The Blazing Purple F on My Back: Thoughts on Feminism, The Handmaid's Tale, and the Barrett Confirmation

I wrote this post based on the novel The Handmaid’s Tale. The novel, not the TV show. I haven’t watched the TV show. I probably never will watch the TV show. Nor have I read the sequel Atwood published last year, The Testaments, because I’m fairly annoyed she even wrote it. Does that make me a handmaid’s-tale originalist?

In Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, one of the most important characters is an Aunt Lydia. In the society of Gilead, there are strict social assignments for women; the Aunts are women who instruct the Handmaids (whose sole function is to try to conceive and carry a baby to full term, preferably one who is not a “shredder.”) Women have almost no power in Gilead, except for the Aunts. In fact, the social structure wouldn’t work without the Aunts, because they are the people who indoctrinate the Handmaids. The Aunts support the patriarchal structure by subduing women’s ability to think and act for themselves. By fulfilling this role, they gain the tiny amount of power the society allots them. They can move about the world with more freedom; they can “work,” and they are not beholden to a Commander as the Handmaids and the Marthas are.

Handmaids tale folio
(Illustration from the Folio edition)

My thoughts were crowded yesterday with this story and these characters, as the reality of the Barrett confirmation sunk into my psyche. (I knew about it the night before, of course, but I blocked it out. Then I went to sleep and my psyche let it in.) But I also thought about America itself, and what I was taught about America. I thought of the lessons I had in my fifth grade class, which is my first memory of learning about politics; Mr. Strong taught us that one of the defining characteristics of America’s society is that the Supreme Court is impartial, neither conservative nor liberal. I remembered saying the Pledge of Allegiance on the first day of third grade, when I thought I might love school again after hating second grade, and the day in eighth grade when I said it in Spanish. (I can still say it in Spanish.)  I thought about other history and politics classes I took, in junior high and high school and college. The series of checks and balances that were designed to keep justice impartial. The scarf across Justice’s eyes, meaning she was blind to left or right. The ideals a president should represent, whether he (it was always a he) was a Democrat or a Republican: intelligence, fairness, broadmindedness. The concept that politicians were, in effect, in their position to serve the American people.  The lofty goals of the founding fathers, based on the lofty morals of the Greeks who invented Democracy.

I believed in that America. I thought that America was real. Of course, as I grew older and I learned more about humanity, I also learned the reality of people. How often we are motivated by selfishness and greed. How power corrupts. How racism affects so many people. How women's voices are silenced. How presidents have simply been men, with both good and bad traits who either rose to the challenges of their times or didn’t. How history is almost always only one side of the story, usually the victor’s. How much is erased, how much is filtered through the storyteller’s perspective. But I still believed in that America. Or at least, in the possibility of it. Imperfect, but we all had that beautiful, ambitious goal of creating a society where everyone is free.

And I thought about the Aunts. 

I first read The Handmaid's Tale during the summer after I graduated from high school. This comment from Aunt Lydia stuck out to me. It stayed with me even after I finished the book; when I reread it a few years later, I read waiting to meet it again, because it troubled me. I didn't quite understand it:

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.

Freedom from: the threat of rape. The threat of other violence. The necessity of getting out of bed in the morning to go to work. The real pain of dropping your baby off at daycare. The worry of finances. The heartache of a bad marriage. The emotional drain of always feeling less than because you are a woman. Freedom from those things can only be gained, Aunt Lydia is saying, if you give up your freedom to: to make your own choices, to control your own body. Isn't it worth it?

Whether or not it's worth the exchange is not in the thought process of the Aunts. Of course it is worth it, because the freedom to brings risk, while the freedom from brings safety. That that safety is suffocating doesn't matter. The lack of risk matters, and if the Handmaids understood their value (as breeders, of course, not as human beings), they wouldn't feel suffocated. It is the Aunts' duty to ensure this way of thinking, to protect the women from their own weaknesses. They feel righteous in their position, these Aunts, because they are a hinge. They "protect" women from themselves while simultaneously ensuring men's power (and thus their own illusion of power).

Those Greek ideals of the founding fathers? They are still levers pulled mostly by men, and the Aunts are behind them, supporting their elbows.

When the Kavanaugh confirmation happened, part of me was destroyed. It changed my relationship with male figures of power forever. It altered my relationship with my faith in ways I doubt will ever be repaired. But part of me knew: it is men being men. Bros are going to support their bros. It’s what they do. Men are always going to support men, even the worst of men, because in doing so they reinforce their own power structure.

But this Barrett confirmation?

This is a whole other level of betrayal.

Barrett is an Aunt. Rather than rebelling against the dominant male power structure, she believes it. She uses the male system to gain power, and the power she wields she will use to harm women.

Yesterday, I sat in my kitchen. I needed to get things done at home before I left for work—clean the kitchen, swap out the laundry, get some packages ready to mail. If nothing else, I needed to put clothes on and brush my hair. But for a little while, I couldn’t. For a little while, all I could do was sit on the stool in my kitchen, weeping. Because all of those ideals, all of those lessons about the constructs of American society that keep us from slipping back into the dark ages: they are broken. Or maybe they were only ever lights and mirrors, only the appearance of a democracy.

What do I believe in now? Now that I have lost my religious faith and my national pride?

Men using power to hurt women is one thing. It is what they have tried to do for most of human history.

Women using power to hurt women?

Well, that has been done throughout history, too. There have always been Aunts. Think, for example, of the Salem Witch Trials. There would have been far less damage done to women if there hadn’t been so many Puritan Aunts, busy turning other women in as witches because that was the access to power that men allowed them. Or what the nuns did to orphans during the 1950s in Quebec. Or your local high school Queen Bee. I have known them at church, in jobs, at school. Especially in the Mormon church, where so many women refuse to even acknowledge the way the power structures of the church suppress them.

Maybe this part of me is breaking, too. Maybe feminism is the next thing that will break.

I’m not sure I could count how many times I have had a discussion with so many different men, churchgoers and neighbors and friends and random library patrons and even family members. Those men who think that the problem with feminism is that it seeks to elevate women over men at all costs. That, to me, has always been a basic misunderstanding—a blatant one, in fact, for if you try to learn about feminism, you will start to understand that it is not about elevating women above men. It is about equality. About anyone, whatever their gender (or orientation, or race) being able to be the person they are, not the person society says they must be.

No one gets to say that anymore.

Because no feminist worth the purple F scrawled on her back would be OK with this confirmation. Not just because most Americans wanted whoever wins next week’s election to nominate the next Supreme Court judge. Not just because RBG’s dying hope was that she wouldn’t be replaced by a trump nominee. Not because the Republicans said we could hold them to their word if this happened in 2020. Not because Supreme Court justices should be impartial, not lackeys for the current president. Not because having the confirmation at the White House blatantly disregards even the smoke-and-mirrors approach of objectivity.

But because Barrett is an Aunt. Her motivation isn’t equality for all. It isn’t liberty or justice for all, not in English or Spanish or Swahili. It isn’t even to make things more equal for her own gender. Her motivation is suppression and power. It is the imperative of all Aunts throughout history: The correct way to live in this world is the way that men decide, and the Aunts exist to make sure that male vision becomes reality. The rest of us—Handmaids or Marthas—can submit willingly or be forced, but the Aunts will see it done.

The Aunts are traitors to their gender.

In a few days, I will be able to remember that the Handmaids are the rebels. But yesterday. But today. Right now I am still consumed with rage, frustration, sorrow, grief. 

A today will come, though, when I can turn those emotions into change.

We cannot let the Aunts win.

Library Experiences in a COVID World

If you’ve read my blog for very long, follow me on Instagram, or know me in person, you know I believe that books can save your life. I believe in the power of the written word to help a reader find her way, of story to educate, console, and transform, of metaphor to enlighten. I believe libraries are an important part of our society; like museums, they feed our cultural heart.

But I also understand the reality of our current situation, the fact that we are living in a pandemic.

On Friday night I had a…conversation? not really an argument, per se, because I did not lose my temper, but it was definitely a discussion. Let’s call it a debate. On Friday night I had a debate with a library patron that brought these two concepts into conflict.

The library where I work was one of the first libraries to open in Utah, and so, since Utah seems to have opened earlier than many other states, perhaps one of the first to open in the nation. We started with highly modified procedures and have gradually, over the months, relaxed the constrictions. Two weeks ago, we moved to being open for our normal hours. But we still require masks; we ask patrons to limit their visit to an hour, and there isn’t any furniture set out. You can’t linger in comfortable chairs, reading the newspaper. We want patrons to use the library to access materials—books, printers, the internet—and then go home. The library as a social gathering place is a concept for a non-pandemic world.

This particular patron was not happy with me when I told him about the lack of furniture and the one-hour time limit. Specifically, he wanted to sit somewhere comfortable and use his laptop. When I told him we weren’t set up for that, he grumbled that the library was “ridiculously Draconian.” I smiled politely and he wandered off.

Two hours later, I switched desks to the basement floor, where our computer lab is. Said gentleman was sitting in front of one of the computers, using his laptop. Mind you, this was two hours after I’d told him about our one-hour time limit. The other librarian had reminded him of the hour limit, but he pushed back.

I waited for another half hour, and when he still had made no progress toward leaving—and when there were other patrons in the area—I calmly told him that we are limiting the time for being in the library to an hour, and as he had been there for almost three, he needed to wrap it up. He again grumbled and rolled his eyes, and he snapped at me that he was “almost done.”

I said “OK, thank you,” and went back to my desk.

Ten minutes later, this patron walked over to my desk. He said “can I ask you a question?” and I said, “that is what I am here for.” I knew that of course he wasn’t going to ask me for a book recommendation (I mean, why would you ask a librarian sitting in the fiction area for a book recommendation? Clearly what happened was even better), but I never imagined what would happen next.

Twenty minutes.

Twenty minutes.

Twenty minutes of debating whether or not the library’s restrictions are necessary. He brought up so many Fox News talking points. I calmly refuted them, but inside I was fuming. Fuming. He insulted me several times, but more than that, I feel like he took a hammer to my belief in humanity. After my shift, when I’d closed up the library and was driving home, I felt the response in my body, as if all the negative emotions were objects bumping around in my circulatory system.

I’m aware that blogging about this incident doesn’t change it. It doesn’t change his opinions (talking about it face to face didn’t change his opinions). It also might stir things up at work that might otherwise remain unstirred. But writing and sharing has become a method for processing for me. Those feelings are still here, jostling around my body, and maybe writing about them will help. Here is a list of his objections and my responses:

“Why is the library being so Draconian?”
He must’ve said “Draconian” fifty times. He claimed other libraries in the county allow you to do whatever you want. (This is not true.) And he kept pushing that there was a secret reason for all our limitations, a secret that I knew because I’m in the “upper echelon of librarians.” (If he only knew how ridiculous that statement is.)

Finally I just said, “sir, I seriously do not know a secret reason. Why don’t you tell me what you mean?” and he said “the secret is that the library is afraid. They are basing all of their decisions on fear.”

Yes. We don’t want our patrons to get sick. We don’t want our coworkers to get sick either. If taking safety precautions as recommended by scientists, while simultaneously being the most accessible library in perhaps the whole state is making decisions out of fear, then, OK. That’s the secret.

(I did not say these thoughts. They are highly sarcastic and even with my iron-willed control of my emotions I could not have responded politely to that point.)

“Why does the library think it’s so special?”
His point here was that grocery stores, doctor’s offices, and schools are open during the pandemic. Why shouldn’t libraries also be open?

I love libraries. They have been my saving grace on many occasions.

But libraries are not literal health care. They can’t stop you from dying from a heart attack.

Books can feed your soul, but they are not literal food. They cannot give you calories you need to sustain your body.

Libraries and education work closely together. Students need access to a library. Currently, at our library, they have access. They can check out books and use a computer. Also, I think the way our society is treating teachers is downright shameful.

Finally, he doesn’t see the irony in standing in a library shouting at a librarian about “fair access”? You are in a library. You’ve been here for three hours. What more do you want?

“Why do you think you’re so special?”
“The grocery store employees are risking their lives and you’re sitting there behind your sneeze guard in a mask doing nothing. Why should they risk their lives but you don’t have to? Isn’t it a little bit cowardly?”

Seriously…this random dude called me a coward. He knows nothing about me. He doesn’t know what small and large courageous things I’ve done. Truth is: I don’t want to get sick. I don’t want the lingering effects that COVID can have. I don’t want two weeks of feeling horrible. I don’t want my family members to have it, either.

I’m not a coward. I am a rational person who listens to the people I know who have experienced the illness, as well as the reports of doctors and scientists.

I’m also a person who is out in public taking care of patrons. Taking care of that patron arguing with me. How am I making myself “special”?

“I mean, it’s not like you have any risk factors. You’re young, you’ll be fine.”
He doesn’t know I have restricted lung function after having whooping cough.

He doesn’t know I have a husband and a child with heart issues.

Also he clearly doesn’t know that sometimes people get sick and even die without risk factors.

(I told him this, very politely. He looked abashed. Then he got in my face about sending my kid to school if he has risk factors. WHAT.)

“Oh, so doctors can risk their lives, but you can’t?”
Well, I chose to not become a doctor. I’m not medically certified. I didn’t go to school for eight or ten years like doctors do. I also don’t make a doctor’s salary. Whilst standing by my “libraries are important” belief, I also believe that libraries are far less important than doctors.

When I told him this, he said “well, you’re far less educated than a doctor. You probably don’t even have a Bachelor’s degree.”

Actually, I have two, but thanks for making my point for me. Yes: I know I don’t matter to society as much as doctors. That is exactly my point. They deserve to make more money than I do. But that also comes with personal risk.

“Besides, it’s not like this is as scary as everyone thinks. More people die from the flu. It will all go away after the election.”
(Please imagine me sitting in my tall chair behind the library desk, in my orange cardigan. Please imagine how high my eyebrow shot up. Please imagine the internal swearing that was happening inside my head.)

Well, I guess the doctors, nurses, grocery store employees, and teachers aren’t putting their lives at risk then, are they?

The worst thing, somehow, is at the end of this debate, he thanked me. He actually thanked me for having “an intelligent conversation” with him. I don’t know why that felt awful, but it did. Maybe because as a library employee I have to walk a fine line: I have to defend myself, but I also can’t be blunt and say what I really think. Maybe because I found it fairly surreal to be supporting restrictions that, in all honesty, I find to be not restrictive enough.

Or maybe just because I know I didn’t change his thought process one bit.

But I do feel better, having written this. If nothing else, I can stop having imaginary conversations with this guy in my head. Having written, I can now move on.

One of my favorite writers, Neil Gaiman, said “If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future." I much of this idea did that patron understand? He wasn't objecting to the library restrictions because he was worried about how it might impact anyone other than himself. He feels entitled to sit at the library for hours on end with his laptop, but it didn't matter at all to him that others actually have access to books; what mattered was that he couldn't have it exactly the way he wanted it.

And here's the irony in this whole situation. He didn't say this, but the conclusion I drew from his words is that he considers the library, and thus by association me and all other librarians, as being selfish. Thinking only about themselves instead of what their patrons might need, considering their own fears more important than his right to a comfortable place to sit.

And I, quite frankly, consider him to be selfish, thinking that his rights are more important than other people's health.

I didn't tell him that, of course. I did strive to remain professional during this interaction. But now that it is past and I am trying to process the experience, that is what I come back to. I don't want to believe that Americans have allowed our independent spirits to morph into selfishness. I want to believe in the good of humanity.

But that interaction left me much less able to hold on to my belief.

Why I Wear a Mask

As the pandemic continues, I have been thinking about fear.

To be fair, I have thought about fear quite often over the past 15 years or so. I think about it when someone tells me I’m brave to go running on my own. I think about it when someone says I’m foolish to go running on my own, too. I’m not fearless about running by myself. I always tell someone where I’m going and how long I’ll be. I take my cell phone with me and make sure it is charged. I watch for people who give strange vibes and I cross roads with the utmost caution. Every time I leave to go running, in fact, I have the thought that this one might be the run when something bad happens: when I get hit by a car, when someone pulls me into the weeds and rapes me, when I fall and get an injury I can’t walk home with…

If you let it, the fear can control your imagination. So I choose, every time I go for a run, to go anyway, despite my fears. Because the truth is, I don’t have someone to run with consistently. If I decided to not run because of my fears, then I would never run, and not running is not an option. So I take precautions and I try to make my choices based on reality rather than on the fearful scenarios my brain can devise.

There is an idea in American society right now that people are wearing masks out of fear. I’ve seen it expressed on social media, of course, but also I’ve seen it in person. The man in the post office in April, who shouted at me because I was wearing a mask while I waited in line to mail a package to Nathan, that I was an idiot for believing in the government’s scare tactics. (And the flu kills more people than this stupid imaginary virus.) “You’re just wearing that mask because you’re a coward,” he said. Luckily librarian eyebrow is REALLY noticeable when you’re wearing a mask. I didn’t even respond with words, just glared at him until he shut up.

Here’s the thing: I’m not wearing a mask because I am afraid. I am wearing a mask because it might help turn the tide, flatten the curve, calm the wave. I’m wearing one because it could help keep someone else from getting sick. I’m wearing one because that’s what scientists are recommending.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not afraid. I am afraid. I don’t want to bring the virus into my family. I have gone through enough medical conditions with my family to fill an entire lifetime. It is enough. I don’t want my husband, whose heart has undergone FOUR damaging processes, to catch a virus that can cause heart damage. I don’t want my teenage son, who has an aortic bulge, to catch a virus that can cause aortic bulges. I don’t want my adult son, who is grappling with mental health issues, to add illness to his list of struggles. I, in my own body, do not want to catch it. My breathing has already been irrevocably altered by pertussis. I don’t need another thing.

I also don’t want any of my adult kids who are out in the world, away from my house, to catch it. I hope many, many complete strangers I will never meet will be wearing masks so that my kids can be healthy and safe, so they can push forward with their amazing and brave pursuits.

All of my friends and family members: I don’t want any of them to get sick, either.

I also reject the idea that I’m wearing a mask because I don’t have enough faith. “I know where I am going when I die,” I have heard more than once, “so I’m not afraid. If it’s my time, it’s my time, and I will be happy in heaven.” My faith has changed so much in the past five years that I can no longer grasp this concept, but even when I did think I knew where I was going, I didn’t want to die. I want to live a long life. I want to see my kids fulfill their ambitions. I hope I get to be a grandma one day. I want to travel. I want to sit in restaurants with friends and laugh and talk together. I still have books to write, races to run, mountains to climb. I want to be here, in this place, living with the people I love. Death is inevitable, but I don’t want to invite it in any sooner than necessary, not because of fear of the afterlife but because I am here, right now, and it is what I know.

When I run by myself, I only use one headphone and I keep my music low so I can hear my surroundings. I check over my shoulder and I look around for weirdos. I also watch the path; what divots or stones do I need to avoid so I don’t twist an ankle? I put on sunscreen so I don’t get sunburned, and make sure I have access to water on longer runs. I don’t run naked but in fact spend no small amount of money on running clothes that keep my boobs from bouncing and compress my hamstrings in a supportive way. I wear socks so I don’t get blisters and shoes so I don’t cut my feet open.

These are the precautions I take to keep myself safe in order to do something that I love. Do they absolutely guarantee that I won’t get hurt, raped, hit by a car, or otherwise injured? No (although I do ensure that there is ZERO boob bouncing). But they up the odds of my safety.

It’s the same with mask-wearing during a global pandemic (although it’s starting to feel like an American epidemic, isn’t it?) I don’t wear a mask because I’m a coward (or because I’m manipulated by the media, influenced by propaganda, virtue signaling to others, or any of the other dumb things people have said or insinuated). I wear one because I understand the risks and want to do what I can to make them smaller, for myself and for others.

This past weekend, my niece who lives in Texas was visiting Utah. I haven’t seen her entire family for years—long enough that none of her kids really even know who I am, but I was excited to see them all anyway. We haven’t had any family interaction since December, so when my sister planned a family party, I was so looking forward to it. But then Texas exploded with cases, and Utah’s cases continued to go up, and I got nervous. None of my concerns about hearts and lungs and mental health have changed. I wanted to go to see my family, but I also wanted to stay safe. So, I very carefully asked. I know this is a hot-button issue and people have strong opinions on both sides. I didn’t want to seem like I was taking all my toys and going home, but I also needed to lower the risk. I asked if people would wear masks to the party. And I know: many of them didn’t want to. Many of them disagree with my opinion.

But, you know? I went to the party and they all wore masks. No one made me feel bad, no one told me I was a coward. Maybe after I left they all took their masks off and had a mask-and-Amy-free party without me, and that is fine.

But they respected my issues because (I think) they love me and wanted to see me. I mean…it might’ve just been for my cake, but I think it was for me.

I can’t help but contrast that with another large activity Kendell and I went to a few weeks ago. We went full of hesitation but wanting to be supportive. We both wore our masks. And we were literally the. only. people. wearing masks. One other person put on his mask in solidarity, but everyone else went about their partying way, maskless. I caught the eye of several people, friends and family both, and the looks on their faces: pity, ridicule, and many efforts not to laugh. It was almost like being back in high school, when the queen bee deigned to notice you and then spotted your flaw and her eyes widened in delight at this thing she could mock you for. Like that, except far more disappointing than painful because now we are grown ups and should know better.

It is a form of privilege, honestly. To stand in the midst of so many people getting sick and so many who are dying and to defy the precautions. It might seem brave to you, you might think I am living in fear, but honestly, to me you are being stupid. It shows that you have yet to learn one of life’s cruelest truths. Illness comes to everyone, eventually, and while you might be healed you are never the same. You will always be fixed, there will always be a scar.

So I will wear my mask. In hopes that it protects my family. In hopes that it protects others. In hopes that it will create good karma that protects my out-of-state loved ones. In hopes that I will not be the vector that causes life to teach you that truth.

Not in fear, but in hope.

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.


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

Examining my Own Racism

When the story about Amy Cooper was just starting to break, there was a discussion about it in one of the Facebook groups I participate in. Someone tried to excuse her behavior by saying that she, as a woman alone in Central Park, must have felt threatened, and only reacted like she did because she was afraid in the heat of the moment. Books by black authorsMany of us pointed out that she doesn’t act afraid but is, in fact, the one doing the threatening. As has already been pointed out, she turned her whiteness into a weapon, trying to build something painful with her knowledge of how black men are often treated by the police.

And then, of course, George Floyd was murdered by a white policeman, as if to prove the point.

Like most of our country, I am thinking about racism. I am wondering what our nation can do, how it can change—not just wondering, but trying to think of solutions. What can I do?

What can I do?

Let’s be honest: I live in a white state. I think when I graduated from high school there was one African American student. Utah is becoming more diverse, but is still 88 % white (as of the 2010 census). I was 47 years old before I could say I have a friend who is black. Not because I don’t want to be friends with black people, but because in my tiny circle, I haven’t had the opportunity. I am a middle-class white woman in a white state, with no influential relationships and without the wealth required to really have a voice in this world. How can I be a voice for change when I know so few people of color and don’t have much power?

Here’s another truth: I have taken pride in the idea that I am not a racist person. I want that to be part of my identity. I want people to know that I am not racist. I mean, look at me! I read books by Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and Tayari Jones and N. K. Jemisin, Zora Neal Hurston and Roxanne Gay and June Jordan. I have annotated my newest copy of Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider so much it’s like flipping through a pen explosion.

Doesn’t that prove I’m not racist?

I am outraged by the way people of color are treated in America. I watch the news and read the books and try to stay informed. I don’t only grieve for what is happening, but I try to read widely so I can try to understand how difficult it is to be a Black human being in America, knowing I cannot really know because I haven’t lived it, but hoping that learning will at least help me to be more empathetic.

Does that prove I’m not racist?

I get annoyed when I see fabric lines or scrapbook supplies with illustrations of people—sketches, stylized paintings, cartoonish images—that are only white. When someone’s fragile-white friend on Facebook says something like “all lives matter” or “not all white people!” or “just because some white people kill black people doesn’t mean everyone has to riot!” I try to write a calm, thoughtful, and pointed response in the hope that maybe my words will trickle in. I try to remember that images matter, metaphor matters, the way people speak matters. Words matter, so I try to learn what they mean outside of my own context.

See! I’m not racist!

When we first started practicing social distancing, I had no problem veering widely around white people in the grocery store, but I felt deeply uncomfortable going the wide way around black people. I had the words in my mouth, “I’m not doing this because of your skin color! I just have two people with heart conditions so I’m being extra careful!” Words I didn’t say because I would sound like a crazy person, right? Did I need to say it? I smiled, that’s enough, right?

Am I racist?

But I find myself thinking, over and over, of Amy Cooper in Central Park. A white, educated Democrat woman trying to use her whiteness to harm a black person. I find myself wondering: deep down, when push comes to shove, is there a part of me that is capable of using my whiteness like she did? Am I really a good person, or is there a situation I haven’t experienced yet that, in the heat of the moment, would cause me to act in racist ways?

I hope not, but honestly: I don’t really know. Maybe no one really knows until that situation happens.

What I do know, honestly, is that while I try to not be racist, while I abhor the inequality and while I want to weep (and have) at humanity’s seeming inability to love each other—while all of those things are true, I also am a white woman. Even though I came from a family that had some financial struggles, I still have benefitted from the way society is constructed. Even though as a woman I have less power than men, I still have been able to construct a life for myself, a life that includes food and a safe home and the luxury of my own trees and a bookshelf stacked fully with books and four pairs of running shoes.

I have accomplished my small, normal, everyday-life accomplishments because of work, true. No one gave me anything. Except—America did. Of course I would go to college, because that’s what people like me do. Of course I would build a house in a suburban neighborhood—it was the next step to take, so I took it. Of course I would have children without ever having to give them the “talk,” the one about how to act around police officers so you don’t get arrested or hurt.

I try not to be racist. I hope my anti-racism is deeper than whatever fear I might encounter. I believe without question that everyone should have equal opportunities.

But I know: I haven’t ever really been tested.

I know that I can believe whatever I want, but the reality between opportunities based on skin color is vast.

I know that my life has benefited because of racism.

I will likely never be a person with an amplified voice. I don’t have the power to change society.

But I have the same power that every white person in America has: to look at myself. To change myself. To continue working. To write letters to senators and make phone calls to governors. To vote—to vote in ways that benefit people other than myself. To speak up when I read racist comments on social media. To learn and to try to empathize. To put my own ego aside and to try to see the world from someone else’s perspective. To always push myself to continue learning and doing whatever I can.

What I can do is breathe. I can breathe. And I want to use my breath to help those who are being suffocated, even if my efforts are small. My voice alone is small—but many others are speaking out as well, and I am adding my voice to the chorus.

Dear America: An Open Letter to All the Voters

Dear America:

You break my heart.

Since 2016, I confess: even though we’re all supposed to “go high” and to try to see both sides and to understand that different people have different ideas about what makes a good leader and to listen to everyone’s voice because everyone’s voices deserve to be heard—I know and believe that. But deep down (and probably not so deep down, especially in my private conversations) I have held contempt for trump voters.

I confess: I do not understand how anyone can think he is good for the country. I am still astounded that a reality-show conman is the president of the United States. I still feel like I am living in the wrong chapter of a choose-your-own-adventure story. Honestly, I find it disgusting that people can believe a person who makes fun of disabled people and thinks that white supremacists are upstanding citizens and denies science and destroys butterfly habitat for a pointless wall (and thinks that building walls is a solution) and doesn’t have time for books, who stands in front of the country every single day to lie about everything he can, even inane issues he doesn’t need to lie about—it disgusts me that people think this is OK.

I’ve tried to keep my small, judgmental thoughts to myself. But, you know? The other smallminded people don’t mind sharing their opinions.

“trump’s my man!” the mom of one of Kaleb’s friends told me shortly after the election. “He’s getting all those lazy unwed moms off welfare.” (This was a short-lived friendship.)

“That man is doing great things for our economy,” many, many men have mansplained to me on Facebook.

“At least he’s preserving our religious freedom,” more than one church member has said.

“Nah, he’s right,” a friend astounded me by saying. “All the hype over the environment is just fear mongering.”

Library patrons, church members, neighbors, friends, strangers at Costco…it isn’t my imagination. People—actual adults—think he is OK. They aren’t even embarrassed to think he’s just fine, while I’m over here struggling with shame that I think they are morons. And trying to convince myself that if I could see both sides I could somehow heal the rift, at least between people in my actual life.

Maybe it’s time to realize that there isn’t much I can do. Republicans are going to republican. They’re going to continue thinking that voting suppression is fantastic and that taking away women’s rights is a great idea and that destroying the ACA is just fine because, after all, it was pushed through by a black man. I can wave my arms and write my blog posts and raise my eyebrows in disbelief but none of that is going to stop them from being who they are.

And until recently, I held on to the belief that this is a Republican issue. That small-mindedness and the overwhelming desire to look backward for an image of how our country should be (“make America great again” really means “make America white again”; it means going back to that 50s ideal when wives in pearls and dresses scurried around at home making sure dinner was ready for their husbands when they walked in the door, when Black people knew their place, when gays stayed properly in their closet and, of course, when all the Mexicans were still in Mexico) belongs squarely on the red side of politics.

But the Democratic primary is making me think otherwise.

It’s making me think that maybe my sister Suzette was right. “It’s not just Republicans who are slime balls,” she’s reminded me more than once. “It’s all politicians.”

Except…I’m not really heartbroken by politicians.

I’m heartbroken because of voters.

I’m devastated that once again, our choices will come down to old white men.




I’m so tired of old white men ruling the world. Definitely the current president—I’ve been tired of his type of new-money trashiness and stupid wealth for all of my adult life. But all the senators too, blocking bills and putting narrow-minded judges into courts. Governors like Utah’s stroking the back of the dominant religion and selling our state to oil and property developers. Even the mayor of my little town is an old white man, one who swirls his finger around in his retirement funds and redecorates his office.

But over and over and over and OVER, we just keep voting for old white men.

And of course, the old white men are just going to keep showing up and consuming everything and ruling the world. Why?

Because America elects them.

“Hilary couldn’t beat trump,” someone told me yesterday, “so people won’t vote for a woman because they don’t think a woman can beat him.”

Is this true? Even though Elizabeth and Amy and Kamala aren’t Hilary?

Biden isn’t Obama.

Bernie isn’t Roosevelt.

But Biden says “I’m an Obama Democrat” and we all line up to vote for him?

Obama bailed out the banks. Clinton was a sexual slime ball. The Bushes got us into unnecessary wars.

The litany of trump’s mistakes and failures is legion.

Over and over, old white men—and, OK, at least Obama was black—have done damage to our country.

And yet over and over, we just keep electing them.

America: isn’t it time for something different?

Can’t it be, at last, the time when we can look forward? When we can grow up and let go of our prejudices and narrowmindedness?

If not now, when?


“Did you vote for Elizabeth Warren just because she’s a woman?”

That is the question I asked myself yesterday, over and over. Partly, no. I voted for her because she took on Bloomberg in the debates. And because she had actual plans. And because her health—physical and mental—seems much stronger than Bernie’s and Biden’s. Partly, yes. My first choice already dropped out, so I went with my second choice. I know enough of feminism to understand that this is what people hate about feminism; they think that it’s about prioritizing women over men. If you also have studied feminism, you know that at its core it is about equality, and we have to call it feminism because it is women—not men—who have to fight for every scrap of power.

I voted for Elizabeth Warren because Bernie terrifies me and because Biden can’t remember the position he’s running for or the, you know, the “thing” (ie the Declaration of Independence). And because Bloomberg is terrifying in an entirely different way. And because while I disagree with her stance on health care, I agree with almost all of her other plans, and because I think she would stand a better chance at helping to heal America’s divisions (Bernie certainly will not do this; Biden might but only if he can remember what he’s doing).

And, yes: I also voted for her because she’s a woman.

And it breaks my heart, America, that you can’t do the same.



Libraries Make Our Lives Larger

This week is National Library Week. I'm glad such a thing exists, considering all that our president has done to try to de-fund libraries (did you know that every single budget he's created has tried to take away the funding for the IMLS, which is the primary source of money for libraries and museums? While Congress isn't always known for doing the right thing, at least they've made sure to continue to support libraries, but a president who doesn’t think libraries are worthwhile is not something I’d ever believe would exist.)


I didn't set out to become a librarian. I got a degree in English because while science was interesting enough, I'm not really brilliant at it, and while I can get along in math OK it's not pleasant, but learning about books, words, writing, poetry, fiction, literary theory, grammar, and everything else that goes along with an English degree felt like the only reason to go to school. (I wish I had taken more history classes, though.) There've been several people in my life who have told me that I "just" got a degree in English, or that while, sure, I did graduate from college, it's only in English. Other people have told me that while science, math, and/or technology degrees are difficult, and require a certain type of mind and thinking skills, an English degree requires talent.

Maybe both are true, but my English degree did help me land my job as a librarian, even if I got that degree because I wanted to be a writer. (Doesn't every bibliophile want to be a writer?) I’ve been a librarian for almost eleven years, and I confess: I still get a little thrill when someone asks me where I work and I get to say “at the library.” I love being a librarian.

I love being a librarian. And I love libraries.

But I’ve also learned that not everyone understands the importance of our communities having good libraries.

Like the old friend I bumped into once who started laughing when I told him where I work. “So you spend your days just checking in books and putting them on the shelf?”

Like a podiatrist I went to once, who, when I answered “I work at the library” when he asked me what I do, said “Wait! The library is still open? I didn’t think people used the library anymore because of Kindle books.”

Even like library patrons themselves, some of who come into the space annoyed and entitled, who complain about what we don’t have for them, or about fines and fees, because books are too graphic or too cautious, because we have R-rated movies, because we don’t have enough movies, and who quite often end their complaints with some version of “I’m a tax payer and you are wasting my money.”

And, yes, like the president not wanting to fund libraries.

Try to imagine American society without libraries. Our libraries hold our collective history, the creative visions of our (and the world’s) writers. No libraries would mean that many people would have much less access to our literary richness. Throughout our entire life, access to the library gives us access to tens of thousands of books, from board books to picture books to chapter books to novels. Dictionaries and cookbooks and poetry, memoirs and science and history. Without libraries, only the wealthy could afford access to so many different books, and so libraries are one of society’s great equalizers.

Numerous studies have shown that readers are more empathetic human beings. I am glad data supports this, because it is a thing I unequivocally believe. Through reading you become larger than your own experiences; you learn that there is more than one way of thinking about the world. You start to understand something about the trials of being human: both that your troubles are smaller than many other people’s and that you are not alone in your troubles. You get to go places you otherwise couldn’t, discover things that you didn’t learn in your high school history class. Puzzle out mysteries, weep over characters’ losses, struggle with moral dilemmas.

Books create a life that is bigger than any individual. And libraries facilitate that largess.

Even when I wasn’t a librarian, even when that career path hadn’t even entered my thoughts—even then I loved libraries. If I left the library tomorrow (which I’m not doing of course), I’d still be an advocate for libraries. They are places full of books, and stories, words and images. They are more than just books on shelves, too. They are places where people gather, find information in many different ways, make friendships, stay warm in storms. They aren’t only about books.

But for today, I’m celebrating the books that libraries give us access to. They are worthwhile for so many different reasons.

And libraries are worth whatever funding we can give them.

Some Rambling Thoughts on Election Night 2018

Two years ago on election night, I made a scrapbook page. Kendell was watching the election results in the other room, but I couldn’t bear it. I could only witness with one of my senses. So I listened while I stood in my little haven with its blue walls and Van Gogh posters, its abundance of exacto knives and collection of paints. The layout I made was about Jake, who wasn’t talking to me at the time; I didn’t know what was going on and making something with his photos was the only way I had to feel any connection to him.

I fussy cut leaf after leaf, snapped off blade after blade from my knife.

I was already grieving for the mess my personal life had become and as the results came in, it felt the whole world was mirroring my little turmoil.

My turmoil roiled large and national.

Some part of me has never been the same after that experience with Jake, even though things are better now.

And some part of me will never be the same in regards to my country, either. Even if the country changes, if politics shift, if the narrow-minded, fear-mongering hordes see reason instead of hatred, I will never forget how that night felt. My nation electing such a vile man.

Two years ago, I wept and raged.

Today, I read an essay by a historian on Facebook about how we’ve seen this before: in the years before the Civil War, when wealthy white men used fear of black people to try to retain their power. When poor white people went along with it because at least they were on the same side as the wealthy men (even if they never benefitted financially, even if their sons died in war). This clicked some little thing in me, like when you snap your watch band together and it stays put. A click: OK. Understanding doesn’t fix it, but at least understanding can happen.

Today I also read a post on Facebook, this one in a feminist group I belong to, wherein the poster posited that maybe we should cut white, educated women some slack, because they (we) had all been taught—indoctrinated—that Hillary was bad. It wasn’t the fault of white, educated women (my demographic), this person suggested, that they voted for trump over a Clinton, because society had taught them to hate her. Which is probably true; if you only look on the surface, if you only listen to one media voice, another Clinton just couldn’t be trusted. Except: I reject that utterly. As a white educated woman I cannot understand how any white, educated woman could vote for that person simply to cast a vote against. I don’t know where these people were educated, and that is saying a lot because I graduated from BYU, one of the most conservative universities in existence. Yet, my education taught me many things. Critical thinking. The understanding that my perspective is not the only one, that my concerns are seen through a lens made from my environment—a lens I can remove. I know many such women, who believe trump was bad but Hillary was evil, and I cannot understand it.

Unless it is the same thing as those poor white men in the 1860s: white educated women want to just stand in the same place as white wealthy men. The ones with the power.

For the past two years, I have felt like I am living in one of those choose-an-adventure books, in a chapter created by someone choosing wrong.

So many wrong choices.

And those trump voters, two years ago. Saying yes it will be bad, but not that bad. We’ll survive.

But not everyone did survive. Or will.

Personally, my love of Americans has faltered. My patriotism is a little bit shaky. I never knew. I never knew.

That we are still so racist.

That we are still bigots.

That wealth and power are the only things that matter.

That we don’t care for the marginalized and the needy.

That we revile people from other countries (except Scandinavia).

I always knew my rights as a woman were threatened. I never stopped knowing we couldn’t stop fighting.

But I didn’t see the rest.

I thought we were courageous, openhearted, willing to look forward.

I thought we would create a world our grandchildren would thrive in.

I thought we were a country that looked at what we feared and then overcame it, not a country that used fear as tool to blind ourselves with.

For two years, I have resisted, just a little, in my heart. I have thought surely there are still enough people to see the truth.

But as another election passes this night, I find myself—in another wrong chapter. Not back where I was at the 2016 election, but somewhere actually darker and less hopeful.

I had my little personal miracle: Jake is turning around and we are healing.

But in this national darkness, I have stopped having hope for a national miracle.

I don’t know how to believe the voices of the wise, the brave, the calm, the rational will be heard again.

I don’t believe my voice matters.

But…here I am. Writing this. Despite knowing it is a silent, unidentifiable drop in the vast Internet ocean. Despite feeling my voice has been silenced.

Tomorrow we will wake up to election results. Will America have changed?

(Towards a) Feminist Understanding of Scrapbooking

Every once in a while, I log in to my Family Search account and follow my family line down one descendant or another. There are so many resources available there, including personal and family histories that people have typed and submitted, so other relatives can read them. Seeing photos, birth and death certificates, and gravestone portraits and reading stories about my ancestors makes me feel a complicated sort of joy. I look at their faces in grainy photographs, searching for a hint of my own; I savor the few details that are there but I wish desperately for more.

Last week, when I was writing this blog post, I wanted to make sure I had the genealogy correct, so I started clicking around on my family tree. I came across a link to a document I hadn’t ever read, called “The History of Charles Simmons and Mary Elizabeth Hughes,” who were my great-great grandparents. Usually it seems that most of the life histories are about men, and while I do enjoy those stories, too, I am much more interested in reading about my female ancestors. So I was fairly excited to click on the link and learn something of my great-great grandmother, who was my namesake’s mother-in-law. From this combined life sketch, I learned that my great-great grandfather came from an old Southern family which, according to county records, owned slaves. Most of his brothers died in the Civil War. He left Virginia to move west with his wife Mary, but they stopped in Salt Lake City and liked the Mormons enough to join the church and stay in Utah. The document also has a paragraph about the freed slave they brought with them to Utah, who, although he was free, didn’t want to leave them but also refused to live in the house with them.

About Mary Elizabeth Hughes, there are absolutely no details.

This frustrates me to no end.

I came to feminism partly by way of my English degree. (Also by way of my mother, who’s been a feminist for as long as I can remember.) For me, feminism is about equal rights and equal access to freedoms; it is about the right to be able to choose what to do with your life based on what you need and want, not based on stereotypical gender roles. But it is also about women’s stories, both in literature and in history. The woman in the text, if you will.

And so many of those stories are lost.

You discover this so quickly when you start digging in to family history. There are many, many of my female ancestors who are noted only as someone’s wife, without a name, and daughters listed just like that: daughter. Yet most of the sons’ names are noted. Women’s stories—all the way down to their names—are invisible.  

Tradition of silence

I want to know: what did Mary Elizabeth Hughes love about her childhood in Virginia? What experiences did she have during the Civil War? What experiences did she have traveling west? What did she think the first time she saw the mountains? Did she love or hate to cook? What was her favorite season? What were her daily struggles? What did she think about her son Nathan’s choice of a wife (my great-grandma Amy)? Did her Nathan have any similarities to my Nathan?

Unless some previously-unknown document was discovered, I will never know any of those details, about her or about any of my female ancestors.

And, sure: you could argue that if I did know those stories, my life wouldn’t change much. I would still live this life that I have. And I can’t really explain why I want to know these stories so badly—but I do. I can almost feel them, hovering around me, the women whose choices created my life. Like the angels in the Brian Kershisnik painting, except people with real experiences. If I just knew something more about them, something real, something unique—maybe if I knew I could see them in some way.

And this is one of the reasons that scrapbooking is so important to me.

Without a doubt, it’s a craft that can be viewed as kitschy. As something silly and childlike, as colored pencils and cut-out flowers, paint and frippery.

But it is so much more than it seems.

There is a long history (as long as human history, really) of women’s crafts being seen as less-than or secondary. There are artists, and there are female artists. There are writers, and then there are women writers. Poets, but poetesses. So part of feminism is claiming (not even reclaiming, as we haven’t ever been allowed to own) our art forms as being equally as important as men’s. Artists, writers, photographers, sculptors: creative people who happen to also be women are taking the stance that what they create is good not despite their gender, but because it is good.

Scrapbooking can have that same claim.

It is, in fact, a radical form of feminism: women telling their own stories. Women knowing that their stories matter (not only their children’s, not only their husband’s). Women ensuring that their voices—expressed in stories, yes, but also in the products we chose to use, and in the art we make—have a chance at being heard by future generations.

We lived. We breathed. We walked on this earth. Not all of us have extraordinary, history-changing lives. But all of us have been a part of human history. Almost exactly half of it. And the only way our voices, our stories will be remembered is if we tell them.

Tell them, somehow. In a blog or a journal or a blank screen in the word processor of your choice. Say them out loud while you record yourself. Or, yes, even: make a scrapbook. A layout or two or five or an entire album or ten albums. Your stories are important and no one else can tell them.

And this will never stop being important to me.