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.]


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.


Eau de Good Mormon

[This post is long and touches on religion. In fact, it sparked me making a new category, because it is a topic I would like to explore more even as I know it's not a topic that most people care about reading. I wanted to put a name to where I am at with my religion right now, and I ended up with "Mormon Fringe." As in...that is where I am. Still thinking about Mormonism but not really IN the church.]

As we reemerge from our shutdowns and quarantines, blinking again in the light of interacting with people in the same space, I am remembering that there is something I still have to process. I put it aside during the pandemic because I could, because my world was comfortably small: home with my family, and a few stints at work, passing people during a hike but not really engaging with them. Now I am out in the world a little bit more, I am rediscovering this. It didn’t ever get better, I just put it away because I wasn’t forced to pick it up, examine it, figure out what to do with it.

The thing is this: I don’t really fit here anymore.

(It’s also that I never really fit, but I didn’t clearly see it. Now I do.)

The reason I don’t fit in here (and by “here” I mean: deep in the heart of Utah County, where some ridiculously high percentage of people is staunchly LDS and so the majority is safe to assume that everyone is staunchly LDS) is mostly because I no longer go to church. There are many stories I could tell to explain why. Many experiences and realizations, so many months of grieving and aching and crying and then finally coming to a sort of peace and a sort of acceptance. Some things I have shared on my blog, but most of them I haven’t. Not because I am ashamed or don’t want to talk about it, but because most of the people in my life don’t want to listen to it.

One of the last public things I did in 2020 was a sewing class. I got a new sewing machine for Christmas in 2019 and it came with a free class, so I spent a Saturday at the Bernina shop, learning about my machine. I arrived with my machine and my hydroflask and my always-present hope…maybe I’ll find a new friend here? But, nope. I learned a ton that day about my machine, but I also learned something about myself. I had already not been going to church for a year, so honestly it had been awhile since I’d hung out with people from the UC at all. So as I watched and listened to the other people talking, laughing, and connecting it felt like anthropology. Like observing a society from the outside. That was my realization. I really don’t fit here, there is something different about me.

It was like…there is something they can read about each other’s body language that is an invitation. They just immediately find their connections: a son and a cousin who actually were mission companions in Guatemala, they are both primary presidents,  they each bought their machines because they wanted to learn how to sew ruffles to skirts to make them modest enough. My personal favorite were two women realizing they live only three blocks away from each other, in one of the fancy neighborhoods in Orem, on the east side of course. “Oh, don’t you just love living in there? The views are so amazing and the air is so clear and everyone’s landscaping is gorgeous!”

(And meanwhile I’m like…well, thank God they won’t even ask me where I live because I’m just down here on the flat part of Orem with the dirty air and the views of everyone’s trash landscaping and if I admitted that to them then they would know I am NOT seriously so blessed like they are.)

(I’m not bitter.)

Here in the Provo/Orem area, what it means to be LDS is to be a person who is ALWAYS and WITHOUT A DOUBT LDS. They prove it with their big east-side houses, with their top-of-the-line Suburbans (to carry their seven children of course), with the mission references and the temple-wedding references and the this-is-my-calling references. With their blonde hair and their modest clothes and the occasional flash of garment just so everyone knows they follow The Rules. They talk about it. (It seems it is all they talk about.) They assume everyone knows the cultural language they speak. They never have a thought enter their heads that someone else might be different than they are. And if you do happen to be different, it’s like they can smell it. They know there won’t be any connections to be made with you, so there is no reason to be friendly.

Even when I was trying my hardest to fulfill that appearance of “perfect Mormon person” I still didn’t really fit. They could still smell my wrongness. I was accepted on the surface, but actual, real relationships with my Mormon neighbors were few. And then as life progressed and I didn’t “earn” all the righteous blessings they did—I mean, it’s OK to start on the west side, it’s never being blessed enough to move up that proves your worth, and then none of my kids went on missions and actually none of them are even interested in the church and my husband was never a bishop and I was never a Relief Society president—my lack of those “blessings” proved I had earned the way I smelled. I didn’t do it well, I wasn’t righteous enough, I didn’t get the blessings I wanted because deep down I wasn’t good enough. If I were I would’ve earned those “good things” and would be happy.

Finally accepting that in part they were right—deep down, I am different—was one of the most freeing, if painful, processes of my life.

After that sewing class, I confess: I went home and cried. Honestly, every time I sit down at my machine I feel a little bit of a scrap of that feeling, that realization: I never fit because I don’t fit. I tried to fit for two decades, but just broke and tore and cut and scarred. It was a turn in my path, a realization and acceptance: stop trying to be someone you are not.

Of course, church members would say “no, there’s a place for you here, too. And maybe if you come and work harder, if you pray more and do more and believe more, if you stop being a lazy learner and just have a little faith, your children will turn around and everything will be OK, you just have to not give up.”

But here’s the thing.

I don’t want to sit in church and continue to feel bad that my kids didn’t turn out like everyone else’s did. I don’t want to be in a supposedly-holy place that demands I feel that way about my own children. I don’t want to pray that they will want to “go back” to church. I want to pray that they have happy lives. That they find relationships that fulfill them, careers that give them confidence and purpose. I want them to have meaningful experiences, to help others, to be healthy and safe. If they choose to get married or have families, I want them to do that because it will be a part of them being happy, not because it’s what a religious institution told them is the path to happiness.

All told, what I want for them, what I pray for and hope for, is that they don’t have to live their lives this way. Feeling like they are odd, like they don’t fit. Like they smell wrong.

❦❦❦

So, here we are, more than a year after the start of the pandemic. I’m starting, just a little bit, to go out into the world again. Last week, I reluctantly started going to PT again. Reluctantly because while I trust the PT I’ve been going to now for seven or eight years, I don’t love going there. My not-a-good-Mormon smell is especially potent there.

I knew to expect it so I was pre-hardened.

But this morning I struggled. Everyone talked about their weekends. “My nephew was ordained.” “I got to go to in-person church for the first time!” “I went to my cousin’s baby blessing.” One woman and her tech discovered they both went to the same mission in Switzerland, twenty-odd years apart, and then she glistened and glowed about her husband, a BYU professor who served in Belgium and also speaks French and so they decided to move to Provo instead of Orem so they could put their kids in a school that does French immersion and “of course it didn’t hurt that we’re only a few blocks away from the temple” (ie, east side on the hill) and now they only speak French in their home. (“Home” is spoken with a special reverence in LDS parlance, an extra-rounded O and a drawn-out M. It is never a house.)

I listened to them, patients and techs and therapists, speak their Mormon language, smell each other’s correct and pleasing smell. I started wishing again—wishing I could speak it, too. Wishing I had the right smell. Wishing I could laugh and start conversations easily and just…be involved, wherever I go.

And then I wondered: what do people outside the Book of Mormon belt talk about?

I don’t even know.

(Like, literally. I don’t know.)

I looked at Mrs. We-Only-Speak-French and young I-Know-Everything-About-BYU-Sports dude and the lady talking about how sweet it was to go back to church and hear signing again and the tech expounding on the church’s policy with polygamous families and how gracious it is. The guy getting his knee massaged with 4 inches of garments hanging out from his shorts and the older woman working on her shoulders, her g top exposed with each weight lifting.

I thought you are all insane. They don’t know what to talk about or how to be outside of their religion, and even more disturbing is they don’t know how strange that is. They fit because they fit here, so nothing hurts because why would it? Round pegs, round holes.

And I stopped with the wishing. I can wish this thing away all I want, but it isn’t going anywhere: I don’t fit here. My shape is spiral and convoluted and angles, and that is who I am.

And maybe if I were at another physical therapist’s office in, say, Seattle or Helena or Orlando or Detroit, I still would listen to the easy conversations around me and not know how to be a part of them. Maybe there is no place my shape fits.

(Actually, strike that “maybe.” More than likely.)

But I want to write this thought anyway, this thought that I had as I came home, again in tears, to write this post. The thought I had after putting into words this thought: I hope my kids don’t have to live this way.

Do I have to?

Is there somewhere I could fit, some place where I am the missing piece?

I’m not sure. But I am sure I don’t fit here. I could ignore that during the pandemic, but I don’t think I will be able to for much longer.


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.


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.


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.

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?

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.

Sincerely:

Amy


Hearts Like Crazy Paving: Thoughts on a Quilt

Where do ideas come from?

In January I noticed that a lot of the quilters I follow on Instagram were participating in a “scrappy hearts quilt along.” (Click on the link to see the first post about the quilt along, which was hosted by Emily Dennis.)  All those images of cute, sweet, scrappy (mostly pink) patchwork made me think I haven’t ever made a quilt to put out for Valentine’s Day

For about five seconds I could imagine my own cute, sweet, scrappy, pink patchwork heart quilt.

Scrappy hearts qal ig snip

(a screen shot of the #scrappyheartsqal hashtag on Instagram to illustrate what I mean. SEE! Cute! Pink! Sweet!)

But then reality smacked me in the face. First off: I am still deep inside making my black and pink quilt. I don’t need another pink quilt. (To reality I said: that’s true! But I don’t have to make a pink one. I could make an aqua one. Or a purple one! All multicolor florals! All low volume! What about plaids?) Second: I get a little bit obsessive with scrappiness sometimes. Meaning, I’d start out intending to use my scraps, but then I’d think “I need something new” and then before I knew it I’d have made 27 trips to 5 different fabric stores and I’d have enough fabric to make six scrappy heart quilts, not just one, and I’d have spent enough to cover an airplane ticket to London. (To reality I said: that’s true! But…and I really didn’t have a comeback to that truth.) Third: Last fall I made three scrappy patchwork pumpkin hot pads with very similar design ideas (scrappy squares and a few half square triangles) and those things took me an entire month. If I were to make a Valentine’s Day quilt, I wanted something faster. (To reality I said: that’s true! But maybe with my new machine it would be faster?)

But reality’s biggest argument was this: I really don’t love Valentine’s Day. I’ve written about this many times so there is no need to rehash all the reasons, but I can sum it up like this: having not married a romantic man, I have zero hopes for romantic Valentine’s Day gestures, and even though he shows me he loves me in many other ways on many other days during our life together, my bitterness at wanting traditional romantic Valentine’s Day gestures anyway flares high in February. My bookshelves are a lovely romantic gesture (if you’ve read A Man Called Ove you know my reference) but sometimes a girl wants overly priced flowers or expensive jewelry—and it annoys me that I still have that want even while knowing it’s manufactured by rose sellers and jewelry stores and Hallmark commercials.

Valentine’s Day, then, sparks annoyance with myself and frustration with my husband (I mean, really…would it be that hard to just get me some damn flowers?) and then more annoyance at myself for being frustrated with my husband (because bookshelves) and then I also remember it isn’t about Valentine’s Day, really, but about unmet needs (on both sides) and just how hard marriage really is and then I’m sparked and frustrated and annoyed and sad and…yeah.

So to reality I thought that’s true! And then I thought I moved on.

But those cute, sweet, scrappy patchwork quilts still kept popping up in my IG feed.

And part of my brain must’ve continued working on it, because one morning I woke up with an idea.

What if I made a quilt that was representative of my relationship to Valentine’s Day? What might that look like?

Hearts like crazy pavement quilt 7

(And, yes, I confess: one of my first ideas was just a whole-cloth quilt, black cotton and broken hearts stitched in black thread, but then I thought too bitter, Amy and besides, my almost-50-year-old eyes could never manage that.)

I made a list: angles. Sharp edges. Corners and lines almost lining up, but not quite. A tiny bit of sweetness—candy hearts and all the times I made pink heart sugar cookies with my kids—but not too much. One of my favorite Valentine’s Day conversations, when Kaleb was six or seven and his favorite color was purple, but he was worried it wasn’t a “boy color,” so he asked me if he could wear his purple shirt to school on Valentine’s Day because “on Valentine’s Day purple is a Valentine color, not a girl color” and then we talked about color and gender and personal choice and individuality (and he wore his purple shirt of course). So, purple. And, yes: pink, but mostly bright, cool, deep pinks. Black, of course. Maybe even a little bit of silver (there’s a story there, too, but it would take too long to tell it here). Flowers of some sort, but not overtly floral, to represent that resentful wish for flowers. I wanted it to be edgy and maybe just a little bit punk. A rebellious quilt.

But I also wanted to keep in mind my other little nudges from reality. I didn’t want to spend a ton of money on this quilt, or cause a huge influx of new fabrics to enter my stash. And I didn’t want to spend months making it, either.

Hearts like crazy pavement quilt 4

By now, with all the rethinking and pondering, it was almost February, but I decided: I’m going to try to make a…I’d already stopped thinking of it as a Valentine’s Day quilt. Instead it is a quilt that is a textile interpretation not only of my complicated feelings about Valentine’s Day but also, somehow, of marriage (we were married on February 13 so the two days are tied together anyway), and of the contrast of what society—movies and romance novels and TV shows and social media posts—tells us what love is supposed to be like and what the reality of love really is. Also me right now and me thirty years ago and me loving my husband and my kids but also those memories of other, younger, wilder loves I still carry with me. Cotton and softness both, unpredictable lines but some sort of structure anyway.

Am I thinking too much? Am I being dramatic? Reading too much into a quilt? Or just…silly?

I don’t know.

My life hasn’t followed a pattern. It hasn’t lined itself up in neat columns and rows. It hasn’t been sweet, always. There is a part of me that feels I have never been loved or seen for who I am, truly—and maybe everyone on this wide world feels that way, too, I don’t know. Has it been bad? No. But I can’t pretend it has been all sweetness and light, either.

Hearts like crazy pavement quilt 1

Where do ideas come from?

Can making a quilt be cathartic?

Can pieces of fabric cut and then made into something different mean something other than just another quilt someone might cover themselves with?

Hearts like crazy pavement quilt 8

One afternoon when I was quilting this quilt—I do all of the piecing in my craft room, but my desk isn’t big enough for the actual quilting and so I do that at the kitchen table—Kendell walked down the hall and said “I had a great idea! Why don’t you start selling your quilts?”

He said this in an encouraging way, full of certainty that someone would want to buy something I made. I tried to explain to him the realities of selling items like quilts, how I’d have to have an Etsy shop or develop a website, and how probably only people with name recognition sell their quilts, and I didn’t even go down the rabbit hole of how much a quilt actually costs to make. He would not be deterred, though. He was certain I could sell my quilts, starting with that one, with this one I’d been working on all month.

(All of those thoughts and the creative(?) process that brought me to this idea were in my head, and in my notebook, not in our conversations so he has no idea about this quilt’s meaning, just what it looks like.)

And then I laughed a little caustic laugh and I said “listen! This quilt is a representation of my interpretation of modern love as it is influenced by consumerism! No one will want to buy it!”

And he said “you should have more belief in yourself and besides, that’s a weird thing to say about a quilt” and then he wandered back down the hall.

And then I laughed for real because that is it in a conversation, a summary of what led me to make this in the first place, of how it is to be married to someone for 28 years and have the history of unimaginable anger and unspeakable love stored in your body, of all the ways we try to see each other’s way of seeing but almost never do because we are two different people. All the times I have been shattered and then put myself back together and he has, also, and how for us it hasn’t been smooth or perfect or light but work. And how I don’t know if that is really how all marriages are, despite the Hallmark ads and the husbands buying roses at Costco. Maybe that, really, is why I can never love Valentine’s Day, because I am unable to pretend, even for just February 14th, that marriage is represented by cheesy conversation hearts and velvet boxes of chocolates.

I can’t pretend.

Hearts like crazy pavement quilt 5

For me, for us, it has been angles. Lines of communication almost matching up, but not quite. Stitching ourselves back together and trying again. Starting at entirely different points but sometimes, sometimes, crossing anyway. Meeting up, moving together. Clashing, figuring it out. Laughing at ourselves, sometimes. Bitterness, sweetness. History and tomorrow, bound up in acid pink.

That is why I couldn’t make the cute, scrappy quilt.

That is what I tried to put into this quilt.

(PS: I sat down to write this blog post thinking I would write a short introduction and then a tutorial. Obviously that got away from me. Tutorial next post/tomorrow.)


The Best Way to Retain Teachers: An Ex-Teacher's Perspective on a Disturbing Problem

I have been thinking about this article from the Washington Post all day. It describes how, in Utah, to become a teacher you no longer have to have a teaching credential. Instead, you need a Bachelor's degree in the subject you want to teach.

A rare photo of my classroom

(The only picture I have of myself in my classroom.)

Probably I have been thinking about it because I made the fatal mistake of trying to engage people online who think this is a fantastic idea. "Learning about teaching is pointless" the argument always begins, and then it follows from there. "Because my uncle Tom taught me how to do geometry much better than the geometry/baseball coach I had in high school." "Because pedagogy takes time away from learning about the subject." "Because teaching is something almost anyone can do, so long as they know about their subject."

Now I find myself caught in a frustration loop, arguing with those voices in my head.

Of course, I'm not a teacher anymore. But I did teach, high school English for two years. When I decided to start teaching, I already had a degree in English, but to get my teaching credential, I got another degree, this time in Secondary Ed. (Were I to go back in time, I would just get myself a Master's degree instead of a second Bachelor's; I'm still not sure why I didn't even consider that option.) My English degree taught me about reading, writing, literature, history, grammar, and all things book-related; my secondary ed degree taught me how to teach what I knew to others.

I'd like to think I was a good teacher. I know I was passionate about it. I wanted desperately to teach each of my students several things: to love books, to write well, and to integrate literary thinking into their lives. I spent hours during my two years of teaching working on lesson plans. When I graded essays, I had a green pen in my hand, which I used to correct grammar and usage errors, write encouraging comments, and leave a final thought (on every assignment I gave). You can’t teach writing well without the comments and the corrections, but it takes so much time, especially when you’re grading 75, 100, 150 papers. I ran on caffeine and sugar and not much else during those years; I gained weight and I got wrinkles and prematurely grey hair. I loved teaching—but I was entirely overwhelmed by it. It consumed my life. I didn't go to church, or to family parties, or to my kids' activities. I just worked on my school stuff because I had to stay on top of it. If I didn't do it, who would?

And I did all of that work on a salary that would qualify me for food stamps.

Two years was all I could manage.

The Washington Post article says that "Education officials in [Utah] have been trying to figure out why 2 in 5 teachers leave the state’s public schools within five years."

Really? They can't have been trying very hard. Because their solution—let's hire people who don't know how to teach!—fails miserably at solving the problem. Their "solution" only tries to make it easier for people to become​ teachers, not to continue teaching, thereby underlining the idea that "qualified teachers" aren't the point, just bodies in the front of the classroom.

The process of becoming a teacher isn't the hard part. The hard part is continuing to teach for more than a few years.

Why do so many teachers leave the profession within five years?

Some of it is​ because of the pay scale. But if you dare suggest that teachers are underpaid, the reaction is swift: teachers should teach because they love their subject, because they love teaching, because they have the power to influence young lives. All of that is true, of course, but it is also beside the point. What other career requires people to be paid in encouragement and gratitude? And then there’s the always-popular response: But teachers only work nine months out of the year! Actually, what teachers do is squish twelve months (or more) of work into nine months.

It goes deeper than the pay scale, though. It’s also the working conditions, the run-down classrooms and ancient desks, the computer labs filled with painfully slow machines, the always-dirty floors. It’s the overwhelming classroom size. It’s the demand that if you want, say, whiteboard markers, then you know where Staples is. It’s the fact that technically, there is almost no time in the day for a teacher to use the bathroom. It’s the relentless, looming reminder of testing. And it is the overwhelming feeling that it is always the teacher’s fault when students don’t fulfill their potential.

And yet—we still love it. At least, I did. I loved being with students and trying to ignite their excitement, trying to encourage them to think broadly and objectively, trying to help them see how using the correct word might be the thing that gets them ahead in the world. I loved preparing lessons. I even loved the moments when, grading papers, I’d find a clever phrase or a thoughtful metaphor and think yes! Here! This student is learning! I would go back to teaching in a heartbeat—if they doubled the salary and required me to teach two classes a day instead of three. (Which will never happen, of course. Especially in Utah.)

Not anyone can be a teacher, and yes: pedagogy doesn’t save the world from apathetic, careless, or downright bad teachers. But here is what I know: I learned as much as I could about teaching before I got into the classroom. I worked my butt off during my student teaching experience and absorbed everything I could from my mentors. I was passionate about my subject and I put everything I could into my classroom.

But I only managed to teach for two years.

And I still feel like I failed as a teacher. Because I couldn’t endure, because it became too much, because I could see how I could give everything to it and it would still want more, because to be a halfway-decent teacher I would always be a horrible mother. Because I couldn’t thrive in a broken system.

Utah’s education officials have been trying to figure out how to retain teachers. Their solution is to throw unprepared people into a system that can’t keep the people who are prepared. That’s not even a bandaid. That’s a bomb.

Instead, Utah—the entire nation, really—needs to fix the system itself. If the state wants to retain teachers, it needs to create a working environment that bolsters and rewards, not drains and decimates educators. And it can’t only start with politicians. It needs to start with parents. What if every single parent in the state wrote a letter, demanding that their children’s teachers be given better working conditions? These parents need not be motivated by altruistic measures. They don’t need to care about the teachers at all. They need to care about their very own children, and realize that they will receive better education from teachers who are nurtured instead of drained by the system.

The solution to retaining teachers is not as complicated as Utah is making it. If the states want to retain teachers, they must create conditions that encourage teachers to continue teaching. The teachers would benefit—but even more importantly, the students would benefit. Until that happens, teachers and students will continue to suffer.


An Open Letter to the Universe (Or, My List of Things that Make Me Sad (Right Now))

In a book I just finished, The Spellbook of Listen Taylor, there is a spell for making two happy people have an argument about absolutely nothing:

  1. Do twenty jumping jacks.
  2. Write a list of everything that makes you sad.
  3. Put the list at the bottom of a box of Kleenex.

I don’t want anyone to have an argument over nothing, but I did feel compelled to write my list of Things that Make Me Sad (right now) (even though “sad” isn’t quite the right word to capture what I have been feeling).

In my head, I keep going back and back through time, trying to find the month or the year or the day I didn’t have this underlying sense of doom or anxiety. I think it started way back with Kendell’s first surgery, when he had his hips replaced. I have done much work and had many happy days since then, but still: I don’t think I’ve ever stopped worrying, that he wouldn’t make it through the surgery, and then that his post-op complications would never get better, and then that he would still be in pain. There was a tiny little respite, maybe, for about 8 or 9 months, when he was fully recuperated from the surgery, starting to exercise regularly, and really feeling like life could be normal. Then we found out about his heart and he had his first heart surgery. My clearest memory of that day was when his heart surgeon called me from the operating room and said “we just put him on bypass.” It was so surreal, knowing I was sitting at my house (his surgery was at a hospital just a half mile away from our house), curled up on our bed waiting, and his heart wasn’t, at that very moment, beating at all.

He recuperated from that surgery, and then 18 months later had his gall bladder removed.

And then a few weeks after that, we found out that Kaleb also has a bicuspid aortic valve.

And then we found out, a year later, that he has a bulge on his aorta.

And then Kendell’s dad died.

And then, a year later, my dad died.

And then, the next year, Kendell’s mom died.

And then my mom was under strict orders not to die, which she didn’t, but she did have an incredibly difficult back surgery and a long recovery that was muddled with family tensions and long-buried resentments.

Then, last summer, we found out Kendell had to have his valve replaced again.

And then in April he almost died. He should, but all logic and statistics and medical understanding, have died.

Mix in what for me has been the hardest part of parenting—raising teenagers. I love my kids and I am proud of them; they are good kids trying to find their way in the world, but it has still been hard. I have some mom friends who have loved this part, but for me it has been anguish, and feeling guilty over the anguish makes the anguish even worse. Add in the feeling that my extended family (my mom and sisters and nieces and nephews) is fracturing. There have been so many heartaches in my kids’ lives, friends and girlfriends and boyfriends who have betrayed them, mistakes and disappointments and the ongoing struggles of modern adolescence. And all of the every day sort of worries and troubles, car wrecks, stitches, bike collisions, broken bones, sprained ankles and twisted knees and smashed fingers.

Plus my back has hurt for 92% of those years.

I just feel like asking the universe for a break. But apparently the universe is not done with me. Because at first I started writing my List of Things that Make Me Sad (right now) right in the book, until I decided it was just too grisly and depressing.

But if I am honest, I can say: I’m in a bad place right now. So, as to avoid causing anyone to have an argument over absolutely nothing, I’m going to write my list on my blog instead. There will be no jumping jacks or bottoms of Kleenex boxes. But maybe if I write it down, it will remind the universe: Amy has had enough. Amy is at her breaking point. Please, give Amy a break. (Because…Amy is writing in third person!)

  1. There is some unexpected medical fallout from Kendell’s cardiac arrest. I feel entirely alone and unable to know even where to start dealing with this, as he doesn’t really see it, only I do. (I am being vague because I am not yet ready to hold it up to the light.)
  2. Kaleb had his annual heart check up in June and it did not go well. This is another thing I just really, really can’t even look at yet. Living in constant fear that your husband could die is one thing. It’s entirely another thing with your child.
  3. You know that feeling when something happens that lets you see clearly that a relationship you thought you could trust is actually fairly untrustworthy? Like when you caught your best friend in high school making out with your boyfriend. That feeling, except with adult friendships it’s less about the boy (actually, there is no boy involved) and mostly about realizing you trusted and loved where you shouldn’t have. That happened to me this past weekend, with a friendship I have relied upon for years, and I don’t really know how to change my life to adapt to it. I do know this: the brushing-off of a friendship in whatever form of betrayal it occurs is always, whether you’re 13 or 43, an ugly feeling, one that is based surprisingly on shame and embarrassment. I’m embarrassed to have thought for so long that I actually mattered to this person. (This time I’m being vague only to protect the not-really-innocent-but-whatever.)
  4. Speaking of relationships. Another fairly important one in my life I am realizing will likely never be how I had hoped it would be. There is still goodness and connection there, but different than I had hoped. I need to make peace with the reality of this relationship rather than the wishes I had had for it. I just don’t know how. (Vague because…I love this person so much and would never want to burn any bridges.)
  5. Recent decisions of various people have left me feeling like I have failed myself, my family, and God. How do you make peace with failing God? He gave me one job. And sure, everyone will tell me it’s not my fault and people make choices. But all that means is that I failed at teaching how to make good choices. I failed.
  6. When we were in Paris, Haley’s cell phone and all of her credit cards were stolen. It’s been kind of a nightmare getting everything functional again. We mailed her a new phone…and it is stuck in the customs office in Madrid. After much research I still can’t figure out how to get it out. The replacement credit card she was sent is an emergency card, which doesn’t have a chip, so it doesn’t work at most of the places she needs it to work. She’s got two weeks left and needs cash and the phone needs to get to her before she comes home and I just am so tired of worrying about this. (I actually just googled air flights to Madrid. So I could, you know. Fly to Madrid, fetch that *#&%*+!~# cell phone, and then just hang around in Madrid for a week. That actually might be the perfect answer. Who’s coming with me?)

Or, to sum up: continuing medical troubles; terror at my child’s heart; betrayal; an emotion I don’t have a word for which is equal parts grief, regret, yearning, and self-loathing; failing God; and a kid without a cell phone or money in a foreign country.

And I know: this blog post is a great big pity party. It’s dark and sad and whiny; it fails to remember that during the years since Kendell’s first surgery, there have been a lot of good things, too. Vacations and high school graduations and birthday parties and holidays and delicious meals, running and hiking and learning and growing. I am stronger than I was when this started. My kids are all alive and in one piece and moving forward.

But oh, dear Universe. I need a little pause. A small one, but a real one. A moment when nothing is weighing on my heart. And maybe that isn’t possible, maybe a heavy, troubled heart is the universal condition of adulthood. Maybe I am asking for too much.

But still, I am asking. I need light. I need to not feel despair. I need to, for just a little while, feel like I did something right. Anything.

I’m not sure that is possible. But I need it, if it is. We all of us, in my family, need it.