Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Travel Tuesdays: How Traveling Informs My Writing

If you're a writer, all of your experiences influence your writing. Your childhood, family life, friendships, travels- everything that helped shape you as a person also helps shape you as a writer. This is as true for me as for any other writer.

I'm generally pretty reserved about sharing my publication aspirations here, but when I have, readers have responded. I'm also trying to push out of my comfort zone. Today I'll talk about how one specific trip has impacted me as a writer.

Back in the late nineties, I traveled to Niger, West Africa. While each of my travels has changed me or helped me grow, my interactions with children in a village outside Niamey, touched me in a deep and meaningful way. All these years later I can conjure up vivid images of my interactions without ever looking at a photo.

I used those strong emotional connections to write a fictional picture book manuscript about a young American boy who's traveling in Niger with his father. (Note: I have a notoriously hard time thinking of titles for my stories. I LOVE the title of this one, so I won't share it. I don't want anyone to steal it!)

The walk to the plateaus outside Niamey, Niger.
Ryan has heard that camels in Niger dance when the rainy season finally begins. He hopes he'll get a chance to see them dance. But as he and his dad hike up nearby plateaus, Ryan worries the rains will never come. He wonders how anything can survive without water for so long. The village boys he plays with along the way teach him more than the truth about the rainy season and camels.

Did the plot of this story happen to me? No. It's fiction. But the feelings and some of the events did. For starters, I was overwhelmed by the lack of water. Until then, all of my travels had been to places with sufficient (or even too much) water. I never appreciated my sweat until that trip. (It really does cool you!) So it seems natural to me that I would write a story about yearning for rain.

Did I meet local children? Yes. It's impossible not to when you're the only white people for miles and everyone stares at you. Kids run up to you out of curiosity. I also had some lovely interactions with children in a village on the way to the plateaus outside Niamey.

View from the top.
And here's the place that my travels most informed my writing. My sense of place. Everything I write is written with a naturalist's eye. Even when I'm not writing a "nature" piece, my observations of place creep in. Perhaps it's in a direct observation. Or perhaps it's how that place makes a character feel. Or what the environment represents to the main character. These are the details I cannot make up. I can invent a story about an American boy playing with Fulani boys but I can't fully capture how the environment makes those boys feel and how they interact with it unless I've been there. At least that's how it is for me. I know some writers can research a place carefully and capture a sense of place in their writing. My descriptions fall flat if I haven't experienced them.

How about you? Are you a writer? How do your experiences influence your writing? Parents and teachers, how do you help your students use their experiences to inform their writing?

One funny aside: While I was in Washington, DC last week, I ran into a guy I had met in Niger all those years ago (Hi Djimrao!). I couldn't believe it. The world really is small.

Related Posts:
Haying Experiences Turned into a Picture Book Manuscript
Adoption Insensitivity (Inspirations for another manuscript)

Friday, January 25, 2013

Inauguration, Part 2

If you saw my blog post on Tuesday night, you know that I had the privilege of attending the inauguration of President Barack Obama on Monday.

While this blog focuses on connecting children to nature and to other cultures, I believe a discussion about our Presidential Inauguration fits in any discussion about culture, since the way a nation governs itself is part of its culture.

Case in point: Before the inauguration began, an activist climbed a nearby tree and refused to come down. He screamed horrible things about the President throughout the entire ceremony. To say it was annoying would be an understatement. The crowd shouted random comments to try to get him to stop. A spontaneous chanting of "Shake the tree!" even erupted.

But then one woman yelled, "Respect the Constitution and stop yelling for a few minutes!"

My husband and I looked at each other and said, "I don't think she understands the Constitution." And in that moment, I realized that, yes, I was annoyed by the man the tree, but I am SO thankful to live in a country where he can speak his mind.

In many other parts of the world he could be jailed or "disappear" or be shot out of a tree for speaking against the government. As much as I hated his words, I'd never take away his right to speak them. That's part of living in a democratic society. We have the right to speak our minds.

I love to travel and that travel has helped me embrace other worldviews. It has also shown me things that could be improved in our country and made me value the rights I have as a woman and citizen of this country.

So what does this all have to do with you? Please take the time to teach your children to be engaged citizens. Talk to them about how our government works. Discuss the candidates and the issues around your dinner table. Research the facts together. Make sure YOU vote, and take them with you to see you do it. Then, when they turn 18, take them to register to vote.

Our nation needs informed citizens and meaningful, respectful discourse. We need our children to learn how to participate and then choose to do so.

How do you help your children learn about our government and civic engagement?

You Might Also Like:
Travel Tuesdays: Travel Broadens Perspectives
Travel Tuesdays: Exchange Students

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Travel Tuesdays: Inauguration

I'm sorry I've been missing for a few days. I traveled to Washington, DC and I misjudged my ability to blog.

I was kind of busy at this:




And I was super fortunate to attend not one, but two Inaugural Balls. 

We had planned to attend the Peace Ball and I was unexpectedly gifted a ticket to the official ball last night. 

Needless to say, I'm too tired to blog. I'll be back tomorrow with Wordless Wednesday.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Wordless Wednesday: Water Droplets on Kale

I'm taking a photography class, so this week, (and probably for many more to come) you get to see my experimentation.







Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Travel Tuesdays: Maintain Travel Connections

Me with friends in the Philippines
When I was an exchange student to the Philippines (back in the olden days) there was no such thing as Facebook or email. A letter sent via air mail took 10 days. Heck, packages took three (3!) months.

So it's probably no surprise that I lost track of my friends. A lot of important friends. I felt incredibly sad about that once I reached my mid-twenties and realized I couldn't go back and undo my error.

Two good things have happened since I made that mistake so long ago:
  1. I learned from my mistake.
  2. Modern technologies like email, Facebook, and Twitter evolved, which makes staying in touch easy.
So here's today's travel tip: Stay in touch with people you meet when you travel. Carry simple business cards with your email address, Twitter handle, Facebook info. etc. Hand them out to new friends and ask for their card. 

L-R: Me, Mokhtar, my husband (in Morocco)
I did this while in Morocco and I'm happily still in touch with the man who indirectly helped name our daughter. Last week, I received an email from friends we made in Sicily last summer. I try to keep in touch with new friends via email or Facebook (most aren't on Twitter, yet), even if only sporadically. These are people who have enriched my life in one way or another. Seeing their status updates and exchanging private messages makes me happy. Plus, if they ever travel to my part of the world, I want to be able to reciprocate their hospitality. And, if I'm ever back in their part of the world, I want to have a friend I can visit or share meal with.

It's easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of daily life and let those relationships fall away. Please take the time to nurture them, even if it's just enough that you can still call them friendships. It will enrich your life and the lives of your children or students. 

If your friends have children, you could also encourage your children to be "Pen Pals" or "email pals," or "Skype buddies." 

When my son was five and Skyped with our friend's 5 year-old in India, their exchanges weren't particularly engaging to the adults nearby. They went something like this: 
My son, holding up a new toy tractor: "Look, my John Deere." 
Our friend's son, "Look, train." 

This continued until they exhausted their show of toys. When they saw each other again last year, however, they instantly played like old buddies. I'm confident the few Skype visits since they first met in 2008 helped nurture their friendship.

What special friendships have you made while traveling? How do you maintain them?

Friday, January 11, 2013

AMC Great Kids, Great Outdoors

Before the holidays, I was interviewed for the Appalachian Mountain Club's blog Great Kids, Great Outdoors. The post, Fun Ways to Explore Snowflakes With Kids, ran on Tuesday.

I hope you'll hop over there and read it.

More Posts About Snow Exploration:
Snow Fun
More Snow Fun
Even More Snow Fun

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Travel Tuesdays: Traveling by Train

My husband and daughter slept on the train. 
Next week, my husband and I will take the train from Providence, RI to Washington, DC. Many people ask why we don't fly because,"It's faster." Or drive because, "It's cheaper." The thing is, we like the train. And we're not alone.

Over the holidays, my friend Kim and her family took a train from Massachusetts to Indiana (with a stop in Chicago). She texted me a few times during the trip and each of them said something like "I LOVE the train!" The thing is, Kim is an established "road tripper." She loves taking road trips with her family. I don't think she expected to like the train as much as she did (Tell me if I'm wrong, Kim!)

I asked her to share some thoughts about the train with my readers. She emailed me a lengthy response with quotations from each family member. Here are the highlights:


Ben - "I like that I didn't have to drive; I was rested when we arrived at our destination."

Abby (almost 11) - "I like that I can go to the bathroom whenever I want and that we brought whatever snacks we wanted. I also like that I can read on the train and not get sick." (She often has motion sickness in the car when reading).

Dylan (almost 6)- "I like the candy cane and train coloring books the conductor gave me. I like walking on the train too. And I like the pizza!"

Jon (9)- "I like the big windows and the view and walking around whenever I wanted."

Kim - "It was a long stretch of time when we had NO WHERE else to be and NO WHERE to go. I see train travel as balancing for busy hustle and bustle lives. The train offers time to relax and reflect that can not happen if you're driving and certainly can not happen when the subliminal (TSA) threat is ruling your shoes and laptops in air travel. Fellow travelers were happy and resting too. No one we encountered was cranky or complaining. There is a camaraderie that is unmatched in my experience." 

I could have spent hours writing a post about the joys of traveling by train but these five said it perfectly. If you haven't tried traveling by train, give it a try! 

We've traveled by train in the US, Morocco, and Italy. Each trip was different but there was always the rushing landscape to enjoy along with hours of uninterrupted time to read, relax, write, play games, etc.

Have you chosen a train over air travel or driving? How was it for you?

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Friday, January 4, 2013

Resources for Getting Outdoors

Happy New Year!

In case you're making new year's resolutions to get outside more, I thought I'd share some links that might be useful to you. This list focuses on website/blogs that offer ideas for getting in nature with your kids.

Go Explore Nature
This month features "31 Days of Backyard Fun" Debi Huang offers one activity per day to get outside with your kids. Each activity can be completed in 15 minutes or less in your back yard, neighborhood or local park. Poke around her blog while you're there- lots of great info.

Nature Rocks 
This site shares nature activities for families and provides tools to help users plan outdoor adventures. It also offers tips for staying safe in nature and has great FREE downloadable activity guides.

Children and Nature Network
An organization dedicated to creating "a world where every child can play, grow, and learn in nature." This website is a store house of amazing resources. If you're an educator looking for research to back up your efforts to get more "Vitamin N" (nature) in your students' lives, this is the place for you. Also check out the drop down tab called "C&NN Initiatives" for Natural Leaders, Natural Families, Educators, and Natural Service.

AMC's Great Kids, Great Outdoors 
An Appalachian Mountain Club blog that offers tips for getting outdoors in Northeastern USA. Most of the ideas suggested will work in other locations, though posts are seasonal.

Do you know of other great resources you can share? I'm particularly interested in hearing about regional blogs, etc. that might suit readers who live in or travel to other regions. I'll copy useful links from the comments into the post.

UPDATE 1/6/13: A reader in Michiana shared her blog, Inside Outside Michiana. It's loaded with great resources, including lists of outdoor spaces and natural resources in the area.

Related Posts
Play Outside
Help Build Children's Connections to Nature
Reading the Land


Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Wordless Wednesday: Zip Line Anyone?







All photos taken 28 December 2012 and 1 January 2013
by Michelle Cusolito 

Except this photo of me taken by Lisa Goldfeder