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Born in the US, raised on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, lived in Italy, the US, and Canada. Lover of language, travel, colour, and the natural world.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

20,000 chances to change a life

I found out late this afternoon that Vanessa Diffenbaugh, author of The Language of Flowers, which I finished reading late late last night, was giving a reading this evening at the library downtown, so I grabbed my book and headed out to hear her.

Vanessa's novel intrigues me for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is about using the language of flowers --the secret meanings that various flowers were given in the Victorian era--to express emotions and sentiments that are difficult (or impossible, as the case is for the main character in this novel) to express any other way. When I was a child I came across the Victorian definition for flowers. I do not recall now where it was, but I recall very distinctly making a list of flowers and their meanings on a piece of paper that I am certain is still stuck between the pages of one of my childhood journals. I distinctly remember the yellow rose, which my source said stood for jealousy (why I remember that flower in particular stumps me). I have not seen that list in many years, but the minute I read about Vanessa's novel, it took me back to the little piece of paper that I carried around with me (and no, in case you are wondering, I never gave anyone a yellow rose).

The second reason that Vanessa's novel interests me is the amount of re-writing she had to do to get it to the point where it was ready to be published. I could not be more grateful for the honesty with which she spoke about the process or writing and re-writing and re-writing, and then trying to get it published. Hearing her reaffirmed for me that people do actually make it through this process of writing and re-writing a novel, and come out the other end successful. For some reason in my mind I have this idea that the people whose novels are a success write the perfect first draft with no significant editing necessary. I know people SAY that they had to do a lot of editing, but I always had this idea that they were just saying what you are supposed to say when you publish a novel. But Vanessa confirmed it this evening. It is a hell of a lot of work to write a novel, and the writing is only the first step in a very, very long journey. It requires humility, and a dogged determination that THIS NOVEL is THE NOVEL you are supposed to be writing, and that you will keep working at it until it IS ready.

The third thing that interests me about Vanessa is that she is from Sacramento. She actually is from the neighbourhood that I currently live in. She grew up here. Also, as I found out this evening, she actually did a good deal of her writing sitting in a coffee shop that I sit in to write on a regular basis. Another misconception blown out of the water -- I always pictured published authors as living in exotic places, or at least big cities like Paris or New York. Wrong again. She has traveled to Amsterdam and Paris and London on her book tour this year, but before that she was sitting just down the street from me typing away at a table I may have been sitting at yesterday. Yes-- Vanessa has given me a lot to reflect on this evening.

One thing that had not intrigued me was the topic of foster children. Adoption is something I have thought about. Foster children I have never thought about. Not once. But it turns out that foster children are one of the reasons that Vanessa wrote her book. At age 21 the children she had babysat every weekend became homeless. Vanessa took them home at the end of the weekend and was met at the door by their grandmother who held out bags packed with their clothes and told Vanessa that she could not take care of them. I cannot imagine being given such an enormous responsibility at age 21. Vanessa took these children home with her and took care of them until she realized she was going to have to turn them over to the foster care system. She explained that it was heartbreaking to give them up, but even more heartbreaking to watch as they were moved from home to home, separated from each other, and made to live in truly sad living situations. From that point forward improving foster care became an issue that Vanessa has devoted her time and energy to bringing to people's attention. 

At the end of the reading tonight Vanessa explained that today over 20,000 teenagers in the United States emancipate from the foster care system every year, and many of these youth become homeless or incarcerated within two years. Many of these youth have dreams and skills and passions, but are simply lacking the support to pursue them. Often what they need to help them take the next step is something extremely simple. An example she gave was the story of a local youth living here in the Sacramento area who had been given a full scholarship to go to college, but he had decided not to go. The reason? He had no way to GET TO college, and he had nowhere to live between June when he finished high school, and when college actually started in August. Fortunately the young man connected with some of Vanessa's colleagues, and they hooked him up with a ride to college and talked the school into letting him move into the dorms early. Those two simple gestures of love changed that youth's life.

Vanessa is using her novel as a way to highlight the ways that regular people, like you or I, can help these youth to make that transition, and move on to lead happy, successful lives. That a new pair of shoes, a ride, or even a ten dollar bill could save a youth's life. Small things really, when you think about it, in comparison to the capacity that these kids have to change the world when they are empowered by their community to be agents of change. 

At the end of the reading Vanessa signed books and passed out blooming bookmarks (yes, they actually bloom flowers if you plant them in the soil and water them) to promote an organization that she is spearheading, along with a few local dynamite friends. The organization is called Camellia Network, and the group's mission is to invite you (and me) to be part of these kids' stories. Sound inspiring? That's because it is. And apparently a number of former and current foster kids think so too because a number of them turned up at the reading tonight to support this initiative. If you are interested in finding a way to be of service to your community, check Camellia Network out. It is a practical, personal way that we can build stronger, richer, happier communities.

So glad I took the time to go down town. If you get the chance, do pick up a copy of Vanessa's novel. It is a great read, and hopefully it will inspire you to reach out to a foster youth in your community. Maybe not as a foster parent, but there are so many other ways to support these youth as they begin their lives as adults.

Have a great day! And see you on Friday!


  1. Beautifully written post. It makes me want to go find a copy of the book and find out more, thank you for writing about it!

  2. I loved reading this! Thank you for sharing.

  3. Glad you both enjoyed this post. Thank you for the feedback! And yes -- I recommend the book. It is really about relationships--particularly the relationship between mothers and daughters. If you do get it, do let me know what you think!

  4. Wonderful post Ariana, how coincidental. And how important to dispel those myths we have about what it means to write (or whatever it is we dream of doing).

    Vanessa sounds pretty inspiring. I hope I can offer some of that hope and encouragement to adults and youth in my community through the "passionate entrepreneurship" projects I'm involved in.