Work in Progress Day

My wonderful friend and fellow writer (and Warren Wilson alum!) Elizabeth Mosier tells me it’s Work in Progress Day and has tagged me to share the opening paragraph of what I’m working on.  I’m honored and a little daunted — this is brand brand new, the beginning of a novella I’m calling Talents, and which I just started three weeks ago, a very rough draft.  But here it is!

Mostly it takes a nostalgic eye to appreciate the subtle beauty of north-central Indiana, and even then it probably requires a somewhat sensitive soul, the sort that not only did leave, but pretty nearly had to.  Folks who are from the East and the West think of Indiana as “fly-over” country, relentlessly “flat and boring” if they are, as they believe, unfortunate enough to have to drive through the mile after mile of corn and soy beans on their way from someplace, to someplace else.  Indiana itself is rarely their destination, and so they almost never leave the interstate, and even when they do, they are unlikely to slow down enough on a country road to notice the tiny yellow butterflies that meander in and out of the fields, the small brown grasshoppers that leap drunkenly on and off the pebbles on the shoulder of the road, the pungent green smell of corn.  The coy horizon, always out there, out there, but never any closer.  Even the riots of orange tiger lilies that grow wild in the ditches are a blur of color at best, maybe noticed, maybe commented on, quickly forgotten.

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A Mass Murder of Children by Guns Every Week

I finally made myself listen to President Obama’s words as he addressed the grieving community of Newtown, Connecticut a few days ago.  I assumed they would be wise and compassionate:  he is a good man, a thoughtful man, one capable of deep complexity.  It’s one of the reasons I trust him so much, even when I disagree with him.

But I think I was afraid, afraid he would shy away from touching the depth of the problem.  Because as much as we as a society failed those kids at Sandy Hook Elementary School last week – and we did, fail them, in what we have done and in what we have failed to do – Lord knows we have failed so so many other children as well.  It’s easy to shy away from talking about other tragic failures, as though doing so will somehow diminish the horror of what happened in Newtown.  But I agree with Adrienne Rich, who wrote in her poem “Hunger,” dedicated to Audre Lorde:

Quantify suffering, you could rule the world …

They *can* rule the world while they can persuade us

our pain belongs in some order.

Is death by famine worse than death by suicide

than a life of famine and suicide …

And the truth is that we are failing kids left and right, with deadly, tragic consequences, every single day all across this country.  We have failed not just the victims of mass shootings, but the victims of every shooting, when we fail to find the political courage and wisdom to regulate guns in some sane way.

I went to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence website hoping to find a few statistics about kids and gun violence, and I was overwhelmed.

Did you know all this?  I did not:

  • In 2007, 3,067 children and teens ages 0-19 were killed by firearms in the U.S. (National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC)).

That’s more than eight kids a day.  Almost 50 a week.  A mass murder of children by guns every single week.

  • In 2008, 20,702 children and teens ages 0-19 were injured with a gun in the U.S. (NCIPC).

That’s more than 56 kids injured by guns every day.  Every day.  Almost 400 a week.  Fifty dead every week and another 400 injured.  Every week.

And then there’s this:

  • Twenty-two percent of U.S. teenagers (ages 14 to 17) report having witnessed a shooting (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, p. 6).

Twenty-two percent.  Let that sink in.  And then consider this:

  • Community violence, including gun violence, has the equivalent emotional impact on children as war or natural disaster

And lest you think this is an “urban” problem, apparently not:

  • Youth (ages 0 to 19) in the most rural counties of the country are as likely to die from a gunshot as those living in the most urban counties.  Rural kids have more gun suicides and unintentional shooting deaths, while urban kids die more often of gun homicides (Nance, 2010).

So I was heartened to see these words from the President.  Let’s hope he means it, and that we do too:  that this is intolerable, and that we must change.

This is our first task, caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.

And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we’re meeting our obligations?

Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm?

Can we claim, as a nation, that we’re all together there, letting them know they are loved and teaching them to love in return?

Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?

I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer’s no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change. Since I’ve been president, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by mass shootings, fourth time we’ve hugged survivors, the fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims.

And in between, there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and in big cities all across America, victims whose — much of the time their only fault was being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.

We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this.


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Talking About Mental Health in the Wake of Sandy Hook

Many of you have already seen this essay by the mother of a mentally ill child called “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.”  There has been a lot of talk around the internet about whether this mother is unfairly demonizing and pathologizing her son, about whether the somewhat macabre humor on her blog is a sign of her own mental instability and unfitness as a mother, about whether parents have the right to speak openly and publically about their children’s mental health issues.

I don’t want to even try to take on all of that, but there are a few things about this piece and the response to it that really touched me.   I agree wholeheartedly with Andrew Sullivan that the horror of last Friday in Sandy Hook is as much about our inadequate treatment of mental health in our culture as it is about our insanity about guns.  Both/and.

But I want to talk about mental health.  Or at least first I want to talk about mental health.  And not just my own, but my son’s as well.  Which of course puts me in the category of moms-who-may-be-maligned-by-invading-the-privacy-of-their-children, but so be it.  Because I think that’s such a huge part of the problem.  If my son had diabetes, or Crone’s disease, or sickle cell, or any number of other illnesses or syndromes that we consider “physical” as opposed to “mental,” there would be no shame in my writing about it.  If I had lupus, or asthma, or I took medication for high cholesterol, no one would cringe a bit when I wrote about it, or tell me I’m “brave.”  Maybe brave for coping with an illness, but not for merely talking about it openly.

Here’s the thing:  Micah and I both have diseases that are physically based and have mental/cognitive and psychological manifestations.  Micah has ADHD and anxiety; I have generalized anxiety disorder.  We both take medications for our illnesses:  Micah takes stimulants for ADHD and Zoloft, an SSRI, for anxiety; I take Lexapro for anxiety.

I’m not ashamed that Micah and I have these diseases, and I’m not ashamed that we both have had our symptoms alleviated to an extraordinary degree by medication.  I am doing my best to normalize ADHD and anxiety for Micah, so that he can continue to be well without shame.

It seems to me that we can’t say on the one hand say, “Oh we have to destigmatize mental illness, get rid of the shame,” and on the other hand say, “But don’t talk about it!  Don’t invade anyone’s privacy.”  You know, that private place where we hide from stigma and hold onto shame?  We can’t have it both ways.

So that’s one of the things I want to say.  I’m not ashamed, and my son shouldn’t be either, and I talk about our mental health challenges not to pat us on the back or to “be brave” or to draw attention to us, but merely because this is who we are.  Trixie has asthma, Julie has high cholesterol, Micah has ADHD, I have anxiety.  Welcome to the pharmacy that is our lives!  We’re all doing just fine.

But the second thing I want to talk about is how we weren’t always all doing just fine.  Before we were both diagnosed and started getting treatment – a confusing, complicated and very expensive journey through our mental health and educational systems – life in our house felt a little like a war zone a lot of the time.  Micah and I were both volatile, and we pushed each other’s nerves in the sort of exquisite ways that only two people who are too alike and highly sensitive and totally enmeshed can do.  I yelled a lot.  Micah threw things.  It was often pretty ugly.

And a lot of the time I was scared nearly to death.  Scared I was getting it so wrong, and that he would be scarred forever.  Scared that I just wasn’t up for parenting a kid like Micah very well.  Scared that things were going to get worse and worse.

And I was really scared that Micah was going to hurt someone some day.

And here’s the thing:  unlike the mother in the “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” essay, I have never worried that my son was evil.  I have never worried that he was a bully.  I have never worried that he would intentionally hurt someone.  He started throwing things in frustration at around 15 months old, but he never threw things at people.  His violence was always about releasing tension and frustration; it was never meant to hurt anyone.

But of course, when you throw things, slam doors, hit windows, stomp around a lot, eventually you are bound to hurt someone.  Especially when you are on your way to being big, strapping man.

The fact is that Micah is a very sensitive, kind kid.  He’s like the opposite of a bully.   He’s got strong emotional radar and cares deeply about people.  Even so, if we hadn’t figured some things out, he was going to end up hurting someone.

Thank God we figured a lot of things out.  But that wasn’t easy.  Not at all.  And it was, and is, super expensive.  Way beyond the means of people like us, and without family financial support, I have no idea how we’d be coping right now.

So when I think about that mother who wrote “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt that she isn’t demonizing, isn’t pathologizing her son.  Micah’s and my issues are so, so mild in the scheme of things.  And yet I felt driven almost to despair.   Should this woman really be quiet, keep it all to herself, pretend that her son’s problems could never lead to terrible, awful violence?  I for one am very glad that she’s speaking out, that she has helped to get a much-needed conversation started about how poorly we treat mental illness in this country, and how little we support the families of those affected by it.

And I hope she will get the help and support she needs.



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Language, Snobbery, Mockery, Pain

Over at A Star in the Face of the Sky,  novelist David Haynes is having a conversation about language and snobbery and mockery and privacy and teaching and other interesting, difficult things.  Today my friend Robin Black kicked off the conversation with these thoughts:

Although I’ve long had questions about how we teachers discuss our students, the post on Facebook that prompted my – perhaps preachy, surely humorless –  status was actually not of that nature, but was a photograph of a sign advertising “Tudoring.” The comments below had all the expected conjectures about whether the person who wrote it could turn you into Henry VIII and so on; and all I could think of was how my daughter who has language-related disabilities could very easily put up such a sign. And that’s hardly the first time I’ve had this creepy sense on Facebook, and in other contexts too, that it’s uncool but also just plain weird that people laugh at those who struggle to spell well or speak well or write well. Earlier the same day I had seen a post by a literary agent mocking submission letters many of which had been written by people perhaps of limited education and definitely of poor expressive skills. Their errors, in tone and in grammar, don’t necessarily signal disability, but I think that seeing the ways in which my daughter’s disabilities have caused her to write exactly the things people ridicule (and that we teachers at times ridicule behind the backs of our students) has sensitized me to the fact that disability or not, these missteps are almost always signs of some kind of disadvantage, whether intellectual, educational, economic or otherwise. And I just think it’s bad form to mock people who lack the advantages you may have – and who may well be suffering over that lack.

Some thoughts I left in the comments over there:

I spent my middle and high school years in a small, rural Indiana high school where the local dialect sounded distinctly “ignorant” to my ears. My parents were well-educated and intellectuals, and I was decidedly an outsider among my peers in those years, so some of my disdain for their speech patterns was self-protective, for sure. But I also just had a terrible bias that anyone who said “ain’t” and “we was” and “I seen” and used double negatives — etc etc etc — must just be pretty dumb and uninteresting. Then I grew up and learned a lot about language and dialect and I became a high school English teacher in rural Indiana — and it broke my heart to learn that my very smart students actually agreed with my adolescent self. They believed they didn’t know how to speak English, that their grammar was not just different but “wrong” and that they were, obviously, dumb. Simple as that. I spent most of my three years there trying to impress upon them that the grammar of their dialect was every bit as rule-governed as the grammar of standard English, and that it was every bit as capable of expressing complex, interesting thoughts. That standard English was a dialect they needed to learn, but only for social and political reasons, not because there was anything deficient in their own dialect.

I still see that sort of prejudice all the time. Intellectuals and language professionals mourn the loss of dialect and language diversity, but then mock folks on Facebook who don’t speak or write with standard English. I worry that for many of us, dialect may be “quaint” or “folksy” and we may even be willing to accept a few magical negros (or the poor white trash equivalent) who speak wisdom in those dialects, but for the most part, we don’t really think they can express complex thought.

You should go join in the conversation!

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Shock and Awe and the Limits of Schadenfreude

Tuesday night was such a wild ride, my house full of wonderful people – neighbors and church folk and teenagers and toddlers – and we had great food and drink and conversation, much celebrating in the streets when the networks called it, singing and dancing and laughing, hugging, pots clanging, champagne all around.  Most folks had to go home and put kids to bed, or put themselves to bed so they could get to work in the morning, but a few of us hung in there until the end, cuddled up on the futon couch in the basement, trying to stay awake to hear the President speak.

It was quite a night.

Yesterday, though, and today, I feel so somber and reflective.  Partly it’s because I’m tired, having slept very little Tuesday night, and having celebrated excessively.  At my age it takes several days to recover.

But mostly I feel awed.  And humbled.

Just eight years ago, when the Republican party – with Karl Rove and Dick Cheney at the helm – was riling up its base with anti-marriage equality amendments all over the country, it never ever would have occurred to me that in just two election cycles we would have popular votes in four states come down on the side of marriage equality.  In 2004 I lived with genuine fear that things were going to get worse and worse.  In my more paranoid moments I lay awake at night and made plans for how we would get to Canada or Sweden, start a new life, if things got hateful enough here.  It seemed then that we were heading so clearly in that direction.

Just four years later this country elected a black president.  This too was something I never thought I would see in my lifetime.  And then, after the most hateful, racist, xenophobic campaign of character assassination perpetuated by so many on the right – not just the wing-nuts, but folks their candidate was happy to shake hands with (like Donald Trump) and supposedly mainstream pundits (like Mary Matalin, who yesterday called the President of the United States a sociopath) – against a man who, no matter what you think of his policies and his politics, any reasonable, rational human being has to acknowledge is at the very least a decent and thoughtful man – after all that, we reelected him!  Quite handily, in fact.

I’ve never felt prouder and more hopeful to be an American.  True, the Republican party has sunk into a swamp of, as Andrew Sullivan calls it, “epistemic closure,” and it is startling to face the reality that so many in our country have been sucked into that muck.  But really, that’s just human beings.  We are so easily sucked into muck.  In any case, I am heartened to see that some folks in the GOP are starting to get it, are starting to do some serious introspection, want to bring their party back from the brink, to be a thoughtful, reasonable alternative to the Democratic party.

And I welcome that.  In many ways, I’m actually a fairly moderate person politically.  My idealism is pretty radical and unorthodox, but I’m not a revolutionary.  I think it’s fine for things to move at a relatively measured pace, to bring folks along rather than bludgeon them.  Of course there are issues I care passionately about that I would love to see changed overnight – like ending war and truly reforming our educational system, just for two examples, issues of life and death, where the stakes are so urgent – but the truth is, things just don’t change over night.  I really believe that change happens because the foot soldiers at the grass roots keep putting one foot in front of the other, even in the face of derision and mocking and the suggestion that their efforts are futile, until one day the walls come down.

I’m so grateful for all those foot soldiers.  We need them now on the left to remind us all, and especially our President, that while we love him, and are so glad he won this election, he has some serious work to do.   Close down Guantanamo, Mr. President, end extra-judicial assassination and the drone strikes, and please please please fire Arnie Duncan, like yesterday!  I encourage everyone who supported the president but who disagrees with him passionately on any issue to let him know — to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

And on the right, I really do hope now that the good people in the GOP – and there are many, many of them – will start that same work to bring their own party back from the brink.  Schadenfreude aside (and OK, we Democrats deserve to enjoy a little of that, for sure!), I do think our greatest hope for continuing to move forward as a country is that those good Republicans will succeed.

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For All The Saints, Especially Carl

This morning Carl Kleis died, such a dear man, such a good man.  I can’t stop crying.  He was not young – in his 80’s – and he lived a good life, and he had an aggressive cancer that he decided not to treat.  He knew he was dying and so did we; he had just gone into hospice last week.  But somehow I thought we had more time.  Or maybe time has nothing to do with it; maybe I would be this sad regardless.  It’s just hard to imagine that I will never see him again – that smile, that wit, that deep deep goodness.

I don’t know if I believe in heaven, but if there is such a place, Carl is with his beloved wife Helen now, and that is certainly more consolation than I should need.

And yet I cry.

Grief is a funny thing, no?  Irrational, sporadic, sudden.

Carl and Helen came to worship at my church, Old First Reformed United Church of Christ after Carl retired from being the pastor of a Dutch Reformed church in the suburbs for over 30 years.  They came to us specifically because they were looking for a more progressive, open-minded congregation to spend their retirement in.  For many years, Carl worked as a volunteer Minister of Visitation for Old First, visiting shut-ins and bringing them communion.  He was, in so many ways, a blessing to us.

Because he was on staff, and so is Julie (as the music director), we were once at a staff dinner together at our former pastor’s house.  This was when Helen was still alive, and Trixie was a little girl, about three years old.  I was newly pregnant, but we had not told anyone yet, wanting to wait until I was through the first trimester.  But Trixie knew, which was maybe a mistake, because at this dinner, she spilled the beans and we had to come clean:  yes, we were expecting!  Carl and Helen, along with Geneva, our former pastor, were all SO EXCITED with us!  It was such fun, to share that secret with them for awhile.

Then, when I miscarried, and then miscarried again six months later, Helen was such a dear and kind confidant, sharing with me about her own miscarriages, and consoling me in a way that only a woman who has been through that and come out the other side can.

Helen and Carl eventually built a beautiful family through adoption, and when we too turned to adoption – my own prospects for carrying a child to term having been given at about a million to one – they wrote us a letter of recommendation as part of our home study.   (The other letter was written by our neighbors Jayne and Michael, Jayne having herself been adopted.)

While we waited for a baby, Helen was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and just after Micah joined our family, as a tiny little 33 week preemie, all of 4 pounds, 12 ounces, she died.  In the weeks leading up to her death, Trixie, who was in kindergarten, sent her letters telling her about her adventures in school and in our neighborhood.  Her funeral was the first of a long string my children have been to.  Micah was so tiny and cried whenever I put him down; he screamed in his car seat the whole way out to the suburbs, and I remember thinking, “Yeah, buddy, I feel like screaming too.”

I’m not even sure why, but one of Carl’s passions was LGBTQ rights and marriage equality.  In 2004, when the hateful Republicans were stirring up their base with talk of a federal marriage amendment, I organized a series of interfaith vigils at the constitution center, and Carl was one of the many vocal and outspoken members of Old First who faithfully attended those vigils.  Just about nothing could get him going with such heat as this issue.  And of course, I just loved him for it.

But he was also kind, and gentle, and funny.  He made us peanut brittle every year at Christmas, and never failed to remind us what a beautiful family we have.

I will miss you so, Carl.  Rest in peace.

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Becoming Natives in the Age of Sandy

One of my favorite “contrary farmers” (in the phrase coined by another of my favorite contrary farmers, Gene Logsdon) is a little-known man named Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas.  He and others like him have been doing important research and preservation work relating to sustainable agriculture, one of my passions.  He wrote a little book I love called Becoming Native to this Place, in which he argues that a large part of sustainability is feeling rooted somewhere, feeling native in a place, a landscape that you know and love, and that you mold your life to, rather than molding the landscape to a life that has nothing to do with that place.

It’s hard for me to say what the “place” is that I’m from.  There’s much about the landscape of Indiana, where I grew up, that feels familiar in a way no other place does:  the flatness, the endless fields, the smell of corn is all beautiful to me in a way that may be elusive to anyone but an expatriate Hoosier.  But even so, I never really felt like I was “from” Indiana.  When I was twelve, my hippie-intellectual parents moved to a small town where pretty much no one was a hippie-intellectual, and where you were still considered “new to town” unless your grandmother went to high school there.  It was never exactly home.

It still freaks me out sometimes that I’m raising city kids, East Coast kids, kids who are decidedly not Midwesterners (though I’m proud to say they know how to can tomatoes).  But they are from somewhere, and it’s Philadelphia.  Even more, a little corner of Germantown, where Julie and I have lived in the same house, on the same block, for 20 years now.  And I guess, this is as close as anywhere now to being where I’m from.  It’s the place I’m most native to.

In the midst of the devastating images from the Jersey Coast (which is a beloved get-away for my family), and the harrowing stories from New York City (which is a beloved get-away for me), perhaps the most sobering sense I am left with in the wake of Sandy is that this is the new normal.  Climate change isn’t something that’s going to happen, if we don’t do something about it; we didn’t do enough about it, and it’s here.

It feels a little like becoming a new parent.  Of course, becoming a new parent is much, much nicer than facing the reality of climate change (don’t worry, I adore my kids!).  But if you’re a parent, you know how while you were waiting for your first kid, you knew deep down that everything was going to change, that it would all be different?  You knew it, and yet, when it happened, the reality of it was way way bigger than anything you could have imagined.  You knew your life was going to change, but then it did, every bit as much as if a hurricane had blown through it.  And so you went about changing your life to accommodate this new reality, to fit this child into it, to become a whole new version of yourself in the world.  And it was hard, painful at times, but the rewards were enormous.

I’d like to think that facing the reality of climate change could be a bit like that:  it’s here now, not nearly as cute and cuddly as a new baby, but here nonetheless, and we need to change our lives accordingly.  We should have done it decades ago.  Many of us have been working on that, and it’s not a contest.  That feels really important to me:  it’s not a contest.  But I do think it’s time to get even more serious about it.

And it doesn’t have to be an onerous project.  It seems to me, in fact, that if part of living sustainable lives is becoming native to a place, then most of us could begin right in our own neighborhoods.   Walk more, grow food in your yard, talk to your neighbors.

For me, one of my commitments in the coming months and years is to try to grow even deeper bonds with all the people I share walls and porches and roofs with in my little rowhouse block, and with the neighbors in nearby blocks as well.  I never felt at home in the small town I grew up in, but I’d love to feel even more at home in the urban village I now live in.

And I think one of the best way to build bonds with neighbors is to eat together, and since I love to cook, that works well!

How about you?  How are you dealing with the reality of climate change?  What sorts of commitments are you making to living more sustainably?   I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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Philadelphia, 2010

Philadelphia is buried in snow — snow falling from low, leaden skies that turn the afternoon to dusk — snow falling in fat, silent flakes that seem to scrub the city clean in layers of starchy blue-white.  Now the sun is out again, monster icicles dripping from the porch roof.  My wife Julie, who is a teacher, and our children, twelve year old Trixie and seven year old Micah, have been out of school most of the week.  We’ll pay for these snow days in June, but right now they feel magical, like a gift.  Still, it’s a lot of togetherness in a tiny row house on our little block in Germantown – a whole neighborhood of togetherness, in fact — the hum and buzz of laughter and conversation on the street, the roar of snow-ball fights, kids soaring and diving off the mountain of snow the plow left at the end of the block.  All week, packs of kids have tumbled into the house, wet and salty, for hot chocolate and popcorn and movies in the basement.  So I’m glad to send the family ahead and catch a few quiet moments alone before I join the neighborhood snow day potluck at Kate and Pete’s, just down the block.  My excuse is that I’m roasting Brussels sprouts from our farm-to-city winter share, with olive oil and kosher salt, and they are not quite done.

When I finally arrive, Kate and Pete’s house is teeming.  I’m laden with the sprouts and also half the sticky buns I baked this morning with Micah and his friends, Ada and Zady.  Micah likes to measure and mix and roll things, but he hates sticky fingers.  Ada and Zady, though, are girls after my own heart.  When it came to smearing soft butter on the rolled-out dough with their bare hands, they couldn’t get enough.

“Ooohhh! It feels so good!”  They giggled, pinching off more butter and finger-painting it on the rectangle of soft, sweet dough.  Micah sprinkled the cinnamon, I rolled it up, and everyone helped pinch the seam.  I cut thick slabs and arranged the pin-wheels in a slurry of sugar and butter the kids had just spread with a spatula all over the bottom of the baking pans.  The warm, sticky buns are — well, possibly too much.  I’m taking half of them to the potluck.

Kate and Pete’s house, like ours, is entirely open on the first floor, living room, then dining room, then kitchen in the back.  Everything is warm — the sunflower yellow walls, the shimmery pine floors, the crackling fire in the wood stove.  I make my way through the crowd and put my food on the counter.  My Ada Ruby, Kate and Pete’s oldest, greets me with a hug.  I took care of her when she was a baby, and she feels like my third child.  Folks keep arriving, with salads, corn bread, cake.  There are brownies in the oven, and the whole house smells sweet and chocolaty.  The main course is sheer perfection:  tortilla soup with lime and cilantro, avocado and red onions to sprinkle on top.  I can’t find a plate to put Brussels sprouts on, so I just pinch a few with my fingers, then lick off the salt.  Zady’s dad sees me and smiles.  He leans in and whispers, “I did the same thing.”

“Marta, those are so good,” says Pete as I squeeze out of the kitchen.  “Brussel sprouts are much maligned and I just don’t understand why.  I love them.”

“Me too!”  There’s not much food I don’t love, though.  Licorice is the only flavor I really can’t abide.  Everything else is about texture: oatmeal, tapioca, rice pudding – they all make me gag.  It’s a shame too, because I love the idea of all those foods — a bowl of oatmeal with cream and brown sugar and raisins just seems so cozy and comforting.

“Hey Aaliyah, can I have that baby?” Aaliyah and her sister Qudsiyyah live right next door to us; we share a wall between the staircases to our second floors.  They have been best friends with my daughter Trixie for almost a decade, since they were all two and three year olds.  For several years I took care of them before and after school, the same years I had baby Ada during the day.  “Marta’s Daycare and Taxi Service,” the kids used to call it.

Aaliyah smiles and hands me Kate and Pete’s baby.  I settle on the couch and bounce him on my knee.  Someone has just arrived with an LCD projector, and more neighbors are hanging a sheet on the wall.  Movie night on the Terrace.  I turn to listen to Shelley, who is next to me on the couch.  She’s talking about food.  “We had a lunch meeting at work, and I’ve been trying to recreate this green bean dish ever since.  With cranberries and pearl onions.  Oh my, it was so good.  I can’t quite get it right though – I think I’m putting in too much olive oil.”

“Shelley, how many years have I known you?  Seventeen?  And I didn’t know you like to cook.”

“Has it been that long?  Really?”  Her voice has a soft, lilting quality that I never get tired of.  Almost southern, though I know she grew up right on this block.  “You know, you mentioned recently about knowing my father, and I didn’t realize you’d been on the block that long until you said that.”

“Oh, yeah, I remember your dad.  We moved here in 1992.  I was just trying to remember how old your son was then?  About Micah’s age now, maybe a little older?”

“Yeah, that’s about right.  He’s grown now.”  She sighs.  “But food, yeah, I love food.  I love everything about food.  You know, some people say they like to eat, but don’t really like all the preparation – all that chopping and cooking, you know?  But I just love it all.”

I smile, nodding.  I remember last summer, when there was a huge block party to celebrate because Shelley had completed her degree.  I do remember now eating some amazing barbeque pork on her stoop that day.  That was when we talked about her father.  How he went to Tuskegee.  How proud he was – never bought anything on credit.  Walked to the car dealership on the Avenue, paid cash, drove home with a new car, no note.  Her parents were good people.  Shelley is too.  And I don’t doubt she can cook, because that barbeque was amazing.  It’s all coming back to me.

“Mmm, hmmm.  I was talking about this once with a girlfriend at work,” says Shelley, nodding her head in a sort of circular motion. “I said, ‘I love everything about food.  I love the way it looks, I love the way it tastes, I love the way it feels and smells….’  And my girlfriend, she looked at me and she said, ‘Shelley? Are you talking about food or are you talking about sex?’”

I touch her arm, laughing.  “Shelley, good food and good sex?  Just two sides of the same coin, if you ask me.”

“You got that right!”  She’s still chuckling and nodding her head.  “You sure do got that right.”

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A Bit About My Other Book, for Micah

I’m actually writing another book, a middle grades chapter book for my nine year old son Micah and his friends and cousins.  I’m planning to self-publish it because I think it will be fun for him to have a real book, that looks like a real book, about himself.  But I will only be getting the most limited print run possible, and then give copies to all the kids in the book as Christmas/Hanukah  gifts.  At least that’s the idea….


What is the working title of your book?

It doesn’t really have one.  My file in Word is called “micah’s book.”  I guess I should get thinking on a title, huh?

Where did the idea come from for the book?

The idea to write a book for Micah in the first place came from good old-fashioned competitiveness with my wife, Julie, who is like super-mom and does all sorts of really cool things with our kids, like riding 200 miles down the Hudson Valley with Micah this past summer and taking Trixie to so much Shakespeare, starting when she was eight, that the kid is going to be insufferable when she goes to college.  And me?  I, um, cook dinner.  Drive the kids around.  Clean up their messes.  Yell when they intrude too much on my solitude and try to escape it all on writing retreats.  OK, OK, I’m mostly kidding … but still, all those quotidian things that make up a childhood sometimes seem a little small.  So I was trying to think of how I could connect with the kids through my writing.  And I thought, Trixie is practically an expert in Young Adult fiction, having been a voracious reader since she was seven; and Micah is a pretty picky reader, what with the ADHD and the learning differences.  So I thought, I could write a book for him, and I could rope Trixie into being a consultant on the project.  And it’s been great, I’m having a ton of fun.  I hope Micah likes his book, but it’s already been worth the project to work with Trixie on it, and as soon as I have a draft done, she and several of her pals are going to be my beta readers.

Another reason I’m writing this book is because I am utterly miserable at remembering my nieces and nephews’ birthdays, much less sending them gifts.  And I adore my nieces and nephews.  I’m just the absent-minded Auntie when it comes to birthdays.  And Christmas.  And Hanukkah.  And then there are all of Micah’s not-quite-cousins-but-best-best-friends whom I also think are just totally terrific …. And well, I figured I could kill a lot of birds with one stone with this book.  Or some other, slightly less violent metaphor…

But I do believe that the actual inspiration for the premise and the plot of this book came to me in an antihistamine-induced daze one day during the height of allergy season last spring.

What genre does your book fall under?

Middle Grade/Young Adult /Action/Adventure/Fantasy.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Oh gosh, there are so many characters in this book, and they are all kids or teens …. I don’t think I could think of real actors.  And besides, every kid in this book is so fabulously awesome that they would all just play themselves!

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Micah and his best friends and cousins are all a little stunned when they are recruited into a secret society of children who have been cleaning up the messes adults make since the time of Moses; but the real surprise comes when they are given their first mission:  to find and destroy a top-secret device for altering the Earth’s climate which has been stolen by a bizarre villainess who speaks only in haiku riddles.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I’ve actually been writing (as opposed to thinking) since the beginning of September and I hope to be done with the first draft by the end of next week.  It will be somewhere around 100 manuscript pages, I think.  Maybe a little less.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Over the summer I was supposed to read a whole slew of similar kids’ books, and Trixie compiled a great list for me, and even handed me a stack of books.  I made it through Enders Game and Hidden Talents and a few chapters into H.I.V.E., but the truth is, I don’t really like this genre at all.  So I quit and just started writing.  Which is a long way of saying, I don’t really have any idea.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?

My amazing kids, Micah and Trixie.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Well, if you know any of the kids in it, you’ll probably enjoy reading it.  I think it’s kind of funny and fast-moving, or at least I hope it is.  But it probably has way too many characters to really appeal to a wide audience, which is fine, since I’m really just writing it for Micah and his friends and cousins.

Whom have you tagged?

I’m not tagging anyone, but if you feel like playing let me know and I’ll post a link!

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A Bit About My Book

I just found this questionnaire for writers about their works-in-progress on my friend Libby Mosier’s blog, and I thought it might be fun to do.  People are always asking me about my novel, and I often have a hard time knowing how to talk about it.  I still do, but answering these questions helped me think about how to talk about it in a more focused way.

If you have a work in progress, feel free to answer the questions yourself in the comments, or on your own blog, and I will link to your answers!

What is the working title of your book?

The working titles of my book are very much working titles.  If I am ever fortunate enough to get this novel published, I assume it will get a different title.  But I need to call it something for now, so I started out calling it Faith, but then I saw a new novel out called Faith, by Jennifer Haigh (which I have not read yet, but it looks terrific and it’s on my list) and decided I needed something of my own.  I settled on Philadelphia Freedom, which evokes the novel’s setting (Philadelphia) and that wacky Elton John song, and Elton John is gay and so are some of the characters in my novel, and Philadelphia means City of Brotherly Love, which is also kinda funny in a gay way …. But mostly, I have to admit, with some chagrin, that I had recently read Franzen’s Freedom and was annoyed that this great American novel failed to have any substantive people of faith or people of color in it (OK, there’s one, but really? One?).  My novel has lots of both.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I have long been interested in intentional communities where folks make a commitment together to “live simply so that others may simply live,” as the Quakers say.  For about ten years I have been especially intrigued by two intentional Christian communities in Philadelphia:  New Jerusalem, a recovery community in North Philly founded by one of my heroes, the radical Sister Margaret McKenna, a Medical Mission Sister; and The Simple Way, a “new monastic” community in Kensington, founded by a progressive evangelical named Shane Claiborne.  I spent about six months when Micah was a baby volunteering and attending Bible study at New Jerusalem, and when I ran a literacy summer camp and after school program in Kensington for a couple of years, I visited The Simple Way several times.  I love the work both of these groups are doing, and I love their love-and-justice oriented interpretation of Scripture.  But especially the folks at The Simple Way – along with a whole group of progressive evangelicals (the “red letter”/Sojourner-type Christians) – either explicitly still speak of homosexuality as a sin (albeit in much kinder, gentler ways than some of their more rabid evangelical colleagues), or they just refuse to take a stand on it at all.  Needless to say, I find their position, or their lack of courage to have a position, disappointing.

So the initial spark that became my novel was the thought, What if a lesbian from my tradition and a progressive evangelical with a Simple Way/Sojourner sort of background were thrown together in an intentional Christian community of the Catholic Worker/new monastic sort?  It’s evolved a lot from there, obviously, but that was the original germ.

What genre does your book fall under?

I think there’s a subset of literary fiction that I call “literary fiction that smart people like to read on vacation,” and I would put Barbara Kinsolver, Jonathan Franzen, Ann Patchet, Chad Harbach, folks like those in that category.  That’s what my novel aspires, at least, to be.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

A younger Lyle Lovett could play Timothy.  Angela Bassett with dreadlocks could play Lenore.  Maybe Cress Williams with bad teeth as Terry, Naya Rivera with curly hair as Hannah, a younger Mark Wahlberg as Chad, and a slightly chubby Laura Linney as Magda.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Magda, her wife Lenore, Timothy, Terry, Hannah and her fiancé Chad all share the experience of being outsiders –expatriates of sorts – seeking a sense of home, as well as a sliver of theology that calls them to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with their god; otherwise, though, they are a wildly diverse group who struggle to love one another in the face of their diverging beliefs about marriage, sex and sexuality when they are thrown together in an intentional community in the “bad lands” of Kensington, a largely Puerto Rican neighborhood in Philadelphia, in order to run an after school program for students at the troubled local public elementary school.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I’ve been writing my novel for 15 months and I’m about two-thirds of the way through I think.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

One of the many reasons I wanted to write this book is that it seems to me there aren’t a lot of contemporary novels in which people of faith appear as just normal folks.  Another peeve of mine is that too many writers are — unwilling? unable? too scared? — I’m not sure why, but they don’t write much outside of their own experience when it comes to race and socio-economic status.  I’m sure someone really smart and well-read can (and hopefully will) list tons of such books in the comments below, but I don’t know them (I’m not particularly well-read, I’m afraid….).  So I don’t really know!

Who or What inspired you to write this book?

I would say my family and my faith community – Old First Reformed United Church of Christ – as well as our wonderful pastor who has become a close friend, as well as the work I did for several years with children living in poverty in Kensington.  I just think when secular lefties think of Christians, we’re not even on their radar.  And that’s too bad.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

It’s a novel about sex and marriage and my pretty unorthodox Christian views on those issues!  You’ll learn how lesbians make babies and meet a snake handling pastor from Georgia!  There’s a show-down on Easter with riot police outside a public elementary school!

Whom have you tagged?

I’m not tagging anyone, but if you feel like playing let me know and I’ll post a link!

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