Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Let's Talk About Jews

Jews are 2% of the world's population, yet are the victims of 58% of terrorist attacks. And right now, Anti-Semitism is on the rise. Again. Haven't we learned better yet?

Since yesterday I've known I wanted to say something, and struggled for what to say. One of my favorite bloggers, a Catholic named Mary Paluzzo, wrote this post, Yes, Anti-Semitism is Real, Wrong, and Dangerous, which I think sums up the definition of Anti-Semitism pretty well. I also liked this piece about the global and pervasive nature of Christian hatred of the Jews.

I have been awfully lucky in my life to have several times traveled to places where I was a distinct minority--surrounded by black people in Botswana, brown people in Costa Rica, Muslims in Egypt, and Jews in Israel. As a white Christian American I'm accustomed to being part of a dominant culture. Becoming a minority, even for a small amount of time, taught me a lot about how you can be so accustomed to being the majority that you never even notice it. You can think your pond is the ocean. A few years ago, visiting an elementary school in rural Missouri, met a small girl fluent in Arabic. (I have a slide in my presentation that contains words written in several different alphabets, and she proudly read the Arabic ones.) Later, privately, her teacher said to me, "She always wears that scarf on her head." "It's a hijab," I said. "But I don't get it," the teacher said. "She never takes it off."

I said, "That's because it's a hijab." The teacher didn't know what a hijab was. In rural Missouri there aren't that many immigrant Muslim girls.

I know we all have some kind of ingrained xenophobia. Humans tend to divide people into "Us" and "Them." I know that I'm lucky in having been able to travel so much that for me the lines of division are somewhat blurred.

I am Catholic. I grew up well past the time when Catholics were taught that the Jews killed Christ. (For the record: Christ was Jewish. He was killed by the Romans.) I did not realize how much anti-Semitism had been actively taught by my own church until I went to Yad Vashem.

I went to Israel with 19 other children's book writers and illustrators. Only two of us were not Jews. Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Memorial Center in Jerusalem, wasn't part of our tour schedule. Most of us wrote for younger children, and PJ Library, which sponsored our trip, specifically does not deal in Holocaust literature for children younger than nine. Even for older kids--my age group--PJ won't publish books set in the camps. It's the whole Danger of a Single Story thing.

I didn't want to go to Yad Vashem. I felt I needed to, felt it was important to some story ideas I had floating in my head. (And it was, but that's a different blog post.) At first I was the only writer going. Then Stacia Deutsch decided to come with me, out of sympathy, and then Gail Carson Levine decided it was best for her research, too. We each went through the museum at our own pace. We walked through the rooms alone.

I am fully aware that the hierarchy of the Catholic church, the Holy See, has often elevated monsters (Marcial Maciel, beloved by Pope John Paul II, a prime example). I knew that no one really knows what to think about Pope Pius XII, pope during World War II, who seems to have both collaborated with Nazis and hidden and saved Jews. (Even Yad Vashem isn't clear on this: did he seem to collaborate in order to save? Or was he saving Jewish children in order to convert them into Christians?)

I didn't know of the long and horrifically ugly anti-Semitic propaganda promulgated by my church. I knew about things like the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, way back in the past, but not the broadsheets from the 1930s showing Jews as evil slavering dark-skinned caricatures with massive hooked noses. I didn't know that Catholics were being encouraged, by their own Church, to see Jews as evil, despicable, and unworthy of life.

I did not know that my modern church, to which I was still (and am still) trying to be faithful, was a source of modern anti-semitic evil.

I felt so ashamed.

As I should.

And still, we are part of the problem. Last year Pope Francis promoted to Venerable a man named August Hlond. Veneration is one of the steps on the path to sainthood. (The official titles are Servant of God, then Venerable, then Blessed, then Saint.) Hlond was a Polish cardinal outspoken against Nazi Germany. He was also anti-semitic. Here's what he wrote, in 1936:

"So long as Jews remain Jews, a Jewish problem exists and will continue to exist … It is a fact that Jews are waging war against the Catholic church, that they are steeped in free-thinking, and constitute the vanguard of atheism, the Bolshevik movement, and revolutionary activity. It is a fact that Jews have a corruptive influence on morals and that their publishing houses are spreading pornography. It is true that Jews are perpetrating fraud, practicing usury, and dealing in prostitution." Also, "It is good to prefer your own kind when shopping, to avoid Jewish stores and Jewish stalls in the marketplace (...) One should stay away from the harmful moral influence of Jews, keep away from their anti-Christian culture, and especially boycott the Jewish press and demoralizing Jewish publications." 

This is wrong. This is evil.

When I rejoined my tour group after Yad Vashem, my friends met me with hugs and sympathy ("Yad Vashem is so hard") and also pastries ("you missed dinner, you must be hungry"). They, Jewish, knew I was Christian. They knew I came from a group that had for centuries promoted their prosecution. They were still able to see me as a person.

I will always, always try to do the same. 

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Holiday Reading Assignments

This is probably my last blog before Christmas. Tonight we're having my husband's partners over for a holiday dinner. Tomorrow my lovely children come home. I'll have them both for 10 straight days, and my daughter for another week beyond that, and mostly I plan to bask in their company. I've missed them.

Yesterday at Faith in Action I interviewed a client whose story dropped me to my knees. I can't share any details, of course, and wouldn't if I could--it's the client's story, not mine. But I will say that any one of us who thinks our lives can't change blindingly in an instant are simply already blind. I read somewhere recently that we should consider it a blessing to be able to help others, and I do. I also submit it should be a blessing to allow yourself to receive help, when you need it--to admit your own frailty. But yesterday the help I was able to give, though real, couldn't touch the client's central problem. I am haunted and humbled and helpless, as I sit in my comfortable cluttered house, waiting for my beautiful children and hoping the beef tenderloin I bought for tonight is large enough to serve 12.

The Chronicle of the Horse had the guts to reprint my blog post, "An Open Letter to Diane Carney." It's the closest I've ever come to having something I wrote go viral. The comments are fascinating. Some are sad. Some are wildly illogical. What probably shouldn't surprise me, but still does, is how very little empathy many of the commenters displayed for children who had been sexually abused. There was a lot of noise about how horrible it would be if "even one" person were falsely accused.

I believe it more horrible that even one child could be assaulted because of an adult's inaction. But also, false accusations are incredibly rare. And I think that a lot of time, what looks like a false accusation is simply a truthful accusation that isn't believed.

I would like some people to get a big shiny chunk of empathy in their Christmas stockings. As such, I'm assigning the following holiday reading list:

To those who wonder why sexual assault victims fear coming forward: Speak and Shout, both by Laurie Halse Anderson; Leaving the Saints, by Martha Beck; She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey.

To those who believe the criminal justice system in this country always works: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander; Know My Name by Chanel Miller.

To those who think it can't happen in their sport: What is a Girl Worth? by Rachael Denhollander; Abused: Surviving Sexual Assault and a Toxic Gymnastics Culture by Rachel Haines.

To those who think poor people get what they deserve: Evicted, by Matthew Desmond.

Moving on. For adults who just want to read something fun, dammit: Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. For kids, ditto: Charlie Thorne and the Last Equation by Stuart Gibbs. For everyone still on the fence about graphic novels: Anne Frank's Diary: The Graphic Adaptation, by Anne Frank, Ari Folman, and David Polansky. For bad-ass teen girls, and boys who should fear them: Damsel by Elana K. Arnold. For everyone (fiction version): The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdoch; (nonfiction version) The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater.

Happy reading. Happy holidays.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

An Open Letter to Diane Carney

Dear Diane Carney,

I just read the article in The Chronicle of the Horse (a popular and well-regarded weekly magazine for English riding enthusiasts) about the new organization, Athletes for Equity, that you created "to effect equity in SafeSport procedures." SafeSport is the organization created by Congress to oversee claims of inappropriate conduct, especially involving sexual abuse of minors, within Olympic sports in this country. As the governing body for Olympic equestrian sports, the United States Equestrian Federation must comply with SafeSport procedures. (You can read more about SafeSport here and here.)

Diane, it's clear you feel SafeSport is unfair. To quote you, "It's problematic when a charge is made, and the alleged accused is thrown out onto the list, and there's evidence to say this is not correct, and nobody will look at it." Are you saying that you know for certain that individuals accused of sexual misconduct are in fact innocent of it in all cases? Because I could see a situation in which you might believe--might even have proof--that someone you know--let's call him George--did not harm a certain child. We'll call the child John Doe, to preserve confidentiality. What you don't know is if SafeSport is actually responding to John Doe's alleged abuse. The identities of the alleged victims are kept confidential. It may be that it's actually Tom Doe, Dick Doe, and Harry Doe accusing George.

It may be that there are dozens of accusers.

And yes, I'm calling the alleged accused George, because let's face it, everyone thinks that's who you're trying to defend. George Morris is an 81-year-old highly decorated Olympic rider, judge, trainer, and coach, now permanently banned from any USEF activity due to substantiated accounts of sexual misconduct against minors. He's also someone you've been highly involved with for years. A quick glance at your website shows how entwined your career is with his. George Morris is everywhere listed.

He appealed the ban and it was upheld. He's guilty, Diane. And you look like an enabler supporting a pedophile. 

Here's another quote from your article:  "But I want to take the club rules out of the process, and I want to take the kangaroo court out of the process, and I want to put it where it belongs if we’re actually going to affect permanently the rest of people’s lives."

SafeSport can't take the club rules out of the process: it exists to monitor national governing bodies of sports, which are basically clubs. It's hard to understand why you're calling it a "kangaroo court." Can you explain? I know that some people are upset because they feel that there can't be a SafeSport ban without criminal charges. They're wrong to be upset. SafeSport personnel, like teachers and doctors, are mandatory reporters: they must submit their information to law enforcement. Unfortunately, sometimes charges can't be pressed, and sometimes that has absolutely nothing to do with the available proof of a crime. The statute of limitations varies greatly by state. Sometimes by the time the victim comes forward it's too late to send the perpetrator to prison. That doesn't mean they shouldn't be banned from their sport.

You talk about things permanently affecting people's lives. Do you know what really affects people's lives? Being sexually assaulted. Particularly when they're children assaulted by someone they trust and admire. It can screw you up for life, Diane. 

A little farther down in the interview, you say something similar: "As a member of a national governing body, you’re signing your rights away when you agree to be under the arbitration of SafeSport. Now if we’re talking about the infraction of a rule at a competition, that’s one thing. But if you’re talking about taking [someone’s] livelihood away, that’s a much more serious topic." First, let's get one thing straight. EVERY NGO is under the arbitration of SafeSport. There's no "agreeing" or "disagreeing" to be done. Here's my question for you: do you think it's much more serious for someone to lose their ability to work in a certain field than it is for children to be raped? Because that's what it sounds like you're saying. 

A teacher in my town was convicted of soliciting sex from one of his middle-school students. He never actually molested her, just tried to arrange to do so. He's banned from ever teaching again. Are you sorry? Do you think that's wrong?

Look, George Morris probably has enough money to retire on, but I'm fine if he wants to go work at an IHOP or something. Just nowhere near kids, or with the USEF.

You say, regarding the victims, "...there’s no reason for them to be afraid to come forward and say, 'This happened to me.'" Diane. Are you nuts?

I can give you some reasons. Children often feel responsible for being abused. It causes deep, deep shame, shame made worse by the absolute culture of silence we've built up around it, and by the careless comments of ignorant people such as yourself. Children can be easily coerced or threatened; conversely, they can be made to feel special if they allow the abuse. In the ultra-competitive world of high level horse sports, it's easy to imagine what some abusers might say. "I think you have the talent to go all the way. As long as you stick with me."

Or you could be more direct, as my abuser was. "Tell anyone," he said, "and they'll take you away and put you in foster care. You'll never see your family again."

That might not hold water to an adult, but it does a number on you when you're five.

Did you know, Diane, that 1 in 5 children in the United States is sexually assaulted before age 18? Did you know that children who are sexually assaulted are 17 times more likely to attempt suicide than those that aren't? Did you know suicide is currently the second leading cause of death in children aged 10-14?

Diane, you say you want to be sure the victims have some support. You suggest social workers. Can you tell me what you know about the devastating effects of childhood sexual abuse? Can you tell me what sorts of therapy are usually helpful, and how long they take? 

Can you tell me the number of victims a typical pedophile assaults before being caught? 
Two hundred to four hundred. 

I see that the website of Athletes for Equity features photographs of people competing in many different sports. All of the officers, however, are equestrians. Is anyone involved in Athletes for Equity from another sport? I see that you offer under "Testimonials" a long anonymous account of someone unjustly accused. Can you put any names forward? Can you prove any accusations are unjust? SafeSport seems to have credible investigators. What precisely do you know that they don't? And if you're afraid to give details or name names--imagine how that powerless twelve-year-old feels, the one you think should be ready to face the public. Including yourself.

Tampons for Christmas

Up in Wisconsin, where she lives, my sister is conducting a tampon drive. Here in Tennessee one of my friends had one in conjunction with her annual holiday open house. I know because yesterday I picked the tampons up from her and took them to Bristol Faith in Action, where I work most Wednesdays, and put them in the storeroom. We give out half a dozen personal care packs every day so the supplies I brought in won't last long.

Several years ago, I was temporarily the Acting Director of BFIA. A woman came in, frantic--she was menstruating heavily and had no hygiene supplies or money to buy them. I didn't have any to give her. She walked away blinking back tears, humiliated, and I felt outraged on her behalf. I never saw that woman again, to my knowledge, but I went out that night and bought tampons for BFIA, and we've stocked them ever since.

You can't buy tampons with food stamps. You can't buy shampoo, laundry detergent, soap.  You can't buy toilet paper. We've had clients come in who were using their socks for toilet paper.

You can't buy diapers with food stamps either. Before you tell me that cotton washable diapers would be cheaper, check your privilege, please. Most of our clients don't have washing machines. Coin-operated ones are expensive, and hauling several loads of dirty diapers to the laundromat each week is a huge commitment of resources. And day cares require children use disposable diapers--so if you want these parents to work, you realize they have to have diapers. We give those away at FIA too.

Back to tampons. Or pads. No one chooses whether or not to menstruate. It happens every month. A box of 20 tampons costs about four bucks at Food City right now. That might be enough for a month. It's about 35 minutes of a minimum wage job--over 10% of the work week you'd likely be getting (more than 30 hours a week requires benefits). So while it might not seem like much money to a middle-class person reading this, it can be cost-prohibitive on the lower end of the pay scale.

Personal hygiene supplies are one of the least-likely things to be donated to food banks or social justice organizations. This is something that should change.

So. Start your own tampon drive. Wherever you are. Toss a box in your cart the next time you're shopping. Drop them off at your favorite local organization.

Being poor shouldn't cost you your dignity.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Stick a Bow on It

Yesterday morning I texted some of my girlfriends that I thought it likely I could meet them for lunch. Then I went on to the school where we were finishing up our free book fair. Tracy, my captain (my captain!) and partner in crime, walked in and laughed at me. "Lunch?" she said. "That's optimistic. But for sure you're not going without me."

Then we went to work. We gave away books to kindergartners and preschoolers, stopping fights over copies of The True Stories of the Three Little Pigs ("you can both chose it!") and consoling one small boy who wept when we put the books he chose back onto the table (because we're ordering the children their own copies; he didn't understand, and kept saying, "but I wanted them to be mine.") by giving him a Very Hungry Caterpillar temporary tattoo. After the children had chosen and I'd inputted their orders and we'd rounded up the older children who'd been absent the day before, and had them chose, and then I'd ordered their books, and I'd corrected the orders I'd screwed up the day before, Tracy and I went through each class's book lists. Tracy made copies of the lists for the teachers and color-coded them so the teachers would know where the books were coming from (some we had on hand, some would be shipped direct to the teachers, some--mostly the kids who had been absent and my corrected screw-ups--would be shipped separately) and we made sure all the books in the teachers' boxes were correct. Then we sorted and packed the remaining books and put the room back to rights, and it was 3:30, we'd worked without a break, and Tracy was laughing at me. Lunch. Because she knew it was going to be like this, and I, blithely and predictably, had planned all the giving out books part but skipped the organization that needed to happen afterward.

Tracy and I are an excellent team.

Also, at about 1 o'clock in the afternoon, one of the lunch ladies brought us each a banana. I really appreciated that.

The lunch ladies were very enthusiastic about our book-giving. Their children and grandchildren go to the school.

My husband came home grumpy for valid reasons of his own. We set up the new television we'd bought the evening before. There was nothing wrong with our previous TV except that it was, suddenly, on December 1st, too old to receive Netflix. I don't really understand how this could happen, but it had. We'd gone in search of a TV that would fit in the cabinet in our family room--most TVs now are exactly half an inch too wide--and found one, and made very sure that it was a Smart TV, which is the kind that can still get Netflix. (I discovered Netflix a year ago, late as I am to most technology. I love it.)

We bought the TV and took it home. Last night we carefully unwrapped it and plugged all the cords in and messed around with the remotes and tried to activate Netflix, and lo, we hadn't bought a Smart TV. We'd bought the Stupid TV that was sitting right next to it.

I spent a bit of time online trying to figure out how to turn a Stupid TV into a Smart one. (Answer: put it back in the box, drive to the store, exchange.) My husband--already grumpy, remember--huffed and stalked off to the mudroom, and came back even grumpier, waving something and saying, "This is no good. Look at this!"

It was a piece of artificial garland for our stair rail--a new garland, because the old one wore out last year. Fresh from the shipping box it looked flat, fake, and unappealing. My husband sighed and muttered and began to work his Christmas magic. A half hour later he had the garland fluffy, well-lit, and hung with pine cones and glass balls. It was beautiful. He added a huge red grosgrain ribbon bow to the newel end of it. "Lipstick on a pig," he muttered, but he was smiling again. We sat down to dinner I'd made and watched Notre Dame get creamed in basketball, something we didn't need Netflix for at all.

It was a very good day.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Giving Tuesday: The Free Book Fairs Begin!

I've got ten minutes to compose this before I'm out the door. I just logged on to my email, and it was full of requests--Giving Tuesday is apparently a Thing.

Which is ironically excellent, since I'll be giving away books ALL DAY. It's the first of what will be ten (at least) days of rampant amazingness. We are descending on an elementary school right here in Bristol, Virginia side, and giving each and every student three brand-new books of their choice.

This joy comes courtesy of a whopping OMG Book Grant from First Book, and also from my wild audacity--when it came time to write the grant, I went big. And they gave big. And now we're going to give big, too.

The school in question earns a C+ grade in national rankings, which puts it squarely in the middle of the Bristol, Virginia, elementary schools. Ninety-eight percent of its students receive free lunch. It's a big old hulk of a building without much charm, but the teachers are doing a great job of educating their students. Yesterday some of them dropped by the room where we were setting up. (Five tables: picture books, early chapter books, nonfiction and graphic novels, two tables of chapter books. It's about 170 titles total. We're heavily in to free choice.) "Wow," one teacher said, "These aren't leftovers. They're good books."

Damn straight. New, shiny, gorgeous. Diverse. Interesting. We've got everything from Noisy Night to Dinosaurs A to Z to the graphic-novel version of Crossover. The Night Diary and The Bridge Home and Power Forward. Happy Hair. Judy B. Jones. All fourteen volumes of Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

283 students. 849 books. It's gonna be a fine, fine day.