Play Groups Are Not Only For Kids

Published in Welcome Home magazine, Vol. 2, No. 5, May 1985

by Lanie Tankard

Isolation can be a mother’s worst enemy. Sharing motherhood with others gives perspective to both ends of the spectrum: the joys are heightened and the tribulations lessened. It is one thing to show off your baby to your old group of friends, but it is another experience entirely to sit down on a regular basis with other mothers whose offspring are close to yours in age and watch the children play while you talk with each other. A connectedness develops as each mother realizes she’s not alone, and that other mothers aren’t perfect either.

Play group for us is a core group of roughly six mothers and their children who began getting together in each other’s homes on a weekly rotating basis when our oldest children were about a year old. (We have had as many as twelve mothers with their children some weeks.) We began by watching the kids play on the floor while we shared a snack and swapped stories about what our offspring had been doing the previous week.

Through this group exchange, one mother felt relief when she saw that her child was not the only one still crawling, and another felt pride when she realized that hers was the first to walk. Others gained insight and were able to prepare themselves after listening to a mother talk about her child hitting the terrible twos. One picked up a survival tip about how to get her child to sleep at night by hearing another mother mention that she played a tape recorder. It was handy to have a resource group to ask: “Does your child tend to interrupt whenever you and your husband try to talk?” and find out that your child was not unusual. Always we left renewed for the coming week from sharing the sheer force of collective experience.

When I was pregnant with my first daughter, I knew a few people with children, but only slightly: the focus was on our professional relationships rather than on the psychology of childrearing. At the age of thirty-three, I was trading in a full-time job as a journal production editor to embark on mothering and freelancing. I began teaching part-time at a nearby university and started my freelance practice and joined a prenatal exercise class all at the same time. I was excited to find other women experiencing pregnancy along with me. It was a small class at a city recreation center, and we got to know each other well.

Using some of my work-oriented organizational skills, I collected everyone’s name, address, phone number, and due date, and made copies for each person. The original purpose was to see if any of us lived close enough to take our daily pregnancy exercise walks together, but I added: “And we’ll want to get the babies together to play.” Little did I realize how important that would become, not only to my daughter’s social development but also to my emotional well-being. As it turned out, only one of the women in my prenatal exercise class ended up in our later play group, but this shrinkage was due more to distance than lack of interest.

I stopped teaching when I was about three months pregnant. I was able to fit freelance editing around Amy’s schedule until she was about six months old, but as her naps shortened so did my temper. I stopped freelancing and turned to full-time mothering. I did not see it as setting aside my career, but rather as sequencing—having a career first, then a family, and later moving back into my profession with what Texas Monthly writer Prudence Mackintosh calls “the pleasures of limited ambition.” It made sense to me. I value quality, and I could not “do it all” and so it well. There is a saying” “You’re a guest in this world until you become a parent, and then you become a host.” I’ve always been the type of person who likes to make my guests feel at home.

One day when Amy was about six months old, a woman knocked on my door and said, “Do you have a baby? I was taking a walk with my seven-month-old girl and someone down the street told me you had a girl, too.” She lived two blocks away, and we began getting together often to let the babies eyeball each other on a quilt while we verbalized our worries, fears, headaches, and latest baby accomplishments to each other. We observed various techniques of each other’s that our weary brains had not yielded, and we were able to try new ways of doing things.

A few months later, we discovered a babysitting co-op in our neighborhood, joined, and met about thirty other families with children of varying ages who lived within a ten minutes’ s drive away from us. Most of the families had “stay-at-home” moms. The co-op gathered every few months for family picnics so we could get to know the other parents. When we left our child at someone’s house, it was at a friend’s home rather than at a babysitter’s. Eventually most of our present play group joined this co-op.

When Amy was fourteen months old, a woman from my prenatal exercise class called and suggested we get together for a baby play group. She brought in several mothers from her Lamaze class. I brought in a few I knew, and we began meeting once a week. Wednesday afternoon soon became “play group time” and was a refreshing break in the middle of the week. We met in each other’s homes and the mothers always stayed. Some play groups operate as a way to give mothers free time, and the mothers rotate the “babysitting” job. The support therapy was too important to us. Two hours a week of getting it all off our chests was more beneficial than a shopping trip.

I often made play group day a “no cook” day for myself, and picked up take-out food for supper on the way home after our 3:00–5:00 get-together. This late afternoon period is often the hardest part of the day for children between the ages of one and three. Play group forced us out of the house to share those hours when mothers and children frequently “go bananas,” and gave us a stimulating alternative to cartoons on TV.

The toddlers cruised around each other’s houses while the mothers talked around their play, observing the children’s interactions and seeing how each child was both similar and different from the others. A small snack was served midway through for both age groups. As the toddlers grew oklder, we became more creative. We started adding art activities for indoor play groups in the winter, such as stringing Cheerios and rigatoni necklaces, playing with play dough, tracing shapes, and drawing. When warm weather came, we branched out to the city parks and went to a different one each week One of the mothers lived out of town on a farm, so the children had the experience of feeding chickens and riding horses. Then we expanded the children’s environment by taking them to a fire station, a bread bakery, a petting farm, a museum to see the dinosaurs, and other activities. We included the fathers on some special outings as well. The problem of a child not wanting to leave any of these places when it came time to go was eliminated because we all left at the same time.

Play group has been going strong for almost three years now. The children’s friendships have deepened and provide a strong support for them since they were nurtured in their own home environments. These “old” friends became a comfortable buffer zone with whom the children could relax after they began making new friends at nursery school. The mothers’ friendships have deepened along with the children’s. We now have a “second generation” play group, as we each shared the experience of adding a second child to our families. We were all there to help out whenever one of us had a baby: cooking meals, taking the older sibling to play, bringing champagne to the hospital, listening to labor and delivery stories in greater detail than anyone else possibly could have, passing around hand-me-down clothes, and lending baby paraphernalia. By serendipity, one woman in our group was a labor and delivery nurse who supported several of us through our pregnancies and assisted at the birth of one baby.

In fact, play group has become even more important now that we all have two children. Perhaps part of the reason we each had a second child was being able to observe closely the experiences of the first in our group to do so and see that it wasn’t as hard as we’d imagined. The sheer difficulty of managing two kids stops many mothers from attempting some outings, but u group acts as one big family to watch everyone’s children. I know that if I need to sit down behind a dinosaur to nurse Jessica while we’re visiting a museum, Amy can continue exploring with her friends while the other mothers keep an eye on her, and I can catch up later. Think how difficult this would be if I had taken my two children to the museum alone, and attempted to make a three-year-old sit quietly by me for half an hour while I fed her baby sister.

What happens when we form such a group? We create clusters around ourselves—support nets to catch us during the rough times, mirrors to reflect our joy during the happy hours. For having children is indeed a spectrum from exhaustion to ecstasy.

Why has our play group lasted so long, when others I’ve heard of peter out after a few months or a year? A large part of it was the mothers’ friendship which developed along with the children’s, our emphasis on sharing rather than on competition, and our feeling of connectedness to life’s drama. I’d like to think that this quote from Goethe sums up our play group philosophy: “…to know someone who thinks and feels with us and who, though distant is close to us in spirit, this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.”

Lanie Tankard, the mother of two daughters, lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband.

Tips for Starting a Play Group

*Begin early, when you’re pregnant with your first child. Then you can share your pregnancy and birth experience while you’re developing friendships. Good places to do this are prenatal and postpartum exercise classes, Lamaze classes, doctors’ offices, parenting classes, walking around your neighborhood. Collect names, addresses, phone numbers, and due dates. Look for people who live close to you.

*Start small, and let the group enlarge naturally as each of you brings in new people.

*Set a weekly meeting time. Keep it going, even if the group is small at times. It could be a godsend to those few on that particular day.

*Agree on the location of the following week’s play group before anyone leaves, eliminating the need for someone telephoning the rest of the group. The core group can pass the word to those not there and to others who may want to come next time.

*Have each mother bring a different part of the snack (juice, water, fruit, crackers, etc.) when you’re going on an outing to a park or museum, rather than to someone’s home.

*Be flexible. If you have play group at your home and had planned an art activity for the children, be willing to forego it if the kids have become wild with glee in the large pile of leaves in your back yard.

*Be prepared. If the children become restless half an hour after they arrive at your home, always have a preplanned activity you can pull out for them to do around the table, in the kitchen, or in the backyard (playdough, stencils, fingerpainting).

*Be creative. Look around your town and make a list of the places your group could visit so you’ll have variety. Call companies, bakeries, or factories to see if they give tours.

*Include the fathers on outings from time to time, like getting a group discount for circus tickets so you can all sit together. Try taking some weekend trips with one or two of the other families.

*If you have a second child, begin another play group with that child’s contemporaries to maintain a perspective on each child’s growth and to allow each child a special circle of friends.

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Filed under Family, Uncategorized

Daily Life in Paradise

by Lanie Tankard

Cover story in the

Florida Times-Union and Journal Sunday Magazine

by Lanie Fuller

January 3, 1971 (pp. 4–11)

August 2019 Edited Version

As a Times-Union editorial writer she now ponders the problems of community and world affairs, but for a time she lived an idyllic life far removed from the crush of 20th Century civilization.

Photo by Foster Marshall, Jr. (Credit: Florida Times-Union and Journal Sunday Magazine)

THEY say that once you’ve found your island, it becomes a part of you, a special place in your mind to retreat amid the hustle and bustle of the city. My islands—350 of them— are seven degrees above the equator in the Northern Pacific, slightly east of the Philippines and Borneo. This string of islands in the Western Carolines, known geographically as Palau, is one of the six districts of Micronesia.

Mostly I remember the islanders themselves—their hospitality, ready grins, self-pride, and easygoing attitudes about life. Almost any tropical island has its share of waving palm trees, thick black nights lit by a silvery moon and a myriad of stars, and turquoise water surrounding a network of coral. But these islands have something more—a legacy not easily forgotten. It greets you as you step off the tiny DC-6 onto the red-dirt airstrip at Airai and reminds you even when you’re idly snorkeling in the warm velvety water near the rock island of Ulong.

            These islands were the last stronghold of the Japanese before World War II—a summer resort area and an important source of bauxite, sugar, pears, fish, and copra.

Twenty-five years ago, the United States fell heir to the 2,141 isles of Micronesia and has held them under a United Nations Trust ever since. Consider these islands, flung out over the vast stretch of the Northern Pacific, dotting an expanse of water as large as the continental United States yet with only half as much land as the state of Rhode Island. Micronesia: the very name itself paints this picture. It means “sea of small islands.”

            The “micro” islands, scattered as they are, vary both in culture and in geography, but share a heritage of footsteps: Spanish, German, Japanese, and American. The islands embrace remnants of every culture that entered their world.

            Where does that leave these islands today, in the 20th Century? Daily traversed by jet-powered birds winging their way to war-torn lands in Vietnam, they still nurse wounds from a world war fought a quarter of a century ago. Micronesia is—almost as it was—undisturbed yet by tourists and developers. No one has sought to capitalize on these war ruins…or even to clean them up.

            They were recently opened to tourists, and plans are underway in each of the districts to build modern hotels. That’s progress, I suppose. Tourists are considered an important source of income, and there is a lot here for the tourist to see. Much will not meet a casual vacationer’s eye though. Perhaps the best way to understand a place is through the people.

SO COME with me now, before the tourists arrive, and meet the Smaserui family, a typical clan living in Palau. Come back with me to that day I stepped off the plane with 17 other Peace Corps trainees and first saw those majestic green mountains jutting up out of the Pacific. A small band of Palauans welcomed us, dressed in loose cotton clothing and zories (rubber flip-flop sandals). We soon saw the wisdom of that attire. Even the mildew seemed to mildew in the humidity.

            Three girls dressed in neat yellow and white dresses placed leis of tropical flowers around our necks and uttered carefully rehearsed words: “Welcome to Palau.” I didn’t know until later that one of them would be my Palauan “sister” Maria, who would teach me all about her culture in exchange for help with her English.

            We rode in a jeep over to the air terminal, about half a mile from the airstrip, to go through “Customs.” Stepping over a dog giving birth to a litter of pups in the muddy road, we entered a crumbling two-story concrete building with Japanese markings on the outside. The structure had been bombed during World War II. No roof remained, so the second story now served that function. Out the window we observed “the landscape of war.” Weeds surrounded a rusting tank amidst more ruins. A group of natives sat on one side looking at us with doubt. All in all, it was a rather forlorn area, and we gladly piled into a cramped old bus to bump along the muddy road to the dock.

            Then, as we passed through the jungle, we saw them. Faces peered out of small wood-and-thatch huts. Children playing in yards, shy at first, became curious. One of us, in a sudden burst of enthusiasm, shouted one of the few Palauan greetings we had learned by that time: “Ungil tutau!” (“Good Morning!”). We chorused it at every brown face we saw peeking out among the palm trees—and it worked! They understood it, and waved back, bursting into huge grins…unfortunately followed by a long string of words we hadn’t yet learned.

            At the dock, a line of Japanese cars owned by wealthy clan members waited to take the two-car ferry (since replaced by a larger one) across to the district center. Koror, once a bustling city of 50,000, was known as Japan’s Miami Beach before the war. There had been modern houses on paved streets, and even geisha houses. Today, only 5,700 Palauans and Trust Territory officials live there, and little of the former structures remain intact. Holes from mortar shells pockmark any concrete buildings still standing. The houses are corrugated metal, usually perched atop the large concrete foundation of a former Japanese house entered by a flight of imperial steps.

            A once-concrete street is now full of holes and dirt. It was impossible to walk even a block without your zories splattering mud on the backs of your legs. Crumbling lions guard some entranceways. One Shinto shrine gallantly remains, along with other remnants of the prewar community. In those times, the population was mostly Japanese.  After the war, the Americans bombed the islands to render them useless to the Japanese. Then Palauans moved in, claiming the remains. The islands were under US military rule following the war until 1951, when the Department of Interior took over and promptly forgot about Micronesia. The “zoo theory” was the guiding rule—“leave them alone.” This unfortunate attitude of neglect is probably what makes the problems confronting Micronesia today much harder to correct.

            Ships still stand in harbors and on beaches where they were defeated under attack. Live ammunition, hand grenades, and mortar shells are strewn around the islands. A rakish “boomtown” atmosphere surrounds the remains of Koror today. The city boasts 14 bars sporting such names as the Boom-Boom Room, the Royal Palauan, Cave Inn, and Texas Saloon. Two movie theaters show “vintage classics.” The district center has a character all its own, and is to the rest of Palau much as New York is to the rest of the United States. Palau, compared to the other districts, is considered the most progressive. Several new buildings dot the scene in Koror: one a new school and the other…another bar.

BACK at the dock, an old boat finally chugged up, and we began the two-hour journey to Ngaremlengui, a village on the coast of volcanic mountainous Babelthuap, largest island in Micronesia (27 miles by 10 miles). The flying fish skimmed past our boat, the sun beat down, and the fluffy white clouds were so low we could almost touch them. In the distance was a labyrinth of rock islands, where the movie “Hell in the Pacific” with Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune was filmed. An 84-room hotel overlooking these “giant seagoing mushrooms” is currently in the planning stage.

            At the Ngaremlengui dock, a few natives helped us with our luggage. One of the girls who had met us at the airport took my suitcase, balanced it effortlessly on her head, and walked with me.

            The long path to the village went past a mangrove swamp, where we “casually” eyed the murky water. We had been told of the 50,000 crocodiles estimated to abound in Palau. Hunters from Australia were in the district at that time, by invitation of the Trust Territory, to help rid the waters of this overabundant supply after the creatures had killed two men. The hunters had caught over 30 in several weeks, and planned to sell the hides in Singapore.

A GROUP now awaited us in the “bai,” traditionally the all-male meetinghouse in days of tribal wars, but lo and behold women’s liberation had even reached Palau! Many of the bais had detailed carved storyboards depicting legends about wars, storms, and island migrations. No nails were used in the traditional bais. In the center hung an earthenware bowl in which a warrior returning from battle placed an enemy head. Just 50 years ago, headhunting tribes existed on these islands. Then came two world wars, and the islanders were abruptly thrust into the 20th Century. Quite a leap to make in such a short time, one that certainly can’t be made without consequent problems.

            Over 400 people lived in the three hamlets of Ngaremlengui. We had met our families with whom we would live during training, and our luggage was picked up and whisked away before we knew what was happening. Smilingly a native girl beckoned me. I followed her to a wooden house with white sliding windows on all sides in the Japanese fashion. They could be closed at night and opened during the day so that the house became apart of the dense jungle.

            Walls in the adjoining kitchen and “family room” opened outward, propped up during the day. A perpetual fire burned there for cooking. The rotted porch was falling in. Underneath the house was the largest collection of scrap war metal I’ve ever seen. The roofing was not thatch, unfortunately, but rather hot rusted corrugated tin—sheltering quite an active family of rats in the rafters.

            At the door stood Angelina, who spoke English rather well—a blessing during those times I was completely mystified by things. My family’s name was Smaserui, and my family they truly were. I became their daughter, and was expected to cook, clean, and work along with the rest of the women. Mainly, however, I was expected to teach them English.

            “We want all our people to learn English so they can go anywhere, even in Micronesia, and be understood,” explained Angie. For the 93,000 Micronesians speak nine different languages in their six districts. The schools use the TESL method (Teaching English as a Second Language).

            Besides my “mother” and “father,” called mechas and rubak (literally “old woman” and “old man”) out of respect for their age, my new family included Angie (20, training to be a TESL teacher), Martha and Maria (15, twins), Inocensia (13, adopted from another family in the clan), Kabriel (23, a carpenter in the district center), Lazarus (11), Harvestine (7), and Richie (1½, Angie’s son). Girls sometimes had several children before considering marriage. Their families took in these children. Johanna, an older daughter, was married and lived in the same village. Her children (Wilma, Wilson, Pasqual, and Pasquana) often came over. Two other daughters, also married, lived in Yap, the district just east of Palau.

            After watching me unpack, my new sisters took me to their favorite spot—the river. “Lanie, you come swimming, too.” I had planned on only watching, but the water felt so cool, I soon joined them. Later, I was told that a 14½-foot crocodile had been killed there several months earlier.

            I had a terrible time telling the twins apart, but Maria soon solved the problem. “Here, Lanie, you will cut my hair. I want to look like this,” she said, pointing to a model in an old Sears Roebuck catalog. “But Maria, your hair is down to your waist. It’s so lovely,” I said. Nothing could dissuade her, so I took the rusted wire cutters she proffered and proceeded to snip.

THE FIRST time my mechas had seen me, she said (through gestures and the few Palauan words I knew), “You’re too thin. I’m going to fatten you up so you can find a husband. No one will want you if you’re that skinny!” Well, she did keep the first part of her vow. With the Palauan diet of taro, tapioca, fish, rice, yams, pineapples, coconuts, lobster, mangrove crabs, papayas, crocodile meat, squid, sashimi (raw fish with soy sauce and lime), octopus, turtle meat, breadfruit, bananas, sugar cane, rambutan (rambotang, similar to a lychee)…no wonder I put on ten pounds.

            Meals were eaten in the family room by the fire, always seated on the floor using no utensils. Shoes were left outside, and the floors were always swept clean with palm whiskbrooms.

            My mechas was also the dancing teacher for the village. She tried to teach me the dances and corresponding wails, but I know I never looked quite like those women who, even with their “well-padded” hips, could sway gracefully in time with a ukulele and a harmonica. They still wore grass skirts, but jeans and 20th Century clothing now covered up brown legs peeking forth during the dance. No more surprises for the spectators. The only district that still “went topless” was Yap. Mail order watches, cigarette lighters, and other signs of American influence went side by side with loincloths and pandanus headbands. My Palauan sisters could hardly wait to learn the latest dances from me. They had a stack of Elvis Presley records to play far into the night.

TWO Japanese cannons overlooked the village, still trained on the harbor waiting for some unknown foe. A searchlight, long since rusted out, maintained its silent vigil alongside. The Palauans had built bamboo benches around the site, a hill with a breathtaking view of the entire valley, the harbor, and those fabulous tropical sunsets. Here we sat in the evenings singing, or in the heat of the day relaxing in the shade. It was like playing King of the Mountain, commanding a view of the entire Pacific for 360 degrees.

            Villagers young and old enjoyed weekly movies in the bai, courtesy of the Peace Corps during training. One night there, I tried betel (areca) nut. Betel nuts are about the size of green pecans. They’re popped open, filled with lime, wrapped in green leaves, and placed between the gum and the cheek until saliva begins to work on them. Then the wad (quid) can be chewed, the longer the better, while spitting out the red juice periodically. Many islanders had stained teeth and red lips from this activity. I couldn’t understand the fascination until I began to chew—the room started to spin, my temperature must have risen five degrees, and I felt positively numb. The longer I chewed, the more pronounced the effects became. I’m sure I must have provided amusement for the group of women watching me, who had long since become immune to the effects. That was my sole encounter.

            There were two “stores” in the village, a few shelves in a house stacked with Tang, sugar, tissues, cooking oil, canned fish, mosquito coils, zories, and a few other essentials. The village chief ran one store. Adjacent to the bai was a dispensary. Ngaremlengui was the only village of ten on the island with community electricity and water systems. The electricity came on from 6 to 11 every evening, and most houses had one or two light bulbs.

            Palau was a food-gathering society. The men in the village fished during the day to provide meat, while the women worked in the taro patches and gardens to provide the rest of the diet. The women held most of the land and money.

            In one way or another, islanders live off the coconut tree. It supplies food, drink, building materials, fuel, cooking utensils, oil, and copra (the dried meat). It was said that in days gone by, tribes used to make their older members climb the trees, and if they could manage to hang on when the trees were vigorously shaken from the ground, they were considered still useful to the village and allowed to come down. If someone was disliked in the village, that person would awaken one morning to find a raft and an oar in front of the door, meaning, “Leave before sunset. We don’t want you.”

MY SISTERS soon taught me how to cook Palauan food, wash rice, clean fish, cut grass with a scythe, make brooms, and wash my clothes in the river. Maria took me to the garden one day and I dug several rows of tapioca and planted two more to replace them. After I had learned just how to pack in the roots, Maria proudly declared I was now ready for a Palauan husband. No man wants a woman who can’t supply him with food, she told me. “Will you live here when you marry?” I asked her. “Ah, there is so much work here. I want to live somewhere else, maybe Yap or Guam…or America,” she said with a gleam in her eye.

            Naturally I had to learn to plant taro (no small job). The taro patch is all mud, with a tremendous suction. Maria took me to the patch one day to show me. Following close behind her, I had just managed to put both feet in the muck, which came up to my knees, when I lost my balance. I tried to lift one foot to walk. It wouldn’t budge. I grabbed a plant with one hand to pull myself up. This didn’t help either. I found myself falling face downward in that muddy black mess. As Maria picked me up between fits of laughter, I heard one mechas cackling away in the river where she was bathing. She had seen the whole episode, which she laughingly repeated throughout the village before we had even walked home.

            On one island in Palau, there were monkeys who imitated the actions of women planting taro. After the women left the field, the monkeys would pull up the taro and stick it back upside down, causing the plant to die. There was a drive to eradicate the monkeys, but my solution would have been to plant the taro upside down to begin with!

            I really needed a shower when I got back from the taro patch. The shower consisted of two round cylinders from an airplane, into which water cascaded from a bamboo pipe connected to the house. The water originated in a mountain stream from the island interior. The shower was set up on an old concrete slab from a former Japanese house, and surrounded on three sides by shoulder-high corrugated tin. The water flowed off the slab onto the surrounding ground, so that wading back to the house after showering usually left you looking like you hadn’t really bathed too well. But when you’re hot and sticky, a shower in the midst of a jungle—with water running over you while the sun filters down between the pandanus leaves, or at night under the stars—makes you almost feel like bursting into the strains of South Pacific.

            The benjos (outhouses) were next to the showers. A good old water seal toilet was a rarity. At night we all slept on pandanus mats, with mosquito nets over us and mosquito coils burning around us. The mechas and rubak slept in the family room, and Kabriel slept on the dock with the other men his age. We played the transistor radio for a while while we talked. Radio Koror (The Voice of Palau) and Radio Okinawa came in well. The music was a blend of American rock-and-roll, Hawaiian and Japanese tunes, and Palauan folk songs. We were usually awakened about 4 a.m. as the roosters screamed the coming of the dawn. Any thoughts of sleep after that could be forgotten. The geckos would be running all over the windows by then—transparent little lizards with five suction cups like fingers on each of their four feet.

            Palauans are brown skinned, with black hair and brown eyes. The children must all be born fish, for they can swim beautifully at ages five and six, and always seem to be in the water. The older ones free dive with spear guns and can catch about 20 fish in an hour. They appear much more advanced for their ages, compared to their American contemporaries. I had toddlers of two and three take me by the hand, mumbling Palauan baby talk, and lead me all around the village pointing out various sights. One night a tiny black kitten ran into our house, and I tried to catch it to pet the soft fur. Kabriel, my brother, saw it run under the bed, yanked it out by its hind leg, and handed it to me still screaming. I was appalled, until I began to understand that the villagers didn’t think of cats and dogs as pets. In fact, the dogs just wandered around the village looking quite sad, and were often pelted with rocks. But did this make the Palauans mean? Animals simply fit into their culture in a different pattern than in ours. The generosity and kindness of the Palauans had overwhelmed me on many occasions, and their disinterest in animals didn’t worry me.

IT WAS monotonous at first hearing everyone around me speak another language—quite frustrating. Then I began to discover many ways to communicate that didn’t involve words. I learned to convey ideas to my Palauan family without ever uttering a word. When they heard about Hurricane Camille on Radio Koror, they managed to tell me about it without saying a word of English, sharing my concern until I heard my family was safe. And when Ritchie, the baby, fell and had welts and bruises all over his head, I shared their concern, helping to look after him until he was better. Courtesy…and a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others…were the guiding rules in Palau.

            Finally the day came when I could understand some of the words they said, and then sentences, until at last I could ask questions and actually understand the answers. Palauan was a mixture of Japanese with many German, Spanish, and American words thrown in. Once we had mastered Palauan to the extent that we could communicate basic phrases, our training group went on a midboard break to the other side of Babelthuap.

WE set off one Saturday morning at six on the Asahi Maru, an old diesel tug-type boat, leaving a few trainees off at each village along the coast. The eastern side of the island was all white sand beaches (ground coral) and coconut palms surrounded by turquoise water. I went to Ngaraard with four other trainees and two Palauans: Antonina (a nurse) and Lange (a language instructor). The boat couldn’t get close to shore due to low tide. We got on a bamboo raft and poled ashore, holding our bags above our heads. The natives met us on the beach to show us the village.

            There were five hamlets, each connected by wide stone paths, part of Babelthuap’s past no has quite deciphered. Nearby stands a row of five-ton stones surmised to have supported a huge bai capable of sheltering thousands amidst the jungle, next to large carved stone heads. We walked from hamlet to hamlet, resting in each village bai where women brought us the traditional baskets of food for visitors. These were also served at parties. One basket could do nicely for a week, and we were served one three times a day! It would have been rude not to sample something out of each basket, so I soon got quite a reaction from my stomach. After the first night’s feast, the dancing women of Ngaraard entertained us, practicing for a party their village was having at Airai the next weekend.

            We visited Bethania, a Protestant girl’s school, beautifully landscaped. A Catholic mission school had also stood there, but Typhoon Sally had completely leveled it the year before. Father Edwin McManus, an Irish-Italian Jesuit priest who had been in Palau for 25 years, ran the school and the small church. This energetic man was in his sixties, had a pointed graying beard, and wore spectacles. He travelled to all the villages on Babelthuap every few months to offer Mass. He had compiled a Palauan-English dictionary at least six inches thick, the only one anyone had ever written. We visited with him several days, fascinated by all he had to tell us about Palauan culture. With much regret, I learned recently that Father Mac had passed away. I’m sure it will be difficult to fill his place in the hearts of the Palauans who came to know and respect him.

            When we were ready to leave the last morning, we located a small fishing boat to take us out to the reef to meet the Asahi, which was to pick us up at 10 a.m. It was low tide by then. We waded out to the fishing boat in waist-deep water that was quite rough, as rain was coming down in buckets. Tropical Storm Viola had begun, and there had been an announcement broadcast that no boats were to go out. The Asahi had turned back, but we were unaware of the situation as our radio had not been on.

            We crowded into the hold of the small fishing boat, trying to keep out of the rain. This boat couldn’t stay out, so it deposited us on a small rock island about half a mile from shore to await the Asahi. A small concrete-block shelter for fishermen sat astride the rocks, but the windows had blown off and it was almost as wet inside as out. Only later did we learn the locals called this spot “Snake Island,” for we began to see yellow-banded sea snakes crawling around on the rocks. We quickly voted against staying outside. For five hours in the storm, we waited for a sign of any boat, but none came. When the rain let up a little, we were all hungry. Someone pulled out a can of Spam, which we passed around to share, digging in with our fingers. Antonina and Helbert (a Palauan language informant) decided to swim ashore to see about getting another boat to take us back to Ngaremlengui. I was constantly amazed at the Palauan lack of concern for safety, and yet I never saw anyone seriously injured while I was there.

            They paddled back to “Snake Island” on a raft piled with beer, vodka, and food. In the typical Palauan fashion of not worrying about the problem at hand, we had a feast stranded on a rock island in Tropical Storm Viola. She raced across the Pacific, strengthened into a Super Typhoon, bounced off the Philippines, weakened near Taiwan—and then struck the Guandong province of China, killing a thousand people.

On “Snake Island,” the vodka kept us warm, and by the time another small boat was able to make it out to the island from the village, we were ready to leave. We crowded aboard, most of us on top to watch the ocean. The tide was low again, and we had to go all the way around the reef in the open ocean, quite rough by that time, to enter the reef from the other side at the tip of the island. The rain stopped about five o’clock, and Helbert immediately cast off his fishing line (a length of string wrapped around a bottle). He pulled in quite a few tuna, whooping at each one, and taking another swig of his vodka-filled coconut. After the waves began to get so rough that they drenched us even sitting on top of the boat, we decided to go below.

            The sun had set by that time, a sight I had never before witnessed on the open ocean with no land in sight. The stars came out, and the moon glowed more brightly than I’ve ever seen it. Only later did I hear that three Americans had left their footprints on the moon that night. Such a giant leap for mankind seemed almost incomprehensible then, in the midst of a vast ocean. Nine hours later, we managed to find Ngaremlengui in the dark, as the electricity no longer burned at that late hour. I don’t think any grass mat ever looked so comfortable as I fell into bed.

SOMETIMES being pushed to the limit of your mental and physical capabilities forces you to discover personal resources you never realized you had. I began to think of my comparatively complex life back in the States, how everything was rushed and hurried. In Palau, I began to experience a peace of mind, and a full rich life I never thought could be possible so far away from Americanized living. I hadn’t had time to find this in the States. The world became a lot smaller, and things I had thought of as “exotic” slowly seemed commonplace. I started to take fantastic scenery, along with island food and living, for granted as I realized the natives actually thought of the American way of life as “exotic.”

            One day Miou, my cousin, took me shelling at the reef with a group of high school girls. We went out in a boat with a few men, who went fishing after letting us off on the reef. There were hundreds of shells to pick up while millions of tiny iridescent green and orange fish darted around us. Moray eels splashed the water as they dashed out of our way. We saw quite a few ugly Crown of Thorns starfish, a brownish creature that feeds on living coral. They had already eaten well over 100 square miles of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and are now threatening the Pacific Islands.

            Miou took me out to the very edge of the reef, where the lagoon meets the ocean and the piece of coral on which these islanders make their home drops down to the depths. It’s probably just as hard for most Americans to imagine someone living an entire life on a tiny speck surrounded by the ocean as it is for an islander to imagine someone living an entire life of cocktail parties, freeways, nine-to-five office hours, and suburban housing developments.

            Miou showed me the splendors the ocean had to offer, and told me of her plans to go to high school on Guam next year. Her brother was at the University of Hawaii. Although she had never been outside her district, she knew there was something more to the world than what she had experienced in Koror and Ngaremlengui. She’s now living with a Navy family on Guam, planning to be a physical education teacher, and proud that she knows enough English to be able to write to me.

            At the end of the day on the reef, the girls brought all the clams and sea cucumbers they had gathered to the boat. They ate the raw meat on the way home, dipping it in soy sauce and lime juice.

            Another day my sister Inocensia took two other Peace Corps trainees and myself to Imeong, a village about 45 minutes away from Ngaremlengui by foot. It was a smaller hamlet, with only a tin Quonset hut for a bai. The children followed us all over. We stopped at our aunt and uncle’s house. No matter which clan you’re a member of, you are certain to have relatives in any village in Palau who will take you in as one of theirs, feed and shelter you, and show you the best their village has to offer—knowing that when they come to your village they will be treated in the same manner. In this extended family system, wealth must be shared, and any person who “has not” is entitled to welch from a relative who “has.”

AMONG our most memorable outings was to the waterfalls of Ngardmau. We took the Asahi Maru to the village, about an hour’s boat ride down the coast of Babelthuap. It had once been the site of a big Japanese mining operation for bauxite. The remains of the towers, railway, and buildings were still there. The grass was shoulder high as 20 Palauans and 7 other Americans walked from the dock to the village in the interior. We had all packed our lunches in pandanus baskets, which we carried on our heads. After getting beer at the store in the village, we headed inland for a seven-mile hike through the rarely traveled jungle. We followed the trail of an old Japanese water pipeline and railway, alongside a four-foot ditch covered by grass, into which we fell periodically.

            Fording two rushing streams, we were carried downstream by the current as we tried to walk across. At one point, we slid down a five-foot wall of mud. Coming back, we had to dig in with our fingers and toes to climb it. Strong vines hampered our way. Then we hit a tropical rainforest with logs in various states of decomposition, completely surrounded by jungle. The heavy rainfall in the islands made the area very green. Birds chorused above us, orchids hung from the trees, and sunlight filtered through the dense growth to light our way. One of the other trainees and I got lost, and met the first and only land snake I saw in Palau. It was curled up, opening only one sleepy eye to wonder what had disturbed its sleep in the midst of that thick growth. We backtracked in high gear, however, and rejoined the rest of the party.

            The overgrown path led along six bridges, some only six inches wide (the remains of railroad ties), which we pulled ourselves across. Others were larger, made of logs and old planes. It was a long two-hour journey, but well worth the reward at the end—a breathtaking 60-foot waterfall, surely one of the last unspoiled paradises left on this earth. We climbed up the mountain next to it, almost solid mud, grabbing hold of tree roots to pull ourselves up. We crawled up the fast-moving river that ran over the cliff, then climbed the rocks over the river and waded across the current. I was carried downstream, and one of the Palauans grabbed me as I sailed by. We climbed the ledge, which went behind the waterfall under the cliff, and walked out through the falls. What a delicious feeling to stand there under that waterfall and drink in its beauty, unmarred by concession stands, telescopic viewers, or guided tours. What made it doubly lovely was that no one had yet sought to make money off of it or to “develop” it…or to make it easy to reach.

            We spent a lazy hour playing in the water, and then went over to the river to see the remains of a Japanese dam, bombed after the war. The river was very wide but quite shallow, running over smooth rock. In some places, there were six-foot pools of water in which to swim, with their own miniature waterfalls. After eating, we began the hike back, refreshing this time since we were wet and didn’t feel the heat as much. On the boat ride home, we caught a 200-pound turtle, and feasted on fish, tapioca, and a mountain of rice with soy sauce and green onions. Sore and tired as we all were, though, we were ready to go back again the next day.

MY CLASS for the summer was a Head Start group of eighth graders. I taught for several hours each afternoon, learning TESL along with the Palauans. We were being supervised and trained by an older Peace Corps volunteer. The school was a mixture of Palauan and Japanese architecture, decorated with storyboards. Open walls with slats for windows let in the breeze.

            TESL was quite a challenge. Some of the students were bright and caught on fast, but others had no interest in English at all. I never knew whether they were merely repeating the words in the lesson, or whether they actually understood the meanings and would use them outside the classroom in the same contexts.

            One evening I received a small package from my parents in the States, which I took down to the bai to open. All my eighth grade boys soon surrounded me. My mother had put a variety of colorful commemorative stamps on the package, which I peeled off and gave to the boys. They licked them to wear on their foreheads. Swingley was one of my brightest students. He had long greasy black hair, a freckled nose, and deep brown eyes with a mischievous twinkle. He wore loud Hawaiian shirts, had a comfortable slow way of walking, and caught on to English very fast. He picked up a stamp with a picture of Abraham Lincoln, began reciting the Gettysburg Address, and then told me how many cars Henry Ford had made.

            I asked him where he had learned all that. “Oh, they make us learn it in school,” he explained. “Lanie, do you think that someday we can go to America and see the Statue of Liberty?”

            “Swingley, as smart as you are, if you study hard in school and learn English, you’ll be able to travel lots of interesting places. Did you know that you could walk inside the Statue of Liberty?” He was impressed. “That’s right. You can walk all the way up to the head and look out at Manhattan Island.”

            “What is Manhattan Island? Is it like Palau?” he asked.

            “No, Swingley, it has a lot more buildings and cars, and is very crowded.”

            “Aw, I don’t think I’d like it then.”

            We began preparing a week ahead for an all-night farewell party for two married Peace Corps volunteers who had spent two years in Ngaremlengui. Men roasted pigs and women wove baskets for food. Each basket held a piece of pork plus a mangrove crab as big as a lobster, papayas, cucumber salad, coconuts to drink, candy, taro, tapioca, fish, donuts, cake, cornbread, rolls, pineapples…ad infinitum. The high school students presented a Palauan dance. My sisters had been practicing for weeks. I had never seen them look so lovely…or so proud. It was a custom that whenever anyone performed at a party, spectators would walk up and give money, flowers, and leis to the performers they liked best. The departing Peace Corps couple took a 13-year-old boy named Marcellus back with them to educate in the States in the profession of his choice, with the understanding that he would return to the islands someday to help his people. The gesture deeply touched the villagers’ hearts.

            Returning from the river one day after doing my laundry, I came upon a group of women sitting in the road working. They were “sewing” the palm-leaf roof for a new house being built. Since everyone in the village helped with a new house, I sat down and took lessons from a mechas on how to fasten the leaves to the wood so they wouldn’t work loose. She gave these instructions smilingly around the betel nut she was gumming in her toothless mouth.

THE Palauans liked to go on all-day picnics to nearby islands, and would usually send several men over the night before to bury a pig wrapped in banana leaves and roast it. One island could be reached at low tide by walking across a sand bar. An old man lived at one end in a grass hut next to the concrete frame of a former two-story house, badly battered by gunfire. He was originally from Saipan, but spoke English mixed with Palauan, with which we gleaned this story from him. During the war, an American commander had mistaken his home for a Japanese building and bombed it. When the officer realized what he’d done, he apologized to the man and assured him the United States would pay for his house so he could build a new one. Twenty-five years later—no money and no new house.

            Planes rarely flew over these islands now, but one morning during language class a Navy plane flew over quite low. Fear was written in the eyes of all the older islanders. They ran outside to look up at the sky, watching the lone plane as it flew off into the distance, probably remembering other times when the plane overhead hadn’t flown off without dropping a few bombs.

            One of the rock islands sheltered a prehistoric cave with red markings on the walls. Climbing up a limestone cliff by the tree roots, you could inch your way along the dense underbrush to a narrow ledge leading to the cave. Captain Wilson, an English sea captain, had run aground here in 1793. He built a fort, the ruins of which were still there, along with the remnants of prehistoric pottery. Natural limestone caves abounded in the islands, and provided a final resting place for scores of Japanese.

            Two wild boars lived on the islands and had become so accustomed to the life that they would walk out in the surf and step on fish to eat. (Or so we were told!) I did see them crack open a coconut and ravish the meat, and when our backs were turned they made off with several of our carefully wrapped lunches.

            All too soon came the time to leave my Palauan family. Training was over, and part of our group was being returned to the States so the natives could take over teaching. I thought of Robert Louis Stevenson’s well-chosen words: “Island life has charms not to be found elsewhere.” Here I had witnessed both beauty and ugliness, hope and frustration, side by side. I have seen the marks left on these islands from the tidal wave of war thundering over them toward Asia. I hoped that these remarkably patient people would never have to suffer an ebb tide.

            They were unable to return to their ancient simplicity, but were as yet unprepared to go forward. And I wondered…go forward to what? What did they need, except the right demanded by Cyrano de Bergerac “to sing, to laugh, to dream, to talk in their own way and be alone, free, with an eye to see things as they are…to travel any road under the sun, under the stars”?

            Yes, they could be living cleaner and healthier lives—with better housing, medical care, and sanitation—plus education geared more to their needs. With the influence of the 20th Century thrust upon them, however, what would be their response?  Would Micronesia go forward to an affluent society and become a tourist mecca? Or would the islanders be able to stand proudly on their own feet and retain what culture they had left?

            As I flew away in the darkness above the Pacific toward Guam, I couldn’t seem to find the answers I wanted to hear.


Filed under Travel, Uncategorized

Roget to the Rescue

That’s okay, CDC. You might ban 7 words, but you can’t ban writing about the ideas. Who knows, British physician Peter Mark Roget may have even foreseen this day when he published his Thesaurus in 1852. A skilled writer can still create sentences about the 7 concepts without using the verboten words. It’s actually a fun linguistic game. And it brings up some interesting questions, such as: Is CDC cool with “foetus” as a synonym for “fetus”? (It’s an alternative spelling.)

Here’s my stab at it on a rainy day in ATX. Quite frankly, the synonyms for “vulnerable” are so much stronger than the banned word itself. They bring tears to my eyes.

Can you add other ways of saying the 7 words to the list?


diversity = variety, assortment, multiplicity, range, miscellany, mixture, social inclusiveness, discrepancy

fetus = unborn offspring, foetus (another spelling of fetus—Is that allowed?), embryo, developing baby not yet born, fertilized egg, prenatal, antenatal, pre-birth

transgender = epicene, intersexual, transsexual, involving a full or partial reversal of masculinity/femininity

trans = across, on the other side of, beyond, indicating change/transfer/conversion

gender = sexual category/characteristics/role, masculinity/femininity, sex

vulnerable = susceptible, weak, defenseless, helpless, exposed, open to, at risk, in a weak position, without adequate protection, open to attack, liable to increased stakes

entitlement = right, power, prerogative, title, privilege, claim

science-based: grounded in a systematic body of knowledge

science = discipline, knowledge, skill, art, learning, scholarship, study of physical world, systematic body of knowledge, something studied or performed methodically

based = founded, grounded, built, created, constructed, centered, established, main supporting element, fundamental principle

evidence-based: centered on proof

evidence = indication, proof, show, sign, signal, mark, suggestion, statements of witnesses, demonstrate, prove


Filed under Ideas, Words

Lighting the World with Books

ReStore in Austin, Texas

All those light switches. I spotted them as soon as I opened the trashcan next to the garage. Painters were sprucing up walls inside my house, and the trim was now white. These switches were ivory. The electricians had just thrown them away when they installed the new ones.

“Surely someone else can use them,” I thought.

So in I crawled to rescue eighteen switches—plus eleven outlets, twenty-five coverplates, and one doorbell. I added shutters taken off kitchen windows and loaded the box in my car. Then I drove over to Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore.

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The Austin, Texas, location was the first of its kind when it opened twenty-two years ago, creating a place that accepts donations of new and gently used building materials to sell to the community at affordable prices. The earnings support Habitat’s homeownership programs. Their website notes “the best part of the ReStore is the thrill of discovery—one never knows what one might find!”

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As I handed over my gently used switches, a light came on in my head as I realized the connection to reading: That thrill of discovery is exactly what happens whenever I open a new book. And here I was, a veteran Giver preparing for her third World Book Night, looking for a location to hand out Peter Heller’s novel, The Dog Stars.


This poignant story follows survivors of a flu pandemic on a postapocalyptic earth as they rummage for resources to survive. And the protagonist, a former writer named Hig, used to build houses. Yes, ReStore seemed like the perfect venue for this tale.

When the Giver books arrived at my pickup location, BookPeople, I went in for my box, filled with twenty copies of The Dog Stars. A week later, when World Book Night finally arrived on April 23, 2014, I took my Giver box over to ReStore to see if I could locate new or light readers to interest them in trying a book I’d enjoyed myself.

First I obtained approval from the floor supervisor, who also directed me to get an okay from the woman who handled the cash in a hut by the door. She seemed intrigued by the World Book Night idea, yet answered “No” when I asked if she read much. I showed her a copy of The Dog Stars and told her a bit about the saga. Then I held the paperback out to her.

“Would you like to read it? See if you like it?”

With a big grin, she quickly extended her hand back to meet mine, and became my first recipient.

Then I wandered around the huge old building that used to be a former laundry-processing facility.  photo 4a

I had some great conversations about books with folks who were sorting through the bins of nuts and bolts. If people said they already loved to read, I praised them and confided, “I do, too!” Then I handed them bookmarks with the World Book Night logo and URL, encouraging them to apply as Givers in 2015.

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A woman and her son mulling over faucet selections looked up mystified when I asked them if they liked to read, but accepted a book each (albeit quizzically). Two young women perusing the lighting choices giggled, looked at one another, and then stuck out their hands simultaneously to take books. A husband-and-wife team breezed by like two arrows swiftly winging their way to the window section on an unwavering quest. They stopped short to hear me out though.

“Oh, I read,” she grinned, “but he doesn’t.” She tilted her thumb toward her spouse, who sputtered, realizing he’d been outed. He accepted a book, muttering, “Oh, okay, I’ll read it.”

A woman walked up out of curiosity, trailed reluctantly by a teenage daughter in Gothic attire. I explained World Book Night, and the mother said she loved books. I asked her bored daughter if she liked to read.

“Not really.”

After I described the plot of Heller’s story, the girl looked helplessly at her mother, rolling her eyes.

“Will I like it?” she groaned.

“You won’t know until you read it,” the mother replied neutrally.

“It’s dystopian,” I added, thinking that might appeal to her.

The daughter thrust out a hand in exasperation for a copy. I wondered if she’d ever gone fishing, like Hig did in The Dog Stars when he felt troubled.

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My book supply was shrinking, and so was the number of shoppers. I peeked into the plumbing section and spotted a tall lanky man in blue overalls, with a denim cap pulled way down on his forehead.

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“Excuse me, sir,” I said as I approached him, “do you like to read?”

“Now why would you ask me a question like that?” he countered, slightly irritated. He pulled his cap as low as it would go over his eyes and ducked his head, starting to turn away.

Remaining steadfast in my mission, I quietly began to tell this plumber about World Book Night. He seemed uncomfortable, but paused. I smiled and started spinning the book’s plot—how just a handful of people in the world endured after a massive influenza mutation nine years earlier, how they had to numb their emotions just to keep going, how Hig flew his small plane to salvage dwindling supplies (like we see here at ReStore, I gestured), how a crusty old man named Bangley became Hig’s only companion until, one day, they think they hear a radio transmission indicating other survivors might be out there. Then I added that I’d really enjoyed The Dog Stars. I’d laughed, I’d cried, I’d kept turning the pages to find out what was going to happen next.

As I spoke softly, the man’s body language began to relax. Yet he still gave the impression of being hesitant, shifting his weight from foot to foot in a shuffling dance. Finally he settled down, appearing to have reached a weighty decision. He peeked at me from under his cap brim, head lowered.

“I’m going to make you a promise,” he said with deep conviction, pointing his finger at me for emphasis, “because of something you just said. I promise you I’m going to read this book because you said you enjoyed it. My wife’s the reader. I’m not. But we have two young girls. We keep telling them to read because we want the very best for them. They keep saying, ‘But YOU don’t read.’ So now I’m going to go home and read so they can see me doing it and know I think it’s important.”

Bowing slightly, I presented the book to him on two outstretched hands, as one might offer a gift of great worth. He took the novel and cradled the book against his chest, looking down at it for a long moment. I misted up.

“I’m really glad you’re going to read,” I whispered.

That’s why I love World Book Night so much. I can sense the collective energy of my fellow Givers (25,000 of them) as we pass out half a million new books to reluctant readers each year.

That’s 500,000 light switches going on in minds all across the USA—not even counting all the other countries around the globe. What a grand way to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday!

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Filed under Books, Family, Ideas, World Book Night

World Book Night 2013



I got hooked on World Book Night (WBN) when it began in the United States last year. Women’s Memoirs invited me to write up my experience afterward. I had so much fun in 2012 that I reapplied to be a Giver  this year. As a passionate reader, I was once again intrigued by the challenge of unearthing folks who just didn’t read much.


I live in Austin, Texas, so I selected the same local independent bookstore as last year — BookPeople: A Community Bound by Books — as my pickup spot for a box of specially printed books. When they arrived, BookPeople held a party for all the Givers, replete with jazz band, buffet, drinks, and mingling.

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BookPeople had extra boxes of books, so I volunteered to locate twenty-three additional passionate readers before April 23 to be Givers. That mission turned out to be as exciting as finding people who didn’t read. Then I sat down to ponder where I might come across those fringe readers.


Have you ever plunked down on a bus-stop bench at the end of a long day — tired, hungry, cold — ready to head home as a chill wind started to blow? If this is your normal daily route, reading may not be high on your To Do list. What if someone walked up and handed you a book,  out of the blue, and said, “Hey, it’s World Book Night! Do you enjoy reading? I sure do, and I’ve got a great book for you that I loved.”

Would your spirits lift? Might your curiosity cause you to crack the spine and read at least a word or two…or three…or maybe four? Even, perhaps, contemplate reading more books because the story was so good? Creating that scenario was my ardent hope.


Of the thirty title choices for this year’s World Book Night, I’d selected Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier to hand out. I’d really liked this story about a sixteen-year-old in Holland who crosses paths with one of the greatest Dutch artists — Johannes Vermeer. He painted scenes of everyday life around him in the 1600s. Chevalier imagined a story behind one of Vermeer’s most famous paintings, creating a fictional young woman named Griet to inspire the portrait and narrate the tale (later made into a movie).

When I visited one of my daughters on her Fulbright year in the Netherlands, we walked around the lovely city of Delft, where Vermeer had lived. Chevalier’s story, set in the seventeenth century, almost came alive for me there in the town square. DSCN0946


I sat in a recreated version of the painter’s studio at the Vermeer Centrum Delft. Vermeer’s famous Pearl Earring painting hangs in the Mauritshuis gallery in The Hague. The book’s themes explore beauty, art, marriage, and love. The story underscores the idea that money of one’s own can empower a woman and create a feeling of independence — even if it can’t be spent.

So on World Book Night, I took this story of everyday life in another country, in another time, and headed out to a setting of everyday life  in my own city today — the bus stop.


I drove my car so I could cover a cross-section of routes quickly during rush hour, catching about ten people at the first stop. Initially, a young woman looked quizzical, but then took a copy as I explained the idea. I offered one to the young man next to her. “Oh, we can share,” he told me. “We’re together.” His girlfriend already had the book open, and he leaned over her shoulder to read along.

About six high schoolers lined the wall behind them, one  appointing himself spokesperson for the entire group. “No, they don’t want any,” he told me in an authoritative voice, “but I’ll take one.” I handed him a book. Then I offered one to a girl in the crowd, who looked unsure until the spokesperson announced loudly amid snickers, “No, she can’t have one.” Her compliant stance in the wake of peer pressure sent me the clear but disappointing message that she would not be reading this story of empowerment that day.

Two other boys of high-school age, dressed in clothes several sizes too large for their bodies, stood aloof from the crowd. Ignoring the sardonic expressions on their faces, I walked over to ask them if they liked to read. Silently they shrugged their replies, but accepted a book photo-180each. As I walked back to the car, I saw they were both scanning the list of thirty WBN titles on the back cover. Well, that’s a start, I thought.

At my next stop, two young men were just getting off a bus.

“Do you like to read?”

“Yeah, I guess,” one replied. “Sort of,” the other one said. They each accepted a book in a noncommittal manner, and then crossed the street to await a bus from a different route. Later, when I passed through the intersection again, I noticed one of them sitting on the bench reading — Girl With a Pearl Earring. Yes!

I headed north, and spotted two middle-aged women chatting at a bus stop — one seated, one standing. I greeted them, explaining the WBN idea. Wary at first, one said she didn’t have time to read much. She asked me what the book was about. I told her, adding that I’d really enjoyed it myself. At that, they each stretched out a hand and then beamed down at the books they now owned. A third woman they seemed to know trudged up, her paraphernalia in a tote sack.

“She’s got a book for you!” one of the other ladies called to her excitedly. They pointed to the copy I proffered, which she finally accepted with raised eyebrow. All three seemed shocked at the mere act of kindness at the end of a long day, while thanking me over and over and over again as I left.

At my next stop, I found a man in a black t-shirt who was missing a couple teeth. He stood by another weathered man seated in a wheelchair. Standing Man grinned from ear to ear when I told him about World Book Night, eagerly grasping the book I tendered and quickly hugging it to his chest. Seated Man told me, “Thank you, but I’m blind. I wouldn’t be able to see it.” Standing Man patted his shoulder, saying: “I’ll read it to you.” Indeed, as I walked back to the car, I could hear the opening lines of Girl With a Pearl Earring rendered in a deep voice: “My mother did not tell me they were coming. Afterwards she said she did not want me to appear nervous.” I glanced back to see Seated Man listening intently.

Two young women got off a bus at another stop, viewing me in astonishment when I gave them each a book.  They looked down at their volumes with uncertain delight. Simultaneously they turned to chorus, “Thank you so much!!!”


Another stop:

A burly man in a camouflage jacket, sitting apart from two young women. The trio said they didn’t read a lot but, curious about the book, each took a copy. Burly Man stuffed his in a backpack, but the two women curled the front covers around the spines and began reading. photo-177

An incoming cold front had picked up by the time I arrived at the next bench, where a man in a short-sleeved New York Mets t-shirt was rubbing his arms to keep warm. I hesitated, thinking he probably wouldn’t want a book, but persevered. To my surprise, even though he told me he didn’t read much, he smiled delightedly, accepted a copy, and started reading it on the spot — bringing to mind Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich: “How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand one who’s cold?”

The next duo couldn’t have been more excited, thanking me profusely. I had five copies of Montana Sky by Nora Roberts that another Giver had passed on to me, so I gave each person a different title. “Then we can trade when we finish,” the guy quietly suggested to the girl, who nodded at the wisdom of that approach.


Bus riders zeroed out after people got home for supper. I still had three books left, so I headed over to a hospital emergency room. One woman rushing in from the parking garage after dropping off her husband loved the idea, and joyfully accepted a book. In the ER waiting room sat a lone man in a disheveled state, who looked up through tired eyes at the book I presented, then held out his hand and said, “Sure.” He started reading immediately.

I had one book left with no one else in sight. I stood there, wondering if the guard could read on duty. Suddenly the doors to the treatment area swung open and a woman in a flowered dress inched her way out — moving very slowly and painfully, looking quite sad, clutching checkout papers in one hand. No one awaited her.

“Excuse me,” I said. “It’s World Book Night. May I give you a book to read?” I held out my last copy, just as I noticed one of her eyes was as black as night in a perfect round circle. I caught my breath as I realized that must be what’s called a “shiner.” I began to put together in my mind a rather dismal scenario of what might have caused it. As I considered retreating, the tiniest smile began to emerge at the corners of her mouth — just barely, only a couple millimeters. Tears formed in her downcast eyes as she summoned all the resources of energy remaining within her to claim the book. My heart had goosebumps. I sensed that book offer was the best event in her day. My brief glimpse of silent gratitude in her eyes as she peeked up was an eloquent note on which to end World Book Night for me.

How did I do? I distributed one box of twenty books, plus five surplus volumes from another Giver. These are not used books. They are brand-new special paperback editions donated by the publishers, printers, authors, and distributors. I also recruited twenty-three Givers to take twenty-three boxes of twenty books each out into the community — that’s 460 books. We were just a drop in the bucket though. There were far more Givers than that — 25,000 across the entire country. Last year, more than 2.5 million books were given out around the world.  For my part, I’m proud of the twenty-five people I reached who don’t regularly read but decided to give it a try.

Here’s what BookPeople wrote on their blog afterward:

We want to extend a very special hug to Lanie, our WBN 2013 hero who volunteered to take on over 20 boxes of books and who recruited friends as givers. Here’s her experience yesterday:

“I’ve got folks handing out books at several hospitals, a jail, a dispute resolution center, a church food pantry, a hospice, several schools, city buses, Goodwill, a bar (for TENDER BAR), work, neighborhoods, street corners…just makes my heart swell!”

Without a doubt, these Givers were all heroes as agents of change. Just as I did, they located adult nonreaders from all walks of life  — in a wide array of ages, genders, cultures, education, and skin colors. I could tell from feedback that  other Givers had also been moved by their experiences.

One Giver, who had chosen a church assistance program as her venue, emailed me afterward: “Many of our clients are homeless, many are recently released from jail or prison, but most are living on the edge of poverty and need help with bills. The books went like hotcakes!”

Another noted, however: “It was harder to give away the books than I expected. I guess some people can’t really believe that something is absolutely free, no strings attached. [We] did manage to find people interested in reading more. It was fun!”

Several Givers handed them to servers and customers at burger restaurants. Another went to a large parking lot by a “big box” store in search of “a good cross-section of people.”

One wrote: “We had fun! I’d be happy to do it again next year.”

And so would I! As an editor and writer, words are my coin of the realm. Because they come easily to me, I feel an innate obligation to share them. I’ve volunteered for Laubach Literacy (now ProLiteracy) and Reading for the Blind (now Learning Ally), taught English as a foreign language (TOEFL) in the Western Caroline Islands, edited academic papers for nonnative speakers of English, and developed questions for a computerized grammar, spelling, and punctuation self-teaching program. I believe that reading holds a key to our survival through offering us a means to understand our differences. By “trying on” other ways of life through the tales told in books, we can visualize ourselves as others. Stories capture our imagination when we are worn down from the vicissitudes of life.  Such narrative accounts of events, whether fiction or nonfiction, transport us for a moment to combat loneliness and connect us to imaginary worlds peopled by others. A friend who is a philosophy professor once commented to me, “A tale well told is always worth reading.”

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has issued several reports on attempts to measure how much we as a society read literature, and initiated The Big Read as another approach. Currently “77 communities are encouraging literary reading” through this program. The most recent NEA report on reading from 2009, titled Reading on the Rise, noted “a tale of two Americas.” This tale called our attention to the fact that even though reading appeared to be on the rise, “The U.S. population now breaks into two almost equally sized groups – readers and non-readers.” Why would it be valuable for a civilization to read literature — for adult readers to reach out to nonreaders? “Reading is an important indicator of positive individual and social behavior patterns,” according to the report. “Previous NEA research has shown that literary readers volunteer, attend arts and sports events, do outdoor activities, and exercise at higher rates than non-readers.”

World Book Night seems to me one of the purest examples of how to change society for the better through social interaction. Not everyone in our country, let alone the world, can access stories through technology. World Book Night offers a way to bestow upon them  the power to imagine  other lives by reading, through the mere placement of a book in an outstretched hand. Perhaps, as Tennessee Williams suggested, we all depend on the kindness of strangers.

Yet there are no data to measure the effect of World Book Night.  Showing how “narrative organizes the structure of human experience—how, in a word, ‘life’ comes to imitate ‘art’ and vice versa”—is a “daunting task,” according to psychologist Jerome Bruner in Acts of Meaning.  World Book Night appears to be up to the challenge to me, however. It seems representative of solid research about the effects of social interaction, the diffusion of ideas, and attitude change. Can a fringe reader become hooked on books? World Book Night sure thinks so. And I do, too.

In a weary world replete with dark woes, stories can still light a primordial fire around which we can gather to contemplate our common humanity. Connections keep us centered on our planet, grounded in the certainty that we’re here together.

We’re all just simply trying to keep warm.

Lanie Tankard as drawn by a daughter

Lanie Tankard as drawn by a daughter

Sign up on the World Book Night website to be notified when you can apply to be a Giver in your town on April 23, 2014!


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“Even though NASA tries to simulate launch, and we practice in simulators, it’s not the same — it’s not even close to the same.”

Sally Ride

I began motherhood as a beginner — a raw neophyte not at all ready for the tiny bundle who sprang into the world in a grand jeté three weeks early. So much yet to do…so much still to prepare.

Yes, I’d been practicing my Lamaze breathing in preparation for the launch, but how did one simulate nurture — those years following the birth?  I was definitely not ready. The nursery wasn’t exactly bare though, mind you. Friends had given us a baby shower, so an avalanche of footed onesies and crocheted blankies eagerly awaited a tiny being to cover. Yet there were all those finishing touches I had planned, those welcoming decorations I’d wanted to have in place.

And then there were the mental preparations, the readying of my mind for motherhood, that segue from woman to mother. But wait, becoming a mother didn’t mean I’d no longer be a woman. Sigh. What, exactly, did it mean? These were the types of deep thoughts I had needed to ponder, organizing them in the files of my scattered brain so I could appear competent to my offspring, not to mention the world. No, I simply wasn’t ready. Only later did I truly understand the wisdom in that childhood Hide n’ Seek chant: “Ready or not, here I come!”

Now, through the long lens of retrospect, I see what I was naively searching for then — control. As I’ve since learned, that’s one thing motherhood doesn’t allow — control over either one’s own life or the new life just entrusted at birth. Oddly, that turns out to be a wise safety mechanism for both.

On the first day that my husband returned to work, after we had brought our newborn home from the hospital, panic arose within me. Looking over at my daughter’s sleeping form, I felt a frantic longing for the presence of my own mother three states away to mother me, to stand at my side telling me what to do.

I cried mightily, hormones careening wildly around my body desperately seeking equilibrium. Then I realized I’d have to step up to the plate and pick up the bat. There wasn’t another soul in sight. For she was stirring now, this helpless little individual, opening her eyes.

We looked at one another. Her small face and mine drew close together. Then she seemed to smile, even though research clearly states that first smiles, real social smiles, do not occur before two or three months. Still, a slight tilt of the lips combined with a twinkle in her eye (call it a glint of the sun if you must) surely resembled a smile to me.

At that moment, I knew I had already begun as a mother, she had begun as a daughter, and we would figure out the road ahead together. Over the next few years, her two sisters arrived to help us. The Tankard Ladies launched me as a mother. Then my firstborn handed me a new role as a grandmother. And that one needed absolutely no simulation. I launched right into it the minute that warm little bundle reached my waiting arms.

Who knew life could become even richer?

Copyright 2012 by Elaine F. Tankard

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The Steps

Then up the ladder of the earth I climbed

through the barbed jungle’s thickets

until I reached you Macchu Picchu.

Pablo Neruda

The Heights of Macchu Picchu

(N.B.: Neruda’s spelling of Machu Picchu)

Door to Neruda’s Wine Cellar

Santiago, Chile

There are three ways to reach the fabled Machu Picchu: by train, by bus, or by foot. And within each of those choices, there are several options.

You can take a Backpacker train, a Vistadome train with refreshments included, or the luxury Hiram Bingham train á la the Orient Express — with cocktails and fine dining, plus afternoon tea at the sanctuary lodge.

Aguas Calientes

A bus can transport you from the nearby town of Aguas Calientes, where most travelers spend the night.

“By foot” means walking the Inca Trail, either for four days camping in tents or hiking for one day.

This is the story of one of those ways. . . .

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 “Pick up a sesame seed but lose sight of a watermelon.”

Chinese Proverb

Selwyn Road in Cleveland Heights was my childhood haven for the first nine years of my life.  That long street shaped like an upside-down J began down at the foot of Greyton Road, almost to Noble Road. Then it rose on a hill all the way up to Monticello Boulevard, which led to Forest Hills Park where I went sledding.

I lived in the middle of the block, and Selwyn was rife with playmates all up and down the street. We’d congregate on one porch or another on hot summer days. One time it might be a Swap Meet, when each of us would bring toys, puzzles, or games we were tired of. Then the negotiations began, when we’d try to convince the person who’d brought an item we coveted that it was worth what we had to trade. Was one Mr. Potato Head game minus an ear worth the same as a set of Pick Up Stix that was short one stick? The finesse of those deals brokered in the early Fifties could serve as excellent lessons in today’s economy. Continue reading

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Beyond the Canal

“Not houses finely roofed

or the stones of walls well builded,

nay nor canals and dockyards make the city,

but men able to use their opportunity.”


I journeyed to Panama to see the canal, and ventured upriver as well. I flew to Panama City with a small University of Texas group, plus my daughter Jessica. We visited all three locks at various times — day and night. The canal never sleeps. Aboard a low vessel built for J. P. Morgan, we followed a huge container ship through Pedro Miguel Locks. At the Gaillard Cut, we crossed the Continental Divide.

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Going Out

“…we go,

Scarce knowing if we wish to go or stay,

Being too full of sleep to understand.”

Longfellow (Nature)


When Nature calls, we go. If we’re lucky, we go indoors.

Different antiquities vie for the claim to the first flush toilet several thousand years ago. King Minos of Crete had one in the Knossos Palace, and another was discovered in the tomb of a Chinese king in Shangqui county in the central province of Hunan.

We had two flush toilets in the house where I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio — one on the second floor right across the hall from my bedroom, and another down in the basement. One day, I was playing in our basement when Nature rang. I knew even at the tender age of three or so that I wouldn’t be able to make it up two flights of stairs in time. The gleaming white porcelain toilet just inside the open door to my father’s office in that subterranean world beckoned to me. Taking advantage of its proximity, I hustled over. Continue reading

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