Talking to Your Children About Hunger During this Season of Plenty

This is the season of light, and as a child it was one of my favorites. The tree was surrounded by presents. We said a prayer before our Christmas meal, thanking God for the bounty in front of us.

I also had that child’s view that everyone must have this, loving parents, plenty of food, and annoying siblings. One day my warm view of the world was blown away. I opened up my best friend’s refrigerator to find that her family was desperately in need of food.

Knowing when to talk to your kids about difficult subjects is, well, difficult. You want to protect your children from the ugliness in life, but you also don’t want them to be blindsided and not know what to do.

Here are some ways to include caring for the less fortunate in your holiday activities:

Don’t talk: Act. Children follow where their parents lead. One of the most aggravating and encouraging traits children have is that they will do as you do, not necessarily as you say. I write checks to charities at the end of the year as part of our financial planning. That’s an essential way to help, but hard for kids to wrap their head around.

The trick is to make your charitable giving visible to your children. Take advantage of the numerous trips you will be making to the grocery and other stores during the next few weeks. Buy an extra can of food or a toy. Have your child choose what you get by picking from a short list. Drop the item at your local food bank or collection site for toys.

Discuss with your child the idea of helping others. Children want to know where they fit, what their role is. Let your child know that he or she can be part of the fight against childhood hunger. Give your child an example of a time when you helped a friend or were helped by someone.

I give kids the example of tying shoes. I was hopeless at tying shoes. (A rocket scientist could not have followed my mother’s instructions.) Then, one of my friends showed me rabbit ears. Wow! I was suddenly tying shoes like everyone else.

Ask your child to tell you about a time he or she helped a friend on the playground or in the classroom. Emphasizing the web of relationships we all live in will empower your child with a sense of community, even when facing large problems.

Keep the discussion upbeat and age-appropriate. You want to be honest, but you don’t want to share any fears you may have. This is, I believe, where your child will help you. Children don’t see the huge obstacles that we do, and they often see the path around an obstacle. Will dropping one can of tuna at the food bank eliminate childhood hunger in the United States? No. But teaching our kids that they are part of the answer, and letting ourselves be part of the answer, then we are going to see progress. Keep hope in the equation. Working together, we can beat childhood hunger.

You can find your local foodbank through FeedingAmerica.org ‘s website.

For toy donations, many churches and stores have donation boxes or you can go to Toys for Tots. 

Dream Peace on September 11th

 

Years ago I wanted to enter a fiction contest. The theme was to set your story in the future.

Now I grew up with Star Trek and Ray Bradbury. I could do future. Or so I thought. Then I stared at the blank page for hours and hours. Unusual for me because I love the open windows of a first draft.

I couldn’t see a future. Anywhere. For Anyone.

And I’m not alone. When I write with teens apocalyptic worlds populate my classroom. Evil wins, and the protagonist suffers.

And these are kids who live in the safety and peace of the United States.

If our children can’t envision peace, where do we go from here?

So now, each September 11th I spend some time writing about a future in which we live in a peaceful world.

Join me if you’d like. (Or…If you are a painter, paint your world. A musician, play your world.)

This is not as woo-woo as it sounds. The more we can envision peace, the easier it will be to draw a road map from here to there.

And if we can’t envision peace, where are we going?

The Racist Nextdoor

I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid I wouldn’t look into my bedroom or bathroom mirror at night if the lights were off.

There always seemed to be some murky ghost lurking in those dark reflections. Waaay too scary for me to examine closely. So I always looked at the floor or the opposite wall as I was walking by. Anywhere but into the heart of those dark mirrors. It was safer not to look.

A few weeks after the last presidential election, a good friend confronted me over coffee with the fact that the majority of white women had voted for Donald Trump. She said, “I now know that the majority of Whites wish I wasn’t living in this country.” My friend is a naturalized citizen. Her skin is several shades darker than my own.

I sputtered, because although I’d read a lot about the election, I hadn’t focused on the racial divide. Instead, I’d examined the cultural and educational chasm revealed by the vote. After I got home I did look up the statistics and salved my conscious with the fact that the majority of college educated white women, my safe little niche subgroup, did vote against Trump.

I didn’t consider myself that naive about white privilege. I’d written on this blog how my own ancestors stayed silent as food was stolen from the mouths of African American children.

During the election season I had already witnessed a white woman yelling at the sandwich ladies at my local Subway, accusing them of taking away jobs from Americans. (The sandwich ladies were American.) The woman did not use nice words, and only left when the workers picked up their phones to dial 911.

These events were all on my mind when I got a notice from Nextdoor, a neighborhood social media network. Notices about  car prowls, garage sales, and lost cats all show up in my inbox, along with the advertisements for services, which I find slightly annoying. I was about to delete an add by a woman looking for work cleaning houses when I caught that she advertised herself as ‘White’.

Why put your skin color in an ad, unless you want to be hired based on your skin color?

I thought about my friend, who was basically asking me why I hadn’t done more to confront racism. So…

I told the “White” cleaning lady, in a post, that I was upset that she was trying to get more business by saying she was White. I said that I hire based on work experience and references. Almost as an afterthought I reminded her that God is not going to judge us on skin color. We will be judged on our actions.

I was pretty upset to see racism seeping into my neighborhood social media.

I had no idea.

In the posts that followed I was called too politically correct. I was called mean and unchristian. I was asked to move to Canada.

My offer to meet any poster for coffee and discuss our differences was ignored. Those few who supported my opinion were viciously attacked.

Some of those posting hurtful comments I knew personally. Our children had gone to school together. One neighbor told me that African Americans are racist because they all voted for Obama. Another wrote:

“In fact, a significant number (and quite possibly the majority) of white people not only “get it” but appreciate and enjoy [white privilege] and are willing to defend it silently but ferociously.”

This comment, above all the others, was like a kick in the gut.

All of my life I just assumed that all Americans were fighting the same battle. That we were all trying to move towards a place where people would be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin.

I was naive. Ignorant. My friend was correct in her assumption that white women had not done enough to fight racism. I discovered that am the poster child for that argument. 

I also discovered that it was frightening to stand up against racists. One small post from me, and the shadows from dark mirrors slithered into my world, took on faces I knew, and said terrible things.

Truth be told, I’d like to avoid the entire situation. Walk by the mirror, and look at the floor or wall instead.

But then I think of my friend, and all those with a skin color different from my own. They walk by these mirrors daily, and aren’t allowed to look away. They hear the comments, don’t get the job or the apartment, and watch their children treated as outcasts in their own country. People of color meet the racists that many Americans are afraid to confront. And when they tell us stories of monsters oozing out of the mirrors, we don’t believe them.

Snafu! or, Should Writers Avoid the NYT Crossword Puzzle?

I’ve always been bothered by the New York Times crossword puzzle. Normally, I win at word games. I love words. I write words, read words, play with multiple meanings. If I were a dog I’d make myself a pile full of words and roll around, paws up, in ecstasy.

So why is the New York Times crossword puzzle so difficult for me and so easy for, say, my husband?

Now my husband is a pretty bright guy. Electrical Engineering degree followed by an M.D. But words…they are my greatest love. (Oh! Yes. Um. Of course. I mean after my husband, kids, other family members, and pets.)

Why do words fail me every Friday and sometimes even on Thursdays? Okay, I admit it, even the occasional Wednesday puzzle has a few empty squares. And, notice I don’t even mention Saturdays.

Recently I came across a Thursday puzzle where the clue was “a mess.” My penciled-in answer was chaos.

I have a particular love of the word chaos. I first came across the word ‘chaos’ while reading, and figured out the definition on my own. Chaos was, for me, a black roiling cloud that obscured the landscape and scattered and broke apart everything it brushed against.

When I left my home town of 1500 people and arrived at the University of California at  Berkeley, I tried out my beloved word in one of my freshman classes.

“It was chayoss,” I said to my professor and class. Blank looks. Finally I spelled it.

“C H A O S.”

“Kayoss” my teacher repeated.

“Oh, I said.” I knew that word too. I’d heard it. Kayoss meant a mess.

I discovered then that I had two vocabularies, one learned from living and one learned from reading. The same word could have different meanings in each sphere.

Back to the esteemed Thursday New York Times crossword. After much frustration, I puzzled out the correct answer to ‘a mess’: ‘snafu.’

That stopped me. An online dictionary agreed with the puzzle. One of the meanings of snafu is a mess.

I went to ink-on-tree-pulp dictionary. Snafu was listed right after ‘snaffle.’ Snafu was defined as “in characteristic disorder or confusion; mixed up as usual.”

I don’t quite agree with that one, either, but it’s better then “a mess.” (And yes, I do know the origin of the word, which I’m not going to repeat on my blog.)

In my head the word ‘snafu’ is related to ‘slingshot.’ For me they are sister words. ‘Snafu’ means you take aim at something, pull back the large rubber band, and when you let go all hell breaks loose. Nothing is as you expected. The rock hits a car window or gets stuck in the rubber band and snaps back into your face. Your carefully planned shot is ruined and life is a lot more painful and confusing after you executed the plan that was supposed to make life a little less painful and confusing.

Back to my super-smart husband. He went to a large Los Angeles high school, and took English classes that I can only dream of. I’m someone who learned vocabulary less in a classroom and more by reading. My rural high school had no college prep courses. By junior year I was writing my own curriculum.

So when the New York Times’ Thursday crossword defined ‘snafu’ as ‘a mess’ I finally connected the dots and understood why I’m struggling with these puzzles.

The dictionary in my head has often ignored even ink-on-tree-pulp definitions. Standard dictionary definitions are narrower, drier, and haven’t been tempered and expanded by the elation you feel when you pull back a slingshot or the confusion you feel on a dark cloudy night. Dictionary words are on-the-shelf clean. They were once lived by humans, but have been sanitized.

I’m slowly getting better at the New York Times crossword puzzle, and now find that worrisome. (Worrisome is my mother’s wrinkled forehead, a slightly sad look in her eyes.)

There are some obvious benefits to the puzzles; there are new words to learn (some of them ridiculous repeats like ‘tam’ that don’t show up much in literature). I’ve revived my interest in Roman numerals and have picked up some Greek.

But by learning someone else’s definitions, an ‘authority’s’ (police officer with arms crossed), I may be strangling my own, experiential, in-mind vocabulary.

Writing is a combination of precision (just the right word) and elasticity (exploring meaning). If I lose that careful balance between the two then, well…I’m just a dictionary. (Black book, dogeared pages, red underlines, sitting on the shelf behind me.)

I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do with this new realization. The New York Times crosswords are addictive. Maybe I’ll continue, but beat myself up a little bit less about empty squares.

Or maybe it’s the filled-in squares that I should be worried about. When I, finally, complete all of the squares in a Saturday puzzle, does that mean that my own metaphoric definitions have been overwritten?

Plugged and Unplugged

At a school visit a while back an elementary was finishing up on a food drive. They got an impressive amount of food in, and had a closing assembly where the fifth grade team leaders described going to the local food bank, taking a tour, and helping out.

I don’t have the words to adequately describe how happy and fulfilled those team leaders looked. Imagine being a fifth grader and learning, for the first time, that you can make a difference.

One of the writing exercises I do on school visits (which can be found on my website) is that I ask children to write about a time they helped someone or someone helped them.

I divide the class in two, helpers and helpees, and it soon becomes apparent that there is a lot of helping going on in our world, from feeding the family dog, to teaching a friend to shoot baskets, to having a friend take you to the office when you skin a knee or bonk your head.

Sometimes a child will stare straight ahead and can’t remember any time they helped someone or had been helped. I ask about their sports activities, siblings, and pets to get to the story, that they can’t remember, about helping. I’m pretty successful at coaxing out those stories, but during my visits I’ve found a few kids who spend their after school and home time playing video games. On weekends they play video games or stream movies.

The saddest thing is that these kids know they’ve been shut out of community. They are lonely.

Elementary kids have these active minds that are always engaged, minds that can be a source of pride and frustration for teachers and parents, often simultaneously. We need to respect this biological imperative to explore the world and interact with people.

I’ve never been so exhausted (and I might as well add broke and pressed for time) as when I was working full time and had small children. I know that it is very tempting to hand a child a phone to give yourself a minute’s peace. But why not invite your child to help you in your busy life?

You won’t succeed all of the time; you don’t have to. Even a few minutes together cooking, raking leaves, setting the table, or folding laundry, will empower your child. Small moments lead to deep memories.

These small moments also, temporarily at least, unplug your child from mind-numbing electronics.

My wish for every child is to have the feeling of empowerment like the kids did at the elementary I visited. That spark of sudden knowledge and pride that your life matters to other people.

You just can’t get that from a video game. Let’s give our kids a chance to matter.

 

Yawn…Another School Shooting

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of hearing about these ‘school shootings’. Yes. Kids die. Young lives snapped like twigs. Bodies on the sidewalk. Yadayadayada.

Why is this news? We’ve already made the decision about guns in America. The 2nd Amendment guarantees the right of anyone to buy as many guns and as much ammunition as they can carry.

We’ve all agreed.

The only thing worse than the the rerun of sobbing children and pale shaking moms is the political posturing. For God’s sake, change the channel.

Why watch reruns on the news when there is so much new to stream on Netflix and Comcast?

Worried about missing some tidbit? I can tell you what will happen. I’m like a fortune teller with a crystal ball, waving her hands over the glowing orb. The Democrats will call for gun control. The Republicans will yell about rights. Lobbyists will plunk down wads of untraceable cash. (Oops, my bad. Will wire untraceable bitcoins.)  Spoiler Alert! The gun lobby wins.

A parade of parents will look into the camera with hollowed-out eyes.

Yawn! We’ve all seen this movie before, and will see it over and over again. In color and sound – rat tat tat goes the assault riffle. If only we had smell-o-vision and could breathe in the metallic taste of blood.

What? You want to judge me?

Judge yourself.

In a day or two this shooting will blend into a red swirl at the back of your consciousness. It will join all of the others. Maybe the kindergartners at Sandy Hook will stand out. Maybe not.

If one molecule of your body cared for these children you’d be out in the streets today protesting. You’d refuse to eat, sleep, work, until assault riffles were banned and every gun in the United States was registered.

But that’s not who you are.

And to be honest, that’s not who I am either.

Pity the children of this awful, God-forsaken country.

Shithole

In front of my house in Njinikom (I’m on the far left).

When I hear the terms “Africa” and “shithole” together, as I have for the past few days, I picture my bathroom in Njinikom, Cameroon. It was one of the best outhouses in Njinikom, and it scared me to death.

I lived in a three bedroom cinderblock house (pictured above) with a tin roof. Behind the house was a smaller building, a cinderblock kitchen with a cookfire. And about ten feet behind the kitchen, up a dirt path, was the bathroom.  Tin had been hammered onto a somewhat sketchy wooden frame that sat on a concrete slab. There were two wobbly doors. The door on the right led to an eight inch hole cut into the concrete. That was, um, the potty. The door on the left led to a stall with a floor that sloped toward the other room. I’d carry a blue bucket full of hot water into this room and wash, using a tin cup to pour water over my head and body. The excess water would drain towards the hole in the floor on the other side.

I had an opportunity during my two year stay as a Peace Corps volunteer to try other people’s outhouses. There was an off-license (bar) that had a pretty nice one too, but generally speaking, most were a mere hole in the ground with a couple of ancient boards of questionable strength to stand on, and very little privacy.

Even though I had one of the best ‘shitholes,’ still, as someone who had always grown up with a flush toilet, I had issues. Cameroon is the home of the dreaded Black Mamba, one of the most dangerous snakes in the world. And, for some reason, for the entire two years that I lived in Njinikom, I needed to get up in the middle of the night to pee. This was not a problem before I lived in Njinikom, it was not in a problem after. But somehow the knowledge that the Black Mamba was out there somewhere, as was my latrine, made me desperate. I’d light my kerosene lamp, hold it low to the ground in front of me, and make my way up the dirt path to the latrine at about 2 a.m. every morning.

Needless to say, I never did encounter a Black Mamba. I’m here to write this blog post.

So yes, there were a lot of adjustments to living in an African country in the 1980’s. And some of those adjustments had to do with shitholes.  But once I began to settle, I noticed something odd.

I had grown up in an agricultural town of 1500 souls (if you included a random cow or two). I realized that Njinikom, once I got over a bit of culture shock, was the same town. There was the town drunk. There was the postmaster who knew everyone’s business but was somewhat discrete. There was the town mechanic who could work miracles for very little money. There were a number of self-sacrificing, intelligent women scattered about town who made everything work smoothly. (They had supportive husbands who thought they ran things.) There was the town gossip. There were rich families and poor families, all mixed together, all knowing each other’s business. There were the concerned teachers, who worked long hours and sacrificed for their students. The children at the school all played together, regardless of background. It was my hometown all over again.

I had traveled 8000 miles to end up where I started.

It was a great life lesson. People are pretty much the same all over the world. What separates us is our system of government. Does the government provide access to education, health care, roads, trustworthy police, etc.? And, most importantly, does our government protect our basic human freedoms?

I was not a big fan of the president of the United States at the time (Ronald Reagan). Another Peace Corps volunteer in my village was. When I spoke out about one of Reagan’s policies at a party, my friends drew me aside and warned me that I needed to be careful. The other Peace Corps volunteer might report me to the government and then where would I be? I was putting myself and my family in danger.

Wow. Can you imagine living in a country without the right of freedom of speech? That night my home town comparison completely fell apart.

Don’t worry, I assured my friends. I can say what I want here, I can say what I want in the United States. We have freedom of speech. My friends shook their heads and walked away, convinced that I was dooming not only myself, but my parents and my siblings.

At that time I was young and, to be honest, a little smug. Maybe a lot smug. I had grown up in the greatest democracy the world had ever seen. When we erred, and we have erred, God sent us incredible people, like Dr. Martin Luther King, to show us the way.

Cameroon, like many African countries, had an old, corrupt, out-of-touch leader who had no respect for basic civil rights.

In my naiveté I believed that what happened in Cameroon could never happen in the United States.

The year is now 2018. And, once again, I realize how much I have in common with the people of Njinikom. Democracy, as it turns out, is not some huge fortress that withstands the swirling changes of time. And civil rights, apparently, have few protections in a democracy. One leader can be elected to a country and begin to dismantle the safeguards that it took over 200 years to build.

Let’s review those civil rights. The right of free speech (football players kneeling), freedom of press (articles critical of the president), freedom of religion (Islam given the same protections as Christianity), freedom of assembly (our president and I agree on this one, even racists do have a right to assemble), and the right to vote (without undue requirements for documentation).

So I want to get back to that word, ‘shithole,’ as used to describe African countries. (I know that a children’s writer really shouldn’t be using the word. But our president is lowering standards everywhere.)

The amazing thing about Njinikom. The amazing thing about Cameroon, was that despite a repressive government the people were wonderful. They had this ideal, this model to try for: the United States. Looking at our country, they knew what a democracy should be. They were striving, just like we all do, for a better life for their children.

My friend Richard and his daughter

What pains me the most about the Trump presidency is that this light, the world’s beacon of freedom, is being extinguished.

Every freedom fought for and earned by our forefathers is now under attack. The truth is under attack. And our country’s president stokes his followers by making casual racist remarks. And then denies them.