Marsha's first venture into writing was her popular weekly column homegrown treasures. The column was well received and soon was syndicated on a limited basis.

Her readers were supportive:

``Sensitive, often poignant.``

``Absolutely terrific.``

``Timeless quality.``

``Outstanding work.``

``Thanks to you, my family will have a more miraculous Christmas.``

``We expect that all of us....are enjoying life a bit more, thanks to Marsha.``

It was awarded the California Newspaper Publishers Association's honor for ``Best Local columnist`` three times. One of the judges wrote, ``She finds a universe in her home and backyard.``

My son is an expert at finding treasures. Although he’s a newcomer to this game, he far outdistances me as a treasure hunter. He knows that a walk down a country road will lead you closer to treasure than scrubbing the toilet ever will. He knows there’s no better bargain than running through the sprinkler on a hot summer day. He knows that to uncover buried treasure, you sometimes dig upward instead of downward, climbing the oak tree for a peek at that bird’s nest or swinging a little higher on his swing.

We recently returned from a month long tour of “The Relatives.” Grandparents, cousins, great-aunts, and uncles. You name them, we saw them. My son began saying things like, “If this is Tuesday, we must be at Aunt Orpha’s.”

Of course, to my son, it didn’t matter where we were. For him, a trip to the local junk-heap is as inspiring as a drive down the Champs Elysees. He knows whatever treasures we discover around us are largely what we make up our minds to find.

In this column, we’re going to uncover treasures – places to go, sights to see, things to do, and ideas to ponder, all right here in our own backyard. The first rule to remember on this treasure hunt is it’s not for the purpose of adding busyness to our lives, but for adding enjoyment.

According to Webster’s, busy means “cluttered with minute detail to the point of distracting attention from the focal point,” (or treasure, as I like to call it). Unlike my son, I continuously lose sight of the treasure. Incurable busyness is the doctor’s diagnosis. My husband threatens to build a room in the garage and call it “Mom’s Involvement Center.” He’s going to banish me there with only my appointment book for company.

I need to learn that finding the treasure sometimes means not running for P.T.A. president, social chairman of the gardening club, and “Woman of the Year” all in the same week. Sometimes it means leaving the cobwebs in the corner for just one more day and sometimes it means hot dogs for dinner instead of eggplant-pecan curry.

I need all the help I can get on treasure hunts. My children remind me of treasures I might otherwise overlook. My grandfather’s fondest memories hold clues to where the best treasures are. So all of you are invited to share any particular treasure of the mind, spirit, or physical realm that brings you joy. The treasures are here, all around us. Dorothy had it right when she said, “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”

Let the treasure hunt begin.

Most of us are lucky enough to give birth to our dream child – a beautiful, healthy boy or girl.

But sometimes our dream child turns into a dreamy child – a child who spends time looking out the window when he should be looking at the blackboard. A child who has to hear his name 10 times (in increasing increments of volume) before he knows you’re talking to him. A child who forgets his lunchbox…even if you remind him to take it one second before he walks out the door.

Those of you with dreamy children in your house know what I mean. You know the frustration of shirts worn backwards, forgotten underwear, and shoes on the wrong feet.

The other day, my personal dreamy one came home with a string tied around his finger.

“What’s that for?” I asked

“To remember not to bring an umbrella to school tomorrow,” he answered self-assuredly.

“In my limited experience,” I responded, “strings around fingers are to help you remember things, not forget them. Are you sure?”

“I’m sure, Mama. We’re not supposed to bring an umbrella tomorrow.”

I later learned the string really was to remember an umbrella, but dreamy children forget what strings around fingers are for.

I picked up his colored sand sculpture from his classroom last week. The bottles stood in a row: blues, pinks, oranges, and greens on top of one another making beautiful designs. All except the one at the end, which had a color of its own – a distinctive murky gray.

“He shook his up,” the other children told me in explanation of my son’s foggy creation.

To dreamy children the experiment is everything.

When he innocently tells me, “I’m sorry, Mama. I forgot,” or “I wanted all the colors to be together,” it doesn’t matter about the umbrella or the sand sculpture. I watch him skip off through rain puddles, oblivious to the world, and I remind myself of some other dreamy ones whom the world wondered about for awhile.

“Did you get any work done today, Einstein? Or were you out daydreaming on a hill again?”

“Mrs. Edison, your son, Thomas, will never be able to learn in school.”

“Look at that lazy Buddha. He’s been sitting under that tree for seven times seven days now.”

I guess there are worse role models to follow.

One of my son’s favorite teachers told me he possessed all of childhood’s most delightful qualities, but he seemed to be floating above the ground most of the time. She recommended I buy him a pair of very heavy boots to bring him down to earth.

I agreed that dreamy children should be brought down to earth, at least for short visits. But I’m not sure how to do it without squashing their dreams. Dreams are such fragile things.

I do know I haven’t bought those heavy boots yet…and that my dreamy child is still my dream child.

They came by ones and twos. Walking across the knoll. Leaping over the back fence. Bicycling up the hill.

Eight-o-clock in the evening. Darkness on its way. But they came…to the light and the night court.

Seven boys and two men gathered around the 22 by 25 foot concrete slab. It was nothing more they came to, except a light and a hoop and a need to gather together and play.

Out in the country, there are no basketball courts. The nearest are ten minutes away with unlit courts and baskets only eight-feet-high. No place for a player. So the lit concrete slab provides a place for play.

On our houses, there are no front porches. The nearest are decades away. No place for gathering, chatting, or playing a game of cards. So, the lit concrete slab provides a place for camaraderie.

“Best money I ever spent,” said my husband as he threw the ball into the court.

He backed into the garage, pulled out an old chair, and joined a neighbor who’d accompanied his nine-year-old. The old players sat back and “shot the breeze” while the young players shot baskets.

“Pass the ball.”

“I got it! I got it!”

“What was that?”

“Who do you think you are, Michael Jordan?”

Their voices and laughter floated through my kitchen window. It’s nine o-clock at night. Do you know where your children are? Yes. I smiled. Where they, my husband, and half the neighborhood are. On the night court, playing the game.

There are things and places in life that draw us. The ocean at morning, the Grand Canyon, the Lincoln Memorial. Stars at night, a child’s tree house, a forgotten path in a wood. Sometimes, when we come to these special places, time stands still. Sometimes time moves all too quickly.

“Mrs. Arnold, Mrs. Arnold, can we use your phone?” Several sweaty faces stood at my front door, then piled inside.

“Dad, can we at least just finish our game?”

“Fifteen more minutes. O.K., Mom?”

Stretching that fifteen minutes to its longest span, they played on. They didn’t want to go home. They shouldn’t have had to. The nights they have to do what they did this night are numbered. All too soon, they’ll feel they can’t go out at night just to gather and laugh and play a game on the night court.

As suddenly as they appeared, they were gone. The darkness swallowed one as he walked across the knoll, another as he leaped over the back fence, several more as they bicycled home. Kids we’d lived next-door to for years. Kids we’d only waved at on the road. Kids we’d never even seen before.

My husband tossed the ball to my son one last time as they walked inside. “Like the voice said, ‘If you build it, they will come.'”

Soaking in the bathtub, my five-year-old inquires, “Is broccoli always green?”

Driving past a cemetery, he wonders, “When we die, do we just jump in the dirt and bury ourselves.”

On the way to school, he reflects, “Wouldn’t it be fun to live in a gas station in Hawaii?”

And as he puts the finishing touches on his block city, “Can you make egg salad with pig meat?”

They come, seemingly, from nowhere, these childish questions. They hang in space. There is no hint of what foreshadows them, no clue as to what may follow. Sometimes they annoy me. Sometimes they entrance me. But they have never been known to put me to sleep.

Most small children haven’t yet immersed themselves with the latest clichés. When was the last time you heard a child say, “Have a nice day”?

The questions children ask are anything but trite. Instead of, “How are you today?” it’s “What would you do if there was a fire on the road?” In lieu of, “Looks like rain, doesn’t it?” it’s “You have to kill real old deer, right, Mom?”

No ordinary chit-chat here. No hackneyed phrases.

“Where do robbers live?”

“Does God have a wife?”

“Why do we have to have a face?”

“What if it stayed dark forever?”

“Do mice have squeak boxes instead of voice boxes?”

“When you die, do you come back to life?”

These are questions of importance. Questions which take us to the encyclopedia or leave us searching our minds for universal truths.

Inquiries that make others uncomfortable are readily vocalized by children.

“What if you and dad died at the same time? Would I have to live with the neighbors?”

Questions Miss Manner’s readers steer clear of are boldly broached. A few new wrinkles and I get, “Are you almost 100 now, Mom?” (And I thought I was holding up pretty well.)

Questions for which children provide their own rejoinders are often the most jarring of all.

Fondling a few stray hairs above my lip, my son asks, “Are you getting a beard, Mom?”

“No,” I insist vehemently.

“Then you must be turning into a ‘houndwolf’, he reveals.

Last night at bedtime, my son asked his final question of the day. After ordering him to put on pajamas, pick up his room, and get his own glass of water, he glared at me and asked, “Did you know I was just five and one quarter?”

Considering the questions for that day, everything from, “Do aliens have to brush their teeth?” to “Who invented the universe?” all I could answer was, “You could have fooled me.”

Yes, children’s questions can be annoying. Sometimes they remind us we have given up on finding answers to questions we once so passionately put forth. Sometimes they make us doubt the “right answer” we decided upon years ago.

And sometimes they cause so much discomfort we start questioning all over again…questioning things like how we got to, “Nice weather we’re having today, isn’t it?” when we started at, “When is dad going to take me dragon fighting?”

They were out again this morning. Striding out. Heads held high. Smiles on faces. The dog walkers.

Oh, the dogs stride, hold heads high, and smile too, but it’s their walkers you notice first. 
It seems I see them every time I leave the house in my white Pontiac, filled with kids. I couldn’t avoid them if I wanted to.

If I take this road, they’re there walking.

If I take that road, they’re there walking.

Whichever route I take, they’re there…walking the dogs.

In the morning, they’re walking.

In the evening, they’re walking.

Whatever time of day, they’re there…walking the dogs.

They seem completely carefree, completely happy as I fly past with my foot to the gas pedal.

Who are these people? Don’t they ever get inside a car? Don’t they ever have to go to work? It’s really rather irritating.

It reminds me of that scene in Butch Cassady and the Sundance Kid. Whenever Butch and Sundance think they’ve left the posse far behind, they raise their eyes and the posse’s there. My children mimic Butch and Sundance’s words every time we pass the dog walkers. “Who are those guys?”

Who are those guys, indeed. They’ve become part of our lives and we don’t even know their names. We don’t know where they live. And we don’t know their social standing. 
For all we know they’re angels come down from above for the sole purpose of our passing them each morning, afternoon, and evening, then quizzically looking at one another and asking, “Who 
are those guys?

In truth, we’ve become quite fond of the dog walkers. 
Usually, they’re the first to wave as we pass by, leaving our cloud of dust. But if not and we wave first, they always return the gesture and those smiles grow even wider.

If a couple of days went by without seeing the dog walkers, spiriting along with their spirited pair of dogs, I’d miss them. Their names do not matter, nor where they live, and least of all their social standing. They belong on the road in this space and time with us.

Recently, we stopped asking each other “Who are those guys?” as we motored by. Now we simply smile as we pass them and say matter-of-factly, “The Dog Walkers”.

Some days I think I should stop the car, get out, shake their hands, and pet their dogs. I’d introduce myself and the kids, then tell the dog walkers what a special place they hold in our day.

But I’ve never stopped. I’d worry if I did.

What if I discovered they really were only angels, angels of my mind, come to remind me that sometimes there is nothing more wonderful in life than “walking the dogs.”

I was about to call my son to do his morning chore of taking out the garbage when I heard his father ask his friend and him, “What’s on the agenda today?”

“I guess all we have to do is play,” my son responded.

“Tough job,” said my husband as he opened the door and faced his ten-hour workday.

“Yeah,” chimed my son’s friend, “and all we get for it is room and board.”

I forgot about the garbage for awhile and started breakfast. After all, the two men left at home needed energy for their tough job and I wanted to be sure the board was up to snuff.

After breakfast, they gathered two long gardening poles from the garage and went into the field. There the poles transformed into fighting weapons. I had no idea how much you could pick up watching old Bruce Lee movies.

Later they gathered Lego pieces, a book on decoding, extra sweatshirts, and baseball caps. All of these were needed for their next assignment as secret agents.

“I have special glasses in the back of this cap so I can see everything that’s going on behind me,” I overheard my son confide. I peeked around the corner to see if I could figure out how it worked. Seemed a lot of parents could do with one of those hats.

“My cap has an antennae that comes out the top,” his friend disclosed, “so I can talk with my leaders when things get tough.”

I could use one of those too.

Their last duty of the morning unfolded before my eyes as I stood washing dishes at the kitchen sink. The boy from next door had joined them in this enterprise. They’d located a small rise from which to launch into the air, one after another. Each tried different techniques in their quest to become airborne. They must have remembered the story of Icarus because none of them asked for wax, but the neighbor boy put a lot of faith in two flimsy branches he’d pulled from a Scotch broom plant. Personally, I thought it a rather silly choice, but it’s really of no matter to a bystander.

I called them in for lunch. I made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, then felt guilty for supplying a plebeian lunch to such high-flying souls. Nevertheless, it seemed to sustain them for the afternoon when they really got serious.

They built a fort in the tall grass to rival Fort Apache. They fought a dragon who’d taken up residence in a near-by apple orchard. They developed a graph to determine the favorite food of neighborhood residents and then helped a friend establish an Orange Juice Stand business.

The garbage was overflowing by this time. I called my son, planning to ask him to complete his long overdue task. “Yes, Mom.” He ran to me, canteen over his shoulder.

I looked down at him, all sweaty and grass-stained and muddy. He’d accomplished so much that day, all for paltry room and board.

“Go finish your work, son,” I said

He went off to cross the desert as I carried the garbage to the garage.

“Mom, how do you ask someone to marry you?”

In 15 years or so my son’s question might not have taken me by surprise, but coming from a seven-year-old I paused to wonder.

Then I asked, “Do you have someone special in mind you want to ask?”

“No,” he replied. “I’m just planning for the future.”

Planning for the future is good, I thought, so I described a few possible methods he might want to keep in mind: bending on one knee and pleading, sending a dozen long-stemmed roses with a card asking the question for him, or offering the ring between courses at an expensive five-star restaurant.

“I think I’m going to try the restaurant one, ” he decided.

“Good choice,” I replied. “It demonstrates your money-making ability and your good taste as well.

A flash of worry crossed his face. “Do you think I should wear a tie?”

“A power tie would certainly make a strong statement,” I began, “But a simple black might express an elegant manner.”

Wait a minute…I stopped myself abruptly. Now we were planning for the future in detail. Was this really necessary for a kid whose two front teeth had just fallen out?

In today’s competitive world, planning for our children’s future down to the tiniest detail seems almost mandatory. Paul Edward is placed on the waiting list of an exclusive pre-school while he’s still in the womb. Elizabeth Ann has just opened a savings account for her Stanford education and tomorrow she’s learning how to walk. Jeffrey Butler, at two, showed an uncommon interest in the moon one night. NASA was called the next morning; Jeffrey was registered for its astronaut program.

As parents we are well-advised to think of our children’s future now and again. But planning for the future always needs to be balanced with living today.

How important is that private pre-school if it cuts down on what Paul Edward longs for – an afternoon in the park with his dad? What good is socking away money in the college savings account if we miss the excitement of Elizabeth Ann’s first step? What have we lost if we’re so intent on finding the phone number for NASA that we forget to read Jeffrey Butler Goodnight Moon?

We ask our children what they want to be and do when they grow older. Who are they now? What are they doing today? What’s best for them today? Now. This very minute. We might discover that when we make the most of today, we automatically make the most of tomorrow.

Today my son doesn’t need to plan what tie to wear to some distant marriage proposal. He doesn’t need to know exactly how he’ll ask someone to marry him. But he needs to know we care about what he’ll do and that we believe he’ll be able to do it just right when the time comes…in power tie or black.

It may be overstating the matter to say you can find a Santa on every street corner, but these days there’s certainly one to be found at every shopping mall. Even with this proliferation of Santas, finding one who takes the responsibility of portraying a 1600 year-old legend to heart can be challenging.

A friend told me that her doubts of ever finding such a Santa are multiplying at the same rate as the Santas. Waiting in line with her five-year-old for a holiday picture, they overheard Santa on his coffee break with the photographer – discussing the moneymaking end of their “Photo with Santa” business. Walking through the Santa Claus maze, they watched another “Red Suit” loose half his beard, which appeared to be twice as old as the Santa legend itself. She was astounded to hear one St. Nick tell a little girl the one-of-a-kind antique doll she wanted would be waiting for her on Christmas day. Another Kris Kringle actually seemed frightened of the children. (One bad experience, no doubt.) Instead of seating them on his lap, he held them at arm’s length as they recited their Christmas dreams.

Long ago, when I was making the Santa rounds with my children, I came up with a way to explain these multiple, and sometimes inept, Santas. I told the kids Santa was so busy making toys at the North Pole that giant elves dressed themselves in Santa suits and distributed themselves throughout the world…and the malls…to help Santa out. Santa himself never came down with his reindeer until late on Christmas Eve.

But my children never quite believed me. They knew the real Santa was out there somewhere, in one of those three-sizes-too big Santa suits, behind a pair of crooked glasses. They’d sit on each Santa’s lap and after each one they’d whisper in my ear, “Do you think he’s the real Santa?”

Too often I looked up at a moth-eaten red suit, a beard of cotton rolls taped together, and a frown where a twinkle should have been. I always tried to reassure my children. “No, he’s just one of Santa’s helpers.”

But like my friend’s children, like all children, they didn’t want or need to be assured. For each time I tried, my children looked back at that cotton ball beard and told me with joyful conviction, “I think he is the real Santa.”

There’s only one way to describe such devotion: blind faith. Blind faith certainly seems to be what children need at Christmas. What they see of Santa in real life is hardly what’s portrayed in classic storybooks.

Yet their magical innocence allows them to believe still. They have faith that the cotton ball beard is real, faith that the reindeer are resting in a nearby stable, somewhere beyond the flashy red convertible in which Santa rode to town.

Perhaps all of us could use a bit of this blind faith children hold onto so tightly. A faith that assures them we will all receive our gifts if we only believe hard enough.

A faith that tells them the most bedraggled Santa holds a real one within.



In August 2008, I was honored to be one of seven artists invited to be part of Sequoia National Parks Foundation's ``Artists in the Back Country``, the only children's author ever invited. Other artists who have been invited include Pulitzer Prize winner Gary Snyder, Hugo award winner Kim Stanley Robinson, and National Geographic photographer David Liittschwager. This weeklong experience in the high Sierras inspired and touched each artist involved. The program hopes to rekindle the American tradition of enhancing public awareness of and appreciation for our national parks and natural world through the arts.

One of the ways I share this adventure is with ``Artists in the Backyard`` writing funshops for students. I demonstrate how my experience of the remarkable Sierras and other nature travels inspires my own writing. Using images and activities to enhance students' appreciation and understanding of the natural world, I lead them to writing non-fiction, fiction, and poetry about the nature in their own backyards.

My goal is for my ``Artists in the Back Country`` experience to inspire students, our ``Artists in the Backyard.`` My hope is for them to use their artistic talents to share with others, so all may understand and appreciate the natural world.



I encourage aspiring writers to test the waters with magazine writing. After I began my weekly column, homegrown treasures, I wrote a number of articles and stories for magazines before my first book was published.

I've had poetry, fiction, and non-fiction for both adults and kids published in a variety of magazines. The magazine story closest to my heart, however, is Blossom the School Cat, which appeared in U.S. Kids in 1993.

Blossom was the resident school cat at Apple Blossom School when my children were students there. Blossom was a good cat, a good student, and a good friend. We were lucky to have her with us for so many years.

When I visit schools, I sometimes share Blossom's stories with students. If they have school pets, I encourage them to write their stories too.

Here are a few photos of Blossom, named for the apple blossoms that surrounded our sweet little school in the country, Apple Blossom School.