A Kick in My Writerly Rump

From Cheryl Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” column in The Rumpus, reprinted in Tiny, Beautiful Things:

"Be brave. Write what’s true for you. Write what you think. Write about what confuses you and compels you. Write about the crazy, hard, and beautiful. Write what scares you. Write what makes you laugh and write what makes you weep. Write what makes you feel ashamed or proud. Writing is risk and revelation. There’s no need to show up at the party if you’re only going to stand around with your hands in your pockets and stare at the drapes."

Stay tuned.

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“Older Ladies”

This is an absolutely true, spot-on reminder of how to celebrate and embrace our older bodies. I, for one, plan to play this delightful music video daily for a while. Check it out and consider doing the same – the least you’ll get is your broadest smile!


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For Josh, Duncan, David, Malcolm, Lee and Phil

Today I celebrate you six magnificent men who father my beloved grandchildren. When I think of how you love them, what I see is their faces and your love in all its forms reflected there.

The full-on glee when you’re blowing raspberries into their soft baby bellies or roughhousing with them down on the floor;
The intense concentration when you’re teaching them something they want to learn, to work a chunky wooden puzzle or take the ready position in right field;
The beam of pride when you’ve praised them for that first terrifying swing all the way across the monkey bars or the enormous accomplishment that is graduating high school;
The small nod and quick, acknowledging smile when you’ve cheered their soccer goal or all out effort in a swim race;
The wide-eyed wonder as you’re explaining how to flip a pancake or where India is on a map;
The way their faces soften and quiet from tears of terror or pain or anger as you hold their small heads against your broad shoulders, patting them gently on the back for as long as it takes;
The explosion of joy when they run to greet you at the door, “Daddy’s home!”

It happens every day, in countless ways, many of which you may not see but we, their mothers and grandparents, we see. How you play with them, teach them, support them, comfort them and love them. But most of all, how you model for them how to be a parent and how to be a human being. For all these reasons, I love you and thank you, today and every day.

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David Seawell’s Tribute to Tom McCoy

My son David writes a blog of which I am extraordinarily proud at http://bustedclutch.com. Here is a sample that I hope encourages you to become a follower. Tom and I would love that.

He Was Here

For Thomas McCoy

He was here in the room the day I was born.547281_10151420780697017_357538899_n

He was here for my first play in high school, and my last performance in college. He was here the night I met a girl, and here the day I married her. He was here, here with me.

He was here when I found writing. He greeted my words like he would greet my kids, with love and pride and laughs. He nurtured them. Corrected and chided them when they were lazy or overly cute. He sat with them and cared for them, and showed me how to do the same. When fear or doubt made me run away to law, or to being busy, or just away, he gently reminded me of responsibility, and teasingly reassured me of my capacity to fulfill it. I write at all because when I wrote he was here, here with me.

He was here and pointed me to Conrad’s Preface, DeLillo’s Noise, and Kafka’s Hunger. His gifts, for every occasion, were words of his own. Full tender words of humor and depth. Words that showed how beautiful he was here. Here with us.

He was here that night I needed him most. Hours earlier and hundreds of miles away, I doubled over from the thought of losing him before I could say goodbye. After three years of being sick, his body fell out from under him. The pain, and the medicine, and the pain from the medicine closed in on his hospital bed. He fought through all that awful with jokes and tears, and he was here when I pushed through the hospital, and gave him the only words I had, “Tom, I’m here.”

Today, he is not anywhere, not anymore. He is not in days or places, just words. He is here.

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The Thankfulness of Anticipation

Recently I have been faced with two friends threatened by despair, one from a horrific diagnosis and the other an impending divorce. Turning inward, I searched for words, any meager words of solace and support, and found only a familiar, powerless emptiness. Then I remembered that a writer I revere had just the words of hope and healing I had been looking for.  I sent both of them this quote from Barbara Kingsolver in “High Tide in Tuscon”:

In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.

One of those friends told me she had shared the quote with her family and they were putting it into practice together. Once again I marveled at the power of art flowing from the artist to me, then through me to the next concentric circle out, and on and on.

Last week I watched Daniel Day Lewis animate the complex, tortured, noble life of Abraham Lincoln with a brilliance I can hardly comprehend. On a continuum of my interests, movies would be in the cluster at one end while historical anything would be as far away as possible on the other. I am grateful for Lewis’ portrayal that allowed me to access all the interwoven threads of the amazing tapestry of that man’s life and heroism as no college history course (which I consistently avoided), battlefield visit (as interesting to me as sitting down and watching its grass grow) or nonfiction Civil War  bestseller (so many books, so little time and none for these) ever could.

In this my favorite season, a time of thankfulness for the universe of gifts that enrich our lives, I want to remember the artists who work courageously every day, never giving up, to bring to us their works of beauty, insight, power, hope, comfort and joy. I’m sure it’s because I struggle to use my far lesser talents in service to these same goals, but I am keenly aware of their talent and effort this time of year. When I’m a little down, I try to remind myself that at that very moment there are artists all over the world working on creations that some time in the near future will bring me pleasure, reassurance, understanding, and appreciation for all that is best in life. Some time today, one or many of my artist/heroes will find that germ of a new creative idea, see the world from an exciting new angle, break through a paralyzing barrier, allow a character to make a surprising transformation, hear at last the perfect harmony, or write the words that perfectly express the humanity in all of us.

New books, films, paintings, photographs, poems, music, even wearable art, recipes and blog posts, are lined up in the creative pipeline. Anticipating the joy of receiving them fills me with thankfulness.

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Good News in Ghana

In an attempt to make amends for my Halloween Grinchiness, here are some heartwarming images and information about the NGO in Ghana that rescues children from child labor and slavery, and Semester at Sea’s involvement in supporting their efforts. Give yourself a dose of good news during this difficult week.


City of Refuge Orphanage – A Day in the LIfe

By: | Date: 11.02.2012

The City of Refuge Children’s Village outside of Tema, Ghana is a safe house for children rescued from child labor camps. Began in 2007 by Johnbull and Stacy Omorefe, the Refuge is steadily filling with children who once worked as modern day slaves for fisherman in the Lake Volta region of Ghana, where child slavery is rampant. “Children were everywhere we looked. In every canoe on the lake there were two or three young boys casting nets or pulling them in. Their eyes hollow, their stomachs distended and their muscles overdeveloped.” Children are often sold into slavery on the lake by single mothers who simply cannot afford to feed them. They grow up without education, without love, and without hope. For a few fortunate children all that is beginning to change. With organizations like the growing City of Refuge, which has a history of support from Semester at Sea students, young boys and girls sold into slavery are being rescued from the labor camps and given an opportunity to live childhood as children.

Painted children greet the sun as laundry dries on the line. The day begins at City of Refuge, a home and school for children rescued from slavery.

From a boats to a bunk beds, many of the orphans at City of Refuge come from Lake Volta where they are enslaved as fishermen, generally performing such duties as gathering nets from the bottom of the lake after they became tangled in sunken trees.  This is Gabriel.  He is one of the newest children in the City of Refuge.  Gabriel was orphaned when his father’s canoe flipped in a storm on the lake.

Armed with a new toothbrush from Global Grins, a young girl stands next to her clean clothes laid out on a rock pile to dry in the rising sun.

Chores are done around the house each morning before school. These young boys wipe down the table after a breakfast of boiled eggs, bread and milk. They don’t need direction or reminders.

Gabriel can’t yet read the books in his backpack as he has just begun the first grade, but he brings them to class because he is eager to try.  Many of the rescued children, like Gabriel, have received no education prior to their arrival at City of Refuge.

The classroom is empty this early in the morning, but it doesn’t matter. Life is much more precious to him here than on the lake. Gabriel takes full advantage, patiently waiting for the other pupils to arrive.

Holly Stewart, and American volunteer schoolteacher, sips her morning coffee and prepares her classroom for the day. She initially came for just a visit, but has stayed for the love of it.

What the school may lack in computers, overhead projectors, and microscopes, the teachers, like Jacob Atsu, make up for with hard work, skill, determination, and strength of spirit.

Mid-morning sees the arrival of Semester at Sea students. They don matching Global Grins T-shirts and boxes filled with toothbrushes to give away.

One of the founders of City of Refuge, Stacy Onorefe, teaches the Semester at Sea students about the child trafficking and child slavery problems faced in the Lake Volta region of Ghana.

Johnbull Onorefe, husband to Stacy and co-founder of City of Refuge, gives a tour of the village to the visiting students.

Semester at Sea students became tutors when they get the opportunity to help in the classroom. Matthew Poundstone (CA State University Chico) is clearly enthusiastic about his pupils correct answer in math class.

Ashleigh Mason (Va Wesleyan College) has her arms full.  A young girl sits quietly in the back of the class.  New arrivals to the Refuge often feel a bit out of place, but they warm up quickly in its’ friendly and loving environment.

The school does have electricity, but it really isn’t necessary as each room is filled with large windows. Katherine Saffelle (Elon University) sits in the soft window light of the classroom tutoring a young boy.

Sara Santomauro (Ohio State University) listens intently to the children’s stories. English is taught commonly in every school, with most teachers leading each class in english.

Jolina-Rose Blier (Western New England University) was “inspired to see how happy a child can be after going through so much in their short life.”

Yan Benink (U of Co Denver) comments, “this felt less like a service project and more like a trip back to Elementary School.  But better, because everyone is nice to me and I knew all the answers.”

Business Administration Professor Mark Peters (University of San Diego) gets back to the basics by tutoring the children in spelling.  Professor Peters is inspired by City of Refuge and encourages “SAS alumni to give serious thought to how they can support their good work and spread the word of the urgent need to combat modern day slavery.”

Schoolteacher Holly Stewart breaks up a little tiff between two boys in her class as they wait outside for lunch to be served.

Enoch was working 12-14 hours a day on Lake Volta prior to his rescue. Sold into slavery, children work for many years to buy back their freedom, by which time they are too old for school. Uneducated, unable to read, they are destitute and will spend the rest of their lives as laborers. Enoch is now learning to read, learning math, and living a new life filled with promise.

City of Refuge is a place where children are allowed to be children once again, not child laborers. Bryn Valaika (U of Colorado Boulder) plays a little football with the youngsters.

The sun goes down in the west; the students whom live in nearby villages have gone home; what is left are children, free from labor camps… free from enslavement… free to live, free to play, and free to still do chores like young men should.

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Bitter Truth about Halloween

I might as well start with a confession: I am a Halloween Grinch.  I’m not proud of it but it does feel a little better to own up to it. Where do I start admitting all the reasons why I wish we skipped from the last glorious celebration of summer, Labor Day, right through all the desiccating and dying of autumn, to my very favorite holiday, Thanksgiving?

The most acute phase of my problem probably began when the boys were little. With apologies to all the amazing women out there who know I’m talking about them, it was those super crafty, bubbly and uber-talented moms who made me truly hate Halloween. They spent months making incredibly creative costumes for their little darlings, my sons’ classmates in preschool and elementary school. All those hand-dyed witches’ robes, meticulously sequined fairy skirts, and six-foot long papier mache dragon’s tails that required a parent to carry them, following along behind like a royal attendant? They made we want to hurl with humiliation. I’m the last thing from crafty/creative/patient enough to pull that kind of costume off. Also, my boys were famous for changing their minds at the last minute. With my way of doing Halloween, an hour before the start of trick-or-treating, we had a flimsy Target Superman costume that stayed in the box and a linen closet minus a sheet that was frantically and miraculously transformed into an acceptable version of a Storm Trooper. I also adopted the conveniently high road position that a Halloween costume should display the child’s, or occasionally an older sibling’s, cleverness and creativity, not mine. The results were usually quite adorable.

But it doesn’t stop there. Sharp knives, slimy innards, candles dripping hot wax and excited little children never seemed like a good combination to me. I’m not a fan of the flavor of pumpkin and can’t wait for all that ubiquitous October pumpkin-ness – lattes, muffins, ice cream, soup – to just get over itself already. I don’t even mind the early start of Christmas decorations and TV ads because they remind me that Halloween’s days are numbered. I love going to movies but I can’t wait for this month’s batch of schlock to rotate off into DVDs and Netflix. Why would people pay good money to go sit in a dark theater and watch unspeakable gore and horror for two hours? And please don’t invite me to an adult costume party, see above.

Then there’s the candy. No matter how hard I try to buy candy that I don’t like very much, I always fail and am left with decimated bags long before October 31st. The stresses of election season just make the temptation worse. As Anne Lamott recently posted on Facebook, “My grandson Jax asked where so many of our candy corn packets had gone, just in the last 4 days, and I told him Dick Cheney had taken them.” I love candy corn as much as she does but chocolate is truly my sweet drug of choice. A little devil sits on my shoulder as I stand in the candy aisle and makes the irresistible case that ALL KIDS LOVE CHOCOLATE! I’m filled with dread that I’ll be that despised little old lady who gives out boxes of raisins or even toothbrushes for crissakes! So I load up with those yummy little bars of deliciousness, vowing once again that they’re just for the children. Lucy and Charlie Brown’s annual ritual with the football is classic because it’s so true. Once again I fall for the temptation, right onto my enlarging bum.

OK, fun is fun or not so much, in this case. Please don’t get whiplash but I have to get serious for a moment. I’ve just discovered a devastating issue about Halloween chocolate treats that is the actual reason for this post. Did you know that child labor and child slavery are huge problems in the chocolate-producing countries in West Africa? Maybe I’m the last to find out about this but the BBC produced a documentary about it  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=LD85fPzLUjo#!) and a mommy blog I’ve discovered, Rage Against the Minivan, posted an excellent summary of the issue (http://www.rageagainsttheminivan.com/2012/10/the-inconvenient-truth-about-your.html). I’ve been to Ghana and am familiar with an extraordinary NGO there that rescues child slaves from the fishing industry, as well as the US non-profit that was started by Semester at Sea students to support it: http://www.findingrefuge.com/. It makes perfect sense to me that child labor and child slaves are also prevalent in a Ghanian industry that is the world’s second largest supplier of cocoa. Neighboring Ivory Coast is the largest. The much more impoverished and rural Burkina Faso, just north of both these countries, is the source for many of the trafficked children.

The takeaway message is this: If you are concerned about this issue and haven’t bought your Halloween treats yet, please choose chocolates made by Mars (Snickers, Three Musketeers, Mars, Milky Way, Twix ) or Kraft (Cadbury, Green & Black’s, Toblerone) because, according to the sources I’ve checked, these companies are taking beginning steps to start using more sustainable, ethical cocoa in their products. Don’t choose chocolates by Hershey’s and Nestle because they are currently the worst offenders. You can look for fair trade chocolate at stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s or you can skip chocolate altogether and buy those candy corn packets. Just make sure not to invite Annie Lamott or me over to your house before next Wednesday.

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