Turn the Corner

Twelve years ago, my family had a one-night Miami layover on the way to our vacation destination. An airport taxi dropped us at our hotel close to eleven. We checked in and asked about the restaurant. No luck. It had closed an hour before, the desk clerk told us, but there was a sandwich place around the corner that was still open.

We lugged our bags up to our room. Then my daughter and I set out in search of food. We walked out the front door to a brightly lit street. Streetlights glowed over dark, quiet businesses. At the corner we turned left. The hotel’s marble façade ended here, becoming dirty brick. No one was on the street. Another left turn. Here there were fewer streetlights and trash collected in the gutters.

One bright spot stood out at the far end of the block. A line snaked up to an open-air counter serving delicious Cuban sandwiches. I think we were the only white people there.

This brief moment strikes me as a relevant metaphor for the way I live. I grew up in a  culturally, racially and religiously diverse city, but these days I spend most of my time in a safe, rural, mostly white, mostly Christian community, where the percentage of all others is in the single digits. Just twenty minutes away across the river is a small city with greater diversity and greater poverty, as well as a significantly higher crime rate.

It’s easy to peer out from our safe bubble and make assumptions about why the rest of the world is so messed up. We’re working hard and doing our part, so we assume others are lazy. Or maybe our lives are okay, but they’re not as good as they once were, so we need a change to bring back whatever era our nostalgia makes seem best. And since for many of us here, interactions with people of color are few and far between, it’s easy to “other” them, instead of trying to relate.

So, what can we do to understand a world beyond ours? How can we make sense of the protests, the opposite political party, or the experiences of someone of a different faith or race or class?

I have a few suggestions.

Spend a day in an urban environment. Visit a locally owned restaurant or store. Notice diversity with curiosity, not judgement. We all have bias. The trick is to recognize our own and combat it.

Talk with homeless people. On winter weekends, you’ll find my friend, D., parked downtown in that city across the river, handing out hats, gloves, and socks, and sometimes coats and boots. I went with her a couple of times. Most people were white, under 60, and some were families. All were appreciative and polite. None wanted to take any more than they needed.

Since we can’t redo life, or really walk in someone’s shoes, search online for voices who are different than yours. Listen to what they have to say. I’m a beginner on Twitter, but I’ve found news and perspectives more up to the minute than any other means. Check out @mkguliford and @leedsgarcia. I’m always on the lookout for new sources. Put your favorites in the comments.

One thing I’ve learned from diverse voices is that it’s not their job to explain to me what their world is like. Take some time to educate yourself. Teaching Tolerance is a great resource. Find out why white privilege exists, what it really means to be a Muslim, or the truth about immigration.

Tune in to NPR. Once on a trip to Chicago, I noticed that no matter where someone had immigrated from, taxis always had NPR playing. I asked a driver why. He told me, “They are the only ones who report on my country.” If you’re looking for balanced reporting that covers world news rather than only how news affects the US, give them a listen.

Watch TED talks. Experts in technology, entertainment and design will open your eyes to amazing achievements far beyond your corner of the world. If you want a podcast taste of the videos, consider The TED Radio Hour for curated collections on a theme, like this episode.

If you look a little farther than your window, you might be surprised what you see.

Do you have better ideas than mine? I’d love to chat. Comment below.

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2018’s Most Popular Posts

It’s the end of the year and I’m looking back to see what resonated with my readers. For my second blogging anniversary in September, I posted my five favorites. Now, instead, here are the five essays with the most views.

The fifth most popular post from October, “Holding It Together,” was a day when life was hard and I found a way to cope.

In fourth place, a June post, “My Privilege,” described the way my life has been blessed by circumstance.

In August, the serious misconceptions so many people have about children made it to third place with “Miskidceptions.”

The second most popular was a post from September, “Date,” about life as a long-married couple, and the small moments that can make all the difference.

From way back in January, this year’s most viewed post, “#MeToo With Privilege,” tells my own sexual harassment story and why power can make all the difference.

Thanks for reading! If you liked these, come back in 2019 for more eclectic stories about the things I think about when I walk my dog and walk through life.

Saving Grace

No matter how good or bad your personal and professional life have been, this has been a difficult year to be an American (or from the UK, the EU, Australia, Central America, much of the Middle East. I could continue. We don’t have a monopoly on bad news.) Wildfires, tornadoes, and floods have swept across vast swaths of the country. The refugees of wars in distant lands have aroused a war of words here. Don’t get me started on politics. The year is winding down and I’m exhausted.

In an effort not to head into Christmas (or your preferred holiday) like Ebenezer Scrooge, I’ve been trying to think of the best parts, those moments in time filled with humanity and compassion. One day at school last fall keeps coming back to me.

I can’t remember what my class was working on as I helped a student at my desk, but she gazed out the window and said, “Look at that dog.”

A small white fluffy dog stood at attention on the corner, then wandered off the curb. It turned and peered around as if it hadn’t made up its mind where it was headed. I worried it would head down the block to a busier intersection.

More kids gathered, pointing and chattering. Others stood by their desks.

“Oh no!”

“It’ll get hit by a car.”

“We have to do something!”

“Can we go and get it?”

I would have liked to have rescued the little beast myself, but I couldn’t leave my students alone. There was no way they’d get back to work now. So I did what I do for nose bleeds, scraped knees, fevered heads, and vomiting.

“I’ll call the office,” I announced.

“Hey,” I almost whispered into the phone. “My class is worried about a little dog in the street behind the school. I don’t know what you can do about it, but I had to tell them I’d do something.”

“Okay,” said Mrs. P, an office clerk. “Thanks for letting us know.”

That simple call calmed the kids enough to sit down, though they still popped up now and then to check on the dog.

A couple of minutes later, someone jumped up. “Look! There’s Mrs. P.!”

She walked past our view and crossed the street. I expected her to pick up the little dog, but she continued on, turning and calling it. It obediently followed her. She went to a door, then another, then disappeared around the corner.

When she reappeared alone, the class at the window breathed a sigh of relief. “She saved it!”

And with that, she reinforced her reputation as someone to trust, and became a bit of a hero. For her, it was likely a tiny part of a busy day. But those small moments of decency are what save me.

I hope your own lives are scattered with bits of everyday heroism and joy.

 

Making Muffins

We hosted Thanksgiving twice this year. Since too few of our family members share my love of homemade cranberry sauce, I had leftovers. So on Sunday I baked cranberry muffins, and it got me thinking.

I preheated the oven on my poor old range. One of these days it will give up the ghost and we’ll have to buy new.

I pulled out a muffin tin and rinsed it out before greasing it. It had been awhile since I baked. As I dried it, I wondered what path this tin had taken to get to me. Who had mined the metal, made the alloy, designed the factory and machines, and stood on the line stacking or boxing? So many hands worked on this before mine.

I set two mixing bowls on the counter with the dry ingredients listed on the recipe. Oats are recognizable, but the white flour had to travel far from its wheat roots to become that bag we bought at the store.

I whisked the powders together and turned back to the recipe on the screen. I scrolled back up and collected the wet ingredients.

The egg probably took a straight path to my kitchen, but the almond milk had to come from some mysterious process, turning crunchy nuts into something that slightly resembled what had come from a bovine mother.

As I mixed up my batter from scratch, I used ingredients and equipment from across the country and around the globe, manufactured by who knows who doing who knows what. By the end, I had tasty muffins and the sense that my skills were very limited.

But that’s the trend, right? We have such varied conveniences that we have no need to know how to grow our food, sew our clothes, build our furniture, or truly take care of our own survival in any meaningful way. Like so many others, I spend way too much time online, but my real life has turned virtual too, a collection of bits like bytes sent electronically around the world.

There was a time when we learned life skills in childhood, segregated by gender. In the last twenty years, I’ve mended rather than sewed, but I could still follow a pattern if I had to. Once upon a time, I was taught the essentials of knitting, though it never really took, and I still know the basics to darn a sock, though I never do. My husband could build a shelter if he had to, but he’d much rather have power tools to do it.

Our most recent generation is the least equipped to go homesteading. Not only are they less likely to learn basic building and maintenance of home and hearth, their lack of hands-on play is affecting certain abilities. Apparently, all that touch-screen convenience is reducing their fine motor skills, to the point where many medical students lack the dexterity to be surgeons.

We don’t all need to become surgeons, though I hope some do for necessity. Today our most in-demand know-how involves the tapping of keys rather than pounding of hammers. Our modern world is by nature internationally interactive, so that all our survival is based on the interlocking expertise of millions.

My chosen career as a teacher doesn’t directly impact the lives of folks on the other side of the Earth. I’m sure you’ve seen the meme about teachers touching the future. It’s possible that I may influence someone who will invent or manufacture something that will enter your home. But certainly my money, and your own purchases, trickle into unknown pockets in far places.

For now, I just want to say thank you, for the minds that dreamed up this ease, the intellect that designed and invented the mundane tools of everyday life, and the hands that brought them to my kitchen, where I’ll enjoy a cup of tea with my muffin.

A Season Between

After the second wave of Thanksgiving guests have departed and the ones staying the night have wandered off alone, there is only an hour of daylight left on a gorgeous sunny Saturday. I need to walk off my carbohydrate stupor and breathe some air not scented by turkey and pumpkin pie.

The trees are bare, but the grass is still green, with the scattered brown of rain-slicked leaves. I want more than to wander around my yard, so I take off for town. Other fresh-air-cravers jog and bike past as I begin my loop.

I am caught in the odd in-between. In one yard, pumpkins literally melt, long past their prime. Across the street, a five-foot plastic Frosty the Snowman is flanked by a snow-tipped Christmas tree, starkly white against the deep green of the grass. With Thanksgiving over, Christmas is fair game.

The next day we say our last goodbyes at the airport. We spend much of the day watching the skies for the forecasted storm. It starts with driving rain, giving way to snow through the night. Fall is abruptly over.

The wind whips me out from between. I wake to white and the slow-but-accelerating slide to winter and Christmas.

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In Praise of a Boring Life

My life isn’t what I’d call tumultuous.

I have old friends and new, and a day job I’m passionate about with retirement in sight. I pass few cars on my daily ten-minute commute through Midwest farmland. I’ve been happily married for a long time, a definite blessing during rough years. While I remember the elation of a new romance, breakups were hard. The comfort of a strong bond is more appealing than any added excitement. My kids are young adults now, but I remember the drama of their teenaged years. They survived and thrived, and I wish them the same calm I have.

Though I know many tales of grief, adventure and heartbreak, they are the stories of others. They are not mine to tell.

I’ve experienced less trauma than some but have suffered my share of tragedy. It rarely appears in my writing. I could dredge up a young heartbreak or magnify the anger I felt toward the doctor who told me that my father died, but I’ve made peace with the past. I don’t bleed much on the page.

During some difficult years, interspersed with wonderful ones, I developed a theory. When you are suffering, at some point it will get better. The reverse is also true. Life is a timeline of peaks and valleys. If things are tough, this too shall pass. If days are good, why not enjoy it? There is every indication that it will only last so long.

In All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum has an essay on problems and inconveniences. When Fulghum complains about the irritations of his job, an older man, an Auschwitz survivor, explains the difference. Issues like food scarcity and war outrank annoying coworkers and getting cut off in traffic.

Life-changing problems make for gripping fiction, but my personal essays are peppered with mere inconveniences. I live in the present, occasionally dwelling in small moments from the past, sending out ripples rather than crashing waves.

So, I write the ordinary, the odd encounter, and those moments that catch you by surprise. I have the leisure of a quiet existence to see connections between strands of time and weave them into story.  As I describe this blog, I write about the things I think about as I walk my dog and walk through life.

When I reach the top of the next hill and begin the inevitable slide back down, I’m sure that words on the page will follow. In the meantime, I’ll rejoice in the everyday moments that make up my days.

The view outside my window may be flat, but the sky is often spectacular.

 

 

Performance

It’s the night of the school music program. The kids are in their finest, bouncing in excitement, smoothing skirts, running fingers tentatively along spiked hair, grinning. Teachers shush them as they line up by height to strut onstage.

Like decades of programs before them, they sing and play simple instruments from tiered risers. Some try to go unnoticed while others show off for the crowd. This year’s bunch has great pitch and iffy rhythm, but after weeks of learning songs and four rehearsal sessions, tonight is their best performance yet. As they march back to the classroom past their artwork lining the walls in the hall, we tell them how wonderful they were. The younger they are, the more their mistakes will be forgiven as adorable.

The beauty of childhood is equal opportunity. Every child, no matter their talent or significant lack thereof, gets to shine tonight. Every child’s work gets equal space on the walls.

Later, parts will be given out according to a director’s criteria. Having been given the experience, some will self-select to opt out. Others will weep that another was chosen. Colors will fade. Words will be silenced.

As we grow older, we often stop those creative pursuits in favor of paid work and family life. Some, like my playwright sister-in-law, will persevere despite the day job and daily grind, and watch her words rise up on stage. For most of us, old dreams seem pie in the sky, or other goals are achieved. We may not regret the decisions we make, but one day we strum an old guitar, sketch quick strokes on a pad, or jot down story ideas in a notebook. We think of what we’ve missed. We wonder about the road not taken, the choice we didn’t risk. We take a chance or two, then return to normal life.

Some of us come back to our loves when our kids are grown, or jobs give way to retirement. In this safe position, it’s okay if our art doesn’t make waves or make a living. We can do it for love. My uncle painted a gallery of still life canvases after his second retirement. My sister took up the bass drum in a band. A friend used her camera to capture an eagle’s flight. I started pecking away at a keyboard to tell the stories that started buzzing again in my head.

This time around, the Internet has made the world small and my writer’s group encourages me from across the globe. This time around, the writer’s guidelines that used to be ordered through the mail are a click away. This time around, before I send my writing out to the ether, beta-reading writer friends give advice about the spots that need smoothing, the bland that needs spice. Like the kids at their concert, I have an audience of family and friends who read and respond, softening the rejection that inevitably comes.

But sometimes, even at this end of life, the spotlight shines and the crowd applauds.

Click here for a rare success, thanks to DeadHousekeeping.com

Cast Your Vote

When I turned eighteen, my friend David asked me what I’d do to celebrate. I can’t remember any of my plans. I’m sure they included celebrating with my family, maybe going out to dinner with my high school boyfriend. But I do remember telling David that the very next day I planned to register to vote. He just shook his head.

It wasn’t as if I were exceptionally political. If I’m honest, it was an expression of how stubborn and rebellious I was. I was tired of being ordered around and wanted a voice, both at home and in the world.

Eighteen meant I could control my own money, but socially acceptable adulthood wouldn’t happen until twenty-one. A few years earlier men would have had the dubious honor of registering for the draft. But having a voice in government was the one landmark available to a young woman in 1978 America.

The first time I would have cast my ballot would have been the midterm election in November. Jimmy Carter was the President, Congress stayed Democratic, and Jim Thompson remained the Republican governor of Illinois. Historically eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds have the lowest voter turnout of all demographic groups and that election was part of a downward slope with participation for that age group going from 50% to 39% between 1972 and 2016.

We Americans have a terrible voting record. We like to complain about the people in charge and claim helplessness to affect change. This apathy may have led us to a dangerous place. It would be fitting if, at this moment in history, our youngest voters would surprise everyone and rise up to show my generation how it’s done.

I have no idea which candidates I picked or what my reasoning was that year, only that it seemed important at the time.  I have cared about every vote I’ve cast, but I don’t believe any election has seemed as crucial as the current one. We are a divided society, but if you pay attention to history, you know we’ve been divided before. Think of the unrest in the ‘60s. We have immigration issues, but if you look at our record we have repeatedly failed in this area too. The forced deportation of Mexican-American U.S. citizens wasn’t invented by this administration. The economy is on the upswing, but it can flip at any time. I know all this, and still, the present makes me fear for the future.

Four decades ago, I was a new adult, surely holding little responsibility for the ills of the world. With the weight of years, I fear my own blindness and lack of action have added to the disfunction we call American society. My own social justice has gone by fits and starts. Ignorance of the world is no excuse. But there is one act that any of us can do to make a difference.

Yesterday, I cast my ballot early, recording my vote for governor, state and national representatives, and a local tax issue. I gave my opinion on whether judges should keep their benches. Forty years after my first vote, I do care deeply about politics. I believe my values matter and my single vote counts.

On November 6, take your convictions to your polling place. Punch your holes, click your buttons or fill in your dots. Make your voice heard for a better tomorrow.

Vote!

Holding It Together

Teaching is hard. Moments, even days, are joyful. Some weeks, lessons go as planned. But sometimes it all goes wrong. None of these days are easy. They all take invested emotional energy and commitment to our students, the children in our care.

Last Friday was not the joyful kind.

I spent a three-day weekend doing several hours of work to catch up on what had been a hectic week. And I rested, breathed, had school dreams, and made plans that included me. It isn’t enough to provide for the kids. I need to take care of myself.

Today my students came back. Today was joyful and tragic, hectic and measured. I listened, explained, and changed my plans on a dime when someone’s pain was more important than the lesson I had planned. I comforted, waited, and offered to carry the emotional baggage that a child of nine should not have to have. And inside I wilted.

The final bell rang, but my day continued. I consulted, collaborated, communicated, and prepared for the next day.

Before I was through, I stopped. I changed my shoes and put on my sunglasses. I pulled up the playlist on my Mp3 player and put in my earbuds. Anna Nalick fit the day.

As I walked down the block to the beat of The Citadel, I noticed the sun, the purple mums on a porch, the still-green grass of the yards. The weight of the day crumbled away bit by bit with each step. I looped around a mile. Feeling ten pounds lighter, I returned and packed up for the day.

Tomorrow I’ll be back for more.

 

 

 

 

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Date

After being married for 35 years, some days we’re more life partners than lovers, more roommate than romance. We have worked out a rhythm and trust I wouldn’t trade for anything, but it’s pretty predictable.

A couple of weeks ago, I woke early on a Saturday. Two hours later my husband came down.

I greeted him with “Good morning.”

Then I hit him with “I have a ton of work to do this weekend and I have that thing tomorrow, so I won’t be much fun. But we can go out to eat if you want.”

He rolled his eyes. “Why would I expect any fun. Is it wet out? I have to mow and it’s supposed to rain in a few hours.”

I’m married to a weather watcher.

We chatted logistics. I’d move my car. He’d put gas in the mower. I’d walk the dog.

Fifteen minutes later, I came around, walking the dog into the garage. He popped through the doorway, one hand behind his back.

“Happy anniversary, honey.” He whipped out a flower from our weigela bush.

Suddenly I was exactly 36 years in the past. I glimpsed the man who had picked me up for our first date: wavy blond hair, broad shoulders, and a bud vase with a single red rose in his hand.

“Sorry I didn’t have a rose,” he said.

“I love it,” I said, right before I kissed him.

I went inside to give my pink bloom some water.

My husband the romantic started up the mower.

 I shared this honor with an amazing essay by Amuse-Douche.