A Librarian's Thoughts on Book Banning

I am highly offended by the books of Anita Stansfield, who is an author who writes Mormon fiction. Having read about several of her books, and listened to other readers talk about them, and read one myself, I find her work problematic. It encourages a false perspective on how following the rules of the LDS church will eventually lead to a miraculous intervention that saves the day and thus encourages destructive magical thinking. I want to protect all readers from that thought process, and so I am suggesting that her books be banned from all libraries in Utah, where the population is particularly likely to think in this way.

For added measure, perhaps we could burn the books while we're at it. 

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I try to stay on top of knowing about the recent bout of book banning, library meddling,  ridiculously-long (and actually out-of-date) lists of books politicians think shouldn’t be in libraries, and actual book burnings.  

This feels important to me as a librarian, a former educator, and a person with a child still in the public education system.

More, it feels important to me as an educated, functional human being in a society increasingly threated by right-wing wackadoodles.

As a librarian in a conservative area, I come across people objecting to books often. I once had a patron proudly return (as in, made a point to personally hand it to me) a book club book where she’d blacked out the three swear words she found in the first chapter. She hadn’t finished the book, of course—too many swear words, obviously, for her book club to read—but thought she’d done a service for the community. (The book in question? Blessings by Anna Quindlen. Ah, yes, Anna Quindlen. Such an offensive writer.) I have had patrons tell me our shelves are full of smut (ie: romance novels). Patrons object to one of our statues on a regular basis (not as often as people confuse it with Rodin’s The Thinker, but still.) Last year one of the city council members objected to our Pride display; my favorite was his thought that “graphic novels” were, like, books with sexually graphic scenes. 

I’m not unfamiliar with the arguments and issues of the more conservative-minded people in our communities.

The problem is, this demographic almost always misunderstands the point of libraries in the first place.

Yes, libraries are funded by public tax dollars. They are a service that our community has long held a valuable one, worth the money and infrastructure.

But they don’t exist just for one group of people. They exist for the community. And communities (even those as homogenous as Utah County) have a variety of people. Races, nationalities, religions, sexual orientation. Even down to the microscopic level of individual reading tastes: communities are not full of photocopied people, exactly the same.

The problem is that whatever group is the majority tends to think that everyone thinks like them.

An example. A few weeks ago, I had a patron call and ask me to recommend “a few good books.” Being a professional librarian, I understand that everyone’s definition of “good” when it comes to books is different. So I asked her “what do you mean by ‘good’?”

She got very flustered. I asked a few more questions and it turns out, for her a “good” book is one that doesn’t have any sex, swearing, or violence. I proceeded to give her a few suggestions, but before I could get very far, she cut me off.

“I’m surprised you would ask me what ‘good’ means,” she said. “They teach us about goodness in church every week.”

That is the perfect story to illustrate the thought process of a person who thinks it’s necessary to only have the stories of white, cishet, Christian  perspectives on library shelves. It is thinking based on so many assumptions, the biggest one being that everyone thinks, believes, and acts the way she does, because she is the standard of normalcy and goodness.

Anything else is abnormal and thus shameful, and so not worthy of reading about.

And so I started this blog post with a writer that many people in Utah County love. I chose her work on purpose: to illustrate how ridiculous book banning is, how it is centered in one individual's opinion rather than the community at large. I actually do despise her work. As a reader who values intellectual honesty, curiosity for other ways of living, and beautiful writing, I am not going to read Anita Stansfield’s work. (One was enough.) And I do think it creates a harmful image of religion leading one to a God who dispenses blessings based on righteousness—insert your obedience, grab your sweet, sweet blessing!—which I haven’t found to be true in my experiences.

However, I would never suggest that we shouldn’t have her books on our library shelves. This is because as adult human beings, we each get to choose what we read (or watch or listen to). We all need different things from books: every book has its reader just as every reader has her book.

But the conservative thought pattern cannot seem to allow for that. In the book-banning perspective, there is only one way to think, to believe, to act, or to be in the world. And instead of simply just being like that (which is a fine choice if that’s what they want) themselves, they want to make sure everyone else is exactly the same as them.

“But Amy!” you might be saying. “That’s fine for public libraries. School libraries shouldn’t have books with LGBTQ stories in them!”

To which I answer: “Why?”

Age-level-appropriate books on all subjects should be available to public-school children of all ages. This is because, as with “adult” society, there is a wide range of types of children. Should parents discuss such issues at home? Absolutely. Do all of them? Absolutely not. And policing morality isn’t even the point. The point is that even children should see themselves represented on library shelves, and, as with society in general, there are kids who come from all sorts of backgrounds.

And I also believe that children should be encouraged to understand that the world is wide. They have only experienced a miniscule portion of it, but books help them understand that there is so much more. 

The interesting thing in all of this? Most people who object to books, or get on the “let’s ban this” bandwagon (and there are so many, many wagons these days), haven’t even read the books in question. Do you honestly think that Texas State Representative Matt Krause has read all of the 850 books on his list?   Of course not.

So here I am. A librarian, a liberal thinker, a person who loves books and art and music. A bibliophile who cherishes beauty in artistic expression but who also believes that art should portray the ugliness and horror of humanity, too, and that we as readers shouldn’t turn away from it. A reader whose definition of a “good” book is both wide and deep but doesn’t allow for shoddiness of craft or of thinking.

What am I to do in the face of so much narrow-minded thinking?

Sign petitions. Make noise on social media. (Write blog posts no one will read!) Make sure the collections I am responsible for at work have a wide variety of choices for all readers. Hope that when I ask “well, what’s ‘good’ to you?” it might sometime be a spark that lights the darkness.

Keep reading, keep talking, keep sharing books and poems and ideas.

Keep writing politicians.

“We must always take sides,” Elie Wiesel wrote. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

It might not change much but I will continue using my voice to remind the world that all readers deserve representation on all library shelves everywhere.


Why We Need Black History Month

A kind-of fuzzy, surprisingly clear-in-spots library memory from my childhood:

I’m holding a book that is about Black children. I don’t remember the title or what the story was or what happened that lead to this conversation. Just my hand holding the book and me saying to a librarian “I don’t think I’m supposed to read this” and her telling me (after maybe some questions on her part about why I didn’t think I could check it out? That’s also fuzzy and incomplete) “No, white people can absolutely read books about Black people. You check that out and read it.”

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I grew up in a small town in Utah County that was on the outskirts of the bigger towns that were still pretty small; my community was very, very white. I didn’t have a Black student in the same grade as me until I was a sophomore in high school, and when he transferred in everyone buzzed about how great our basketball team would be now. As I was not in the same social circles as athletes I never met him. (Honestly, I don’t even know if he actually played basketball.) At the grocery store, at school, at gymnastics and dance classes, at church, just walking down the street: I never saw a Black person except on TV.

I remember that my parents watched the TV mini series Roots but wouldn’t let me in the room while it was on (I was four).

I remember learning about slavery and the Civil War, that slavery was bad and the 14th Amendment was good and Abraham Lincoln was a hero.

Maybe I learned about the Civil Rights Movement in high school, but I don’t remember it specifically.

I remember many of the reading assignments I had as I grew up. I remember reading and discussing “Design” by Robert Frost and “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson and Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck and Fahrenheit 451 by Bradbury.

I was never assigned to read a book by a Black writer.

Even in my own personal reading (which was prolific) I read books about white people doing white-people things.

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It wasn’t until college that I began reading books by Black writers, and that seems accidental. I discovered Toni Morrison because her novel Sula was assigned in one of my Women’s Lit classes. Phillis Wheatley in an early American Lit course. Zora Neal Hurston because I took a couple of folklore classes; Maya Angelou in Contemporary Lit (although she wasn’t in the assigned anthology but mentioned as a sort of throw-away, fluffy writer). I found Audre Lorde through Critical Theory and James Baldwin in a course on essay writing, Langston Hughes in poetry writing. The Harlem Renaissance was briefly mentioned in some class or other.

Did I ever take an entire course that focused on Black writers?

I did not. I highly doubt that at BYU in the 1990s such a course even existed.

And yet: I loved all of these writers. Their work taught me, in ways that seemed elemental and gut-deep, how narrow my understanding about the world was. I knew my tiny little bit of Utah white culture and there were a billion other ways that people lived and experienced the world that I had never imagined. The horrors and struggles of it, but also the joy.  

Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “The Mothers”

Audre Lorde’s poem “Never to Dream of Spiders”
and “Stations”
and “From the House of Yemanja”

Lucille Clifton’s poem “wishes for sons”

June Jordan’s poem “Poem about My Rights”

But there was so much to learn in those years of studying, and so many white male professors. I learned about feminism because that was what I wanted to know best, but intersectionality? Kimberle Crenshaw wasn’t a person I discovered on my own, or bell hooks. My literary theory textbooks didn’t contain any Black writers’ ideas, on feminism or anything else.

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I was in my late twenties before I met and made friends with African American women online.

In my 30s before I even knew an African American person in real life.

In my 40s before I became actual, tell-you-my-secrets friends with an African American person who lived and worked in my community.

This isn’t because I didn’t want to know Black people. It is because my life is small, and my social circle even smaller. I moved into my house in 1993 and never left, and I mostly keep to myself so I just have very few friends in general. And it’s because I live in Utah County still, which: yes, OK, it is far more diverse now. (I dare say many people here do not see this as a positive, but I do.) But it’s still mostly white, and I remain bad at making friends.

(I am deeply ashamed at all of this.)

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These have been my thoughts as I have worked on a display for the library of books for Black History Month. As I put it together, I had an imaginary interaction with a patron, one that is based on interactions that I have actually had, and might actually have again, and surely will be had by someone. The patron sees the display and, instead of picking up a book, reading the cover copy, and maybe checking it out, he stops whatever librarian is close to say something like “isn’t this discrimination against white people?” or “shouldn’t you just feature the best books instead of only books by Black people?” or (always in a joking tone) “Hey! When is white history month?”

One of my librarian truths is that I value diversity. I try to make sure my collections have the best books by writers from everywhere, not just America. When I put books on my staff display shelf, they aren’t all about white people doing white things. This doesn’t make me better than anyone else. It’s just my individual approach. It’s important to me not because I want to be politically correct but because that is also my reading philosophy: I read so I can be exposed to experiences and perspectives other than my own.

Since I can remember, I have prided myself for being “not racist.” For me, the realization that Black writing (and art and music and sculpture and all of it) exists and is worth my attention was so slow in coming. So gradual. I didn’t learn these stories, these perspectives, in my earliest formative years, and yet I have never understood treating people different because they aren’t white. It also took me a long time to understand that saying “I’m not racist” because I don’t think people of color  are less than me doesn’t absolve me from the impacts of racism.

I thought that reading books by Black people, trying to understand their experiences through their words, was enough.

Of course, it isn’t.

The truth is, my grandmother, who I loved with all of my heart, said some pretty racist things.

The truth is my family line includes planation owners and thus slavery. My ancestors owned other people.

The truth is, my fumbling attempts to “not be racist” make no difference to the world at large.

The truth is I have received benefits in my life because I am a white person.

The fact that I love some Black writers’ work changes none of this.

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But it is also one of the tools I have. I will continue this work: reading authors whose lives are different from mine. Trying to understand their real struggles. Trying to vote in ways that help them. Sharing their work. Protesting book banning. Listening.

And I confess: I do find a little bit of hope in this. Are there still small white bibliophiles like I was as a child, who think that only Black people read books about Black people? Well, probably. But there are fewer at least.

And there are so many books published now. Black writers win awards (far fewer than white men, of course, but at least it does happen now) and have successful writing careers and are guests on Trevor Noah.

They aren’t a shadowy group of “Black writers” but individuals whose work has impacted my life: Claudia Rankine, Roxanne Gay, Jesmyn West, Jacqueline Woodson, N. K. Jemisin, Octavia Butler, Tracy K. Smith, Aja Monet.

We have so far to go. So far. But we are more aware and at least, at least there is discussion.

At least there are lists of books. You can use one as a book mark to remind yourself that Black people’s stories are just as important as white people’s. Just as worthy of your time.

There are posters in school libraries.

There is Black History Month.

There are librarians like that long-ago one who told me I could read a book about someone who looked different from me.

There are librarians like me, who continue today to say the same thing to as many people as we can.

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And thus I return, over and over, to one of my core beliefs, surprised again by how myriad its truth is:

It is with books we change the world.


Twenty Years Later, Maybe I Can Start Writing about 9-11

Almost exactly 21 years ago, my family’s life took a turn. At that point, I was a stay-at-home mom, loving my days with my little ones. Haley was five and thriving in kindergarten, Jake was two and loved going to play with his friend Ben, and Nathan was almost one, a happy, chubby baby who made me laugh with delight every day. I had a big circle of friends who also had littles, so we took our kids on outings together to the park and to community events. Kendell and I were starting to talk about maybe selling our house and moving to something larger in an area with better schools. I had started running that summer. My parents were healthy, my kids were learning and growing, we were doing OK financially. It felt like we had been given a happy, good life. (Did I think, deep down, even though I would’ve never said it, that we deserved this good, happy life? Because we were good people, because we went to church, because, I don’t know, we paid our taxes and voted in elections and kept our yard pretty? I did. It is uncomfortable for me to admit to, but it is a part of this story. I thought I had somehow earned the good things in my life, that they were rewards for me trying to be a good person.)

And then, on the Tuesday after Labor Day when he was driving his mom to a funeral in Idaho, Kendell got a phone call from his job, letting him know he’d been laid off.

I didn’t really understand, at first, how sharp a turn in the road that would be for us. Kendell immediately started looking for jobs, of course, but discovered that his lack of a degree was a hinderance. (The tech world can be a bounteous industry to work in, but it can also be brutal, and twenty years ago, aside from several big companies, Utah County was just starting to become the tech-rich place it is now.) So he went to work for a friend who had just opened a start-up company, all of them with big dreams about creating a company that would thrive. He worked there for 15 months and was paid four times. We didn’t have health insurance. I stopped buying orange juice. The severance package he had received from his old company dwindled rapidly. My group of friends dwindled, too, as it grew harder for me to go and do things with them. I’d listen to them talking about their new Dooney & Burke purses and Ugg boots and upcoming trips to Tahiti and then think about the panic I had every time I went to the grocery store; there was too much contrast. I’m not sure if I pulled away or they didn’t want to be friends with a poor person, or if it was a combination of both, but almost all of those friendships faded.

A year later, in September of 2001, I was a much different person. I had started trying to find a job and discovered that having an English degree was fairly useless unless I wanted to teach, so I was figuring out how to go back to school to get my teaching credentials. I had an intermittent gig with a scrapbooking magazine, which meant sometimes I could write an article and earn a bit of money. Kendell grew angrier and angrier over our situation. We had registered for CHIP, the free insurance through the state, and WIC, which was a way to get some groceries for free. We had started considering selling our house and downsizing. We fought every time I spent any money. One time a friend left groceries on my porch, and that Christmas my sister-in-law played Santa for us. It was a horrible, horrible time. Not only because of the constant thread of “what will we do, what will we do?” always running through my mind. But because I had been thoroughly stripped of any sense of value. That beautiful, happy life I had had was taken away from me, and all I could feel was self-hatred. I combed through my memories of everything I had done in my life, trying to understand what bad thing I had done to make God take so much away from me.

On the second Tuesday in September I had an 8:00 a.m. appointment. Kendell stayed home from his job (could we even call it a job at that point? After all the promises continued to fall through, after so much time of working as an “investment in the future” that never actually put food on the table or paid our mortgage?) that morning with the kids so I could go alone. Everyone was still asleep when I left at 7:30 to drive to Provo, where I would do something I had so far been far too proud to do. I drove in silence, with the radio off, and cried the whole way. My appointment was with the Department of Workforce Services and I went there to apply for food stamps. I had told literally no one that I was doing this, except my husband. I was so humiliated.

When I walked into the office, the TV over the receptionist’s desk was on. And that was the moment I found out about the attack.

Like everyone else, I watched in horror and couldn’t make sense of what was happening. I stood watching until they called me back for my appointment, when hearing my name brought me back to my little part of the world with a jolt. Isn’t that strange—New York City and the Pentagon were exploding but I still went into a cubicle to talk to a person about getting food stamps. I went through the motions, filling out the application and waiting for the woman helping me to look at it. I found out that I didn’t qualify, because we had too many assets: we still owned a car, we still had a mortgage rather than renting the place we lived, we still had a bit of money in the bank left from the severance. Once all of those things were gone (she said this like a fact, like it was a thing that would happen, not that might), I could come back and apply again. All of this conversation felt muffled and far away, my thoughts still in a city I had never actually stepped foot in.

Before I drove home, I sat in my car. I tried to name the emotion I was feeling. I didn’t have one word for it then, and I still don’t, and it took me a long time to understand it. Partly this is because I don’t feel like 9-11 was my thing to write about. I mourned for the strangers who died that day, but I didn’t know anyone personally who was lost. Me sharing my emotions about it felt like grief appropriation. The people who lost people are the ones who own the grief, and my sadness and mourning felt like an offering to them rather than my own trauma.

I have thought about that day so many times over the past twenty years. I do still feel reluctant to write about my response, but I also understand that this was an American tragedy, even for those of us who didn’t lose people we loved. What we lost as a nation was similar to what I lost during those long two years of rebuilding from Kendell’s unemployment: the sense that because our nation was “good” (freedom-loving, built on democratic ideals, a place where anyone can  succeed if they try hard enough), truly bad things wouldn’t happen here. We didn’t deserve it.

I have learned, changed, and grown so much since I was that 29-year-old woman crying in the Workforce Services parking lot, in both good and negative ways. I had no idea how many more difficult things I would go through. I have never fully regained my belief that good things happen to people simply because they are good, nor that sense of confidence and hope I used to have. My inherent belief that the Universe rewards goodness is very, very dented. I now understand that good things happen because they just do, same as difficult things. There is hatred, greed, resentment, violence, and anger inside of people, racism and sexism and ignorance, and these sometimes drive people to make destructive choices. Some people who do negative things still thrive financially and seem to have an abundance, while many, many good people struggle their whole lives. The same goes for nations; the United States does good things and horrible things and is no more immune from the violence of others than any other country in the world.

These are wounds that perhaps never heal. Even as I write this I have tears streaming down my cheeks, feeling again what I felt at 29, the desperate hope that if I just did something better, prayed more or read more scriptures or served others better, I could get back what I had so briefly, my perfect few utopian years before everything changed. (I did not get it back.) The World Trade Center attacks are not about me, but in a sense they are because they mirrored, very largely, what my small life was also experiencing. An innocence was lost, along with all of those lives, that day for this country where I live at the same time I was losing a similar innocence of my own.

Fifteen years after 9-11, I finally made it to New York City. I visited the 9-11 Memorial Museum, and as I walked through, I again found myself crying. I’m a museum crier no matter what, but this was different. Being so close to the actual iron and steel that was brought down by airplanes and hatred, I again mourned for those who died. My husband just moved away from me and left me to my crying, and I’m not sure anyone else noticed or cared, one weeping woman in the crowded memorial obviously not the point of anyone’s experience. I also mourned for myself and for how I have changed, for how hard it is to move through this life and not have parts of yourself decimated along the way.

And just as I am not the same, the United States has changed. There is more hatred and division now. That unity we had for a few brief days after the attacks is long gone. We have all had to learn to live with difficult truths. What will happen in the next twenty years? I wouldn’t begin to hazard a guess, not for myself or for the country. I can only continue forward, trying to find the goodness that is also here, even if I can never be free of the sadness.


A Choice that Bolsters All of Us: My Thoughts on Simone Biles and The Tokyo Olympics Team Gymnastics Competition

During my last season of gymnastics (four months of meets and intense training for those meets, stretching from January to my birthday in April, 1987), my closest teammate had a mental block. Her beam routine included a front flip, and for whatever reason, she became afraid of doing it. As I had my own block (the round off on my beam dismount) I had all sorts of empathy for her. As meets grew closer she would grow more and more anxious, but she always showed up to the meets and almost always nailed that front flip. But then, once in practice, she fell and injured her shin. She got x-rayed and since there was no break, she got taped up and kept going. That’s what gymnasts do.

AmyGymnastics11But as the qualifying meet grew closer, she struggled more. Then, at the start of one of our workouts during the week before the meet, the beam coach gathered us all to sit on the floor. She had this teammate stand in front of us, and told us what she’d done. At school a few days before, she’d walked through the halls, asking boys to kick her on her injured shin. Our coach didn’t explain why she might’ve done this, but she did say it was a disgusting thing to do; if she ever heard of anyone else doing such a thing they were now warned that they would be kicked out. This teammate was only being allowed to stay because no one had ever expressly had to say “don’t try to make your injury worse by having others hurt you.”

My teammate sat down next to me and I put my arm around her shoulder, but we could both hear the other gymnasts whispering. “Weird” and “creepy” and “gross” and “what’s wrong with her?” But as I had already also discovered self-harm, I didn’t have that response. Mostly I was grateful to know that I wasn’t the only one who was weird and gross in the same way.

The season continued, my teammate’s shin stayed taped, I never did get over my fear of my round off dismount. It was one of the reasons I got second in the all-around on my life’s last meet, instead of first like I was supposed to. Like real winners do. I did win first on bars, which was my favorite and best event, so I was OK because my beam coach was already disappointed in me, but my bars coach still had some respect.

After that meet, my teammate and I both left gymnastics. You’d think we’d stay friends, but somehow we didn’t. (I have searched for her on social media more than once and haven’t found her. I’ve also changed some of the details of her story, just in case.)

This story is both unique and commonplace. Unique in its details but commonplace because every gymnast has a similar story. More than one. Things that happened to them, things that happened to their teammates. I’m telling her story because it greatly affected my outcome as well, in ways I am still trying to understand.

Because here’s the thing: gymnastics is a complicated sport. It’s not just about back handsprings and front flips, Yurchenkos and Tkatchevs, wolf turns and triple pirouettes. It requires an enormous amount of mental energy to get your body to do things normal people would never try. You have to conquer rational fear and then train your body to work towards defying gravity for a few seconds, twisting or flipping all the while. With pointed toes and smile.

It is also politics: not everyone gets the same level of attention from coaches.

Who had the most expensive leotards. Whose parents put the most money into the booster club. Whose enormous cabin could be used for team retreats. Who the coaches like the best and think have the most potential (usually the ones with the richest parents). Who’s been loyal to the club for the longest. Who is most likely to do great things like become Elite or get a college scholarship or make it to Nationals. Who is willing to try anything, doesn’t express fear, does everything the coaches tell her to do.

Despite that, it’s also the deep connections you make with your teammates. The way you know the history of their injuries and how to tape them if a coach isn’t around. You know your teammates’ floor routines as well as they do. You cheer for them even knowing it means their win is your loss, because it also means their success is a win for the team.

I loved my decade in gymnastics. I learned skills that I still use today: perseverance, toughing it out, encouraging others, bravery. A sense of my body within the world and a sort of confidence that still helps me keep my head up. How to tape a sprained ankle and how to care for a deep bloody blister. A precise cartwheel.

But I also carry some pretty good scars. Self-doubt. Despair over every ripple and lump and extra pound on my body. Guilt that my parents paid so much for my gym time and then I didn’t get a scholarship like my mom so desperately wanted me to. A bone-deep shame. The ever-present feeling that I was destined for greatness but I didn’t get it because I was a coward, even while I’m the first to acknowledge that I was never going to be an Olympian or even an Elite. I was a mediocre gymnast who never conquered her dismount fear; I was the support staff whose time, fees, and body supported the real winners.

All of those feelings, positive and negative, are still here in my body.

So when I watch gymnastics, I always cry. My body remembers exactly how it felt to move in some of those ways. I wish I could still move in those ways, could still be lithe and strong and graceful. My psyche remembers the negatives, the bloody hands and wrists, the shame of not being great like those girls on TV are.

But I’ve never cried like I did last night, watching the Tokyo Olympics team round and Simone Biles walking off the floor.

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Kendell walked in and caught me crying and asked me why. I couldn’t explain for a bit because the lump in my throat was so large.

After her vault, when she is talking in that rushed way with her teammates, Simone says “I don’t trust myself.”

That was when I started crying.

Simone Biles does some amazing gymnastics. She is strong, talented, and skilled, but no matter what it still takes bravery to do what she does.

Unless you have been a gymnast, it is hard to understand how brave she was to do what she did at the team competition.

All of those entwining emotions that go into gymnastics. The idea that your body must be sacrificed on the altar of gold medals. The way your coach can humiliate you by simply seeing you make a mistake you shouldn’t have. The way you both support and lean upon your teammates. Not to mention the fierce public eye, which must feel like it is always on her.

As a gymnast, you do your routines and your moves, you compete because at one point you loved this sport. It was fun and it brought you bliss, learning how to flip and spin without getting (too) injured. Defying gravity without a space suit. Dancing across the floor in a sparkly leo. That joy stays with you, but it isn’t always there. For coaches, for gymnastics clubs, it’s still a business. It’s still and always about winning, the work of winning, not about the joy of moving your body. It’s not completely or even mostly about you as a person or as an athlete, but about you as a winner. You are really, simply grist.

So there is Simone, at the Olympics. The Olympics team competition. There she is, and she is struggling. In an invisible way, in a way you can’t tape or stitch together, a way you can’t shake off. In her head. In her gymnastics self, which knows how to do the things she does with her body, she cannot make that connection.

Everyone knows the stories. Everyone thinks of Kerri Strugg doing her second vault despite her ankle injuries. Gymnasts just go on, anyway.

By withdrawing from the competition, Simone Biles did something so mind-blowingly brave. So brave.

By walking away, she said that she would not risk her body for anyone. Not for her teammates, who I know she loves. Not for her country, who loves her. Not for her coaches, who helped her get to that point. Not for that gold medal. Not for fame or adulation or endorsements.

Because her mental game was not there, she knew she was risking her body if she continued. And she was brave enough to break the gymnastics rule that says “you must always risk your body.”

That was why I cried while I watched it. Because I know how much courage that took. And because I know most of the world will not understand it, and will say awful things about her.

Because taking care of your own body as a gymnast is only supposed to be something you do to become a winner, not to not compete.

***

Many people will write about what happened in gymnastics during this Olympics. My contribution to this discussion is miniscule. But all night, I couldn’t sleep. I was full of…something. Both dread and awe. The memory of my teammate’s bruised shin. When I slept I dreamed round offs turning into cartwheels, over and over. 

But I am still adding this little bit. My voice to this conversation, because something shifted in me, watching her last night. Honestly, she’s never been my favorite gymnast (no one will ever replace Julianne McNamara for that spot in my heart), but that doesn’t matter. Last night, her bravery gave me just a tiny bit of grace for myself. For that part of me who is still 15, still facing down that dismount with my taped-up ankle and tiger claws on my wrists and perpetual wounds on my palms, who was lithe and strong and graceful but who boiled in shame anyway. The coaches and the teammates and even my parents couldn’t quite give me that grace to say I was anything worthwhile. I wasn’t great enough to matter, so what I did do was pointless: that feeling was what stretched and started to dissolve a bit, last night.

I wasn’t an Olympian. I didn’t earn a scholarship. I was a lowly class II gymnast. I didn’t sacrifice hard enough, I didn’t give enough, I wasn’t enough: I have carried that feeling for my whole life.

Her decision last night helped it weigh a little bit less.

Her decision bolsters all gymnasts.

In that moment, she chose what was right for her. That is never allowed in gymnastics, but she did it. Her choice tells us that we matter. Not because of medals or scholarships or rankings, but because we are individuals with bodies in the world. Because she matters—as a person, not as a medal winner—the rest of us matter too.

And it is why—not because of the five moves named after her—that she will always be the greatest of all time.


Three Pieces: If you never pick up the weight do you understand that you’re not carrying it?

Since I wrote THIS blog post, I have been paying attention to other pieces of experience that fit together in my life. I have always done this, I think, but I am doing it with more purpose lately. I think that truth is scattered and we have to watch for the pieces in order to make sense of our truths. Here are three pieces I am pondering recently.

“One of those ‘woke’ people who don’t understand what is happening.”
A person who is kind-of a friend, more of an acquaintance who I know through a Facebook group which she manages and I am a member of, wrote a post this week decrying “wokeness” and “cancel culture.” She also shared an article written by a business professor who felt that he had been “cancelled” but who, in my opinion, completely misunderstands both the current social movements and his own impact in the “cancelling” that happened to him.

I responded to the friend that I disagreed with the writer of the article, pointing out that we do need things like critical race theory because America is absolutely built on racism and bigotry (not to mention sexism) and that Dr. Seuss was not, in any way, cancelled. I was very polite and non-confrontational.

Then, in the way of Facebook, one of her friends, a person I don’t know and who definitely doesn’t know me, responded to my comment. She used five or six eye-roll emojis, wrote some scathing things about my assessment, and then finished with this sentence: “You are obviously one of those ‘woke’ people who don’t understand what is happening.”

I tried to just let this go, but it ate at me. I mean, first off, it’s a bit ironic that she equates “wokeness” with people who don’t understand anything. To me, being “woke” is a process of trying to understand your place within the larger structure of society, both your privileges and the way you contribute, knowingly or not, to how society works against the Other. It requires you to look at yourself in uncomfortable ways and to know that your way of being within the world is far from the only way, and not even the “normal” way, but just one.

I think to people like her, “woke” means swallowing the liberal agenda without stopping to think about it. It means jumping on bandwagons because it’s the cool thing to do. It means grandstanding ridiculous ideas that might threaten the norms we all know and love. It reinforces the MAGA ideals, even with the dufus out of power.

I finally wrote a response to her comment. I wanted to stay calm and not be antagonistic, but I think the last sentence might be a little barb:

I AM woke. I read and study a lot of different issues from different perspectives. "Woke" doesn't mean illiterate. It means I try to understand my relationship to other people and understand other people's perspective.

I think those who don't strive to do that clearly don't understand what is going on.

As I thought more about it, though, I think that I didn’t word it correctly. I wrote that wrong and didn’t express what I mean. I’m not going to change it because I think the distinction would be lost on this friend-of-an-acquaintance: I’m not woke. I am trying to be woke. I am working on being woke. It isn’t a status you achieve, like being able to do a pull up. It is a process, a way of thinking about the world, and a willingness to be open to understanding how my previous thinking, actions, or words might’ve been racist or insensitive, even though I didn’t intend them to be.

Understanding how I can make the world better is not a one-and-done deal. It is something I must continue to work on. It’s a process. But it isn’t about ignorance. It isn’t about just accepting the “liberal agenda,” whatever that means. It takes work. It requires reading, studying, and listening. It is the opposite of “not understanding.” Instead, it is about knowing I don’t understand fully, but am willing to work towards a better understanding.

We don’t need feminism anymore.
A few years ago, I became casual friends with a woman who I had purchased a service from. (Being vague on purpose because some of my closer friends would know who this is and I don’t want to be gossipy.) We saw each other accidentally, on walks around the neighborhood or at the grocery store or at a restaurant, and sometimes we talked through social media and at church. As I got to know her more, I started realizing that while we shared a connection through our creative endeavors, our thoughts about society and politics were very, very different. I tried to gently share my opinions with her, but it just didn’t work very well. So I kept our friendship at that accidental, let’s-talk-about-art connection because that is lovely, too.

Just before the pandemic got rolling, she wrote a post on FB about how we don’t need feminism anymore. Especially as members of the church, she emphasized. We don’t need feminism. I read the responses and so many were in agreement and I just…I had to pull back. There is disagreeing on politics but then there is an essentially different perspective about life and society in its totality and I can’t bridge that. There are so many ways we still need feminism. So, again…I did share my opinion on her post. I was gentle and non-confrontational but also firm in asserting that feminism IS necessary. The reaction from her friends was swift and bitter.

So I just left the friendship alone and then the shutdowns started happening and I didn’t see anyone, let alone a person who had been on the fringes of my life.

But I saw her again last week. Saw her with her cute daughters, and all sorts of emotions started eating at me. I of course was friendly, and likely my emotional response was not apparent to her. But I couldn’t help thinking about the tools she is not giving her daughters. And I almost felt…envious? Yes, that is the right word. Envious, just a little, that there are people in the world who are so unable to look at reality that they don’t see reality. I don’t want to live like that. But I also have this small part of me that thinks what does any of this accomplish? I can’t fix the world by myself. I can witness, I can watch, I can read and explore and try to be—ah, here it is, a connection— “woke,” but if I am honest it is painful. It hurts to see the ways that women are complicit in their own undoings, the way that they don’t see the power imbalances and how they are impacted by them. (Let alone all of the political insanity she also doesn’t pay attention to.) What might it be like to not feel any of that? If you never pick up the weight do you understand that you’re not carrying it?

(I am not going to go into all the reasons we do still need feminism in this post, because it is already growing too long, but let me assure you: we still need feminism. We will always need feminism.)

I chatted with her for a bit and then I found myself thinking: maybe I should put it down. Maybe my efforts to know, to understand, and to be a person who is less hurtful to others are pointless. Maybe I’m just up here on my high horse thinking my efforts might make a difference while really I am just being ridiculous.

“That doesn’t make me a communist.”
Last night when I got home from work Kendell said “I just watched something on the news that I think you will appreciate.” He showed me the introduction, with Matt Gaetz (I never can decide, is he Beavis? Or Butthead?) questioning Congress about how the military’s study of critical race theory is impacting the soldiers. This is not the first time Gaetz has spread the propaganda that we are being threatened by wokeness, that elementary-aged children are learning critical race theory (they aren’t; it is taught in universities but honestly I think it should be part of high school curriculums), and that the military is soft because of these things.

Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, answered him.

(Listen all the way through because Brian Williams gets in an awesome dig at the end.) “I do think it is important for those of us in uniform to be open minded and to be widely read. . . I’ve read Mao Zedong, I’ve read Karl Marx, I’ve read Lenin, that doesn’t make me a communist. So what is wrong with understanding. I personally find it offensive that we are accusing our [military leaders] of being “woke”  or something else because we’re studying some theories that are out there.” He goes on to explain what the basis of critical race theory is based on, which is the historical fact that America is based on racism, slavery, and bigotry, from the very beginning. (Slaves arrived in what would become the United States before the Pilgrims even, for example.)

My thoughts about my little personal struggle to continue to try to learn, change, and grow suddenly grew clear. I actually felt—dare I say it—a little bright spark of hope. Milley’s response made me remember that while it often seems we are living in a country ruled by people who refuse to look at reality with an objective lens, who have never read a book in their life, who refuse to look outside of their own comfort zones, there still are the other type. Call them woke, call them educated, call them socially aware, call them freaking English majors for all I care. Just that they exist and are trying to change the route our country is taking: that gives me courage.

Being woke is not a negative thing. And these three puzzle pieces have fit together into a larger understanding for me:

I don’t care if someone tries to insult me by calling me “woke.” I don’t care that my efforts might be ridiculously small and ultimately generate no larger change within society.

I am going to continue trying. I am going to push forward using an open mind and, yes: making my decisions based on what I learn from reading widely.

The critics of the concepts behind being woke, critical race theory, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and all the other social movements working in America today are narrow-minded. They are frightened of how their positions of power might be lessened if society changed, and they are not going to stop their assault on democracy. So I will work just as hard to hold it up.


Yesterday I did something I haven’t done in more than a year: I met people at a restaurant. I’ve been looking forward to this for two weeks, since my friend, sister, and I planned it.

Just lunch.

Just talking with people I love.

But after so long of not seeing anyone or doing anything, it was…

well, I don’t really have a word for how it felt.

Amy chris becky 5 1 2021

I was seeing faces. I was hearing their voices, learning new stories. Laughing. Tearing up. All over a meal.

We admired bracelets. We brought gifts. We exchanged books. We showed each other photos.

We were together, and I was renewed. Enlivened. Happy in a specific way that involves being loved by someone who has known you for a long time, who knows the shorthand for all the stories, who you can be yourself with. Who you absolutely adore and who has saved you more times than she knows.

But after we finished, after we’d hugged and said our goodbyes, I slowly filled up with…sadness.

Not a darkness, really. Nothing sharp. Just a gentle, persistent ache. And when I got home, I curled up in bed, had a long cry, and took a nap.

❦❦❦

I am an introvert. And, throughout my adult life, I’ve had some experiences that have brought me to a choice of withdrawing. I love and value my friends, the real ones, but I have a hard time with casual friendships. In most social situations, I keep my shields up.

I’ve made this little world for myself, where I have my family and my close friends, my running and hiking, my flowers. I spend most of my time writing, crafting, quilting, or reading. Part of my shield is telling myself I don’t need people. I am happy in my own miniscule universe.

But deep down I know: I do need people. Even if I don’t need a whole squad like others have, I need my people. To see and be seen, to tell stories and to listen to them.

I think the sadness came from knowing how long I just put my head down and didn’t have any interactions like yesterday. I survived and I was fine and I could continue surviving and being fine. But I also didn’t have that specific happiness of being with people I love. So the sadness is kind of a retroactive one, I think. For the hugs we didn’t give each other, for all the days we didn’t see anyone else’s face.  For all the times we could’ve used a living, breathing person across the table from us, listening or speaking, but we couldn’t.

For the way we all carried on on our own.

❦❦❦

There will be other days. There will be more lunches. We will go shopping or hiking or to the bookstore with our friends. But the blank spaces of last year: we cannot get those experiences back. And we are changed. Some relationships won’t ever be the same. We lost many things during the pandemic in addition to the actual lives that are gone.

Those lost things require—deserve—to be acknowledged and mourned for.


There is No Cure for Knowledge: Part 2

[This is a two-part blog post. You can read the first part HERE.]

“Yes, but it’s just an English degree. What can you do with that except teach high school?”

“It’s not like you had to work as hard as your sister did in school. Science degrees are way harder than English degrees.”

“Degrees in the humanities are worthless.”

“Oh no, if you were an English teacher you must be judging my grammar!”

“If you want to get a Master’s degree you should do it in something more practical than writing. Do you know how few people are actually successful writers?”

“Books are for prisoners.”

“Wait, you work at the library? I thought all libraries were closed because people just read digital books now.”

“The publication industry is dying. Why do you care so much about writing a book?”

“We don’t need librarians anymore because we have the Internet!”

“I don’t read fiction because it’s a waste of time to read made-up stories.”

“I don’t have the time to read very much now in terms of the books.”

All of these statements are things people have said to me in real life, except for the last one which comes from our esteemed president, whose dislike for and discomfort with books is evident on so many levels.

It’s not like I need my friends and family, not to mention doctors and that runner I talked with once on a race bus, to educate me on the futile uselessness of my interests. The world does that already. I mean…just consider my career. I can work as a librarian only because my husband’s job can support us. If I had to support a family on my own, even working full time, I couldn’t do it on my own as a librarian. This isn’t because I work for a miserly city with unfair pay policies but because society doesn’t deem librarians worthy of a sustainable wage. (As with teachers and social workers and police officers, of course, but everyone knows that. No one pays attention to the librarians.)

That random runner on the race bus was right: publication is a hard industry to be successful in, and the vast majority of people who manage to land an actual, printed book don’t make much money on it. (Six-figure advances make the news, of course, and there are outliers like King or Rowling or Grisham or Patterson, but many, many writers don’t make sustainable wages.) This is partly because society values quickness, a 20-minute video game, a sitcom, a 100-minute movie. Books take time, effort, and concentration to enjoy (which, apparently, only prisoners have).

Or, think of it like this: I bet you could tell me who starred in the last movie you watched, but likely you have no idea of who wrote the movie. You know—the person who created the world of the story. That person rarely gets noticed (except for in the credits), while the actors seem to make the movie.

Books, reading, valuing a well-written sentence or cleverly constructed paragraph, the meanings and use of words, novels, essays, poetry—oh, God, don’t even get me started on the average American adult’s lack of interest in poetry. These things matter deeply to me, but to the world in general they are kind of pointless.

But I think they are essential. Essential.

Especially right now.

I have to tell one more story to make my point. A few weeks before the news erupted with the pandemic, I bumped into an old friend I hadn’t seen for more than a year at Costco. He is a trump supporter, but we have always managed to keep our conversations civil and respectful—he has done enough damage, I don’t want to allow him the destruction of friendships on top of it all.

So as this friend shared his opinion of the impeachment trial, I mostly just listened. But when he said “I don’t always agree with the way he handles stuff because his style is pretty outrageous, but I think he’s done great things,” I had to disagree.

I think it does matter how the president acts. Whatever the issue, whatever party you support, the president sets the tone for the country. So the current resident of the white house, with his mania and inanity, his relentless, misspelled tweets, his pandering to dictators, his unintelligence and his unfathomable speaking patterns, his disdain for reading—that influences everyone. “What if he could accomplish the ‘great things’ without acting like he does, though?” I asked my friend. “Wouldn’t the country be better?” [Please note that I did not ask about these supposed “great things” because really…I cannot think of one good thing he’s done in his tenure, but I do know that a friend bringing up things like Supreme Court judges and immigration issues would likely raise my ire higher than I could contain.]

This question gave him a pause. “I haven’t ever thought of it like that,” he said.

I haven’t ever thought of it like that.

Sure: I can tell you when to use every day versus everyday. I can usually think of a little snippet of a poem to go with nearly every situation I find myself in (I don’t often share these, though). I can talk literary theory with the best of them. I can discuss the way the feminist movement influences and is influenced by the sphere of literature. All of those skills and pieces of knowledge I’ve gained over a lifetime of loving and interacting with books, history, art, music, criticism, newspapers, literary magazines, university courses and professors and assignments—all of it is valuable to me.

But what I treasure the most is the ability to think about things in different ways. To know that my perspective is not the only one, my way of being in the world is not the only right choice but just one choice in a myriad of them. When I read something and I think I haven’t ever thought of it like that, I get excited. I ask myself why I haven’t thought in that way, what it says about my thought processes and how this new thought might change me. If I don’t know, I figure it out.

One individual human lifetime is small. So small. We get our years and our places and then we are gone. But with books, we can know larger parts of humanity than just our own. With knowledge we can see how we have changed and how we haven’t, how to do better and just how large our potential is (for both creation and destruction). I know just enough to know that I don’t know very much…you can read your whole life but still have a whole world left to discover. Just this spring, I read Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson, where I learned about something I had never heard of, the Tulsa race riots and burning of Black Wall Street. And then our country erupted in protests, and a political rally was scheduled in Oklahoma, and suddenly people were talking about that moment in history. “Why didn’t we learn about that in history class?” people asked.

The why is because of systemic racism, but it is also about you. If you decided to stop learning about history, culture, science, ideas, philosophy and everything else simply because you graduated from high school or college, the problem is now in your hands. If you have decided that your way of looking at things is the best way, or the only way, the problem isn’t with your tenth-grade history teacher, but with your own lack of progress.

So as the United States starts to change (hopefully), what I keep coming back to is how the lack of imagination stifles progress. Reading lets you see that there are many worlds, and that many of them have more potential than the one we have created right now. It teaches you that the world has not always been the way it is now, and that there are many other experiences beside your own.

We are living in a country that is led by a man who is, I believe, corrupt to his very core. There are enough obvious examples, but for me, it boils down to this:

He doesn’t read.

He doesn’t see the value in the written word, be it a novel or a biography or a political treatise or even the daily reports. This means he is incapable of seeing from any other perspective than his own. He is a small man who lacks imagination, and thus knowledge, empathy, and self-awareness.

But it isn’t only the president. It is, as my family and friends and podiatrist and the runner on the bus have told me, deeply held within the nation. Books are a luxury, books are only for people with too much time on their hands, books are a waste of time, books are just stories. Basketball players and actresses and Instagram influencers matter, fluff and noise and nonsense deserve our attention.

Our country is beset by a huge variety of issues and problems, so the solutions will not be simple. But I believe at the very core of each solution lies knowledge, critical thinking, history, imagination, intelligence, empathy. All of the things, in other words, you get from the seemingly-useless humanity degrees. From books.

None of us should ever find ourselves at the end of our searches for knowledge and truth. These help us to see our place in the world, to realize both how small our lives are and how enormous our possibilities become when we understand that one way of seeing things is too narrow.

We must all cultivate the skill of altruism.


There is No Cure for Knowledge: Part 1

One of my most abiding memories from childhood is the cold autumn Saturday my dad took me to a BYU football game. I don’t know why this happened, as I was not a fan of football and we weren’t like other families I knew, who bought season tickets. But there we were, walking across a college campus together. He told me that he hoped one day I would go to college. He said “one day you can go to college classes and learn everything you want. You’re smart. Don’t be like me and waste your time and your smartness. Spend your time learning.” We stepped into the stadium; he bought me popcorn and a hot chocolate, and while I remember absolutely nothing about the football game (I was likely bored out of my mind, or maybe I brought a book with me), I remember so clearly sitting on the cold metal bench, eating popcorn one puffed piece at a time, imagining myself going to college. By the time the game ended and we walked back to the car, it was a certainty for me: I would go to college.

Of course, life got messy, as life does, and once I’d destroyed my chances at the university I wanted to go to the most (the University of Utah) and my scholarship opportunities, I found myself twenty years old, married, and trying to live in a religion that focused on women having families, not getting an education. But I still had that same certainty that I wanted to go to college. So I pieced it together. I worked at a software company that would pay for some college costs, so I went to the local community college while I worked full time and got my Associate’s degree. After that, we built our house and I had Haley, but I wasn’t done yet. When I was laid off from my job, I had access to a reeducation grant, so I grabbed the chance, swallowed my pride, and did what I had never wanted to do: walked back onto the BYU campus and applied. (It’s another entire blog post to explain why that choice was hard for me.)

For me, college was always about books. During the two years I wasn’t going to school, I vowed to learn everything I could about books, reading, writing, and literature, so I haunted the library. (The library where I work now, strangely enough.) Those years of scattershot reading taught me about feminism, history, mythology, racism, oppression, ingenuity. Even grammar! I found genres I’d only had vague ideas about before, like essays and microfiction. I delved into poetry and discovered poets I still love today. I read novels. I read some Shakespeare. I tried to read what I thought I was supposed to read: Hemingway and Hawthorne, Fitzgerald and Faulkner, but I found I liked women authors better.

I was shaping my reading and learning tastes at that time in my life, and I think that my ability to be unencumbered by professors’ opinions during those years was immensely helpful. I learned to like what I like rather than what someone else thought I should like. But I was also learning. About history and other cultures and writing styles and genres and how writers are grouped. I was also learning how to think. All those books taught me that there are uncountable ways of being in the world, and mine is just one of them, neither right nor wrong; the myriad ways of looking at human existence is one of the astounding parts of human existence.

 I ended up loving many things about my experience at BYU. While I didn’t have the traditional college experience with dorms and roommates and making life-long friends, I learned. Yes—even at a conservative, religious university, I learned so much. Those two years of studying on my own meant that I had odd pieces of knowledge that my classmates didn’t have, and sometimes (OK, quite often) their perspectives were baffling to me, but again—it was about learning all of the things one learns from an English degree, but also it was about learning more of people. I had fantastic professors and horrible ones. I finally learned what people meant by “critical theory.” I learned that in literary circles, Dead White Male Writers are revered by many…but there are counter cultures, too, and I explored those whenever I could.

When I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree, Haley was four, Jake was one, and I was unknowingly pregnant with Nathan. A friend asked me, a few days after I graduated, what I would do next. At that point, I was exhausted. I wanted to just spend time with my kids. So, for a couple of years, that’s what I did. I graduated, and then I became a stay-at-home mom. I still held that image of myself I had created during the football game so long ago, a mental picture of who I would be as an adult. It had crystalized: I wanted a PhD, I wanted to be a college professor.

But again, life got messy. For a long time, I have felt like the Universe has wanted me to understand that sure…I’ve learned a lot about humanity, but it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t have value because it is sort of invisible. My form of knowledge means I can go to a museum and tell you stories about many of the things there, but I can’t create anything anyone can sell. I can’t program computers or write software programs or create apps. I don’t have medical knowledge; my skills are just in understanding, and that isn’t very marketable. I ended up being a high school English teacher, and then a librarian. Am I done? I wish I wasn’t. I want to get a Master’s degree. Somewhere in the messiness, however, I lost that ability I used to have, that belief that my dad was right, that I was smart enough to do anything. I don’t feel that anymore, so I don’t know how to take another step. Part of me started with what the Universe wanted me to know: my accumulated knowledge is sort of useless. The world doesn’t care.

But also within the messiness, I have continued to read. I thought that getting a Bachelor’s degree would teach me everything I wanted to know, but of course it didn’t. Knowledge is endless, and it is spread out everywhere. It’s not just found in one source, and almost everything has a piece of truth in it somewhere. I might not have advanced degrees, but I do still have knowledge.

So here I am: a middle-aged white woman with a couple of Bachelor degrees that don’t matter much to the world at large. I know a whole lot about books and history and about finding information. I can teach you how to structure an essay and I can give you a book of poems that would change your life if you read it. I could tell you how to correctly use a hyphen and what the difference is between an en- and an em-dash.

Meanwhile, the world is insane with a pandemic and racial uprisings. What do I have to offer?

Every day, I read Facebook threads and listen to conversations where people say things that I consider to be shallow and narrow-minded. And while yes, dear Universe, I so thoroughly understand your point, I also have started to realize: education matters.

I mean, I know that. I have always known that.

But the world’s current issues are telling me more and more: education matters. Knowledge matters. Most importantly, the knowledge that your way of looking at the world is not the only one—knowing that matters.

My next post will continue these thoughts. It’s the one I sat down to write this morning, but I couldn’t write it without explaining these pieces of my history. In the largeness of today’s social issues, my little thoughts are likely unimportant. But I’m going to share them anyway, because I also know this is true: narrow-mindedness got us into these issues, and the only way out of them is with the wide-open thought processes that education can bring.

[You can read the second part of this post HERE.]


Yes, But.

I went for a walk this morning. No headphones, no running, no Kendell tagging along. I needed to go to the doctor’s office for a blood test (my yearly check up of thyroid and other issues) and since it’s only about a half mile from my house, I decided to just walk.

Just as I got to the junior high, I heard the familiar sound of someone running. The pattern of breath and the repetition of footfalls; for a few steps there was a little tap instead of a thud because a pebble must’ve been caught in a shoe, and then it dropped out and the pattern went back to only thuds. I turned to see where the person was so I didn’t accidentally get in their way, and saw it was a black teenager.

Before I go on with this story, I have to clarify that I live in a state, Utah, where there is not a huge population of black people (at the last census it was 12% black), and I live in a county in that state where 2% of the population is black. I don’t know what it says about my prejudice that, when I see a black person where I live, I think “there’s a black runner” (or grocery-store shopper or whatever) instead of just thinking “there’s a runner,” but it is my unguarded reaction. Not in a fear-based what but an observational one, true, but I don’t like that that is my first thought.

As he ran past me I gave him that little wave you give passing runners, but he didn’t see me. He turned the corner and then, a few minutes later (he was fast!), I did too. We were both moving west along a frontage road adjacent to a much busier road, separated by a weedy berm.

Just down the street, there was a police car on the same side of the road, lights on, and a police officer leaning in to talk to the person he had pulled over.

I kept walking and I started really watching.

I thought about Ahmaud Arbery, and I thought about the sound of the running feet of the person running in front of me, how the cadence is measured and practiced, not panicked. That slight irritation of a caught pebble that all runners have felt, and the little relief when it frees itself.

I thought about the bland statement made by the leaders of my seeming faith, which was safe and generic and spoke of love but had no fire or outrage and certainly did not apologize for its history of racism.

And the one from the city where I live, equally safe, which made sure to point out how fantastic our police department is.

I thought about the interactions I’ve had with police in my city, which have always been calm and rational.

I thought about the tiny protest I saw last week, on one of the busiest corners of our town, thirty or so people—most of them white—chanting “no justice, no peace,” waving their signs in the rain, and how, when I was stopped waiting for the light to change, I looked at them and felt ashamed (because I have not protested) and hope (because they were all so young, so unjaded, so bright).

I watched the runner. I watched the policeman on the side of the road.

I touched my cell phone to make sure it was still in my pocket. Just in case.

I wondered what he was thinking—the runner in front of me.

Did he think about Ahmaud Arbery too? Did he think about what his parents taught him about his actions around police? Was he afraid?

As he got closer to the police car, he stopped running.

And, I don’t know. Maybe it was just part of his run that day, maybe he was doing a walk/run cycle, and the walk portion just happened to happen then, when he was passing a police car.

That’s possible.

But it’s also possible he started walking because he felt that was safer.

I kept watching.

I thought about all of the voices and ideas I have heard over the past three weeks. The people wanting to change the financial structure of cities so that less money goes to police forces, and the people who refuse to see that as a viable option. The people who have said “well, I’ve never had a bad interaction with police,” as if that proves anything. The bland voices of my community. The more passionate ones of closer friends who share my perspective. And about my own doubt that I can change anything.

The runner kept walking until he had passed the police car with the flashing lights. He stood still while he waited for the light to change, and he walked across the street. He didn’t run until he was on the opposite side of the opposite corner.

I let my hand stop hovering near my phone.

I’m still unsure. I still feel unable to make much commentary on what is happening in the world. I don’t want to say the wrong thing, I don’t want to be ignorantly racist, I don’t want to cause more hurt. Besides, what insight can I have, this middle-aged woman living in an uber-white community?

But I also remembered: it isn’t about what insight I can offer. Black people don’t need my insight, and what can I say that might help my more closed-minded friends open their perspective a little?

And I thought: it has, at least, changed me. Would I have been watching so carefully, before this spring’s events, when a black runner ran past a white police officer? I don’t think I would have.

I think that one of the keys to being anti-racist is the ability to be open minded, and by that I mean the ability to understand that your perspective is not the only way of looking at the world. The ability of imagination, perhaps: to see a situation with your own eyes and realize it might look different to someone else, and then to be able to imagine some of the possibilities.

(Which is one of the reasons that I find fiction to be just as enlightening as non-fiction.)

If the unrest and the killings and the violence has not given people the ability to see the existence of other realities than their own, nothing I can say will change it.

But those things have changed me. They have taught me that the scope of my imagination was far too small.

They have taught me that I still have so much to learn. So much. They have taught me that even in my white-washed community, I have opportunities to watch, to witness, to be prepared to speak out or take action if it’s needed.

I hear you—those “yet, but” voices. Yes, but our police force is really good. Yes but who are you going to call if someone burglars your house? Yes, but blue lives. Yes, but…all of it. I hear you.

Yes.

But I am going to try to see things from perspectives other than my own.


Corona Virus Masks: My Process Notes on the A.B. Mask Pattern

I have finally started making masks! I don’t know why I didn’t start making them sooner; it’s not as if I don’t have fabric for it! I even prewashed and dried fabric that I thought would make appealing masks. And then Colorado, where Haley lives, started requiring people to wear masks outside so then it was a necessity! It still took a few days to get started because A—I was sick for a few days and B—I was kind of intimidated. In quilting, it is sometimes easier to hide mistakes than it is with clothing and while yes…I’ve sewn dozens of quilts and more than a few pair of pajamas, I wasn't sure my quilting skills would be enough to make a little piece of clothing.

Corona masks panic
Please: Allow me to caption this photo. This is not me making a goofy face. This is me PANICKING. Same thing happens when I put on a snorkeling mask. Low-key panic because I can't get enough air. Happy to make the masks. A little bit freaked out if I actually have to wear one.

But today I decided: enough. I’ll just try one and see what happens. What’s the worst thing that could happen? I mess up and make something unwearable out of a piece of fabric?

That is acceptable risk!

There is no 1/4 inch elastic to be found anywhere near me, so I went with this pattern:

A.B. Mask for a Nurse by a Nurse

It is designed to be worn either just on your face or over an N/95 mask. It uses ties instead of elastic and two layers of quilting cotton. It seems intimidating because there are a lot of steps and it looks complicated…but really the steps are well-written and make sense if you follow them carefully.

And it was really pretty fun to make!

I know there are a million mask tutorials floating around right now and I’m definitely not the person to write another one (remember: my clothes-sewing skills are pretty unremarkable).

But I do have some notes I thought I would share. These are just notes I made as I went through the steps, and maybe they will be helpful for someone else who is also making the same pattern.

So here are my notes on each step. You can also download a PDF of the notes at the bottom of this post. And if you are thinking about sewing masks, my biggest advice is this: just do it. If they aren’t perfect, who cares? Have fun. Use bright fabrics or fun fabrics or whatever you think fits someone’s personality. If you don't have big enough pieces of fabric, use a different color for the ties. Mostly, don’t get too worried about your mistakes. Perfection isn’t the point, right? It’s protecting and caring for each other!

First things first: before you start making masks, you should preshrink your fabric. Wash it in the hottest water your washing machine has and rinse twice. Wash light fabrics separate from darks. Use a color catcher because that hot water will stream out a bunch of dye. Dry on hot, too. Trim the strings and then iron. In theory the masks should be washed once a day so you want to get the shrinking done first.

Also, if you have a fabric marking pen or pencil, find it. It'll come in handy!

Notes correlate with each step of the original pattern and are named the same thing as the patterned named them, for clarity.

  1. Print the pattern. I had no problem with this, except I should’ve printed on cardstock instead of printer paper, just for durability.
  2. Fold fabric. Quilting cotton stretches more on the width side (selvedge to selvedge) than it does on the length size (cut edge to cut edge), so if you are using odd sizes of fabric, see which side stretches the most, and fold so the stretch goes across the width of the mask, rather than the height.
  3. Cut binding and ties. I cut my binding strips 1.75 inches instead of 1.5. I know…a quarter inch doesn’t seem like that much but for me it made it much easier to make the ties. Also, if you can use larger yardage so you can cut width of fabric strips, it does make it easier!
  4. Refold and cut mask face. I folded my fabric twice so I could cut four pieces at once. You can use scissors or a quilting ruler and a rotary cutter, up to you. I skipped the step of cutting out the notches. I marked it with a marking pen instead. Corona masks mark the notches
    Also, I have no idea what the difference is between a “taco” style fold and a “burrito” style fold…tortilla shells are all round.
  5. Stack and sew. I have a hard time knowing exactly where to turn at the points, so I just marked a line 1/2 inch from the edge. Corona masks half inch marks
  6. Iron in pleats. I have no idea if I’m doing this step right. I THINK the fold should go up, toward the top point, but if you look at the picture of the folded pattern, it seems like they Corona masks pleats down
    point down. I’ve made it both ways…I continue to think the fold goes up. But I am happy to be corrected if I’m wrong. UPDATE!!! I found an updated version of the tutorial that states Corona masks pleats up
    "Pleats should be facing downward when looking at outside fabric of mask face." OK, got it wrong! Luckily I've only made a few so far. Maybe no one will notice? The updated version also includes instructions for a pocket for a wire. I haven't tried it so I can't speak to that part of the process, but HERE is the updated version.
  7. Sew pleats in place. Careful not to hit the pins with your sewing machine needle. Just saying.
  8. Mark and sew darts. When you sew the darts in, use the denim stitch on your machine. This is the stitch that does three stitches close together; on Bernina machines it is stitch #6.
  9. Trim excess. The tutorial photo shows these cuts being made with pinking shears. If you don’t have those, regular scissors are just fine! (I might really now want to buy a nice heavy pair of pinking shears. My mom used to have a pair that fascinated me when I was a kid. Wonder what happened to them.)
  10. Prepare the binding. If you cut width-of-fabric strips in step three, you don’t have to sew seams! Also, the smaller pieces (the one you cut in half) don’t need to be 10 inches, only about 4 inches long.
  11. Attach side binding. Sew toward the folds of the pleats to avoid sewing them down the wrong way.
  12. Finish side binding. When you sew it down to the front, again sew toward the pleats; that way your presser foot doesn’t get caught in the folds. Try to make sure the fabric edge covers the stitching lines you already stitched (also, if it doesn’t, don’t sweat it).
  13. Attach top/bottom binding. Fold the binding strip in half (end to end) and iron the fold. Then, line up that fold with the dart from step 8. This way your ties will be even.
    Corona masks folded binding
    I had to piece these binding strips together out of scraps because I calculated wrong. This is how I know it is faster to cut them from the width of the fabric!
  14. Finish top/bottom binding and ties. If you folded in half on step 13, you can skip trimming the ties to make them even, as they already will be. However, I trimmed the corners off the edges of the ties because it makes sewing the ends easier.
    Corona masks clipped ends
    Fwew. This close up makes me realize I am about ready for a new cutting mat...This is the last birthday gift my mom gave me, though, so I just keep using it even though it's bumpy...

    When you sew the binding strips on, make sure to back sew once over the dart spot, just for added strength. Take this step slow at first, because it’s kind of tricky to get such a small strip in the right spot. Double check that you didn’t miss sewing both edges once you’re done; if you did, just sew it again.

Alternate version of the clipped ends, this time folded: Corona masks folded binding ends better

The first mask I sewed took me almost 45 minutes from start to finish. By the third I was down to 30 minutes!

Download Notes on corona masks.

Let me know if you are sewing masks, have questions about sewing masks, or are also, like me, utterly panicked at the thought of wearing masks...

Happy sewing, friends!