Friday, July 17, 2015

Patricia Sarles on why she started the Books for Kids in Gay Families website


Patricia Sarles, MA, MLS has put together an extraordinary resource; a virtual library catalog of books for children related to various LGBTQ issues. When I discovered that my book, Rumplepimple, had been included in the list I was first thrilled, and then intrigued. I decided to ask her a few questions about how the whole thing came about. Here are her responses. I think you'll find her story fascinating.

How did you get started with this effort? 


I am a librarian and I became interested in children's books on the topic of assisted reproductive technology when a social worker colleague, who is a fertility counselor, asked me if I could find her any books on this topic. I thought this would be very easy because of my training in how to find information on basically any subject. My colleague, Patricia Mendell, already had a small library of children's books on this topic so I started with those by searching for those titles in the Library of Congress catalog and discovered that very few, maybe two or three of her titles, were available in their catalog. In addition to that, they had very strange subject headings, like "infertility -- juvenile literature" or "test tube babies -- juvenile literature" and those subject headings were inaccurate because that's not what the books were about. They were about children conceived via assisted reproductive technologies and about donor offspring. It became apparent to me then that these books would not be easy to find after all. It was also obvious that there were no appropriate subject headings for books on these topics.

This intrigued me tremendously because I was now on a mission to find books on a topic that had no adequate subject headings. This meant they would be nearly impossible to find. But I still wanted to find them. I also knew that there were mothers and fathers out there who needed children's books like these in order to share with their children how they came into the world. There was a need for these books but no means for a librarian to find these books should a patron walk into a library and ask a librarian to help them find these types of books. That's when I started my blog.

How long ago did this take place?


My search for these books began in 2003 when I first met Patricia Mendell but I did not start my blog until the spring of 2009. I started with Patricia's small collection and then added to it as I unearthed (and by unearthed I mean I crawled under rocks to find them) more books on the topic. What started as a collection of about 15 books in English in 2003 has now turned into a collection of about 240 books in twelve languages so far in 2015! So how did I find these books that were not part of the Library of Congress collection and/or had no appropriate subject headings? I began scouring self-publishing catalogs, and began scouring the Web doing Google searches.

I've also learned terms in multiple languages, like Spanish, French, Italian, etc. and do regular searches in those languages as well. And now that my blog has been out there for a while, people who write these books also write to me to tell me about their books and I have discovered several this way as well. Since I have searched for these books in English and in so many other languages, I am safe to say that I am the only person in the world who maintains a collection of these books and since I share these books with Patricia Mendell, together we have the largest private library on these titles in the world. It is my hope one day to donate these books to a university or medical library, catalog them, and add them to WorldCat so that these books are findable for librarians around the world. It is also my hope to get the Library of Congress to create adequate and appropriate Library of Congress subject headings for these books so that they are appropriately cataloged.

You obviously find the LOC subjects lacking. What have you done to try to bring about improvements?


In 2009, Patricia Mendell and I started writing an article on these children's books which in 2010 was published in the journal, Children & Libraries. In it, we talked about the inadequacy of Library of Congress subject headings and the difficulty we had in finding these books. This article was picked up by Sandy Berman, a Library of Congress gadfly who has spent an entire career petitioning the Library of Congress for subject headings on a variety of topics for which there were none. He sent my article to the Library of Congress and petitioned them for a subject heading for "Donor offspring." I too had written to them asking them for new and more accurate subject headings for children's books on assisted reproductive technology but they wrote me back that they found their subject headings adequate. But in 2012, the Library of Congress added the new subject heading, "Children of sperm donors." This was a major accomplishment, which I felt I could take credit for since this was one of the subject headings I suggested they create. It is still not appropriate though because it implies that the books are about the children of people who donated their sperm and not about the resulting offspring of sperm donors. We subsequently published an article about this as well. It is my hope to write and publish more articles on this topic so that the Library of Congress can see that more appropriate terms are needed for donor offspring and other topics related to assisted reproductive technology.

So your work initially focused on assisted reproductive technology, but it branched out to include LGBT issues?


In the fall of 2009, I started my Gay-Themed Picture Books for Kids blog, when again, my social worker colleague asked me for a list of children's books for her gay clients who used third party reproduction to build their families. Third party reproduction would include the use of sperm donation for lesbian couples and egg donation, surrogacy, and IVF for gay couples. An organization she is involved with, the non-profit Path2Parenthood, formally the American Fertility Association, and an inclusive organization which helps couples, both gay and straight, build their families through third party reproduction, was looking to build a booklist for their gay clients on this topic. I wanted to help, again because I am a librarian and I just love to research things, and so I began my gay-themed picture books blog. There I set out to collect a list of gay-themed picture books for children. I started with the lists already in existence, the COLAGE list, the American Library Association GLBT Round Table list, and there are others, and I began to build my own list. In the case of Library of Congress subject headings, gay-themed books are so much easier to find. For example, the subject headings make much more sense:

Children of gay parents
Lesbian mothers
Gay parents
Gay fathers

As with my Books for Donor Offspring blog, I search for gay-themed books in multiple languages and I believe I have created the most comprehensive list on the Web. I have found over 500 gay-themed picture books in thirteen languages.

Tells about your work as a librarian. How long have you been at it? Where do you work? Do you specialize in books for children? 


I've been a librarian since 1990 and graduated from library school in 1991 so have been at this for 25 years. I do not specialize in children's literature at all! Even though I am currently a school librarian for grades 6-12 serving three small schools in Staten Island, New York, school librarianship is not what my training was in. I am a former medical and college librarian and that's the type of librarianship I was trained in and it is the type of librarianship I hope to get back into when I retire as I would like to popularize these books to make them more accessible to librarians around the world and I cannot do that in my current position. Ironically, I have no particular interest in children's literature, have no coursework or training in children's literature, but got into this subject because I was intrigued by finding things that were impossible to find. And in this case, it just happened to be children's books on assisted reproductive technology that I stumbled upon. Outside of this topic, I have no other interest in children's books.

Your websites list your email address as "Tovahsmom". Do you mind telling us who Tovah is? 


In 2003, my partner of 23 years and I went through the process of artificial insemination in order to build our family. This is how we came to visit a fertility counselor and how we met Patricia Mendell. Unfortunately, our attempt did not take and we did not become pregnant so we never had children. Tovah however is the name of one of our dogs who passed away in 2013.

Thanks for sharing this very personal part of your story, Patricia. And thank you for the work you are doing on behalf of all the families who want books for their children which reflect their personal reality. Your donation of time, thought, and efort for the sake of others is inspiring.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Happy birthday, little Doodle


A year ago today I wrote this post in honor of my eldest child's birthday. Today the lovely Kiera turns 27, and so I am continuing the tradition.

When I was 27, Kiera was one year old. We celebrated her birthday at my ex-husband's family cottage, as we would in the years that followed. That first birthday she sat in a huge aluminum bowl of water, clothed in nothing but dapples of shade as we tried to fight the heat and soothe the itch of chicken pox. Photos from the day show three red pox angling up and out symmetrically above each eyebrow. We made jokes about her having Spock brows.

(What I wouldn't give to have a copy of those photos. Or any photos from her childhood, really.)

Today, as she has every year, Dolce thanked me for bringing the gift of Kiera into the world. And she asked me questions, as she always does.
"Do you remember the way the top of her head smelled when she was a baby? Or the scent of her breath? The softness of her skin?"
"Yes." I remember all those things.
"What's your favorite of her physical features?"
"Her mouth, I guess. It's wide and beautiful. And her eyes. They are large and searching, attentive and kind."
"Do you remember things she said when she was little?"
"She said the funniest things when she was about 4. One day she came home and taught us a poem. It went like this:
    'My name is Edgie
    I'm sitting in a wedgie
    Potato in my jacket!' 
Another day she brushed my hair and said with obvious admiration 'Oh, mommy. Your hair is so long, and stringy...'"
"Was she always so confident?"
"Mostly. Maybe not as much during adolescence."
"What did she do that made you the maddest?"
That was a hard one. I thought, and thought, and realized that I can really come up with only one time that she made me mad.

Mostly I remember how gorgeous she was as a toddler with curling hair, huge eyes, and red lips. And how her legs ached when she went through growth spurts, the bones expanding so quickly that her flesh was traumatized. And how she became self-conscious and gawky during middle school before blossoming into lovely individuality as a young woman. And how I taught her to drive before she moved west, practicing parallel parking more times than I could count, and treasuring absolutely every single minute of it.

I remembered, and cried again, just as I have for the last five of Kiera's birthdays. I cried for lost time and for not being able to see her face on these days that celebrate her life.

Diane held me and let me cry, just as she does every year.

It is 4:00PM. Almost the very hour that my smart, kind, funny, passionate daughter was born. We will toast her soon, and give thanks that she exists.

Happy birthday, my sweet and lovely little Kiera Doodle.




Thursday, July 2, 2015

Happy to be included in a gay-themed picture book list!

I was thrilled to discover that librarian Patricia A. Sarles has included Rumplepimple in her collection of resources:


One of our goals in portraying Rumplepimple's family as it actually exists was exactly for this purpose. We know that children need books which illustrate that they and their families are normal, regardless of how many parents they have, or how old those parents are, or what color their skin is, or what genders they happen to be. Being included in this wonderful compilation of titles is a real honor.

Check back soon for an interview with Patricia about her work in creating these book lists.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Thoughts like fish, slippery and darting


Watching mom trying to navigate the reaches of her mind is a lesson in patience.

It's as if thoughts and words are like minnows, swimming around her ankles. She'll have her eye on one in particular, and bend to follow it, reaching with both hands to grasp it. But just as her fingers begin to close, the slippery little body slips between them, darts away, and is quickly lost in the mass of similar fishes that surrounds her. Lost in a swirling cloud of information, each word and thought unique and worthy of merit and attention. Each one impossible to grasp.

We watch her face as she watches it swimming away, eventually shaking her head and giving up in graceful defeat. "Oh," she'll start out. "I don't know."

She is more graceful than we are. More accepting of the futility of catching a minnow but still willing to try. We toss out nets woven of reminders and cues, hoping to rescue her from otherwise certain failure. But when we do she turns her head to the side and furrows her brow, as if telling us that we are distracting her from the hunt.

It is a lesson in patience to bite our lips and keep our fingers still rather than trying to build her the perfect piece of fishing equipment. We are slow to learn, and are still working out the right way to respond when she admits the minnow is gone. We usually just point out another fish and renew our hope that perhaps she'll be able to catch it.

Then off she goes on another hunt, her face alive for the moment with clarity and purpose. And the minnows swim and dart. And we watch and wait.

Monday, May 25, 2015

My first children's book is live!


This happened today. My first children's book became an orderable thing.

It wasn't the first I'd written. Those titles (Hello Mommy and The Cove Keeper) are still to come. But it's the first to be published. We learned a lot in the process, and will continue learning now that it's available for sale.

But it's up. It's up.

If you'd like to get a copy for your very own self or for your favorite kidlet, you can find it in two places:

Rumplepimple on Amazon
Rumplepimple direct from CreateSpace

Now to crack open some champagne!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

My bra and I


My bra and I took a bath together today. I'm not sure which of us needed it most.

While I may have seven bras, I actually wear only one of them. The rest are either too tight or the wrong texture or too boney or too thin or too itchy. It's a woman thing which also applies to shoes. A decade or two ago I'd wear all sorts of impractical things, standing tall and uncomfortable in scarlet push up and 3-inch pumps. Now, comfort is queen, and so my comfy bra gets a lot of use. And I mean a lot.

But back to the bath.

We needed it, both of us. I'd just come in from the first, overdue, mowing of the year. I'd spent the earlier part of the day driving a lovely young lady to the airport, and then doing battle with hospital bureaucracy and elderly stubbornness. The result was a fug of sadness and frustration and sweat, with only the slightest hint of fresh cut grass.

The bath was cool and delicious. I emerged blessedly clean, and smelling of tea and lemongrass from soap that had been milled by nuns. My bra continues to drip in vanilla-sugar scented relief, having been scrunched into cleanliness using Body Bath Shop shower gel.

Meanwhile, my mom is surrounded by the scents of alcohol, disinfectant, and wretchedness. And my stepdad sniffs back his tears and tries not to think about the future while measuring laundry detergent at home.

Alone.

Tomorrow will be another day of battle and worry. We'll start out strong and smelling fresh, my bra and I. We'll try to notice the scent of May flowers drifting through the air. We'll try to accept the limits of our control over the world and the people in it. And we'll hope for the best.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Reflections on a Tea Kettle


A friend recently connected me with a woman who has written a historical children's book about a teapot, and is looking for editing help. That reminded me of this 2009 post which I wrote for Theology of Desire. Thought I'd share it here, because I still like it.

Reflections on a teapot

I've been talking to my priest about Thomas Howard's idea of everything meaning everything, as it relates to the reawakening of the Christian imagination. I thought it might be good to offer an example of the concept in an easily digestible form, and was given an image of a teapot. So here goes.

Let's say that you were shown an old metal teapot. The empirically minded would note that it is made of scuffed metal and has a wooden handle. They could see that it has been used and looks old. If they open it they can see the stain of yesteryear teas, and perhaps even catch it's scent if they dare dip their noses.

All of these things are real and true and give insight about the pot.

An expert on teapots could look at the workmanship and tell more about it. More facts could be collected.

But what happens when you see it, and know it to be your grandmother's?

When you look, you see the dent on the side and it's flame-darkened bottom. You picture it sitting where it always did, on the back of the old gas-burnered stove. You see the black stick-match holder mounted on the wall nearby, and smell a brief sulfurous blast when one is struck.

You remember the cabinet in which a box of Red Rose rests, and the drawer filled with the tiny Wade figurines you played with year after year.

You remember orange pekoe being offered as a treat, and wishing that you actually liked it.

You remember taking grandma's tea-and-dry-toast cure, and wanting just a touch of butter.

You remember the sound of her coming through the swinging door from the dining room, where Jesus' painted eyes followed her as she walked.

You remember how she poured for sorrows and joys, for calming and reviving, for waking up in the morning, and for restlessness at night.

You hear her voice telling the teapot story again; how she received it as a wedding gift some 30, then 40, then 50 years before.

You remember clearing out the house when she died, and having to throw the old pot away...

These memories add more than mere facts to the reality of a simple teapot. The associations and interactions and emotions provide context.

They give the object meaning.

The Enlightenment would have us strip things down to the essential facts, to isolated collections of details theoretically comprising a whole. None of which have meaning, only existence.

In the enlightened view, the teapot means teapot. There is nothing more. Just the facts.

In Thomas Howard's view, the teapot means comfort, and contentment and safety. It means stick matches and squeaky doors. It means pillowy hugs and powdery old lady scents. The teapot means grandmother, and love.

Going beyond that, it means the technological evolution of man; the forging of metals and hewing of wood for our purposes. It means the alchemy of molecular change and the ritual of seed, seedling, sapling and tree. It means the interaction of man and nature and God.

What if we could see all the interconnections of things all around us? What if we could see them stretching out like spider webs dew-sparkling in the early sunshine? What if we could see the beauty and the wonder and the majesty behind the exterior of every single thing?

I can only imagine...

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Call me a carrot and throw me in the pot

 
True confession time:

Today I made my third submission to Chicken Soup for the Soul.

One piece was a poem for the Possibilities edition. One was an essay for an issue on Volunteering. And today's was about my cat, Chicken (or was it really about my wife, Diane?)

I must really want to be part of the Soup family. I wonder if buying a carrot suit would help?

Monday, April 27, 2015

Writerly Wisdom from the Newburyport Literary Festival

I wrote about the festival and featured some local authors in the recent issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine. This great photo by Kevin Harkins is of last year's closing panel.
This year's Newburyport Literary Festival was packed as always with more speakers and panels than we were able to attend. It's a great problem to have, and I'm grateful for all the hard work that goes in to making the event so useful, entertaining, varied, and generally wonderful by the festival's team of organizers and volunteers.

I primarily attend talks that focus on the craft of writing, and inevitably capture useful or powerful insights. Here are a few gems from some of these presentations.

Holly Robinson talked about making your readers, laugh, cry, and be amazed. This will now be a goal for every novel I work on. (Which implies I'll survive the one I'm currently slogging through.) I'm currently reading Holly's latest novel, Haven Lake, and am already anticipating tears.

Lorrie Thomson discussed pushing your self-consciousness out of the way so that the truths that lie beneath can come out. I'm reviewing Lorrie's upcoming book, A Measure of Happiness, for Merrimack Valley Magazine's July issue.

In conversation about being a debut author, Katie Shickel informed us that the big 5 publishers produce 95% of traditionally published books.

That shocked me.

She also passed on her agent's wisdom about promotion, saying that authors should spend 80% of their time writing, and 20% promoting. This woman's email signature reads "What are you doing with your 15 minutes today?", which refers to time spent on social media. (The May issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine features my review of Katie's debut novel, Housewitch. Copies should be on newsstands mid-May.)

Iconic children's author Avi reminded us that hard writing makes easy reading. He also stressed the importance of the first line, the first paragraph, and the first page. That's a powerful concept, whether you are trying to catch the attention of agents, editors, or readers.

This is just a tiny taste of the richness offered at the festival. 2015 marked its tenth year. May it see another 100.



Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Preparing for liftoff!

It's been a long time coming, but I think we are in the final countdown to launching my first children's book. It's the story of a misunderstood doggy hero named Rumplepimple who goes places he shouldn't go and does things he shouldn't do in order to rescue a little girl from her tormentor.

Our proof copy is due to arrive any day. Checking it is the last step in what's been a long and adventurous process. Here's the cover:

We're hoping the red will work, but can't really tell until the proof arrives.

Check back soon for more details!

Friday, April 3, 2015

Palm Sunday Reflection in Impact Magazine


For those of you who participate in the Christian practice of Holy Week, I offer you a reflection on my experience at this week's Palm Sunday service. The piece appeared in the wonderful Impact Magazine.

The Jesus I saw this Sunday

Monday, March 23, 2015

Melissa Manchester visits the Valley


A few weeks ago I covered a music legend's visit to our region for Merrimack Valley Magazine, which is now available online. Check it out:

https://www.mvmag.net/index.php/2015/03/10/melissa-manchester/

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Vulnerability


Yesterday I revealed a secret that's been veiled from public eyes for 10 years. It was in a safe environment; Dolce was by my side, and the initial recipients were two priests who I love and respect. They listened fully and with compassion, asked appropriate questions to help direct my thoughts, and offered wisdom concerning what to do with this thing that I've been carrying.

Later in the day I also told our closest friend, someone who was familiar with the who, what, when and where of the thing. It seemed necessary to tell her, because it feels like I've been false all these years, and wanted to remove that barrier to our relationship. She reassured me of her love and lack of judgement, as I was certain she would.

So both situations were safe. But today I feel anything but safe. I feel exposed and emotional.

It's a funny thing about secrets. There is the guilt and shame of whatever event is being hidden, but the holding back and veiling creates its own layers of baggage.  And the longer it's held in, the worse it gets. We take our secrets and wrap them up, encapsulating them in layers of protection like some sort of malignant fetus. And that evil thing grows and thrives in its fetid atmosphere, bubbling away like yeast that needs to be punched down periodically so that it will stay small enough to remain contained.

Yesterday I pulled out the nasty thing, so that instead of fitting within me it now sits at my side where I can look at it. It's ugly. And I don't like it. And now I worry that those I told will never be able to look at me without seeing it too, as if it went from being an unborn alien in my belly to being a conjoined twin.

I know the telling was necessary. In order for healing to take place, tumors have to be removed. I just wish this one could be taken away and burned in an incinerator with the rest of the blood and sweat and vomit. Instead, I guess I just have to wait and watch it shrink with time.

Meanwhile, I feel vulnerable.

Friday, February 6, 2015

My New Year's resolution is working


We've been attending the local Episcopal church more or less regularly for the past few weeks, having bid a tearful goodbye to our former parish in affluent, Caucasian, Newburyport. The race-related situations in Ferguson and NYC over the past months finalized our discernment about making the move. (You can read more about that here.) Our local church has experienced very rapid growth, due in large part to the after school programs it offers. This has helped the formerly aging, pale-faced congregation transform into one of mixed generations, races, and sexual orientations.

Particularly apparent are the kids. There are a lot of them. One young guy is a particular favorite; his round face and eager responses to the questions Mother Bearden raises during the children's sermon make him an easy object of attention. One day during coffee hour I spoke with him twice. First to comment about his shirt. The second to say that I liked his name. He's commonly known as Bubba, but his Moms think it's about time he matured into his real name: Montay. (I figured that if he was resisting the shift, a few compliments couldn't hurt.) That day he stopped, tilted his head while gazing thoughtfully at me, and said "You're nice." before turning away to do whatever he'd been on his way to do.

I was gratified by that exchange.

This past Sunday I chatted with Montay and two of his four siblings, all wrapped in coats and scarves and waiting patiently while their mom chatted with Mother Bearden.  Montay's bright green coat prompted a conversation about Ninja Turtles, which led to the Maze Runner and other related movies. The three kids tried to take turns pouring out their thoughts about characters and action, but with such exciting material, it was hard. I did my best to keep up and ask questions, and struggled to keep the various bits straight.

The youngest child in this family is autistic, and non-verbal. Every time I see her, I sing out her name when she passes by in one of her roving circles. "Jazzy-Jazz!" I sing. I've not yet tried to engage her, but I let her know that she is present to me. While I was talking with her older siblings, she grew increasingly agitated, tugging at her mom's hand and pulling her arm toward the door. Eventually, she came over and took MY hand, hoping that I'd take her out into the glorious snowy day beyond the fellowship hall's door. I'm not sure how rare a thing this is, for her to take someone's hand like that. But it made me glow on the inside. I was so honored.

Before I returned to Dolce, bearing our coats for departure, Montay threw his arms around me in a big hug. I bent over to return it, thanking him.

My New Year's resolution was to be less segregated. I think it's working.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

On dreams come true


On the morning we were to return home from a recent trip, I waited for the elevator near the hotel lobby, leaning on the empty luggage buggy I'd come downstairs to fetch. I felt the presence of another person behind me, also waiting. The door dinged open and a succession of early 20-something males poured out, all wearing khaki pants, white shirts, and dark winter jackets. There must have been eight of them, at least. When the last one dribbled clear, I pushed the cart in and then turned to the thin, cigarette-scented fellow who entered with me. "Whew! Now THAT was an elevator full of young men!" I proclaimed, striving for humor. His eyes twinkled as he responded in a peaty Scottish brogue "And was that a dream come true for yeh?"

I laughed out loud, and kept laughing before finally replying "No, actually it isn't. But that's a reasonable question." I continued chuckling as we exited and went our separate ways down the carpeted corridor.

Dolce and I loaded up the cart with our various baggages, and we headed back out. As we walked down the hallway I hoped the Scot would reappear so that I could show him what a dream come true really looks like. And perhaps make a comment or two about quality trumping quantity, every time.

Monday, February 2, 2015

I birthed a church, and am ashamed of it


I loved my former church, and still do actually. But I'm mad at it the way you get mad at a child for doing things you thought you taught them not to do. I'm ashamed of it even.

My anger sparked a few days ago, at the funeral of our dear friend Nancy's mother. For years we've heard about this woman, who at 99 years old could still cause Nancy fits of sleeplessness and nausea, a woman who could not show the love and acceptance without which Nancy has been crippled. A woman who's idea of love consisted of disapproval and criticism.

It was enlightening to be in the places and meet the people who populated the stories we've heard throughout the years. We learned a lot about the family. We learned that Nancy's mother Rachel had been an accomplished pianist as a young woman, probably headed for a career in music until an accident destroyed her hand nearly to the point of amputation. We learned that Rachel was a gifted high soprano, singing with her Presbyterian church choir for many decades. She was so active in their music program that a few years ago she donated the funds for the creation and installation of a beautiful stained glass window, rich with musical symbolism and dedicated to the choir. The window glows vibrantly in the vaulted music room in which the choir practices.

As the funeral proceeded, the family's ongoing involvement in the life and music of the church was unfolded. We learned that the striking set of 5 ft tall wrought iron candlesticks flanking the altar had been made by Nancy's father. We learned that Nancy and her siblings had sung in the choir throughout the time they lived at home. Rachel had even urged Nancy to take voice lessons, something she has not yet done.

A stunningly gifted soprano was hired to sing at the service. We sat several rows behind Nancy, and could see the back of her head, and an occasional glimpse of her profile. When the opening strains of Schubert's Die Allmacht (The Omnipotence) began and the soloist started to sing of God's great power, we could see Nancy lean in, nearly rising to meet the notes of the aria that poured and soared toward us. We watched her head dip and tip as the piece unfolded, her right hand lifting and leading as she participated silently in the powerful performance that she later told us her mother sang even better. During the reception I thanked the soprano for gracing us with song, and told her how powerfully Nancy had been moved. She'd seen it, she said, and was so moved in response that she couldn't look at her and be able to continue singing.

When home in Rochester, Nancy attends my old church. I brought her there, knocking on her door one day to invite her to visit as part of a neighborhood outreach program. That was eight or so years ago. She's been attending ever since, but it pains her to be there. Music is a significant piece of the worship service at this church, and Nancy loves to sing. It's part of her genetic and cultural heritage. She pours her heart into singing and finds it to be the most elevated and intense form of her worship. Her voice is powerful. At times it rings out true and beautiful, rich with vibrato and feeling. At other times she tries to harmonize and the notes jar with the singing of those around her. It can be hard for others to maintain the melody because of that power. And so she has been asked not to sing, or to sing quietly, her joyful noises too disturbing to some of the people who sit around her.

She goes to church each Sunday, and rather than fight to constrain herself, she tells us that she mostly just doesn't sing. And afterword, rather than going downstairs to join in community and coffee, she drifts back down the street, alone, to her lonely house and her aging, crippled dog. She doesn't speak ill of the place. But she does speak great sadness.

I'm ashamed of this church, and of its leadership. I was one of the mid-wives who birthed it into being, and watched it develop and form. I heard its repeated claims of being a place for the least, the lost, and the lonely. I'm ashamed by its lack of creativity in handling this lovely, fragile bird, one of the loneliest people I know. This woman who considers herself the least in the kingdom, hoping simply to sweep and mop the floors of heaven. This woman who has lost hope in the idea of church as a place of healing rather than a source of pain. I'm ashamed of those who lead the women's ministry, and their lack of willingness to push through the protective barriers Nancy has erected, and to suffer the discomfort of her anxiety and awkwardness.

She'll keep going, of course, and giving of her financial abundance as her parents did. She'll listen to good sermons, and she'll receive the Body and Blood of our Lord to feed her very soul. But she won't ever be part of the community, won't be accepted, won't be encouraged in her giftings. She's too difficult, and it's too easy to not notice her slipping away, or to accept her denial of need.

That's not the church that I tried to form. And I'm ashamed of it.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

More reasons I love my job: Wally Lamb Visits the Valley

I had the pleasure of spending time with the wonderful Wally Lamb at last spring's Newburyport Literary Festival. Here's a short piece from the November/December issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine which sprung from it.


Friday, December 5, 2014

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Like a punch in the face

I'm honored that Impact Magazine picked up my recent piece on the Ferguson situation, and perhaps even more honored by the publisher saying it was like a punch in the face.

http://impactmagazine.us/2014/12/this-thanksgiving-i-was-grateful-for-being-white/

Friday, November 28, 2014

This Thanksgiving I was grateful for being white



A few nights ago we went to bed while the news cameras captured images of smoke-filled streets, flaming cars, lurching figures, and flak jackets. I watched my twitter feed for another hour or so after that, perversely drawn to the mayhem unfolding. We awoke the next morning to updates about numbers of arrests made, cars burned, and buildings set ablaze. I looked at pictures of a beauty supply store that had been looted, and wondered about the kind of victory that results from stolen weave. 

I watched, cursing the stupidity of riots and feeling superior.

I lead a typical segregated Caucasian life, so the vast majority of Facebook posts appearing on my page are from people roughly like me; white and therefore privileged. Posts on the topic were primarily in two forms: proclamations that looters are idiots and that justice had been served, or "enlightened" responses of sorrow and outrage over the grand jury ruling. This last group bothered me the most. It seemed like the more moneyed and nestled into the bosom of Whitlandia, the more vocal the objections. As if any of them have a clue.

As if -I- have a clue.

Since when do I deserve a place in the conversation?

I live on the outskirts of a small city where real poverty exists. Where real drug deals take place, many of which involve people with more melanin in their skin than mine. But I'm safely ensconced in our beat up little house, in a white ghetto of helpful retirees. On Sundays, I drive to a beautiful church in an affluent small town with no black families in the congregation. I do see African American faces once in a while. While shopping.

So what the hell do I know about a particular town in Missouri, or a particular young man and an accused police officer? What can I know from way up here in my sheltered white bread existence?

Until recently, I lived in Rochester, NY which has been in the running for most dangerous cities in the country. Its violence takes place almost entirely within the black population, and is usually drug related. My kids went to an inner city school with over 70% black students. I was once threatened with a knife by a black man. While living in a rough neighborhood one Halloween, a group of black teens pushed me down and grabbed the bowl of candy I'd greeted them with at the door. Decades later I helped pick a white high school kid up off the sidewalk and into an ambulance after he'd been jumped by a couple of black youth while walking home from school. I was called a "stupid white bitch" by a black girl while hurrying down the hall trying to reach my son at the end of a gun scare lockdown at school. Another day my son found a large kitchen knife in a snowbank outside the school's main entrance.

I have no romantic notions about the urban black experience. But neither is it real to me because it can't be. I don't live it, and never will. I don't have a realistic view, nor do I have a romanticized view.

As I read through the news and saw people's snarky or well-meaning posts, I thought I was going to vomit. The over simplification of tremendous complexity blew my mind and turned my stomach. Eventually I did as a Victorian lady would and took to my bed, where the enormity of the problem brought me to tears.

We are dealing with a subset of society that has been poisoned by history, a history of our white ancestors who carefully groomed and formed a culture. Our white forefathers enforced the systematic destruction of families, sanctioned rape, demanded reliance, punished independence, used violence as punishment, and inflicted hundreds of other intense wrongs. It was intentional cultural formation in an intensely disordered way. 150 years and some six generations later, we have turmoil as a result. New generations adapt and morph and evolve within a caustic environment and struggle to breathe and thrive within it. Societal problems bubble and steam, young men shoot each other over drugs, and cops are scared. People are trapped in an environment where violence is normal and anger is ever present, living a life where you can't walk down a street without being glanced at with nervousness and suspicion. 

How must that feel? How badly would it make me want to explode and lash out and figure that if I'm going to be viewed as an animal or a criminal, I might as well act like one? How Herculean an effort would it take to resist the lull of normality and fight to be seen differently? 

Should we really be surprised that some people in those circumstances give up, or explode, or mimic the thuggishness of their mentors?

Violence in these communities is real, and cops are often rightly scared. And sometimes they are wrongly scared. Sometimes when a community believes they are disenfranchised from the judicial process, all that frustration builds up and explodes into a massive force of broken windows, smoking cars, and stolen fucking weave.

It's the day after Thanksgiving. I imagine a bunch of individuals fighting off feelings of remorse about what was done in the heat of that release of passion. People crying their own very complicated tears.

From where I sit, on my Whitelandia tuffet, I can see no end in sight. No easy fix through program or budget line item or Facebook insight. 

As we lay in bed that day, sickened, Diane held me as I wept. She said "I wonder if God cries? I'll bet He does. I'll bet He cried the oceans into being before we got here."

She's probably right.

There is no sweeping fix, but that doesn't mean I'm helpless.

Trinity Church in Haverhill, MA is part of a three-church effort to reach at risk populations of socioeconomically endangered kids, many of whom are people of color. Through after school programs, these children are pulled off the streets and out of unsupervised houses and exposed to things they would not otherwise have a chance to participate in. Music. Theater. Montessori programming. I'm going to get involved, even it it's only to hand out snacks and chat with the kids for a few minutes one day a week. I don't expect it to do much in the big scale of things. But I hope that I can build relationships with young people I'd never otherwise have a chance to know. To exchange and understand the realities of our existences so that I'm not quite so out of touch. Who knows, maybe I can help a child explore their gifts and use them to proceed more quickly out of the darkness of their historical past and into the freedom that God desires for them.

I don't know. But it's something. 

And I've got to do something. 

Because this Thanksgiving, I recognize the privilege of being born white. And God help me, I'm grateful for it.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Oldies but goodies

I finally got around to scanning and posting some older feature stories written for Merrimack Valley Magazine.

Each one, a joy and pleasure to write!

The Quest for Treasure, Pawn Style, Fall Home Edition, 2013
http://www.smdewitt.com/p/blog-page_96.html


Ladies of Lingerie, September/October 2013
http://www.smdewitt.com/p/ladies-of-lingerie.html

For the Love of Shoes, July/August 2013
http://www.smdewitt.com/p/blog-page_2.html

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Pondering Mulberries


I chanced upon Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life at the library the other day. Reading it feels like kismet, a cosmic bringing together of eras and actions and people in my life.

I lived in a variety of houses while growing up, but my favorite rested on a largish patch of land in a small town. The previous family owned it for decades and used the land well. When we moved in there was a sizeable strawberry patch, a thriving grape arbor, several apple trees, a plum tree, and tilled rectangles where vegetables had obviously been planted. One side of the house was a bramble of raspberry canes, and a quince bush burst into coral song each spring. Two elderly sisters left behind a cellar full of ancient canned fruits, dusty, and dangerous, and compelling.

For a short while we lived in a cabin in the woods. My father brought home shot-riddled squirrel and wild turkey, and showed us where the hickory nuts fell, and what wintergreen looks like on a forest floor. My mother made the best of a limited kitchen and baked cakes in an electric frying pan using berries we foraged.

So it feels like a circle to be here in this place, trying to build up the land so that it produces things we can eat.

Our first attempt was strawberries, which miraculously have continuously blossomed and produced fruit since the spring. The harvest is small; one or two berries at a time. Many are missing a chunk, presumably consumed as part of a chipmunk's breakfast. Others are poxed or sundried. But it gives me joy to poke through the leaves and see how many berries are forming and ripening.

We purchased a single tomato plant that produced 17 tomatoes and is now turning yellow in proclamation that it's work is done. Some of the last tomatoes are splitting. I don't know what causes that.

I rescued a scrappy wild black-raspberry runner from the edge of my neighbor's yard, just a day before he whacked everything in the region down. I planted it against the back fence where it can lean and spread and, hopefully, produce fruit in future years. It seems to be doing well.

I want to get a Mulberry tree to plant on the far end of the property. I hear they grow quickly and the berries are luscious and plentiful.

I've been trying to figure out how to compost without investing in a big ugly object.

I dream of having a few yard birds to keep us in eggs.

It's a start.


During her latter years in high school, my daughter educated herself about the economics and ethics of food (particularly animal-based foods) and became a vegetarian. I respected her efforts, but didn't think a whole lot about it other than to admire the ferocious zeal of the young. My stepdaughter went through a similar phase, urging us to bypass holiday turkeys that are too heavy to stand on their own legs, and too stupid to have sex.

Enter Kingsolver's book: a memoir of a year lived eating only what her family could grow or purchase from local farmers. It's an education in food economics and megacorp consumption control. Things my daughter tried to talk about nearly a decade ago. The chapter I read this morning describes a new batch of fluffy, goofy turkey chicks, and explains that they will grow less endearing but more tasty as time passes.

(Just like Dad used to catch.)

I'm reading it at a time when our favorite local grocery chain is essentially out of business due to internal politics, forcing us to check out alternate purveyors. We were strong-armed into stopping at the farm market around the corner from our house, and man are we grateful. We drive by and see corn at knee and hip and shoulder height, planted in waves so that we'll have the sweetest of kernels right up until fall. They offer 20 kinds of tomatoes, heirloom and non, all selling for the same price. The produce is labeled to indicate what they grew themselves, and where it came from if they didn't grow it. The cost is probably higher than at the grocery store, but the flavors are remarkable and we have the satisfaction of knowing that our money goes to the sisters who's smiling blue eyes and wide Slavic cheekbones greet us at each visit.

I don't expect to ever be a farm wife. I like puttering in the dirt, but I don't like sweating. I like saving money, but I am self-indulgent. I want to get a chicken coop and a compost bin, but am worried about the work both would take. But I'm a person who looks for interconnectedness. And reading Kingsolver's story feels like a giant CLICK.

I'll have to take things one step at a time. One strawberry plant, one purchase of heirloom tomatoes, one decision about a Thanksgiving turkey. I'm going to try to find local eggs that cost less than $4.00 a dozen. I'm hoping to snag a bread maker from Freecycle. And I sent a note to a friend who just happens to have a mulberry tree on the grounds of her family property. Maybe she'll let me dig up a runner.

I'm too weak and floppy to do as Kingsolver did. But I'm grateful that her words bring together places and tastes and people I love. And I'm going to try to listen to them all.