Through the Door of Our Past

New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a hard place to live—it was a volatile city reacting to the dynamics of the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s movement, and the Vietnam War; it was a city crippled by social disorder, struggling to merge its diverse and divisive populations; it was a city rife with crime, economic stagnation, and palpable unrest. It was an ugly, crumbling city. And at the same time, it was a city of artists, actors, musicians, and writers. It was a city of activists, passionate in their dreams for a better future. It was a city receptive to new ideas. I was born and grew up in this city and I attended elementary school at the Manhattan Country School--a school founded in 1966 upon the principals of Martin Luther King, Jr and reflecting the vision of the Civil Rights Movement. The school set out to teach students in a community with no racial majority and broad economic diversity, and to instill in students a desire to champion justice, compassion, and peace, and the rights of all people to equity.

I left MCS thirty-five years ago. This morning, I returned for the first time. I went back not only to see what’s changed over the past three decades, but to see what hasn’t changed. I walked through the big green doors of the converted 1904 townhouse, into the courtyard, and up the spiral staircase to attend an Alumni breakfast and take a tour of the school. There’s a computer room there now, but that room used to be a terrace, and suddenly reverberating over the tapping of keyboards was the smack of my pink rubber handball hitting the brick wall and bouncing to Derrick. From the kitchen, I was sure I could smell Consuela’s chili and rice. In the library, my face suddenly flushed at the embarrassment of being made fun of by David, just there, at that table by the window. In the round classroom, I tasted the sweet dust from the sugar cubes we’d pasted together to make igloos. As I walked down the back staircase, I heard my own voice calling to my friends—Nicole! Nina! Betsy! Maria! Leslie!—in a race to see who could line up the fastest to go to the park with Doc. In the glorious wood-paneled music room, morning light streaming in the tall windows, I was six-years-old again, singing “We Shall Overcome Someday.” And in a corner of a small classroom with a blue rug, surrounded by fabric and glue and cardboard and pencils and crayons, I smelled the Elmer’s and felt the textured brown fabric that were to become my first hand-made book—Magic Moon and Magic Sun.


I walked the halls of my past this morning, and as if being jolted from sleep by a vivid dream, I realized how much of me was nurtured and brought to fruition during those years at MCS—an interest in and respect for other people; a passion for books, writing, and drawing; a desire to help others; a sense of hope; a trust in people; a trust in dreams; and a profound belief that what's right will prevail. Out of the corner of my adult eyes, I saw my younger self becoming a citizen of the world, and for just for a moment I was that girl again—that Emma all gangly limbs, scraped knees, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with the crusts cut off, Danskin pants, songs off-key, and make-believe—and I was overcome by the endless possibilities and promise and resilience that can envelope and inspire our childhoods.

It was a precious gift my parents gave me, sending me to MCS and thereby opening my heart and spirit to the world. I never thanked them for that; I thank them now.  It’s a precious gift to be given an opportunity to revisit one’s past and experience ones adult self within the perspective of ones childhood. It was as though I was meeting myself on a road,  two travelers headed in the same direction, suddenly striking up a friendship, recognizing ourselves in one another, one and the same. I walked the halls of my past this morning and right through the door to myself.

(c) emma d dryden, drydenbks LLC


Spring Cleaning

It’s just getting on the time of year when we’re inclined to do a little “spring cleaning” – sorting out our closets, putting away the boots, moving the T-shirts up and the sweaters down, throwing off the blankets and quilts, opening the windows to let air in, holding our heads up to bask in the sun. Spring is the time we begin to free ourselves from the heavy protective cloak of winter, to emerge fresh and new, a little lighter, little clearer.

With the advent of spring, many of us begin to shed excesses of all kinds. It happens organically as we shed layers of clothing and open the drapes. Some of us cut our hair. Some of us lose weight. Some of us exercise more. Some of us renovate our homes. Some of us donate things we don’t need anymore. And why? To breathe in fresh air, create a new view, take a lighter stand in the world – all of which serve to make us stronger and more present. To reflect the sun.

And as we ourselves do in the spring, we can do as well with our stories—toss off the heavy blankets and open the windows to let in light and air. Ridding our stories of excess – extraneous details, repetitive description, slowly-paced action –is the very best way to make our stories stronger and more present. Paring away excesses – choosing one stronger descriptive sentence over another, condensing ideas, keeping dialogue realistic in its crispness and fast flow – can allow our stories’ characters to move comfortably and unrestrained through their geographical and emotional landscapes. This is not to say to diminish the story in any way, nor to pare it down so much it lacks depth or richness. Rather, the challenge for our stories and characters, as it is for ourselves, is to reveal truths with a light and gentle touch.

There was a time some years ago when I wanted to lose weight. I was finally mentally ready to do so after resisting for quite a while – and as the weight came off, I became a lighter person both physically and psychologically. The process of shedding the pounds was also a process of shedding things which for so long I’d thought I needed to be whole, but which I found had actually become burdensome, preventing me from taking the lighter, but stronger, stand in the world. By me during that weight-loss journey and ultimate emergence, were many friends, of whom a vast number were authors and illustrators. Conversations during that time were fascinating and inspiring, as talks about losing weight seemed to merge naturally with talks about getting rid of excess in our lives and in our writing and artwork. We were one in the appreciation of the struggles, the lows, the highs, and ultimately, the fine results of relieving a person, a painting, a story from heavy obstacles that might inhibit them from reaching their full potential.

And so, this spring day calls to us -- ourselves and our characters -- to run and breathe and reflect the sun.

(c) emma d dryden, drydenbks llc


Sailing into a New Harbor

A few years ago, I delivered an address to an august audience of children’s book colleagues. I titled the talk “Sailing Away From the Safe Harbor” for the reason that over the past few years, I have been learning how to sail, and in the course of learning the techniques and vocabulary of sailing, I have discovered not only a great deal about myself, but I have come to realize that so much of the basic techniques of sailing can be likened to techniques we bring to our methods of writing, illustrating, editing, teaching, publishing and, indeed, reading stories.

Why does one sail? To explore, to journey, to see new places, to have fun, to relax, to allay fears in some instances. Some sailors say they feel most themselves on a boat, on the water. There is no hiding of the truth when one realizes we do not have dominion over the world, but that we are at the mercy of things that are basic and very much more than ourselves—the wind, the water, the weather. And if we don’t adjust our sails, change course, become one with the wind, our sails will luff, we will stop in irons, we will lose our compass bearings, we will lose sight of the horizon. We will be in trouble and our exploration will cease.

And why does one write, read and share stories? To explore, to journey, to see new places, to have fun, to relax, to allay fears in some instances. We seek to find ourselves in stories—and so often, we can and do. And we seek the truth in stories—we use story (or myth or song or poem) to tell our own stories and to assure ourselves we’re not alone. By reading and sharing stories with one another, we find a safe place in which to adjust ourselves, change course, become one with things that are at once basic and very much more than ourselves—the imagination, the light, a community. If we don’t experience story in some way, we will be in trouble; our exploration will cease. In fact, I think we will cease if we don’t explore our world and ourselves through stories.

And so it is as we live our lives and live our stories—forging our relationships, raising our families, doing our work, growing up and growing older, loving and losing—that we are as vessels on an ebbing and flowing tide. The earth’s very survival relies on the wax and wane of the moon, the ebb and flow of the oceans; so too does our own self-evolution rely on our embracing the inevitability of change, our willingness to balance the comfort of the familiar with the surprise of the new, and our staying open to the messages we may not at first understand, but which, somehow, usually fit perfectly into a space in ourselves we didn’t even know we had.

The past ten months since my layoff from a job at which I worked for 19 years and which I had come to let define me, have been, by turns, turbulent, thrilling, rocky, steady, cacophonous, and still. In one moment, you can be comfortably close to a familiar shore and in the next, you are flung out to sea, forced to question whether that shore had indeed been one of safety at all, forced to question your own expertise, forced to question who you really are. And then, there comes a moment when you realize that you’re still who you always were, you haven’t lost what you know and what you believe; you’ve just been blown onto a new course. And in whatever ways we decide to handle ourselves finding a new harbor, that’s how we become better navigators than we’ve ever been before. From that moment on, how we conduct ourselves moving towards – and away from – new harbors for the rest of our lives confirms who we really are.

drydenbks boat
by katherine tillotson

Today I've set coordinates for a new venture—a new adventure. drydenbks. The waters on which I launch this vessel are, without doubt, uneasy—this is a rough economy with no clear picture on how my family will be able to afford health care, this is a digital landscape for book publishing which requires much learning of new vocabularies and acquiring new skill sets, this is a country that ranks somewhere around 17th in literacy and doesn’t place enough cultural or societal value on books, this is a time of extreme corporate greed and so many systems broken. These same waters, however, feel buoyant to me, and the smell of the ocean has always given me strength and clarity. drydenbks comes directly from what I know so well, what I do so well, what I believe so deeply—there’s enough strength and stability in that to enable whatever flexibility, commitment, conviction, and hope are needed to stay afloat. Today I begin a new story, and by doing so, find my way towards new harbors. And I'm convinced new harbors find us when we need them most.

(c) emma d dryden, drydenbks llc