Honoring Zitkala-Sa

Let’s face it, Google has changed the world in a very big, bold, permanent way. The way it gave us search navigation capacities isn’t an ongoing change, but I’d like to think perhaps Google can still change the world in other ways. One of the opportunities to do so is through the Google doodle, the image featured above the search bar.

Google doodle Feb. 22, 2021

Today’s Google doodle features South Dakota writer, musician and activist Zitkala-Sa, and I hope people click into it and learn something new and wonderful by learning about this writer.

I first encountered her in Pierre, SD as a kid on a fishing trip. No, she wasn’t fishing Oahe or the Missouri River; she died in 1938 in Washington, D.C. But in the way literature brings people and places to life, when I found her book Old Indian Legends at DakotaMart, a whole world came to life for me. Zitkala-Sa became a female writer I could look up to in the way I looked up to Mari Sandoz. These writers from the middle of nowhere drew on the places and stories they knew and shared them with the world.

And I wanted to do that. Well, maybe I didn’t really want to write about Nebraska where I grew up, but I did want to tell stories, and I wanted to get away from that part of the world.

The beings I encountered in Old Indian Legends enchanted me. Itkomi, a spirit come alive in the form of a man-spider, delighted me in his craftiness and intrigue, and I was forever trying to figure out if he was man, spider or spirit.

IKTOMI is a spider fairy. He wears brown deerskin leggins with long soft fringes on either side, and tiny beaded moccasins on his feet. His long black hair is parted in the middle and wrapped with red, red bands. Each round braid hangs over a small brown ear and falls forward over his shoulders.

Zitkala-Sa, “Iktomi and the Ducks,” Old Indian Legends.

This opening from “Iktomi and the Ducks,” the first story in the collection, introduces readers to Iktomi and his world. We spend a lot of time with him in this book, but we also meet a badger, a bear, mice, a frog, a rabbit and other creatures. And of course, through these critters we encounter humanity and its various characteristics and foibles.

But Zitkala-Sa didn’t just retell her people’s myths and creation stories and bring them to others. Born on South Dakota’s Yankton Indian Reservation in 1876, this woman experienced the impact of Christian missionaries when she was eight and went away to Indiana to attend school. She was christened (oh, the poignancy of that phrase here) Gertrude Simmons and wrote about these experiences in The School Days of an Indian Girl. Through this, one can see the roots of her activism. Readers of her nonfiction can also see how these events led her to a place of duality as she grew older. She loved her heritage and culture, but she had been removed from it as a child and was educated and lived in white society.

This struggle is one I related to in my own way as I got older, and it allowed me to see her in a a new light and as a model in new ways. From telling her people’s myth stories to advocating for her people, she exemplifies writing as activism.

Google is celebrating her today, her birthday, but she is worth celebrating every day.

Project Gutenberg has Old Indian Legends available for download, and if you’ve never read it, I highly recommend it.

Header image credit: 5MinuteHistory.com

My dog’s bone cancer was in his kidney

One month ago today, I dropped off my 8-year-old baby, Loki, at Best Care Pet Hospital in Sioux Falls, SD, and told him goodbye for what I thought might be the last time. He had a large mass growing on his kidney and the surgeon was going to try and save him by removing it and the kidney.

Mid-sized dog held by woman in wedding dress.
Loki was my plus-one at my wedding!

Loki had been sick for two months — red, weepy eyes, fever, shakes and diminished appetite — but blood work looked good and pancreatitis tests came back negative. Antibiotics knocked everything down every couple of weeks, but then when he ran out, all the symptoms would come back. His regular vet was baffled. And I was out of town for part of the time, so a friend took him to her vet. They too were baffled, but did an x-ray and found a mass in his stomach. It was diagnosable, though, and that vet suggested I consider hospice for my dog. It was the worst feeling, hearing my dog was dying while I was hundreds of miles away from home. When I returned to Minnesota, where I live, we finally got a definitive answer on January 15. A CT scan showed that a large mass attached to his kidney was filling his abdomen.

Loki barely made it to Jan. 21, but he did, and he came through surgery like a champ. A month later, he feels great. But the vet we saw on the 15th did not want to biopsy for fear of rupturing what looked like an otherwise stable mass. A post-surgery biopsy of the kidney revealed cancer, though — osteosarcoma, or bone cancer. It’s pretty much a death sentence in most dogs, but I’m hoping my fur baby can be a rare one who makes it a long, healthy time.

Dog reclining in the sun next to a chair.
Sweet pup posing in the sun.

You see, this type of extraskeletal bone cancer is rare. There’s only been one documented case of extraskeletal osteosarcoma presenting in the kidney in a dog, so Loki’s case has been of interest and discussion to oncologists and pathologists outside of the specialist we have been seeing in South Dakota. Although he was met free for the CT scan, meaning the cancer had not spread/taken hold elsewhere at that time, the vet suggested we do pre-emptive chemo to try and knock out any cancerous cells floating around. I have not wanted to do chemo for a number of reasons:

  • Loki now has one kidney, and although it is healthy, I worry chemo will harm it
  • Chemo is not as hard on most dogs as it is on humans, but it can make them feel crummy
  • Expense
  • What if he doesn’t need it?

I’ve been doing as much research as I can, looking for credible, alternative treatments. I’ve learned about what is referred to as The Yale Vaccine, an immunotherapy treatment that stimulates the dog’s immune system and cells and teaches them what to look for and attack in cancer cells. It was in clinical trials from 2016 to 2020 and I have heard that people anticipate it being on the market sometime this year.

Dog with a chicken foot in its mouth.
The bestest good boy gets himself a chicken leg during our poultry harvest in 2020.

I’ve learned about Immunocidin, another immunotherapy treatment that encourages the dog’s immune system to attack cancer. In some cases, it has eradicated tumors.

Tonight, I learned about another trial, this one exploring the ways a dog’s biome impacts osteosarcoma. I’ve reached out to the lead researcher and hope to hear back as soon as Monday.

I’m learning as much as I can because knowledge is power. It’s also super fucking scary, but I want to know as much as I can to help my pup. And beyond that, I’ve learned that osteosarcoma affects humans too, mostly children.

Survival rates are higher for humans, about 70% at the five-year mark, but it’s still a scary concept. When I learn about trials in dogs and horses, I feel hopeful for the animals in the trials, and hopeful they are going to generate data that will some day perhaps help humans use these therapies. I hope Loki remains healthy until the Yale Vaccine becomes available. I hope the other things I’m doing, like cutting sugar and limiting carbs are helpful. In the meantime, we’ve done one dose of carboplatin, a type of chemo that is easier on kidneys than others. Loki is a good candidate for an Immunocidin trial, and I’m leaning toward doing it. But to be enrolled, he must forego chemo, and that’s about as scary a prospect as his receiving chemo.

My biggest concern in all of this is that Loki remains comfortable and as happy as he can as time passes. He’s happy, healthy, playful and eating well right now. The Immunocidin trial requires weekly visits at the start, and Loki hates the vet. I am weighing the benefits and downfalls of this. Because Loki’s form of OS is so rare, we are running in the dark here. But my pupper remains surefooted and steady, so I’m enjoying lots of love and snuggles and hoping for the best.

Baldwin’s America: A challenge and a lesson

There are books that leave me so dazzled by the setting and scene and characters I can easily think of them as candidates for “favorite book” when someone asks what my favorite book is. These books don’t discuss craft, but are craft at its finest, moments of pure magic that come together through voice and imagery and emotion.

There are books that teach me and guide me as a writer or an educator, and those books stick with me for different reasons. Often those reasons have more to do with how I view the reality I live in and how I help craft it in my writing. Sometimes they have to do with craft, which is a neat meta trick. I recently completed Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.’s Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, and it is a book that does all these things.

Glaude is the James S. Milton distinguished professor of African American Studies at Princeton University; in this biography and piece of social criticism, he is also a guide for the tumultuous times in which we live. This is fitting, as the book works to unpack the vison of another guide: James Baldwin. Glaude’s mix of Black history, Baldwin and “where do we go from here” thinking makes this book shine brightly from each of its many facets.

I first encountered Baldwin in grad school, through his short story “Sonny’s Blues.” Published in 1957, the story takes readers to Harlem and provides a peek into the life of a teacher and his brother, Sonny, who is a passionate musician, veteran and heroin addict. Reading it in my 20s, the music and the drugs appeared to me as realities that just go hand-in-hand with living in the big city, for anyone.

Of course I was just seeing Sonny’s experience through my own lens; today I know it was music and drugs that spoke to me then. But it is Baldwin’s compassionate treatment of Sonny and the empathy we feel for him and even his judgmental brother that is the hallmark of this story. Today I know that what I saw as part of city life is actually part of a complex history for Black people, a history that is more nuanced than any shallow understanding I could have had in my 20s And Baldwin’s fierce compassion is what I see now, when I engage with him. It’s what I see in “Staggerlee Wonders,” a poem as sharp and biting as a blade.

I read Part I of the poem to students in my Literature of Revolution class, and it gives us so much to discuss: wars, both domestic and foreign, external and internal and those that are not recognized. We get to talk about history, who “the natives” are–who they really are– and how Baldwin’s bite is so carefully crafted here. We also, of course, get to talk about the real life “Stagger Lee” and the violence perpetuated on people like him.

In these contexts, I’ve felt like I have a good understanding of what makes Baldwin’s work so powerful. Its the way he holds his loved ones close and his enemies closer, and how they are one and the same in America. But I am not a scholar of Baldwin, and I only know enough about Harlem and history and Black History to introduce my students to these topics and guide them through it with the voices of the real experts, the writers I draw on, to help lead me. Reading Glaude’s book took me through Black America of the 50s into the 80s, and in doing so, it illustrated white America, too, and the ugliness, hatred and shame that this country has borne since its founding.

Glaude introduced me to Stokely Carmicheal, as I wrote in another post; he introduced me to Dorothy Counts, a 15-year-old girl who tried to end segregation in Charlotte, North Carolina when she was the first black student to integrate into Harding High School in 1957 (same year of “Sonny’s Blues”). There are several other figures and moments vividly detailed in Begin Again, but I think the most powerful comes toward the end of the book, when Glaude goes south to Alabama and visits some of the memorials to fallen civil rights leaders and those who died by lynching. Between Caroline street and Holcombe Street in Montgomery, he finds the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, describes it as “a monument to our dead and to the countrymen who killed them,” and describes his walk into what is sometimes called “The Lynching Memorial.”

As I walked into the memorial, I saw walls featuring text blocks that told the story of the violence…my eyes turned to the Nkyinkyim Installation…a haunting sculptural representation of slaves chained together in agony, defiance, and unimaginable grief. The sculpture stands on the side of the path that leads you up an ascending walkway to the monument, the physical structures that commemorate the dead. With each step you make your way up the hill…you can see lined up across the lawn duplicate monuments that can be claimed by the individiaul counties where the lynchings occurred.

Glaude, Eddie S. Jr, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons For Our Own.

Glaude is overcome by grief as he looks at these 800 monuments, and then again as he focuses on the monuments that list multiple lynchings in one county. He continues with what is for me the most chilling passage of the book.

As I kept walking, the floor slanted downward, but the monuments remained level. Before long their bottoms were above my head. As I looked up at them, it was if I were witnessing bodies swaying from poplar trees–except these were stiff.

He recalls Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and in sharing that moment with him, I am reminded that music and politics come together as complexities of the Black experience in a way I could never know, but a way that Baldwin sought to get at through Sonny.

Glaude continues with the memorial and describes the death sentences on the monuments before him: “One man was murdered for having a photo of a white woman in his hat; another had been falsely accused of peeping at a white woman through a peephole; another refused to buy seed from a white man.”

He concludes the passage by noting the monument from Jackson County Mississippi, his childhood home: Eight names. Eight men lynched. Eight men he’d never heard of until that moment. His own experience of what it is to be born a Black man in the South has suddenly shifted, and readers are able to shift along with him.

For much of this book, Glaude asks what it means to be an American, not just what does it mean to be Black in America, or white in America, but what does it mean to exist in a country bound and also separated by a great lie. He seeks to hold those in power accountable for what they’ve done to fail people of color– Blacks, Latinos and Indigenous populations– but he also asks us to wrestle with how we more forward. And because he wrote this book during Trump’s presidency, he also condemns that excuse of a man and all that “Trumpism” has done to set our country at odds. This book is a collection of anecdotes, quotes and their contextual background, history and hope. But it is also a prescriptive guide to how we now must move forward as a country.

“…[O]ur task, then, is not to save Trump voters–it isn’t to convince them to give up their views that white people out to matter more than others. Our task is to build a world where such a view has no place or quarter to breathe. I am aware that this is a radical, some may even say, dangerous claim. It amounts to “throwing away” a large portion of the country, many of whom are willing to defent their positions with violence. But we cannot give in to these people. We know what the result will be, and I cannot watch another generation of black children bear the burden of that choice.”

Featured image: James Baldwin, featured on the US Embassay & Consulates in Turkey websiteBook

Encountering new (to me) voices

In my last post, I wrote about literacy and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, one of the Black authors I teach in my literature class. Her works inspire my students and give us a glimpse into a time period and a way of life we can’t even imagine. Like so many of the long-gone authors one reads in a Lit class, Harper’s words make real for us a past we haven’t fully learned about.

Another Black voice my students get to hear is that of James Baldwin, a writer whose discussions of race, sexuality and justice in the 50s and 60s played a key role in raising awareness on these topics in both the US and Europe.

I’ve been reading a new book about Baldwin this week, and through it I am learning not just about Baldwin but a time period and a group of activists I am not familiar with or have never heard of. This includes Stokely Carmichael, someone who defined a movement with a simple phrase. I’m reading the book to learn more about Baldwin, who I think of as well known, but as I learn about other important figures, I see how my education has not been very robust when it comes to activism and activists, and I see how I need to step up my own game even more.

I’ll write about this book when it’s done; for now, back to Carmichael.

”When I first heard about the Negroes sitting in at lunch counters down South,” he told Gordon Parks in Life magazine in 1967, ”I thought they were just a bunch of publicity hounds. But one night when I saw those young kids on TV, getting back up on the lunch counter stools after being knocked off them, sugar in their eyes, ketchup in their hair — well, something happened to me. Suddenly I was burning.”

Stokely carmichael, as quoted in the new york times

Stokely Carmichael coined the phrase “Black power” in 1966. As a student at Howard University, he worked to promote Dr. King’s ideas of nonviolence, serving on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a group created by King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference to represent and drive youth.

Carmichael participated in various sit-ins to end segregation, excelled as a student and eventually moved from supporting King’s work promoting nonviolence to a position of advocating for “self-defense.” Politically motivated, Carmichael worked tirelessly in Alabama to get more Black people to vote; in 1965 he “managed to raise the number of registered black voters from 70 to 2,600 300 more than the number of registered white voters in the county.”

I realize that educators can’t cover every activist, and news sources can’t write about every amazing human. But as we’ve been hearing so much about Stacey Abrams doing this same thing in Georgia, I wonder why we haven’t heard anything about Carmichael’s work, which took place decades earlier.

Arrested dozens of times, Carmichael’s push for Black power and pride continued to set him at odds with powerful whites, who didn’t like what they perceived as a desire to make Blacks “rise up” against white systems. He eventually gave up on America and moved to Guinea. In 1998, at the age of 57, he died of prostate cancer.

As I read about Carmichael’s life and legacy, in the Baldwin book and in other sources, I see that he was just too “powerful” and too “dangerous” to be championed by mainstream (meaning white) historians, educators and resources. His belief that Black pride and Black power should be championed is a belief we see squelched today. Because so many of the people in power are still afraid of what it would mean for someone else to actually have pride in their people and draw on its power to help build a way of life, his ideas continue to be “revolutionary”– to some, in the scariest form of that word.

The gift of literacy

You may not be thinking about it, but just in reading this post, you’re exhibiting a great amount of privilege: you can read.

I’m sure you don’t think about what a special gift literacy is, but in a world where 14 percent of the world’s population is illiterate, it really is a gift. That 14 percent is 107 million people, or, if you think about the US having slightly more than 330 million, that’s like a third of all Americans. What if one third of America couldn’t read? (I know, I know, half of America is about that stupid…) If that portion of our country couldn’t read, it would mean oppression and control in a way none of us alive today can imagine. But we all know of a time when a group of people was barred from learning to read: the years before the Civil War. Not only did slave owners prevent their slaves from learning to read, laws such as the South Carolina Act of 1740 existed to make it illegal.

I always start my Literature of Revolution class with a section on poetry, and one of the poets we encounter is Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Born in Maryland to free Black parents in 1825, Harper used her position, education and life to work as an abolitionist, educator, writer and suffragist.

We read two of Harper’s poems in this class, “The Slave Auction” and “Learning To Read” and students tell me how much these two poems shock and move them. “I can’t imagine not being able to read,” they say, even if they don’t like reading. The speaker’s experience in both of these poems gives them perspective and sometimes introduces them (anew perhaps) to the reality that some people have been purposefully kept in the dark when it comes to literacy.

If you haven’t explored Harper’s works, I encourage you to do so now. She is one of the first Black females to have her creative works published; in 1859 a short story, “The Two Offers” was published by the Anglo-African. Another champion of Black literacy was Frederick Douglass, who, once he learned to read, found both joy and despair in it. Joy in what he could access through books and papers, but despair in what the lack of literacy meant for other Blacks.

I know the ability to read is something I take for granted on many occasions, but as I go on my own journey to be better educated and more aware of Black history this month, I’m in awe of people like Harper and Douglass who grew up acutely aware of what a privilege it was to have this cornerstone of education and freedom.

If you’re looking to unwrap the gift of literacy a little more, why not present yourself (bad jokes are a gift too, aren’t they?) with some other Black authors. Thrift Books has put together a nice list here, pulling from books they offer. Author Faith Adiele and several other California authors offer a list of their own here.

Black History Month offers lessons for everyone

It’s real easy for me to look at the calendar and come up with something to write, or at least the starting point for something. That’s no different tonight because I’ve been thinking about a flurry of social media posts I saw–and didn’t see– on the first day of the month.

What stormed my Facebook and Insta feeds was a lot of Imbolc photos. This ancient European festival day celebrates the halfway point between the solstice we go through in winter and the equinox we celebrate in the spring. It’s a pagan celebration, but no matter what religion or lack thereof one practices, it’s a day that signifies coming light and longer days. It looks forward to a change in seasons.

I’m not surprised I saw a lot of friends celebrating Imbolc. I have many friends doing the homestead thing, the farm thing, the fuck the mainstream thing. And even my friends who are clearly religious and live here in the Midwest are definitely looking forward to longer days.

And I’m not surprised about the lack of other posts I was thinking I’d see: Black History Month posts. It’s a bummer, but it seems to me that a lot of folks don’t think about Black History Month unless they celebrate Blackness as part of their heritage or their family’s heritage.

Black History Month was born in 1915 when Carter G. Woodson, who had studied at Harvard, and Jesse E. Moorland, a minister, founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). Originally, Woodson had hoped for a day, and then a week to honor Black culture. Why February? Because it’s the month of Frederick Douglass‘ birthday and Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. My calendar reminds me that it’s also Washington’s birthday month, and President’s Day (but the same calendar does not mention Douglass or Black History Month).

I can’t act like I knew all of this before this month; it was the lack of posts about Black History Month that spurred me to read posts about it. I think our present political climate has heightened people’s awareness of the fact that we don’t know so much about some groups of our fellow Americans. History, written by “the winners,” has silenced these stories.

So for the rest of the month, I want to share some of the things I’m finding and reading and learning about Black History Month and the people and culture it celebrates.

First up, on the first, I read this piece from the New York Times about Rosa Parks. Did you know she had been working to combat police brutality and sexual assault for two decades before the bus incident she’s famous for? Did you know she was married to a barber; after her stand for justice, she and her husband lost their jobs and could not find decent work in Montgomery again. Her family moved to Detroit, and she found work in U.S. Representative John Conyers’s office. I had no idea.

Yesterday, my friend Connie made a FB post about the ACE Academy, a private school in Sioux Falls, SD for kids in kindergarten through eight grade. This school runs year round and gives at-risk and students of color opportunities to engage in an academic community that values diversity and brings into the classroom concepts like meditation and culture-based curriculum. ACE is the kind of school that is working to support the real history of various cultures in our society, and they’re doing it not just for their students. This month they’re posting all sorts of tidbits about Black history. You can check out their FB page here to get in on updates, the fun posts and more.

And tonight I read that the Library of Congress is hosting a transcribe-athon Feb. 12-14 to finish a transcribing project of Mary Church Terrell‘s papers or documents related to her. Born in Tennessee in 1863, Terrell was the daughter of slaves. She earned both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree from Oberlin College and became a teacher and advocate for racial justice.

I learned of Terrell tonight as I read about the transcribe-a-thon, and I am sure there are all sorts of things I’m going to learn this month. I’ll learn because I’m looking to learn, and I hope in the process I’ll be able to share some of this knowledge with you. I didn’t have a school like ACE as a kid, but as an adult, I know it’s up to me to educate myself in areas I’m unschooled in.

Did you know all of these little info nuggets? Any of them?

Docs for your shots

Recently, the US announced it would require negative COVID tests from any international travelers flying to the country, effective Jan. 26.

This means US citizens and non-residents both. Either proof of a negative test or proof of recovery are acceptable, according to the State Department, and the new policy applies to all passengers two and older. It’s not the only notice of the sort that’s been put into place this week; Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the country is banning flights to Mexico and the Caribbean, and requiring all international travelers to quarantine at approved locations upon arrival. Their policy goes into effect Feb. 3.

Back in December, CNN Business predicted that we might need “vaccine passports” this year, and it looks like that prediction has come true. Will they work? Are they “fair,” asks a new piece in Forbes.

I’ve been dreaming of seeing my family in Colombia since 2017, but the two trips I’ve had scheduled since then have been cancelled for one reason or another. The first trip, scheduled for January 2019, got cancelled because of weather. I couldn’t get out of Minnesota. The second trip, scheduled for March of 2020 was cancelled because of COVID. And up until the beginning of January 2021, I had been dreaming that I’d get to Colombia in May or June of this year. But after our family had a COVID exposure scare while preparing to fly home from California, I’ve decided that I just don’t have it in me to take any risks right now. And as these new requirements are put in place, I feel even more certain that Colombia is a ways away, literally and figuratively.

So to take my mind off this distance, I’ve been clicking on every Colombia-themed thing that shows up in my Twitter feed this week. It’s led to some lovely surprises, like the illustrator Eddie White, Jr., an Aussie living in Cartagena, Colombia. When I spent New Years in Colombia more than a decade ago, I hung out with some Aussies there and had a wonderful time. Finding this guy wasn’t quite as magical, but certainly transported me back to the country. His map of Bogota’s districts made me smile, not just for its whimsical figures, but for the imagination and creativity that went into it. It reminded me of the city itself.

From Eddie White Jr.’s Twitter account, posted Jan. 29, 2021.

And while looking at the various figures here, the funny periscope fish, the Loki-dog head, the bright yellow gnome head, I was able to imagine myself moving from critter to creature to figure, crossing “borders” and edges and experiencing the new joys (and challenges) that come with new places. We’re certainly in uncharted territory with COVID these days, and it gets to be pretty stifling at times. But turning to art, to new discoveries and to new vistas of the mind is one way to get through this, no passport needed. It’s hard to remind myself of this when I’m missing my family or trudging through snow, but I know it’s what I have to do, at least for now.

How are you curbing your wanderlust?

Lookin’ at you, fledgling little habit

Well, February is staring at us, Kilroy-was-here-style, and I’m happy to report that January has been productive.

I can’t say I’ve totally followed my own advice about goals in the new year (on January 4 I wrote a post about habits and goals), but the nugget of advice that I’ve tried to implement is breaking down my work into small tasks. When I made that post, I’d envisioned it would look something like early morning childcare, then teaching and grading work, then some me time (maybe even on the treadmill!) and then some time for blogging. I’d take a lunch break, then do some other writing– reviews, manuscript work, freelance work, things like that. Maybe I’d have more time for me and time for reading in the afternoon and evening. Maybe. Have you ever raised a toddler? Yikes.

But we all know that good plans deserve, nay, invite, serious challenges. My dog had surgery, and caring for a sick pup who becomes a pup with an unzipped belly requires a lot of emotional energy.

While I was working through my fears and sorrows, however, I managed to make small strides forward in manuscript work, namely, searching for agents. Using QueryTracker, this month I’ve compiled a list of 30 or so agents who want the type material I have to offer: memoir with a strong voice, punchy characters, a compelling plot and literary treatment of the work. I’ve spent time crafting a good one-liner about the book, a succinct overview, an engaging author bio and a letter unique to each agent I’m querying. This is almost as much work as raising my toddler. Almost.

What this activity has meant, in terms of breaking my work into small tasks, is that I pretty much broke off all other non-necessary work. No blogging. No story pitches to magazines or other publications. Just a little bit of review work.

So I don’t think I can say I’ve completely followed my own advice, but I can say I see the first tendrils of a new habit forming. Additionally, the puppers is on the mend, and an agent has responded, asking for the first few chapters.

Onward!

How are your New Year’s goals coming along? Not a goal maker? Cool. How’s your 2021 workload?

Header image photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kilroy_was_here.svg

Fighting not just inaction, but disregard

Today is Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, mostly known as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. At a time when the #BLM movement has made great progress in raising awareness about systemic racism in our country, I wonder if MLK Day is more than a “day off from work” for a lot of people who could help break down some of the systems that have kept racism in place. I didn’t have the day off, and if I’m honest, I only began pondering this question after friend, Whitney Raver, posted these thoughts:

FB post from Whitney Raver’s profile.

As I wrote to her in my response, I’m not 100% white, but I can recognize that I fall into a category of moderate Americans who have for so long been quiet on the sidelines as people like MLK and today’s freedom fighters work for justice for people of color. I can recognize that in my work as a teacher I think of my contribution as making a difference for the future. But is it really enough?

As a Latina who understands what it’s like to grow up in a sea of white faces in a white place, it’s easy for me to be an ally to those who are discriminated against because of the color of their skin. I’ve experienced it myself. Yet am I part of a problem noted by Dr. King? It’s a problem he addresses in “Letter from Birmingham Jail“:

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action…

Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham jail, April 16, 1963

Am I part of the moderate crowd that isn’t doing enough? Sometimes the answer is yes. I know that one of the tenets of Critical Race Theory is that people in power use their experiences to talk about other people’s; I’m guilty of that here. And I’m not a march in the streets kind of a person. I don’t yet know how to talk with former classmates and community members about their racism. I don’t know how to get them to see that saying, “but I have a black cousin” doesn’t mean they are devoid of racial bias.

But what I do know is that I want to help raise awareness about social injustice, and it starts with work that I do know how to do: Asking questions. Listening. Teaching. Writing.

That teaching component is so very, very important today. I mean today in general and today specifically, as #NotMyPresident Trump released his “1776 report,” a document that basically excuses slavery and says the nation’s schools need a whole new curriculum to teach them about how great our country is and how condemning slavery and other unjust practices have a “devastating effect on our civic unity and social fabric.”

Living next to South Dakota, where the troll of a governor Kristi Noem has started her own re-education campaign, I am transported to Cambodia of the mid-to-late 70s and the Khmer Rouge’s re-education efforts under Pol Pot as I read about this new course of history these people want to create.

I believe education is such an important part of moving through social injustice and racism, and it is truly frightening that people in power (people who are definitely not moderates) are trying to erase entire histories. This is not just inaction, it is a disregarding of reality, a disregarding of thousands of people’s experiences and the foundation of racial problems we’re experiencing today.

I urge you to read about Trump’s delusional report, but also to read the 1619 Project cultivated by the New York Times. Knowledge is power, and sharing it is my form of activism.

The reinvigorating cliché

Tonight I sat down to write, but all I could think about was my crap day. Not wanting to write about that, I jammed on the idea “when it rains, it pours.” I know, I know, clichés are about as fun to read as a blogger’s sob story, but I may just have some new ideas for you here.

  • At their best, clichés do impart quick meaning and association. They connect those who know them. When you read, “when it rains, it pours,” you probably imagined exactly what kind of day I had. So there’s that.
  • As a stand in for a writing prompt, a freewriting tool or a research session, clichés can have some value: they give a writer a place to start. I tell my students to use them if they must, and then figure out how to replace the language that came easily with something more beautiful and unique.
  • A cliché can delight. Even though the phrases are old hat (haha!),fun placement can still pack some zing.

To illustrate a few of the ways I’ve played in the puddles of my mind tonight, here are a few of my findings based on a web search of “when it rains it pours.”

Rain poems
I didn’t want to run with this most common phrase, “when it rains it pours,” but I needed something to sop up my emotions this evening, and I knew poetry could help. So I Googled “poetry magazine rain.” Despite its problems in 2020 with Michael Dickman’s poem, the Poetry Foundation’s Poetry Magazine is my go-to for poetic inspiration online.

First up, “Rain,” by Kazim Alli and this image: I am a dark bowl, waiting to be filled. / If I open my mouth now, I could drown in the rain. How perfectly this line captures the essence of being consumed by something. Could it be love? Hate? Sorrow? Joy? All of those emotions? Sure. When it rains, it pours.

Next up, “To The Rain,” by Ursula K. Le Guin. I love Le Guin’s fiction and non-fiction, but I’ve not read much of her poetry. This poem did not fully provide what I needed as I read it, but I did come away from it with an appreciation for the beauty and promise of rain.

Finally, “The Beggers,” a poem by Ranier Maria Rilke. I’m no expert on Rilke’s works, but I love the lyricism of his writing and the impassioned power of his words. It’s not lost on me that I’m always reading someone ELSE’S words because his poems as I read them have been translated in English. Here, however, I am giving credit to Rilke. It’s not unlike Alli’s poem in that readers peer into the darkness of a mouth and explore what it means to be consumed by something, but the line that stood out most to me was the phrase They sell the hollow / of their hands.

New perspectives
After reading the rain poems (and skipping over others) I Googled just the word “rain.” There were several news stories, my forecast (45 degrees and rainy), videos of Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande singing something that had to do with rain, and rainymood.com, which bills itself as “the internet’s most popular rain experience.” I scoffed as I read this line– by what metrics? Are there other less popular rain experiences online? What makes them less popular?– but an hour later, the page is still open in the background, my “rain experience” still spattering away. Normally, rain does not calm me. I see it as a barrier to time outdoors and an inconvenience. But there is something nice about letting rain spill down on me aurally and knowing it won’t ruin my day.

Fun facts
My final foray into finding new ways to express the idea of what it is to experience a deluge led me to a page on the US Geological Survey’s website: a chicken-or-egg bit of trivia that asks visitors to select where they think our planet’s water cycle begins. I said “atmosphere” and did a mental face palm when I read what scored higher. Play along and you’ll see why!

So there you have it. A dreary day and a familiar phrase gave me something to write about in a new way.

No one wants their writing to be littered with tired phrases, but if you can pick up that trash and use it, as a writer, you should. Happy hunting for your own ways to use the cliché!