Getting collective with it

As promised in my last post, I’m working on launching a project and I want this project to be a collective effort. I’m reaching out to ask for your support and expertise.

I’m looking for adult/young adult fiction/memoir that illuminates the experience of Americans in the following categories: immigrant, refugee, Muslim, African-American, disabled, Native American, Asian, women, LGBT. I’m interested in any group targeted in the election campaign and/or vulnerable if proposed policies are implemented.

I’m most interested in contemporary works that depict current American lives, and I’d like a range of ages for the main characters. Please share any titles you’d recommend in the comments.

Thank You!

Overwhelm and Antidotes

From a Facebook post that came through my feed a while back:

Syrian refugees, White Helmets, Standing Rock Sioux, DAPL, Black Lives lost, Black Lives Matter, Aggression towards Muslims, aggression towards people perceived to be Muslims, Oil Company YES Men being put in charge of our government’s environmental departments, children worrying to themselves at night that their parents will be deported, Flint Michigan is still drinking water from bottles, Oil Spill right now running into the Missouri, people feeling insecure that they will have access to healthcare in 2017……is it any wonder we are feeling overwhelmed? We are feeling torn between what front to fight on? We are feeling alone?

This is only a partial list of the things I can’t stop thinking/worrying about–and yes, I have been feeling overwhelmed and torn and alone.

I have been struggling since early November to figure out how to respond to what is happening. I have attended two protests, but I left both feeling that it wasn’t the best use of my limited resources.  I am watching very-capable others around me, and I haven’t seen any clearly important gaps I might fill better than those already filling them. I have been frustrated by my inability to do even the simplest of things; while I’ve made a few phone calls in response to calls for action, because of my work/life obligations I often can’t do that during business hours, which is when such calls are answered.

I have been stuck in a scarcity mind-set, continually exhausted from ping-ponging between worry about how to meet urgent, immediate needs (those call-to-action requests) and long-term needs (how do we shift societal thinking/understanding about race, justice, information, government, etc.?).

As a result, I’ve been doing a lot of nothing much. I spend too much time on social media, consuming information that I don’t do much with. The information is important, as is the connection with like-minded others (so we know we’re not completely alone/delusional), but the balance has felt off. I have felt off-balance.

I’m pretty sure the thing to do is get over myself.

I need to get over the idea that I can somehow, on my own, save anything. I need to get over the perfectionism that can keep me from doing anything unless I think I can do it exactly right. I need to get over figuring out the one, best right thing to do and just find good things to do, trusting that others will carry the weight of the other right things I’m not the best person for.

So, this is me getting over myself:

A few weeks ago, I read a New York Times story from George Yancy, a professor who’s been placed on the Professor Watchlist, a list created by Turning Point USA to “to expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” (I refuse to link to this. You can find it easily if you want.) Yancy’s concluding paragraph felt like a rallying cry, the most compelling call to action I’ve seen:

Well, if it is dangerous to teach my students to love their neighbors, to think and rethink constructively and ethically about who their neighbors are, and how they have been taught to see themselves as disconnected and neoliberal subjects, then, yes, I am dangerous, and what I teach is dangerous.

Hell, yeah! I thought. I want to be dangerous, too.

I have been sitting with his words, letting them marinate in the stew of all I’ve experienced this year. As I’ve learned a more complete reality of my country’s history, heard and read the reality of lived experience from people of color, and seen the ugly reality of where so many of my countrymen are with respect to race and justice today, I’ve been ashamed that it has taken me so long to be truly moved.

I have been reflecting on what it is that moved me, finally, and I know that it has been a combination of information and story. Learning the systemic mechanisms of racism in our country alone didn’t move me. Hearing others’ stories in isolation from systemic analysis didn’t move me. Having both come together–so I could understand intellectually the causes of personal suffering while empathetically feeling the suffering–is what has made a difference in me. It is what has made it impossible for me to close my ears and mind and heart and retreat back into my own, private world. It is what woke me.

In the face of all this intellectual and emotional messiness, I have been floundering in the sea of all I don’t know and don’t have:

I don’t know a whole lot about how to organize. I don’t know how to make change happen politically. I don’t know how to advocate for policy.

I don’t have much in the way of resources. I’m not rich and I don’t have a lot of time. I work full-time in two under-funded public sector positions. It takes most of what I have to just take care of myself and my kids.

I don’t have a large platform from which to speak. On a good day this blog gets 150 or so views. I think more of my social media friends tolerate my utterances/shares more than look forward to them. I am not much of an influencer in the ways we typically think of that term.

But here’s what I do have:

I’m an educator. I’m a writer. I have faith (most days). I believe fiercely in the power of knowledge and story to change us. Yes, even to save us. I believe that saving happens one person, one community, one city, one state at a time. I believe in ripple effects. I would rather be read by 150 of the right people than 150,000 of the wrong ones–meaning, those whom my words will have no impact on. Those who will not take my words out into the world in some way for good.

Before the end of the year, I will post about a project I’m planning to launch–one that will make the best use of the talents and resources I have. It will be a collective project. It will involve story and education. I hope it will involve you.

Let’s get dangerous together.


Of pulleys and buttonholes and light

There are two more names to add to the long list of luminaries whose lights went out in 2016:  Ann Marchbank and Melba McConnaughey.

I know. Most of you don’t know either of these women, but they were famous to me in the way Naomi Shihab Nye so eloquently aspires to fame in one of my favorite poems:

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

In 1979, I was a bit of a lost soul.

No, that’s not quite right. I wasn’t exactly lost. I pretty much knew where I was–walking a sketchy path that, in spite of its obvious dangers, seemed would take me to a better place than the one I’d been. Luckily for me, Mrs. Marchbank and Mrs. McConnaughey steered me off of it.

I don’t know if they knew the peril I was courting or if they ever knew they helped save me. I suspect they didn’t. I suspect they were just doing their jobs, teaching me and bringing opportunities my way, the way teachers do. I suspect they didn’t know that my dad was an active alcoholic, or that I was far too aware of what shaky ground my parents’ marriage was listing on, or that my whole family was struggling hard to care for my severely autistic brother who hadn’t even received an accurate diagnosis, much less anything that could be called adequate support. I am sure Mrs. Marchbank, my 9th grade English teacher, didn’t know that I sometimes drank in the girls’ bathroom before school (because school was “so boring”). I’m equally sure that Mrs. McConnaughey didn’t know I struggled with depression throughout high school, flirting often with what we now call suicidal ideation. I’m guessing they didn’t know how much I battled every single day with fear and loneliness and self-loathing, or what a difference it made that they helped me see myself as a person who had value and potential.

Mrs. Marchbank was the matchmaker who hooked me up with Shakespeare and grammar and poetry, kindling life-long love affairs with each. She championed my work, entering it in contests and telling me she was sure that one day she’d walk into a bookstore and see a book with my name on the cover. When a poem of mine was published in a national magazine, she whooped with excitement and joy–and she was not, generally speaking, a whooper. It was how I knew it was a big deal. She gently teased my friends and me about our obsessive need to check our appearance in mirrors, letting us know that there were more important things for us to care about. As I left the halls of Sylvester Junior High, she handed me over to Mrs. McConnaughey at the high school. During spring forecasting, she told me I needed to take Mrs. McConnaughey’s classes because “she’s the head of the English department, and I want her to know you.”

Mrs. McConnaughey, who died on December 16, was a force. She’d long left her native Arkansas for the northwest, but she never lost her accent. She was both genteel and formidable in the way I’ve come to know that Southern women can be. My first real memory of her is from the day after the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. She was furious that the election was called before polls had closed on the west coast, and she was furious that he’d won. I was pretty sure she shouldn’t be sharing so much of her own political beliefs in class like that, but I became curious about why she would, and from that curiosity grew my own political awareness and philosophy. Later that year, I took a class from her called “Semantics and Logic,” which had a Matrix-like impact on me: she revealed the codes of language and argument, giving me personal and political power I hadn’t even known existed. It had everything to do with why I later became an English teacher myself.

Being human, Mrs. McConnaughey was not a perfect teacher. A friend once told me that I was the only one she allowed to really challenge her ideas in class. Others teased me about being her pet, and I know she gave me special favors. Our high school had what they called tennis shoe registration for classes, where we’d walk around the gym and pick up registration cards for the classes we wanted. If all the cards were taken for a class before we got to it, we were out of luck. As a sophomore trying to get into an English class for seniors, chances are I wasn’t going to get the card I wanted. I will never forget coming to the front of the line and watching Mrs. McConnaughey pull out a registration card for me that she’d hidden behind a curtain, or the “hey!” of injustice that exploded from the kid standing behind me in line as he realized what she’d done.

As an educator myself, I know that wasn’t fair. But I also know that sometimes, some kids really need us to show them that we think they matter. I was one of those kids, and she did that for me. When I was a senior, she spent her lunch period every day shepherding me through an independent study of poetry. “I am so sorry we do not have anything in our curriculum to teach you what you need to know about poetry,” she said, “and you just can’t go off to college without knowing more about it.” It was clear that the independent study wasn’t an option, but a requirement. I would sit in the class she had before lunch, reading and writing on my own while she taught the rest of the students, and then during her lunch she would talk with me about the poems I’d read. Like Mrs. Marchbank, she entered my writing in contests and expressed unwavering belief in the importance of my work and my ability to do it.

It is because of both women that I became a high school teacher myself. Although I entertained the idea of teaching in higher ed, I knew that where teachers had mattered most for me was long before college. If it weren’t for those two, I might never have made it there. A 9th grade girl who was drinking in the bathroom before school and throwing herself into one ill-advised infatuation after another needed champions to show her that she had value that wasn’t to be found in a bottle or a boy. She needed people to love her, and they were those people for me.

I’ve been out of the classroom for 8 years now, coaching teachers rather than working directly with students. I wish that during my years there, I’d better understood what I know now–that a teacher’s most important contribution isn’t necessarily what they are teaching students about a subject, but what they are teaching students about themselves. I would have worried less about the finer points of my lessons and more about the rough and tender edges of my students.

When I coach teachers, I encourage them to be willing to take some risks, to be OK with small failures that might be a necessary part of the process of learning how to create classrooms that are more relevant, rigorous, and safe for all students.

“We aren’t brain surgeons,” I tell them. “No one’s going to die if we mess up a lesson.”

It’s true. No one’s doing to die if we mess up a lesson. But that doesn’t mean teachers don’t have the power to save lives.On the dark and deeply troubling path we’re walking now, that’s something I hope all the teachers I know will remember. I hope that all of us who work with and for youth, in schools or out, will be famous in the ways of pulleys and buttonholes, never forgetting what it is we can do.

I am so thankful for these two teachers who never did.

You can’t go home again


Things I didn’t do on my Thanksgiving trip to Washington, DC:

  • Drive past the White House.
  • Go to a single museum.
  • See a monument.
  • Visit the Library of Congress.

I flew nearly 5 hours and 3,000 miles and hardly made it out of Georgetown, where my daughter is attending school. I did walk past John Kerry’s house 5 times and saw a Secret Service car idling out front each time we passed it. We ate at Five Guys, which Grace noted is, just like at  home, right across the street from Panda Express. And I watched at least 10 episodes of The West Wing and all 6 hours of the Gilmore Girls revival.


I never watched Gilmore Girls when it originally aired. I knew of its story about a single, thirtysomething, former-teen mom raising her teenage daughter, but I was deep in the land of parenting young children and surviving a failing marriage. TV wasn’t part of my life. Late one afternoon, while I was making dinner in the house I’d moved into after a long and contentious divorce, Grace, then in 5th grade, landed on it while channel-surfing. I remember coming out of the kitchen with a spatula in hand to see what all the fast-talking was about. Dinner was late that night.

The Gilmores’ town, Stars Hollow, and its quirky residents enchanted both of us. Rory, the youngest Gilmore, lived a life Grace envied. Like Rory, my daughter was whip-smart, introverted, and driven, often a half-step off from most of her peers. Unlike Rory, who got to live alone full-time with her cool, fun mom, Lorelei, and attend a challenging private school that would set her up for an Ivy League college, my daughter only got me half-time and had to share me with her twin brother. She had no wealthy grandparents footing the bill for a great education, and her mother was not cool.

(I did let her wear roller skates in the house, though.)

(I did let her wear roller skates in the house, though.)

It wasn’t so different for me. We also lived in a small community, but I was never part of mine in the way Lorelei was hers, even though I longed to be. I couldn’t imagine life without Grace’s brother and wouldn’t have wanted to–but single-parenting only one child sure looked a lot easier than parenting two. And not to have to share time and decision-making with a hostile ex-husband? Yeah, the Gilmore world of Stars Hollow–the “town constructed in a giant snow globe“–was fantasyland for me, too.

Gradually, things changed, as things do. Grace came to live with me full-time, but she and her brother and I left our small community and moved to a bigger house in a bigger town that we shared with Cane and his daughter, making our family life look even less like the Gilmores’. Grace became so busy we rarely watched the Gilmore Girls or anything else together, and the series faded into something that was part of our past.


Last summer, though, thanks to the wonder of Netflix, Grace and I revisited Stars Hollow one more time. In the weeks leading up to her departure for college, we watched season 3, Rory’s last year of high school. Grace wanted us to get to the episode at the beginning of season 4, when Lorelei takes Rory to college, before she left for Georgetown.

Grace’s transition to college was nothing like Rory’s. Instead of being driven to her dorm by me, where she could call me back within an hour and I could swoop in and eliminate all the scary awkwardness of that giant first step away from home by organizing a party that would make her the cool girl with the cool mom, Grace simply walked out our front door and into her father’s car and her new life. He, not I, ushered her into her new existence on the other side of the continent. Until Thanksgiving, I had to imagine its landscape from the photos she sends me on Snapchat.

In the first raw days of her absence–when I knew that the way we’d chosen to make this transition was all wrong–we decided that I would visit her for Thanksgiving. When we learned a few weeks later that Netflix would be releasing the GG revival the day after that holiday, we rejoiced. We made plans to spend most of Friday binge-watching our show and eating her favorite Panda Express.

As it turned out, we spent much of Friday shopping. Winter’s coming, and my baby needed new shoes–and a coat and some sweaters and pants. By the time we got back to the hotel after dinner, the terrible cold that had kept her up for much of Thursday night was worse. Snuggled up in bed, we watched one episode and half of the next, but then she fell asleep with her head in my lap. As she slept, I stroked her hair the way I used to when she was a little girl, and I let go of all the plans we’d made to see the sights I wanted to see.


Inside the bubble of our room and Georgetown and our too-few days together, I didn’t care about the important places I wasn’t seeing. It was better to simply be with my girl. In between old TV shows and naps and lazy mornings, I got to see her dorm room and sit on the bed she sleeps in every night. I got to eat in the dining hall that she sends me snaps of her meals from. I got to walk all over her campus at night and take her picture after she climbed up into the lap of Bishop John Carroll’s statue. I rode the bus she rides to her work study job at a pre-school, and I walked to the Georgetown public library where she gets her for-fun reading, and we ate ice cream from her favorite shop. We took a selfie in the sun.

As the weekend unfolded,  it felt like were living as much of a snow globe existence as any resident of Stars Hollow. Just like all the characters in the revival episodes, we were together again and the same–yet we were different, too. I could never fully lose awareness that our time together was to be as brief and transitory as the reprisal of our favorite show:  Both were going to end too soon and leave me wanting more.


Inside the dome of our long weekend, I was able to mostly forget about the world outside of it. Since November 8, I have felt as if we’re all now living in what we’ll come to think of as After. In these past few weeks, I have been longing to go back to a time Before–before Cane moved out, before Grace left for school, before my already-cracked illusions about my home and our country and my role in both shattered–a time when the world seemed, at least in retrospect, almost as sweet and simple as Stars Hollow. For those few short days, I got to feel almost like I was back in Before, and even though I knew it wouldn’t last, I basked in the comfort of being there.

Thinking about our return to Stars Hollow now, though, firmly back in the land of After, I can see clearly for the first time the shadows that always existed at the edges of life in that quaint Connecticut town:  How overwhelmingly white it is. How racist the depiction of the few non-white characters is. How mean-spirited some of the humor is. How, although steeped in pop culture, it is devoid of political commentary. How the very privileged lives of Lorelei and Rory make any issues the show raises about social class superficial and artificial. Although the revival gave a few nods to cultural shifts that have happened in the years since the show’s end, Stars Hollow and its inhabitants still seem to be existing in a world apart. It is more of a fantasy than I ever knew, not unlike many of my Before ideas about my world.

I want so badly to wrap this up on a positive note, to stick a bow of optimism on it and tell you that we should all remember what was good about Before and focus on that, or that all this burning down creates ashes necessary for the rising of a better Phoenix. But I don’t know if either thing is true. I’m afraid that if we look back we won’t see what’s coming at us, and I don’t know if anything better will emerge or if the flames need to be as fierce and searing as it seems they will be.

What’s true is that the Before I long for–in my home, in my country–never really existed the way I thought it did, and I don’t really want to go back there, even if I could. That would require my daughter to return to the cage of childhood dependence, and me to return to the cage of denial, and our country to return to the cage of lies we all swallowed about equality and opportunity and our common values. I know that cages provide safety, but I also know the truth about truth and freedom, and in past weeks have repeated to myself often the words of Sue Monk Kidd that a friend gave to me at the end of an earlier Before “The truth will set you free, but first it will shatter the safe, sweet way you live.”

I know these truths, but damn. So much burning and shattering right now.