s Tale; that will involve spending a week in South Carolina in July studying maroon communities and rice plantations. I’ve booked my flight and hotel and will be heading to Nevis in June; I’m *really* looking forward to that trip, even though I’ll have to work on a conference paper while I’m there since I’m presenting at ChLA the day after I get back. Then I have a chapter to write on black magic in NYC parks. And then there’s Nyla’s story…

But as I sifted through all the packages I found in my mailbox, I noticed a plain envelope from the Canada Arts Council. Ever since I applied for a grant last fall, the CAC has been sending me stuff; my grant proposal was rejected in March, so I don’t generally bother to read the promotional material they send out. But before chucking this envelope into the recycling bin, I opened it and read the opening lines:

You recently received a letter from the Canada Council for the Arts advising you that your grant application for the Grants to Professional Writers – Creative Writing program was highly recommended. We are now pleased to advise you that your request will be funded.

I read it two or three times before finally moving AWAY from the recycling bin. I don’t understand how this happened, and I plan to call them today to double check, but I am thrilled! And humbled. I don’t have a particularly good history with my homeland, and I try to keep my expectations low to avoid further disappointment. But this grant will enable me to spend a month or so in Ontario researching my ancestors—those who passed for white and those who stayed black. As I scraped the icing off my banana cake last night, I thought about my sister and our ongoing feud—maybe my relationship with her will teach me something about my ancestors. They chose different paths, disowned one another, and—it seems—never looked back. But there had to be moments along the way when those siblings had doubts or wanted to reconcile. I’d like to believe that, at least, though I know that “passing” requires the fair-skinned family member to cut ties completely. I want to write a book about Nevis—two books, actually. And then there’s my academic proposal to write about black magic in YA lit. Something’s gotta give. I love cake but sometimes you have to take a few bites and push the plate away…

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Canada in a box

Happy Holidays! I love Xmas but I refuse to shop for presents; my family is blessed in many ways and I prefer to donate to a good cause rather than buy items my relatives don’t truly need. I also enjoy spending Xmas on my own, which also hasn’t made me too popular with my family. But as I always like to say, “There’s family and there’s people you’re related to.” Yesterday I received a lovely card from my cousin and her four kids; Ship of Souls is dedicated to her eldest boy, Kodie, and he messaged me on Facebook to let me know a package was on its way. Sure enough, it arrived yesterday as well and so this morning—for the first time in years—I sat down to open the presents under my little tree. I *love* that they sent me a kind of Canadian capsule—note the moose cookie (ok, it’s probably a reindeer but we have a moose thing in Canada), the Toronto Maple Leaf pencils, the candy that you can’t get down here (I don’t think). Plus four groovy gel pens, a journal that’s *perfect* for a lefty like me (I can’t write in books with a spine), and a lovely scarf in my favorite colors…plus the card had numerous penguin stickers and a *fox* stamp (we love foxes! and notice how the post office printed “Santa” and “Père Noël” on it). So I’m feeling very festive right now and will head to the park soon before gluing myself to the laptop for a day of writing. Yesterday I was grading exams on the platform at Union Square and as the train pulled into the station, the woman next to me said, “Excuse me, aren’t you the author of…” and she reached into her bag and pulled out a copy of Wish! Sometimes a series of small things can have a big impact…

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