“Most people don't realize how important librarians are. I ran across a book recently which suggested that the peace and prosperity of a culture was solely related to how many librarians it contained. Possibly a slight overstatement. But a culture that doesn't value its librarians doesn't value ideas and without ideas, well, where are we?”
Neil Gaiman

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Suburban Barnyard Interviews Debut Author Steve Schafer

Steve Schafer is the debut author of a YA novel called The Border published by Sourcebooks this past September. The novel has elements of a high pitched thriller but also gets into some serious issues for discussion about immigration, disparities in wealth, and borders between countries. Steve recently visited my high school to speak to some of our students. As a follow up, he agreed to do an interview for the Suburban Barnyard.

SB: You chose to create characters who are Mexican rather than American even though you are not a native Spanish speaker nor Mexican. They come across as quite authentic, nonetheless. Can you talk a little about the process behind your character and setting creation and how you were able to pull this off?

Steve Schafer: I have spent the last 25 years living, working, studying, volunteering, or traveling throughout Latin America. In these experiences, I have always tried to immerse myself in the local culture. As with anything, the more you practice something, the more it becomes a skill. To write The Border, I leveraged personal relationships that I have had with immigrants from Mexico, plus study of books and online resources that speak to the specific area in which these teens crossed. It was a challenge, but one that I’m glad to hear ultimately came across as authentic to you! 

SB: When you spoke to our students, you put up two slides of quotes about immigrants, one historic and one contemporary. We so often think of this whole debate as something new, but the reality is that it has been an issue as long as people have crossed borders. This is a perfect example of why teaching of history is so critical in education. How do you think novels like yours can help us to encourage younger generations to continue supporting the humanities as something critical to the future of modern societies and thinkers?

Steve Schafer: I’m hopeful that it underscores the value and power of story. As I mentioned when speaking with your students, facts and figures only get you so far. By telling someone about what’s happening, you  may reach their minds; but by immersing a reader into another person’s world and showing them the full impact of what’s happening, you can reach their hearts. This is true for every reader, but I feel it’s especially important and powerful within YA. This is such a formidable age, and it is a tremendous privilege to be able to write to this audience. 

SB: I cannot agree more! In order to create a compelling story, it seems that tragedy really has to be an element at some point. In the Harry Potter books I can remember my oldest crying over her book as she found out that Severus died...and then still more characters as the series progressed. You start out your novel with tragedy right at the heart. What made you decide to jump right into that emotion as a writer?

Steve Schafer: This story was unfortunately seeded by a real life tragedy of a friend of mine in Northern Mexico. As with the initial incident in The Border, my friend’s situation happened nearly out of the blue. There was no warning, and no explanation for why it occurred. My friend’s story begins with loss. Since this was the spark for the idea behind The Border, I wanted to begin on a similar note, then explore how someone copes with this horrific life event. 

Further bolstering my interest in beginning with a strong emotional punch is fact that I like reading stories that grab me immediately and don’t let go. I knew early on that beginning with the quinceaƱera tragedy was the way that I would want to read this story, so that’s how I structured it. 

SB: I love the beginning for exactly that reason! It completely draws you into the story from the onset. A quinceaƱera is such an important coming of age celebration for any teen in Latin culture and I think that is an interesting stage to begin a story about these four teens. I can’t imagine what your friend’s family, or the undoubtable countless others, real life experiences must have been like. Marcus Sedgwick wrote about similar issues with gang related violence in Saint Death. Perhaps tragedy is just part of the human condition and writing about it a way for us to purge our grief. The only thing that may match tragedy is love, which is probably why we read Shakespeare’s tragedies and romances more than any of his other works.

So that leads to another component of your story, which is love. There are some interesting relationships between your four teens. What made you choose them? And why four teens?

Steve Schafer: I initially envisioned this story like the movie Stand By Me (with the stakes dialed up much higher!), so I planned to have four boys fleeing across the desert. However, when I shared the idea with a few friends, one of them suggested making one of the characters a girl. I knew immediately it was a good call. As you suggest, it allowed me show many different sides of love--best friends, siblings, and romance. Conflict is story. By having all of these strong loving bonds in place, it gave plenty of opportunity to find conflict between the different relationships, especially when placed in a high stress situation. 

The personalities for each of the characters emerged from thinking about how four people could have differing reactions to the same, tragic event. While the novel is about a group of four teens, it tries to focus on the individual stories…what drives each person on their journey and how it shapes each of them.

Pato’s voice is closest to my own, which is why I chose him as the narrator. Marcos’ is most distant—his reactions are often opposite of what I would do, which made him one of the most rewarding characters to write. Gladys has profound inner strength, which the others need. They also need to remain together—she is the glue. As for Arbo, this story needed a character who could bring levity to impossibly dark situations. His character is the only one who was also inspired by someone in Stand By Me--Vern, played by Jerry O’Connell. 

On a separate note, Saint Death is high on my TBR. I hope to get to it soon! 

SB: It is a wonderful book by another wonderful author! I like the way you played each of the characters strengths in the situation, but I also like that you made them real by showing their weaknesses. I think perhaps that is what made me like the book the best. You didn’t divide everyone up into neat piles of “good” and “bad”. We are all a mixture of both and that is what makes life interesting but also challenging. From a writing standpoint, I think it is often difficult to create characters who are not flat and one dimensional. How were you able to keep from falling into that pit?

Steve Schafer: They all start pretty flat. I have an idea of the general character arc, but it’s monotone. As I start writing them, that’s when the nuance surfaces. I think about them in a particular scene and wonder how they might react--exploring that range of possibilities is how their personalities are born. For me, the key to making someone more multidimensional is to imagine how that individual can surprise you...doing something that isn’t inconsistent with their character, but not the most predictable reaction. These little surprises add up to create complex personalities that are fun to work with. 

SB: I suppose that is in many ways how we are as individuals, isn’t it? That’s why it’s hard to put us into little boxes when you actually bother to get to know us. You never know how we are going to react when the going gets tough until we are faced with reality. And in the same way that people are messy mixtures of character traits, the issues we grapple with in real life are also more difficult than the neat little piles of “for” and “against”. I think you make that point very clear in this book with the issue of immigration. Immigration is a challenging debate not just for Americans, but all over the world. We like to think that it is a new issue, but it isn’t. What do you hope for all of us moving forward with this debate over the course of the next ten years? What about the next twenty? Thirty?

Steve Schafer: It is challenging and it has always been challenging. We need to continue to push empathy. We need to understand what these people endure. What would it take for you to leave everything and everyone behind to move to a place where you may not speak the language, where your professional skills and credentials may not be valued, where you may not have any family or friends to support you? When we truly get the magnitude of this decision, I believe we have the perspective to set the right tone for the conversation. 

What gives me hope for us (as a people) is the same thing that gives me hope for this issue--we have an evolving moral compass. Behaviors and attitudes that were acceptable in recent history are no longer condoned. This progress isn’t linear and our online world has become so noisy that it’s easy to overlook the evolution of majority views. But I do believe they evolve. As an example, an ABC News poll in September found that 86% of our nation supports DACA. I can’t think of much else that this many of us agree upon! This gives me great hope, and I’m also hopeful these attitudes will continue to win ground in the coming decades. 

SB: What about the drug cartel issue? The violence has been written about in fiction and nonfiction and it has been at the center of a multitude of films for decades. Perhaps it’s media sensationalization, but the situation only seems to get worse. What do you see as the best steps the United States can begin to make toward helping to stop the violence?

Steve Schafer: It’s easy to point fingers outward, but I believe we are to blame for this. We are the primary consumers of the products these cartels provide. As long as we consume their drugs, the cartels and related violence will exist. We have to impact demand. As to how we do this, I’m at a loss. I personally don’t believe that broad legalization of all substances is a good idea, nor is it easy to convince people not to do drugs. Maybe the first step is simply to get people to acknowledge the true cost of drugs goes beyond just harming their own bodies--it creates an industry that does massive harm to millions. 

SB: I don’t have answers either, but I agree with you completely about hope. I became a high school teacher as a second career for exactly that reason. I see hope far more than I see doom for the future. Thank you for sharing your ideas through story, school visits, and this wonderful interview -- I look forward to reading your new book when it comes out!

Friday, March 4, 2016

The Rampart Guards by debut author Wendy Terrien

Are you bemused by Bigfoot, nuts about Nessie, and fascinated with faeries? Mystical and mysterious creatures have captured our imagination since humans first began to swap stories over campfires. The world of unexplained and unverified lifeforms now falls under its own fringe scientific category – cryptozoology. Debut author Wendy Terrien has her own ideas about this secret world and has turned them into an action-packed, magical mystery.

When Jason Lex arrives home with his dad and siblings from his afterschool basketball game to find his mom missing, he isn’t sure what to think. Has she abandoned them or did something terrible happen to her? Night stretches into the next morning and the police arrive on their doorstep with her bloodied shirt in hand. While they never find a body, the conclusion based upon the amount of blood on the shirt is that she was attacked by a mountain lion and can’t possibly have survived.

The family mourns for several months before Jason’s dad finally decides it would be better for all of them to pack up and move several hours away to be near his mother’s family. As the moving van is pulling away from the house, Jason looks back at it one last time and he is convinced he sees his mom walk past a window. Everyone seems convinced Jason is simply consumed with grief.

The mystery continues to deepen when he meets his mom’s brother – an uncle he never knew existed. His uncle is known around town as a quirky oddball who wanders about gathering data for his research on mythical creatures as a self-proclaimed cryptozoologist. As he begins to build a relationship with his uncle, he learns about the secret role his mother’s family has played in maintaining balance between cryptids and the human world; his mother was a Rampart Guard.  

Terrien has crafted a fun romp that is sure to please middle grade readers clamoring for a new series after devouring Rick Riordan, JK Rowling, and the 000 section of their elementary and middle school libraries.  

The Rampart Guards was released February 25, 2016 by Camashea Press. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Would you like to go to National Library Legislation Day in DC May 2-3, 2016?

Every Spring, librarians from all over the country swarm Washington, DC to speak out for libraries and our patrons. It is a sight to behold! In 2014, a group of librarians even coordinated a flash mob "Happy" dance on the steps of the Capitol! Many of us serve patrons who, for various reasons, can't advocate for the services we provide. Perhaps you work with homeless teens or students in high poverty school districts with no school libraries. Maybe you work with college students working multiple jobs just to afford their education. Perhaps you run a a maker space that provides opportunities for anyone to explore technology, art, and innovation simply because they are interested. Whether you are a school, public, or academic librarian - or any myriad of other specialty librarian - we all have stories to share that can help lawmakers understand the value Americans gain from strong libraries. And stories from the trenches speak volumes. 

If you are a member of YALSA who has never participated in this exciting event, you can apply for the chance to be selected for a $1000 stipend to attend this year's National Library Legislation Day (NLLD) in Washington, DC on May 2-3, 2016. In order to be considered, members must have not previously attended NLLD must apply via website application by February 1For more information and to access the application form, go to the advocacy section of the ALA website at http://www.ala.org/advocacy/advleg/nlld

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Using the Library of Congress Archives to Teach Visual Literacy

My favorite part of travelling to national library conferences is meeting innovative professionals and hearing about the remarkable things they are doing in libraries with young people. At the AASL National Conference in Columbus during the first week of November, I got to meet librarian Tom Bober and hear a wonderful presentation about using Library of Congress digital resources -- with elementary school students! Tom is an elementary school librarian from Clayton, MO currently serving as teacher in residence at the Library of Congress (http://captainlibrary.blogspot.com/).

There is still such a huge misconception among the general public about just what the role of a school librarian is, what sort of training goes into becoming one, and what we teach. Yes, we do curate collections of books, in all of their formats. We are champions of literacy, although not just in the traditional sense. What sets school librarians aside from other types of librarians is our role in teaching students the skills for ethically using, critically evaluating, effectively searching for, and successfully synthesizing information in an increasingly diverse variety of formats. What I loved about Tom’s AASL presentation was the way he is taking these critical skills and scaffolding them down to our youngest learners so that even Kindergarten students are building a base in research skills.

Just before Thanksgiving break, I had an opportunity to experiment with one of his lesson ideas with my 3rd and 5th graders. The lesson used a series of photographs from the Library of Congress digital archives. The photos depict scenes from a family Thanksgiving dinner in 1940. Most of the photos are taken from various perspectives of a single room. Students were tasked with examining the photos and creating a room diagram showing placement of furniture, doors, windows, etc.
It was fascinating to see students working through the thought process of trying to record only what they see and not what they think they are seeing. Many of them initially started drawing and labelling things as they saw them in relation to their own homes -- kitchen, dining room, family room, mud room, etc. It was a wonderful exercise in visual perception and point of view and quite different from what they are used to doing in school.

The biggest challenge I found was time. We only have a short 45 minute library class and that really wasn’t enough time to effectively complete the exercise. I would also have limited the photos to just the ones showing a single room. Overall, however, I count the lesson as a success and am excited to try more of the lesson ideas from the Library of Congress website in the future! Thanks Tom!

Monday, September 28, 2015

Evolving Libraries With STEAM: An Interview With Sarah Kepple

I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know many wonderful librarians throughout my journey to becoming a school librarian. Some of the most dynamic have been my colleagues in YALSA with whom I’ve had the honor of working with on committees. One of the most forward-thinking and passionate librarians is Sarah Kepple, a former Cuyahoga County Public Library youth services librarian who is now taking her talent and services on the road as an outsource programming specialist. Sarah has been at the forefront of the maker movement promoting robotics and STEAM programs in the library. In the year and a half that I’ve been working with her, we’ve had many discussions about the evolution of libraries and librarians and the potential for the library as a center for not only information and literacy skills, but creating and learning in a social setting. Sarah has just finished writing a book, Library Robotics: Technology and English Language Arts Activities for Ages 8-24, set for release in October 2015, that talks about her experiences implementing tech programs in public libraries and gives practical advice and guidelines for starting and developing programs. I recently asked Sarah a few questions to learn more about this exciting new resource for library professionals developing maker environments in their libraries.

SB: Can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming book?

Sarah: Sure! I was inspired to write it because I started getting so many questions from library colleagues about what we had created at CCPL. Most of the folks who called were looking to justify for themselves or their stakeholders, why robots in libraries made sense. This is part of why I designed the activities in the book to align to not only the ISTE Standards for Students, but also the AASL Standards for the 21st Century Learner and the Common Core ELA Standards. Librarians develop both traditional literacy and technology literacy, so this book is designed to help them do both. The activities are all rooted in books, so that students are, for instance, reading about Alice’s adventures with the Mad Hatter and the March Hare while programming a robot to make tea. One of the school media specialists I interviewed for the book talked about how librarians are cross-curricular by nature, and I agree. Librarians could use the activities in the book in collaboration with a science, math or English teacher, an engineer from the community, or all by themselves!

SB: Why do you think libraries and schools have gone so crazy for the maker movement in the past few years?

Sarah: There are so many reasons. We’re responding to the cry from government and industry that we need more entrepreneurs, scientists and engineers. We’re participating in the push for locally and responsibly made goods, and we’re engaging folks by providing equipment that they may not be able to afford individually. Apart from all of these very valid reasons, though, I think we make and help others make because we are inspired by the process. The first time I saw students working with robotics, I was blown away. They were working in teams to solve challenges, such as programming the robots to move materials from one space into another, and they were so incredibly engaged and excited. They were independently investigating programming options, taking measurements, collaborating with each other, and discussing multiple creative solutions. The atmosphere was electric. All these years later, after leading hundreds of robotics classes, I still get energized by the students and the process. This is how we grow lifelong and connected learners. Creating is such a natural human urge, and creating together brings out the best in humanity.

SB: What do you see for the future of libraries 5, 10, and 15 years from now? What will they look like?

Sarah: Almost exactly five years ago, I went to a ground-breaking virtual conference put on by Library Journal and School Library Journal called eBooks: Libraries at the Tipping Point. At that time eBook sales and circulation was rising exponentially and there was a very strong feeling that libraries might be in trouble without some major overhaul, and not just in their collection development strategies. Though we’ve seen eBook sales and circ level off, the experience and subsequent cultural dialog has left us asking, “What is the point of a library? Why are we here? How should we move forward?” I’m encouraged by these questions. Libraries have always had to adapt to changing technology, but never before have we really looked so hard at our fundamental purpose. The past five years have seen a lot of experimenting, with makerspaces, business centers, media labs, writing centers and more. In the next five years, I would like to see us get focused on the science part of library science, and structure our experiments so that we can evaluate their effectiveness. Within ten years I expect most library systems to have moved fully into outcome-based planning. We’ll identify community needs, map out strategies to address those needs through classes, collections and services, and have ways to track our progress towards those goals. As we do this, I think we will be working toward codifying new best practices, and within fifteen years we’ll consider ourselves community learning centers rather than book repositories.

SB: There is still a huge stereotype out there of the shushing librarian and libraries as places of quiet solitude and stacks of dusty books. How can librarians squash the stereotype and create the image of libraries, and librarians, as leaders in emerging skills and technology?

Sarah: It’s true. Libraries need to do some major rebranding. ALA’s new Libraries Transform campaign emphasizes that libraries today are more about what we do for and with people, rather than what they have. I think this is the essential element on which we need to focus. It takes us back to the question, “What is the library’s purpose today?” or “What should we be doing for and with people?” To me, the overarching answer is we need to be community learning centers, and we need to behave and market accordingly. In both school and public libraries we need to think and speak in terms of learning objectives, think of ourselves as educators, adjust our language to “classes” instead of “programs”, and embed ourselves in our communities. Librarians have always been great at referring folks to the right resource at the right time. We need to recognize and celebrate that the right resources might sometimes be us and be bold enough to say so.

For the book I interviewed colleagues from school, public and academic libraries who are also using robotics with students, and all of them gave examples of how their experiences leading robotics has affected how they are perceived by others. After leading the school robotics team, one media specialist talked about how he is now in near constant communication with the physics teacher and practically co-teaches an English class. Fellow teachers see him as a vital resource, coming to him for tech help and to collaborate and his principal loves him. Another school librarian gave the phenomenal advice, “Don’t wait to be asked!” When it comes to emerging skills and technology, we need to just go ahead and lead. Recognition will follow.


Friday, September 4, 2015

Your Voice Matters in Advocating for Libraries

In our highly connected digital world, libraries are more important than ever. I can hear you saying, “Of course you say that! You’re a librarian and want to protect your job!” Yes, that’s true, but hear me out. Libraries have been a part of civilizations since the birth of writing itself as places to house, preserve, and disseminate information and as meeting grounds for information seekers. They have evolved continually over time to meet the changing needs of not just scholars, but all people seeking access to information. Libraries, in conjunction with widespread public education, have created a far more level playing field for modern societies. And as societies have grown and evolved, so too have libraries. With exponential increases in information available and developments in technology, they have continued to support access and opportunity for all citizens, arguably better and more efficiently than any other time period.  The Internet alone cannot provide such support; it only creates the connectivity. Libraries with space for collaboration, access to the most innovative technology, and yes, information, in all of its various formats, and staffed by people highly skilled in finding the right information for individual needs and teaching skills for finding, evaluating, and using information independently, are an essential need in today’s modern societies. Indeed without libraries and information professionals who can curate, cultivate, and make accessible quality information, the Internet and its connectivity become useless.

I can hear the naysayers; “Public education? What a broken mess! And my library has nothing for me!” While neither is perfect, they are shifting in the right direction. And I would argue that they should never truly be perfect. What we have now should be completely different 5, 10, 15, or 20 years from now. Both libraries and public education are in the business of creating and supporting life-long learners and should continually seek to evolve as society learns and grows. Neither profession should wake up one day and say “Well, we’re perfect now. Time to stop evolving and keep doing what we’re doing for the next 2 decades.” And I do believe that the vast majority of schools and libraries are not only doing good things, but amazing things today. But those darned naysayers are loud and squawky. They grab headlines – over and over and over again. It is libraries and educators, however, who have been the voice for open access to scholarly research and equal access to literature, technology, and the Internet. They have spoken up on behalf of all of us in the battle against censorship. They have been a voice arguing for privacy and individual rights in balance with societal needs. They have been the protectors and preservers of our cultural heritage and history – in all of its formats.  

So what can we do? Advocate to keep and expand libraries – and for finding ways to properly fund them. Who should speak up for libraries? Everyone, because that’s who they serve. There are few professions that truly speak for each and every one of us, even among the variety of public services.  The mission of libraries has always been to meet the needs of the communities they serve, whether school, public, academic, or specialty. They are driven by a sense of equal access. In recent surveys of public opinion, more than 80% of respondents place high value of the role of libraries – and yet they have been voraciously cut back and eliminated in schools and communities. In conversations with parents, teachers, and community members over the last few years, I regularly hear the lament, “They just don’t have the money for libraries anymore.” The blame is almost always on a nebulous “they” who are cutting the funding. Ultimately, we are our public servants, whether elected or hired. Advocating for improving and evolving public services, for finding and ensuring adequate funding, falls on the shoulders of each and every citizen. It is not “us” versus the nebulous “them” but rather a “we the people”. We all need to act to preserve libraries. Not doing so will just send us reeling back to the dark ages of vast inequity.

How and for what should we advocate? First, ask lawmakers and leaders to stop trying to find magical solutions in the for profit world for services that are public in nature. Keeping schools and libraries in the public non-profit sector does several things; it reduces the likelihood of individual gains taking precedence over public good and needs, it keeps hierarchy to a minimum allowing more collective (and patron driven) decision-making, it ensures that these institutions remain committed to equal access for all rather than shifting to a pay-for-play model that increases class inequity. If public services have to follow the mighty dollar, they cannot serve everyone equally. Rather than serving the public, they become servants to those that can pay the most. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be fiscally responsible with the funding they receive, just that the funding should not be tied to individual profit and gain.

Second, ask lawmakers and philanthropists to invest heavily in both libraries and education. Each and every school in America should have a school library with appropriately trained administrative assistance and a minimum of one full-time certified teacher librarian who collaboratively teaches information literacy with other teachers. Less than that and the school library is ineffective. Well-funded libraries deliver enormous value for each dollar spent. In schools, they not only prepare students with the skills for self-motivated independent learning, but connect each and every subject and discipline to encourage true interdisciplinary learning. They foster school cultures and environments where serendipitous discovery can happen naturally and in conjunction with the educative process.  They are a bridge between academic, archival, and public libraries and a link between each grade through elementary, middle, and high school. How do we know this? Solid data from two decades of more than 60 state studies show a definitive correlation between school libraries and student achievement. That kind of data is unequivocal. 

Finally, vote. Vote in every election. And understand that good politicians have to balance their decisions based upon not just your voice, but the voices of thousands of constituents, some of whom are very vocal and have substantial financial backing. Wealthy squeaky wheels, however, drown in a sea of less-well-off masses. You will never agree with every choice that elected official has to make, but if you are a passive grumbler who never votes and never communicates with elected officials, then your voice is merely static. Choose to be an educated, informed, part of “we the people.” And support widespread educated and informed citizenship through well-funded, accessible, professionally staffed, quality American libraries.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

"While other things fade, stones and souls endure."

This has been a sad year. After having just lost my Mom to cancer 2 ½ short years ago, my Dad suddenly passed away last month. I’ve found myself thinking profoundly over the past few weeks about legacy, pondering deeply what my parents left me with, not so much physically as metaphorically. I am grateful for the solid foundation they gave me through encouragement, support, education, and sometimes a firm hand and boundaries that enabled me to become who I am today.  As a child, my parents fostered a love of reading, learning and books. They took our family to museums where we could steep ourselves in history, science, and art. They encouraged us to try our own hand at playing instruments and filled our house with music ranging from jazz to classical to the occasional foray into folk and pop music. They took us on vacations to beautiful national parks. They made sure we all learned to swim during summer vacations.  They gave me and my siblings the gift of college educations. We had regular family dinners, homemade and at the table together.  We discussed what we learned at school, politics, and the world. We watched the nightly news and the Muppet Show together in the evenings.  We laughed a lot and sometimes cried. I wonder often how children grow and prosper when they don’t have the luxury of being raised by parents like mine.

In the 2 ½ years since we lost my Mom, I began going to my Dad’s house to help with some chores and make dinner. We had some wonderful conversations over those dinners and I became much closer to my Dad. Frequently our conversations in that first year were on the topic of stones. The headstone on their grave was not a quick decision.  Dad mulled over multiple designs and types of stone for months, deliberating with all of us as to which one would best serve as not only a marker, but a memorial. We decided that a piece of poetry or writing would make it all the more special and Dad perused multiple possible excerpts before finally settling on a portion of John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud.” Once the stone, design, and words were settled upon, drafts and revisions circulated among family members until, finally, many months after Mom was laid to rest, the perfect headstone was set in place at Lower Brandywine. 

Throughout those months and discussions about the headstone, Dad and I also talked about the predominantly Jewish custom of leaving stones when visiting graves of loved ones. There are multiple explanations for this custom in Jewish lore. The oldest historical connection actually comes from ancient times when people would mark graves with simple piles of stones. It was a practice that ultimately evolved into grave markers with inscriptions and was not solely a Jewish custom. Aside from the historical significance of piles of stones, there are multiple stories that emerge explaining the custom. The associations Dad and I talked about most were 1) the idea of stones symbolizing endurance 2) the leaving of stones as a sign that “I was here” visiting this memorial and 3) stones left as a tribute meaning “you were remembered”. Once the headstone was in place, Dad and I both began leaving stones when we paid a visit to the gravesite. Dad left a stone he collected at Trinity University in San Antonio as well as stones from family vacations to Graves Mountain and Lake George. I left stones from various places I visited as well as stones I just liked. 

Unfortunately, some well-meaning soul has cleared away all of our stones. Maybe someone who recalled Mom’s dislike of kitschy disorder left as memorials or maybe just someone trying to keep the cemetery clean and orderly. I feel certain Mom would be just fine with this custom of leaving stones, however, and I invite any and all of you to leave your own stones if you happen to visit. Both Mom and Dad were filled with fortitude and lived rich, full lives. The legacy they left is solid as stone; it endures and lives on in the memory of everyone their lives touched. 

Holy Sonnets:  Death Be Not Proud
By John Donne

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s deliovery,
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shallt die.

(Spellings in the original Donne poems are slightly different and the inscription on my parents’ gravestone uses the original Donne spellings.)