Telling it raw

Last week, I traveled to Bellingham, Washington, to see my grandmother.

As we drove the last stretch of I-5 that carves into the foothills bordering Lake Whatcom, my mind was filled with a hum that sounded like homehomehomehomehome.

I’ve never lived in Bellingham, but it was home to both sets of grandparents, assorted cousins, and loads of family lore. The happiest days of my childhood were spent there, and I know it felt like homehomehome because it is the place I have felt most safe, most free, most me. As a young adult venturing out on my own, Bellingham was my safety net. My other grandmother’s house caught more than one of my cousins during a tumble, and I always knew I had a place to go if I really needed it.

That grandmother’s house was sold the year I was pregnant with my twins, and the grandmother I was visiting isn’t doing well. Although she’s still in her home, she’s not in a place to have company. Cane and I stayed in a lovely, funky little house we found through Airbnb, close to Bellingham Bay, near the house that has been sold. Through the night, I could hear the sounds I heard when I slept there as a young girl, the trains’ whistles and gulls’ cries. They, too, sounded like homehomehome.

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Bellingham has changed since the years it was a regular part of my life. It feels much smaller, as places from childhood tend to do. But it was still homehomehome, and although I didn’t cry when our car moved again through the foothills, this time heading south, I felt heavy inside.

Too heavy to cry. I have lived away from the Sound and my people for more than 25 years, and I want to go home.

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This wonderful bookstore wasn’t there when I was a kid. I spent a happy late afternoon here.

Until last fall, our house in Oregon felt like home to me, but it really doesn’t any more. It is just a house now, one my children will be leaving within the next 6 months. I am feeling untethered, and I am asking, again, questions I feel I should have answered long ago.

And so, this is why I am mucking about with words about home.


I can’t say much about my process. I spent more time than I’d like to admit over last week’s spring break just moving strips of words around on a piece of green paper, not getting anywhere. I am not sure why I decided to make houses out of pieces of maps, but I did.

To make the houses I first sketched some house shapes, and then I looked at some images of house drawings. (Do a Google image search for “house graphic vector” if you’re in need of house drawings to help you see the shapes of houses.) Then I just started cutting out boxes and triangles and putting houses together. I did that for a day or two and left the words alone.


Then when I returned to the words, I realized I needed the bit about looking on a map–because the houses are made of maps. I decided to take out anything having to do with building/creating a home.


During yesterday’s early-morning, 4th day of migraine insomnia-fest, I realized that, perhaps, the open space needed to curve on the page the way Bellingham Bay curves into the town. And that I definitely need the water words. I might need to think more about water.

At any rate, this is where I am now.


I’m not that thrilled with this.

I want the houses to look differently. As I’ve been driving about the past two days, I’ve been seeing the shapes of houses. I think these houses may be just practice houses. I know the words aren’t right, either.

But I am attempting to practice stripped-back storytelling, which Jill introduced me to this week. I like the idea of it, raw blogging.

This is pretty raw, all right. Just like my feelings these days. We’ll have to wait and see what comes of any of it.



Wednesday words 3.23.16: Home





I think most of you who read followed me here from my now-defunct home blog. If so, you know that questions of home have been at the core of my being for a long, long time.

I suspect I have much to say again on this topic, but not yet.

The images above are from something I’m working on. I don’t know yet what it will be, what form it will take. I don’t know what it will say–about home or anything else.

Sometimes, I start to write because I have something I want to say, and I work hard to get the words to convey what I mean.

Sometimes, I don’t know what I mean, and I work hard to get the words to help me figure it out. Right now is one of those times. This is a different kind of “writing” than I’ve done before. It feels almost like reading Tarot cards, or looking for meaning in my dreams. (In other words, way more woo-woo than feels comfortable for me.) Instead of producing words and looking for some kind of sense in them, I’m looking for words and seeing what kind of sense they make. Or might make.

Clearly, I am not far enough into this to articulate anything clearly–about my topic or my process. But one thing I’d like to do here is share process. I wish I’d been able to see much more of others’ processes when I was younger. So here it is, nebulous and messy as it is:

I’m looking through books and cutting out words that seem connected to my questions of home–what is is, how we make it, what we need from it, how we will know when we’ve found it. 

I’m trying not to think too hard right now, not to force anything. I’m trying to trust my process, and myself. Like so many things right now, it feels both very uncomfortable and necessary.

To kill a demigod


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To Kill a Mockingbird was the last book I read aloud to my children, in 2009 when they were in the 6th grade. Sensing that our beloved read-aloud ritual was ending, I chose the one book I most wanted to share with them.

I wanted them to love the book I’d loved since I first read it at the same age. Whole swaths of it flew over my head in 1976, but I revisited it about once a year for the following ten. With each reading I understood more, and the more I understood, the more I loved it. Although I knew it was considered an unsophisticated and unoriginal choice, To Kill a Mockingbird has for decades been my answer to the question, “What is your favorite book?”

It’s not any more.

When I first heard news last spring of the impending publication of Harper Lee’s long-lost manuscript, Go Set a Watchman, the novel she wrote before Mockingbird, I was first curious, then concerned. Like so many others, I wondered what the true story of this story was.

It was hard for me to believe that Lee truly didn’t know where that manuscript had been for so many years. It made no sense that after such a long silence as a writer, she’d finally consent to publication of another book–especially one that was a rejected prequel/sequel to Mockingbird. When I read conflicting reports about its circumstances, I decided I wouldn’t read Watchman. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to spoil my love of the first book (although there was that) as it was that the writer I am wanted to be loyal, somehow, to the writer I imagined Lee to be. I couldn’t be sure she wasn’t being taken advantage of.

After Watchman was published last summer and so many people lost their shit over the revelation that Atticus, our hero of demigod proportions, held views that were (whaaat???) racist, I changed my mind. That, to me, was a hugely interesting development. It suggested to me that the original book might contain complexities that I, in my so many, many readings of it, had never grasped. It suggested to me that there might be more to the story of Harper Lee than I’d ever imagined. I bought and read a copy soon after its release.

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As a work of literature, it was a disappointment. So many of the things I loved best about Mockingbird were missing in Watchman:  Lee’s masterful use of language, her deadpan humor, her fully developed characters. Watchman was uneven, didactic, and–dare I say it?–boring for long stretches. It was clearly the early, unedited work of a less-experienced writer.

As a piece of social commentary and an artifact of a writing life, though, it was fascinating. Through much of the book, the narrator, an adult Scout, excoriates Atticus and any other character who defends a way of life in which Black Americans were denied the rights and privileges given to whites. Given the time in which Lee attempted to publish the book–the 1950s of the Montgomery bus boycott and Brown v. The Board of Education–I understood why her original manuscript might have been rejected and Lee counseled to tell the story that became Mockingbird.

Reading Watchman, in which Atticus does, indeed, voice beliefs that most today would consider racist, my mind raced with questions I’d never before considered:

Is it possible that Lee wrote and published Mockingbird because a palatable story with a white hero was the only way in which she could publish any kind of “race novel”?

Is it possible that Lee never published another book because she felt unable to tell the story she really wanted to tell?

Is it possible she was disappointed that none of us could see the limitations of the Atticus she knew–not the heroic white champion of equality, but a man who was doing his duty more from a love of law and sense of fairness than anything else?

Was it possible that she fully knew and understood that Watchman was an inferior book, but she wanted it published as-is because she wanted us all to question our complete adoration of Atticus and Mockingbird? Is it possible she wanted all of us who’ve loved Mockingbird to lose our innocence about it so that we could grow up about race in America, just as Scout’s loss of her childlike love for her father in Watchman transforms her into an adult?

Such a loss of innocence is exactly what what I experienced while reading Watchman. How to reconcile the character I grew up so admiring in Mockingbird with the one who, in Watchman, says these words?

“Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?….

“Now think about this. What would happen if all the Negroes in the South were suddenly given full civil rights? I’ll tell you. There’d be another Reconstruction. Would you want your state governments run by people who don’t know how to run ’em?….Zeebo’d probably be the mayor of Maycomb. Would you want someone of Zeebo’s capability to handle the town’s money?” (245-246)

How could Atticus, the man who stood up to a whole town to defend a Black man, say these words? Well, because, as I finally saw when Watchman sent me back into Mockingbird for the first time in seven years, he wasn’t standing up to defend a Black man. He was defending an innocent man who happened to be Black. He was upholding the law and our system of justice, something I can now see quite clearly. In a conversation with his brother, Jack, Atticus explains why he’s taken the Robinson case:

“You know, I’d hoped to get through life without a case of this kind, but Judge Taylor pointed at me and said, ‘You’re It.” (100)

Atticus argues the case fully not because he is hoping to change the state of race relations in Maycomb, but because it’s necessary for him to be able to live with himself:

“This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience….before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.'” (120)

I just didn’t see it because, as is always the case with literature, I saw it through the lens of my own experiences and needs. Although Mockingbird is absolutely a criticism of overt racism, only now can I see that it is full of the kind of racism that is so often invisible to white people in America. It’s also full of dubious, unchallenged messages about social class, gender, and disability.


Look, for example, at chapter 12, when Calpurnia takes Scout and Jem to her church. A Black woman, Lula, questions Calpurnia for bringing white children to her community’s church, saying, “‘–they got their church, we got our’n. It is our church, ain’t it, Miss Cal?” But then Zeebo, the garbage collector dismissed as unfit to rule by Atticus in Watchman, steps from the crowd and dismisses Lula and her “fancy ideas” by attaching to her the words “contentious,” “troublemaker,” and “haughty.” (And let’s not overlook attachment of the word “nigger” to her, which is the one Calpurnia, implied to be superior because of an education that seems to have come from the generosity and graciousness of the Finches, uses to address her, and which prompts a discussion between Calpurnia, Scout, and Jem about why Calpurnia doesn’t “talk right” when she’s with Black people.) Lula is swept aside by her congregation as the “solid mass” of them welcomes the children of Atticus.

As a younger reader, I understood this scene through the filter of my own (limited) knowledge and values. I knew it was unfair to exclude someone, especially children, from any place because of their skin color–so, of course, Lula was wrong. It was right for her to be pushed aside and for Jem and Scout to be welcomed in. I had no understanding, even as late as 2009, that for Lula the community of her church was a safe sanctuary within a larger society that the novel shows us so clearly is unsafe for her, and that allowing white people into it (even children) could destroy that for her. I didn’t understand that her need for such a space and her anger over such a breach could arguably trump my color-blind doctrine of fairness. I saw Lula’s scorn over the idea that Jem and Scout were Calpurnia’s “company” (“‘Yeah, an’ I reckon you’s comp’ny at the Finch house durin’ the week'”) as evidence of some kind of impolite, trouble-making contentiousness, rather than as evidence of how unfair it was that the Finch children could enter into the Black community’s church when Calpurnia would never be allowed to enter theirs.

I’m embarrassed to admit that in all my many readings, I never saw these things; they seem so glaringly obvious now. But I didn’t, so blinded was I by the light of Atticus’s goodness and my own, relatively privileged life.


I think part of the reason I loved Mockingbird so was that it allowed me to feel OK about being white in a country where Blacks have been treated so cruelly and brutally. I could look at the town of Maycomb and think:  That’s not me or my people. That was another time (years before my birth) and another place (the South, a far more racist region than mine). I could look at Atticus and think:  We’re not all bad. I can be like he is.

I was worried that my children would first encounter this book in school, and that their experience with it there would ruin the love I hoped they’d develop for it, but I can see now that I was worried about the wrong things. Only now can I see the messages they might take from it, ones I internalized without even realizing their existence:

  • That Black people need white people to save them because they aren’t capable of saving themselves.
  • That some people are inherently better than others.
  • That white people outside of the South are superior to those in it because we aren’t racists like they are.

And look at where we are now. America’s long-simmering racism has come to full boil, and I cannot help but wonder if Lee “found” the manuscript for Watchman and had it published without any editing to soften the edges of the Atticus she first imagined because she could sense that what has been coming for years was about to erupt. I wonder if she knew we can no longer afford to blindly worship at the altar of Atticus.


In order to finally grow up, the Scout of Watchman had to “kill” the idealized version of Atticus that lived in her head (265). So it has been with me:  In order to see painful truths about depictions of race (and class and gender) in this novel, I’ve had to let die the idealized vision I’ve held of it for so many years.

As much as I once loved Mockingbird, as important a book as it was in opening peoples’ eyes to one level of racism, I think it is time for it to be retired as our “national novel” (as Oprah once called it). We need a new national narrative about race, one that isn’t a book by, for, and about white people, with a white hero at its epicenter. While we certainly have our own stories about race, and racial matters impact us, too, ours are not the most important stories to know and tell about race. We need to listen to those who are telling stories that white people can’t tell, and we need to lose the idea that being color-blind is the best way to see each other.


Lee’s final act as a writer–putting this lesser book into the public sphere–has forced me to grow up as both a reader and writer. All those questions I had about what really happened with this manuscript and what her possible motives for publishing it might have been? Other questions I’ve had about Lee and where she really stood on issues of race, class, and gender? I’ve realized that the answers to them don’t really matter.

We writers like to think we can control readers’ reactions to our work. We think that if we labor over our words long enough we will get them just right so that no one can misunderstand us. We cannot. We can only tell our truth and release it to the world and let others make of it what they will. What any work means is something created between the words and the reader who brings to them their own truth. That’s the terrible and wonderful thing about any creative art, and there’s not a damn thing we can do about that. Or should, even if we could.

We need to create and share for our own reasons, and let go of the outcomes. I like to think that’s exactly what Harper Lee did, and I will be forever grateful not only for the lessons both her books have taught me about reading and race, but also for what she’s taught me about how to be a writer.


Page numbers refer to these editions of the books:
40th Anniversary Edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, published by HarperCollins, 1999
1st Edition of Go Set a Watchman, published by HarperCollins, 2015

Trump photo from Gage Skidmore (, adapted by me.

See this post for other photo attributes.

If you would like to further explore issues of race in literature (especially if you’re white), I highly recommend the blog Reading While White.

New Rules of Engagement


Some people become teachers because they love kids. Some become teachers because they love their subject. Me? I became a teacher because “an educated populace is essential to a well-functioning democracy.” Don’t laugh–or, go ahead and laugh if you want to–but that’s a quotation (as closely as I remember it) from my teacher education program application, and it was written with all the idealism, sincerity, and earnestness that characterized my 23-year-old self. (I’m a bit more cynical now, but I’m still pretty sincere and more earnest than your average bear.)

I became an English teacher, in particular, because I felt that knowledge of language was more important than knowledge of anything else. Strong literacy skills allow anyone to learn about anything and to avoid being manipulated by those who know how to twist language and make fallacious arguments. And yet, in recent years, I’ve removed myself from the kind of conversations my younger self felt were so important.

I stopped engaging because it’s gotten so ugly, filled with name-calling and gross, broad, unfair characterizations by those on both sides of our political divide. I stopped engaging because conversations in which everyone is shouting and no one is listening felt pointless.


Pretty much something in here to offend everybody.

I think I was wrong. I trusted so fully in the strength of our political system that I thought it didn’t need me or my voice to carry on in pretty much the same way that it’s always carried on.

But look at where we are. I mean it:  Really look.

When Donald Trump clearly dominated the Super Tuesday primaries, just days after not repudiating validation from David Duke and claiming ignorance of who he is and what he represents (most likely falsely), I decided that I can no longer sit on the sidelines. I need to understand what is happening and to do what I can to counter it.

My concern is not just all of Trump’s reprehensible beliefs, so many of which are counter to values that have been the bedrock of our nation. It is that we might elect such a man as our president when we also have an incomplete Supreme Court likely to be deadlocked on key upcoming cases and a congressional process controlled by those who have vowed not to fill its empty seat by even considering a nominee, in spite of the fact that our Constitution gives the President the right to nominate Supreme Court justices (and there is precedent for doing so in the last year of a term, most recently by Ronald Reagan). Our system depends upon its checks and balances (thank you for teaching me that, Mr. Czubin). What happens if we elect a person who disregards the Constitution and we have a deadlocked and incomplete Supreme Court and a Congress that cannot work together or with members who refuse to do so in order to further their own political agenda?

To think that we are immune from the kinds of catastrophe that have brought down other nations is arrogant and ignorant. Our only hope, I have come to believe, is for all of us to re-engage in the kind of political dialogue that will help us move forward to find our common beliefs and solutions to our challenges that will not violate our common values.

For me, that means getting uncomfortable. It means engaging in conversations about politics, especially with those who do not share my opinions, even though I might feel unfairly judged and misunderstood. As I’ve started to do so in the past week, I’ve been formulating my new rules for engagement:

1. Look for the common ground and acknowledge it. We need to let each other know where we find agreement–otherwise we might not see that we have any.

2. Be open to changing my mind. I’ve got some pretty strongly held opinions, and I’m not likely to budge when it comes to my values. However, I think we too often equate certain solutions or positions with particular value systems, and we close our minds or jump to conclusions based on that. When someone I know linked to an article about progressives driving income inequality, my first instinct was assume he didn’t care about income inequality. I was wrong.

3. Ask questions to seek/confirm understanding before judging/refuting. This requires listening/reading carefully. In a recent conversation someone referred to “folks in the establishment” and I realized I wasn’t sure of who he meant. So I asked. Glad I did.

4. Ground discussions in facts provided by reputable sources. Sometimes the question I ask is, “How do you know?” I ask it not to challenge, but because I truly want to know where the information is coming from. If I’m going to refute someone else’s “facts,” I make sure I’m correct and provide verification from as credible a source as I can find.

5. Use neutral, non-judgmental, non-inflammatory language. This one requires me to stop and re-read and examine my language before I click “post” on social media.

6. Respectfully point out bias and fallacies in logic. We need to help each other see logic that isn’t valid or tactics of argument that divert us from the issue being discussed, and I can’t emphasize “respectfully” enough. I tried to do this recently and caused offense. If we alienate others by insulting or sounding like a know-it-all, we’re defeating the purpose of engaging. (And thank you, Mrs. McConnaughey, for your course on “Semantics and Logic,” which is where I learned to recognize both logical fallacies and loaded language.)

7. Assume positive intent. I’m writing here about engaging in conversation with those we know. Trolls have no positive intent, but I bet most people you know are not trolls–even that guy from high school who posts the memes you hate. When we look for the positive intent, it’s easier to stay engaged.

As I’ve been dipping my toes back into the pool of political conversation, using these rules, I’ve found that what we like to say really is true:  Our commonalities are bigger than our differences. I’ve come to understand some things about why some support Trump, which doesn’t lessen my fear of him, but it does lessen my fear of his supporters and lessens my bewilderment. My re-engagement hasn’t been comfortable, but I’m glad I’ve done it and will continue to do so.

I believe that many of us have disengaged because we feel powerless. We feel like very small cogs in a system we can’t game. Most of us are small, and the odds really aren’t in our favor. Still, this world hasn’t yet entirely killed that young idealist who still lives within me, and I think we all need to try and we need to exercise what power we have:

We need to talk to each other. We need to inform ourselves. We need to vote. 

My generation has never really experienced threats that required the kinds of sacrifices our grandparents had to make. I hope to whatever you believe in that we aren’t now. Let’s all do whatever we can to ensure that we won’t be. No one ever said democracy was easy. Might be time for all of us to get uncomfortable and do the hard work it requires.

If you agree, please share this post in whatever way you like to share. (Sharing buttons in the sidebar.) Let’s start a movement. #letsengage


Flag Photo Credit: Landre Photography via Compfight cc
Meme Photo Credit: KAZVorpal via Compfight cc
Voting Photo Credit: Photo Credit: BryanAlexander via Compfight cc

Wednesday Words 3.2.16: Finding my oxygen mask

thank you girl

good wife 2

teacher dinner



One of my day jobs is coaching teachers. It’s sort of like being a life coach, but I only work with teachers and we only (mostly) talk about their teaching practice.

Last week, I met one of my coachees first thing in the morning, which is how I happened to be there when she was putting away her lunch, made by her partner. I mentioned how nice it would be to have someone make me lunch and that I’d most likely be having another drive-through meal later in the day.

She gave me one of her sandwiches and an apple. (Because:  teacher.)

I protested, she insisted, and then we got to work.

Later that day, I bit into the sandwich, and tears came to my eyes. It was just so nice to eat something homemade, and I couldn’t believe what a difference it was making to eat a simple ham sandwich. It was hard to feel how hard things have been through the contrast of real food to what my diet has been so often lately. It was hard to feel how long it’s felt since someone took care of me. (To be clear:  Cane cooks dinner more often than I do when he’s here. But breakfast and lunch have gone by the wayside, and…I dunno. I just felt cared for in a way I haven’t for a long time. And tears are just under the surface all the time lately. We’re still adjusting to the huge change in our family life and my babies are getting ready to leave the nest, and everything feels raw and momentous, all the time.)

Yesterday, I met with that teacher again, and again she had a sandwich for me. In my own bag with my name on it and a bottle of juice. (Can you even?)

So, even though my last post was all about my pledge to do frivolous creative projects for the fun of it, I came home (to take care of a sick kid) and made the thank you card you see above, so that I can properly thank the maker of these sandwiches.

But it was like that card was a trap door to a land of creative fun–because after I made the practical card, I made frivolous stuff (also above).

I have long been interested in juxtapositions of words and images, which is really what started Wednesday Words. And I love love love with all my heart old books.* I’ve also long loved collage, the creating of something new with the parts of many somethings old. I like to remix.

The first three images above are all cards, which, I suppose gives me some kind of permission I needed to make something as frivolous as collages. It’s really kind of silly, though. I can’t think of any real occasions for which any of the cards other than the thank you one might be appropriate.

That’s OK. I know I’m just working my way into this. I’m playing, and I like the small scale of the cards. It means I can start and finish in short time. There’s no big commitment. Lots of shorter works means my learning curve will rise faster than it would with fewer big works.

I love how messy my work table is now–filled with real mess, from real stuff, not just clutter because I haven’t put things away.

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I love how good it felt to lose myself in it for a while. Doing that felt as nourishing to me as a homemade ham sandwich. It filled me up enough that I was able to make a grilled cheese (and chicken soup) for the sick child with nothing in my heart but joy and gratitude for the chance to mother him just this way for a little while longer.

We really do need to put on our own oxygen masks first. This is mine.

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*All book images and words came from gutted books (which you can read about here), so I didn’t have to cut intact books. I’ve lost my source for such pages, so I’m not sure what I’ll do when I’ve used them up. It’s really hard for me to cut books that are still books!