Monday, September 30, 2013

Today I will not Rant

My son thinks I rant too much in my blog.  I think I do not understand this concept, too much ranting.  How could such a thing be possible?

I spent the weekend among Event People, and it was wonderful.  The gray mare woke on the uncooperative side of her stall Saturday morning, and put in a dressage test best described as pissy (I half expected one of those scathing judges' comments such as "nice braids!" or "boy, I bet she can really jump!") (bless her heart) but she redeemed herself with two very nice jumping rounds.  We finished 3rd in our division.  I was thrilled.  It's actually--I am not making this up--my best finish since 2006.

I should event more often.

Outdoors the sky is grey and gloomy.  The tired horses are grazing, hoping to be ignored.  My beautiful daughter is sick home from school, upstairs, asleep.  My wonderful husband went off to work with  the same head cold, only less severe, and away at college my son has an exam.  It's a bit after 8 am.  I'm on my third load of laundry.  I've started a pot of turkey soup.  The house is tidy and my muscles ache.  It's going to be a really good day for research, because I can do research while lying on the couch.  There's nothing particularly urgent I must do.  Today will be a rant-free day.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Banned Books Week: In Which My Own Book is "Banned"

I put "banned" in quotes because, to my knowledge, none of my books have been publicly banned or challenged.  But the other day I came across a site online that was pretty much dedicated to discussing the complete and total horrid monstrous defamation that is my novel Jefferson's Sons.  It made for interesting reading.

First of all, this was a Catholic site; as far as I could tell, all of the comments were written by Catholics.  A Catholic school had assigned Jefferson's Sons in its seventh-grade reading class, and a parent was outraged, because in a Catholic school she didn't think her child would be forced to read smut defaming the Founding Fathers.  The commenters all agreed, suggesting she homeschool immediately.

Not a single person on the site had actually read the book.

Now, my book is about what it was like to be one of Thomas Jefferson's children with Sally Hemmings.  It's as absolutely historically accurate as I could make it; it's also suitable for fifth-graders.

I promise.  Now, you could take the same facts and write a book that would be suitable for adults only, but I didn't do that.  Yes, Thomas Jefferson had an affair with a black woman.  No, he didn't rape her. (I promise: I wouldn't have believed in the possibility of consent, either, until I did the research.)  Sally Hemmings was Jefferson's wife's half-sister; she was 3/4 white; they began their relationship 5 years after Jefferson's wife died and continued a monogamous relationship for 37 years, until Jefferson himself died.

My book is not about their affair.  It's about being the son of a President, and yet still a slave.  It's about how slavery at the absolute best it could be was still horrible.

The thing that gets me is that the people who have objected to my book have all objected to the idea that Thomas Jefferson had sex with a black woman.  They don't object to Thomas Jefferson owned slaves.  They're okay with Thomas Jefferson bought and sold people, including children.  Thomas Jefferson had a man whipped and "sold so far south his family will never see him again."  (TJ's own words)  Thomas Jefferson reminded one of his overseers that the chief value of young female slaves lay in their ability to "increase capital" by having a baby every year or two.  They're ignorant of the fact that Thomas Jefferson's extravagant lifestyle meant that, at his death, 160 people were sold.  Seven-year-old girls sold apart from their families.  No problem.  Sex with a black woman?  Cover the children's eyes!

Okay, so, I'm on a bit of a rant.  I do that sometimes.  I don't think my book should be banned.  I don't think any book should be banned.  But ESPECIALLY not by people who haven't read it.

P.S. I tried to add a comment to the anti-JS site.  The comments section is moderated; mine was rejected.

P.S. #2 I'm Catholic.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Banned Books Week: A Few Surprises From the Lists

We've all heard that Harry Potter, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Huck Finn have been banned.   But I was surprised to see these books recently challenged:

Nickeled and Dimed:  On Not Getting By In America, by Barbara Ehrenriech.  Challenged but retained on the reading list for a high school AP English class in Pennsylvania, 2012, on the grounds that it was "faddish" and "obscene."  Really?  I'm scratching my head on this one.  My book club read it, but I'd actually come across it long before that.  Ehrenriech goes undercover, attempting to live for several months each on her salary as a Wal-Mart employee, waitress in a diner, and bookstore restocker.  It's an eye-opening look at an underrepresented part of our society, and I struggle to find it faddish, let alone obscene.  Some AP English students absolutely need to read this one.

The Family Book, by Todd Parr.  Banned from an Illinois elementary school library in 2012 because it contained the line, "some families have two moms or two dads."  A brightly illustrated book by an award-winning author/illustrator aimed at preschoolers to grades 2, it also points out that some families have only one parent, some have stepparents, and some children are adopted.  Oh, the horrors!  Of course, some families do have two moms or two dads--let's make those kids feel alienated, shall we?

A Child Called It, by Dave Pelzer.  Challenge still ongoing at a Washington State middle school, on the grounds that it graphically depicts child abuse (physical, not sexual).  When I ran a small library at a girls' group home this was the number one most popular book.  Pelzer overcame a horrific childhood; I think his book gave the girls hope.

The Dirty Cowboy, by Amy Timberlake.  Banned from a Pennsylvania school library in 2012 because it depicts a cartoon cowboy taking his annual bath (his privates are always kept covered).  Cartoons, people. 

It's Perfectly Normal:  A Book About Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health, by Robie Harris.  Stolen from a public library in Maine (2012) because the thief, an adult patron, found it offensive.  This is the book I used when I had the "sex talk" with my children--it's illustrated with cheerful cartoons showing all types of human bodies, and is anatomically frank without being overwhelming.

The Book of Bunny Suicides:  Little Fluffy Rabbits That Just Don't Want to Live Anymore.   Challenged but retained at a high school library in Oregon, 2009.  It's a cartoon book showing bunnies impaling themselves on Darth Vader's light saber, etc.  I've read it; it's hilarious.

The Land, by Mildred Taylor.  Banned from an elementary school in Florida, in 2009, because it contains a "racial epithet."  I'm guessing that's the word "nigger."  This book won the 2002 Coretta Scott King award for the best children's book written by an African-American.  It's a sweeping story of growing up in the South in the early 1900s.  I love Mildred Taylor, and this is my favorite of all of her books.

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank.  Challenged in the public schools of Culpeper, Virginia, in 2010 on the grounds that it contains sexual material and homosexual themes.  For the life of me, I can't think of a homosexual theme in this book, and the only "sexual" material at all comes when Anne and Peter kiss.  This book had an extraordinary impact on me:  when I came across it, in fifth or sixth grade, I didn't realize it was non-fiction.  I thought it was a novel, and I expected it to end happily.  The words, "Anne's diary ends here" still send a chill through me.


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Banned Books Week: I Censor Myself, so You Don't Have To

So, my daughter's high school is getting into the censorship act.  Recently they had a pep rally before their big football game against their cross-town rivals.  The students had a cheer that ended, "Hell, yes!"  Administration--who are also getting a bit bolshie about dress code, IMHO--disliked the word "hell," and so urged the students to say, "Oh, yes!"  And when it came time for the cheer, the entire senior class stood up and roared, "FUCK, yes!"

Score one for freedom of expression.

Look, everyone, they're words.  Some of them are stronger or more repugnant than others.  But still just words.

And yet.  I write mostly for middle school students, and that means I censor myself.  If I wrote for high school I could maybe get away with the odd obscenity--but I don't, so I can't.  Exercising my right of free expression by putting an F-bomb in the middle of one of my books would keep my books out of every school in the country and therefore limit sales.

Just ask Polly Horvarth, the author of The Pepins and their Problems, Everything on a Waffle, and several other deliciously quirky middle-grades books.  She's got one called The Canning Season that I particularly like, and that no middle-school teacher I've ever met has even heard of.  Right in the middle of it,  an F-bomb goes off like a hand grenade.  I say so because the word does seem superfluous to me.  I think Polly could have edited it out without changing the meaning of the paragraph, much less the book.  I almost wonder if she put it in as a sort of experiment, to see if that one word would change the life of the book.

I don't have access to her sales figures, but I'd say it has.  I looked the book up on Amazon yesterday.   The editorial reviews rave about it, while all adding in delicate catch-phrases such as "a sprinkling of profanity."  We book reviewers (I am one) try to give book-buyers a gentle warning about bad words, sex, drug use--anything that might set a parent off.  (It never sets the student off.  I have never once heard a child complain that a book had bad words or mature situations.  It's always the parents doing the challenging.)  Meanwhile, the online reader reviews for The Canning Season divide themselves between 4/5 stars, and 1 star, and every single 1-star review gripes about the language.

One F-word, used twice.  Out of perhaps 10,000 words in the novel.  That's 0.02% of the book, and yet--it'll never be used in a middle school classroom.  It'll probably not be carried in a middle school library.  It might not be carried in a public children's library, or a high school one.

I have mixed feelings about this.  I don't think bad words are actually bad.  Lazy, sometimes, but not such a big deal.  But the one time I had a "bad" word--not the F-word, something milder--I ended up taking it out.  It was in my novel Halfway to the Sky, which is a story of family reconciliation along the Appalachian Trail.  It was said by an adult character; it was something she would have said, and it was not really that big of a deal.  But, in the very final round of editing, my editor said, "The word is fine by me, but it'll keep you off the book award lists of every state in the country."

State book award lists are very big for sales.  Make a state list, and nearly every school library in the state will buy multiple copies of your book.  You do understand that writers are paid per copy?  Every book sold mean more money for me.  I knew my editor was right, so I took out the word.  Halfway to the Sky was published in 2001 and is, remarkably, still in print: its very successful run was fueled primarily by school sales, as it's quite often used in classrooms.  Halfway made seven state lists over a span of four years.

A.B. Westrick's novel Brotherhood came out last week.  It's a fascinating account of the early days of the Klu Klux Klan, narrated through the eyes of a young Southern white boy.  Now, it goes without saying that the book doesn't use the word Nigger.  Anne Westrick, like me, is a white woman, and as white writers we don't touch that hate-filled word.  But when I read the book in galleys, it contained a smattering of bad words--not a lot, and not very bad.  (Do you think that the founders of the Klu Klux Klan didn't use bad words?  Really??)  Some of the people who read the galleys thought that the bad words would hinder sales, so Anne took them out.  The only remotely questionable phrase left in the book is "Damn Yankees!"  I don't blame her.  Having read the book, I know she conveyed a remarkable depth of emotion and truth about a difficult subject.  She didn't absolutely need bad words.  But as another writer friend of mine pointed out this week, there's a world of difference between, "Get out of my way," and "Get out of my fucking way."   Want to convey anger mixed with contempt?  That F-word comes in handy.

This isn't a mountain I'm willing to die on.  I'll censor myself for money.  But do regret it a little.  They're just words, and really, the children already know them.

I am From (a Synchroblog)

I am from a place so flat you can feel the earth curve away beneath your feet.
I am from a house full of books
and libraries that smelled like books and
dust and churches smelling of candle-wax.
I am from my Polish grandfather, who worked all his life in mills and taverns
and had the best eye for a horse I have ever known.
I am from strong women with strong hands who taught me courage
in baby steps,
and I am from that courage.  I'm from the dark place where I broke down,
and my husband's hands, holding me up
and my children's laughter.
I'm from the books I've read and written and will write someday
and from the young grey mare who comes when I call
and the long gallops in the swaying grass
the earth curving away beneath her hooves.

read about the She Loves Syncroblog here.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Banned Books Week: Read Them Anyhow

Most of the books on the ALA's list of those challenged (meaning someone attempted to ban them from a community, but lost) or banned were intended to be read by children, from kindergarten through high school.  Most of the challenges centered around issues with language, race, religion, or sex.

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, when my son was in the fourth grade, we got a surprise in the mail:  an Advance Reader Copy of a new novel by one of my son's very favorite writers.  ARCs are pre-publication copies--the book wasn't going to be published for a few months.  However, I share a U.S. editor with the author in question, and said editor had heard my son was a big fan of the author's works.

My son was perfectly capable of reading the book by himself, but, in recognition of the specialness of the occasion, announced that he would let me read it to him.  This would slow us down--no reading ahead was one of our rules--but we would get to enjoy the book together. 

The book's protagonist was nine years old, but the book's intended reading audience skewed a little older--perhaps ages 12 and up.  As we were reading, I began to get the idea that one of the parents in the book was having an affair.  The protagonist was going to discover it.

Uh-oh, I thought.  I wonder if that's appropriate for my 9-year old?  Am I going to make him worry?  I suggested that we take a break (figuring I'd read on ahead.)  My son cut his eyes at me.  "Keep reading," he said.  A few pages later, I said, "Should we talk about where I think this is going?"  "Just keep reading," he said.

Then it was out: the affair, the mistress, the upset protagonist.  I read to the end of the chapter and closed the book.  "Ok," I said, "Let's talk."

"I don't want to talk about the book," my son said, very quickly.  "I want to talk about ----"  And he named one of his close friends, whose family arrangement was atypical.

"Oh," I said.  "Well, first of all, whatever is going on with parents is totally never the kid's fault."

My son breathed an enormous sigh of relief.  "Yeah, I knew that," he said.

We proceeded to have one of our best talks ever, about families and relationships, about what we believe God tells us is right, and how people always make mistakes, and how after we've made mistakes we have to then try to make things as right as we can.  We talked about all sorts of things.  We talked for a long time.

Later I realized how silly I'd been.  In my son's small private Christian school were single parents, divorced parents, and grandparents raising children.  He had classmates with parents in jail, classmates with parents who used drugs, and classmates adopted from orphanages.  He already knew all the different kinds of mess families could be.  What he needed was to be able to talk about it.

When people ask me, as they quite often do, whether a particular book is appropriate for their child, I always say, "I don't know.  What did you think when you read it?"

"Oh," the inevitable answer comes, "I didn't read it."  Or they skimmed it looking for the bad words.

Here's a hint:  if your child is over age 10, they already know the bad words.    They already know the bad stuff.  They worry.  They don't need you to tell them that all families are man and woman, married forever, virgins until their wedding night, protestant Christians who never drink, smoke, or swear.  They need you, or someone, or a book, to tell them that they are not alone.  That they can make mistakes and still be good people.  That in the end everything can turn out all right.  They don't want us to back away from the difficult stuff.  They want the truth.  They want us, or someone, or a book, to help them deal with it.

Over ten years ago I went to the ALA convention in Atlanta.  My fourth book was just about to be published; I wasn't someone many people had heard of.  I was wandering the convention floor when I happened upon the company who'd recorded an audio book of my third novel, a story about a pioneer girl with severe asthma.  The company is a big deal; their posters and displays were all about the latest John Grisham audio book, something like that.  I went up to the two men there and said, "I'm Kim Bradley, and you recorded my book Weaver's Daughter.  Thank you."

The first man shook my hand in a sort of smug, isn't-she-a-cute-children's-author sort of way.  The second man looked startled.  "You wrote Weaver's Daughter?" he said.  "I read that book to my daughter."  He paused, then went on.  "Until we read it, I never knew she was afraid to go to sleep because she thought she'd stop breathing in the night.  She said she thought she was the only person who ever felt like that.  I never knew how scared she was."  He paused again.  "Thank you."

Monday, September 23, 2013

Banned Books Week: What It Means to Ban a Book

OK, I'm back.  Last week's comparative silence was brought to you courtesy of my finishing a draft of my current novel.  (Huzzah!)  I had a lot going on in non-writing life, and a lot going on in the revision, which was finally sailing right along, and had to do some very creative scheduling just to cope with that.  No time left for blogging.

This is Banned Books Week, in which the American Library Association urges us all to consider banned books and what they mean to our society. 

Banning books is not about liking or disliking a book.  There are plenty of books I don't and won't read, based upon my personal preferences and idiosyncratic issues.  I don't read rape books.  I strenuously avoid books in which small children die.  I didn't read Fifty Shades of Grey because ewww, and while I did read Between Shades of Grey (totally different book!) I'll only do it once because who has that much emotional stamina?  Anne Rice creeps me out; Danielle Steele is a hack; I like bodice-rippers but only if they're well-written; I think Nicholas Evans sucks.  You're free to disagree. 

Banning books is not about someone else deciding what your children can read.  It's really not.  This is where parents get all up in arms, because sometimes schools assign books parents feel are inappropriate for their children.  And sometimes, based upon the children, they are.  I've never invoked the opt-out clause for what my own children read in school, but I did one time invoke it when my daughter's third-grade teacher wanted to show the class the movie The Passion of the Christ.  (In this case, I actually did kibosh the movie for the whole class, by gently inquiring if the school had a policy about showing rated R movies.  Turns out they did.  But I was just curious.  Mostly, I wanted my daughter, who's very visually sensitive anyhow, to not watch any part of that movie.)  Nearly every school has an opt-out clause for assigned readings; teachers will assign a different book if parents ask them to.  As for books from public libraries--if you don't want your child to read something, tell them you won't let them.  Easy.

Banning books is about one person deciding what an entire community can or can not read.  When you challenge a school, library, or bookstore's right to carry or assign a book, you're saying, "I don't want to read this, and I don't want anyone else to be able to read it, either." It's censorship, straight up.  It violates our First Amendment rights to free speech and free expression. 

That's why it's a big deal.  Look, I get the part about protecting your children.  I had a four-year-old who read voraciously at fourth-grade level, and it was a struggle for several years to find her enough books to make her happy while avoiding those that were emotionally way over her head.  You are allowed at any time to forbid your child reading something.  You are not allowed to forbid mine.  Or me, for that matter.  Cheerio.

Monday, September 16, 2013

If I were in charge of the words...

 The continued failure of the English language to shape itself exactly to my needs is beginning to exasperate me.

Take, for example, the word "slut."  Used as it commonly is, these days, it has a wealth of synonyms:  hussy and 'ho to name just two.  I much prefer the meaning "slut" carried in Shakespeare's time, when it signified a woman who was frouzy in her personal habits, who wasn't sleeping around but who could do with a bit of a wash.  When my mare dumps her water buckets into her bedding at a horse show, stirs until her bedding resembles oatmeal, and then lays down in the mess with her head pillowed on a nice fresh pile of green horse manure, and I say, "Sarah, you slut," the people whose horses' stalls neighbor mine look at me strangely.  When I explain that I am using the Shakespearean definition of "slut," they look at me more strangely still.

Alas.  But one does become accustomed.

 I missed watching the VMA live, as it's really not my thing, but when I saw all the fuss the next morning I called up Miley Cyrus's performance on You Tube.  I like to stay abreast of matters of national importance.  Yep, appalling, but what was this word everyone was throwing around?  "Twerk?" Sounded interesting.  Sounded  like it should be either a cross between a twit and a jerk, or, even better, the sort of tweet you'd send to someone who was being a twit and a jerk.  "That twerk."  "He was so annoying I sent him a twerk."  Useful, yes?

But no.  Before I slipped that one into my everyday speech I looked it up, and good thing.  Honestly.  A perfectly good word gone to waste, and not even Shakespeare to save me.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

White People

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, a woman who was sort of in my social circle made an explicitly racist remark.  I don't remember the remark, but I must have looked nonplussed, or disapproving, or something, because she immediately excused herself to me, saying (and this part I remember clearly), "I don't want to be racist, but how can I help it?  A black man stole my purse!"

I asked if the fact that it was a man who stole it also meant she had turned into a lesbian.

That pretty much killed whatever very small chance ever existed that we should become friends.

Once upon a time, when I returned from my first trip to South Africa, a person of my acquaintance tried to ask a question about the people of South Africa using the word 'African.'  "They're all African down there," I said.  "There are white South Africans whose ancestors arrived in the country 500 years ago."

"You know what I mean," she said, "African-Americans."

I knew what she meant, but I didn't feel like letting her off the hook.  "They're none of them American," I said.

"Oh," she said, crossly, "I don't know how to say what I mean."

"Black," I said.  "In South Africa they say Black."

"I can't say that word," the (white) woman replied.

Once upon a time, I sat down and read every single review of my book Jefferson's Sons on GoodReads.  Some readers expressed a strong wish that I'd used dialect, particularly in the speech of the enslaved characters.  Other readers expressed equally strong thanks that I did NOT use dialect, particularly in the speech of the enslaved characters.  As far as could be told by the avatars accompanying their posts, all of the readers who wanted dialect were white.  All of the readers who did not want dialect were black.

I recount these stories because of the response I've been getting to my post, "It's 9:45 on Friday night and I'm feeling annoyed," in which I recounted how a young friend of mine was getting Looks for being Black and riding horses.  A surprising number of people have expressed astonishment that this would happen.  All of the astonished people are white.

This is what white privilege is.  It's the automatic ease you get by being a member of the dominant race in your society.  You don't ask for white privilege.  You just get it.  A lot of white people would like to deny race.  They say things like, "I don't see race, I'm color blind," and they don't get it when this makes people of color annoyed.  To not see race, to deny white privilege, means to not listen to voices and experiences different from your own.  We white people don't have to feel guilty about white privilege--it's not something we signed up for, it doesn't mean we're automatically racist, and it's not something we consciously employ--but we must acknowledge it.  Doing so takes us one step closer to realizing that life might be different for people in our society based color of your skin.  It's more comfortable for us whites to deny this, but if we deny it we will never fix it.  The only path to a more whole, more holy society walks through truth.  The truth is that my white daughter has never had an eyebrow raised at her because she rides a horse, while my black friend says it happens all the time. 

I wish it didn't.  That wish means nothing at all. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


She and her husband were visiting their middle daughter when she went out one afternoon to run an errand.  She was seventy-six years old, active and in excellent health.  She was driving on the interstate when a teenage driver swerved without looking into her lane.

The cancer and chemo have made him more frail since the last time I saw him, but the twinkle in his eyes is exactly the same.  "Have I told you about the first time I saw her?" he asks.  "Have I ever told you that story?"

She swerved likewise, to avoid a certain collision.  Her car hit loose stone on the shoulder, skidded, and flew across the grass median, straight into the path of a semitrailer.

"I was at Yale Divinity School," he says.  "I had pretty much decided I was going to take a vow of celibacy.  But some of my friends didn't think that was such a good idea.  One of them had a sister at Cornell, so they talked me into going up to Cornell with them for a three-day weekend, for one last fling.

The horrified semi driver locked his brakes desperately, leaving a trail of smoke and rubber.  He couldn't swerve without jackknifing.  The vehicles collided head on.

"My friend's sister set me up with ten different dates for the weekend.  Ten.  Breakfast with one girl, lunch with another, all through every day.  It was humiliating.  The only time they left me for myself was a couple of hours on Sunday afternoon.

Her car was so damaged that later experts couldn't tell whether or not the airbags  had deployed. 

"I saw a sign for a student tea at the rectory of Cornell's Episcopal church, and I decided to go to that.

One of the first people to happen upon the scene was a surgeon.  He stopped his car, got out, reached into the wreckage and held her head and neck stable with his hands.  This turned out to be important, as she had broken two cervical vertebrae.  It took paramedics more than an hour to free her from the car.

"I was sitting on the floor of this room, having tea, when she walked into the front door.  She'd forgotten about the tea; she was president of the Altar Guild, and had just stopped by to return some linens she'd washed.

She had over fifty fractures.  Skull, spine, femur (two).  Right knee shattered; right foot badly broken.  Both clavicles.  Her left elbow in fragments, and over ten fractures from her left elbow down.  Only two ribs still intact; the rest in pieces.

"It was raining, and she was wearing this red raincoat and a red rain hat.  I looked up, through the doorways, and I just saw her face--

When she had her first surgery, a week after the accident, doctors told her family there was a ten to twenty percent chance she'd survive it.

"--it was like an arrow, a bolt of lightning.  I was just struck.  I thought, that's her, that's the woman I'm going to marry.  Of course, she had no idea.  All I could talk her into was just an hour's meeting the next day.  But I knew, I just knew."

They have been married over fifty years.

He laughs.  "So much for my vow of celibacy!"

Yesterday, almost three months since the accident, she walked again for the first time.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Just Don't Die

Our son's university had a three-day student/parent orientation.  At the end of the first day, move-in day, my husband and I attended a cocktail party for alumni parents and donors from the Southeast.  I was having a very pleasant conversation with a few other moms I'd just met, talking about all the advice we were nobly refraining from giving our children, and I said, "Of course, I can sum it all up in two words: Don't Die."

The other mothers looked at me very, very strangely.

Oh, I thought, lucky you.  You must never have been to a funeral in a church packed to the ells, where parents I'd known since the days of preschool and t-ball looked, like me, suddenly ten years older.  You must have been spared seeing your worst nightmare being lived out in front of you by people who were, at heart, exactly like you.  Good for you, then.  May you always be spared.

I thought of that again last week, when a lovely young woman--a stranger to me, but by all accounts, a lovely young woman, an honors student, who graduated from one of our local high schools two years ago--died in a nightclub in D.C.  She'd taken a dose of ecstacy, a drug that's often rationalized as "safe."  To her family's immense credit, they spoke publically with grace about the circumstances surrounding their child's death.  They don't know, they said, whether this was something she habitually did, or whether she was trying the drug for the first time.  It didn't matter.  She was dead.  Please spread the word, they said, so that someone else's child might be saved.

The circumstances are not the same.  The funeral I attended was the result of sheer accident; a drug overdose, while accidental, still comes from a personal choice.  I know that.  I also know that all of us make poor choices.  I know that nothing guarantees our lives; that we work toward eternity in heaven, not on earth.  Yet the moment we become parents we also become holy horcruxes: for the rest of our lives, a piece of our soul inhabits someone else's body.  So I pray for my children.  Don't die.


Monday, September 9, 2013

Monday Quiz!

Here's a fun-filled quiz to get your workweek started right.  Yesterday, when gutting the truck cab/trailer tack room floor to ceiling and even cleaning out under the seats, which of the following items did my daughter and I find:
a) a moldy Lick-it (a type of horse treat all our horses turned out to hate)
b) 14 hair nets
c) bug spray labelled for my son's use at a pony club rally, which means it's at minimum 9 years old
d) $2.00
You may answer using the following:
1) Eeeew!
2) I've seen the truck and trailer, sounds about right
3) Oh hell yes!
4) At least this time, there weren't any bananas.

As God is my witness, I'll never buy hairnets again.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

A Day of Prayer and Fasting

When I was in college, my physical chemistry professor used to tell everyone he was from Persia.  This was because when he said Persia, people thought Arabian nights-flying carpets-Aladdin and smiled, and when he said Iran, which is the modern name for ancient Persia, people thought he was a terrorist.

That was back in the 1980s, when Iran was our enemy, and Iraq was our friend.

Now we've swapped those.  Anybody remember why?  My heart is breaking for the people of Egypt, the multilingual scholars that showed us the ancient ruins, the busboys at the hotel who explained to me what I was eating and the staff on the boat who danced with my son on his birthday.  The tiny charming girl that posed for me with her pony, the man I haggled with at a bookstore, and even the old bat who tried to force me to pay five pounds--five times the going rate--to use the toilet at the Sphinx.  (I paid her one pound.  It wasn't my first day in Egypt.)  All these people, real people, their country in ruins.  Their economy, so dependent on tourists, in ruins.

And now Syria, whom we may attack any moment in retaliation for using chemical weapons within their own borders.  I get the chemical weapon thing.  I do.  But I can't imagine that more cruise missiles are the answer.

Pope Francis has asked people worldwide to observe a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria.  Honestly, I'm only up this early because there's a rumor the painter will be showing up this morning, but since I'm up I figure I'll get out my rosary.  The rosary is one of my favorite prayers for times like this--the repetitions become so meditative that it's easy to focus part of your brain on the prayer and part of it on the reason for praying.

I don't fast well--I tend to pass out--so I'll observe the modified fast I usually follow.  No alcohol, no soda, nothing to drink but water and coffee.  No desserts.  No snacks.  Small simple meals when I'm truly hungry, and it all has to be actual food, no potato chips or what have you.  It's enough that I remember why I'm doing it, which is at least part of the point.

If you're reading this, think of those you know whose lives have been directly affected by war.  If you pray, send up a prayer for them.  Do something today in their honor, for peace.

Friday, September 6, 2013

It's 9:45 on Friday night, and I'm feeling annoyed.

And I can't do a thing about it.  I just typed on my friend's Facebook wall, "I was hoping the world were different," and I know that's a stupid platitude which helps no one.

Here's the thing.  Every year for several years in a row, my daughter and I attended a super eventing camp run by a couple of famous Olympic-type riders.  (They haven't had camp for the past two years; in 2012, one of the rode on the Olympic team, and now the other, her husband, is coaching the national team.)  Camp was always a mix of up-and-coming fantastic teenage riders and happy middle-aged amateur adults.  We always had a blast.

Every year, I would meet a few people at camp that I'd carry with me afterward as friends.  The last time, summer two years ago, one of those friends was a teen I'll call Katie.  Katie was in my small riding group; she is funny and bold and smart and athletic, a great role model for my own slightly younger daughter.  Halfway through camp I started urging Katie to consider applying to my alma mater, Smith College; to my absolute delight, she matriculated there a week ago. 

Katie was able to take her horse to college; she's boarding him not at the school barn, which has very limited turnout, but at a lovely eventing facility nearby. 

This evening she posted this on Facebook:

Let me save you the breath. Yes, I am black. Yes, I am a horseback rider. Yes, Woody is mine. And yes, I do in fact board here. So if you are done staring, Woody and I will be on our way.

*headdesk* *headdesk* *headdesk*

It's alright, she wrote in reply to my expression of sympathy.  Happens all the time.

Well, it shouldn't. 

I know Katie's parents raised her to be strong and resilient and aware.  But I still hate anything, anything, that she has to deal with that makes her feel one iota less welcome, less included, simply less than my white daughter.  It's 50 years after Dr. King had a dream.  Can't we do a little better now?

Whack-A-Mole Summer

My daughter is going home with a friend after school, to stay the night.  My husband is on a golf trip.  For the next 28 hours, it's me, the dogs, the horses, and the farm.

Although I'm pretty sure that Mack, the guy who mows for us, will stop by for a chat.  He usually times it for when I've just gotten fully immersed in my novel--the one I'm writing, not reading.  It's uncanny.

Anyhow, on the drive home from taking my daughter to school (we live in the county, but pay nominal tuition so she can attend the city high school--only downside is, there is no bus) I began to contemplate my to-do list.  It's scary.  I've got two saddles sitting in my office right now: one needs to be listed for sale on eBay, and the other needs to be mailed to Brook Hill.  I've got two trumpets (don't ask) in the garage:  they need to be sent to Haiti, but first my son tells me I need to take them to the music shop for an "acid bath."  Whatever that is.  I've got a tack room that needs a total overhaul, a trailer tack room ditto, a wholly neglected orchard (the bonus is that the deer will eat the apples if we don't).  On a more urgent note I'm supposed to be reviewing the minutes from the last BFIA board meeting and setting the agenda for the next one.  It's time for the annual stash toss.  (That's yarn.)  I'm hard at work on one novel, but three or four others are pounding on the closed doors inside my head, trying to get out.  Spiders are spinning webs all over the barn, old tack is mildewing, the loft needs sweeping out, bad.

Did I mention I'm doing two loads of laundry a day just for our incontinent dog?  Since, due to congestive heart failure, mitral valve prolapse, and the medication he's on, the dog can no longer make it through the night without peeing, I've put some old towels into his crate.  It's a mark of how senile he's gotten that he doesn't mind peeing in his crate--in his younger years he would have barked insanely to be taken out at 2am.  Now he just soaks the towels.  So every morning I wash them, in hot water, by themselves.  Then throughout the day I end up finding puddles--sorry--and I deal with each by a process I may patent, when all this is over, which involves three shop towels.  I make a pile of shop towels and wash those, in hot water, by themselves, at night.  I'm mostly just thankful that the dog pees on the tile floor, not my good rugs.

Anyhow, what I realized, coming home, was that I've spent the summer playing Whack-A-Mole.  Everything of complete urgency got done, and very little else.  I paid the bills on time but didn't balance the checkbook.  (Until last week, honey.  We're fine.)  I did laundry, perpetually, but never quite caught up.  We managed to get the living room wall repainted before Sayaka Ganz came to install my two beautiful horse sculptures, my Christmas present from my husband, but we've only gotten the mudroom half repainted--not sure why, the painter has quit showing up, and whenever I ask his boss I get, 'oh, yeah, he'll probably be there tomorrow.'  This means that the shoes and jackets and dog supplies usually in the mud room are now covering the laundry room floor, which begs the question of where to put the dirty laundry.  Just yesterday I realized that the fact that the refrigerator is freezing things despite being on its warmest setting probably means the refrigerator is broken.  The repairman is coming next Thursday.  The milk froze today.

Whack!  The secret, I've learned, is to take it one mole at a time.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Old Dogs and Good Friends

Fifteen years ago, a few months before we moved to Bristol, my husband and I spent a weekend there looking for a house.  Our chatty, not to say garrulous, realtor kept driving us past a particular patch of farmland with an 1800s brick house on the corner.  The brick house, she told us, belonged to the most charming doctor and his lovely wife, and they had a beautiful little boy just our son's age, and the realtor was sure we needed to get to know them because we would just love them.  Part of the farmland was theirs, but part, though it had originally all been one parcel, belonged now to other people, whom our realtor was convinced would someday want to sell it.  She said it would be a perfect place for us.

We wanted a farm eventually but didn't have the money for it yet, so we were looking for a cheap house with a nice backyard.  I was a little irritated by the realtor's "charming doctor" prattle: my husband was also a doctor, just starting his practice, but I didn't think we needed to live only near other doctors.  "Doctor's Wife" has never been my main profession and it seemed odd.  Also, it was frankly useless to consider buying land that might some day be for sale.

However, it did come up for sale, and we did buy it, and eventually build a house on it, and we've lived there now ten years.

In the first year I was in Bristol, in the small house, wrestling with a baby daughter, a toddler son, and a writing career, the woman who lived in the brick house called and invited us for a playdate.  She, too, now had a second child, a son my daughter's age.  I would have loved to have gone, but I had some kind of conflict, so I had to decline.  She called again asking about another day.  I really did very little at the time other than care for my babies and write like crazy whenever they were both napping, but again I had a conflict, and had to decline.

She called a third time.  I looked at my calendar and said, "Oh my gosh, I swear I am not making this up, I am never actually this busy, but--"

And she said, "You suck."

And then we both laughed like fools.

Since then we've sat side-by-side at endless Little League all-star games.  We've carpooled to book club, art club, Winterguard, and kindergarten field trips.  We've been the top person on each other's "Call In Case of Emergency" list, and we've answered those calls.  When my son got hurt on the playground and the school couldn't reach me, she took him to be checked out.  When she needed to drive home to her parents in Pittsburgh, now, I tucked her boys into my guest room bed.

We watched our oldest two go from preschool to high school graduation.  Now they're both off in the wide world, and our hearts are aching.  We miss them.  Also, we both have old dogs that are dying.  It doesn't seem exactly possible, since each of us clearly recall the other's dog as a puppy, but there you are--their hearts are giving out; they lay around with grey muzzles, and sometimes they cough, and we are sad about it.

So yesterday we sat out on her wide 1860's front porch with another longtime friend.  We drank cold white wine and ate chips, her homemade salsa, and a small chocolate cheesecake I bought at the bakery in town.  Her old dog lay beside our chairs, looking pretty good, all things considered, and our younger children, those infants we dragged to every baseball game and field trip, who have been best friends since before they could talk, came and ate up the leftover chips.  They're tall, lanky teenagers now.  It was a perfect late-summer evening, as good as we could make it, anyhow.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013


Yesterday my daughter suggested that a good way to tell if I was over-analyzing something was to check whether the thing I was analyzing was something that had actually happened. 

In this particular case I was analyzing a prospective new scene for the novel I'm working on (It would be less cumbersome if 'the novel I'm working on' had a title, but it doesn't.  I trust it eventually will.)  I'm on Major Draft #3 of this particular work and I've been caught off guard a bit by how much new stuff I'm putting in.  Now, unlike about 90% of authors, I tend to add material, not cut it, with every draft, so this should be good, not worrisome.  But last Friday, all of a sudden, one of my characters received an invitation to tea.  The book's set in England in 1939-1940, so not unusual.  When I say "all of a sudden" I'm playing with that little fantasy or fallacy or whatever you call it that writers have, where our characters seem to start taking on a life of their own.  They don't really, of course.  They're fictional and I can make them do and say whatever I like.  But if I'm really paying attention, and I've set up the situation well, I sometimes bypass the part of my brain that consciously says, "You know, if Ada went to tea with the Colonel, it would give her an experience of not being judged, because since he's blind he can't see her clubfoot."  (You all think I'm making that up.  I'm not.  At least, I made it up for the novel, not the blog post.)  Instead I just write the scene.

But this time my conscious brain got all ahoo about the invitation.  What would Ada wear?  What would she and Stephen talk about?  Where was all this extra stuff about Stephen coming from, and what was I supposed to do with it, and did I really need this scene from a structure point of view, and what did I need to have happen to advance the plot?

I got all wound up about it, and I didn't feel ready to sit in my chair at all.  (Writing Rule #1--the only universal rule:  Butt in chair.)  I started to explain my angst to my daughter as I drove her to school.  She's 15, she reads a lot, and lately I've started handing her pages I want her opinion on.  Yesterday she just groaned.  "You're over-analyzing," she said.  Usually I only hear that from my riding coaches.  "Go home," my daughter said, "put your butt in the chair, quit thinking, and write."

So I did.  My lovely character Ada got the invitation in the mail.  And she flatly refused to go to tea.  And I got a really good scene out of her refusal to go, her reasons for refusing, and her guardian's reaction.  I didn't have to worry about what the Colonel would say at all.

Meanwhile, I'm halfway through a novel called The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde, which is set in a dystopian version of England in the 1980s, where literature and art attract the sort of fandom that professional sports get in the real world, and there's a character named Jack Schitt.

Jack Schitt.  At first I was sure I wasn't reading that right.  But then the Schitt jokes started falling from the sky.

Lord, I love being a writer.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A Greater Reason

I was pleased my son chose to attend his father's alma mater.  It's a Catholic university.  We're Catholic, and we live in the evangelical Bible-belt South.  My children have been asked questions I never would have thought possible growing up in a Catholic-heavy section of the midwest, such as, "Are Catholics actually Christian?"  (Said with intense skepticism.)  I thought it would be nice for my son to be able to live in a Catholic-majority area (about 85% of the students at the school claim the Catholic faith), and I'm sure it will be.  However, I didn't think much about what it meant for a university to be overtly religious, until we arrived there for the student/parent orientation.

While unapologetically and wholeheartedly Catholic, the university made it very clear at all times that students of all beliefs, all backgrounds, all sexual orientations (yes, they made that specifically clear, despite the Catholic Church's repressive history on the subject) were equally welcome.  But, they said, we are different here.  Because we are a religious institiution, we are trying to teach our students--parents, your sons and daughters--that they are to live lives that have purpose.  We want them to learn that there are greater objectives than making a bunch of money and buying a lot of stuff.  We want them to serve.

I don't think you have to believe in God to have a life of purpose.  I think believing in God makes it easier, but I don't think it's absolutely required.  I have a friend whose son is in the Navy, and she has a sign in her lawn that says Honor and Commitment.  Honor is a concept something like God.  Serving your country certainly puts you outside serving yourself.  However we do it, the more we can step outside ourselves, the more holy and whole we can be.

A friend of mine told me a story about my husband the other day.  My husband is a surgeon, and a very good one.  I know that he doesn't bring up religion or faith unasked with his patients, but I also know that he'll pray with anyone who asks him.  "Kim," my friend said, "my mother went in for surgery, and she was so frightened.  She asked if he'd mind praying with her.  And he got down on his knees.  She felt so much better then.  She quit being afraid."

If my son grows up like his father, I will be very proud.