About gretchenwing

A high school English and History teacher for 20 years, Gretchen now lives, writes, and bakes on Lopez Island, Washington.

That Big Green Lady

Could America possibly have a more relevant poem right now than this one? 

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Image by H. Zell, Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to a wonderful article* by Walt Hunter in The Atlantic, “The Story Behind the Poem on the Statue of Liberty–and thanks to a very un-wonderful comment by the president–I’ve been thinking a lot  about Emma Lazarus’s poem.

Hunter’s article points out many features of  poem which I had never thought about before: its unusual structure (Petrarchan Sonnet–can I get a “yeah” from my English nerds?); its usage by various politicians in underlining our favorite dream of American exceptionalism; the nuance of the statue’s gender in contrast with statues of yore.

But here’s the passage of Hunter’s that really sticks with me:

The philosopher Simone Weil argues that the impersonal cry of “Why am I being hurt?” accompanies claims to human rights. To refuse to hear this cry of affliction, Weil continues, is the gravest injustice one might do to another. The voice of the statue in Lazarus’s poem can almost be heard as an uncanny reply, avant la lettre, to one of the slogans chanted by immigrants and refugees around the world today: “We are here because you were there.” The statue’s cry is a response to one version of Weil’s “Why am I being hurt” that specifies the global relation between the arrival of immigrants and the expansion of the colonial system.

“We are here because you were there.” America has immigrants because the global system we benefit from displaces people. But lucky us–we BENEFIT from those desperate people.

Raise your hand if you’re a child of immigrants. Thought so. Can’t find a way to talk about this with your anti-immigrant neighbor? Yeah, I struggle with that too. Meanwhile–stay involved. Stay heartened. And VOTE.

*Note: shout-out to Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings for bringing this article to my attention.

Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime: Why I Have To Say “Relatable”

Bias Alert: 

  1. Like most English teachers, I shudder at the newly-developing word, “relatable.”
  2. My family and I LOVE the Daily Show; Jon Stewart practically raised our children.

So you might not think we’d love his replacement, Trevor Noah. But you’d think wrong. We loved Trevor from the beginning (forgiving him his occasionally juvenile humor the same way we forgave Jon his old-Jewish-guy schtick).

And now that I’ve read Trevor’s memoir, Born a Crime, I admire him on a whole new levelAnd I admire his mother more.

I only wish I had finished Trevor’s book before Christmas, so I could have given it to everyone I love. I don’t want to tell you too much about it; the book is comprised of anecdotes, to divulge any of which would spoil your joy in reading.

But I will tell you this. Although Trevor claims a different nationality, gender and race (OK, half different–but in South Africa that MEANS different) from mine, I found his story more…RELATABLE than anything I’ve read in the past year. He doesn’t just write of racial injustice–though there’s plenty of that, growing up in the last days of apartheid. He writes of topics I, privileged white American female, RELATE to:

  • adolescent yearnings to belong
  • a complex relationship with religion
  • self-consciousness over appearance
  • heartbreak (over the opposite sex, pets, family members)
  • joy in his own gifts (languages, foot speed–and you’ll see why that’s important!)
  • deep, unshakable love for his AMAZING mother

The book is also really stinkin’ funny, but that’s something I simply appreciate rather than relate to, because, alas, I am not so gifted.

And it’s shockingly sad. Something else I, thanks be, cannot relate to. But Trevor makes his family’s sadness ACCESSIBLE, and that’s close enough. Also–“accessible” is a real word.

Have you read it? Please add your review here. If not, do yourself or someone you love a favor and read Born a Crime as soon as you can.

 

Tree Guru, Part II: Let Me Learn From Yew Too

Here’s one of those “discovering” something that was always in plain sight stories. And of course it has a moral.

A few weeks ago I was walking my favorite woodsy path on our beautiful isle and my eyes came to rest on the trunk of a tree I must have passed literally HUNDREDS of times. “Funny,” I thought, “that looks like a juniper. But they don’t have junipers here.”

It’s true. Here in Ecotopia we have Western Red Cedar and we have Douglas Fir, but juniper’s an eastern thing. I knew right away this was something special. And that’s when I remembered hearing about a handful of ancient Pacific Yews still surviving on the south end of Lopez Island. I stepped in for a closer look.

Much closer look.

Thirty+ feet in height. Flat needles. Red bark. But the width–whoa! I couldn’t get my arms around the trunk, not by a long shot. My wing span’s a good 5 feet, so this trunk’s circumference could be 80 inches. And yet it looked SO modest, tucked into the larger forest, that I had ignored it for a good six years of walks.

Not much to yew, is there?

A botanist friend tells me a yew this size is “hundreds of years” old. Impossible to tell how MANY hundreds, of course, but who cares? This unassuming tree, much smaller than the firs around it, could be their great-great-great grandma (overlooking the whole different genus thing, of course).

The obvious moral to this story is, PAY ATTENTION. Who knows what you may be walking past? The more subtle moral…well, several come to mind.

Perseverance and strength–the qualities of heroes–may come in drab packages.

Flashiness often distracts us from our best, truest role models. And of course…

Yew are who yew are.

Do you have your own story of an unobtrusive hero or role model you came to notice after much time? Do share, won’t yew?

My Guru The Tree

If you look at my books you’ll see my publisher is Madrona Branch Press.

That’s me. All us Indie authors are our own presses. But Madrona Branch, the name? There’s a story there, which I’ve told before.

Don’t have time for the previous blog post? Just look closely at that loopy branch.

Here’s an update.

The other day I was out for a walk and stopped to hug “my” tree as I usually do.

Hello, Beautiful.

Then I stepped back and looked into its upper branches. My eyes found that astounding curl of branch which has become my personal emblem. Then, for the first time, they noticed something new that had always been there:

“I’ve been here all along, y’know.”

See it? Look closer.

“Lean on me…when you’re not strong…”

Not only is that never-say-die branch supporting itself with its own loop, it’s also leaning against an older part of the original tree trunk. A dead part. But not so dead that it can’t lend its bulk to keep “my” branch climbing toward the sunlight.

Excelsior!

So I’ve extended my metaphor. Yes, I accepted the “failure” of not being traditionally published, and supported myself to keep growing upward, into independent publication. But I was never alone in that endeavor. I leaned heavily on my writing group, on my editor, on my book designer, and on countless friends I knew only via internet, who helped me with technology or marketing questions.

Not to say any of those folks are “dead wood.” They are all solidly growing themselves. The “dead” part of that solid trunk is all the authors over time whose work inspired me and taught me. Shakespeare. Zora Neale Hurston. William Carlos Williams. Wallace Stegner. Barbara Kingsolver. Michael Chabon. And on and on and on, a trunk of growth so powerful it will never stop nourishing growth, even when it’s finally broken down into soil.

There’s also something to be learned from a tree which uses its own dead parts as scaffolding, rather than shedding them. That’s US, guys–the community of writers! We are the whole damn tree.

A little further on my walk, I ran into another new favorite tree of mine. But that’s a whole other story, so I’ll save it for my next post.

Any other metaphors strike you from these pictures? Or do you have a Nature metaphor for your own experience? I would love to hear.

White Privilege, Part…II? XVIII? Who’s Counting?

The US election of 2016 ushered me, like a lot of folks, into a new era of reading, listening, and discussion, all aimed at understanding, to paraphrase Hillary, “What the Hell Just Happened (And What Does it Mean)?”

I quickly figured out that it was mostly my fellow white people who were asking that question. People of Color (whom I’ve mostly just been reading and listening to, since leaving very-colorful Tacoma for this very-white island 7 years ago) not only sounded less surprised on the whole, but also less shook. The overall message seems to be more along the lines of, “Really? Didn’t see this coming?”

For these thinkers, Trump isn’t the blacklight lighting up the creepy-crawlies in the sofa cushions; he’s just one more creepy-crawly in a house whose infestation was built into its foundation-which some of us have been noticing only intermittently. I realized I had something to learn.

One of the most powerful passages of one of the most powerful books I’ve read this past year comes from Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between The World And Me. He writes of the Dream—NOT Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream,” but quite the opposite. This Dream, to Coates, is the illusion of fundamental American fairness, decency and democracy that middle class whites cling to in order to feel good about living the way we do when we know others have not been, and still are not, able to live that way.

The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge those horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown.

Coates concludes that stark paragraph with this statement:

It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work. It must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind. —pp. 88-89

I think I might change that last word to “soul,” or perhaps “heart,” because I feel Coates’ challenge more there than in my mind. And for me the challenge is not to change my opinion about America so much as it is to change my focus. To think about what I haven’t had to think about. And to let new voices have my ear.

One such new voice I heard recently on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show: Grammy-winner Chance the Rapper, debuting his new song, “First World Problems,” accompanied by Daniel Caesar.

Son One likes Chance and Caesar, and urged me to listen. I now urge you to do the same. Not your style of music? It’s not mine either. But give this song—pun intended—a chance. And pay attention to the lyrics.

These lyrics especially–notice the connection with Coates’ Dream?

Now—think about what you are thinking about. And let me know. Keep the conversation going.

 

How To Gift Yourself With Inspiration Without Drowning

I should really re-title this post and add a question mark, because sorting through all the inspiration available on the web is as daunting as it is delightful. I’m still a novice. So I’ll tell you what I do, and then I hope to hear back from some of you with even better strategies.

I limit the springs of inspiration I drink at, as much as possible, to the following:

  1. a daily poem, read first thing in the morning (before other stuff gets clogged in there). At first I used Poetry Daily, but, finding I wanted my poetry less random, I later switched to favorites like Mary Oliver and Brian Doyle, working my way through their books one poem at a time. But who knows? I may go back to randomizing just to see who appears.
  2. Brain Pickings, by Maria Popova. I became a subscriber this year, and after a few months I became, out of sheer gratitude, a paying subscriber. But Maria is so incredibly wide-ranging that I’ve had to learn how to pick my own Pickings. Survival tip to avoid inundation: assign myself ONE article per issue to read, then share with a friend or relative, including my own question or comment to create a real connection/dialogue. 
  3. On Being, the podcast by Krista Tippett. Survival tip to avoid inundation: listen to one episode per week while exercising.

Drink deep…but take time to savor and swallow!

This is what I try to hold myself to. Then there are BOOKS. How to limit the stack that grows beside my bed, and the list that threatens to run right off the notes-page of my calendar? Uh…gonna have to wait for one of you to advise me on this.

So…daily inspirations: how do YOU control the flow, pick your Pickings, or otherwise keep your sources of empathy and joy and motivation from drowning you? Please share your strategies, Wise Ones.

 

Family Pranking: Fun New Resolution for 2018?

Meet Ali the Gator:

“Could someone lick me clean, please?

Oh, why’s he covered in whipped cream and jam? Therein lies a tale. Allow me.

Ali joined our family a couple of years ago when the Mate was out doing yardwork. Spotting a lizard near the compost bin, he decided to catch it, in honor of Wing Son One, who does such things. So he stalked it, for several minutes, before realizing…

a) it was plastic

b) it was an alligator, not a common lizard,

c) it was missing two of its feet (likely a lawn-mower accident)

So he brought it inside. Of course I decided to place it under Son One’s pillow the next time he visited. (Gratifying yell of surprise.) Ali then showed up successively in…

a) the soap dish in the shower

b) my tin of Earl Grey

c) the Mate’s tin of coffee beans

d) my hiking boot

The hiking boot prank was especially good, because I was putting on that boot at the visitor center of Haleakala on Maui, last winter. So I sent Son One this photo of “Ali in Paradise”:

Later, he took a hula class and attended a luau.

From Maui we continued our Epic Journey to New Zealand, so there I took another photo of “Ali with Kiwi Mate”:

“Hey, it’s OK–I can’t fly either, mate.”

This past summer, both sons + Mate gathered in Vermont for a construction blitz on our cousins’ “new” old house. Ali flew there in a care package of cookies, to make a legendary appearance inside an ear of corn the Mate was shucking. (Sadly, no picture of that.)

Don’t know how Ali made it back to the Wet Coast, but he reappeared this past month, folded inside the ferry commuter ticket in our glove box. I decided Ali must have a special Christmas. So I stuffed him inside the yule log cake (Buche de Noel) I was creating.

In you go, lil’ guy!

Don’t eat too much whipped cream in there!

Of course I made sure that one of our sons got the “special” piece of cake. (Son One got the honor.)

Alligator? What alligator? Have a slice of Yule Log! Merry Christmas!

We actually borrowed this idea of family pranking from our Vermont cousins. They did the same thing with an evil-looking doll they called “Malice.” The idea of finding a creepy doll inside, say, one’s freezer, veers too close to heart-attack-land for my taste.

But a cute little alligator? All he does is make us laugh, and think of how much we enoy each other. 

Anyone else out there have an ongoing family prank to share? Anyone want to start 2018 with a new tradition? Be sure to take pictures!

O Come ALL Ye Faithful: A Non-Divisive Christmas Carol That Actually Celebrates Christmas

Have you ever noticed that the words of some of your favorite Christmas carols make you uncomfortable? Maybe they frame the holy spirit in a way you don’t. Maybe their picture of Jesus isn’t yours. Or maybe they go too far in the other direction, pretending naively–or with obnoxious commercialism–that the holiday is really about Santa Claus and gifts.

I love Christmas for its traditions–food, evergreens, decorations, family, gifts, and, yeah…food. (I love food.) Raised in a vaguely Judeo-Christian tradition, I don’t call myself a Christian, but I deeply admire Jesus, and singing to celebrate his birthday seems like a good idea to me. I just need the right kind of song to sing.

So I wrote one.

Come ALL Ye Faithful  by G. Wing, 2012

 

Chorus:           

O come all ye faithful and sing a Christmas song         That doesn’t make non-Christians feel as though they don’t belong

 Let’s sing about a birthday that brings so many joy

 A humble, patient mother and a tiny baby boy.

 

I know that we can’t all agree on what the season means

So let’s avoid divisive lines that highlight our extremes

For some Christ is the Savior, for some he is the King

But for many, Jesus’ teachings are the real gift he brings.

Chorus

A man of peace, a man of prayer, who turns the other cheek

And preaches that the earth belongs to the blessed meek

Now that’s a man whose birthday anyone could celebrate

Without regard to questions of his anointed state.

Chorus

So Muslim, Buddhist, Pagan, Jew, and yes, even atheists

Should all feel welcome in this song to join with Christian deists

And sing a joyful glo-o-ria about a starry night

Without the lyrics telling them their own beliefs aren’t right.

Chorus

If you find this song offensive to your sensibilities

Just look at all the Santas and the glowing Christmas trees

If they can all be blended with a Christian world view

Then surely you can harmonize this carol with them too.

Chorus

In honor of the season, here’s a classical Madonna and Child image:

Madonna with Child and Angels by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato (courtesy OpenClipArtLibrary)

 And here’s one a little closer to my heart, Dorothea Lange’s 1936 Migrant Mother:

The least of these…

If you want to hear what my Christmas carol sounds like, send me your email and I’ll send you a recording. Meanwhile, whatever it means to you: Merry Christmas!

“I Do…Right?” Maybe It’s Time For An American Recommitment Ceremony

You may have noticed I have some strong opinions. But one of them, which has been gaining strength since Trump’s inauguration, is this: I don’t want my own strong opinions irrevocably dividing me from my fellow Americans.

Easier said than done, when most of what I see and hear through the media fills me with reactive rage, disgust, and sorrow. But rage, disgust and sorrow are exhausting. So the temptation is to stick with my tribe, to talk only with  people who feel the same way, and to shut out the “ugly voices.”

Problem is, we’re all in this together—”this” being This American Experiment.

All in this together. “Togetherness,” by Author Woldh, October 2015, courtesy Wikimedia

So when I venture outside my tribe, I try to connect over shared values: music. Food. Sports. Children. Animals. And when I’m alone, I make myself read articles and listen to podcasts that force me to consider the downside of my own tribalism.

Recently I was struck by this bit from an “On Being” podcast—a dual interview with an Indian-American journalist from Ohio and an activist from rural White Tennessee. Here’s the journalist, Anand Giridharadas:

…the word that comes to me is “commitment.” … You’re committed to your home… in a way that…almost sounds more like the way people talk about marriage. You’re not there because you know it’s gonna be good; you’re willing to be there even if it’s not great. And I think what’s happened to us is that we’re not committed to each other as a people, so it’s almost like we are in this kind of situation where any disappointment that we encounter in our fellow citizens is like a reason to break up, and any deviation from deeply fulfilling each other as fellow citizens is like a tragedy. And part of commitment as a citizen is embracing other people’s dysfunction, and embracing other people’s incompleteness, because you know you have your own. And we’ve ended up in resistance to each other.

Embracing other people’s dysfunction? Does that mean their racism or homophobia? I don’t want to do that. But if I do nothing but entrench myself against it, nothing changes. So if “embrace” means “engage with, talk to, try to understand…” OK. MAYBE I can do that. No promises. But I can try.

The activist in that interview, Whitney Kimball Coe, had this response:

… I’m always thinking about how do I show up? How do I show up in the world and in my community and beyond, and am I going to show up with an open mind, an open heart, and with curiosity? Or am I going to go in, guns blazing, looking for a high for my ego, and see if I can nail this interview right now…? And it’s such a freeing way to live, if you can approach all of these interactions from a more open, curious perspective. That’s where I am, these days — ‘How am I bringing myself into a space?’

The journalist replies with a suggestion I love:

We live in an age that loves the solution. One of the things you experience, when you’re a writer in this age who tries to partake in an age-old tradition of writing as criticism, as holding up a mirror…is that you get shamed for not offering solutions…When we actually relax our need for solutions, I think we create space for…curiosity, when…instead of saying, “How do you solve this?” — if you like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s work or are provoked by it, instead of being like, “OK, what’s your plan?” — let’s start some curiosity. What does he make you curious about? If you’re white, what does he make you — now that you’re unsettled or angry or agreeing or whatever, what are you left curious about?

The host of “On Being,” the articulate Krista Tippett, finishes with a quote from the journalist, stating our challenge:

“It is hardly the fault of the rest of us that those wielding unearned privilege bristle at surrendering it. But it is our problem. The burden of citizenship is committing to your fellow citizens and accepting that what is not your fault may be your problem.”

And Anand Giridharadas sums up, in his response, my entire point here, using that marriage metaphor:

I think the despair is that we’ve fallen not just out of love, but out of interest with each other. I actually think more and more of us love “our” America, but don’t necessarily love America or Americans. We love the ones we love. We love the ones who love us. It’s kind of become like a bad college relationship. We’re a country peopled by these rowdy, restless gamblers who tried to make it work, and I think we have lost our way. But I think if we can remember that the whole enterprise here is simply to try to make it work — that’s the experiment. That’s it…We’re not trying to make it work to create wealth. We’re not trying to make it work to create innovation. We’re not trying to make it work to restore some illusory, lost greatness. We’re trying to make it work to make it work — and if we can make this work, it perhaps suggests that the world is not one as a world, but the world is actually one here, in America. What a great, great thing to try.

America, I want to keep trying. Let’s keep talking.

 

What If I Did? Four Words Away From Empathy

When I make my way through my American day, I don’t have to think about the way my skin color, or the style of my dress or hair, or my accent might be taken by my fellow Americans. But what if I did?

I don’t have to worry that someone’s phone call to authorities might lead to my deportation away from my family. What if I did?

I don’t have to fear for my sons that a chance encounter with law enforcement might kill them. What if I did?

I don’t have to worry that a friend or family member might succumb to addiction and death despite everything I did for them. What if I did?

I don’t have to think hard before choosing which bathroom to use, knowing the wrong choice could get me beaten up. What if I did?

I don’t have to check my wallet or the family budget before buying myself a cup of tea, or a muffin, or even dinner out, whenever the urge strikes. What if I did?

I don’t ever have to suffer from lack of natural beauty. What if I did?

In each of these scenarios, I can imagine different responses, in thought or action or both, from the ones that flow from my usual cushy oblivion. I can imagine more involvement, yes. More self-education. But most of all, I don’t have to imagine, I FEEL more empathy, both toward people I am different from, and toward people with whom I deeply disagree.

So what? Still working on that one. Stay with me.