Monday
Jul282014

Freedom Summer

Hattiesburg has been filled with newspaper headlines, special events, and even sermons commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer. The Hub City was a center for Freedom Schools and voter registration drives.

In my own commemoration, I am revisiting the story I’ve told previously in this blog of my own introduction to the inequities of segregation and adding an extra spin.

Mama believed in rules. She had lots, and she found them in many places. There were house rules, school rules, Bible rules, traffic rules… I thought Mama believed in all rules until one day when I was eight years old.

Mama, my sisters, and I were getting on a Trailways bus to return home after a visit with my grandfather. I noticed some strange panels hanging down on either side, dividing the front section of the bus from the back. I asked her what they were for.

I don’t remember her words, but I distinctly remember my two reactions. The first was that I might prefer to sit in the back rather than the front. I was smart enough to know that a rule preventing one group of people from sitting in the front prevented me from sitting in the back.

The second reaction was even more startling. Somehow I knew, even as she explained it, that Mama did not believe in the rule. The great rule-maker, rule-teacher, rule-follower thought this rule was wrong.

I couldn’t get over being amazed that there was a rule Mama didn’t believe in. I thought of this episode in later years when I heard the line from South Pacific,
       “You've got to be taught before it's too late,
       Before you are six or seven or eight,
       To hate all the people your relatives hate,
       You've got to be carefully taught!”

Mama failed to teach me to hate. I was eight years old, and now it was too late. I’ve seen the truth in those lyrics again as military kids that I’ve raised and taught chose their friends with no more attention to skin color than to eye color.

But there is something different I would like to see carefully taught. My current soapbox is for reading and using multicultural children’s books. All children need to read about people both like and different from themselves. I’d like to propose a rule that we use those books to teach children how to celebrate the wonderful variety in the diverse cultures in our world along with appreciation for the things all human beings have in common. I think Mama would like that rule.

Friday
Jul252014

Lucky Us

Amy Bloom begins her novel, Lucky Us, “My father’s wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us.”

I had just read Jean Kwok’s novel Mambo in Chinatown. (See July 11 blog.) She begins, “My name is Charlie Wong and I’m the daughter of a dance and a noodle-maker. My mother was once a star ballerina at the famed Beijing Dance Academy before she ran off to marry my father.” Since I read them so close together, I found a curious coincidence that both begin with an older and younger sister making sense of life after the death of a mother. At least in the beginning, both older sisters take some responsibility for the younger.

The first line of Lucky Us hints at the situation that will become quickly more complicated as Eva’s mother abandons her to the father who appears to have money and the half-sister who surprisingly takes her under her wing.

Set in the 1940s, the adventures are told with a mix of narrative and letters, some sent and some not. Iris, with Eva for an accomplice and cook, seeks her place in show business by fair means and foul. In a poignant line in one of her letters, Iris writes, “Someone once said: God gave us memory, so we could have roses in December. Someone did not add, so we could have blizzards in June and food poisoning when there was nothing to eat.”

Eva  knows her father’s indifference to his daughters. Still, she says, “I wrote him once a month, and saved the pieces until my feelings passed, and then I threw the pieces away.”

The girls’ father and quirky characters bounce in and out of their lives as they bounce in and out of locations in Ohio, Hollywood, Long Island, Brooklyn, and London, all in the context of World War II and its aftermath.

Reading these two books near the same time was accidental for me, but you might just want to try it to see how two writers starting with a similar premise wind up with very different books.

Wednesday
Jul232014

Late, but with a Good Alibi

Like the White Rabbit, I’m running late, but I have an excellent alibi. For those who watch for my blog regularly on Mondays and Fridays, I’ll explain. I’m just back from joining our associate pastor as a chaperone for PassportKids church camp with five grade school girls.

Folk wisdom sometimes says getting there is half the fun. Well, maybe. We had three Google maps that couldn’t agree on the route, one cell phone taking us to an obviously wrong place, advice when we stopped at Subway for lunch leaving out pertinent details from another group leader who had been there eight times. Finally, a different cell phone loaded with a bit more information got us to a beautiful mountain location for camp. Even our lostness was not wasted. It provided fodder for discussions with our campers on the theme for the week – Follow the Road.

Glimpses of the week include:
•    A camper with a Care package awaiting her arrival turning cries of envy into companionship as she said, “Oh, I’m going to share.” She quickly began to pass out finger flashlights. Her mom had thoughtfully packed enough for the others in her group.
•    Being a bit lost, like the kids, without my computer. They had been told to leave electronics behind, and adults followed suit with the exception of cell phones just in case we needed to be in touch with each other or the girls’ parents.
•    Sharing my scarce time alone (only because I get up about five o’clock) with a jogger and a horsefly.
•    Girls who remembered the rule not to go into the cabin without an adult even when the chaperone forgot.
•    Kids in a rap drama during worship that concluded,
            “If you can love the God you call,
            Then you can love your neighbor, y’all.”
•    Rounding up five girls to go to the next appointed place becoming a guessing game about which one needed to go back for a towel, pencil and paper, or their Passport Guide.
•    Being last in line for almost every meal – see previous entry.
•    Five girls who were barely more than strangers when we set out who are now friends that I miss this morning.

So there you have my alibi. I think you will agree that it’s a good one. I plan to be back on schedule by Friday.

Friday
Jul182014

Hand-Me-Ups?

Hand-me-downs have sometimes taken a bad rap. My sisters knew more about them than I did since I was the oldest, and they might give you a different slant on this idea. Often it seemed that Mama made a dress for one sister and the next in line kept watch for it to get too small so she could have it. My hand-me-downs were more likely to come from older girls in the rural churches where Daddy was pastor. I have several good memories of clothes that might normally have been saved for a favorite younger cousin that came instead to their pastor’s daughter. I wore them with honor.

This all came back recently in a package from my younger sister. She sent some books for my husband from a series she had finished and thought he would like and a jigsaw puzzle for me. I got to puzzling about things that you had finished and passed to older siblings. Would you call those hand-me-ups?

I knew immediately why Ruth sent me the puzzle. The picture has more than fifty book titles. Since I am nine years older than she is, by the time she was old enough to need stories read to her or told to her, I was Ruth’s primary baby-sitter. Because of Daddy’s visual challenges, Mama served as his chauffeur and partner in ministry. When they were gone, I kept us both happy by entertaining Ruth with “The Three Little Pigs” and “How the Elephant Got His Trunk.” (When she caused me trouble, there were occasional times when she had to sit in the green chair, but I won’t mention that.)

The puzzle added an additional layer to the enjoyment as I put together titles we enjoyed during those days like The Tale of Peter Rabbit and The Little Red Hen. It has childhood books she learned to read independently as she caught the passion – Black Beauty, Heidi, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. There are mysteries that we both love – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Perry Mason – and classics – A Tale of Two Cities and To Kill a Mockingbird.

In the very center of the puzzle is the slogan, “You can’t tell a book by its cover.” I think Ruth and I would agree, which is why we get right to it and open our books to begin.

The hand-me-up, if I may call it that, brought back good memories of good stories as I completed the picture of each book – well, not Moby Dick – and good memories of turning a little sister on to reading.

Monday
Jul142014

Writing Rule # 2

I’ve heard this rule voiced many ways, but I like the way Isabel Allende puts it. “Show up.” She contends that if she shows up long enough writing will happen.

The trouble is, whether your instrument is a computer or a long college-ruled legal pad with pencils or pens, it doesn’t call you to come and sit. Neither holds out threats or rewards. They just sit there, waiting. Good intentions of writing that poem or Great American Novel pave that road you’ve heard about that may not really lead to hell, but intentions alone won’t lead you to a blog, much less a poem or novel.

When people find out that I write, they often say, “I always thought I’d write a (insert picture book, novel, poem, memoir, etc.). I know better than to ask, “So, what’s keeping you?” I know about that. I have my own list of interruptive temptations. You may notice that cleaning house is not listed. That is not a temptation.
•    Weeds are taking my day lilies and coneflowers.
•    Email or Facebook might have an important post from a friend – or a grandchild.
•    Laundry needs to be done.
•    A friend wants to go to lunch.
•    I borrowed a mystery to read from the library.
•    There’s a new recipe in yesterday’s paper for blackberry jam cake.
•    And did you know you can find free jigsaw puzzles to solve on your computer?

So how does a writer talk herself (or himself) into showing up? You could get a lot of answers, but I’ll share the one that has worked for me. I came to realize that in spite of my self-proclaimed title as “writer,” some weeks passed with nothing to show for it – maybe not even a thank-you note. Beginning in 2004, I started tracking what I did each day making notes in the calendar I received for my contribution to the Smithsonian. I list writing that I’ve actually done in the day-by-day entry with an arrow added for projects that last over several days – only for the times I actually “showed up.” Since reading is also the work of a writer, I record the books I’ve read at the top of the page with some comment about my level of enjoyment.

Comparing the entry for one week of 2004 at the top and the entry for the similar week in 2014 in my photograph is typical for what has happened to my consistency since I began the visual record of how many times I showed up. True vacations are noted, but may also have some entries since writing sometimes beckons and can be done anywhere.

The calendar doesn’t call any louder than that computer or long legal pad, but it sits staring on my desk with blank eyes at my distractible self until I record something I have written.

Now please excuse me while I jot down “blogged about Writing Rule # 2.”