“I was a typical young Southerner, born and raised in LA—Lower Alabama.” Meet Bob Zellner.
I got to do just that, last October, when Bob and his activist wife Pamela joined my Common Power Team NC canvassing group. Over big plates of BBQ, I got to ask Bob questions about events I’d read about in his book, The Wrong Side of Murder Creek. Like the time Bob was beaten badly on the steps of the town hall of McComb, Mississippi, in a march led by Black high school students. But in the New York Times article, they called Bob “the leader” of the march–because he was the only White guy there.
You could call Bob the White counterpart of Representative John Lewis; they grew up quite close to each other in Alabama, both poor, both country–but on either side of the color line. Which explains why Bob started life from a KKK-supporting family, before becoming the first White field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s.
Bob’s a folksy guy; like a lot of Southerners, he’s not into drama. Just tells it like it was–and is. His mission today, he says, and for the rest of his life, is to tell young people: “You can be White, and you can be a Civil Rights activist, and you can survive.”
Come to think–that’s a pretty good message right there. Reading Bob’s story, not to mention rubbing shoulders with him, reminded me how ordinary these extraordinary “ACTIVISTS” can be. Maybe a teensy bit braver than I am…
I hope you listen to Bob or check out his book. Pass it on!
I’m not going to spend time talking about why I’ve stepped away from this blog for the past year. I’d rather talk about what brought me back.
Since Sandy Hook, since Trayvon, since Charlottesville, since [fill in your own moment of “whatthefuckishappeningtous”], I’ve been looking for people and ideas and groups which provide myself with hope and purpose. Along with my family; some dear friends; some small-but-mighty organizations within my community; music; nature, and writing, I found Common Power, and its educational branch, The Institute for Common Power, both of which I have written about.
For the last three years, I’ve gone deeper into action to protect and extend democracy, mostly through phone-banking and donations, but also writing letters to elected officials, and, last October, canvassing in my home state, North Carolina.
Dr. Williams is a History professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN, and founder of their Racial Justice Initiative. It was his part of that 24 hours of teaching that got me back to Wing’s World. He talked about two “challengers,” starting with NASA’s Challenger Space Shuttle, which exploded live on TV in 1986 (which many of us remember all too well).
Dr. Williams reminded us how Ronald Reagan went on TV to tell American children the tragedy:
“We don’t hide our space program. We don’t keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That’s the way democracy is, and we wouldn’t change it for a minute.”
His message: Ron DeSantis, anti-“woke” Republicans–are you LISTENING? Democracy means FACING UP TO BAD STUFF. Like, you know…U.S. History.
Dr. Williams closed by talking about Muhammad Ali, of whom actor/director Ed Begley Jr. said, “Ali’s secret was that he was always the challenger.”
And this historian/activist then looked at the camera and asked us listeners to find ways to continue to be the challenger. To do more than what we’ve been doing to help our country be its best self.
And I thought: okay. At the very least, something I can do is to expand Dr. Williams’ message.
So in the next few weeks, I’ll be highlighting some of the talks from that incredible 24 hours. I’ll be sharing, amplifying, extolling the messages I’m absorbing about how to help our country. And if just a few of you reading this decide to do the same, consider yourselves challengers too.
When folks say, “Shit just got real,” they generally mean shit just got real for them. Clearly, shit has been real for several hundred years in this country for vast numbers of people.
(Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: Dedicated to the Foot Soldiers of Birmingham Park)
But Florida, under the leadership of Ron DeSantis, just made it real for me. As a former history teacher, realizing that Florida’s new “Stop Woke Act” would penalize most of my old lesson plans was a watershed moment.
What would the Stop Woke bill do? According to the Florida ACLU:
ASSAULT ON DIVERSITY, EQUITY, AND INCLUSION TRAINING:
● This bill flips the script – deeming non-discrimination trainings as a source of discrimination.
● Under this bill, employees could sue their employers for discrimination if: ○ They claimed a feeling of “discomfort” during equity and inclusion training. ○ They claimed a feeling of “guilt” for being a man after attending sexual harrassment training. ○ They claimed a feeling of anguish after attending a session on implicit bias. ○ They claimed a feeling of “psychological distress” after being taught about discrimination perpetrated against LGBTQ people by others.
So. All it takes is one disgruntled student, and that teacher might have to choose between shutting up, getting their district sued, or getting fired (the most likely option)
Even more chilling, as the Florida ACLU describes, this bill would CENSOR HONEST CONVERSATIONS, exactly the kind of conversations our country is only beginning to recognize we need:
● This bill gives the government broad censorship over honest conversations about our nation’s history and the root causes of injustice and discrimination. Teachers and employers should be free to have these tough conversations. (Can you imagine teaching ANYthing without reference to the truth of the past??? Me neither.)
● It will have a chilling effect — schools will be hesitant to create open dialogue about our country’s history of slavery, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, LGBTQ history, and other subjects to avoid legal liability.
So, my former students–all those role plays we did, inhabiting the lives of people on either side of historical divides?
Out the window. Toast. Get out your (highly redacted) texts, kids, while I hand out the accompanying worksheets.
So…who’s ready to take this lying down?
* * *
Thought so. If you’re as outraged as I am about Florida’s assault on the truth, here’s an outlet for you.
It’s a call to conscience and to common sense. It’s a spotlight on the shameful censorship Florida is trying to instill. It’s a courageous step–I know this because the organizers are already receiving death threats in Florida.
And it’s all on Zoom, and it’s free.
If you click on the above link during any hour of the Teach-in on May 17, you can tune in to hear lectures by activists and academics–some famous names, but all folks like you and me who are horrified at the idea that truth is now under legal attack under the leadership of a governor who is running for President.
We’re all busy. On May 17, I don’t plan to sit at my computer watching speaker after speaker inspire and energize me. But I DO plan to keep my audio playing in the background of my day, and I DO plan to let the idea of a Teach-in percolate into my own days, reminding me of the power of AMPLIFICATION when it comes to justice.
In fact, I’m starting right now, with this blog post.
I say, I stand with THESE folks. Can you join me May 17? Can you pass this along?
I interrupt this blog-pause to bring you delightful literary news: Mimi Herman, one of my longest besties (’cause we’re not OLD), has just published a lively, authentic, and moving novel, set in our home state, North Carolina: The Kudzu Queen.
Oh, and that quote above? That’s from NYT best-selling novelist Lee Smith (once my 9th grade English teacher at Carolina Friends School, where Mimi & I met). You get your book blurbed by Lee Smith, you have arrived.
Some of you familiar with Southern landscapes might be thinking, “Whoa there! Kudzu? That awful introduced plant that tried to eat the South?”
But the dramatic irony of knowing what kudzu will become makes Mimi’s story all the more poignant, because her characters are present in kudzu’s Genesis moment, back in 1941. Why don’t I let the book’s flyleaf tell it?
Fifteen-year-old Mattie Lee Watson dreams of men, not boys. So when James T. Cullowee, the Kudzu King, arrives in Cooper County, North Carolina in 1941 to spread the gospel of kudzu—claiming that it will improve the soil, feed cattle at almost no cost, even cure headaches—Mattie is ready. Mr. Cullowee is determined to sell the entire county on the future of kudzu, and organizes a kudzu festival, complete with a beauty pageant. Mattie is determined to be crowned Kudzu Queen and capture the attentions of the Kudzu King. As she learns more about Cullowee, however, she discovers that he, like the kudzu he promotes, has a dark and predatory side. When Mattie finds she is not the only one threatened, she devises a plan to bring him down. Based on historical facts, The Kudzu Queen unravels a tangle of sexuality, power, race, and kudzu through the voice of an irresistibly delightful (and mostly honest) narrator.
The choice of 1941 is not accidental. Mere months before Pearl Harbor, Mattie Watson, her family, her community, and her country are all aligned on the cusp of transformation: Mattie into womanhood; her family (and, more dramatically, that of her best friend) into a new configuration; her community into the brave new world of cultural and economic change; and her country into its 20th-century world leadership. While kudzu is a very real part of this change–Mimi’s book is thoroughly researched–it is also a perfect metaphor for the way “growth” does not automatically entail “improvement”–or at least, not without cost.
But can I step away from theme for a moment to trumpet some sweet, sweet prose? For a taste:
“The afternoon’s brightness had traveled with me, infusing the white clapboard of our house with its own light. My mother’s azaleas were enjoying their brief moment of pink glory before they subsided into wilted blossoms the color of old newspapers.” (p.88)
“Sometimes a rain will start so quietly that after a while you realize it’s been raining for some time and you dadn’t even noticed. By the time I grapsed the fact that I was crying, I’d progressed to wet hiccups.” (p. 216)
Much as I enjoy The Kudzu Queen’s active prose, I think I admire its dialogue most.
“‘How many fish are we going to catch, Aggs?’ Danny asked.
‘A million?’ she ventured.
‘At least,’ he told her. ‘I was thinking more like two million.’
She laughed, a sound I heard so rarely that I almost didn’t recognize it.
‘How many can you eat?’ he asked.
‘Six,’ she announced.
‘Excellent. That means six for you and one million, nine hundred ninety-nie thousand, nine hundred and nine-four for me me.’ Danny tugged her sleeve. ‘This your fishing outfit?'” (p. 190)
It’s hard to write too much without spoilers, so I’ll stop with this recommendation: if you want to delve deep into a time of relative innocense without a drop of mawkishness; if you want to give yourself over to that narrator Lee Smith calls “the most appealing young heroine since Scout;” if you’d read anything David Sedaris–yes, David Sedaris!–calls “funny, sad and tender,” then–ask your local bookstore to order The Kudzu Queen, or order it yourself, here.
Like my new word? I was trying to find a way to describe the way The Mate and I tend to travel, and it occurred to me: pretty much all we do, wherever we are, is look for trails to walk or paths to bike (or vice-versa).
Leaving Tofino, we drove less than 20 miles down the road to Pacific Rim National Park, a thin strip of forest and beach that runs a good length down Vancouver Island’s Wild West Coast. The hiking trails are all short, but the longest of them is run by the Nuu-chah-nulth people, whose land it occupies.
Along with offering some moments in the best parts of the forest, the trail tries to deepen one’s awareness of that culture, like this:
This totem pole along the trail is maybe the most beautiful I’ve ever beheld.
Everywhere you go in that park, signs remind you whose land you are on–a convention our US parks would do well to emulate.
That sign, by the way, greets walkers and bikers for MILES as they traverse the longest path of all: the bike path that runs the entire 20+ miles of the park. The Mate & I LIVED on this path during our camping days there, using it to move from one beach or hiking trail to the next. And, given the number of poop-piles we counted, the local bears live on this path too!
Of course we didn’t spend ALL our camping time on the move.
I’m not a “beach person” in the sense of lying on them for hours, but give me a beach with tidepools and I’m good–at least till the next mealtime! 🙂 PRNP has some AMAZING rocks and tide pools.
In one pool, I was amazed to discover an eating-sized fish who appeared trapped, as if in an aquarium. I vowed to come back next morning to try to save him if the tide hadn’t come in far enough…
…only to discover him, to my chagrin, still there…along with an even larger buddy…both of them attached through the gills by a nylon line, and the fisherman who’d caught them still trying to augment his catch. Apparently he was using this tide pool as his bucket to stash his fish, even overnight!
[Not pictured: pathetic caught fish in tide pool. I’m a terrible hypocrite; I just like to eat ’em.]
Seriously, though, I can’t say enough about this part of Canada. Come for the big trees…
…stay for the big trees at sunset!
Leaving the Wild West (regretfully), we moved slowly back through the center of the island, spending the night in Port Alberni. Not much pathing nor trailing there–but I did fall deeply in love with their bakery. If you want to know more about this very blue-collar town at the far end of the LOOOONG inlet which bisects the west coast, let me refer you to my friends’ blog–they do a good bit more than pathing and trailing when they travel.
[Not pictured: Port Alberni. Nothing really grabbed me there, visually; probably due to lack of trails & paths.]
On the way out, however, we walked in the Cathedral Grove (pictured at top), and later stopped at Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park, where we vowed to come back sometime and camp. Here’s why.
Luckily, we’d already had our leaping-salmon experience the week before at Stamp River, because…
…these falls were not exactly leap-able. Ridiculously gorgeous, yes. We had some of our best “trailing” around this river, seeing its falls from all angles.
Our final stop was Lake Cowichan, where I’d attempted to take The Mate on last fall’s ill-fated Mystery Birthday Trip (see previous post). The Trans Canada Trail runs through there, so we had high hopes of pathing it on our bikes.
But it was closed for construction. So we had to make do with the lake.
Lake Cowichan looked even better from above, although the trail itself led mostly through the scruffy results of clearcutting.
We spent our final Vancouver Island night near Nanaimo, where we’d be boarding the ferry next morning. Yes, we did manage to find a couple more trails & paths nearby, but by this time we were starting to feel all that mileage in our legs. So we kept the walks short, and fell gratefully into the bed which took up our entire tiny room in this adorable pub/hotel.
We arrived home to find the Cascade skies still hazy with wildfire smoke. Happy as I am to be reunited with Maya the Malamute, I’ll end with this photo from the ferry back to the Canadian mainland, because…
…see all those mountains out there? Can you imagine how many paths and trails they’re hoarding?
Thanks, Canada. With or without the doggone excuse, we’ll be back, eh?
After coming to grips with our sweet Maya’s need for intensive training to ease her reactivity to other dogs, the Mate and I booked her a two-week stay with local dog whisperer Stephanie Vallejo (highly recommended, but get in line: she’s very much in demand!). Then we looked at each other.
“You thinking what I’m thinking? If our dog is already being cared for…”
Our first stop was the town of Sooke, just west of Victoria, where most tourists go. We’re not really into cities–particularly very Anglophile cities like Victoria immediately following the death of the Queen. Plus Sooke is known for its glorious rail-trail, the Galloping Goose, which the Mate & I have been eager to try out.
“The Goose” stretches 55 kilometers, much of which is as gorgeous as this part (where I saw a bear the next day). With a few exceptions, it’s perfectly level, and includes fun little additions like…some VERY high trestle bridges…
…mixed forests, and shoreline, like this part fronted by what Canadians call Arbutus, and we call Madrona (or Madrone, in California).
From Sooke we headed back toward Victoria, then followed the main highway north to not-quite-halfway up this INCREDIBLY big island, where we entered its mountainous middle. I was on a mission. I wanted to see bears, and leaping salmon. Maybe even together!
That bear’s two cubs showed up a moment later, but I took a video of them instead of stills, so you just have to imagine. Were we nervous about the bears being only one river away from our campsite? Well…we would have been, had the ranger not assured us that these particular bears had been coming every evening, checking for fish and leaving, without seeming to care about crossing over.
Good enough for us to sleep well. We happened to know that the fish were just downriver…
…where the BIG falls are, summoning the energy to leap. As with the bears, I took videos of the salmon doing their thing and forgot to take stills. But if you look very closely…
…you can see them massing in the canyon just below the falls. Dozens of them. Hundreds. Several specials. Getting ready for the big push. (But they also have a fish ladder to fall back on, in case they give up after 80 or 90 tries.)
Our next night of camping was on Sproat Lake, where the scenery was nice but not breathtaking. However, following my nose and some truly baffling maps, I stumbled upon one of the most magical waterfall pools I’ve ever encountered.
What’s weird is, I accessed this place via an ugly logging road under a power line, then had to climb down a bluff using a VERY scary rope “ladder”–to find this lil’ piece of Narnia waiting below.
Good job, Vancouver Island–make us work a little for your treasures.
One of our two weeks is now behind us, and The Mate and I are at the end of the world, or what feels like it: the towns of Ucluelet and Tofino, one at each end of a peninsula hanging off the Big Island.
Tofino’s where the kayak photo came from. “But Gretchen,” you may ask, “don’t you already live on an island? Why would you vacation somewhere so similar to your regular ol’ life?”
But my answer is:
…or THIS: the First Nations village of Opitsat, which our kayak guide told us was the oldest continuously-inhabited settlement in North America, dating back at least 5,000 years (but more likely, he had learned, 10,000). Seeing it gave me goose bumps. (again–apologies for poor zoom lens)
And I’ll let Ucluelet speak for itself:
One more thing The Mate and I are really enjoying about this part of B.C.: its quirkiness. For example, our rented room is in the lower part of this…structure?
And their official control-your-dogs-at-the-beach signs are hilarious:
Wait, did somebody say Good Dog? Oh, we sure hope so. But meanwhile–thanks for the vacation, Maya! See you in a week!
This coming weekend, I’ll be playing in a music festival. Yay for music festivals! Yay for anything that combines outdoorsiness, tunes, and safe togetherness. Also tacos, I hear.
Which means it’s time for me to do my part and help drum up community support for this all-day affair, tirelessly put together by some very dedicated folks. Which means…promo.
I know of zero writers and only a tiny handful of musicians who enjoy promoting their own work. Taking part in an interview, sure, or maybe designing a poster if your artistic chops extend to the visual arts, but otherwise? Meh.
Case in point: yes, this blog contains clickable images of the books I’ve written, but when was the last time I actually tried to sell you one? Exactly.
But! This music festival is not about me; my set is 30 minutes out of a full day. It’s about COMMUNITY MUSIC! So with that in mind…ahem…may I present:
If you live on Lopez, I very much hope you can make it. If not, I hope you can make some event to support the arts in your community! I’m guessing probablyno one where you live wants to self-promote either. So make it easy on ’em and just show up!
And thank you, thank you for supporting your local artists. Isn’t it wonderful we get to do this again?
It’s official: COVID-19 is no longer cool. It’s hanging out with me and the Mate.
Understand, we’re the kind of folks who started watching “The Office” in its fourth season. Who are only now talking about maybe watching “The Mandalorian.” Want to know why Facebook’s been on a slow downward slide among young people since 2010? That’s when I joined. (The Mate is actually cooler than I am; he’ll never join.)
Luckily, we have a whole bunch of “luckilies”: We were in good health. We both got only mild symptoms (the Mate, mostly fatigue; me, a juicy head cold with a lingering cough). While we did have to cancel some parts of our lives that affected other people (sorry, my fellow bakers & musicians!), we didn’t have to miss anything huge like a family gathering (or, I don’t know, an MFA residency). Most importantly, we have not, to our knowledge, spread the virus to anyone else.
Also luckily for me, thanks to my MFA homework, I have a voracious appetite for all the extra time COVID has gifted me. For example, here’s what I’ve read since I came home from LA just under a month ago:
I’m also super grateful for having to isolate myself during such stellar weather, as Lopez Island is (so far) not suffering from the heat wave overtaking most of the rest of the globe.
I do confess to being VERY tired of the gunk in my lungs. But it also reminds me of my English teaching days, when I’d introduce a Shakespeare unit by teaching the kids about the “Four Humors” of medieval “medicine.” Depending on which planet you were born under, one of the liquids running through your body would dominate the others, thereby determining your personality.
Those four humors? Blood, yellow bile, black bile, and…wait for it…phlegm.
We still carry the vestiges of the Four Humors in our personality adjectives today. You can be sanguine (cheerful), bilious or choleric (angry), or, my own humor–phlegmatic! (Students were much less grossed out once they learned this meant “deep” or “hard to read”.)
As an on-the-cusp Scorpio, I’ve never felt very in tune with my sign. But right now, thanks to COVID, I’ve never felt more phlegmy–I mean phlegmatic. And I’ll take that Humor right now, thank you very much. Gotta accentuate the positive till it finally turns negative.
Maya the Malamute here again, with my report on What I Did On My Summer Vacation. It’s a very short report. Ready?
Ahem: It. Was. LAME.
Here’s me, heading out last month in the car of this new hooman Gretchen said was coming to “take me home”…or was it “re-home me”?
Sometime this spring she started taking lots of pretty pictures of me, saying stuff like, “I feel like a Picture Bride agent.”(Whatever that meant.) I even got to pose with wildflowers in the rain!
Then she threw a party for me. EVERYONE got treats. But I gotta say, it did seem like I got more attention than usual.
Next day: new hooman. Walkies. Talkies. Car. I noticed my old hooman Gretchen making funny faces and sounds as we drove away.
What happened next isn’t worth writing about. The new hooman took me on walks but then he had to “go to work,” and there wasn’t anyone else. I may have howled. A lot.
Some time passed. Not really sure how to describe that part. Two demolished stuffies’ worth of time? One very uncertain new hooman? I was definitely getting BORED.
So we got back in his car. We drove and drove. And then I got out of his car and there was Gretchen again. She was happy to see me. I got back into her car. We drove and drove. We stopped at a park for walkies. It was a hot day. Gretchen had a nap. I had a salad.
When we finally got back on the ferry, we both felt like we were right where we were supposed to be.
So now I’m back home with my main hoomans. They still talk about showing my pictures to other people, but like, of course they do! ‘Cause I’m gorgeous.
…although, come to think, if you do have any extra stuffies? I’m feeling a little peckish.