Reflections on Commitment, Listening, and Free Speech

On Saturday Jan. 21st, I got up at four-fifteen in the morning to drive through heavy fog to meet a bus with thirty-four other riders on it and found that so many people wanted to travel from this one small Virginia city that there were two buses at this site. More buses loaded at other locations. All over the country, people made trips like this, and many rose earlier and traveled farther.

On the trip, I sat with one of my yoga students, a retired teacher with years of experience herding middle-schoolers on field trips, and she was an inspiring as well as organized and helpful traveling companion. She has coped with her profound sadness about the election outcome by getting active, not only with calls and letters and donations, but by volunteering to help resettle refugees and to help feed the homeless. Every week she does something to remind herself that the world can be made a better place. Wherever we went Saturday, she radiated gratitude. She thanked the police and National Guard who were on security duty. She thanked the employee of the portapotty company who was cleaning a row of units where we stopped. She hugged our bus driver at the end of the trip.

A series of signs quoting Martin Luther King Jr. greeted us in almost all the front yards we passed as we walked from RFK stadium to the national mall. “I have decided to stick with love. Hatred is too great a burden to bear.” “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” And many more. People waved from their yards. One played motivating classical music on speakers from upstairs windows. When we were dispersing later in the day, some residents came out in support again. One man brought a keyboard out in front of his townhouse and played for us.

Sometimes people give up and think their vote won’t matter or their voice won’t be heard, but the march was a visual illustration of the fact that every person does count. Hundreds of thousands of people decided, “I’ll show up,” and went to great lengths to do it. A Native Hawaiian group came all the way to D.C. If large numbers of the marchers had had said, “My presence doesn’t count. Someone else will show up and that will be enough,” the impact would not have been the same.

I’ve never seen so many people in one place with the same purpose, moved by their ideals and convictions. The pussycat-ears hats were ubiquitous, on men and women (and one very happy baby). Maybe that’s part of why everything was so upbeat and peaceful. Sending a message by wearing a funny-looking pink hat may keep you from acting like a big bad warrior. The major themes of the signs protesters carried were women’s rights, respect for all people, inclusiveness, opposition to bigotry, support for the Affordable Care Act, reminders that climate science is real, and inspiration and humor.

Inspiration: They thought they buried us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.

Without follow-up action, this is just a parade. No. Today is day one.

Build bridges, not walls.

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” (A quotation from Voltaire.)

Love trumps hate.

Humor: There’ll be hell toupee.

Putin Free.

I’ve seen better cabinets at Ikea.

My personal favorite: Remember facts?

It can sound clichéd to say how diverse a group is, but this one really was. It included men and women, people of all ages from children to elders, people with disabilities, members of all races, people who were gay, straight, trans—you name it, they were there, and harmonious in each other’s company. I saw no uncivil behavior even when we got stuck in human gridlock on the mall for I don’t know how long—two hours? No violence, no arrests, and an amazing level of patience in a situation that could have brought out the worst in human nature. I was too far from the stage or the Jumbotron to hear a word the speakers said, but those of us on that part of the mall stayed upbeat and engaged. Aside from occasionally chanting “start this march” when we didn’t yet know we were too numerous to do it as planned, we passed our gridlock time making friends, reading the signs around us, singing and dancing and stretching and laughing. A popular call-and-response chant went like this: “Show me what democracy looks like.” “This is what democracy looks like!” This is what America looks like, too.

 People who disagreed with us were civil. Real life isn’t like the hostile land of social media. I didn’t notice any harassment. Non-marchers just walked on by. A group whose banner proclaimed they were Bikers for Trump had set up a small stage on a green off Pennsylvania Avenue. They didn’t have more than twenty people in their audience, mostly young women in the pink pussy hats who had—unwisely, I think—chosen to debate with them. We older and maybe wiser folks observed that the young women should just have left those guys alone. The bikers had as much right to be there as we did and they weren’t attacking us, just having their say. A genuine conversation with them could have been worthwhile, but understanding-focused dialogue is a learned skill.

Unskilled argument digs opponents in deeper. Maybe what the country needs next is a massive rally for listening, in which people from the various political islands can build bridges and have constructive dialogue. It would take courage. Participating in the mean-meme world of Twitter trolls takes no courage at all, no critical thinking, and no real attention, but meeting a fellow human face to face with commitment to show respect and compassion does.

One demonstrator’s sign bore a message I think all sides could agree with: Read More Books. The young man holding it was smiling.



Two Desk Drawers: Works on Paper


Last Saturday, I planned to clear off another bookshelf, sorting the keepers from the yard sale material, but on that shelf was a tiny Acoma pottery cat that needed to travel to a friend in New Mexico. Wrapping it meant that I ended up clearing out a desk drawer instead.

I have a treasure-chest drawer of wrapping paper and all-occasion cards. I found what I needed, then ruthlessly cut my stash in half, but I kept a good quantity nonetheless. The cards are important. Ordinarily, I do little on paper. I prefer e-books on my Nook to paperbacks, and I have students submit work through an online course management system. All files for my job are electronic. But once in a while, an object made of paper means more than anything electronic could. The postcard a friend sent me of a double-rainbow over Turtleback Mountain has a life story. Time and touch went into it, and even travel. I look at it where it sits magnetized to the fridge far more often than I do any pictures stored electronically.

After the cards drawer, I decided I could do one more drawer. I thought it held old journals I could recycle without a second thought. However, I double-checked inside the notebooks. The journals were long gone. These notebooks from about twelve years ago contained a novel scribbled by hand in the evenings while I lived in Norfolk. I wrote with no thought of publication, no thoughts of anything except the need to write a story. A quick glance at a few pages showed some dialog that surprised me. I expected it to be terrible. After all, it was a first draft not intended for an audience. Oddly enough, my candid, handwritten work had some merit, a freedom that eludes me with my obsessive revising on my computer. By hand, I wrote love scenes without hesitation. I wrote characters with more of myself in them than I do now. This was fiction as a dress rehearsal for changes I needed to make in my life, an exploration of how I felt and what I wanted. Of course, if I typed it up, I would see it with fresh eyes as the unpolished material it is, and it would possibly turn out to be drivel. I may also find the root of another book in it, and the foundations of usable characters.

I wrote a message on the paper card, a reproduction of a work of art that hangs on my wall, a card printed by the artist. My words were few and possibly drivel. You can’t revise a card, though, not when you’ve used one from your cherished collection. Off it goes. Published to one person.370px-usmailbox1909

A New Mexico Mystery Review: Murder on Frequency by Patricia Smith Wood


A New Mexico man long missing and presumed dead seems to have come back to broadcast on ham radio, only to fade out as if something terrible has happened to him.

Patricia Smith Wood has crafted another tight puzzle of a mystery in this third in the Harrie McKinsey series, once again blending multiple mystery genres—a touch of cozy, a touch of police procedural, and now a touch of the PI story as well. Amateur sleuths Harrie and Ginger, the Albuquerque police department, and the FBI come together on a complex case with help from a new character, private investigator Bernie Thomas, a former member of the APD. His role as a liaison between the professionals and the amateurs is an effective device. The amateurs take some risks, and they use their brains and their ability to gain trust and talk with people, but they don’t do what’s better done by the pros.

Harrie and Ginger, who are studying to become amateur radio operators, are naturally and believably drawn into investigating the apparent broadcast from the missing Alan Whitney. I like a mystery that gives me glimpse into a hobby or occupation I previously knew little about, and this book provides a fascinating exploration of amateur radio without ever losing the pace. Wood slips the exposition into the energetic dialog as part of a page-turning plot.

 Much of the detective works, realistically, takes place through interviews, asking the right people the right questions, and through research and the use of creative intelligence to understand the clues. Most of the violence takes place offstage, though there are suspenseful scenes in which danger threatens characters the reader comes to care about. While this isn’t in the category of a humorous mystery, there is humor in the characters’ banter, and one of the criminals was an incredibly amusing diversion. He’s a bit like someone who walked out of a 1940s black-and-white movie in a way, and yet also wholly original.

 Wood is the master of the chapter-ending hook that makes you want to keep going. Surprises kept coming around the corner right to the very end. If you like to challenge your brain to solve a mystery, Patricia Smith Wood is an author you’ll come back to again and again.

To read more about this author, see my interview with her and my reviews of her first two books, The Easter Egg Murder and Murder on Sagebrush Lane


Attention Span

It’s been said that we teach what we most need to learn. Many of my classes involve critical thinking and information literacy skills. While I’m still teaching, I want to pay attention to the lessons I learn from my work.

Back in November, I asked my first year seminar students to write down topics they felt were important and challenging to discuss. We then used the randomly drawn slips of paper like the talking stick in a talking circle. The person holding it got to say whatever he or she needed to say while others listened, and then that person handed the paper along. Anyone could pass who was not ready to talk. We got through three topics that day and I saved the rest for when we had time to do this again. Two weeks later, the first topic someone drew from the heap was “Politics.” Most of the students said they had cared about it before the election and right after, but now they didn’t pay much attention to it. One young woman said the election had been so unpleasant that she changed her major from political science. It drove a thoughtful, moderate Republican who understands that conservative includes conserve out of wanting to engage in politics. That’s a loss to her community. Every time a young person with a good mind gets disillusioned, we lose their years of future leadership. I hope she’ll get involved again in the future. Her burnout is deep, though.

Her classmates’ loss of interest in something they felt passionate about two weeks before is alarming. As a culture, we may be getting trained to the media’s attention span and the media’s focal point, forgetting that our personal lives’ deep needs interact with issues that take prolonged, thoughtful, patient engagement, regardless of the headlines.

The lack of information they had was also troubling. Not because they’re not smart—they are, but the only student who knew recent world history well was from Palestine. He was the only one able to knowledgeably talk about the Cuban revolution and who Fidel Castro really was and why people felt so strongly about his death. And of course, he was well-informed on the complexities of the Middle East, and the pros and cons and unintended consequences of American presence there, something his classmates barely understood. I was relieved that the majority do understand climate change and that only one person in two classes of nineteen didn’t. Even the most politically conservative of them comprehended the reality of climate science. They don’t see it as a political issue so much as a scientific one with an impact they’ll have to live with.

Today in my January term health class, students shared and discussed articles on their chosen research topic for this half of the week, public health issues and the environment. This discussion was encouraging. I think the young adult attention span is only short for things they don’t fully understand, which for some includes politics, but it’s steady for the concepts they grasp. I hope this understanding ultimately translates into engagement. The earth needs them.

Writing about this motivates me to stay engaged as well, and to pay attention to issues in depth after the headlines fade.

Something for Real


I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. January 1 is just another day. I decided to change my life for reasons that have nothing to do with the transition of numbers on a calendar. A plan I’ve been gestating for years is finally real. I made the commitment. I have a lease. My future landlady and I signed it on Main Street, Truth or Consequences, at an outdoor table in front of Passion Pie Café the morning of Wed. Dec. 28th. Friends in T or C have congratulated me, telling me it’s the best decision I ever made. The to-do list is growing. It’s hard not to keep thinking about it or imagining disasters that could intervene in my plan. I’m glad I have writing to focus my mind and yoga and meditation to quiet its hundreds of questions, or I’d be spinning inside. I’m focusing on the constructive work of getting ready and on trusting life’s unfolding process, trusting the flow of synchronicities that made this change possible. The process of winding down one phase of my life and beginning the next will be complicated even though the goal is simplicity. I hardly own anything but I’m going to own even less. Travel less, need less, and be more. Retire early and fully embrace T or C. Art. Hot springs. The Rio Grande. The desert. People who get me. I love the place. It’s been my heart’s home for years. At the end of this academic year it will be my full-time home. I may teach a college course or two online, teach a few yoga classes around town, but writing will be my full-time occupation.

“I’ve been a dreamer so long now. It’s time I did something for real.

There’s just no point in being alive if you don’t live the way you feel.”

    From the song “Something for Real” by T or C artist Don Hallock.