Halloweensie: When Spiders Decorate

Aly loved October, when spiders spun ghostly webs to decorate for Halloween.

Fall turned cold early. The thumbnail moon was spooky. Aly worried about the spiders, freezing in the dark.

Aly knew how to help. That night, she tiptoed outside carrying her mother’s yarn box, full of tangled skeins. She gently gathered sleepy spiders, setting them in the box. Once it was full, she went inside and left it on the kitchen counter.


Aly woke to a ruckus in the kitchen: Daddy whacking at scuttling spiders, Mommy waving a broom.

Interior decorating! Halloween would be a wooly tangle!


What’s Yupo? Learning a New Technique

A few months ago, an artist friend from a Facebook creativity group began to post gorgeous paintings she had made on paper called ‘yupo,’ which is synthetic paper. Among its advantages are that you can wash off what you don’t like, you can blow the watercolors around the page–with your lips or a hairdryer, you can add gouache and then stencils and who knows what as you create something from very little.

While visiting friends last summer, I gave their daughter $20 to run down to the local art shop, buy 2 sheets of yupo, and get something for herself. Well–the two oversized sheets were $20. (Better prices online, from Office Depot to Blick and  Jerry’s Artarma.) So I chopped the oversized sheets into the 6 x 8 inch pieces I’m more accustomed to working with, and waited a while to figure out what to do with them.

I finally learned, thanks to a class last week with the Muddy Creek Artists Guild, of which I am a happy new member (though I still hesitate to say that I’m an ‘artist’.) An instructor showed us one approach to painting on yupo–clean the paper with rubbing alcohol and, once it has tried, splash a bit of water here and there, and then add up to three complementary colors. You can swirl the paper, or patiently watch the colors swirl. I’m glad I took a picture at this point, because mine was so beautiful that I made it into a card (for sale soon on my Etsy site!).

On sale at JustByJanice on Etsy -- $15 for set of 5!

On sale at JustByJanice on Etsy — $15 for set of 5!

The next step was to pick up the still-damp paper and move it across the room, to set it on the floor with all the other yupo-work, where a fan blew the images dry—and all over the place. I did not have my final one made into a card!

Yupo, large

The next time my daughter came to visit, we took my watercolor pencils and small sheets of yupo, and came up with our own designs–mine, the giraffe with runny mascara and hers the Monet-like abstraction. I may frame them both.

Giraffe with bad mascara and Monet lilies

Giraffe with bad mascara and Monet lilies

The point of all this was that it was joyful, intriguing, and fun. When was the last time you played with watercolors? And why did you stop?

Key Words: yupo, watercolors, Muddy Creek Artists Guild, creativity, learning

Girls to the Front

Last month, my youngest daughter graduated from college–applying her great intellect and innate creativity to make the most of her 4 years there, despite significant health challenges. While earning her degree, she became an advocate for many issues, such as #blacklivesmatter and a #livingwage. She also did things about it, leading a crew at Habitat for Humanity, tutoring vulnerable children, distributing meals, and so much more. To me, she is proof that the universe is built on love and action.

So I drew a new turtle, this time just a single small one, heading out to sea, nothing to guide him beyond decades of nature and genetic. Like my girl, fearless and brave, swimming to whatever beautiful thing catches her eye.


Sea Turtles: I Will Not Be Broken

Trying to draw many pictures inspired by songs, poetry, or phrases and people I encounter. This is my image of sea turtles on the Atlantic Coast, from Maryland to North Carolina, trying to make their way to the safety of the ocean. Relative safety, but at least from their nest to the ocean, out of some harm’s way, no doubt into other’s. Here it is.


I Will Not Be Broken

I Will Not Be Broken

Maddie the Red and the Summer of Outside Reading

It is the last day of second grade and Maddie is daydreaming about summer. Swim team. Jumping waves at the beach. A trip to the lake to camp with her cousins. And best of all, she thinks, Mommy says that this Fourth of July, Maddie can light her own sparkler. Finally,, I am not a baby!

She is just beginning to feel the chilly water on the flume at the amusement park, and is bracing herself for the big splash when ‘Crack!’! Miss Pinto raps Maddie’s desk with her ruler.

“Clap, clap, clap!”

Miss Pinto slaps her hands together, a signal for the class to clap back and be quiet. Maddie loves Miss Pinto, with her crazy curls of red hair and her freckles, which, Maddie’s  mother says, are angel kisses.

Maddie has red hair too, and she daydreams that if Miss Pinto were her mother, she would understand why Maddie wants to color her hair black, straighten it, and ask the doctor how to get rid of the freckles. Maddie’s mother always  says that grown-ups pay a lot of money for hair like hers.

“They can have it,” Maddie snaps whenever she hears this.

She once  tried to cover her freckles with her mother’s make up, and and her hair with her Dad’s old bandana, but it was useless. She is Maddie the Red. Mommy says she loves Maddie: “Freckle to freckle and head to toe.”

Her mother doesn’t know how much the other kids tease her about her hair and freckles. They hurt her feelings and make her mad. Once she told a boy who wouldn’t leave her alone that his heart must be the size of her smallest freckle, he was so mean, but that made the teasing even worse. And once, when she pulled a tormentor’s hair, Miss Pinto sent her to The Office. After that, the whole class had to go to the cafeteria to hear a man talk about bullying.

But now it is the last day of school and Maddie can’t wait for her bus to be called.

“Now boys and girls, before you start third grade I want you to promise me that you will read at least 20 minutes every day this summer. All that outside reading will have you ready to go when you start third grade.”

The whole class groans. Maddie hates homework. Maybe Miss Pinto would not be such a good mother after all.  She would probably make her read on the Fourth of July!

When she gets off the bus, Maddie races home, letting the screen door slam behind her. All the pictures hanging in the hall rattle. Her mother shouts at her from her office upstairs.

“Maddie, how do we close the front door? Come up and tell me about the last day of second grade,’ she calls. Maddie grabs two just-baked cookies and a juice box, then runs upstairs.

“Last day of school!” Her mother smiles. “I always loved the last day of school, too! Report card?”

She holds out her hand and Maddie turns it over.

Maddie hesitates. “It was all A’s except for reading. I like to read, I’m just not great at it. Miss Pinto told the whole class that we need more outside reading.”

“Well, a little outside reading never hurt anyone,” Mommy says. “I’m off tomorrow and we’ll go to the library.”

Maddie hugs her mom, then disappears to her own room. She picks out 10 of her favorite books and puts them in her backpack. She fills her water bottle, takes a few more cookies and, at the last second, an apple. She packs the wooden sword she has had since she was five and wanted to be a pirate.

She even packs her sunblock and a hat.  Then she  jumps from the fourth step to the foyer, making a loud crash  and darting off before she gets in trouble.

Maddie pedals her bike as fast as she can toward the woods, where she and her best friend, Chuckie, had built a fort last summer. Then Chuckie’s father got a new job in another state, and they moved. Since neither one of them can have  a phone of their own, they write real letters to each other. Ever since Chuckie moved away, Maddie hasn’t been back to the fort. It makes her miss him too much.

“But Chuckie likes to read, so maybe he’ll rub off on me,” she thinks.

She  walks through the tangled, thorny vines full of their purple berries, slicing away with her sword to clear a path–but the fort is gone!  All that’s left are  the door and a faded “Keep Out” sign.

She can’t believe anyone could have just torn it down, not even the big kids from middle school could be so mean.

Not even the big kids could be so mean!

Not even the big kids could be so mean!

“Maybe the blizzard blew it  away,” she thinks. She says good-bye to the fort, which had been such a great fort, then swings her sword to get out of the woods and back to her bike.

She snaps her helmet on, then looks up and down the street, wondering if she can find a better spot for outside reading. She decides that The Climbing Tree in the neighbor’s front yard would be just right.

She gets a foothold on a low branch, then scurries up to the spot where the tree splits, with a ‘V’ shaped place that Maddie knows will make a perfect place for reading. No sooner has she settled in, book in hand, when she feels something moving in the branches above her.

“It can’t be the wind,” she thinks, a split second before she spies a long black snake, curling its way through the leaves. Maddie is not afraid of snakes, but she does not like to be near them. She stuffs her book in her pack, drops the apple, and jumps from the tree before she even gets to the lowest branch. She looks back up to find the snake, but it is camouflaged.

She feels something on her shoulder

She feels something on her shoulder

Back on the street, Maddie sits on the curb to think a while about the outside reading. Twenty minutes a day, every day? She wonders if Daddy could put a hammock up for her, or maybe put a cozy chair on the porch.

She notices someone sitting and slowly swaying on the porch swing at Chuckie’s old house. She leaves her bike behind, and walks over to get a better look. She hopes against hope that the new people have a son her age, just like Chuckie, or a girl who likes red hair and playing animal hospital. Mostly, she thinks, she wants a friend.

A white-haired lady is sitting very straight and still on the porch swing.. She must be short, Maddie thinks, because her feet don’t  reach the floor. Every few minutes, she uses a cane to give herself a push. Maddie moves even closer, inching along the walkway to the house. She can see the woman’s face. It is crackled with wrinkles.

Just as Maddie is about to turn away, the woman spots her.

“Why hello there! Want to swing a while?” she  asks in a wrinkled sort of crackly voice.

Maddie steps up to the porch.

“Hello, my name is Maddie. My best friend ever used to live here. I miss swinging with him,” she says. She knows she is not supposed to talk to strangers, but this lady looks so old, older than anyone Maddie has ever seen.

“Would it be okay for me to do my outside reading here?” she asks.

The old lady chuckles. “I guess a porch will do for outside reading. Climb on up!” She pats the cushion at her side. “My name is Rosalind, but you may call me Miss Rose. Let’s see what you have here.”

Maddie pulls her books out, all ten of them.

Porch swing with Miss Rose

Porch swing with Miss Rose

“Would you like to hear one? Miss Pinto says I am good at reading out loud,” Maddie says. Outside read aloud! She thinks.

“Why so many books?” Miss Rose asks.

“I want to finish a whole week’s worth today,’ she says. She tells Miss Rose about her problems finding the best spot, the beaten down fort, the snake in the tree.

“How dreadful! Snakes! Not my cup of tea,” Miss Rose says.  “I’m sure your teacher didn’t mean for it to be so hard to find a spot. You are welcome to use my swing any time you want to read.”

She adds, “And you can read to me. I am a good listener.”

Maddie reads two books and guesses it has been twenty minutes. Miss Rose smiles at her.

“Well done, Maddie,” she says.

Maddie thinks it might be nice to have a new best friend next door, and she nods happily.

“Can I come tomorrow, after swim team?” she  asks. “I have to ask Mommy, too.”

“Of course you can, dear.” Miss Rose looks at her watch. “Time for me to head on in.”

Very, very slowly, Miss Rose uses her cane to lift herself from the swing.

Maddie jumps off to help her. There is a walker by the front door and Maddie brings it to Miss Rose.

“Till tomorrow,” Miss Rose  says, which is something she has heard her own grandmother say.

She retrieves her bike and pedals home. She can’t wait to tell Mommy about her new friend for outside reading. Outside reading will be better than she thought it would, she decides.

And there is still time to play before dark.


Key Words: early draft, first novel, children’s books, kidlit, reading

Drawings for Stories in Process

I’ve been working hard to learn the craft of writing for children–it’s tough to do, but I’ve found a wonderful and supportive community where people trade ideas and offer helpful criticism. So, I thought I’d add a few images from stories in process. These stories all happen to be too long for picture books, but seem to be about right for a middle grades reader. So I’m having great fun writing fiction for the first time since 1994. Completely different process, world, challenge and joy.

Sleepover with Grammy

Sleepover with Grammy

From "Maddie the Red and Outside Reading for Summer"

From “Maddie the Red and Outside Reading for Summer”


“Maddie the Red and the Outside Reading Summer”

Key words: MG books, middle grade books. Maddie the Red, outside reading, adventures for girls, summer break, 12×12 PB challenge

Valentiny: Rose’s Grumpy Chocolate Day

Rose was happy that Christmas was done. That horrid Elf on a Shelf was gone. Rose could stop worrying that someone was always watching her.

Now, it was Valentine’s Day, which was no fun at Rose’s school. The nice teachers might bring Sweethearts or lollipops. Some teachers would wear red, and maybe bring construction paper for classes to make a few cards.

In Rose’s neighborhood, people couldn’t waste money on candy and cards.

“Let’s go!,” Mom said as she grabbed Rose’s backpack. Rose did not  know that the Elf on the Shelf’s cousin, Valentiny, had zipped herself into Rose’s bag while Rose was asleep.

Valentiny was invisible, except to children. Only those with the kindest  hearts ever caught a glimpse of her. She flashed like a star.

Unlike the Elf, Valentiny knew that children were good. And she knew how much children need  TLC, even when they turn 14.

Overnight, Valentiny had swept through Rose’s school, filling each locker with golden chocolate coins–and a few real ones.

When the children opened their lockers that morning, the coins poured out everywhere. It was chaos: joyful disruption. Even the meanest teachers nearly smiled.

And while the children ate chocolate for breakfast and licked their chocolately lips, Valentiny danced away, a shooting star.


The Miracle In Front Of You: Raymond Barfield On Practicing Medicine With Compassion



I first met physician Raymond Barfield in 2009 in Tunisia, where doctors and other health professionals had gathered to talk about how to improve care for people with cancer and HIV/AIDS. I heard Barfield speak eloquently of the need to bridge the worlds of medicine and the spirit. On the trip home to the U.S., during a layover in the Paris airport, I spotted Barfield hunched over a notebook and writing in longhand. He told me he was working on a novel and that he also wrote poetry and played guitar. I remember thinking, Isn’t healing the sick enough for one lifetime? Honestly I may have just felt jealous.

After the conference Barfield and I kept in touch. A few years ago I developed a painful condition called burning mouth syndrome, and he has assisted me in my struggle to find a treatment that works, often reminding me that art can help the healing process. He encourages me to see the beauty of the everyday, something he does in his own life, not only in his daily practice as a doctor who cares for children living with cancer and other serious illnesses, but also as a musician and writer.

Read the rest of the excerpt here. And even better, buy a hard copy if you can–subscribe! It is one of the best magazines around. I’ve been a subscriber for years–maybe 20 or more? I first read it in the mid-1980s while having a drink across the street from Guilford College.  Meeting Ray, reading The Sun, graduating from Guilford have all been transformative time in my life.

key words: Raymond Barfield, children with cancer, spirituality and health, compassionate care, medical education, medical training, World Health Organization, Duke University, pediatric oncology, palliative care, empathy in training


Believe: The Healing Presence of a Compassionate Physician

Note on this: The process of getting to press in a magazine I revere, The Sun, is arduous, and my interview with my dear friend, Raymond Barfield, was more than a year in the making. Ultimately the introduction that I wrote led to lots of negotiations. So for those of you who might find the basis of our friendship of interest–and some insights on how Ray thinks about the world, and the role of music and language in his heart and practice, here is my unpublished introduction. I’d love for you to respond to it.

Ray Barfield and I first met in the resort town of Hammamet, Tunisia, where the World Health Organization had gathered people from around the world to talk about a new concept, “decent care,” and HIV/AIDS, and dying. It was January 2009, and Obama was about to be inaugurated. Whenever I walked through the souk in the resort, merchants would shout at me in different languages until I turned my head at the sound of English, and be cajoled in to some behind-the-counter drink of tea with mint and pine nuts and conversation about America. Other conference attendees would wave at me quizzically as they rushed to the next session.

I don’t remember talking with Ray during the five or six days of meetings. At meals, I wanted to sit with people who were from places I would likely never see: Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Uganda. Ray, an attractive curly-haired pediatric oncologist from Duke University, did not strike me as exotic. He was just another middle-aged American man, and I’d seen enough of those.

hammamet arch

During our daily meetings of endless discussions, Ray seemed brilliant in what he had to say about the dying of children, and the new mix he hoped to build at Duke, where he had just joined as a professor of medicine and divinity. He was great when it came to arguing about words, like subsidiarity, which most English-speakers did not know, and the others—from the Middle East, India, Africa, Europe–could not translate. It turned out that Ray is a philosopher, too with a Ph.D. earned after he completed medical school.

On the long trip home, I had a several-hour layover in the Charles deGaulle Airport. I was flying business-class, and the lounge was comfortable and bright. I spotted Ray, hunched over and writing something in long hand, and took a seat across from him.

He told me that he was working on his novel, which a major publisher had expressed interest in. I remember thinking I’d really had enough of doctors who, it seemed, were so brilliant that just being able to heal the sick was not enough for them. I was tired, and, honestly, just jealous. For the next few years, we kept up via Facebook.

But in early 2013, I developed what has proven to be an intractable neuropathic condition, one that was accompanied by a year of such stress and loss and sorrow, I thought that I would die. I didn’t know any pain experts, had trouble finding one who would see me—and then remembered that Ray, as a pediatric palliative care physician, would know about pain. I emailed him for help, and he responded with a copy of the very latest research, which detailed the benefits of combining opioids and anti-siezure medications. Back and forth we went by email, as I tried desperately to find kind of relief.

From those early emails, an enduring friendship has evolved. It turned out that, like me, Ray wrote poetry, too, and had a book out called, Life in the Blind Spot. We traded books, although styles were different, out love of language was not. Indeed, our intentions were always the same: to make something beautiful and enduring that matters.

When medication after medication did not help, Ray suggested that my best path to healing would be to spend more time looking for beauty, or to make it when I could not see it.

He told me about his approach to his own life, one that includes all the usual issues of being a husband and father and citizen—and the complex issues of caring for very sick and fragile children, of whom 100 will die each year. (The math on that number is bleak: that is two children each week, no matter what Ray and his brilliant colleagues offer.)

Ray said that he imagines his own life to have come with a bag full of golden coins., which he cannot see or count. Each day, he pulls out one coin, and considers how to spend it. Once it is spent, he says, it can never be reclaimed. And so, he urged me, spend that coin on something valuable.

Ray is at once miserly and generous with those coins. Most of his are spent in a hospital unit, managing bone marrow transplants, or pain in children with sickle cell disease, or playing his beloved guitar for a child in the ICU, or listening to desperate and grief-stricken parents.

Other days, rare ones, the coins go to his guitar playing or his writing. His first novel, The Book of Colors, came out in 2015. Written in the voice of a 19-year old biracial pregnant young woman whose mother has died in a crack house, Ray tells the story of Yslea as she makes her way to beauty.

When he is challenged at the seeming hubris of this—a middle-aged white professor from Duke talking in the voice of a young black woman—he bristles.

“Is there not room for imagination?” he asks. “Can I only tell stories through my own experience? Tell that to Faulkner.” Novelists must take the voices that come to them, Ray says.

I have spent some time at his home in Carrboro, where he is up at five each morning to build a fire near the desk where he will write for a few hours in longhand on plain sheet moleskin notebooks. Once his day begins at Duke, there will no time to write or dream.

The living room has no spare wall space—shelves of books collected over the course of a long marriage fill every wall from ceiling to floor. A stone fireplace is the room’s central focus, and the set-up reminds me of a church or an altar. The room is a peaceful place to be, and I am lucky to count myself welcome there (so long as I stay quiet while Ray lets the muse loose).

Our Sun interview began last October, on a crazy-fast car ride through the streets of Carrboro, where a fall festival was underway. Ray was racing to the home of luthier Wes Lambe to drop off his three guitars, which needed work if they were to sound the way Ray wanted them to.

As the two spoke, I had a glimpse of the artisan within the physician. Ray is deeply attached to his guitars, which, he says, have played a key role in almost every important moment of his life. Most recently, he has taught himself to play like the Australian guitar master, Tommy Emmanuel, a vibrant, layered, percussive sound which Emmanuel calls, “a harmonic cascade.

“Don’t fuck up,” Ray tells Wes as he snaps the last guitar case shut. Leaving those guitars, I sense, is a painful act of faith. If a tool slips, the luthier can easily compromise or destroy an instrument.

It is what the parents who leave their children in Ray’s care must do, too. And so too, the children who are old enough (that is, not infants) to understand what is happening to them. Patients give Ray their bodies, that they might be healed. One wrong move, and they are gone. So Ray works carefully with them, often at the very edges of what might heal.

People often think of doctors as mechanics, or compare health care to an autobody shop. It is far from that. The care of the sick and the dying is an act of the spirit, a glimpse of the holy. Ray knows that he is an artist—and he knows that healing is not always equivalent to curing.

For two days last fall, Ray and I hung out and talked. He can be funny—and he can be cruel. He can be full of beauty, and sometimes, every so often, a bit of grace, too.

This summer, we got together on a mission involving one of Ray’s guitars. He wanted Nils Lofgren, a rock-and-roll hall of fame musician, to sign the guitar. Arlo Guthrie had, Ray said, so why not Nils? Because Nils follows me on Twitter, Ray and I figured there was a chance.

After Lofgren’s show in Annapolis last spring, Ray and I stood in a long line, he with his guitar, and everyone else with their CDs and albums and t-shirts. Nils looked puzzled when Ray set his guitar on the table, but he smiled. I told him that this moment would bring Ray such joy.


Nils wrote, “Believe,”* and so Ray does, or tries, even when life makes that hard. Ray believes in heaven, but more often than not, it is of this earth.


key words: life of a pediatric oncologist, chasing spirituality, finding meaning, care for dying children, Duke School of Divinity, Duke School of Medicine, Dr. Raymond Barfield