I don’t remember who first told me about the author Naomi Novik. Perhaps, like one of the heroines from her novels Uprooted and Spinning Silver, her name came to me to on a breath of magic, a summer whisper during a paddle or hike in northern Michigan’s endless rivers and forests with trees hanging over me, edging ever closer.
Kingly white pines or witchy cedar, stubby and plentiful, stretching into swamp, would have surrounded me. Maybe mud sucked at my boots, choking the boardwalks meant to ease a rambler’s journey, or the river overflowed from winter’s runoff, making it impossible to tell where the water ended and woods began.
During those times, it would have been easy to picture a hovel waiting at the end of a brambly, hidden pathway and a voice muttering Naomi Novik’s name like an incantation. Then a portal would have appeared, tumbling into one of Ms. Novik’s enchanting stories, some as close to perfection as I have ever read.
But to whoever gave me her name, I owe a debt of literary gratitude. Since I first opened Uprooted in July and fell into the deceptively simple tale of a girl. a wizard, and an ancient evil lurking in the forest, I have devoured five of Ms. Novik’s books.
Three were about the dragon Temeraire and his Captain Lawrence and their adventures during the Napoleonic War. And now, just this morning, I have finished Spinning Silver, drawing out each word, repeating passages, simply because I didn’t want it to end, hoping that a drop of its magic would somehow drip around me, saturating a portion of my world so that the story would go on and on.
Because, like all exceptional storytellers, Ms. Novik creates a world in which the reader lives and breathes. And, although I have enjoyed everything she has written, Uprooted and Spinning Silver particularly resonated with me, probably due to the strong female protagonists and an old-world, fairy-tale aura, influenced by Ms. Novik’s Polish heritage. It is a background that my husband shares and thus has touched my life, making me recognize the Polish words in Ms. Novik’s writing, such as chrusciki or angel wings, a pastry light as air.
So now I wait for Ms. Novik to spin her magic once again. In the meantime, I have six more Temeraire novels waiting to fill my winter with the beating of dragon wings and transport me back in time to when Napoleon pushed at borders, insatiable in his desire for land, just as my desire for a good book will never end. I will always be listening for that whispered name with promises of a new author to discover and a fresh world to explore.
The following essay was written almost seven years ago; yet, all of the characteristics that made my niece Sheridan exceptional then still hold true today as she turns fourteen. And I’m sure those traits will only strengthen over the years, making her a constant joy to everyone who knows her! Happy birthday, Sheridan!
Sheridan’s Compass (written during the fall of 2011)
“Turn right, Aunt Erin,” seven-year-old Sheridan said.
She wore a black leotard, matching leggings, a filmy ballet skirt, and cowboy boots—or “cowgirl boots” as she called them. Ballet slippers dangled from her fingers; her hair escaped from a messy ponytail. She was on her way—Sheridan style—to ballet class.
“I mean,” Sheridan clarified, “turn my right.”
I hesitated. We sat side by side—she in the passenger seat, me in the driver’s seat. Her right was my right. What was I missing?
She turned to me, blinked once–blue eyes, black lashes, a flutter of day and night. I didn’t question her directions, her misunderstanding of the term “my right.” I simply turned the truck, following Sheridan’s GPS, her way of seeing the road.
I’ve learned from experience that Sheridan’s internal compass often leads to a better place—even if you’ve been there before—and sometimes it’s best to just let her take you there.
A simple game of tag evolves into Cartwheel Tag. We never quite decided whether the tagger or tagee should be cartwheeling, but both ways ended in confusion and plenty of laughs, particularly at my attempts to cartwheel.
Or a bike ride to town transforms into an outing for root-beer floats with Sheridan, on her single-speed bicycle, always ready to tackle hills and singing B-I-N-G-O with Uncle Keith as she peddles along.
One Christmas, using her new tablet as a camera, Sheridan filmed the Snowman Video. A stuffed snowman took the starring role with Sheridan as interviewer.
“How’s it going?” she asked Mr. Snowman.
“Pretty good,” Mr. Snowman said in a deep, gravelly voice.
She used the same tablet to document The Many Faces of Sheridan, a tableau of close-up photographs, which grew into an autobiographical mini-documentary of Sheridan through several days of late December and into early January. All the photos shared two things: a hint of mischief and a literal twinkle in Sheridan’s eye, the look of someone planning fun, thinking of the next activity.
So I don’t question Sheridan when she says, “turn right, my right.” Even if it appears that our rights are the same, hers is bound to have a twist, a way of approaching life that is more original, more energetic… just more of everything. I simply turn the wheel and follow her lead, knowing the experience will be better for letting her take me there.
This morning, I made the first contribution from the royalties Quilting Cancer has earned–$250–to the St. Luke’s MSTI-Fruitland Respite House. From the St. Luke’s website: “Many of our patients and their caregivers travel long distances for cancer treatment… The Respite House will provide a safe and comfortable home away from home, helping ease some of the burdens of travel and allowing families to stay together.” Thank you all for purchasing the book and spreading the word! Also, Quilting Cancer will be featured in the April issue of Idaho Magazine. I was honored when the editor contacted me, and I’m so glad that Kelly’s inspirational message will reach a wider audience.
My family and I have been overwhelmed by the response to Quilting Cancer—thank you for the kind words, support, and enthusiasm. Kelly’s optimism, courage, and perseverance continues to thread people together and will have an impact for years to come.
But now I have a favor to ask… Everyone who has been touched by Quilting Cancer, the blog or the book, please take a few minutes to write a review–it only needs to be a sentence or two–on Amazon or Goodreads. Reviews will help Quilting Cancer reach a wider audience and make it available to a variety of promotional websites.
And, for those of you who purchased the Kindle edition, a new version is available on Amazon, with a Kindle table-of-contents, as well as other updates. If you sync your device, the updated version should automatically download.
Sometimes in life we become witnesses to incredible acts of bravery, only partially aware at the time, but later able to appreciate the full magnitude of what we experienced. During the aftermath, there is a sense, almost an obligation, of wanting to share these everyday stories of inspiration.
I know I’m not alone. Many of us brush shoulders with unforgettable acts of courage, people who possess an unlimited well of resilience. They will themselves forward, accepting their circumstances yet never giving up.
Their stories are often quiet, unfolding without fanfare, but they encompass the backbone of humanity. A silent strength that weaves us all together, and, the more we know about these people, the stronger we become as a society.
So I decided to record my sister Kelly’s journey with adversity, her eight-year battle with cancer, by publishing her blog, Quilting Cancer (available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle), along with essays reflecting on Kelly’s bravery and the lessons she taught me.
My intention is not to turn Kelly into a saint or deify her. Like all of us, Kelly had faults, yet at the end of her life, she revealed a core strength and selflessness. She learned how to fully live while also preparing to die.
Her message transcends time and location. It is the universal call to embrace life despite one’s circumstances. It speaks of selflessness—Kelly was constantly concerned with others, always thankful for even the smallest assistance—and finding joy in the simplest everyday occurrences.
To borrow from Proverbs 3:3—a verse I return to again and again—Kelly’s lessons will never leave me. They are bound around my neck, written on the tablet of my heart.
(All profit from the book will be donated to St. Luke’s MSTI-Fruitland.)