Come see the inaugural Portland cast of Listen To Your Mother tell stories that celebrate the heart and humor of all things motherhood. This Mother’s Day at 2pm at The Alberta Rose Theatre. Tickets are $15 and are selling fast! Buy your tickets here.
In sixth grade, I scribbled my first play, “Prince Charming and the Seven Widows.” This was not an innovative or complex story. It had no real educational value. It wasn’t the original lyrics or dance numbers that prompted my teacher Mrs. Shrauger to ask me to produce and direct it using our class as cast and crew. Perhaps it was my enthusiasm. Perhaps it was her heart.
Phyllis Shrauger was a member of the Hoquiam City Council when I was in her sixth grade classroom. She was an advocate for the arts, and civic responsibility, and took our class to a city council meeting. The choir she led sang Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” and “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music in nursing homes. She was the first teacher I ever witnessed providing differentiated instruction–before I’d ever heard such a term–for students who were differently abled. She partnered me with a student who had just moved to the country from Southeast Asia (I don’t remember where) and gave us each a hall pass to wander the school grounds whenever we liked, naming objects in English. Another student in class had a toy telephone in his desk that he called the Tigger Phone. She would pause whenever he pretended it rang.
Mrs. Shrauger treated my manuscript as if it weren’t derivative. She encouraged me to select a cast and let me lead a dozen students from class to the stage each day to practice our play, then convinced the principal to let us stage it for the entire school.
A few years later, I went to a small high school in a rural town. Marsha West, an English teacher, encouraged us to make radio plays of Greek and Roman mythology, and newspapers accounts of those decadent gods. Some of my favorite early passages in literature were from those we studied in her classes. Two years in a row, she took several of us to Port Townsend to polish and publish our stories as part of a statewide literary magazine called Crosscut.
I was a logger’s daughter without financial resources for college, so I moved to Edmonds, Washington with a friend, and went to work at Jack in the Box after high school graduation. I cleaned the morgue and pathology labs at a Seattle hospital. In my twenties, I worked for an army recruiter briefly, and later, processed overpayments for Social Security. After ten years of facing people’s death and disability, I took a good look around and knew I didn’t want to be there. I quit my government job to become an electrician’s apprentice. Then I quit that to caretake three children whose parent sexually abused and neglected them. Through the next two decades children I parented over thirty children, many with special needs.
Even mothers get a few solitary moments to pee. I hung a magnetic board on the inside of my bathroom door. For three minutes, several times a day, I could steal away and manipulate words while my world held steady. Oh sure, somebody was yelling “Mom!” right outside the door. Bolstered by bits of type, I’d reply, “Just a minute, I’m…busy.” As tired as I was, I followed Cynthia Whitcomb’s advise and lengthened my day by rising at 3 a.m. to write.
While I was busy patching lives and purging demons, I found new dreams: helping a young man be the first in his family to graduate high school. Seeing an elementary child’s rage at her rapist transform into powerful art. Seeing a mentally ill mother who killed her child get a fair trial. Witnessing my twin sons earn scholarships: One to Georgetown University, the other to Embry Riddle. Seeing each of my children grow up and seize life on their own terms.
Life will give you dreams if you are willing to see them.
In the midst of all that, I wrote a half dozen screenplays. One did pretty well in the Austin and Sundance contests, resulting in a story meeting in Los Angeles. The producer and I chatted before the meeting. He asked how many kids I had.
“A lot,” I said.
“How many is a lot?”
I hesitated, but what’s a mother to do?
“More than you can count on one hand,” I said.
He loved the script and agreed to shop it. But as we parted, he said, “You have so many children, I’m not sure you have the commitment to be a writer.”
Parenting is about commitment. Staying for the long haul. Relinquishing self-indulgence except in stolen moments that come between other people’s needs. I didn’t sell the screenplay although Lifetime held it for six months, passed, and requested it again a year later.
“Does the baby have to die?” they asked me, as if in telling a true story, I could change the outcome.
Despite some terrible days on which I failed as a mother and an advocate, I’m proud of what I have accomplished on behalf of people who needed me when their lives were darkest. So many changes in me as a result of caring deeply and taking a stand. I was led by these two extraordinary teachers and forged by fire. From that fire, I now write.
* * *
Marsha West is alive and well, and still writing and loving life. You can read her blog at Marsha’s Musings.
Phyllis Shrauger passed away in 2009. You can read more about her here.
“Following a sound, an image, a formal structure, repetition, or any poetic device, can help to keep the mind occupied so that the emotions are held at bay, or so that the emotion can be subsumed in the device, the image, the metaphor, so as to not bleed out onto the page as cliche or sentimentality. You want the rawness of the experience, but not the actual gaping wound. It’s a delicate thing to write about trauma,”
Sometimes you talk, talk, talk, or you write, write, write and you get nowhere, you make none of the changes you’re seeking to instigate. At Princeton, Matthea Harvey gave an inspiring talk about the need for guerilla poets to take to the streets, speaking out on social issues. In response, I sent a protest poem to Seamus Heaney and Galway Kinnell’s hotel rooms because each declined to sign books even though Paul Muldoon flogged attendees to buy books to support the poets in attendance. (Quite a number of other poets were happy to sign.) You may think me insolent, but the act of writing and delivering a poem protesting the two famous poets’ refusals was the beginning of my willingness to send poetry out into the world where standard language failed. Since then, I’ve had positive results a number of times when I mailed poetry to those in official capacities. Some examples:
- A poem of advocacy to the superintendent of the school district because he didn’t seem to understand how some students’ family lives impede their progress in school. (The superintendent created a policy allowing students partial credit shortly afterward; I like to take partial credit for that.)
- A poem requesting empathy to the hearings officer for a high school student about to be permanently expelled. (The officer told me that he reconsidered his decision based on the poem, and reduced the student’s expulsion to one semester.)
- Poems about the barriers kids face to the Oregon House Education Committee. (Two legislators responded with letters committing to address the issues raised in the poems.)
- Embedded in a court report under the section “Issues for the Court’s Consideration” I quoted on behalf of a child needing to return home, “I watch the geese in their long line flying north, and dream of clearing my name… The hours fly past, no one can call them back and look, it’s dusk already.” ~ ~Sugawara no Michizane, trs. by Robert Borgen (The Court made a finding for the child to return home.)
When standard writing fails, try a poem. Find a poet you admire and quote them in your business letter. Send one of your own poems even if it’s not great, if it conveys what’s at stake. The metaphoric and figurative language of poetry may cause the gates that slam shut in the brain to stay open a millisecond longer, long enough for the message to sink in. What do you have to lose?
Woot! Woot! Tomorrow is the book launch for Julia Child Rules.
This quote came to me this morning as I was reflecting on the month I’ve spent with Karen Karbo‘s newest book Julia Child Rules: Lessons on Savoring Life.
In particular, I was thinking about the chapter “Obey Your Whims” because I was surprised to discover that Karen had written about one of the whims I’d followed last year, namely, to pack a bag, leave my husband and son to fend for themselves for three weeks, and go to Warren, Pennsylvania to manage one of Obama’s grassroots campaign headquarters.
I understood from the Area Coordinator that I was walking into a proud community of Obama supporters who had strong ideas about how to approach the election. The group’s point of view was at odds with the Democratic Party in the town (“a bunch of old white guys sitting around drinking coffee” is how one supporter described them) and the Obama organization (“a bunch of paid organizers who don’t have to live in our town after the election is done”). My unpaid responsibilities: keep peace, recruit volunteers to follow the official canvassing expectations, and ride herd on the whole lot.
This whim I’d undertaken wasn’t going to be any kind of wham-bam-thank-you-Ma’am; it was going to be a real chore.*
I covered the word “captain” with GRUNT. I wore the button like a giant barrette to show I didn’t take myself too seriously. I never do.
I take the job seriously.
If I say I’ll do it, I do it.
I’m your git-‘er-done girl.
Of course, that means I do more than my fair share of directing, imploring, cajoling, and reminding (traits that have inspired descriptors such as bossy, demanding, stubborn, and relentless) in order to get the job done. It also means that I will work as hard as I expect from anyone else.
In my teens and twenties, I was an impulsive young woman. Along the lines of the opening quote, with a slight moderation: When I was a child, I was impulsive as a child, I was impetuous as a child, I lacked forethought as a child: but when I became a woman, I put away my reckless ways.
I had a husband and a few children (okay, 32–but who’s counting?) to love and support. Wikipedia (which we all know is the absolute authority online, right?) defines impulsivity as “a multifactorial construct that involves a tendency to act on a whim, displaying behavior characterized by little or no forethought.”
In the lives of my foster and adopted children, impulsivity was often a trait resulting from their birth parents’ substance abuse, mental illness, or thinking errors compounded by poverty and lack of support systems. At that time, foster care felt to me like an us-and-them framework: good parents on one side of the agency, bad parents on the other side. With my inexperience and polarized thinking, I did not want to identify with the bad parents. That, and I had a lot of people’s needs to manage, so I interred my impulsive spirit some place deep inside, as if I had decided there was no room for reckless at the inn.
The trouble is, in time, I lost my sense of spontaneity too.
If you ask the friends who know me well, they’d say, “She’s fun, and funny, and probably ADHD.” If you ask my children, they would probably say, “She loves rules.” This disparity bothered me as I worked on my memoir. I see myself as somewhere in the midst of those two points of view. I like rules because I want to do what’s expected. But I’m also spontaneous. The trouble was, I’d built a life encumbered by children who needed stability and consistency.
Eight children, even great children, is a boatload of kids to manage.
Anyone who’s gone from one child to two, or from two to three, knows that the complexity of parenting additional children cannot be quantified by the simple mathematical statement n+1. The correct mathematical way to explain it is n!, as in 7! or 8!. As a parent increases the number of children, the growth for potential conflict increases dramatically. A factorial equation expresses the difficulty: 1×2 = 2, 1x2x3=6, 1x2x3x4=24 and so:
I was like a crazy woman on the beach flying eight kites at a time.
As the kids have grown, and I’m down to one child at home, I feel a strong pull toward improvisation again. I want to feel the wind moving through me instead of around me. I feel like I’m coming alive after a long sleep.
*My experience working on the campaign in Warren, Pennsylvania was engaging, exhausting, and inspiring. The people I met in the campaign office and in the town of Warren were excellent comrades. If the whim to work an out-of-state campaign comes to you, do it. Really.
In Julia Child Rules, Karen Karbo writes, “Rather than resolving to get your act together or your ducks in a row…do nothing. …find things that give you pleasure.” But what?
I scan over the list of activities I used to do when I was chillaxin’ and they included watching the clouds, climbing a tree to watch people from an unseen vantage point, driving aimlessly, skipping rocks, and hopping around the yard on a red rubber ball.
What these all have in common is that they give my head space to think about stuff that doesn’t need to be done or solved or completed, just thoughts ambling along, forming and reforming themselves like clouds in the sky. Daydreaming. Musing. Conjuring. Although, it’s more like having a million scraps of confetti in my head and I’m moving them around, making patterns, making scenarios or equations or images that amuse me. Like puzzles, but with no right answer.
About a decade ago, I was talking to a friend who mentioned that he didn’t know much about his past. In conversation, he said that one grandfather came from England and settled in Iowa as a miner, a grandmother had come over by ship as a teenager to be married in the Mormon Church, and something (the detail escapes me now) about Wales.
Imagine what a brain that likes to shuffle bits of imaginary paper could do with such a wide open landscape.
I learned to research genealogy.
I located not only the kind of information one finds on family trees, but photographs and family stories. When I shared the information with him, he brought out his family album of unlabeled dead white guys. Based on my research, I was able to help him attach names to many of those photos.
Another friend asked me to locate information about her birth father and his relatives because her mother refused to talk about it. I was able to find several generations of her family tree.
Entering the world of genealogy buffs is like traveling to a new country where you meet acquaintances you’ll never (virtually) see again, but who, for a moment, play a pivotal role in your moments together. They have a photograph of Great Uncle Syd that you didn’t know existed. They know the name of the ship that grandfather Burtle came from Germany on. It is like a vast carpet of threads knotted in places, and with loose ends in all directions. You wander along one thread until you get stuck or you meet someone who can tell you what you need. Or you pick a different thread and wander that way for a while.
My family was fractured when I was a child. My mom and dad divorced, my siblings were separated, and after a time, I moved with my father, one brother, and my new mom. I never saw a picture of myself as a baby or toddler until I was an adult. I first saw my birth announcement when I was pushing forty. Gaps in your memory create gaps in your personal narrative. I can’t bear to throw someone else’s photographs away.
I dated a man for only a couple months in 1980. He had two darling little boys, and I carried that snapshot with me through over fifteen moves.
Finally, in 2012, I located the man on online, and asked if he would like the two photographs. His life circumstances were such that he had very few photographs and was happy to get them.
It wasn’t the giving of the photo that was the part that kept me amused–although I was happy to get them to someone who would love them–but the niggling at the threads of a life to locate the man’s address thirty years later.
Since then, I’ve made a hobby of buying family photographs or memorabilia that are marked with identifying information (the thread I will tease) so that I can find some family member who may treasure it. I buy these at antique stores or thrift stores and rarely spend over three dollars for the item. Because there is little information to go on, it often takes me a year or more to locate a relative.
The photo was taken by Roye Studio and on the back, in ink from a fountain pen, it was labeled “Property of Mrs. Fred Guenther, Spokane, WA.”
The 1930 census for Portland, Oregon showed a Fred Guenther born in 1885, with a wife Orlia, and a daughter Betty, born in 1922. I surmised this might be Betty.
Through online genealogy communities, I located a woman in Colorado whose grandmother was a sister to Orlia Guenther. I mailed her the framed photograph and when she received it she was so excited. It was her great great aunt’s child.
This diversion is something to do in the evenings when my mind is tired and I just want to dink around on the computer before I go to bed. Some people do crossword puzzles or Suduko. Some grab virtual golden coins on video screens to earn extra lives. Some people knit; others crochet.
I finger the virtual threads of family tapestries to reconnect the place where they unraveled, so I can share some tangible token from their ancestor’s past.
I have a few things I’m currently noodling for sheer amusement:
- A letter from Dottie Noble from Elmore, Minn dated 12/28/1954.
- A leather German Bible inscribed (in German) from my mother, Katharina Ruder 6 February 1914
- A postcard to B H McSwiney in Dayton, Ohio dated 2/8/1906
I thought Karen Karbo’s third chapter of Julia Child Rules: Lessons on Savoring Life would be amusing. Instead, Karen takes us along Julia’s path of early adulthood, including the death of Julia’s mother, her failed first love, her failed attempts at employment. Along the way, we discover Karbo lost her own mother shortly after her eighteenth birthday. Despite the serious events in both women’s lives, each found ways to wile away their time. “You don’t need to have the life you want to enjoy the life you have,” Karbo writes. Her solution: Learn to be amused. By that, she means engaging in activities or tasks that “can make our otherwise unsatisfactory lives, satisfactory.” You notice, she didn’t say, “Laugh your head off.” She didn’t say, “Have a great time!” She didn’t even admonish us with the platitude, “Do what you love.” Let me quote Karen again: Learn to be amused. Amused? She probably didn’t mean for me to reach for a dictionary, but I did. The definition feels lacking so I search for the etymology of “amuse” online. Etymologyonline.com offers this: amuse (v.)late 15c., “to divert the attention, beguile, delude,” from Middle French amuser “divert, cause to muse,” from a “at, to” (but here probably a causal prefix) + muser “ponder, stare fixedly” (see muse (v.)). Sense of “divert from serious business, tickle the fancy of” is recorded from 1630s, but through 18c. the primary meaning was “deceive, cheat” by first occupying the attention. Bemuse retains more of the original meaning. Related: Amused; amusing. Ohhhh! I get it. UH-MUSED. Doing things that occupy my body with non-productive activity so my mind can swirl around like steam rising from a boiling pot. The steam has nothing to do with what I’m about to cook. It’s a by-product of the process. We give it no attention whatsoever unless, for example, we inadvertently burn ourselves because we forget it’s there. What do I do to be amused? The short answer: nothing. Too many clothes to wash, floors to sweep, bills to pay. There are too many meals to cook, dishes to wash, rugs to Febreze. When I take time to relax, I do (as Karen points out) get a manicure, a pedicure, a massage. I shop for things I’ve been meaning to buy. Do lunch with friends I’ve been meaning to see. Read a book I’ve been meaning to read. Purposeless behavior? Moi? Then I remember, amusing myself used to be my specialty. Only when I think back to it, I hear labels like Irresponsible. Reckless. Immature. (Whose voice is that, anyway?) I bought fake ID and snuck into the Gorilla Room. Violated no trespassing signs. Climbed aboard a foreign ship in the dead of night. Smoked a few cigarettes and more than a few joints. Woke up in closets I didn’t recognize. But I’m looking to go a little deeper. Past the easy distraction of being stoned or drunk. Past the amusement of the come-on, the pick-up, and the uh-oh-morning wave goodbye. How did I used to amuse myself? Reclined on the grass and watched the clouds.Picked a bushy branch from a shrub, held it behind my butt, and cantered like a horse.Climbed a tree and watched people from the V in the branches.Turned up the radio/eight track tape/cassette/CD and drove. Where? Nowhere. Anywhere. Just drove.I sat inside large truck tires on a playground, my finger tracing the line where the pool of water had dried up, leaving the mosquito larvae to die.I whispered. I giggled. I twirled. I learned to square dance. I skipped rocks.I imagined loving boys (and men) who would never love me. I wrote long letters I would never mail. And some I did. I hopped around on a red rubber ball.
Can I reclaim my ability to be amused? Stay tuned.
In her newest book Julia Child Rules: Lessons on Savoring Life (available soon at local bookstores, including Broadway Books and Annie Bloom’s) Karen Karbo writes, “…one’s life is enriched immeasurably if you’re able to find an abiding passion. You don’t have to be good at it, it just has to be something that would consume every waking hour if you let it.” Enter my years as a foster parent. In the decade 1992 through 2002, my husband and I fostered over thirty-two children. Passion: It will fill your life if you let it. Who knows the origin of such an urge? Maybe it was the motley crew of pets we had when I was a child: the assorted cats and dogs, both purebred and mongrel.
The cat I dressed in doll clothes and pushed around in a stroller.
Our dog Ginger, a Sheltie, my brother Jimmy and I loved but Mom hated because the dog yapped all the time. Or the wild animal pets:
The raccoon cub that grew up and lived in our house for a couple years before it wandered off.
The river otter that my came as a pup after his mother was run over by a log truck. As a teenager, I transitioned from caretaking family pets to horses and younger children. I spent a lot of time babysitting my little sister, affectionately known as Punky.
She just looks like a kid you’d call Punky, right? (I think the photo credit for this picture goes to my Uncle Jim, but I’m not certain.)
I trained a two-year-old filly to show at the county fair. Surely, my entrance into the world of foster care must have been due, in part, to the Braack family who took me in when I was five.
I was a little girl who needed a family for a while. Doug, Pat, and their four daughters welcomed me into their home. As a young woman I became pregnant at twenty-two, a single parent at twenty-three. By the time I was twenty-six, Punky and another sister had come to live with me. I was eager to caretake others, so it was natural to open my home to them. I was bossy. I was opinionated. I was attentive. You don’t have to be good at it, it just has to be something that would consume every waking hour if you let it. After my sisters seized hold of their own lives; after I married my husband; after his three grandchildren came to live with us, you might think I would settle down with my hubby and five children and think, “Well, now, I believe I’ll just rest on my laurels.” But, no. Some people are surprised to learn that over 58% of all Americans have personal experience with adoption: they, or someone they know, have adopted or relinquished a child for adoption. Nearly 2% of all American children live in adoptive homes. These numbers are a constant reminder that everywhere we turn, children need support. I knew firsthand what it feels like to be a motherless child. All those years later, I opened my doors and said, “Come on in.” Twenty years later, I sat down to write what I had learned. Mother Up is the story of how I became the woman who says yes to children. “Yes,” to foster children who needed a home. “Yes,” to truant kids who needed support. “Yes,” to students who required intervention to stay in school. Yes, yes, yes! Mother Up is my newly completed memoir about my transformation from an uneducated, exhausted, single mother of twins to an expert foster mom sought after by child welfare agencies as a care giver for difficult-to-place children. It is the story of a child without a voice coming into her own as an advocate who speaks on behalf of a child. Passion–the passion that Karbo recognizes in Julia Child–is what drives me to care about what happens to the children, and mothers, and fathers in this world. The competent ones. The incompetent ones. The hurt, discouraged,and frightened ones. The ones that nobody wants to stand beside because of the things they have said or done. You don’t have to be good at it, it just has to be something that would consume every waking hour if you let it. It took Julia two hundred eighty-four pounds of white flour to perfect her recipe for Pain Francais. It took 1600 pounds of laughing, squirming, bickering, impish children to help me better understand myself.
Here’s one of them, learning to make pie.