About gretchenwing

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

*Afterthought 100 – They All Have Names

I’ve been meaning for some time to reblog this post from my friend and fellow writer Iris: our island’s small but powerful show of support.

Iris Graville - Author

*Afterthought 100—They All Have Names

For the past few weeks, a small group of people has gathered in Lopez Island’s tiny village on Sunday afternoons. Most have carried signs protesting police brutality, racism, and white supremacy. Recently, organizers called for help to paint signs with the names of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) around the U.S. who have been killed by law enforcement officers.

This installation has been growing along a road at the Village entrance. Sadly, a local woman who opposes Black Lives Matter, pulled up the stakes and threw the signs to the ground. After organizers repaired and replaced the signs, she and her husband defaced them with black spray paint and allegedly turned the spray cans of paint on some of the organizers.

The community’s response? Repaint the existing signs, add more, and install the growing number and adorn them with fresh, local flowers.

paintingIMG_5294

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Bank on This: Phone-Banking Isn’t Everything It’s Cracked Up To Be. It’s Better.

You know those things you swear you’ll never do because you’re bad at them and you think they’re annoying and don’t make any difference and oh, by the way, you hate doing them?

Could I be talking about anything but political phone-banking? And have I been doing it anyway? And am I going to quit with the stupid rhetorical questions? Yes, yes, and yes.

The whole enterprise started with my furlough. I had some extra time on my hands, which I mainly filled with some physical volunteer work: packing school meals to be delivered to children, and groceries to be delivered to families. That felt meaningful.

But then both those programs ended (because hey, everyone knows kids don’t need to eat in the summer, especially when their parents might also be furloughed or unemployed!). [Note: this is NOT a slam on my community, which is doing everything in its power to help everyone.It’s about funding from upstream.]

Anyway, there I am in early June with the world on fire with injustice and COVID, and my deep-seated urges to pitch in have nowhere else to turn but…the phone. Calling voters in states without mail-in ballot programs to try to help voters get mail-in ballots, and gosh, by the way, wanna help elect Mr/Ms/Dr ____ to the ______?

On my first go, in Wisconsin, I swore I was done with this.

Woo-hoo.

Me, phone-banking: This is such a waste of time.

Myself: Nuh-uh, all the political people say it’s been proven that phone calls make more difference than any form of voter contact!

Me: But I even hate getting these kind of calls!

Myself: Well, you won’t from now on, will you? Maybe this is your punishment for not being nicer to the last person who called you.

Me: Not true. I’m always nice. But you may have a point there: this job feels like penance. Can I just go ahead and like, bank it against future sins?

But then the nice campaign people in Wisconsin let me know how badly they needed my help, so next day, there I was again. I don’t know how many calls I made because I hadn’t thought to keep count. But then I took some phone-bank training and discovered the joy of tally marks.

So NOW when I’m calling, I’m really competing with myself. Last week I made 100 calls in 2 hours. How ’bout 110 this week? Do I hear 120?

And along the way, even though there are SO many things I’d rather be doing on a lovely summer afternoon, like

noticing wildflowers…

or

…noticing wildlife…

I’m learning other ways to “enjoy” my political “work.” Like:

Fun with numbers! “Hey, this guy’s number’s almost the same as my Social Security.” “Whoa, a triple 6–wish I had a cool Satanic phone number like that.”

Enjoying the different recordings people leave on their voicemail, like this one man: “Hello, this is Mister Wonderful.” Or this adorable couple: “You’ve reached Grandpa and Grandma Willis.”

[Note: these generally make up for those irritating ones where the person’s clearly trying to fool the caller into thinking they’ve reached a real person instead of a recording. You guys suck.]

Grooving on cool names. I like to do this: “Hi, I’m Gretchen with the ____ Campaign, and I’ve been calling folks all afternoon and you’ve just won the Coolest Name of the Day award.”

Playing the Find my Age game: I’m 58. Nothing so special about 58, right? Except that only about .000008 of the folks I’ve called seem to BE 58, and only half of those are women. So when I get a 58 year-old female on my list (all we get are name, age & gender, and sometimes not even gender), I let them know how excited I am to talk to them! [If they pick up, that is. Which they do only about 10% of the time. So I’ve really only bonded with two other 58 year-old women so far. Sisterhood is beautiful.]

So much darn fun, I can almost forget I’d rather be kayaking.

For those of us who enjoy Life Lessons, there’s the Note Your Prejudices game: see what mental image pops into your head when you see someone’s name, age & gender pop up, then–quick, before they answer the phone!–re-arrange that prejudice into something completely different. Then find out how right or wrong you were when they answer! (If they answer. 😦 ) And briefly ponder the internal biases that caused your initial guess, quick–before you dial the next number.

Then, of course, there’s always good ol’ Gazing Out the Window…trying not to think about hiking into the sunset

Not till you’ve finished your tally marks.

or making pie.

I think I’ve earned pie.

But really? It’s all about the tally marks. And yes, just in case you were wondering: I DID make 120 calls this afternoon, thanks!

Which means I need to shoot for 125 next time. 

Total # of calls (since I started keeping track, so it’s really about 100 more): 650. And when I get to 1,000, I WILL make a pie.

Anyone else engaged in some political work right now which requires a struggle to feel meaningful? How do you keep your positive energy up?

 

The Big Antiracism “Now What?”: Can There Be Angels in the Details?

Erin Aubry Kaplan, in her op-ed in the New York Times, “Everyone’s an Antiracist. Now What?” makes a rather devastating point: Congratulations, White People. You have arrived…at the beginning of something:

Recognizing that Black people matter as much as all other Americans is only acknowledging what’s always been true. Embracing Blackness as a something of value and dignity is a baseline for progress, not progress; it is moving into position at the starting line, but it is not the race.

I am finding my days heartened currently by the scope of racial education among people and groups who have, like me, always assumed themselves to be “good,” “non-racist” folks without doing any real work to back up that assumption. People who’ve coasted on privilege for generations (like me) are finally scrutinizing that fact and grappling with the implications. BUT, as Kaplan writes,

But this is all part of Step 1. Being truly antiracist will require white people to be inconvenienced by new policies and practices, legal and social, that affect everything in everyone’s daily lives, from jobs to arts and publishing.

It’s one thing to declare your support for Black Lives Matter with a lawn sign and quite another to give up segregated schools, or always seeing yourself and people like you as the center of the moral universe. The privilege to not engage is one that many may be loath to give up, even if they believe engagement is the right thing to do.

This is the part where people usually say, “Yeah, antiracism’s great, but the devil’s in the details.” As in: what do you mean by antiracist work? What if it’s not only inconvenient by messy, complicated, hard, threatening?

To that thought–my own thought!–I am trying to give this reply: What if those aren’t devils but angels in the details? What if we can find our own redemption as a dominant race by taking some nitty-gritty steps toward REAL equality, REAL justice? Doesn’t that sound like a blessing to you?

So, for my own work, my own “angels,” I am committing to the following:

  1. actively engage in the struggle to protect voting rights in “battleground” states, by phone-banking to promote mail-in balloting, along with promoting progressive candidates from the bottom to the top of the ballot; continue to mail letters to individual voters to urge their participation in November
  2. continue to advocate, through phone calls and email, for the closure of the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, WA, run by the private prison company Geo Group
  3. continue to educate myself about the American carceral state, to see what else needs advocating for (restoration of voting privileges for former felons? prison defunding? what else?)
  4. look for opportunities to support Black businesses, like WeBuyBlack.com (gorgeous dresses!)
  5. stay open to calls for action from organizations like Color of Change, using the privilege of my free time to advocate on specific cases of injustice whenever I have a moment

    Not gonna lie–it’s a tough read.

When I find myself foot-dragging on any of the above actions–which, face it, are not inherently fun–all I have to do is re-read Kaplan’s line: The privilege to not engage is one that many may be loath to give up, even if they believe engagement is the right thing to do.

Photo Courtesy of Color of Change.org

I admit, I’m writing this as much to keep myself motivated as anything. Privileged non-engagement is very, VERY comfortable. That’s why I’ve lived there for most of my life.

Anyway–thanks for reading about my commitments. I’d love to read about yours! Please share your current or next steps, wherever you are on this journey.

 

Time, Tide and Salmonberries: Blessed Be the Regular

Like probably most people in the world right now, my sense of the calendar has gone all wonky. I’m frequently not sure what month it is, let alone the date. Day of the week? Forget it. 

Fortunately or unfortunately, I know all too well what year it is.

The arrival of fresh cherries and strawberries at a fruit stand took me by surprise. Wait–it’s Solstice already? Since then, I’ve been trying to pay more attention. Salmonberries have helped. 

Salmonberries  are a huge thing around western Washington. Whether battling them as ferociously scratchy pests around our yards or admiring their bright pink flowers in Spring, we probably spend more time thinking about them than we even realize. And then they make berries!

If looks could taste…

I used to make fun of salmonberries for being so un-delicious: The only reason anyone even thinks about eating you is because blackberries aren’t ripe yet.  

But (again, like a lot of folks) I’ve been walking even more than I usually do, and trying to pay even more attention to things besides the global pandemics of COVID and racism. So I’ve been nibbling salmonberries again, as part of my noticing–and guess what? Turns out if you wait to eat them till they’re so ripe they’re juuuuust about to fall off their thorny ol’ bushes, they’re actually pretty tasty.

So what else merits my noticing, and my thanks?

The tide. Twice a day. EVERY day. Talk about essential work!

I know this isn’t exactly a glam shot, Tide–but this is you your work attire.

And some of the humblest of flowers–look at these ones here, engaging in a socially-distanced Easter bouquet!

C’mon, guys, it’s June, not April. Shouldn’t you be decorating for wedding season?

That’s more like it.

What basic, REGULAR things are you feeling grateful for right now? Postal carriers? Baby birds? Marshmallows on display shelves? Let’s celebrate the regular where we can find it!

“Stand-up Tragedy”: When Coping Mechanisms Become Calls to Action

I’m not a particularly gifted comedian, but comedy plays a big role in the life I’ve made with my Mate. We like to say Jon Stewart pretty much raised our children. I know he got us through the Dubya Bush years, especially after the invasion of Iraq. When the Daily Show theme music came on, we’d yell, “Hey boys, Funny People!” and the boys would come running.

Since the election of 2016, I’ve leaned hard on Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah to remind myself that I’m not the only one who feels like my country’s turning back 100 years. But since the death of George Floyd, like the comedians themselves, I’m finding more solace in bitterness.

Isn’t that a contradiction? No–not when the bitterness is shared, and focused.

This morning’s New York Times article about Richard Pryor, by Jason Zinoman, put it best. After moving on to discuss Pryor’s legacy among Black comics, including SNL’s Michael Che and The Daily Show’s Roy Wood Jr., Zinoman focuses on Dave Chappelle, and coins the perfect phrase:

Over the past few decades, Chappelle has repeatedly made comedy from the pain of police brutality, but what stood out about his recent set was how his typically grave tone didn’t pivot to a joke, how often he let his unfiltered outrage sit there…Chappelle went long stretches without jokes, producing a kind of stand-up tragedy. When he asked what the police officer whose knee was on the neck of George Floyd could be thinking, he spoke with a righteous anger that comedy could not address. There are limits to what a joke can do.

Stand-up tragedy. YES. That is what feeds my soul these days: someone standing up, literally, and calling out what happened and what it means. Here is Trevor Noah, his first workday after the death of Rayshard Brooks:

Trevor isn’t telling me what to do. But when this professional funny person, this man whose impish dimple has brought me so much joy over the past five years, looks me in the eye and speaks his bitter truth, I feel called up. Which is how I want to feel right now.

It’s even more (bizarrely) comforting to hear comedians call other people out–people not like me, whom I wouldn’t have the right to criticize. Here’s Hasan Minhaj, from his show Patriot Act, calling out his fellow immigrants from Asia and the Middle East:

There are some speakers, like Killer Mike and Kimberly Jones, whose words are pure bitterness and zero comedy–no less brilliant and even more gripping–and I’ll probably focus on them another time.

Right now I want to give a huge shout-out to those “Funny People” whose wit and wisdom is fueling me these days–and hopefully you too. Please share others!

‘Nuff Said? We’ll See.

This book is suddenly a national best-seller. My copy’s back-ordered. It’s a start.

Of what? 

“Some people go out in glory

Yeah with the wind at their back

Some get to tell their own story

Write their own epitaph

Sometimes you see it coming

Sometimes you won’t know until

You’re out of breath

With a knee on your neck

For a $20 bill.”                          –Tom Prasado-Rao

 

Friends–let’s do the hard work, whatever’s ours to do.

White, Horrified and Helpless: Six Ways to Find Your Direction

Let’s say you’re White. Let’s say you’re not in close touch with many People of Color. Let’s say the reality of being Black in America is coming home to you in a deeper way than it ever has. Let’s say you are feeling ready to do more than just feel bad, attend a demonstration or write a check. Let’s say you are wondering where to start.

That was me, following the election of 2016. From what I’m hearing and seeing on social media, it’s a lot more people now. If it’s you, please keep reading.

Since struggling in the winter of 2016-17, I’ve begun to find some direction, some guidance. I would like to share it here.

  1. First, rip off your emotional blinders. Read Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

    This book is soul-changing.

  2. Learn the history you never knew you needed to know: Wherever you can fit it into your day, listen to episodes of the podcast “Seeing White” by John Boewin, with special guest Chenjeria Kumanyika.
  3. Get personal with that history. Read The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.

    Better yet, read it with a friend.

  4. Turn the lens on yourself. Read Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility or Debbie Irving’s Waking Up White. Or both.

    Start a book group.

  5. Reach out. Investigate groups you may have never heard of, like Color of Change. What work are they doing? Do you want to support it, and if so, how? Watch Netflix shows like “Dear White People” or “BlackAF”–they’ll make you laugh while your mind is expanding. Read People of Color. Listen to People of Color. Think about what you’ve never thought about. Think about where this country has an opportunity to go.
  6. Get involved with a group like VoteForward or Common Purpose to defeat Donald Trump. While we find a way to move forward, we have to keep our country from sliding further backward. How can you help?

    Racism is like COVID, or cancer. If you can’t study it and talk about it, you can’t cure it.

You know and I know, it is no longer possible just to dislike racism. We are either doing anti-racist work–starting with ourselves–or we are permitting racism to hold its grip. Please add your own suggestions here for what people like you, like me, or ANY people can do.

May…We Be Evergreen!

Around here–and probably around anywhere in the Northern hemisphere not covered with asphalt–May means wildflowers. Yes, like that childhood riddle, except that here May’s bringing more showers than April. My walks lately have been interrupted by…

Sea pinks

and

Larkspur (with Death Camas)

not to mention

Spotted Coralroot orchid, in its own ray of sunshine

Oh–and the salmonberries!

Not as delicious as you’d hope–but who cares?

But this month I also love to notice and give praise to a subtler kind of new growth…the kind that puts BOTH the “ever” and the “green” into “Evergreen State.” I’m talking about the fresh, new tips of our conifers. Now, pine trees make you suffer all sorts of pollen-clouds to get up close and personal with their newborn bits, but firs? Fir tips you can fondle.

Softer than you can imagine! (Also edible to more than just deer, though some might dispute the idea)

And hemlocks…well, their tips are just an adorable mini version of the firs.

Awwww…!

Not to forget our non-coniferous evergreens: the noble salal. You might focus on their honey-sweet, bell-shaped blossoms…but I’m looking at the bright, baby-soft new leaves.

Aren’t they sweet? Stop looking at the flowers.

Of course no forest looks truly LOTR-fantastical without ferns of some kind, or all kinds. The type we have around here don’t start as fiddleheads (thereby saving themselves from human over-consumption), but they do stand out–if not UP–as cutely floppy, gawky adolescents:

“Let’s be fronds.”

The most amazing new bit of green May growth to my mind, though, is one of the least visible: the mosses. On today’s walk, I was noticing one of my favorites turning slightly more golden, thinking, “Yeah, almost midsummer, time for these beauties to be dying back,” when I looked closer, and–whoa. Check this out:

Rated “M” for Mature

Fruiting thimgamagigs! Right out there for all to see, shameless! Gorgeous! Fresh! New! Woohoo!

Gimme an “E”! “V”! another “E”! “R”! Gimme a “G”! another “R”…!

OK, you get it. MAY we be green. MAY we be evergreen. MAY we be happy. 

 

“Living and Dying Without a Map”: Companionship for People Suddenly Rocketed to Planet Cancer

I have never had cancer, and neither has any close member of my family, other than my grandfather who died when my father was still a child. So I don’t know. But I imagine a diagnosis of terminal cancer, for oneself or one’s dearest, to feel like being yanked away to a unknown world on the dark side of the moon–a planet which healthy people don’t think about enough to realize they’re not thinking about it.

So I wouldn’t normally be drawn to a book titled Living and Dying Without a Map: One Family’s Journey Through the World of Glioblastoma, despite the hauntingly lush black-and-white photo on its cover. I only chose this book because I knew the author, and I thought I knew the story.

Nancy Ewert, a long-time Lopez Islander, is also one of the founders of the Quaker Meeting here which I attend. And my very first day attending, the month we moved here–August of 2010–I walked into a Meeting focused on support for the Ewert family. Nancy and her husband Greg and their three nearly-adult daughters were still reeling that day from Greg’s shockingly sudden diagnosis of brain cancer at the age of 61.

Greg–a beloved teacher at our island’s middle school–was given a year to live. He lived for two. And I watched, humbled, from the sidelines as this family that represented the very core of our island community struggled to reshape its life on Planet Cancer.

Photo by Greg Ewert. The man was, among other things, a hell of a photographer.

There are many cancer books out there. I cannot speak to how they compare to this one. All I know is, Nancy’s book is one of the rawest, truest forms of memoir I’ve ever encountered, and here’s why: it is composed entirely of journal entries. And almost entirely from those two intense years.

God bless Caringbridge. Greg Ewert’s brain tumor introduced me to the website, whose founders envision “a world where no one goes through a health journey alone.”  I’ve become more familiar with it since 2010, through the health challenges of other friends. In this book, Nancy’s and Greg’s Caringbridge postings become the main narrative vehicle, carrying us along on their story now as much as they did almost ten years ago.

But these sections are interspersed, even more intimately, with entries from Nancy’s personal journal  at the time. I can’t imagine the guts that took.

Nancy’s first Caringbridge post in the book begins, “Greg has been diagnosed with a brain tumor. It is shocking, terrifying and sad for all of us.”

But her first personal journal entry reads, “Oh God, Greg has a brain tumor. How can I even write these words?”

Catch the difference in tone? Ripping that curtain aside, allowing readers into that personal, personal shock and pain–THAT is what makes this book different. Like being ushered from the waiting room straight into the ICU.

Nancy shares her exhaustion. Her anguish at being so needed by husband and daughters and family and friends that nothing is left for her own emotional needs. Her anger at having to explain why she’s even feeling angry. Gratitude, yes, plenty–but also pure seething confusion. These entries lay it all out there–sometimes very, very admirable, sometimes–whoa! Honest! And REAL.

And even though I’ve never lived on Planet Cancer, if and when I have to? These are the words I’d turn to–not for comfort, but for company in my fearful despair. Which, I suppose, may be a kind of comfort after all.

Greg’s Caringbridge entries form another part of the story’s arc–an insider view, obviously. His first one reads:

Only one week ago our family vacation was rudely interrupted by a trip to the urgent care facility because I was having difficulty forming my words–not like me!

Over the course of the next nearly two years, until Greg finally had to switch to dictation and then stopped writing during those last weeks, he shares his outrage at having his future ripped away; his wry-but-fierce personification of his tumor (“B.T.”) and his strong, humbled, grateful spirit (“the Griz”). He shares the deepening of his gratitude for his family and loved ones and community to a point impossible to describe without maybe imagining of the lyrics of “Amazing Grace.” He shares humor, and–

oh, I thought while reading, how unfair that I only got to meet this man after he’d been given a year to live!

But then…how much more of a gift is this book, bringing him to life for people who never got to meet him, or travel to Lopez Island, but are trapped on Planet Cancer and looking desperately for someone to please, please just hold their hand?

If you or a loved one have had to make that journey–Nancy Ewert’s book will hold your hand as you walk in the darkness.

 

Virtual Flowers For Mother’s Day: Inspirational Chutzpah That Would Make Mom Proud

The last time I was able to venture off my beautiful island, I was lucky enough to catch the Skagit Valley tulips at full bloom, only 15 miles from the ferry terminal.

A FIELD of FLOWERS? It really is exactly as beautiful as you’d think.

Then this morning I felt equally lucky to catch this article by Kirk Johnson in the New York Times about those very fields, and a group of old high school friends who had teamed up to go into the flower business…just in time to get slammed by the Coronavirus.

As Johnson writes,

The annual tulip festival that draws hundreds of thousands of people north of Seattle to Skagit County, where three-quarters of the nation’s commercial tulip crop is grown, was canceled. And that put every other element of the tulip economy into free fall as well: No festival visitors paying to stroll through the blossoms and no money spent on restaurants, hotel stays, bouquets and bulbs for growing at home — a $65 million hit to the local economy that only compounded the economic blows of the state’s shelter-in-place orders.

Faced with the prospect of losing 90% of their revenue, Johnson writes, the five bulb-farmers, once cheerleaders and “yell squad” teammates from Mt. Vernon High, had to innovate, and their courage paid off.

Phone calls started coming in from people who were not going to be able to come in person to visit, said Rachael Ward Sparwasser, whose journey went from cheer squad to lawyer and investor to tulip partner. “Would you be willing to ship blossoms?” the callers asked. The old business model had mostly involved shipping bulbs to gardeners, not fresh bouquets.

Their company had 600 shipping boxes in storage, and Ms. Sparwasser figured they might get orders to send 100 or 200 boxes, 20 stems each.

“Within the first day, we sold through all of it,” she said. Within weeks, they boxed and sold 8,000 bouquets, a completely new business line started from scratch.

Then, as a wave of appreciation grew around the country for health care workers and others at the front lines of the virus, the idea struck that people might pay to have a bouquet of tulips sent as a donation and statement of support. So came their new Color for Courage business line — and more than 4,700 more orders at $15 a bouquet.

Glory be.

Could there be a better story for these times? No, it doesn’t have to do with Mother’s Day directly, but this kind of sharing and make-do innovation, this pivot from disaster to generosity, seems perfect for the day. These folks’ moms should be proud. It brought a smile to my face as bright as any colorful bouquet would have done.

Happy Mother’s Day to all, and to all a big bunch of colorful love!