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.

The Echo of a Mother’s Steady Love

My mother died several years ago. No matter how old I get, I still have a pang of longing each Mother’s Day for just one more phone conversation, one more moment sitting together at the table, with our hands, so similar, wrapped around our coffee cups.

 

Mom was always extremely well-organized. A year or two before her stroke, almost as if she had advance warning, she shipped me a box of family letters that she wanted me to save.

I hadn’t really taken a good look at the box, other than to note that one envelope included my grandparents’ love letters.

Recently, I dug through my closet and opened the box. My intention was to read my grandparents’ World War I correspondence and perhaps get an idea for a story.

Instead, I picked up a stack of blue-and-red-bordered airmail letters from my grandmother to my mother. As I flipped through the envelopes, I immediately noticed the postmarks were out of chronological order.

So unlike my mother!

The top letter in the stack was dated in 1977, the year Grandma died. It must have been the last letter Grandma wrote to Mom. In her beautiful handwriting, Grandma said how hard it was to take out the trash during the harsh Iowa winter, and how she was worried about Grandpa slowing down. But her words still contained that upbeat contentment I so associated with my grandmother. She was looking forward to spring and already had some flowers blooming indoors.

The next letter, directly under the 1977 letter, was dated 1962. Apparently, my mother had written to Grandma that she was feeling depressed and adrift. My mother was in her early forties in 1962. Here is Grandma’s response:

“I suppose the 40’s are apt to be a time of reassessment. The glowing optimism of youth has become a little dulled. We may wonder just where we’re going and why.

But don’t expect to find all of the answers. I don’t think we’re supposed to, or perhaps we’d cease searching and struggling. It seems to me only the very smug pretend to have ‘arrived.’ 

Probably it’s a good thing we are already committed to our tasks and must carry on as best we can. The daily routine helps a lot when life may seem pointless for a time.

Natural phenomena helps me when I’m low. A flutter of wings always roused me enough to try to identify the bird. Flowers have always interested me, as you know. Sunrises, sunsets, cloud formations give me a lift.”

My grandmother goes on to remind my mother that she has good friends, including her husband, that she can reach out to. That she should remember not to take all of the burdens on the world on herself and not to worry about mistakes, they are part of life.

Grandma continues:

“Fortunately, you are not self-centered, you have always thought of others. To concentrate on oneself is a fatal mistake….One thing I’m sure you know you can count on, and that is our deepest affection, always. You have always brought us great joy, a daughter for which to be very grateful.” 

How often in our lives do we hear pure, heartfelt, unselfish love? At that precise moment, sitting on the floor of my bedroom, I found Grandma’s words encircling me with warmth, telling me to take time to both forgive myself for errors and rejoice in the world around me.

But there was more. Tucked into that 1962 envelope was another letter, much older, that Grandma sent to my mother on her 21st birthday.

“To Dad and me it scarcely seems possible that you are twenty-one. It seems but a few years ago that you were enthroned on Dad’s shoulders with your baby fingers tangled in his hair while we took our Sunday walks over the Arkansas farm…

And now you stand at the threshold of adult life. I wish I could guarantee you a life of great happiness, but I cannot, for that will depend largely upon yourself. I asked Dad what he would choose to give you as a life inheritance if it were possible and he said ‘good health,’ that with it you could win nearly anything else.

The joy of accomplishment has always meant much to me, be the tasks large or small. Your grandfather told me he never cared to be wealthy, just so he could make enough money to associate with the people he enjoyed being with.

At any rate, we wish you an abundant life, full of congenial work, and love and friends. Seems as though such a combination should produce happiness.”

And, indeed, this wish did come true. My mother had a well-lived life — teaching, reading, volunteering. Always busy with ‘tasks large or small.’

I now know why these letters were out of chronological order. They were at the top of the stack so that any time Mom could reach out, unfold the thin pages, and hear her mother’s comforting voice in this our sometimes painful, often confusing world.

My mother gave me a gift this Mother’s Day. These beautiful letters. They remind me that strong families are built, in part, on a mother’s steady love, echoing down the generations.

Happy Mother’s Day

 

Maddi’s Fridge, Live!

Wow!

I have Google and Twitter alerts set to tell me when webpages or internet users are discussing Maddi’s Fridge. Sometimes I get great surprises, like when the Seattle School District teachers were striking and, to pass the time, read Maddi’s Fridge out loud on the picket line. I ended up visiting some of those teachers at Queen Anne Elementary, an inspiring Seattle school.

I also got an alert when a dad complained on twitter that his daughter asked him to read Maddi’s Fridge every night and it was “so depressing.” I tweeted to the dad that Maddi’s Fridge was like that. Parents get all teary-eyed and kids get empowered. The dad never responded. Whoops! (Yes, the internet is a little scary. Authors are listening.)

Last week an alert notified me that Childsplay in Tempe, Arizona, was going to put on a production of Maddi’s Fridge during their 2017 – 2018 season. Look at the company Maddi’s Fridge is keeping!

GO, DOG. GO! NATIONAL TOUR: August 28th, 2017 – April 25th, 2018
THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH: August 21st – October 15th, 2017
TOMAS AND THE LIBRARY LADY: August 28th – December 26th, 2017
THE SNOWY DAY AND OTHER STORIES BY EZRA JACK KEATS: December 26th, 2017 – March 11th, 2018
MADDI’S FRIDGE: January 15th, 2018 – May 20th, 2018
FLORA AND ULYSSES: March 26th, 2018 – May 20th, 2018

When I checked in with Flashlight Press, they told me that they had just finalized the rights agreement. Double wow!

I am so grateful to Childsplay for discovering Maddi’s Fridge and turning it into a play.

Years ago when I opened my best friend, Liz’s, refrigerator I felt that the entire world had failed me. What kind of world do we live in where my best friend and her little brother didn’t have enough to eat?

But now, the artists at Childsplay are going to perform the story that my eleven-year-old self wanted to SHOUT OUT TO THE WORLD: Here, in one of the richest countries in the world, our friends and our neighbors are struggling to feed their children.

A big THANK YOU to everyone at Childsplay. I am so excited that you are sharing the story of Maddi’s Fridge.

Shootings, Riots, and Stolen Scoops of Corn

corn-scoops

I was eating lunch with relatives and the drift of the conversation was that charges of racism in this country are overblown.

Our own family history says otherwise.

Earlier in the week I had been reading some of my dad’s recollections about visiting his grandpa in Ozan, Arkansas in the 1930’s. Dad was a teenager at the time.

Great-grandma asked Dad to take two bags of corn to the miller. One sack would be ground fine as cornmeal and the other would be ground as cracked corn for the chickens.

I’ll let Dad tell what happened next: “I got in line with my sacks. The miller had a huge barrel next to his grinders, and he would dip his scoop into each customer’s sacks, dumping his share in the barrel. Some white farmers came up and he just took a little corn, but if the customer was black, it was amazing how much that scoop could hold.”

Of course, I’d heard and read stories of racism before. But Dad’s memory of African Americans being cheated at the miller’s was a fresh slap. It was the pettiness that really got to me. Dad’s story showed me that, in every way possible, white Americans had a systemic pattern of stealing from African Americans.

The true purpose of racism is to advance economically at the expense of someone else.

What worries me is the children who went hungry because of “how much that scoop could hold.” Imagine dinnertime in Ozan all those years ago. Parents always eat less so their kids won’t go hungry. But there would always be the day, or days, when that missing corn meant that children would go hungry. (If you don’t know the devastating effect hunger has on children’s educational, physical, and moral well-being, check out this article by Feeding America.)

Generation after generation of “scoops” have been stolen off the tables of African American families. And any time African Americans try to get a fair deal, there is a backlash.

In 1920, Tulsa, Oklahoma, had one of the most wealthy and successful African American communities in the country. My Dad, growing up in Muskogee, Oklahoma, in the 1930’s never heard about 1921 Tulsa’s ‘race riot.’ (For some reason, Tulsans thought that if you didn’t put it in a book, no one would ever find out.) Let’s call the 1921 ‘race riot’ for what it was, the indiscriminate murder of 300 African Americans and the burning of 35 blocks of businesses and homes. Whites taking their ‘scoop.’

Backlash isn’t ancient history. You can see it clearly today. Everything from questioning Barrack Obama’s citizenship, to black men and women pulled over for ‘driving while black,’ to black men and boys being shot by vigilantes and police officers.

Racism is an insidious part of our American belief system. Not only for white Americans like my family who have slave-holding ancestors, but people who come to this country and adopt its customs without taking a closer look at our ingrained prejudices.

It would be nice if my great-grandparents, God-fearing Christians, had tried to stop the large and small thefts against African Americans being committed in their community.

They didn’t.

Like most people who go along with graft, they fell into the trap of believing that they were entitled to special treatment. To more cornmeal, to the best parts of a slaughtered pig, to the better acres for farming. That somehow it was okay that the cornbread on their dinner table was subsidized by hard-working African Americans.

The protests we have seen on the street and yes, even in the football stadium, are showing us the justified anger of African Americans.

And those protests are not enough. The next step should come from the rest of us. It’s time to pay back all of those families robbed in so many ways during the 200+ year history of this country. Scoop by scoop we need to make this right.

On September 11th, Write About a Peaceful World

It happened a few years after 9/11. Highlights, the children’s magazine, was having their annual writing contest. The theme was: “Write a children’s story set in the future.”

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The reason I write for children, the reason I read children’s books, is that children’s stories are stories of hope.  A children’s primer that I have from the mid-1800’s, which shows a couple grieving over an empty bassinet, says something like “Mr. and Mrs. Smith have lost their child. They are grieving, but perhaps God will give them another child.”

Grim, I know. But even during an era when the purpose of a children’s book was to prepare children for a hard and unpredictable life, there was always a drop of hope.

I wasn’t thinking grim thoughts years ago when I learned about the Highlights contest. I plopped down in front of my computer, excited to travel to distant worlds or explore some facet of scientific discovery.

I sat.

And sat.

And sat.

I, who grew up with Star Trek and all of the subsequent science fiction stories. I, who still read science fiction and thrill at new concepts, couldn’t think of one story set in our future that ended well, or at least had the hope of filling the bassinet again.

It occurred to me, sitting in front of an empty screen, that we will never see or know peace if we can’t keep an image of peace in our minds.

So every September 11th I try to fill the bassinet with hope. I draft a story about a peaceful world set in the future.

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Not all butterflies and kittens, but a story that brings me a little closer to understanding who we are. I write stories about how we, humans of all faiths and backgrounds, can, hope by hope, drop by drop, build a better world.

Join me. Write about a peaceful world on September 11th.

Here’s what you do. Sometime during the day or evening set a timer for 10 minutes. Sit down and write about a world without war. What would our lives look like without war? What would be on the news?

You don’t need to be a “writer” to join me. Set a timer for ten minutes. Pick up a pen or sit at your keyboard. Dream.

If you like, you can join the Facebook event.

 

Hunger is…

This week I’m giving over my blog to some talented writers.

The students at McDonald Elementary School in Seattle has been studying hunger. Here are similes and metaphors from Ms. Roughton’s 3rd graders.

“Hunger is like walking through a desert with no end.” – S.

“Hunger is like a river with no water.” – anonymous

“Hunger is like a stray cat sitting on the streets having no food to eat except litter.” – M.

“Hunger is like when you take off on a plane when you are sick.” – W.

“Hunger is like the rain falling down on a fire.” – W.

“Hunger is like an empty table at dinnertime.” – S.

“Hunger is like a sickness with no end and no medicine.” – G.

“Hunger is like a dinosaur roaring in your stomach.” – O.

“Hunger is like a fruit tree you can’t climb.” – J.

“Hunger is like a fire without a flame.” – E.

“Hunger is an apple out of reach.” – E.

“Hunger is like a hamster that has no home in winter.” – S.

“Hunger is like a hiding place that does not hide you.” – L.

“Hunger is like a school without a cafeteria.” – B.

“Hunger is like a puppy at a puppy mill.” – G.

“Hunger is fear following you around.” — M.

“Hunger is your empty plate you have every day.” – M.