Archive for the ‘Books’ Category
Reasons I loathe Thanksgiving:
- The school holiday is unneccessarily long
- Christmas crap everywhere
- Start of six months of winter
Reasons I love Thanksgiving:
And the winner is: PIE! So I LOVE Thanksgiving!
I have a lot to be thankful for, especially this year, THE YEAR OF THE BOOK. I wrote a book and Medusa’s Muse published it. As a sweet friend reminded me, “it only took you five years of anguish and hard work!”
“Shannon!” you gasp, shocked to your liberal core. “You didn’t write a book to make money! You wrote a book to be FAMOUS!”
I kid, I kid.
I am VERY thankful that I had the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream. How many people can say that? And in nine days I’ll be a guest in the lovely home of very dear friends, eating massive amounts of pie. Life is pretty damn good.
So why not share that good fortune with you? Enter below to win one of two copies I’m giving away as a THANK YOU to everyone who’s been a part of this arduous but amazing process. Winners can get their copies personalized for themselves or for the winter holiday gift recipient of their choice! And who wouldn’t love seeing The Radical Housewife under their tree/menorah/Festivus pole? Well, maybe not the great-aunt who belongs to Concerned Women for America: she might not like all the swearing!
…I guess I am.
The copy I’m reading is merely a proof, the kind of thing that authors parse for EVERY TINY LITTLE ERROR until it makes their publishers want to murder them, even from a thousand miles away. So far I’ve only found a couple, a few more glaring than others. I’m trying not to lie awake at night obsessing about them, instead reminding myself that to do so would be missing the forest for the trees, and in this case the forest is MY GODDAMN BOOK.
While print copies are not yet available, the ebook is ready for downloading on Kindle, Kobo, and Nook. And I’m already getting some reviews, including this absolutely bananas post from Renia Carsillo that includes her favorite quotes:
And NO we are not related–in fact, we have never met. That will change in the virtual realm when I join Renia and her readers in a Google hangout to talk about the book on August 22. I hope you’ll join us to dish on the book and all things feminist parenting.
Those who join my mailing list will be the first to get the scoop on when print copies are available, as well as where I’ll be doing my first signing. BIG HINT: it’s in Minneapolis, but it’s not at my house (thank gawd).
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a book to
write edit read.
This post is inspired by the copy of The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman that was sent to me by their publisher’s PR department. It was released today and you can get it on Amazon or wherever. I haven’t finished it.
But! I had an experience recently in which my own usually dismal self-esteem got a major boost. I did it in a series of steps that I am thrilled to share with my readers, all two of you, EXCLUSIVELY! Do as I do and be prepared to be the most self-assured person in the room.
First of all, get a column for a newspaper or magazine. Spend several years building a relationship with your audience. Discuss feminism, death, marriage, Madonna, food–all the really important stuff. Then hit ‘em with a confession that they weren’t expecting:
I have to know: Am I appealing to you? Do you think I’m doing the right thing? Do you think I’m good enough?
Do you like me?
Continue with stories from childhood, careful not to blame lack of self-esteem on either parents or kindly old kindergarten teachers. Be sure to consult your thesaurus so you sound more like a professor than a cowering wimp when you write things like:
Without your approval, I am bereft. When I have it, I am momentarily delighted, yet always aware of how deeply in its thrall I remain – and how much it is my master.
I know what you’re thinking: the idea of writing these words for public consumption is mortifying. It’s embarrassing enough to FEEL this way, but to confess it?! Trust me. I know what I’m doing here.
You, dear reader, wield extraordinary power, though most of you don’t know it. Hell, most of you reading this don’t even know me.(Would you like to? Please say yes.)
Send the piece to your editor, with a joking tagline of “hope you like it!” Lol, rofl, lmfao, etc.
When the essay appears in print and online, read it, then cringe. What is worse: displaying your underpants or your emotional vulnerability in public? You think you know the answer until the messages start popping up in your inbox.
I totally relate!
Thank you for writing this. I’m a big fan.
Imagine all of that stuff happening to you. It feels pretty great, doesn’t it? The feeling will last until you are pitched a book about why women have no self-confidence, it occurs to you to write a blog about it, and then you find yourself wasting hours taking and deleting selfies with the book because your frizzy hair looks like crap today.
It takes Kay and Shipman until page 141 to get to the meat of their book, which is the advice: “when in doubt, act.”
So I’m publishing this blog and the least awful picture of me, the book, and my hair.
I’m going to quote from my column again:
….give me a little feedback on this [piece]. Did it delight you? Excite you? Flatter you?
I’m not going anywhere. I’ll wait to hear from you.
Last week, Gina Crosley-Corcoran of the blog The Feminist Breeder wrote on her Facebook fan page that her oldest son was recently diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. When I saw her post, I responded as I always do to parents sharing this news for the first time: “WELCOME TO THE CLUB!”
In my essay in the book The Good Mother Myth, I write about my son’s diagnosis:
…I hardly mourned when my son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when he was seven. After all, as countless psychologists reminded me, this was likely the same neurological quirk that made Bill Gates the wealthiest man in the world. Hell, in my wholly overeducated social circle (I am one of very few with “just” a bachelor’s degree), you’d be hard pressed to find a young boy without a spot on the autism spectrum.
The words here are elegant and composed, but in 2007 I was a wreck. In truth, I had been a wreck ever since my perfectly adorable infant opened his mouth in February 2000 and SCREAMED. He wouldn’t stop for months.
So I did mourn: I mourned the stubbornly persistent belief that parenting was supposed to look like it did on TV, that my child and I would be so naturally in sync that I would know his every need, that my child would be warmly accepted into the fabric of modern society by virtue of his very existence.
Instead, I had a kid who was regularly singled out by frustrated relatives as well as preschool, kindergarten, and grade school teachers for not being their version of “normal.” I had his preschool classmate tell me, upon learning whose mother I was: “I don’t like Elliott. He screams a lot.”
I have to pause here an collect myself because I am tearing up. I haven’t thought about that preschool experience in years, yet the memory still makes me clench my teeth so hard I can feel my crowns loosen.
It is painful to imagine a world that might not love your child as much as you love him. This is true for any parent of any kid, with or without special needs. A childhood diagnosis, however, kicks this panic up a thousand notches, for moms especially.
Why moms? Because we parent under the excruciating glare of The Good Mother Myth.
Gina herself has an essay in this anthology, a poignant look at abuse and neglect she suffered in her childhood and her determination to break the cycle with her own kids. I write in my own essay about how much I fear passing on my family’s tendency towards anxiety:
My seven-year-old daughter Miriam bites her nails. She chews them down to angry red nubs that even I, her loving (good!) mother, must admit are really quite ugly. “It’s a bad habit,” she laments, using language she learned from a Berenstain Bears book on the subject. “I want to stop it, but I can’t.” I tell her I know how she feels. When I was her age, my fingers were raw and bloody too, like the tips of ten half-eaten hot dogs.
You didn’t ask, but I’ll tell you anyway: I believe that autism is genetic. My wholly unscientific theory is that in the latter part of the 20th century, nerds and geeks who might have been isolated from one another were suddenly let loose on the campuses of research universities and liberal arts colleges where they met, fell in love, and decided to breed (this theory holds true for my friends in same-sex couples, who selected donors that shared their interests, like, y’know, science and engineering).
Gina is very well-known in the blogosphere and in social media, so naturally the post about her son drew a lot of traffic. What drew even MORE traffic was a series of followup comments and posts between Gina and autistic self-advocates who objected to what they perceived as Gina’s desire to “cure” her son of his condition. I won’t take a side in the debate, which as of this writing has devolved into a very bitter affair that includes name-calling, accusations of lying and harassment, the works. Nothing good comes of that, online or elsewhere.
Here’s what I do know: there is genuine and deep pain on all sides. Autistic adults hurt because they feel humiliated and denigrated when the complexity of their lives is reduced to the image of a missing puzzle piece and ridiculous stunts like turning the Empire State Building blue. I can’t speak for Gina, but holy crap did I feel hurt and vulnerable when people tried to tell me the “best” way to support my son’s diagnosis. For a few years there I walked around like an open wound. Every suggestion stabbed my heart to a very familiar refrain:
“YOU ARE NOT A GOOD MOTHER.”
There is good news: my son is the coolest boy in the universe, and I would not change a damn thing about him. Not a damn thing! I WANT to give him the tools he needs to be a happy, socially successful adult., so I offer him help with skills that don’t come naturally–like reciprocal conversation, sensory processing, nonverbal communication, etc–but I wouldn’t change him. He knows he has Asperger’s, and he’s not ashamed of it. In fact, he wrote a short essay for his school newspaper about his life as an Aspie. I love him so much that I want not only to be a GOOD mother, but the BEST mother that he needs.
I don’t always succeed, though, and that’s why I’m sharing some other good news: the kind people at Seal Press, publishers of The Good Mother Myth, want to send a Radical Housewife reader a copy of the book for FREE. Yes, FREE! In addition to Gina and me, contributors include Sharon Lerner, K.J. Dell’Antonia, Soraya Chemaly, Jennifer Baumgardner, and many other smart, funny, thoughtful parents who are committed to doing the best they can.
Which is pretty good, I think.
This fall, my son, an eighth grader, enrolled in an advanced math course for gifted kids at the University of Minnesota.
I AM A GOOD MOTHER.
He has spent more than a few nights cussing me out for “forcing” him to do something that is so hard.
I AM A BAD MOTHER.
One reason this math is so hard is that, for the previous thirteen years of his life, the math has been so goddamn easy. For once he is receiving instruction appropriate for his intellect.
I AM A GOOD MOTHER.
His intellect may be highly developed, but many of his other skills are not. He did most of his first assignment in ballpoint pen because it did not occur to him to walk downstairs to get a pencil. Unfortunately, many of the problems written in pen were wrong. Did I neglect to tell him that you can’t erase pen?
I AM A BAD MOTHER.
When he forgot his math book and supplies at home, I brought them to school for him.
I AM A GOOD MOTHER.
When I dropped them off, I chewed him out royally–this was the fourth time in two weeks that the math stuff had been left one place or another. He sobbed that he was a stupid idiot and I obviously hated him and believed he would be a loser all his life and he might as well quit the human race.
I AM A BAD MOTHER.
Which is it?
If you’re like me, you ask yourself this question a thousand times an hour, a million times a day–despite knowing that it is unanswerable. When I thrash myself against the good/bad binary, I am wasting energy that would be better used to care for myself and for the kids who are counting me.
So why do it? Whose interest does it serve? Offhand, I could name a few: the Bugaboo company, Phyllis Schlafly, Us Weekly magazine, patriarchal capitalism, the usual axis of evil.
Avital Norman Nathman knows that The Good Mother Myth won’t be shattered by the anthology of the same name that’s being released by Seal Press in January 2014–but like I tell my math student, sometimes it’s worth it to put yourself out there and TRY instead of just shaking your fist at the universe. Or something to that effect.
Speaking of putting yourself out there, The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality features an essay I wrote last summer that is some of the most vulnerable stuff I’ve ever had the nerve to share with the reading public. I’m scared that you’ll hate it and think I’m a loser and/or stupid idiot and I might as well quit the human race, because only BAD mothers admit to frailty…or was it GOOD mothers? I can’t remember anymore…
I hope you’ll pre-order it anyway, either from Amazon or from the indie bookseller of your choice. To sign up for a newsletter about the book and its fab editor and contributors, put your info in the handy widget on the upper right hand corner of your screen.
And if any of you are algebra experts, say so in the comments.
During January in Minnesota, no one feels big. The excitement and energy of the holiday season has worn off and we’ve awakened to darkness, cold, and existential despair, which has a way of making you feel very small indeed.
My street looks just like this every January 1st, darn it!
So it is with some shyness and anxiety that I accepted a challenge from my friend Sonya Huber to participate in a little blog-go-round called Next Big Things. Sonya, herself the author of two great creative nonfiction books (Opa Nobody and Cover Me), completed these questions at the behest of another author, then she tagged me to do the same. I, in turn, have to tag some up-and-comers who will complete the circle of Next Big Thinginess. Look for their names at the end of the post.
What is the title of your book?
The Radical Housewife: Redefining Family Values for the 21st Century, but you knew that. I’ve officially resolved to have the editing done and the book in your hot little hands by the end of this year, even if it means I have to step over dead bodies in the snow in my haste to deliver edits to my publisher. Marge would understand.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
One day my husband said, “Why are you driving yourself nuts writing novels when you are already writing really interesting stuff about your life as the anti-Schlafly? Why not publish all of that?” I mulled this over and realized that writing fictionalized versions of my life was quite a lot of work–all those pseudonyms to remember, the hair and eye colors to change! The essays I was writing for the Minnesota Women’s Press and for my old MySpace blog would be my jumping-off point for a full-length book about the adventures of this feminist activist parent.
In hindsight, I probably should have stuck to just changing all my novel’s characters to vampires and been done with it.
What genre does your book fall under?
One that I invented: Political Momoir. I thought this was very clever, but industry professionals did not. How well I remember the exasperation of the editors and agents! “Sometimes it reads like a memoir, sometimes like a polemic,” they’d say. “BUT I’M A FEMINIST WHO REJECTS THE RIGIDITY OF BINARIES!” I’d splutter in my politely middle-aged Minnesotan way.
In hindsight, I should have already become famous before I attempted to do anything interesting.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Janeane Garafalo, patron saint of bespectacled white nerd girls everywhere, as The Radical Housewife!
Jemaine Clement as the handsome and heavily-Kiwi-accented Radical Hubby!
Bart & Lisa Simpson as the children!
What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
The Radical Housewife documents ten years in the life of a feminist stay-at-home-mom determined to upend the myth of American “family values” one dirty diaper, clinic picket, and PTA meeting at a time.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
Working off a framework provided my blog posts & MWP essays, only about six months for the first bloated draft. I offered a few chapters up to my friends, who made valuable suggestions, one of which was “you probably shouldn’t curse so much.” Duly fucking noted.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Remember Matt’s naïve suggestion that I write about my own life for public consumption? IT’S ALL HIS FAULT.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Ah, the dreaded request for “comp titles.” From my exhaustive proposal, I came up with PAGES and PAGES of books by Third Wave feminists, mommybloggers, women’s studies academicians, even jokey lefty books by Al Franken, but no single genre fit me. I saw this as proof beyond a doubt that I am the specialest snowflake in the world and ought to get a contract with a hefty up-front advance. Didn’t happen.
I think the closest comp titles out there are probably Ariel Gore’s HipMama books: personal, confessional, funny, frustrated, and always aware of how our individual stories and larger political movements are interconnected.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
I love the word “pique.” It isn’t used enough. Neither is “kerfuffle.”
I do think that I present a pretty compelling argument for feminists being more actively concerned with the needs of American families and children than the conservatives who claim to have a monopoly on the subject. I also have some pretty interesting run-ins with psycho anti-choicers who try to shove fetus photos at my kids, parents at my kids’ school who troll me online because of my political views, and Michele Bachmann BEFORE she became MICHELE BACHMANN!
Who will represent your book?
A wild warrior woman in California with a big heart, a sweet tooth, and snakes where her hair should be: Medusa’s Muse.
In hindsight, signing with her was a great thing to do. No regrets whatsoever.
Who are your Next Big Things?
Zoe Ann Nicholson, “The Engaged Heart: An Activist’s Life”
Avital Norman Nathman, “Deconstructing the Myth of the Good Mother”
Robin Marty & Jessica Mason Pieklo, “Crow After Roe”
Erin Matson, who will deny that she is writing a book BUT I KNOW BETTER
Onward to a Big 2013!
Readers, you are in for a treat. I’ve secured an interview with one of the contributors to the just-released anthology Atheist Voices of Minnesota, and its publisher, Freethought House, has generously offered a copy for me to give to one of my lucky blog readers. Follow the directions on the Rafflecopter widget at the end of this post to find out how to enter (offer open to US residents only).
The contributor who chose to talk with me is the author of the essay that opens the collection, a piece that Doubt: A History author Jennifer Michael Hecht called “sensitive” and “compelling.” A clue to her identity: her name appears on the cover….and it ain’t Stephanie or Greta.
THE RADICAL HOUSEWIFE: Have you always been an atheist?
SHANNON DRURY: My go-to joke is that I was baptized Catholic but it didn’t take. I was raised in a secular home by two products of the adage that the best way to raise an atheist adult is to send him or her to Catholic school–especially in the late ’50s and early ’60s, when nuns were still smacking naughty children with rulers. My mother told me she was singled out for particular abuse because she had the bad luck to be born redheaded AND left-handed, both of which were considered early predictors of demonic possession.
I bought my mom this Nunzilla wind-up toy back in the ’90s. It breathed fire as it stomped toward you. She said it was eerily accurate.
RH: Wait a minute. I know for a fact that you are a great fan of Pema Chödrön, the well-known Buddhist…..wait for it….NUN! How can that be?
SD: Hey, just because I don’t think The Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything is a god or gods doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned the quest.
I read quite a lot of Buddhist philosophy. Longtime readers of my Minnesota Women’s Press columns know how often I sprinkle in ideas from Thich Nhat Hanh. Stephen Batchelor, a former Zen monk, has written a number of great books, including Buddhism Without Beliefs, Living with the Devil, and Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist. And Pema Chödrön is one of my very favorite writers of any genre. I love her to bits.
I suspect that if you asked Chödrön herself for The Answer, she might reply that it’s neither the Buddha nor the number 42–it’s love. Which is what my essay in the book is all about.
RH: Your essay, “An Atheist Grieves,” made me cry.
SD: It made me cry, too.
RH: Was it hard to write? You’re laying bare some pretty raw emotions: the death of your maternal grandfather, the death of your close friend, the deep anxiety felt by a parent who wants desperately to make sense of the world for her curious children.
SD: It’s more difficult to read than it was to write, honestly. It kinda just poured out of me in a few particularly wrenching sessions at the laptop–after years of puzzling and puzzling over why the death of my friend Liz has been so goddamn (pun intended) hard to get over.
When my grandfather died in 1979, it made some sort of sense to me. He was old (though today 65 doesn’t seem as ancient as it did when I was a third-grader), he had seen his children through to adulthood, including marriages and the births of their own kids. Though my parents weren’t Catholic anymore at that point, they still relied on its framework to sort the whole thing out. Grandpa Cliff had a full funeral mass, and everyone said that he was “in a better place” and that kind of thing.
Liz and I were the same age. We met at Carleton College and both graduated with the class of 1994. She died just two months after her oldest daughter started kindergarten. Her youngest daughter was not even a year old when Liz got her cancer diagnosis, and she won’t have any memories of her mom healthy–that is, if she remembers her mom at all. What the fuck is THAT all about? How do you sort THAT out?
RH: I have no idea.
SD: Most people have religious rituals to guide them through grief. I didn’t. The original title of the essay was actually called “What an Atheist Grieves When an Atheist Grieves,” because over time I realized that I wasn’t simply mourning her, I was mourning a lot of other stuff, too.
RH: Like what?
SD: My illusions of immortality, for one thing, though everyone confronting the death of a peer feels that. I think I realized that my smartypants attitude about organized religion wasn’t exactly keeping me warm at night, if you know what I mean. As I write in the piece, “my atheism requires maintaining a delicate and oftentimes painful balance between intellectual superiority and emotional terror.”
RH: Intellectual superiority, eh? No wonder you don’t talk about your atheism much. You could get yourself punched in the face for saying something like that.
SD: Oh c’mon. Do I really think that I am smarter than my beloved neighbors, dedicated parishioners of St Joan of Arc? Of course not! But when you watch some dope on YouTube claiming that the Bible’s word refutes evolution, the dinosaurs, miscegenation, climate change, homosexuality, and “women’s lib,” it’s hard not to feel like unbelievers are awesome. And then there’s the Taliban…..ugh. I do feel sympathy for people of faith who have to contend with the lunatic fringe that makes them appear guilty by association.
I also tend to avoid embracing my atheism for fear of being stereotyped as yet another member of the secular white liberal elite. Secular, white, and liberal, yes. But elite? I’m a garbageman’s daughter, for cryin’ out loud!
RH: Admit it–you almost said “for Christ’s sake” there.
SD: You know I did.
Anyway, the real reason I don’t talk about my atheism much is that faith, and its lack, seems like a pretty private thing to me. It feels akin to discussing all the gory details of your sex life–though I suppose that’s the very excuse that Elton John made, once upon a time.
RH: Anything else your readers should know about the book?
SD: It features contributions from Pharyngula blogger PZ Myers, HuffPo regular Chris Steadman, science writer Greg Laden, an introduction from Greta Christina, and writings from many other interesting people from across my home state. It’s available as en e-book on Kindle or Nook, too, though readers should know that the copy they could win is fully analog.
RH: I am aware of your love-hate relationship with technology.
SD: Tell me about it. Just take a look at this raffle widget it took me hours to enable:
RH: It took me a little time to load because I have “The Inbetweeners” streaming on another tab.
SD: I may be an atheist, but I have seen hell–it’s a computer with sluggish wifi. Love that show, by the way.
RH: How often should people enter?
SD: Multiple times a day until 12:01 am on September 17. The winner should also think of a witty inscription for me to inscribe on the title page, which will make the book a genuine collectible, suitable for keeping in the glass case with first edition Harry Potters or selling on eBay.
RH: How generous! Good luck to all entrants!
Didja hear the good news? School started today!
Credit: Anne Taintor, patron saint of the first day of school
AT LAST I can get some reading (and writing) done!
In the summertime, most people read mysteries, fluffy romances, and “triumph of the human spirit” memoirs by washed-up celebrities. I also hear that dirty books have been invented out of whole cloth by some pseudonymous Twihard, which must really piss off Jackie Collins.
Me? I’ve been plowing through a lot of books about death.
If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him! by Sheldon B. Kopp
This caught my eye in the piles at Value Village because it sports possibly the ugliest cover in the history of the written word. You don’t need me to tell you that its publication date is 1974, a truly dark year in Western design culture. Normally I am loathe to read self-help books written before the Clinton years, but so far this one is pretty swell. Here’s one of Sheldon Kopp’s koans: “we are all already dying and we will be dead for a long time.” That’s the kind of reality check I need when my crazy children are trying to convince me that setting the alarm clock for six a.m. to catch the bus on time the first day is The Worst Thing Ever.
Nothing to Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes
To the person who left this book in the Little Free Library on Park Avenue and East 58th Street: thank you. THANK YOU. I love it, though it’s really too smart for me. I can’t describe it better than the blurb from the Philadelphia Inquirer that graces the back cover: “a delicious mix of personal reminiscence, family history, literary criticism, and philosophical speculation.” And lots and LOTS of brooding about death. And God, and the lack thereof. Speaking of such things…
Atheist Voices of Minnesota: An Anthology of Personal Stories, edited by Bill Lehto
See anything interesting on that cover, folks? Look closely, over on the lower right hand corner. BAM! I was happy to learn that my essay “An Atheist Grieves” (YES OF COURSE IT’S ABOUT DEATH) was selected for inclusion in this new anthology, but I was totally gobsmacked to see my name on the cover, especially in the company of beloved Minnesota blogger PZ Myers. But the less-famous writers have impressed me too. I loved Jennifer Zimmerman’s “Birth, Rebirth,” a piece that elegantly contrasts her dogma-free homebirth with the trauma of delivering her first child into a fundamentalist system in which women are given none of the credit and all of the blame.
How does YOUR end-of-summer reading list look? Do you have room for your OWN copy of Atheist Voices of Minnesota? Check in with me after Labor Day for your chance to for a chance to win the book, donated by the good people at Freethought House.
I’ll even autograph it for you, and I promise I’ll write something more cheerful than “We’re all gonna die! Your pal, Shannon Drury.”
Minnesota Public Radio News recently published an essay of mine called “Racism in the neighborhood.” I began work on the piece in October 2011, just after the community event that I mention in the first paragraph. Like a lot of things in my life, it languished as my fall careened towards disaster and my winter proved no better. And my spring? Meh. Now I’m not suggesting that I’m in the midst of what Camus would call an invincible summer, but I’m starting to get a few things back on track. I certainly aim to post here more often, gentle readers. I appreciate your patience.
Below is the complete text of the essay, accompanied by a photo of Miriam and Megan playing in the backyard of Michele Norris’s house. The Grace of Silence is a wonderful read, and I highly recommend it. Elliott promises me that he will get started on it soon–after he finishes memorizing every character in The Halo Encyclopedia, of course.
Last fall, I attended an event sponsored by Building Bridges, a community organization that, according to its mission statement, “seeks to understand how race and racism impact our communities and to build the future of our neighborhoods together.” The group’s name reflects the yawning gap exposed when south Minneapolis neighbors clashed over a proposal to create an off-leash dog area in a park named for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It’s also a literal reference to the east-west divide created when Interstate Hwy. 35W was built in the 1950s.
Held in Minneapolis’ Field neighborhood, the event featured remarks from Minneapolis native Michele Norris, former co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered and author of the 2010 memoir The Grace of Silence. Norris grew up in a two-story Tudor on a corner lot only three blocks away from where we feted her, and her book describes not only her Minneapolis childhood but also the painful legacy of racism in the silence and secrets carried by members of her family and, by extension, members of her hometown and nation.
Here in Field our discussions over the book are personal, indeed — Norris spent her childhood on the same street where my children Elliott and Miriam are spending theirs. The corner house where Norris lived with her parents Belvin and Betty is where my kids and their friends alight from the bus every afternoon.
My kids were thrilled when they learned that “the lady on the radio” once lived on the block. But their joy turned to confusion when I shared that Norris’ white neighbors put their homes up for sale as soon as the block’s first black family moved in. Next door, Norris wrote, “the forlorn For Sale sign sat in front of the house for weeks. At one point, someone attached a flyer that read BEWARE NEGRO NEIGHBORS.”
When he heard that, Elliott looked stricken, as if he’d bit into an apple and tasted a worm. To a young white child in the Midwest of the 21st century, racism is not unfamiliar, but it is too easily categorized as the distant past, or something that occurred in the South. His school did a terrific job teaching about the horrors of the Middle Passage as part of a unit on colonial history, and the work of Dr. King is recalled throughout the year, not just around his birthday. But racism, here? In this bucolic backyard, where friends of many different colors like to play with one another?
His reaction was immediate: “that’s awful,” he said, adding quickly: “We can’t tell Kelcy and Megan about this.” Like the Norris sisters, these two dear friends are African-American.
“Why? I asked.
He looked at me like I was insane. “It would hurt them,” he said.
I couldn’t blame Elliott for automatically defaulting to silence. As Norris writes, “the mere mention of the word race can make some people apopleptic or pious or frozen by anxiety, only to beat a hasty retreat to their comfort zone: grim taciturnity.” Norris acknowledged that even she and her husband struggle with how much they care to expose their own kids to what she writes is “a four-hundred-year-old cancerous social disease.”
Though the discussion that evening was fascinating, heartfelt and honest, I had to admit later that I had attended in hopes it would immediately thaw my own anxiety about discussing the thorny issues of race with my children and their friends. It’s melting, but like most parents, I am impatient; I want to fix ugliness for them now.
On June 26, 2012, 5-year-old Nizzel George was killed when gang members fired into the north Minneapolis home where he slept. We heard the story reported on public radio as we drove to summer swimming lessons.
“Could that happen to me?” Elliott asked anxiously.
“No,” I replied.
Nizzel may have lived in the same city, but he inhabited a different world. The north side might as well be on another planet, racked by poverty, unemployment, violence and the painful legacy of racial quarantining — the same separate but unequal attitudes that confronted the Norrises when they were among the first to integrate the south side. How could I begin to untangle all this for a confused 12-year-old, a kid who wanted answers now?
Our human response to discomfort is fight or flight, anger or withdrawal, seething or silence. Rarely do we allow ourselves the opportunity to grapple with nuance, yet this is where the real transformations occur. Building Bridges and The Grace of Silence are essential tools as we tread that middle path — and I’m happy to say that the book is now on my son’s nightstand.