Monday, September 30, 2013


Since the inception of our nation, we have declared war eleven times.

 The first declared war  was with Great Britain in 1812.

We have also been involved in undeclared wars--we have engaged in combat, or other military actions  based on resolutions to strike or to respond to imminent danger to us or one of our allies.

We are currently involved in several arenas...and still ...out of the corner of our eyes we can see Syria.

How do  we talk about war?
How do we explain war?
How do we begin these conversations?

Like many situations---it is easy to get lost in statistics, data, and reports.  It is easy to lose sight of the brave men and women serving this country-- giving their time, effort, and lives for our protection, our rights, and our freedoms.  It easy to forget the families and friends they leave behind.

We can talk strategies, politics, and  priorities. Or we can have the even harder conversations  about morality and humanity.

But ultimately, the details don't matter. The names and countries, the reasons and the rivals are interchangeable.

There are times when  we must look past all of this to the core --to the  naked human story, told in all its devastating horror and potential beauty .
Once upon a time  this event happened to these people and... What did we do?

Parables help us to think past the news to nuggets of truth.
And several books present us with parables of war that do this masterfully.

Eve Bunting's eloquent, yet simple tale, Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust , reminds us of the importance of vigilance and voice. As animals are taken away by the  Terrible Things, first the ones with feathers, then each other animal group in turn, those left are thankful it was not them... and do nothing.

Her book echoes the powerful statement by Pastor Martin Neimoller, a Protestant minister whose oft-quoted  poetic address the German church in 1946 ended as follows:

When they came for me there was no one left to speak out.   
 Click here to read several versions of Niemoller's complete statement.

 The parable, Feathers and Fools features peacocks and swans who choose to see differences rather than similarities.  Mem Fox depicts the tragic results of rumors of war, amassing defense weapons on both sides and offers an alternative perspective that leads to peace.  

Who is our enemy?  And what is the point of war?

Davide Cali and Serge Bloch force us to contemplate these questions in The Enemy, an anti-war fable, as they remind us that we fight not some faceless entity, but other human beings.

The enemy is there but I have never seen him.
Every morning, I shoot at him. Then he shoots at me.
We both stay hidden the rest of the day, waiting.

Walter Dean Myers in his more realistic, yet poetic, account also forces us to consider our enemies, as  a young US soldier comes face to face with his equally young Vietnamese counterpart in Patrol: An American Soldier in Vietnam.

Myers has penned several additional realistic novels about war for older readers, including Fallen Angels and Sunrise Over Fallujah.

Why are we fighting?
How can we end the fighting?

In The War by Anais Vaugelade, this is the question.

The Reds and The Blues were at war.
Each morning, the solders walked  to the battlefield.
Each evening , the survivors brought home
the wounded and the dead,
The war had lasted for so long that no one
                                   could remember why it had  begun.
Prince Fabien devises a plan to end the war by forcing the two sides to work together against a common enemy and in the process to usher in peace.

When is the time to go to war?
When is war a good idea?

According to Alice Walker the answer is Never!  In  her powerful and thought-provoking poem, Why War Is Never a Good Idea, War is personified.

Though War speaks
Every language
It never knows
What to say
To frogs...
...War has bad manners
War eats everything
In its path
& what
It doesn't
What does War say to us?
How do we talk about war?

And finally,  no discussion about how to initiate conversations about war would be complete without acknowledging the role of poetry.  Every war, every conflict has generated poems by  soldiers, leaders and citizens on all sides.  Poetry has been written by and about  the victors, the conquered, the wounded and the survivors.

Every war has is poetry.

Lee Bennett Hopkins has collected  poetry  speaking of eight different wars by poets you know, and some not so well known, in America at War. The Prologue wishes war could only rage upon the battlefield of the page. The Epilogue reminds us of the camouflaging language we use to talk about war in the poem Vocabulary Lesson.

Click here to read both the Prologue and  Epilogue poems.

What are the rhythms and rhymes of war?
What figurative language contains our conflicts?

How do we begin to talk about war?

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

What is your stance on war? 

What solutions would you offer to bring about peace in our world?

Write a parable illustrating your ideas.

Write a poem expressing your views.

Write a letter to a leader of a particular country explaining your views and position and plan for peace.

Thursday, September 26, 2013


My dad was wrapped up in a quilt when I arrived at his house the other day.  This treasure was given to him  after he had a stroke by a friend and member of our church.  This is our friend's ministry--making beautiful quilts for those members who are sick or shut-in.

Recently my father told me how he helped his mother hand-quilt  her special quilts .  They would lay the quilt out on the floor with her on one side and him on the other and begin to stitch and talk and laugh.

When I was a little girl, I would spend the night with my grandma.  I would fall asleep tucked under one of those same coverings of love, stitched by my grandmother and my father-- white, with bits of delicate color-- the artistry, creativity, and love taken for granted by my four-year-old self.

What I would give  to have one of those precious quilts now.

They were all taken the day of my grandmother's funeral. (That is another story for another time)

Quilts contain our memories and our family histories. Quilts are remembrances and teach us community, cooperation, and the value of re-purposing scraps of  our lives.

Quilts are maps to freedom.

In The Quilt by Ann Jonas, a little girl is given a brand new quilt made by her mother and father to go on her new grown-up bed. Her quilt is made of pieces of her younger life -- a swatch of her old curtains  crib sheets, baby pajamas.  What a wonderful gift and container for her memories.

Tanya's grandmother is making a  patchwork quilt and Tanya is fascinated with the process.  As The Patchwork Quilt unfolds, she spends all her time watching how grandmother is stitching the pieces of old clothes and other leftover fabrics... until grandmother falls ill. Tanya make it her mission to complete the quilt with the help of her mother.  In the end, grandmother gets well enough to again work on the quilt and stitch the final square which dedicates the quilt to Tanya.

Quilts can hold our personal histories and keep our memories safe and warm.

Patricia Polacco tells her family's story of immigrating from Russia in The Keeping Quilt. Anna's mother explains that making the quilt from scraps of their clothing from their homeland will keep their country and family near.

Women in this family used the quilt  through four generations on important occasions-- as a Sabbath tablecloth, a wedding canopy, and a blanket  for their new babies--teaching the importance of remembering  history,  valuing tradition,and practicing inter-generational love.

The illustrations in black and white, except for the quilt and the pieces of clothing that will become part of the quilt, show clearly how the quilt is constructed of  pieces of the family's life.

Quilts can hold our family histories and preserve our collective stories.

In the lives of African American slaves, quilts played an additional and critical role.  Quilts were the maps to freedom--showing the paths to take north, the stars to watch-- and also became signals showing  it was safe to knock at  particular houses or stations on the underground railroad.

When Soonie's  great-grandmother was sold, her mother gave her a piece of muslin, two needles, and bright red thread. She was raised by Big Mama, who passed on stories of the underground railroad, and taught her to make a show way by sewing messages and directions into a quilt.   In Show Way the stories, traditions and quilt are passed down through eight generations of women--  until we meet the author and descendant of Soonie,  Jaqueline Woodson

 Clara is a slave and a seamstress.  After she overhears drovers talk about escaping to the North and to freedom, she is able to create a patchwork quilt mapping her surrounding area --and the way to freedom. When she escapes to Canada, this quilt is left behind to guide others.   Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson illustrates the importance of quilts in the underground railroad.

My newest and most intriguing quilt book, I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery by Cynthia Grady, arrived in the mail several days after my father told me his quilt story.  It seemed that quilting and stitching together stories was in the air. Structuring her work like a patchwork quilt, Grady masterfully weaves poetry and quilt patterns together with the  with the variety of experiences of slavery in America. The magnificent illustrations by Michele Wood further create this quilt metaphor.

Quiltmaking and poetry share similarities in craft.  In on, color and shape are organized into an overall pattern; int eh other, sound and structure create the pattern.  Each poem in this collection is named for a traditional quilt block and reflects a metaphorical patchwork of circumstances encountered by enslaved people in America
In  Basket, she captures the importance of fabric magic and motherland  memories.

...I lay my stitches down and trouble fall
away.  Before too long. I am breathing with
the rhythm of my quilting--listening
wide with every fiber of my soul:
the praise songs of my people; voices of
 my kin ; drumbeats of my mother land form
 the threads that wave the fabric of my life.

Several other excellent books provide information about the construction of quilts, the symbolism of particular patterns and blocks, the way the quilts were used as signals on the underground railroad and more for those who wish to delve further.

Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard and Facts & Fabrications: Unraveling the History of Quilts & Slavery: 8 Projects, 20 Blocks, First-person Accounts by Barbara Brackman both offer a wealth of  wisdom and ways with quilts.

How many were kept warm  led to freedom by the same covering?

And finally, no piece on quilts would be complete without mentioning the wonderful  pairings of stunning hand-made quilts and thought- provoking poetry by Anna Grossnickle Hines.   Her work delights all of the senses. My favorite is Peaceful Pieces: Poems and Quilts About Peace.    Additional selections include Pieces: A Year in Poems & QuiltsandWinter Lights: A Season in Poems & Quilts.

What poetic expression does your quilt hold?
What poetry will your quilt whisper to you ?

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Do you or your family  have quilts or other handmade coverings?
How did they come to be made? by whom? and why?

What does this quilt mean to you?

If you don't know the story of your quilt, ask someone who may remember.

Write a narrative telling the story  or history of your quilt.
Write a poem inspired by this story or the quilt itself.