Connection in a Disconnected World

Connection in a Disconnected World

It’s COVID19 time and we are often on our phones and computers yearning for CONNECTION IN A DISCONNECTED WORLD. We are watching videos and messaging. We are getting updates on the news, and even better we are finding new recipes, jokes, photos to share–all those things being about connection. We humans can only live and thrive if we have that.

But here’s the question, were we disconnected before the virus? Has the virus created ANY upside as each day brings us deeper into this? My answer would be yes, there is an upside, but it only happens if we can get out of our way, if we escape OUR WORLD and open ourselves to someone else’s. And there’s a word that describes that action. Can you guess what the word is?

SO THIS MORNING…I read this: 

AT 5 A.M. I watched my mother being buried. I was in my living room, the event capatured on Face Time by my niece from her car as if she were on safari.

When the cemetery workers took their tools and walked away…ten masked members of my family—the legal limit—came out of their cars…and positioned themselves eight feet apart…I could scarcely identify them…After about 15 minutes they all retreated back to their cars…I saw it all unfold on my phone as if I were a voyeur. The same phone I use to send inane texts with emoji at the end…When it was over, meaning when I got disconnected (as I had been all along) I was still in my pajamas…

I cried reading that. I felt human, I felt connected to this daughter losing her mother. READING DISCOVERS CONNECTION IN A DISCONNECTED WORLD. This morning reading did that for me. Film does that too. Especially when a film makes you cry. You feel human. Your tears are washing you in your humanity.


Crying is good. Do our leaders cry? I know our nurses and doctors do. I’ve watched them cry on TV. I’ve seen their unspeakable sadness. But here’s a question: do some people pick a profession so that they can sit behind a big desk, making big decisions that eventually control what others can and cannot do? Does it help them stay away from thinking about others?

(Sure, there are good people in all professions. And they do have those big desks.) But instead of just checking a box to vote for someone: I WISH I COULD KNOW THEIR PERSONAL EXPECTATION AND OBJECTIVES. I wish I could trust that they won’t lie to me, that’s not all about power. That they have a soul.

Do the nurses and doctors have power during COVID 19?  Yes, a lot, if “pronouncing” is power. But the very fact that our government is guilty of limiting their professional protective equipment, their PPE, is a way of saying: You aren’t as important or as powerful as you think. You are basically handmaidens and handmaidens only serve others. Well, MR. ROGERS WOULD CALL THEM “THE HELPERS”…

But that’s it, isn’t it. We are living in a time when we totally rely on people who help and serve others. But we are living in a time with a government that looks down on people who help and serve others. Damn.

Is there an upside? We have to find one. The only answer I can ever find is that word I’m constantly writing about, even harping about, the one I alluded to at the beginning of this post: EMPATHY!!


Why are some people able to withstand the current quarantine and others are just wild and YOU WON’T TELL ME WHAT TO DO angry.   WHY IS THAT?   If you have an answer for me, please share it. 

P.S. Sometimes I just search the net and find: “Sweet Home Chicago” Or “I-I’m so-o in love with you…”  and I watch him up on some stage singing. Again I cry. Then tell myself: we’ll have someone like him again. This too shall pass. 

Thanks to the LA TIMES and to Casey Cohen for sharing her story. Her mother died on April 17 of complications from COVID 19.

Artwork: PHOTO CREDIT: art work, Edvard Munch  The Dance of Life

We Live in a Vulnerable Time: How to Cope

We Live in a Vulnerable Time: How to Cope

When Oprah Winfrey talked recently with Michelle Obama, they covered many topics. They concluded that whether we are lonely because of losing family, or vulnerable because of losing strong connections, or feeling low or near to depression, we must remember that it’s easy to go low, to make people feel afraid and much more challenging to go high and survive.

We often gravitate toward vulnerability, and yet it requires more energy and thoughtful thinking to pull folks together and to believe in the positives.

Obama: “It’s easy to make people feel afraid. But we should not seek revenge…but think long term. Public figures have a responsibly as to what we say to young people. I tell them: walk your own walk. Values define us…You can’t quit when it’s hard.”

Which made me think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his radio “fireside chats.” It was the Great Depression, and the 32nd president needed to send a positive message to his people. Using his voice, he quelled rumors, explained his policies. His reassuring tone helped allay fears, dispel despair and uncertainty, give his citizens the faith they needed to keep going. Such actions made FDR one of our most successful presidents.

As Michelle Obama often points out, it’s relatively easy to make people feel afraid. It’s a challenge for a leader of the country, for the head of a family, for the owner of a business to honor the emotions of people who rely on them, but also to inspire them to look ahead, believe that things will right themselves. When you can do that, you are truly being a leader, a good parent, an amazing boss.

Michelle Obama stresses that we are responsible for our own happiness, because it comes from within. She emphatically states that: It’s your journey, you define your own happiness and you walk your own walk. Now that she is fifty-six, she realizes even more that we are not machines, health problems will occur and we can no longer look like we’re twenty!

“You all just have the same lips,” she cracks, referring to enhancements that many crave. And then she says: “Don’t make that your goal. I remember feeling self-doubt when someone criticized the size of my butt. I was angry. I’m a black woman in America. But we all have baggage and self-doubts. So I tell myself: CHANGE THAT RECORDING IN YOUR HEAD.”


Now that she is no longer First Lady, Michelle lives a quieter life which she relishes–she and Barack and their dogs Bo and Sunny the only ones at the dinner table (she jokes). Then she describes her PERFECT DAY: “I don’t cook. I tune out the world. I read or watch good television.”

And if she is out in the world–a good day would be the opportunity to make “other people feel seen.” Her best goal is to: “Shine a light on some young woman.”

During her conversation with Oprah, Michelle spoke of having Stephen Colbert as a dinner-mate at the White House. They agreed that empathy is about making others feel seen, hearing their stories, standing in their shoes.

Michelle achieved a great deal during her time in the White House, working to help the families of veterans and all military families. Her work with nutrition, the White House garden and making sure that schools provided nutritious meals for growing bodies were all part of her outreach in helping others.


Though she might talk light-heartedly about her time in the White House, she will also say flat out that it was an honor for her to server in her role of First Lady. In her words, she explained: “My life must mean something to someone else.”

Michelle Obama has many amazing qualities–but she truly GETS IT, stating that she wants to be an empathetic person. Michelle worries about those who don’t have what they need for a full life. And because our young people, the next generation, will be our leaders, she wants to give them everything they will need, wants to empower them with honesty, empathy and compassion. She also mentioned awareness so that they can walk their own pathway, but with truth.


It’s a tough question. We have a lot on our plates right now. Some of us more than others. But if we can remember to use understanding, to seek the truth and to offer love and care when we can, we will be making our society better in this vulnerable time.

Also remember: smile, but don’t shake hands; talk kindly and when you’re out in the public square where you might have to open a door, hold on to a railing-Don’t touch your face! Stay safe, stay healthy.

Photo: Politico





You remember things. I was in our dining room, it was evening, the shades pulled down, the newspaper on the dining room table. I picked up the front section, began to read a column. I can’t remember who the columnist was or if I had ever read this person’s work before. But there it was: In Nazi Germany there were Jewish men forced to sit on the city’s busy sidewalks with signs around their necks: I RAPE GERMAN WOMEN.

I was in grade school, probably in fifth or sixth grade. I considered myself smart. But I had no idea what that meant. What was rape? And what happened next is not clear in my memory. I did ask my mother when she came into the dining room, “What is rape.” And she must have answered, but I can’t remember what she said, and so it must have been vague, like “a way to hurt a woman.” I don’t fault her. The question came out of nowhere and my younger brother was in the room. And is was dinnertime and she was on her schedule! 

But in that moment, my brain knew to store the event. But why?


As a writer, I have lived other such moments. As a writer, they appear in my fiction. They light up the thought processes of my characters. My personal experience lives on the page in an attempt to illuminate the human process of wonder, of questioning. And whether it’s a female or a male, I want to reach out to my reader who also grew to adulthood through experiences, maybe like mine, whose life is filled with moments of learning, realizing—a kind of growth that is often shocking, full of fear or at the very least hard to believe or to understand. And sometimes, truly hard to picture.


I have been safe, and always attempted to keep my children safe. I have also been drawn to events that make me cringe for a child, a young girl or boy—like the story in the film, ROOM, which is based on a book by Emma Donoghue who probably read about real cases, one a well-known California case–but the girl was forced to bear more than one child. Fiction from reality. And there are many more. But that moment in my childhood stayed with me, and like Emma Donoghue, reappears in my work-in-progress.


Being a child without a father, living in a house without a man and a woman to show me the way, this also happened. I was at a friend’s house, the father came home from work and grabbed and kissed my friend’s mother. Was that rape? Of course not, but I quickly said goodbye to my friend and went home. I didn’t feel I should be there. I didn’t understand. 

In my novel, I have my character use a dictionary to look up the word instead of asking her cold and distant mother. She reads: Rape: sexual intercourse carried out forcibly or under threat of injury. 

Sex. Intercourse. Sex—this only raises more questions. My character gets lost in the dictionary. But after a time when it is all too confusing, she concludes: Was that why the boys tried to lift the girls’ skirts? 


I just finished reading a novel HARRY’S TREES, by Jon Cohen. His tale springs from one basic idea that I’m sure emanated from his childhood: “When you climb a tree, the first thing you do is hold on tight.”

The character must, because his wife, the love of his life, is killed in a freak accident in the first chapter. We never really get to know her, but that’s not the point. And though there is an awful lot about trees and caring for trees and loving trees in this novel, what the author truly wants to say when his wife dies and his brother tries to cheat him, and he then falls in love with a woman whose husband died from another freak accident, is that IN LIFE, WE MUST HOLD ON TIGHT.

Again, as a writer, I believe this is what fiction can be about. Yes, many read to get lost, to imagine. Who doesn’t love a good LOVE STORY. But there is also that touchstone: I experienced that. Yes, that’s like MY LIFE.

Or it could be the exact opposite, “My life is so boring and normal that I escape into the horrors, escapades, crazy events in the life of others.”

Whatever your reason for reading novels, watching films, diving into STORY, in the end, we all become better at understanding others. And in this New Year, when you are dealing with happiness or sorrow, when you are challenged through work or family or your daily choices, PLEASE HOLD ON TIGHT. PLEASE HELP THOSE AROUND YOU LEARN. There is no better resolution to make–right now, IN THE MOMENT.  

ART: Thanks to Kathy Lynn Goldbach Ticking Clock Paintings, Fine Art America


Love in the Time of Trump

My mother (Jinni) always told us the truth. Widowed in her 30’s with three kids under six, she had to do it all—teach, discipline, love, guide. We learned to honor every word she said. We trusted her.

But what about Santa Claus? We believed in him because Jinni believed in magic. Was that lying? No. She was simply allowing us to live some dreams—the tooth fairy, Santa. But because we trusted her, knew she would never abandon us—this childhood magic was logical. IT FELT RIGHT.

And consider this: the three of us knew about death. It lived with us in the form of a photo of our father—ever-present in our living room. Friends, cousins—they all had fathers. We did not. But we had Jinni.

If she got angry or cried ( she was human) or revealed that yes she was the tooth fairy—we accepted that. Jinni was home, life, security. Jinni was truth.


And we did walk out our front door to encounter the world: how our friends and neighbors lived, that they had fathers, dogs, newer cars; that some had country club memberships and took vacations. WE READ. We read non-fiction and fiction. Reading provided a pathway to learn about the world. Snug in the corner of the couch, I could explore places beyond my house on Wood Street.

So a question: have you, READER, and many others been gob-smacked by learning how others lived: in an apartment in New York City with a nanny to care for them, their parents spending months abroad; in a trailer in South Dakota where food is scare and education the only way to get away; on a farm in Iowa or Alabama where even in the 60’s, 70’s, outhouses were plumbing and going to school meant getting farm chores done between 5 and 6 before a long school bus ride; or in a large home on Lake Michigan in Lake Forest, Illinois, with a chauffeur who drove you to school.

We weren’t all raised on Elm Street or Main Street. But because of READING, and often because of excellent elementary and secondary teachers, our world opened up. How did that affect me, my brothers, all of us? Back to Jinni.


Because of Jinni and extended family: teachers, the neighborhood—we knew we were being given real, actual truthful information. We saw that we were fortunate, that we were BLESSED even though we didn’t have some things that others had.

Michelle Obama in her recent biography BECOMING writes fervently that she grew to understand the world outside of South Shore (in Chicago) because truth was always spoken within the walls of her home. Some of her cousins didn’t open their arms as freely to that world as Michelle, whose mother always inspired her to move forward, to believe in herself, to aspire to whatever she wanted to be despite the negatives she did encounter. How to BECOME? Seek goals, work hard, open mind and soul to LIFE IN THIS WORLD.

BELIEVE IN: the truth will set you free, which can have a major basis in society. Because when someone lies to you, doesn’t tell you the STRAIGHT STORY, confusion will reign. You will begin to mistrust, to feel hurt.

  1. How many of you have had an employer promise you a raise or better position only to skip over you; or a coach making you believe you’ll be shortstop when you find yourself on the bench.
  2. Of course, the worst scenario we have seen in recent years is the innocent boy or girl student who trusts an adult teacher, leader or priest only to have that person sexually abuse them. THERE IS NO TRUTH IN THAT. Children and young adults have been made to distrust EVERYONE after such an experience. They are then chained. They are not set free.

The latter did not happen to me. I was again fortunate. All of us have had some disappointments that stem from beliefs that we will rise to the top. That’s part of life. But it should not be all of life in our free society. I believe in continuing to have goals and to always believe in MY BECOMING.


It’s when SOCIETY accepts the liar, promotes the liar, the abuser, the cheater, that little by little we all lose hope. It’s like JINNI (truth) has abandoned us, run off with some guy. left us alone, tipped our world upside down.

Okay, now I’m using JINNI as a metaphor. But what I’m saying is that in our country today we are being LIED TO, and many of our dreams are being messed with. Little by little we are being abandoned by our government. DON’T LIE TO ME. DON’T CHEAT ON ME. DON’T TAKE AWAY WHAT I HAD: healthcare, my voting rights, my right to own a home, to have a steady income that can feed my family. DON’T LIE TO ME.


So if your life reflects some of these changes, what do we do?

  • The only cure is love and empathy.
  • It’s recapturing basic values and trust.
  • It’s pulling in those you love in a tight embrace.
  • It’s telling the truth and teaching that truth to your children and grandchildren.
  • It’s having close conversations with your friends, with your neighbors.
  • And if those neighbors have sought the other side, if they’ve bought into the lies and are still clinging to the purveyor of those lies, it’s giving even more of your own kindness. MAKING THAT YOUR TRUTH.

FINAL THOUGHTS…I’m not messing around here. These are critical times. My husband and I agree, thank God, on what is happening. We are in love. Yet each one of us needs to spread that love to others, reclaim a time when we were not so divided, when good things like education, libraries, Special Olympics and healthcare were not taken away or diminished and only allowed to a few.



I know I say this over and over, but when on Twitter some other crazy is yelling and swearing at a minority “Just for fun”–that has to stop. Elm Street might be more diversified, but it’s still the place I want to live. RIGHT NOW! 

Thanks to PINTEREST Katie Slaby Artwork

Game-Changer: My Nursing Rotation at Oak Forest

My Nursing Rotation at a County Hospital

It was early morning at the county hospital. I was in my first patient’s bathroom, measuring his urine output. He was a comatose patient, part of his head blown away by a gunshot, his body curled in upon itself with contractures, as bodies do when they no longer work in the world. They seek a smaller space, hunger for the womb.

My body was tense, moving quickly, though not always deftly, to care for this man who breathed with the aid of a machine, a man among many in the ventilator unit at the county facility–Oak Forest Hospital, in Illinois. Caring for these patients and others would be my job for this six week rotation. I was in nursing school. Everything I experienced would have consequences.


My stomach cramped each morning as I pulled on white pants, shirt and my student smock. I arrived at my son’s sitter early—a reflex I couldn’t explain. Maybe this rotation held echoes of those fear-filled dreams when your legs won’t work and you can’t run up a hill or walk down a street. Because when I parked my car each day for this six week period, I wasn’t sure I would make it into the building.


The maze of hallways and equally confusing basement corridors revealed the hospital’s original purpose as a U.S. Army Base, and later a place to house the poor and mentally ill of Chicago. Health care in those early years was custodial at best–and many of the patients ended their stay in a monument-free potter’s field behind the thick-walled buildings. Now it was a county medical facility whose reputation had changed, I hoped,  for the better.


In high school I joined an organization whose Sunday project was to wheel Oak Forest patients to the chapel. I knew little of hospitals, but I signed on. I was sixteen and in the end a complete failure.

The hallways echoed with footfalls and the cries of people in pain or people just needing to cast their voices into the air–hoping for something—a few words from another human who would come to their lonely rooms. That one morning that I went, a feeble woman collapsed against me, her cane clattering to the floor. I grabbed at her, feeling her boney arms and chest. She wore the same blue and green floral bathrobe that hung in my closet. I never went back. I wrote about the visit in Creative Writing class and for an hour my reaction, which was not a good one, was discussed.


In my patient’s bathroom, I looked up and saw my face in the mirror above the sink. My forty-five year old face. Pale skin, hair disheveled, my eyes staring. I said aloud, What am I doing here? Why had I chosen this as a second career? I loved nursing school. But this? Maybe I wanted an answer that would allow me to wash my hands and walk out of the room. I could escape to my car where with windows down, I would drive out of the endless parking lot, blast my radio, look up at the budding trees in the true-blue sky.  Really, what was I doing here?


I rinsed the bedpan. At that time, I had two amazing daughters, one in high school, the other in college. I had a loving husband who worked long hours for us in an office in the city. And I had my son, born when I was 42, a longed-for child. Why was I leaving him with a sitter to plunge myself into the intricacies of anatomy and physiology, to memorize the Krebs cycle and the bones in the body, to understand the workings of each human organ?  Would I truly remember the myriad pathologies I was being exposed to and the medications and protocols used to cure them?

I must. Medicine had become an obsession which had its roots in my father’s death, the most logical explanation I could find. He died of a myocardial infarction, better known as a heart attack, when I was three. As I grew, I plagued my mother with questions trying to understand why he left me.

Coronary artery disease brought on by genetics, stress and a high cholesterol diet—eventually those were my conclusions. Some logic entered my life when the pieces of such an overpowering puzzle began to fit. But it wasn’t enough. Something pushed from inside me—a yearning that might also help me care for the greatest gift each of us possesses—our own human body.

For me it was always more than brush your teeth if you want to keep them; eat carrots to help your eyes; wear sun block. A psychologist might analyze my present career choice and accuse me of trying to trade the sorrow of my father’s loss for some control over my own life. That person might be on track.


But in that patient bathroom my goals were illusive and shaky–because there was a square of sunshine falling on the wooden floor in my family room. I could almost feel its warmth, see my garden beyond, the daffodils shaking their bright heads, the grass welcoming us as my son and I ran through the yard laughing about lunch under the apple tree.

Did my patient in the next room still have some amazing pictures of his past life floating around? A woman he had loved, her hair dancing around her face. Maybe a stream where he fished with a friend. Could that portion of his brain that still made his heart pump and his blood perfuse his organs, could it give him something besides unconsciousness and contractures and a look on his face that wasn’t about peace yet wasn’t about anger either?


You don’t learn about death in nursing school. Surely you’re able to list the things that cause the human body to give up—fluid filling the lungs, heart muscle dying. Merely words.

In the hospital, at Oak Forest, I came face to face with death, saw its relentless grip. On a different day, I was assigned to an elderly woman whose chart predicted she could die on my shift. I monitored her vitals and breathing. I knew what to do if she did die, physical things—wash the body, wrap it. I remembered lectures about the importance of kindness toward family members as they witness a loved one die. But this woman had no one. And death hovered.


On another day, Ronnie was my patient. His chart read: Twenty-two year old black male, gunshot wound to C-2, quadriplegia. When I stood by his bedside he was groggy from a drugged sleep. Then he opened his eyes, looked at me and something like a jolting pain momentarily flashed across his face. It wasn’t physical pain but the pain of awareness and remembering on awakening. He could only move his head.

He forced a smile, then fought the ventilator tube, riding breaths to get his message out— “Nice, nice. They like me here, see. They send you. Ronnie gets what he wants.” Snappy and cool, setting the limits the way he saw them. Giving him some control, because he had none over any other part of his life experience.


I fumbled for the notes in my pocket—the report given to me by my nursing teacher when my shift started. Those few scribbled words described my patient, the man, the life I was caring for.

He had me. But again, as far as I knew as I stood there and smiled at him–that was all he had. I had a family. I had power over my arms and legs. I could enter nursing school in my forties and learn about the filtering capabilities of the kidney, the powerful functions of the brain. I could plant a garden, make love to my husband, enjoy a glass of wine. I could turn from my tired face in the mirror and complete my duties for this man—bathe him, push nutrients through his stomach tube, talk to him.


During that rotation on the ventilator unit at Oak Forest Hospital, I learned about living. Because of those few hours of caring for Ronnie and and others at Oak Forest, and the years beyond when I would continue to love and help people as a nurse and as a person living in the world, my life moved forward not backward.

I came to realize that I’d graduated from running away at 16, to embracing during those difficult days, a life that would make me a better mother to my baby son–a better person overall. You could call it a landmark experience that would color and affect all the others. For I was able to undo a past failure, to steady and tighten a loose bolt in the foundation of my character. Each of us has such a day in our living. We only need to search for it and hold on to it.

I no longer looked in the bathroom mirrors at the hospital and questioned myself. I came to know what I was doing there. My patients had me and I had them. They relied on me and I stayed and helped them and in doing so, I helped myself.

Thanks for reading. For some of you, this has appeared on Boomer Highway before.


October Thoughts, Change: Juan Romero and Sarah Smarsh

 October Thoughts, Change: Juan Romero and Sarah Smarsh

Change resides within us. We are protoplasm in constant change. And when we meditate on the word we often have mixed feelings–a child growing taller, a college student finally passing a worrisome class, a new job, a new house, marriage–change, a moving forward. But the other side of the change-coin can be connected to loss. Change doesn’t always have to be about death, but it is about the need for adjustment, for possibly “seeing” our lives in a light not as bright and exciting as youth, but possibly a softer, calmer light. But we are all constantly, though at different rates, experiencing change.

I need to cling to the positives about change today. To have hope that empathy will fall on people’s shoulders like the leaves that are beginning to let go. We all need to let some things go–fear and anger, and our inability to listen.


Juan Romero has died. He was 68. Twice I wrote about the busboy whose life was profoundly changed on the night of June 5th when Robert F. Kennedy was shot in the Ambassador Hotel. Kennedy was walking through the kitchen, only to be felled by an assassin’s bullet. Juan Romero, who wanted to shake Kennedy’s hand, became the person who knelt and held the dying man’s bleeding head. “I wanted to protect his head from the cold concrete,” Romero told Steve Lopez a reporter for the LA TIMES. Lopez kept in touch with Romero, an update he reported on this past June 3, 2018, revealed the night still haunted Romero. He told Lopez: “I want to go back to Arlington Cemetery and just say ‘Hi’ and explain that everything is going good and I’m grateful for his involvement in my life and that I will always respect his effort for social justice. And to say that …I’m sorry I couldn’t do more for him.” Romero did marry, have children and later divorced. He often left flowers at a monument in a downtown San Jose park that honored Kennedy.

Maria Shriver, former first lady of California and niece of RFK, said she had wanted to send a thank you note to Romero. “I always felt a great deal of empathy for him…because of how difficult it was for him to move past that. So God bless him. It’s hard to know why someone gets put into a situation that they’re locked in forever. But as I see it, he was locked into an image of helping someone.” It was poignant that Ms. Shriver used the word empathy. In my mind, Romero’s name and Kennedy’s will be forever linked.

HEARTLAND: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth

The author of this new book is Sarah Smarsh, a journalist who grew up in rural Kansas. She stated emphatically: “The American Dream has a pice tag on it. The poorer you are the higher the price.”

Growing up, Sarah endured the direct effects of a wide range of economic policies: farm subsides, banking deregulation and education cutbacks. Smarsh writes: “If you live in a house that needs shingles, you will attend a school that needs books.” Smarsh does not invoke the term “white trash” as a badge of honor. She questions her own “whiteness” and also rejects the term “white working class” as divisive and harmful. She explains the racist implication of government aid programs. She won’t let us look away from the unconscious biases that separate people of color from the very idea of opportunity. Some of her ideas and statements:

  • Our society “imbues whiteness with power…using it as shorthand for economic stability.”
  • Our economy is designed around the idea that whites aren’t supposed to live the way we force black and brown people to live, thus identifying “white trash” as a separate class means they received disproportionate visibility, over and above what we give to nonwhites facing the same (and worse) economic hardship.
  • When our society erases the needs of communities of color, that glorifies white poverty and exacerbates the oppression of others.
  • Smarsh is not interested in the pity of elite leftists who might label her “needy.”
  • Smarsh states plainly that the conflicting lesson of poverty is that “society’s contempt for the poor becomes the poor person’s contempt for herself.”

Reviewer Leah Hampton in the LA TIMES writes: You may think you have read this book before. You haven’t. This is not THE GRAPES OF WRATH or HILLBILLY ELEGY…This is a tough, no nonsense truth, and telling it hard…and refers to “wasted generations believing in ‘trickle down’ economics, leaving us standing outside with our mouths open praying for money to rain.”

But in HEARTLAND you will find a recounting of “deep progressive roots” in Smarsh’s community, where women’s rights, abolition and pro-labor sentiments shaped her story. Identifying with the legacy of women’s suffrage, Smarsh put herself through college and her education led her to a political awakening and a career in journalism.


Leah Hampton, the women who reviewed HEARTLAND, has the same background as Smarsh and some potent advice for us:

At a time of national reckoning about endemic misogyny, HEARTLAND does some serious feminist consciousness raising…rural voters might be the very group that halts our country’s slide to the right. There is rich soil in America’s fly-over states, and if we follow Smarsh’s path, we will find families like mine and the author’s, full of sensible, resilient women who many be disenfranchised, but who are also uniquely poised and equipped to aid in the revolution , and in our collective liberation. 


Speaking Out Through Art

Speaking Out Through Art

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Few of us ever enjoy going to a wake or a funeral. No matter your religious persuasion or that you might not have one, standing before sorrowing people who have lost a parent, child, husband, wife, best friend is never easy. What to say? Or it could be you standing there, greeting people, feeling terrible loss. But we are meant to communicate about our feelings when we soar with good news or when we crash with bad.

My mother was brave at wakes. She always found time to hold the hands of the grieving, to share words of encouragement. Her actions leapt from her own loss of my father when she was young and had children to raise. BRAVE. That’s what she was, always speaking to those grieving, raising it to a kind of art form.


Being brave almost always requires that we step out of our own protective shells and say something. Make a point. Often the receiver of the words or the reader of the book or viewer of the art–is taken aback. Shocked. But as moments pass, understanding can form. We all share one thing: our human bodies, alike in so many ways; our human nature, propensity to laughter and sorrow. There isn’t one of us on earth that doesn’t understand physical and psychic pain. YES, there are many degrees. But with empathy, we can go to the deepest depths, even if we have been favored with a life that did not bring us horrible pain or mental desperation.


One other thing we might say about humanity is that it likes to forget. That’s why wars continue to plague our planet. But during such times ART rises up. People create. After every war there are nonfiction and fiction books, poetry and visual arts in its many forms awakening the world AGAIN, to the horrors of war. And in our culture today, we have museums to help us remember.

These buildings become hallowed and sacred ground as they present the stories of the dead and those that survived. All the lives of humans on this earth have a story. And so if you walk through the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., you remember, even if you didn’t live during that time but only read about it. History teaches. So does art. The presentation of a real railroad car used by the Nazis has power. So do all forms of art that shake us, remind us. The power might be quieter, but it is there.


Washington D.C. is memorial city. There’s the Viet Nam and Korean War Memorials; the Martin Luther King and Franklin Roosevelt Memorials. These shine alongside the Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson and World War II memorials. (I’m sure I’m forgetting some!)

And now there are even more. The National Museum for Peace and Justice recently opened in Montgomery, Alabama. Attorney Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, is credited with its creation. Quoting here from an article by Larry Bleiberg: “The six-acre outdoor memorial features 800 weathered rectangular steel boxes hanging beneath an open canopy. Each box represents a county or jurisdiction with a documented lynching between 1877 and 1950 and lists the names of largely forgotten victims in each county, such as Henry Smith of Lamar County, Texas, who was accused of killing a white girl, and then tortured with hot irons and set on fire in front of a crowd of 10,000 in 1893.There’s also Elizabeth Lawrence, lynched in Jefferson County, Ala., in 1933 after scolding children for throwing rocks. And thousands more.The information comes from the Equal Justice Initiative’s multiyear study that documented more than 4,000 lynchings, which the researchers call racial terror killings.”


  • victims were usually grabbed by mobs, hung or drowned;
  • hawkers sold refreshments
  • gawkers claimed sections of clothing or body parts
  • often postcards were printed


As you enter, the steel boxes at first hang at eye level. But as you proceed through the monument, the wood floor slopes down, so that soon the monuments are suspended above, forcing you to look up. Eventually you are looking at a vista of hundreds of rusted slabs hanging overhead, like bodies. You are now a witness of this brutality.

Bryan Stevenson states: “Our memorial will become a report card about which communities have owned up to their history and which haven’t.” A half-mile away you can visit a small Legacy Museum which has been built in a former slave warehouse. There it presents a hologram on slavery and argues that lynching took place to control and terrorize African Americans after the emancipation.

Such a legacy also involved Jim Crow laws that legalized segregation and continues to this day with the mass incarceration and police brutality toward African Americans.

A final moving display features an interview with Anthony Ray Hinton who was exonerated in 2015 after 28 years on death row. Last month Oprah Winfrey selected his autobiography for her book club. Winfrey is also involved with a second museum in her native Mississippi, The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, MI. Information here.


I recently exchanged messages with a fellow writer, Natalia, who struggles like me and many other writers to share our ideas and to find people who are eager to read them. I responded to her post, writing this:

When we write our stories, our novels, we write about the people we know, the joys and sorrows that color our words and ideas. I want to know about your life, the stories you are able to share. If I am published, I would hope you would read how my life filters through my characters and the lives they are leading. We are human beings and our stories speak of struggle that leads to victory or change; sometimes decisions that lead to disappointment. But all stories are presented to our readers in the hope that our words will touch their minds and hearts. EMPATHY. But as you say, we must feel that human bond whether there are tears or many smiles. I write and read fiction to connect with others. It fills me up. Some people? They haven’t opened their eyes yet. They refuse to see. So—we keep writing.


I hope in your travels you might stop at a museum, discover the lives of others, contemplate history, use what you learn to make this a better world.

Remember what Pat Conroy wrote in THE PRINCE OF TIDES: My wound is my geography. It is also my my anchorage, my port of call.





Is There Something Wrong with Me?

Is There Something Wrong with Me?

Sorry, but I have a lot of questions. As a writer, I believe that people write essays and fiction to reach people’s MINDS, HEARTS AND SOULS. We writers call it EMPATHY. We want to touch the reader, quietly and persuasively bring the reader into our world so that at the end of a page, chapter or complete book the reader says, “Now I see.” Or, “Wow, I felt for that person.” Or, “What would I do if that were me?” And I have to add that YES, I know we read to escape also. But this book…

Book club: we read Lisa Wingate’s BEFORE WE WERE YOURS. My quick outline of the novel: Memphis, 1939. Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and four younger siblings are wrenched from their family home and all that is familiar to them to be thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage. The Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents–but they quickly realize the dark truth. At the mercy of the facility’s cruel director, they now live in a world of danger and uncertainty. 

Sound familiar? Yes. It is, because it’s 2018 and the United States of America is wrenching children from their parents at our borders.

So I’m at book club with friends and I have the first question in the discussion. I know this group, I know their politics, so I prepared an answer, basically saying that like the children in Wingate’s novel, everyone in this country and in our government from my local representative in the House to the president must be responsible for the children at the border. To go a step further, we need to try, as best we can, to be responsible for all children in our great country. Because, and I think it bares mentioning over and over, THESE ARE CHILDREN who will be permanently damaged by the trauma of separation.

What reaction did I get? Tepid. Someone actually changed the subject before we blundered on to the next question.

Am I crazy? Why read this book if you aren’t going to be touched, if you aren’t going to FEEL SOMETHING? These were women, mothers and grandmothers. Have they forgotten they have a womb?

We got through the evening, moving on to the other questions. One question caused a member to bring up Bill Clinton’s philandering (yes, he’s guilty). But I had to say it, “What about that guy in the White House?” Result: the women who I carpooled with to the meeting, said right out—“That’s enough or you will have to walk home.”

That’s enough. Let’s just go blindly on reading this novel that Wingate researched and wrote with skill and passion. Let’s just pretend that this is just STORY TELLING, you know, like a FAIRY TALE. You get to the end and everything is JUST FINE. After all, this is book club. You can drink your wine and forget reality.

But I can’t and I won’t forget—no matter how expensive the wine and well wrought the dessert. Frankly, I could care less about all of that.

I’m a writer. I know the power of the keyboard and I will use it. EMPATHY. In some ways it is our only hope.

P.S. In case you don’t know, Congress just took funding away from CHIP. What is CHIP? Children’s Health Insurance Program: June 7, 2018, House Republicans voted to cut CHIP, selling out thousands of kids in their districts. They are gambling with kids’ coverage to pay tax breaks.

And I won’t let go of this idea: the future of any country is grounded in HOW WE LOVE AND CARE FOR OUR CHILDREN.

Now the question for me is—do I go to the next book club, keep speaking out? Yes.

PS Lisa Wingate:  I also hope that, in a broader sense, the story of Rill and the Foss children serves to document the lives of all the children who disappeared into Georgia Tann’s unregulated system. Only by remembering history are we reminded not to let it repeat itself. It’s important that we, ordinary people busy with the rush of every day life, remember that children are vulnerable, that on any given day, thousands of children live the uncertainty…

Photo Credit, Focus on Family






Being Truly Healthy Includes Putting Your Phone Away

Being Truly Healthy Includes Putting Your Phone Away

Jonelle Summerfield

Life can sneak up on you. Habits change in increments and you might suddenly realize that your life has changed, that you no longer meet people in stores, no longer enjoy twenty minutes of silence while eating your lunch, no longer make time to call a friend, or enjoy sitting in the sunshine reading a magazine.

We make our own choices, but some of them are subtly made for us. The biggest change in the lives of many Americans is THE CELL PHONE. These instruments can be wonderful.

  • They allow connection to family and friends and an easy way to store the phone numbers for the library, the electrician, the plumber, the doctor etc;
  • They provide a certain amount of security on an journey, short, long, train, car;
  • Today my phone even reminded me of a friend’s birthday; I immediately called her;

But cell phones can also affect our health. You’ve already read about this:

  • They increase stress. Letting a phone always determine what your next action or decision will be takes away from the calmness of personal planning. Interruptions can increase your heart rate and blood pressure.
  • For young people who are trying to find a steady place in the world, info about what others are doing can make them question their own decisions, their place on the planet.These are mental health issues.
  • Eye strain and squinting can develop over time.

But even more importantly, our phones can distract us from basics of LIFE and its values–they can alter some of the good habits we used to have.

Saying hello to people when you are out in the community or even in a busy city connects you with another human. A smile from a stranger can increase endorphins. We were created to connect with others.

But now the ability to order everything online, on a phone and avoid the cityscape, the town center–changes drastically the American custom of walking into a store and shopping. This is not a good thing. Stores and malls provide connection with other humans. You meet people, talk to them, run into friends. Maybe that’s why people who travel to Europe and stay, enjoy the camaraderie of walking to “the shops” frequently for food and just to BE with other people. Yes, we still have the coffee shop, but could that also go away?

My husband and I enjoy going OUT to the theatre now and again, seeing a film on the big screen. But now people are eager to have a home theatre which will again keep them away from community. Come on people–get out there and smile at a stranger!!

Yesterday, I said hello to a fellow in my community, and on a bright Sunday afternoon, he just looked at me, earplugs in his ears. He didn’t hear me, didn’t make a connection. It’s a symbol of a small thing that will have larger consequences.

Eye Contact, Physical Touch, Personal Secrets and Quirks

We also have moved into a cultural phenomenon that allows people to work from home. This can be a good thing–as long as occasionally the folks in the business get together to talk about their progress, to debate ideas, to share a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. But even more importantly, to KNOW ONE ANOTHER. How awful to work with someone and not really know that they tell amazing jokes, know more about soccer than you do, or have written poetry all their lives.

Other jobs are geared to personal contact every day. Occupations that require you work out in the community as a teacher, nurse, as a member of the police, fire or social service network. These people have so much contact with others, that they crave the quiet room. And maybe the turned off phone.

The Bottom Line

This morning, with my phone off and a cup of coffee at hand, I read the NEWSPAPER. The physical newspaper. I do this every day. And there was a piece written by an RN, Christie Watson, who is also a novelist and has written a memoir, THE LANGUAGE OF KINDNESS.   She writes that she recently helped an older woman simply by holding her hand, covering her with a blanket and letting her talk about her life. Watson writes: ...nursing remains the most undervalued of all professions. If how a society treats its most vulnerable is a measure of its humanity, then any nurse will tell you that humanity is in trouble. …Compassion and kindness are just slogans to earn likes on Instagram, not career goals. …our cultures promote isolationism and revere narcissism. We have abandoned empathy and community alone with it. 

More and More Lonely People

Talking to another human being for five minutes can brighten their day. It also feeds our hearts, because though we might not be aware of it, we crave connection. That’s why the cell phone is so popular. Okay. Let’s transform that into a more HUMAN connection. Watson writes about a future situation where we might find ourselves nursing a loved one: And at that time, we will understand that the only things that matter in the end are the qualities that unite humanity, ones that are almost but not quite forgotten: compassion and kindness.

What do you think? Can you put your phone away today and talk to someone?

 Thanks to Jonelle Summerfield’s amazing artwork.

Books that Speak to the Heart of the Soul

Books that Speak to the Heart of the Soul

Christmas and the holiday season is a time of gift-giving in many families. And over the years mine has realized that often one special gift can replace all the “noise” of the advertised “newest” gadget or toy or even object that is supposed to “fill you up.” Because days after the holidays are over, there is often a feeling of loss or sadness. The mad dash is over and we are back in the day to day of real living. In many places it is cold and we are challenged to get to work, school, buying food etc by fighting ice and snow.

So this year, why not purchase something that doesn’t require a battery or juice (unless you use a Kindle), cannot be consumed in a short period of time and yet fires up the coldness of winter with thought and remains with you for a long time.

Buy your family members a book. 

Children love stories. WE ALL LOVE STORIES. Younger children will want to hear over and over the whimsical tales of WINNIE THE POOH. And though I recommend the original there is also the Disney version that might lead to the real thing.

You cannot go wrong with a book by PATRICK McDONNELL, like THE GIFT OF NOTHING. Mooch the cat desperately wants to find a gift for his friend – Earl the dog. He wonders what he can buy the dog who has everything and decides that the answer, of course, is nothing. Browse all of McDonnell’s work. You will find many treasures.

Middle Grade and Up–the choices are  numerous. But I will recommend two older favorites that my children loved: The Boxcar Children (mysteries solved by some orphaned kids who truly have the spirit to care for one another and to survive), and Anne of Green Gables. When Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert of Green Gables, Prince Edward Island, send for a boy orphan to help them out at the farm, they are in no way prepared for the error that will change their lives in the shape of Anne Shirley, a redheaded 11-year-old girl who can talk anyone under the table.

For adults I have two suggestions in this post. First is LAB GIRL, a memoir/bio written by HOPE JAHREN. She’s a scientist–but not only of the geophysical world, but of living and finding your way. Below are a few quotes, a taste of the world that Jahren will open to you.

A seed is alive while it waits. Every acorn on the ground is just as alive as the three-hundred-year-old oak tree that towers over it. Neither the seed nor the old oak is growing; they are both just waiting. Their waiting differs, however, in that the seed is waiting to flourish while the tree is only waiting to die.

Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.

Working in the hospital teaches you that there are only two kinds of people in the world: the sick and the not sick. If you are not sick, shut up and help.

For those of you who have loved the poetry of MARY OLIVER, this season you can purchase for yourself or a dear friend UPSTREAM, selected essays. Here is a taste:

In the beginning I was so young and such a stranger to myself I hardly existed. I had to go out into the world and see it and hear it and react to it, before I knew at all who I was, what I was and what I wanted to be. Wordsworth studied himself and found the subject astonishing. Actually what he studied was his relationship to the harmonies and also the discords of the natural world. That’s what created the excitement. 

Both books are journeys away from the chaos of modern life into the thought-provoking journey of making choices. If you are waking up each morning WONDERING where we are headed, I promise, these books will stimulate your love for taking a walk, or just existing in the world. After all, despite some changes, it’s still there. Let’s enjoy it.

FINALLY, I am sharing some thoughts that I feel support reading and emersion into other worlds. Open your heart and your soul to the other. Think of statements like “Love one another” or “Do unto others as you would have them do for you.” Thanks for reading.

Empathy is work. Being caring takes work. Being kind takes work. Wanting to help people, it’s work. There are some people who wake up and are like, it’s all I want to do! But for other people, it’s work. I want to put that message out ― that it’s worth putting the work into. It’s going to be annoying and it’s going to be uncomfortable and you’re probably not going to want to do it. But please, please find a way to do it. Okieriete Onaodowan On The Need For Empathy Today

I have to learn to love my neighbor with my crooked heart. The real fight, that. All the more so because the present feels like an unstable, constantly shifting ground where the future, which is always uncertain, feels all the more so, but with a strain of capriciousness thrown in. “Somebody chose their pain,” Auden once lamented about disastrous choices. “What needn’t have happened did.”

This is home; I have to fight for it; I have to do so out of love, with love: Of these things I’m certain. Much else lies shrouded in uncertainty. As Auden pointed out:

But the stars burn on overhead,
Unconscious of final ends,
As I walk home to bed,
Asking what judgment waits
My person, all my friends,
And these United States.   Garnette Cadogan