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.

Lessons from a Dying Dog

best picture of Cora ever

One of the sad things that happened this past November was that our dog, Cora Bear, got very ill. We took her to the break-the-bank dog diagnostic hospital and found out that she was riddled with inoperable cancer. We brought her home and promised ourselves that we would not let her suffer, no matter how much we loved being with her.

She did fairly well for a few days, perking up to go for walks and to tell Simba, our naughty cat, to stay off of the dog bed. One evening Cora laid down and was reluctant to get up. I slept on the floor next to her in case she needed me. This was not long after the Paris attacks, and as I heard Cora struggling for breath a few times during the night I wondered about those of us who commit violence.

Here I was lying on the hardwood floor next to a dog, remembering all of the joyful and really bizarre moments that this one precious dog life, this one heart, had brought to our family. Just days before, a few sick individuals had picked up guns and purposely stopped heartbeats, without even wondering who those souls were.

My thoughts ranged further as I lie on the hard floor. It would be easy to make terrorism a story of bad guys versus good guys, but that is exactly how war entraps us. Someone hits us and we hit them back harder; they hit back harder still and the fight escalates, like four-year-olds on a playground. What is the saying? If we all went by the law “an eye for an eye” the world would be blind.

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Tal Afar January 18, 2005 Samar Hassan, five, screams moments after her parents were killed by US soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division. The troops fired on the Hassan family car when it unwittingly approached during a dusk patrol in the tense northern town. Her brother, Racan, eleven, was wounded in the shooting. Later, after being treated in the US and returning to Iraq, Racan was killed when insurgents bombed the family home in retaliation for the boy’s trip to the US.

Our country, an extension of each one of us, has a reputation for attacking other countries. In my lifetime some of the countries include Vietnam, Grenada, Iraq (twice), and Afghanistan (twice). If you want to see all of the times we have attacked, click here. We always have reason for attacking, but the bottom line is that we kill tens of thousands of people. The survivors — family members — want to hit back.

War is a contagion, a virus that spreads soul to soul.

Cora, our dog, is gone now.  As sad as our family is, we know that she had a good and full life.

Many families in Beirut, Charleston, Paris, Colorado Springs, and San Bernardino, to name just a few, cannot comfort themselves with that thought.

download

A small minority of people in every society are susceptible to the propaganda that so easily slithers out of the mouths of government leaders and hate groups.  These individuals, these killers, have sick minds that latch onto any ideology that allows them to harm other people. Whether they are “domestic” or “international” terrorists, they are all incredibly similar — failed human beings who cannot see the joy in life, cannot pause to rejoice in the heartbeat we all share.

So how do we counter this obscene violence by individuals who don’t have the capacity to live in peace?

We can limit their access to weapons. And I’m not just talking about the US problem with gun control. The world has a problems with gun control. Groups and individuals are making fortunes selling arms.

To protect your family, contact your representative and demand gun licensing laws. Support organizations like Moms Demand Action, who are desperately trying to save our children.

To protect our country, we need to dig. Where are the guns and weapons coming from that are fueling these conflicts all over the world? Who are the manufacturers? How are these weapons transported to ISIS and other terrible organizations?

Peace is not the lack of response to aggression. Peace is a very active response. Let’s find out who is profiting by selling guns and stop them.

Risk, Broken Bones, and Writing

In early June my son and his friend, both college students, were skateboarding on a Friday night in Portland. They chose a street that each thought the other had gone down before. As they picked up speed both realized they were in trouble. My son’s friend purposely headed into a wall of blackberry brambles. His was a good decision.

My son thought he could slow or stop. He came to a few minutes later with a broken collarbone and trouble speaking. His concussion cleared enough for him to ask his friend to call 911. His friend’s phone was shattered and the friend flagged down a passing motorist. My son spent the night on a gurney in the hallway of the emergency room. He said that being in the hallway was a good thing. People were dying in the rooms.

A week after the crash, my son had his third orthopedic surgery in four years. (#1 a collision off of a snowboard jump. #2 a fall while bouldering.) My son is doing well now. His full recovery from the accident was faster than mine.

I spoke to my son about his general risk assessment skills. So did his professor (my son was working in a lab for the summer). So did most of his friends. Even for the 20ish crowd, three sporting accidents requiring surgery seemed extreme.

Here’s the strange thing: part of me was envious of my son and his broken collarbone. (I can publicly admit this because none of my children read my blog.)

It’s been an incredible year for Maddi’s Fridge. It’s been a tough year for my writing.

I have been slow, tentative, and reluctant to take the risks necessary submit finished picture books to editors and polish my current novel. My inability to take chances is pulling me under like quicksand.

I know that some of you will say “Unknown steep hill, skateboard, that’s a risk. But what’s going to happen to you? Is your laptop going to fall on your big toe?”

You are right. I am under no physical threat. Emotional fears, though, cause their own damage. Fear of losing self-respect though failure, fear of ridicule (you wrote what????) and fear of rejection can paralyze even someone with a few accomplishments under her bra strap.

Then I look at my son who stands at the top of a steep hill with a thin piece of wood, four wheels, no helmet, and is excited and happy to see what happens next. My son is modeling behavior for me.

I don’t want to be as physically adventurous. I do want to emulate his excitement and the willingness to leap.

For the record: I am not advocating that you or any member of my family skateboard, skydive, etc. But I’m beginning to realize that extreme sports are so popular because they show you both the joys and risks all in the same moment. You overcome your fears and the reward (or occasionally, the punishment) is immediate.

You will not find me standing on a steep Portland hill with a skateboard in my hands. Hopefully, you will find me rebuilding my excitement and enthusiasm for writing. If I can rediscover that passion, I know I will leap

skateboard

And yes, all thanks to my son.