On writing for children...and ourselves

Her Precious Fairy Tale Book by Terri Windling

"Children's fiction has a long and noble history of being dismissed," writes Katherine Rundell (in Why You Should Read Children's Books Even Though You Are So Old and Wise). "Martin Amis once said in an interview: "People ask me if I ever thought of writing a children's book. I say: 'If I ever had a serious brain injury I might well write a children's book.' There is a particular smile that some people give when I tell them what I do -- roughly the same smile I'd expect had I told them I make miniature bath furniture out of matchboxes, for the elves.

"Storybooks by Terri WindlingParticularly in the UK, even when we praise, we praise with faint damns: a quotation from The Guardian on the back of Alan Garner's memoir Where Shall We Run To? read: 'He has never been just a children's writer: he's far richer, odder and deeper than that.' So that's what children's fiction is not: not rich or odd or deep.

"I've been writing children's fiction for more than ten years now, and still I would hesitate to define it. But I do know, with more certainty than I usually feel about anything, what it is not: it's not exclusively for children. When I write, I write for two people: myself, age twelve, and myself, now, and the book has to satisfy two distinct but connected appetites. My twelve-year-old self wanted autonomy, peril, justice, food, and above all a kind of dense atmosphere into which I could step and be engulfed. My adult self wants all those things, and also: acknowledgement of fear, love, failure; of the rat that lives within the human heart. So what I try for when I write -- failing often, but trying -- is to put down in as few words as I can the things that I most urgently and desperately want children to know and adults to remember. Those who write for children are trying to arm them for the life ahead with everything we can find that is true. And perhaps, also, secretly, to arm adults against those necessary compromises and necessary heartbreaks that life involves: to remind them that there are and always will be great, sustaining truths to which we can return."

Some Little People by Terri Windling

"In an age that seems to be increasingly dehumanized," Lloyd Alexander once noted, "when people can be transformed into non-persons, and where a great deal of our adult art seems to diminish our lives rather than add to them, children's literature insists on the values of humanity and humaneness."

More Little People by Terri Windling

"We who hobnob with hobbits and tell tales about little green men are used to being dismissed as mere entertainers, or sternly disapproved of as escapists," said  Ursula K. Le Guin in her acceptance speech for the National Book Award (for The Farthest Shore, 1972). "But I think perhaps the categories are changing, like the times. Sophisticated readers are accepting the fact that an improbable and unmanageable world is going to produce an improbable and hypothetical art. At this point, realism is perhaps the least adequate means of understanding or portraying the incredible realities of our existence."

Bunny Sisters by Terri Windling

Tell Us a Story by Terri Windling

The Katherine Rundell quote above is from her delightful little book Why You Should Read Children's Books Even Though You Are So Old and Wise (Bloomsbury, 2019). The Ursula K. Le Guin quote is from The Language of the Night: Essays (Women's Press edition, 1989). Both volumes are highly recommended. I'm sorry, but I can't remember where that particular quote by Lloyd Alexander is from -- I foolishly scribbled it down without attribution. All rights to the text reserved by the authors or their estates.

The pictures above are some random little sketches of mine, titled: Her Precious Fairy Tale Book, Storybooks, Some Little People, More Little People, Bunny Sisters (Family Portrait), and Tell Us a Story. 


Fantasy and poetic truth

Nattadon path

From "The Flat-Heeled Muse" by Lloyd Alexander (1924-2007):

"The Muse in charge of fantasy wears good, sensible shoes. No foam-born Aphrodite, she vaguely resembles my old piano teacher, who was keen on metronomes. She does not carry a soothing lyre for inspiration, but is more likely to shake you roughly awake at four in the morning and rattle a sheaf of subtle, sneaky questions under your nose. And you had better answer them. The Muse will stand for no nonsense (that is, non-sense). Her geometries are no more Euclidean than Einstein’s, but they are equally rigorous."

Cows 1

Cows 2

As a woman who roams the woods of Devon in scuffed old walking boots, I love the idea that the fantasist's Muse wears sensible shoes. I can picture her clearly: bramble-torn sweater, skirt damp from the river, mud on her cheek and moss in her hair...and okay, I admit that's a description of this writer too, but never mind...because Alexander is making a serious point here about the craft of writing fantasy. The magic, he says, isn't made out of moonbeams and gossamer wings; it comes from what's real and earthy and true:

"The less fantastic it is, the stronger fantasy becomes. The writer can painfully bark his shins on too many pieces of magical furniture. Enchanted swords, wielded incautiously, cut both ways. But the limits imposed on characters and implements must be more than simply arbitrary. What does not happen should be as valid as what does. In The Once and Future King, for example, Merlyn knows what will happen in the future; he knows the consequences of Arthur's encounter with Queen Morgause. Why doesn't he speak out in warning? It is not good enough to say, 'Well, that would spoil the story.' Merlyn cannot interfere with destiny; but how does T. H. White show this in specific detail? By having Merlyn grow backwards through time. Confused in his memories, he cannot recollect whether he has already told Arthur or was going to tell him. No more is needed. The rationale is economical and beautiful, fitting and enriching Merlyn's personality.

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"Insistence on plausibility and rationality can work for the writer, not against him. In developing his characters, he is obliged to go deeper instead of wider. And, as in all literature, characters are what ultimately count. The writer of fantasy may have a slight edge on the realistic novelist, who must present his characters within the confines of actuality. Fantasy, too, uses homely detail, but at the same time goes right to the core of a character, to extract the essence, the very taste of an individual personality. This may be one of the things that makes good fantasy so convincing. The essence is poetic truth.

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"The distillation process, unfortunately, is unknown and must be classed as a Great Art or a Major Enchantment. If a recipe existed, it could be reproduced; and it is not reproducible. We can only see the results. Or hear them. Of Kenneth Grahame -- and the same applies to all great fantasists -- A. A. Milne writes: 'When characters have been created as solidly...they speak ever after in their own voices.'

"These voices speak directly to us. Like music, poetry, or dreams, fantasy goes straight to the heart of the matter. The experience of a realistic work seldom approaches the experience of fantasy. We may sail on the Hispaniola and perform deeds of derring-do. But only in fantasy can we journey through Middle Earth, where the fate of an entire world lies in the hands of a hobbit.

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Blackberries and pink campion

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"Fantasy presents the world as it should be. But 'should be' does not mean that the realms of fantasy are Lands of Cockaigne where roasted chickens fly into mouths effortlessly opened. Sometimes heartbreaking, but never hopeless, the fantasy world as it "should be" is one in which good is ultimately stronger than evil, where courage, justice, love, and mercy actually function. Thus, it may often appear quite different from our own. In the long run, perhaps not. Fantasy does not promise Utopia. But if we listen carefully, it may tell us what we someday may be capable of achieving."

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Go here to read Alexander's essay, "The Flat-heeled Muse," in full. It is a delight.

The muse of fantasy wears sensible shoes

Words: The passages above are from "The Flat-heeled Muse" by Lloyd Alexander, published in The Horn Book (April, 1965). The fairy poem in the picture captions is from Poetry (November 2019). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: An encounter on our morning walk.


Telling the holy

Woodland gate

I keep returning to "Telling the Holy," Scott Russell Sanders' fine essay on myths and sacred stories from around the world. Each time I read it I find new things to ponder, and today it's this:

"Mystery is not much in favor these days. The notion that there are limits to what we can do, what we can know, limits to our dominion, does not sit well with kings and queens of the hill. Humility and reverence, we hear, are the attitudes of cowards. Why worship a force we can't measure on a meter? Why tell stories about a power we can't photograph? 

"Flannery O'Connor once revealed to a correspondent that her 'gravest concern' was 'the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it that we breathe in with the air of the times.' I feel that attraction for the holy, and my throat, too, burns with the air of disbelief.

The windy road

"When the novelist Reynolds Price published his translation of stories from the Bible in a book called A Palpable God, he prefaced it with a long meditation on 'Origins and Life of Narrative,' in which he sought to explain why a cultivated person in our secular age might still take seriously these tales of the holy. The 'first -- and final -- aim of narrative,' he argued, is 'compulsion of belief in an ordered world.'

"Of course it would be reassuring to believe in an ordered world, say the sceptics. But what if the universe is chaotic, a hazard of bits and pieces, and our tales of order are but soothing lullabies we sing against the darkness?

Into the greenwood

"That line of reasoning leads to what I think of as the killjoy of sacred stories: they must be false because they are comforting. They are not, in fact, all comforting. Many are frightening. In myths, gods appear and disappear, play tricks, throw tantrums, devour the innocent and reward the wicked, bewilder the most patient seeker. The holy is often a holy terror. Still, the killjoy critique is forceful, as Reynolds Price acknowledged: 'Human narrative, through all its visible length, gives emphatic signs of arising from the profoundest need of one fragile species. Sacred story is the perfect answer given to the world to the hunger of the species for true consolation.'

"Mustn't so perfect an answer be an illusion? Not necessarily, Price added, 'for the fact that we hunger has not precluded food.' Water is nonetheless real for slaking our thirst, lovemaking nonetheless real for meeting our desire. I do not doubt the sun, even though it warms me and lights my way. Yes, tales about the holy may satisfy our craving for consolation, but that proves nothing about the truth of the tales or the reality of the power.

By the leat

Wild daffodils

"The order we glimpse through myth is one that we did not create, that we cannot alter, that we can never fully grasp, and that we ignore at our peril. The achievements of science delude many into thinking that we have graduated from nature, that we can understand everything, that we can change or scorn conditions as we see fit, that we are bosses of the universe. Among those who resist this delusion of omnipotence are a number of scientists. The physicist Charles Misner, for example, has articulated a humbler view:

"'I do see the design of the universe as essentially a religious question. That is, one should have some kind of respect and awe for the whole business, it seems to me. It's very magnificent and shouldn't be taken for granted. In fact, I believe that is why Einstein had so little use for organized religion, although he strikes me as a basically very religious man. He must have looked at what the preachers said about God and felt they were blaspheming. He had seen much more majesty than they had ever imagined.'

Bluebells and barbed wire

By "mystery," Sanders clarifies, 

"...I do not mean simply the blank places on our maps. I mean the divine source -- not a void, not a darkness, but an uncapturable fullness. We are sustained by processes and powers that we can neither fathom nor do without. I speak of that ground as holy because it is ultimate, it is what makes us possible, what shapes and upholds everything we see. The stories I am most interested in hearing, reading, and telling, are those that help us imagine our lives in relation to that ground."

And so am I. But for me, a certain kind of fantasy literature approaches the same ground as myth and sacred stories, albeit from a slantwise direction. Fantasy of this sort (Tolkien, Lewis, Garner, Le Guin, McKillip, Holdstock, Crowley, de Lint, Yolen, and numerous others) is all about mystery, and the magic inherent in life itself: the "processes and powers that we can neither see nor do without."

In our own myth-drenched, poetic, elvin-crafted way, we are telling the holy.

Wandering

Basket of nettles

Sanders goes on to say:

"By telling the holy, we acknowledge that life is a gift. In fact, the whole universe is a gift. From where or what, and why, we cannot know. All we do know is that it issues forth, moment by moment, eon by eon, ever fresh, astounding in its richness and beauty. None of this is to gainsay the pain, the suffering, the eventual death that awaits all created things. But we measure that pain and suffering, we mourn that death against the sheer exuberant flow of things."

I want to work from that exuberant flow; to write of strange, improbable things that contain some kernal of truth within. I want to choose the winding road through the fernie brae that leads to mystery, wonder, and "miraculous grace" (to use Tolkien's phrase).

That is the road, I whisper to Tilly, where thou and I maun gae.

Look out post

Telling the holy

The quoted passage above is from "Telling the Holy" by Scott Russell Sanders, published in Wonder and Other Survival Skills, edited by H. Emerson Blake (The Orion Society, 2o12). The poem in the picture captions is from Even in Quiet Places by William Stafford (Confluence Press, 2010). All rights reserved by the authors. 


Jane Yolen: The Everyday-ness of Writing

Jane Yolen

In anticipation of International Women's Day (coming up on Sunday), here's a third post on the theme of women in myth and folklore. This time I've focused on one of our greatest writers of contemporary mythic fiction....

For many years Jane Yolen's friends have theorized that she is the possessor of a magical stop-watch: an eldritch device formed of spells and runes with which she can stop the motion of time. One click of the watch and the world comes to a stop; we all stand frozen between one breath and the next; all of us, that is, except for Jane, the Master of the Watch, creating secret hours in pockets of time that seem like mere minutes to us. How else, friends ask, is it humanly possible that Jane gets so much done?

Once Upon a Time by Jane YolenShe has published close to four hundred books. She has edited, inspired or supported the publication of many more. She has written for comics and animation. She had a book turned into a Showtime film. She teaches and lectures. She sings ballads, tells stories, and is an authority on folklore and fairy tales. She's won the Caldecott Medal, two Christopher Medals, the Regina Medal, the Kerlan Award, three Mythopoeic Awards, the Golden Kite Award, the Skylark Award, the Jewish Book Award, and the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement, among numerous other honors. She was on the Board of Directors for the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, president of S.F.W.A. for two years, and a founding member of the Western New England Storytellers Guild, the Western Massachusetts Illustrators Guild, and the Bay State Writers Guild. She has a BA from Smith College, an MA from the University of Massachusetts, and six honorary doctorate degrees. She's the mother of three, grandmother of six, and good friend to more than I can possibly count. She lives in two countries, and her books are known the world over. She writes (and shares) a poem every day. So if she doesn't possess a magical stop-watch, then how on earth does she do it?

Sister Light Sister Dark by Jane YolenHaving known Jane for over thirty years now, I know the real answer to that question. She works, and she works, and she keeps on working. Steadily and hard, but also with joy. "I love writing," she says simply. "There are a lot of writers who hate writing. They love having written, but they hate writing. They feel like they’re bleeding onto the page, and I think that’s an awfully messy way to write."

For Jane, writing is both Art and Craft -- and the craft is built on discipline, practice, and a quality she calls everyday-ness:

"Just as I do my morning exercises to get these old bones moving, I write every day. Every single day. Sometimes it's a chapter, sometimes it's a poem. Sometimes I make lists of things: nouns, verse to revise, ideas for new books, suggestions for stories with my children... Even if I am ill, traveling, caring for a sick husband, running around a convention, walking the Royal Mile -- even then I will manage to write something. Because being a writer means that kind of commitment. It doesn't have to be something for publication (though what does get published is almost always a surprise). It is something to get the brain, the heart, the imagination, and the fingers coordinated, working together. Not strangers but a good team."

Snow in Summer by Jane YolenBorn in 1939, Jane grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where her father worked as a journalist, writing columns for the New York newspapers, and her mother (a former social worker) wrote short stories, crossword puzzles and acrostics. "Since both my parents were writers," she says, "I assumed all adults were writers, no matter what other jobs they held." Her parents were also great readers, passing their love of books to Jane and her younger brother, Steven. "I loved the Andrew Lang fairy books," she recalls. "I loved anything Louisa May Alcott wrote. I loved anything Robert Louis Stevenson wrote. I read every horse and dog book that ever existed, every book about King Arthur that ever existed. I love Charlotte's Web, The Wind in the Willows, The Back of the North Wind, The Secret Garden, Make Way for Ducklings, Ferdinand...the list goes on and on and on."

Jane started writing at a very young age, but she had other creative interests too: she loved to sing, and she studied dance at Balanchine's School of American Ballet. In her 13th summer, her family moved out of the city to Westport, Connecticut. Jane attended junior and senior high school there, then went on to study literature at Smith Collage in Massachusetts. Upon graduation, she returned to New York intending to be a journalist and poet. She soon discovered that journalism didn't suit her, and and turned to editing instead, working her way up from editorial assistant at Gold Medal Books to associate editor at Rutledge (a children's book packager), to Assistant Editor of Children's Books at Knopf.

Owl Moon by Jane YolenMeanwhile, she tried her hand at writing children's books herself (publishing her first at the age of 22), while also participating in the vivid folk music scene of Greenwich Village in the 1960s.  She lost her heart to David Stemple (a pioneer of the computer science field), married him, sold five more children's books, then left Knopf so that she and David could spend a year traveling in Europe. She was pregnant when they came home again, so they settled in an old farmhouse in Massachusetts. Three children followed (Heidi, Adam, and Jason, all of them now writers themselves), and a steady output of books as astonishing for its quality as its quantity.

Jane writes for both children and adults, moving fluidly between genres and literary forms -- but what ties her work together, as one reviewer has noted, is that "all Yolen's stories and poems are somehow rooted in her sense of family and self. The Emperor and the Kite, which was a Caldecott Honor Book in 1983 for its intricate papercut illustrations by Ed Young, was based on Yolen’s relationship with her late father, who was an international kite-flying champion. Owl Moon, winner of the 1988 Caldecott Medal for John Schoenherr’s exquisite watercolors, was inspired by her husband’s interest in birding."

Favorite Folktales by Jane YolenHer passion for folklore and fairy tales is another thread woven throughout her work. In the role of teacher and scholar of children's literature, she eloquently championed the value of traditional tales during years when many teachers, librarians and editors were hostile to such stories. "One of basic functions of myth and folk literature is to provide a landscape of allusion," Jane pointed out. "With the first story a child hears, he or she takes a step toward perceiving a new environment, one that is filled with quests and questers, fated heroes and fetid monsters, intrepid heroines and intrepid helpers, even incompentent oafs who achieve competence and wholeness by going out and trying. As the child hears more stories and tales that are linked in both obvious and subtle ways, that landscape is broadened and deepened, and becomes more fully populated with memorable characters. These are the same folk that the child will meet again and again, threading their archetypal ways through the cultural history of our planet. "

Touch Magic by Jane YolenShe also argued for the value of fantasy in the days when that genre, too, was considered suspect by the same brigade of realism-only educators. "In fantasy stories we learn to understand the differences of others, " Jane noted; "we learn compassion for those things we cannot fathom, we learn the importance of keeping our sense of wonder. The strange worlds that exist in the pages of fantastic literature teach us a tolerance of other people and places and engender an openness toward new experience. Fantasy puts the world into perspective in a way that 'realistic' literature rarely does. It is not so much an escape from the here-and-now as an expansion of each reader's horizons....A child who can love the oddities of a fantasy book cannot possibly be xenophobic as an adult. What is a different color, a different culture, a different tongue for a child who has already mastered Elvish, respected Puddleglums, or fallen under the spell of dark-skinned Ged?"

When Jane first crossed the line between children's books and adult fantasy (with her Mythopoeic-Award-winning novel The Cards of Grief in 1985), there was no recognized field of Young Adult Fantasy as we know it today. That is not to say that such books didn't exist. They did. They were generally published as children's books (in hardcover editions), or slipped into adult science fiction lists (in paperback) -- for in those distant, pre-Harry-Potter days publishers still did not believe that YA Fantasy could sell enough to be a genre of its own. Jane was one of the writers who refused to accept that the line beween stories for children and stories for adults was quite as impassable as popularly believed, or that stories with teen protagonists could only be read by teens. By crossing that line, by trodding it into dust, she helped to create a space for the Young Adult Fantasy writers who followed after, from J.K. Rowling to Holly Black to William Alexander.

Briar RoseWhen it comes to her role as folklorist and re-teller of fairy tales, so influential has this been to a whole generation of writers and scholars that it is no overstatement to say that the modern resurgence of fairy tale literature rests upon her ground-breaking work as much as it rest on Angela Carter's or Tanith Lee's. Jane's novel Briar Rose is a classic of the form; her folklore compilations are essential reading for scholars in the field; and her essay collection Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood is as vital today as it was when the book was first published the early Eighties. Jane has been called the "Hans Christian Andersen of America" by Newsweek and the "modern equivalent of Aesop" by The New York Times...yet she has also had her books censored, denounced, and burned. Perhaps this, too, is proof of their power, for if they were trivial, people wouldn't fear them. They are not. They are deep and true.

I'll end with one more quote from Jane that gets right to heart of the Art and Craft that she has been practicing for all these years:

"I believe that culture begins in the cradle," she says. "Literature is continuous process from childhood onward, not a body of work spring full-blown from the heads of adults who never read or were read to as children. Further, I believe that that the continuum of literature is best maintained by those tales of fantasy, fancy, faerie, and the supra-natural, those crafted visions and bits and pieces of dream-remembering that link our past and our future. To do without tales and stories and books is to lose humanity's past, is to have no star map for our future."

Jane and Tilly

The last photograph: Jane and Tilly here at Bumblehill. To learn more about Jane and her books, please visit her website. Related posts (with quotes on folklore, fantasy, and writing from Jame)Stories lean on stories, The eye and the ear are different listeners, On a misty morning in the Devon hills, Tough magic, Words that matter, and Magic at daybreak.


'Lord, increase my bewilderment'

Waterfall 1

From Jenn Ashworth's fascinating, challenging new book Notes Made While Falling (a memoir and cultural study of illness, trauma, and creativity):

"Zadie Smith, when writing about the work of her friend David Foster Wallace after his death, remarked on the way his writing was a gift -- not only in terms of a talent but one that he dispatched, like faith, into the void. She characterises the moment of giving -- of writing -- as 'the moment when the ego disappears and you're able to offer up your love as a gift without expectation of reward.' At the moment the gift hangs, like Federer's brilliant serve, between the one who sends and the one who receives, and reveals itself as belonging to neither. We have almost no words for this experience of giving. The one we do have is hopelessly degraded through misuse. The word is prayer.

Waterfall 2

Waterfall 3

"The word prayer here very easily brings one towards precarity. 'Precarious' is related to the Latin adjective precaria, from precārius, 'obtained by prayer, given as a favour,' which relates to precari,  'to ask or beg for help.' It helps to remember that prayer is an entreaty, a request for both attention and care. If I understand anything about praying or writing, I have come to believe in a demythologised form of them both: a de-enchantment of prayer and a making magical of writing. Neither process is a way of conjuring or manipulating necessary care or favour from a separately existing power, but a practice which gently and gradually adjusts the self to the terrible truth of its own precarity -- to its own need of care."

Waterfall 4

Waterfall 5

To do creative work in a failing body requires facing the precarity of ones life squarely, Ashworth argues:

"[and] to abandon the illusion that there's a future moment that can be striven to, or imagined, or drunk or eaten or earned or run or cut or dreamed towards. It means here. There's no cure for the chronic condition of human nature. These are the facts that I live with. I have always lived with them, but surrendering to them entirely is the thing that finally brings the fiction back: the will and capacity to imagine, the conditions of compassion and curiosity that are essential for inhabiting the mind of a sentence, a story, a fictional other. Still, I will always struggle, and I will probably always fail, to find a way to write fiction that honours these facts and does not attempt to decorate nor numb nor conceal them. Though now I've come to realise that writing itself unsticks me, when I let it.

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Waterfall 7

"It is a process that, when its hopeless difficulty is adequately surrendered to, dismantles all forms of expertise, specialism, and mastery. When I let the writing work, any carapace of teacherly or writerly authority swiftly dissolves into mere curiosity. It is a way of getting lost -- between disciplines and subject positions. It lets me do and be, make and consume, be alone and connected -- simultaneously. There is an ethical gentleness to writing: I get curious about what works, what's appropriate, and what helps, rather than what is right or wrong. When process and product, thinking and feeling, and making become entwined, I become more tolerant of ambiguity and confusion. At its best writing does not only allow me to try and report on what I have seen, experienced and felt of this confusing and painful world, but it expands my available range of seeing, experiencing and feeling.

Waterfall 8

"It becomes something other than work, is what I'm saying. This type of not-work writing/praying -- a holidaying, a truancy, a way of loving -- is a move towards the type of implicated, uncontrolled seeking /paying -- that Fanny Howe identifies in her essay 'Bewilderment.' Not a technique of a method or a subject matter -- though all of these things too -- but mainly 'a way of entering the days as much as the work' -- a matter of ethics and politics as well as a matter of craft. There's a prayer in this too -- and Howe quotes it at the start of her essay, 'Lord, increase my bewilderment.'

"There's something reckless about this dislodging from certainty into fiction's possibility: a fall into love."

Waterfall 9

Waterfall 10

Words: The passage above is from Notes Made While Falling by Jenn Ashworth (Goldsmiths Press, 2019). The poem in the picture captions is from Rose by Li-Young Lee (BOA Editions, 1986). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The waterfall on our hill, swelled by autumn rain.