Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

“We and the Americans will lead the rest of this century because we are the only nations who have learned to brush the past aside instead of bowing before it.”

I am always purposeful in the first book I read when a new year starts. Not really out of any superstition that it will set the tone or the events of the upcoming year. More because I know I will create a strong connection between the cold, dark, January days and the book I picked, so I want it to be a memorable one.

Gentleman in moscowThis January, on the recommendations of not two but three Internet friends, none of whom are connected to the others in any way, I decided I’d finally read A Gentleman in Moscow. I read it through the few snowstorms we got in January, through the burgeoning stress of changes at work. Some unexpected medical issues leading to some unpleasant procedures and a vague diagnosis that’s left me unsettled. A massive sifting of my fabric stash. Cold outdoor running and hiking.

Those experiences will always, now, be connected with Count Rostov’s unfolding life in the Metropol. (As I am likely the last literary person in the United States who hadn’t read the book, I’m assuming you have and thus sparing you the summary.) But more than gadolinium, the unexpectedly inexpensive raspberries in January, visiting an estate sale for the first time, and a glut of teaching nightmares, the strongest connection this book has left me with is its ties to contemporary American politics.

Two small scenes in particular:

The first one happens early in the story. When the Count is looking down at the Assembly in the ballroom, crouching with Nina on the tiny balcony, he realizes “that, despite the Revolution, the room had barely changed at all.” Whatever the ambitious goals of the Revolution to take power away from the Czars, eliminate capitalism, and create equality between peasants and laborers (a very brief outline of a time in history I don’t know a lot about)—to get rid of wasteful things like elegance and beauty, extravagant clothes and the silliness of social posturing—the Count realizes that nothing has really changed. The details have shifted: “Of course, there is now more canvas than cashmere in the room, more gray than gold. But is the patch on the elbow really that much different from the epaulette on the shoulder?”

But the concept is the same: humans always seek out power, and what good is power if you don’t show you have it?

Or, to use the Count’ words again: “Pomp is a tenacious force.”

When I started reading this book, I quickly realized that my knowledge of Russian in the first half of the twentieth century was woefully dismal, so I did a bit of reading. Some internet searches, a middle-grade nonfiction about the time period, a rereading of a few Chekhov stories just to get inside the Russian psyche a bit. That was fresh in my mind as I worked on the book’s beginning (like the Count reading Montaigne, the start of this book was not pleasant for me, but a very slow sludge; I had to get into the unwinding rhythm and I was about to give up until Nina appeared), and then I read that bit about the tenacity of pomp.

Which really is just a statement about how hard it is to change human nature.

It made me think about the origins of the United States. Since the rise of extreme conservatism in this country, I have come to understand just how much I thought of as “learning about history” was actually “ingesting propaganda.” We hold ourselves up as the best country in the world, and yet we are a nation founded on racism (whatever Nikki Haley says) that has done terrible things throughout the world. At the same time, though, we did change something. At least, I think we did. Some of us—like Mishka with his belief that there is a pure poetry that expresses what is real—really did believe we had a country that valued equality and freedom, even if we were still working it out, because we valued equality and freedom. But maybe it was all the same? Cashmere or canvas but still covering the actual human body, or in this case the deepest, oldest thing about America: it looks like we value those things but really we value the same things humans always have, which are wealth and power and the pleasure of using those to subvert and control whoever doesn’t think like we do. (I mean: we hold up the pilgrims as examples of people who sought out religious freedom, but do you think they actually wanted a place where everyone had that? Or simply a place where they would be able to practice THEIR religion without persecution?)

The second small scene that will stay with me happens near the book’s end. The Count manages the dinner of state where Krushchev takes the head of the table. That night, the lights are exterminated throughout Moscow, only to be turned on again when the new nuclear power plant takes over. Later, we learn the significance of this, and it’s the thing that hit me the hardest. Malenkov was another politician at the dinner; he was a more progressive thinker who was worried that the nuclear arms race with America would be an apocalyptic disaster, the opposite of Krushchev’s position. Again, the Count’s explanation gets to the heart of it: “Krushchev had performed the perfect sleight of hand—switching out the threat of nuclear Armageddon for the uplifting sight of a city sparkling with nuclear power. In a stroke, the conservative hawk had cast himself as a man of the future and his progressive opponent as a reactionary.”

Conservative thinking is what created contemporary Russia.

What I took from A Gentleman in Moscow—well, I took several things from it. One was a remembering of the pleasure of reading a novel with a slow, wandering plot. I haven’t read one in a long time, and I’ve forgotten how luxurious it is: a cast of vibrant characters experiencing life itself. Even though it was the first book I started this year, I didn’t finish it until the middle of February, because I would just dip in and out of it. By the time some actual plot tension came along at the end, I almost couldn’t bear reading it, the worry was so acute. Another was a tiny feeling of hope, because even though he loses almost everything, the Count still takes courage and moves ahead, and finds that there are other experiences and people, different beauty and surprises. That little spark made me see how much I have just put my head down and tried to submerge myself in acceptance that the years of my life which were FULL of people who loved me (or, people I thought loved me) are past, and that relationships will continue to dwindle. The Count’s experiences and relationships helped me lift my head up in the smallest bit of hope. And of course, I gained and understanding. In essence, A Gentleman in Moscow is a novel that explains why Russia is the way Russia is.

But the most unexpected knowledge is that it also helped me understand why America is the way it is. However we dress and whatever our ballrooms look like, we’ve always had that mean, conservative, Puritanical part of our social DNA. We have not learned to brush aside the past but continue to bring it with us while blithely proclaiming No, it didn’t happen like that. We cover it up in different ways, we try to change it, but it’s always been there. And right now, the conservative hawks seem to be winning. I didn’t put the book down with a sense of hope that that will stop any time soon. But those two crucial bits at least helped me understand it a bit better.


Breaking My Silence About the Library, Or: I Will No Longer Be Shushed

One year ago today I was working on a project at work: pulling books and making a sign for a Black History display.  20220202_204354
I wrote an Instagram post about it: why I thought the display was important, how bothered I was that almost every book I wanted to put on the display was checked in, how important I felt it was to have displays like this. How important it is, in a community like the one I live in, where the majority of people are white and the city government is run only by white people. (One of my followers called me racist for calling this out.)

When I wrote that post, and my follow-up blog post, my imaginary audience was any library patron who might have been offended by a tableful of books by and about Black people. I wanted to help that imaginary patron understand that people of all races and identities deserve representation in books in visible ways and that having access to a wide variety of books is important for everyone, even (especially) the majority in power.

“Reading,” I wrote one year ago, “should expose us to the experiences, beliefs, ideas, sufferings, joys, &  lifestyles of people who are not like us.”

I believed that then, I believed it ten and fifteen and twenty years ago. I believe it to the very second I am writing this post.

I never imagined that one year after writing that and after making that display, I would be working for a library that isn’t allowed to put up a Black History month display. (Or women’s history, or Pride, or Hispanic heritage or Native American heritage) but here I am, doing just that.

In November of 2021, the city where I lived elected two new city council members and a new mayor. These three people, combined with a third council member who was elected a few years ago, have formed an alliance. A voting block. They pushed for and managed to achieve getting a ballot initiative to have the schools in our city pull out of the school district, using questionable practices and a feasibility study conducted by a company that was created just weeks before it was chosen (by the same council members) to carry out the study.

Luckily, that initiative was voted down.

But that was not the only issue this city council has undertaken.

Since June, it has carried out a subtle but troubling process of censorship at the library.

This has not been done with transparency, but with behind-the-scenes conversations that I did not witness. I can only write what I have experienced, and that is this:

Despite the fact that every librarian I work with believes in the basic principles of librarianship, which include the freedom to read, access to books on every topic, and diverse displays, programs, and collections, we are working at a library where we are not allowed to carry out those basic principles.

We did not have a Hispanic-American heritage display in September. We did not have a Native American heritage display in November. On February 1, the library will open and there will not be a Black History month display.

I also can write that my experience has been that we have been encouraged to remain silent about these issues. The suggestion was that if we did discuss on our social media platforms the things that are happening at the library, we could be fired.

So why am I writing now?

One of my braver colleagues has inspired me. After she left the position she was excellent at, she spoke. The result has been a series of newspaper articles.  

Newspaper articles that have infuriated me. They are not cutting-edge reporting. They barely expose any of the manipulative tactics that this city council has used to limit access to library materials.

If you’d like to read them, here is the first one and here is the second

In the second article, the interim city manager states that my colleague’s statements are “contrary” to the truth. To which I say: Why, then, have we not had any heritage month displays? He also states that “the complaints from a former library employee have identified a lack of clarity in our library policies.”

The problem is not a lack of clarity in library policies.

The librarians are perfectly clear on the policy the city council is pushing: books about people of color and LGBTQIA+ people are not to be put on display.

That is the policy. We are clear on it.

The problem is not clarity. The problem is the policy itself.

It goes against every component of ethical librarianship ideals I know.

It is censorship.

It is a form of book banning.

This policy has had a damaging impact upon me and upon all of my coworkers.

Likely librarians exist for whom this doesn’t apply, but the vast majority of us are people who are passionate about our work. Librarianship is often wrapped up in “vocational awe”; we see libraries and our work there as a type of sacredness that is inherently valuable to society (which actually leads to a myriad of problems, including accepting pay that is not commensurate to our levels of education and knowledge). We love our work. We love our library patrons. We want to provide them with programs and books that improve their lives.

So to go to work every day with that dedication and knowledge and then to not be allowed to do the work?

It is painful.

And the policy also impacts us in personal ways. Not all of us are cis white males. Not all of us have traditional families. Not all of us are members of the majority religion. We all know someone who is now no longer represented in our library’s displays; some of us are ourselves no longer represented. This policy causes fear, resentment, anxiety, and anger. It does not create a functional working environment where we all feel safe to do our jobs, let alone feel valued by our community or its elected officials.

This morning, when I read the second article, I grew so angry. They had the potential to educate the public as to what is actually happening in the library without fear of career reprisals. They took a soft, unresisting approach. For example, today’s article discusses the fact that Junie B. Jones is the 71st most-banned book series in the United States.

What about the fact that the most-banned book, Gender Queer, is not available on any Utah public library’s shelves?

As I thought about this issue today, as I saw the mayor’s self-congratulatory recorded message being played over and over on the city building’s TV displays, as I did my work under these new restrictions, I came to a conclusion:

I can’t stay silent anymore.

During my almost-15 years of working at the library, I have shared many library stories. I have shared how patrons have made me laugh, frustrated me, insulted me, delighted me. The stories of sharing commonalities despite our differences; the sweet things kids say (“the liberry is my favorite berry”) and the crazy things adults assume (no, it’s no OK to tell me about your husband’s fantasy involving me and my Dr. Martens). Sharing my library experiences has been a fundamental part of my job satisfaction, because I want everyone to know: libraries are necessary places. Libraries are good places. They are full of books but they are really about stories, human stories, living stories. They are—they should be—places where everyone can find knowledge, and it has been a privilege to work here.

I hope I don’t lose my job.

But in a sense, this city council has already taken my job away from me.

Their actions, supported by their voters, have told me that transparency, representation, access, education, literacy, understanding, and empathy are not qualities my community values, and that has broken part of me.

And none of that, none of that matters. My small story is just one part of the library, and the library is the community that uses it.

But by staying silent, I am being complicit.

And as I listen to the news, I cannot do that any longer. It isn’t just about my smalltown library’s problems. It’s a bigger, national issue. It’s the fact that in two counties in Florida, teachers can no longer have books in their classrooms and the governor is proud of this. It’s libraries losing their funding because a few community members don’t think they should have books about queer people on their shelves. It’s about making our society less literate and thus less compassionate.

Censorship is happening right now because the communities using libraries stay silent and thus allow it.

And I cannot abide being silenced any longer.


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.


Love IS Advocacy

Last week, one of the tidbits of local news catching everyone's attention was a story about a high school chemistry teacher. She taught at the same high school where I used to teach. On the first day of school, something set her off and she went off on a rant. She talked about how much she hates trump because he is a horrible person, her opinion of her students' parents who haven't gotten them vaccinated yet (she thinks they are stupid), how students who think environmental issues are a hoax can get out of her class, as could anyone who takes offense at her willingness to defend LGBTQ students.

One of the students in her class very carefully recorded this meltdown. As I watched her pace and shout, my body responded; I have been in her same shoes, feeling like a cheetah trapped in a cage, unable to get the words out fast enough to express my anger and frustration. I never melted down quite so spectacularly as she did (and no one recorded it) but I did have a few meltdowns. So as I watched, my response was one of empathy and compassion.

Friends and family members, and some of their friends, did not respond the same.

I should've just stayed out of the discussion on Facebook. I mean, when will I learn? I believe so firmly in standing up for my opinion. But when I do, especially over the last three years, it has been met by so much staunch opposition. Strike that—it's not the opposition to my opinion that bothers me. I am OK with not everyone agreeing with me, and wouldn't, in all honesty, want a world where everyone had the same opinion.

What I am struggling with is the derision that accompanies the opposition. The suggestion (or sometimes the outright spoken) idea that I'm one of those flaming left, special snowflake libtards who don't live in the real world. Last week in that discussion, someone much younger than me tried to explain both teaching and the difference between fact and opinion to me. (Gee, thanks. They didn't teach us any of that when I got my English degree. Or my TEACHING degree for God's sake.)

Even though I didn't engage as much as I could have, I left that discussion feeling a little bit bruised.

Definitely feeling that my extended family, for the most part, neither understands me not respects the types of intelligence I have. I felt supported by my daughter but very lonely otherwise.

All of which is the reason why I am writing about this week's local news on my blog instead of my Facebook feed. I still want to share my opinion but it feels safer here because of course most of them are too busy to read my silly little blog, which is just fine with me.

One of the leaders of the LDS church, which is the dominant faith in Utah, gave a speech yesterday. A very divisive speech about LGBTQ+ support and how it contradicts all of the church's teachings. The essence of the speech is that BYU is not a place that should be promoting equality. Alumni are hurting to see their old alma mater have things like Pride parades and Departments of Equality and especially, God forbid, professors who actually discuss gender equality in any form. The higher learning institutions of the One True Church shouldn't be places where those creepy gays feel welcome, and especially not the married ones. (If they keep it hidden it's OK to overlook it though. Secret, not sacred.) This leader actually, literally said this:

"We have to be careful that love and empathy do not get interpreted as condoning and advocacy."

And then he declared that students should defend traditional marriage and heteronormativity with bullets. With a musket. (Yes, yes, backpedal, it’s all metaphorical, but I hardly think that matters. Just using a metaphor of violence is violent.)

Deep breath.

I am so, so tired.

I am exhausted by all of the things in society (both specifically to Utah and in the world at large) that are cruel. Overwhelmed by how many issues there are to discuss and to fight for. Salary disparity. Poverty and homelessness. The stupid gondola some rich bastard wants Utah taxpayers to pay for in the canyon where his ski resort is. The fact that a news reporter yesterday said "Afghanistan is about to undergo a femicide." The fact that she is right. Global warming. Anti-vaxxers. The threats to Roe v. Wade. Housing and tuition prices. Racism. Women’s rights. Wildfires. Garbage patches in the ocean. (Just some of the issues I pay attention to, worry over, and contact my senator about.)

And over and over and over again, the church I used to think I loved reminds me that it is not a safe space. It isn't a place—the building nor the institution—where I can turn for refuge, comfort, acceptance, or love, but more tension, stress, and disappointment.

Let’s be clear: I’m not gay. In theory, what the church says about LGBTQ+ people doesn’t affect me personally.

But, then. My daughter is bisexual.

And I have many LGBTQ+ friends.

And even if I didn’t. I’m also not a bear in the woods but I still care how they are treated.

The implicit violence and disgust, the explicit lack of understanding. The way that talk makes the church the victim.

It is wrong.

Even if it doesn’t hurt me personally, it is wrong.

The church isn’t the victim. The irony is, the church created the victims by the way they treated—continue to treat—people who aren’t cisgender. They have excluded, derided, cast into outer darkness. And then they have the gall to say that members are hurting because of what professors are teaching about equality at BYU?

I’m sorry, but are you fucking kidding me?

Not many people have asked me. Even though I was an active church member for more than 25 years in the same congregation, when I stopped going to church only one very close friend in my neighborhood has discussed why with me. For the rest of them, I just disappeared. Which, really: that’s fine. I’m just acknowledging that I understand very few people might care to read what I’m going to write next.

But this: I could write an entire book about it (and have considered it, in fact), but when it all boils down to one specific point, this is why I stopped being able to go to church.

In the LDS church, there is one way to be good. You follow all the nintybillion rules they’ve made, for starters. And then you have to be “normal,” which is: white, preferably male, wealthy, and heterosexual. You must have children and then raise them to be the same way.

If you deviate from that normal, there is the appearance of acceptance, but deep down? At the root of it?

You aren’t really good. You can achieve good-ish, maybe, if you work really hard and are willing to accept that label, but you’ll never be really, truly, actually good.

I stopped going to church because I accepted two things: I am not their version of “good” and the vast majority of people I love deeply aren’t either. For the most part, the only marker I have for Mormon goodness is the color of my skin and my sexuality. I couldn’t pretend their version of goodness resonated with my version. Not for a second longer.

Once I began to understand and see that, I couldn’t stop seeing it. Even from the outside, it is glaring.

The church’s very narrow definition of what makes a good person does not work for me anymore. I am finding my own definition of goodness, and if I boil that down, here is how I see it:

Good people love each other. Good people try to treat each other kindly, take care of each other, and try to see people as individuals. They also try to take care of the earth, to see the world in realistic ways and understand their place within it—we all have so much to learn, improvements to make, and answers to seek out (no one knows them all. No one.)

So, for me, loving people who are LGBTQ+ doesn’t mean I love them despite that part of them. But because it is a part of who they are.

Love can’t be advocacy?

I believe advocacy is a part of loving people. We advocate for what we care about. And what I care about is people having access to the same freedoms—love, marriage, families, happiness, success, no matter their color, race, gender, religion or any other label.

And while I am tired, while I am right now finding it hard to advocate in large ways, I will continue holding on to knowing what I know. (Can an opinion be a fact too? I think it can.)

People deserve to be loved for who they are. My job is never to “fix” anyone, but to love them, and often loving them does look like advocating for them. If the LDS church doesn’t understand that, they don’t get to have me in attendance, and if that doesn’t bother them, that is OK.

One of my favorite thoughts comes from Rachel Carson:

We must be able to separate the trivia of today from the enduring realities of the long tomorrow. Having recognized and defined our values, we must defend them without fear and without apology.

For far too long, the trivia of today has been to invalidate people outside the norm. I hope I can somehow find the strength to contribute something more meaningful than that to the long tomorrow. Her words—and those of so many other writers, thinkers, creative types, artists, philosophers, and everyday people—have given me so much more courage to choose the right than those of the leaders of the church. I grieve for that still—I grieve to know I will never find peace or acceptance there, partly because I don’t fit but largely because so many others don’t fit either.

[I purposefully did not include a link here to the speech in question. You could google the quote I shared to find the complete text if you want to read it.]


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.


How Fiction Can Save the World (aka: Welcome to my TED Talk)

Back when the dufus was in charge of the country, one of the qualities that made me despair was his lack of interest in books. Anything remotely literary seemed invisible to him (and thus his budgets which attempted to defund libraries and museums). He often said things like “I don't have time for books” and he didn't read things like memos or briefings or of course not newspapers.

Much as I despise starting any blog post with any reference to the orange dictator, this one must begin there because his disparaging view of books—and my disgust and annoyance at a president who doesn’t read—forced me to think about my relationship with books. Specifically fiction, because that is what I read the most. I asked myself the question: Is it really so bad? Does it matter if the leader of the free world doesn’t read, or am I only bothered because books and reading matter so much to me

Yes: my perspective is skewed toward favoring people who read. This is because I am a life-long reader and have always found solace and happiness in books. But of course I have also learned, over the course of a lifetime, that people are different. People can not love reading and still be good people. (One example: my husband. Another: my youngest son.) However, there is a difference between everyday people and the person who is elected to be the president of the United States. A different skill set is required.

Is being a bibliophile one of them?

And more specifically: fiction. The books he talks about having read are almost never fiction (aside from All Quiet on the Western Front) but "books about China" or whatever he was being grilled on. 

Does the president need to love fiction?

I could point you towards dozens of scientific studies about the impact of reading fiction on our brain and our behavior (here is just one)  but my reasons are more personal (and so admittedly more subjective).

I believe that fiction can save the world.

Hear me out.

Fiction saves the world

When you are a fiction reader, you are often immersed in a psyche other than your own. Through story you get to experience other human experiences. I will never be an orphan who must move from India to England, or the daughter of a Baptist minister who is dragged to the Congo by her parents or a teenager living in Toronto forced as a teenager to befriend the girl who bullied her in elementary school. But each of these stories have left an impression on me. They've taught me something about what it means to be human in this world, something I could never have learned otherwise in my average, everyday life.

In a sense, the word for this is compassion. But it is something bigger than that. It's not only that I felt awful for the experiences Adah goes through in the Congo. It's that I learned something from her about the way it sometimes seems impossible to put yourself into the world, but sometimes you must anyway. In one way, this validates my life view. In another way, it challenges it. It forces me to be braver than I might be otherwise.

Reading fiction helps you understand that your experiences are not the entire range of human experiences. In fact, there are many billion different things that can happen to a person, far more than any one person can ever understand. And in those experiences is knowledge. Understanding this helps me decenter myself. My reality and wounds, my struggles and successes, are only one out of a myriad possible outcomes of a life.

How would understanding that influence the president? It might help him to understand that the whole world doesn't exist just so that he can exist. The world—the United States—an individual community in one of those states—even just within one house: the president's importance isn't because of who he (will we ever be able to write "he or she"???) is but because of how he can improve humanity. His story is only one of the stories and there is an infinity of other experiences to be had. So maybe it's not really compassion so much as it is humility. 

And what if we all had a little bit more fiction-induced humility? Perhaps then we would understand our role on this earth at this time. Our one small life hardly matters, except for the good we can do in small ways. Sometimes "saving the world" just looks like a five-dollar bill given to a homeless person, but if we all knew our importance—both small and yet infinitely powerful within the realm of our smallness—we might all save the world just by acting as individuals.

I am not a gay man, a transgender woman, a Jewish or Muslim or Protestant or atheist person, but reading novels through those lenses has helped me catch a glimpse of what those perspectives are like. I have never been to China, India, Brazil, the Andes, any part of Africa, but I have come to know tiny bits of those places (and many more) through novels. I will never be a biologist or an astronaut, a midwife or a stockbroker, but characters who are have taken up places in my heart. I don't get to walk in Middle Earth or Narnia or on the surface of Mars, but I can create those landscapes in my imagination and then find parallels for them here on earth. 

If I have learned that my American, white, middle-class, spiritual-but-not-religious way of looking at the world is not the only way, then I have also learned that my answers aren't the only answers. I have learned that despite differences in age, identity, nationality, race, religion, gender, and all the other markers we think make us who we are, we are all people. We all love, hurt, desire, worry, strive, succeed, fail, start over. We love our families and our friends and our homes and our landscapes. We all want to be loved.

What if the president understood that? What if he had learned that America isn’t the center of the universe, that his wealthy white male perspective is not the “normal” that everyone else deviates from? How much good might he have done to help other countries if he weren’t so obsessed with putting America on top?

What if he learned through fiction the power of imagination? The enormous expanse of possibility once we look beyond ourselves?

What if he learned about beauty and other beautiful things: courage, loss, perseverance, forgiveness...

The fact is, the United States had a president who not only didn’t read, but was illiterate in the true grace and elegance of the world, which isn’t found in gold toilets, glitzy race cars, and enormous fancy properties. He failed to save the world. He failed to save anything, but left only destruction and ugliness behind. Is that only because he doesn’t read fiction? Of course not.  But would reading have changed him (and thus the world) for the better? Absolutely.

But the rest of us? The billions of people alive right now? We can read. Fiction, yes. And poetry and essays and histories and political ideas and memoirs and the history of salt if you want. Reading is a form of learning, and the compassion, humility, empathy, imagination, understanding, and a myriad other forms of knowledge we gain from it help us become better people. They will help us each perform a billion different small acts of world improvement that, put together, might just save the world.


At The Intersection of Cuomo and Seuss

“I know. You believe all women, no matter what.” Those words were flung at me in an argument I had with an acquaintance, not too long after Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony to Congress. They were intended as a weapon and they left a mark. Do I “believe all women” blindly? Am I very easily duped by all the women running around claiming they’ve been assaulted when really they’re just in it for the money? Do I lose my sense of objectivity in the face of women being sexually harassed, assaulted, or abused? Am I so overwhelmed by emotion that my critical thinking skills suffer?

I’ve thought about that barb quite often since that discussion. The acquaintance is still only a person I know, not someone I would call a friend, but he made me push against my own ideals in a way that brought me to a better understanding, so even though he was being a jerk I’m glad he said that to me. The process of thinking and observing has helped me to solidify my beliefs.

Because here’s the thing with me. This might sound uptight or ridiculous, pedantic or overbearing. I might even be a logic bully, I don’t know. But I have a firm interest in critical thinking. I think I already had this tendency, but it was a concept I explored quite a bit while I was working on my English degree. I would sit in class and listen to students interpret literature through their religious lens (I was at Brigham Young University)—this is a “bad” book because bad things happen—and get frustrated and annoyed. I never said anything, though, because I felt so out of place, swamped by the weird culture of the university (all the classes start with a prayer) and unsure of where I even stood on what I knew about my religion in the first place. Then, one of my favorite professors (who actually changed my life in this process) wrote a comment on the essay I had written about the novel Possession.

“You have some wise insights in your essays and you think about things in different ways from your peers but I never hear your voice in class. SPEAK UP.”

That was the first week of my last semester, but I took his challenge and I started speaking up. Many students disagreed with my ideas, in that tone of voice that Mormons are good at, the one that suggests that not only is what I said wrong, but that I was evil for even having the thought. But a few students agreed with me, and that was enough. I also talked with him after class a few times, and he gave me some resources to help further my interest in critical thinking. I’ve been striving for such thought—which starts as an emotional reaction but then seeks rational understanding— since then.

That is why those words found their mark, because they are an accusation of non-critical thinking.

That memory has been bubbling around in my brain this week, because of two seemingly-unrelated news stories: the sexual harassment complaints against Governor Cuomo and the decision by Dr. Seuss Enterprises to stop publishing six Dr. Seuss books for their racist images.

Last year, when COVID was at its height in New York City, one of the things that brought me a sense of peace was listening to Cuomo. He seemed calm, rational, intelligent, and, most importantly, in charge. Like someone was managing the situation (as obviously the president was not). I would listen to his daily briefing and my panic and frustration would settle for a little while, so his voice and face became associated, in my mind, with calmness. With a sense of hope, even, that eventually we would figure out how to find a new normal.

So when those allegations started to surface, my deepest, deepest hope was that the women were lying.

And then I thought of that argument: You always believe women.

My gut response—my emotional response—this time was not to believe them. Or not to want to believe them. Not because their narratives are not believable, but because I didn’t want them to be true. Because I have this positive association with a person, because in my mind Cuomo is a source of calmness in a storm.

So maybe that acquaintance was totally wrong. Maybe I only believe women when it is easy to believe them.

I think this is one of the keys of critical thinking: being able to see your own weakness and then straightening up your shoulders to hold it out and examine it, instead of ignoring or burying it. Being willing to analyze your own prejudices and to find a way to change them.

If I “believe all women” because it is easy—because clearly the man who harassed or assaulted them was malicious—then am I really doing any actual work? Did I believe the accusations about Kavannaugh because I know his type and thus recognize those actions as something that kind of man is capable of? That is easy belief. (To be fair, the answer to those questions is “no.” I believe Christine Blasey Ford for many reasons, not just because she happened to accuse a vile, wealthy dudebro. And I forced myself to listen to his side of the story as well as hers.)

But when it is hard, when the accused is someone I admire, can I still believe the woman?

I am learning that I can. The Cuomo thing is not the first time I have come across this conundrum in the past six months, in fact. What do you do with people you admire or love when you find out they also did horrible things?

This is hard. And it is painful. Every time a news piece comes on about Cuomo, I want to change the channel. But what keeps me listening and trying to understand the women’s stories is, strangely enough, Dr. Seuss.

Or, more specifically, the illogical way many people are responding over the company that owns the copyright of Seuss’s work stopping the publication of those six books that have racist images in them.

And it isn’t exactly the same, but it is the same: Dr. Seuss is associated with good things in people’s memories (like Cuomo is in mine), so how dare those “others” suggest he did anything problematic?

To be completely upfront: I have a clear childhood memory of looking at that illustration of the black people in If I Ran The Zoo and thinking “I wonder where in the world black people look like that, I didn’t think that’s how they looked.” I wasn’t precociously anti-racist as a six-year-old but I remember feeling that the picture was wrong somehow. So maybe I am not using critical thinking by not having a problem with this, because of my childhood emotional response.

But as an adult who, as both a bibliophile and a librarian, has a vested interest in not only reading books but understanding as much as I can about books as an industry, as a force for social change, and as a tool for enlightening individual minds, I am annoyed with the pushback. With the lack of critical thinking. This isn’t leftie culture erasing literary history. This isn’t “cancel culture.” Dr. Seuss isn’t canceled. (He is, in fact, the second-richest dead person, behind only Michael Jackson.) It’s just that the company that prints the books has realized the racist issues and decided to do something about it.

Someone actually told me that he couldn’t believe I wasn’t upset about it. “I’ve read your blog posts and Facebook threads about book banning, so how can you be OK with this?”

This isn’t book banning. Libraries aren’t pulling the books from their shelves. No one is piling them up and burning them. They are just being allowed to die a natural death. (Something that happens to books all the time. Books go out of print.)

But I understand. It forces you to grapple with something hard: Dr. Seuss was both “good” and “bad.” He has some amazing books that I have spent countless hours reading and laughing over with my kids. He also drew some racist illustrations. Were they based on the social mores of the time? Maybe. Did Cuomo talk about how big of an age difference is too big with his pretty, young assistant because he’s a powerful politician who didn’t know any better? Probably not. I don’t want to admit that, but there it is: Cuomo knew better but he did it anyway.

It’s painful to deal with the reality of people. People can be amazing and horrible all in the same body.  People change, and not always for the best. But to me, Dr. Seuss Enterprises is trying to change for the better. They are doing what Maya Angelou said we should do: “When you know better, do better.”

This, to me, is part of being a functional adult human being in the world we’ve constructed. It is a necessary skill, to be able to understand that nothing is ever really black and white. No one is all good or all bad. It is hard and sometimes (often) painful, to have that person you admire be brought down.

But we still get to have new copies of the non-racist Dr. Seuss books.

And Cuomo’s actions toward women? I cannot condone them, I cannot excuse them. I do believe the women. I think far less of him and I am disappointed in him.

But it doesn’t change the fact that he helped me through a difficult time in my life. The comfort that happened during that time still, actually, happened, whatever is happening now. It helped me in real ways at that time, no matter what is happening now.

Just like I learned to love books by way of some stories with racist ideas.

I could follow the example of the conservatives shouting “UNFAIR” about Dr. Seuss. I could say “I think those women are lying,” but I would be doing that not with my critical thinking self, but with my emotional self. And that is not the sort of person I want to be. Whether or not it’s painful doesn’t matter.

It’s part of being human, and being human is messy and confusing and sometimes it’s ugly. Sometimes you have to wrestle really, really hard with the bad things done by people you loved or admired. But your feeling for them doesn’t change the truth of their actions.

Racism exists. Men sexually harass women. Looking away or pretending it doesn’t exist doesn’t change those facts.

So call me uptight or pedantic. Say I am blinded by my liberal idealism. But I’m going to continue trying to be objective, even if I fail and have to try again, because critical thinking is, I believe, necessary for a society to function within its good and bad qualities.


Thoughts on Glue and Fairy Wings: 2020 in Review

My Facebook memories reminded me of THIS POST I wrote last year, a summary of the previous decade. I had totally forgotten I wrote it, but rereading it made me stop and think. I have a selfie I took last year when I was taking down the tree, and I meant to make a layout about a note I wrote to myself that day for this December: remember to buy glue for the fairy wings. Glue for the fairy wings (some broken Christmas-tree ornaments) seemed hopeful…I can fix broken things, even if they are ephemeral, even if the will forever be repaired now.

A year later, I’m not so sure.

This year. This year. 2020 was pretty damn awful, wasn’t it? Here’s my personal list of what felt the most awful to me:

  • A super dry January and February. Maybe that sounds ridiculous but the dry, brown winters make me feel nervous and sad. They set a tone right from the start of the year, of unfulfilled hope and of fear of devastation.
  • The pandemic. In Utah, things shut down in the middle of March. For me, at first this was mostly just strange—everyone working from home, the library shut down. I had to cancel a trip to St. Louis that I very much wanted to take. As it went on, I grew more fearful, especially as we started to realize the effects the virus can have on hearts. My brain started planning various people’s funerals and I, for the first time in my life, had regular sleepless nights.
  • I injured my toe. This happened on the day we hiked to Silver Glance lake in the snow; I’m not really sure why, but when I took my boots off after that hike, my second toe on my right foot was swollen and throbbing. I cut back on running, then took a three-week break. I had cortisone shots. I stretched, I strengthened my feet, I murmured encouraging thoughts to my toe. Every time it would start to feel a little better, it would flare up if I tried to run (or, you know…even if I tried to walk around my house in bare feet). Then, the day before we left for California, I was running and something popped. Turns out, after an MRI (that took SIX WEEKS for my insurance to approve) that I tore my plantar plate. Solution? Surgery. Which I’ve had to wait for until next week, so basically I’ve been walking around with a toe that slips in and out of joint since August. And NOT RUNNING. I haven’t run since July.
  • I had several painful and ugly confrontations with people in public. The first one happened at the post office when another customer yelled at me for wearing a mask. There were several “discussions” with library patrons. A lady at WalMart got in my face. I stood my ground but it felt…those experiences chipped away at my confidence in humanity.
  • I had several painful and ugly—but more subtle—confrontations with friends, families, and neighbors about my decision to stay at home as much as possible, to wear a mask, and to expect others to wear a mask. I have been called a coward and weak because I am “living in fear.” I’ve been told I am brainwashed by the liberal media. I have been told if I had enough faith I wouldn’t worry, because God’s gonna do what God does regardless of whether or not I wear a mask.
  • The trump trains. Again…this might seem like a small thing, in the scope of such an awful year. But seeing miles of big trucks waving that flag along with the American flag broke something in me. My body had a physical reaction, as if my heart were circulating thumbtacks instead of blood. I still get a little bit jittery at the sight of a US flag. Such blind, thoughtless admiration of a horrible man whose decisions have cost so many lives…I can’t understand it.
  • Family drama. Actually, “drama” isn’t even the right word for it. None of it is my story to tell, but it still affected me and I don’t know how to figure out a new normal.
  • Kendell had to start a new medication for his heart. He hates it and it makes him grumpy. But his heart will slowly fail without it. This is why I get so hurt by people telling me I am a coward for taking the corona virus seriously. I’m not a coward. I just know the very real results of living with a repaired body, and as I worry about my husband I also feel sorrow for all the people who didn’t die from COVID but will bear its scars in their bodies for the rest of their lives.
  • Over and over, our nation’s “leaders” disappointed me.
  • The wildfire that burned through some of my favorite hiking areas. The wildfires in California and Colorado, too. I don’t know those mountains as intimately as I know my own, but so much burning of beautiful places just ripped my guts out.
  • Watching the way the pandemic affected my kids. Each and every one of them has had their lives impacted by it. Again…not really my stories to tell anymore, but damn if I don’t wish I could fix it all for them even as I know just how much I can’t.

So many broken wings. Maybe there isn’t enough glue in the universe to fix what is broken.

But at the same time, there is also this:

  • We all kept our jobs. Mine even let me work from home so as to minimize Kendell’s risk of exposure. Financially, the pandemic hasn’t hurt us yet, and I am so, so grateful.
  • We all stayed healthy. Not only did we not catch the corona virus, no one even had a cold or the stomach flu all year long.
  • Working from home gave me a more flexible schedule, which translated into more hiking time, which meant even with my injury and taking time off from all exercise, I still got in 51 hiked this year, 48 of them with Kendell. One with Jake too!
  • I got the opportunity to learn how to use my new sewing machine by making face masks for others. I also made a lot of baby quilts and celebrated several of my friends becoming grandparents.
  • While many of my friends and extended family members got sick, no one I know closely was deathly ill or killed by it. I say that with the utmost sense of gratitude and sorrow for those who DID lose loved ones.
  • We remodeled our bathrooms.
  • Haley got vaccinated. So did my sister-in-law who is a nurse.
  • Haley got accepted to med school and moved to Pittsburg, where she is kicking butt at her classes, even while having to take them mostly online and without the benefit of a cadaver lab.
  • Nathan survived one the most difficult Army training programs, taking most of his classes via a laptop in his tiny barracks. He passed his tests and graduated and he is home for a while!
  • Elliot finished his PhD and got a job at MIT.
  • Jake and I had some important conversations and understand each other much better. He is SO ready for the restrictions to be lifted so he can move forward in his life.
  • Kaleb finished jr. high, made the basketball team for his sophomore year, and got two 4.0s. AND is learning to drive.
  • I grew closer to several of my friends via texting, even though we couldn’t see each other in person. And I had several opportunities to help other people while they were quarantined.

So…many good things this year, too. What is broken? What is too fragile or too torn to repair?

If I think of myself at the start of 2020 and here at the beginning of 2021, I feel like I am a different person. I feel, honestly, more than a little bit jaded and even more bitter than normal. Not because I don’t recognize and see the blessings in my life—I do. But the thing that makes a fairy is its wings. The things that made me who I am, or at least some of those qualities, have been severely challenged this year. What I am not sure I can repair is my belief that logic and kindness will always win out in the end. There has been so much ugliness this year and I feel…I feel like my wings are tattered. (And even as I write that I remember the memes about how the dufus wasn’t elected to tiptoe around my feelings.)

So as I start 2021, I am not sure. I want to glue my wings back—I want to figure out who I am now, and not let what is unique to me be discarded. But honestly? Honestly, I am not sure how. I don’t know where to get that glue.