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Nov 2, 2015 - Uncategorized    No Comments

An All Souls’ Prayer for the Near Misses

In this season of remembrance,

as the world prepares for the long sleep of winter,

our hearts draw closer to the ones who’ve gone before.

We open the bundles of grief

whether thickly wrapped by the years

or jagged edges poking through new, thin cloth,

glimpsing the missing who walk at the blurry edge of vision.

 

But not all we mourn has passed on.

Our hearts sometimes rattle with the terror of near misses,

when the almost-lost are still this side of the thinning veil.

We see their ghostly pictures on the ofrenda.

We see friends and coworkers, and imagine what they’d wear to the wake.

 

We give no time to recover from these brushes with loss

Of deaths so narrowly averted, our knees still quake

and we listen to their breathing in the night

and imagine how different the house would sound without it.

We wash the clothes they wore the day we almost lost them.

Our hands are drawn like magnets to rub the scars.

We drive out of our way not to see the cursed-blessed place.

 

Accidents and attempts, panics and scares, on days so near

we might still turn to those pages in our planners.

And when we cry our tears of terror and relief on All Souls’ Day,

when we are pressured toward gratitude instead of grief,

the hundred thousand living specters squeeze the breath from our lungs

at the graves marked but not dug.

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Apr 2, 2014 - Uncategorized    3 Comments

The Abusive Cult of Autism Speaks

A brief note: I’m not someone who believes religion is inherently evil and damaging. However, it’s inarguable that religious institutions and self-serving people in them have done evil, damaging things to individuals, communities, and nations in the name of their religions throughout much of human history. If you don’t agree that there’s a difference between religions as philosophies, and the human-run institutions that gather temporal power in their names, you’re probably not going to get much out of this post.

I understand why people flock to Autism Speaks. Really, I do. Yes, as an autistic person and mother to one, I am furious, shocked, outraged, and exhausted by the hate speech this group produces, while still monopolizing the loyalty of millions of people and the attention of the media. But when people ask me how anyone who knows someone autistic could possibly support this organization, I’m forced to admit that it makes perfect sense. Religious institutions have been abusing the faithful for centuries with many of the same tactics.

It starts with a crisis. Autism is not a disease, nor is it a death sentence, but the current public opinion tells parents whose child is diagnosed with autism that they should be devastated. Give up the dreams you have for your child, they’re told. They will never give you those perfect moments that every parent imagines for nine months or longer. They won’t go to kindergarten, or play sports, or go to college, or marry. You may never hear them say “I love you.”* You didn’t get the child you expected; you’re the victim of a cruel bait-and-switch. Autism Speaks validates this fear and betrayal; autism is a thief that abducts children and leaves dolls and monsters in their place.

In the face of this decree, parents look for absolution. They confess to a parade of doctors that they ate linguine with white wine sauce or took an antidepressant during pregnancy, or broke down and asked for pain relief during labor, or followed the recommended vaccination schedule during the first years of their child’s life. Autism Speaks tells parents that they don’t deserve guilt or blame for their child’s condition; autism is cruel and whimsical like a natural disaster.

The only acceptable response to denial and despair is to follow the proscribed path to salvation, and parents are promised that, if they do enough, they can pull their child back from the brink of hopelessness and save their families. Given the choice, what could possibly be too radical a course? To save a child, is there ever too much money, too many doctors, too many hours of therapy? The community of the suffering lifts up parents who pursue the most extreme efforts of self-sacrifice and dedication, and the stories of these saints are shared like talismans of paradise. Autism Speaks leverages the language of battle; autism is an enemy that can only be defeated by militant means.

And someday, the war will be over. Someday, parents’ sacrifice will be unnecessary, but only if we raise more money, hand out more blue lightbulbs, and find a “cure”. A cure would bring back the changelings, the lost children we misplaced through our carelessness. Of course, there’s one thing that’s even better than a cure: a test. If we had a test, surely no compassionate person would inflict this pain on innocent children and those who love them.** Autism Speaks offers hope of redemption and salvation; autism can be escaped and wiped out.

Except that none of this is true. The lie is that autism is a disease, or a thief, or a disaster, or a war, or a thing that can or should be exterminated. If you believe any of those, then you must accept that you believe the same thing of autistic people themselves.

And if you can’t believe that anyone is a disaster or a war or a thing that should be exterminated, then you must reject Autism Speaks. Their rhetoric makes precisely these claims about autism, and they use up the public’s attention span on the subject of autism to raise money that almost never actually helps a single autistic person or their family with what they need right now.

The most important thing about abusive religious institutions AND Autism Speaks is that they cannot tolerate sunlight, and they cannot function without a silent object of devotion. When autistic people’s voices are heard, the lies and hate speech wither in the full force of the logic, empathy, power, and beauty of their real lived experiences.

Because autistic people and their families are fully alive, no matter what Autism Speaks says. And life is messy, chaotic, expensive, and exhausting. It’s also hilarious, and meaningful, and transcendent.

Whether or not you believe there’s something that comes after this life as we’re living it, surely it can’t be won by silencing and abusing others on the way.

 

* – It hasn’t been that long since the same things were said to parents of LGBT or Down’s Syndrome children. In some places, they still are.

** – This is not a new concept. Most people know it under another name: eugenics.

Dear Santa, You Suck

I was 5 when I figured out the Easter Bunny wasn’t real. It wasn’t that I failed the suspension of disbelief–it was that I noticed the Easter Bunny had the same handwriting as my aunt that year. In my usual, filterless way, I started to announce my observation, but my mom clapped a hand over my mouth and dragged me toward the bathroom like she was making off with the Lindbergh Baby.

To her everlasting credit, she didn’t lie to me. I asked if EB was real; she said no. I remember scrunching up my face, heaving a sigh, and saying, “Santa too?” She nodded silently, then issued the death threat to end all death threats if I wrecked the “magic” for my sibs and cousin. I got it, and we left the bathroom as co-conspirators. In the years that followed, ones of poverty and divorce, I knew that magic didn’t put presents under our tree. I knew that my brother’s Cabbage Patch Kid and my sister’s Barbie Dream House didn’t come from a workshop–they came from year-long savings and a tiring wait in line at the toy store. And I liked the thought of my mom sitting down to eat some milk and cookies after we’d all gone to bed on Christmas Eve. I knew she’d earned it.

When the Darling Husband and I set out to have children of our own, we thrashed out a lot of our game plan far in advance. One of those things was Santa, and the conclusion we reached was that we would never actively lie to our kids about the fat man’s existence. But we’ve done a whole lot of evasion and omission over the years. When they ask if Santa is real, we ask them, “What do you think?” When they ask how Santa knows where to find us when we travel, we ask them, “What tools would you use to find someone?”

This year, though, I’ve really had it. There are so many things about the Santa tradition that piss me off. Let’s leave alone for the purposes of this discussion the whole creepy, stalker, NSA-level spying, remorseless housebreaking aspect. “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” should be giving kids nightmares, and making parents peruse home alarm systems instead of Brookstone catalogs.

My first objection is that Santa compliance is mandatory for American kids. Nobody knows how to leverage peer pressure like grade-schoolers, and woe betide the kid who has to explain why Santa doesn’t visit their house. Maybe it’s because their family celebrates Hanukkah or Diwali instead. But maybe it’s because they don’t have money for presents. Kids are quick to point out that how much you get from Santa is an indication of your worth and goodness. No presents means you are lacking as a person, and kids internalize that message along with the holiday mythology.

My second problem with Santa comes from his whole Modus Operandi. To get presents from Santa, you fill a letter with all the things you’re wishing for, stick it in a mailbox, and wait for your wishes to arrive. We don’t write Santa letters in our house, but the grandparents are quite the sticklers about wish lists. This process always begins with the paralysis of choice: they’ve been told all year long not to ask for things we can’t buy, but now they’re supposed to summon up all the things they’ve wished for in the last 12 months? We’ve tried to mitigate some of the stress by constructing categories, explaining that they should have things that are cheap, medium-priced, and crazy-go-nuts over-the-top. I’ve wished for a Harley-Davidson motorcycle for the last 20 Christmases; my brother politely requests the Eiffel Tower every year. Recently, we’ve moved to a “Wear/Read/Play” model, which seems to function even better.

My third complaint is that Santa requires no gratitude. Since everything the man in the suit brings is magically constructed (apparently for free) in his workshop, and you get what you deserve, why be thankful? If Santa gets all the credit, kids don’t have any reason to think about what it costs for their loved ones to make those presents appear. Why is money so tight in November and January? Why does Mom look absolutely thrashed by December 26? As much as kids understand that a poor showing from Santa means that they’ve been bad, parents understand that if they don’t give enough presents, they’re failing a part of the parental contract laid out by society.

So that’s it, fat man–I’m cutting you off. This is the last year you get all the joy and none of the blame. I’m not falling for the line that taking away Santa will “deprive my children of a sense of wonder.” You know what they can feel wonder for? Real things, like nature, the cosmos, the infinitely woven tapestry of story and life that surrounds them. Instead of watching the NORAD website for Santa’s supposed location, we’ll bundle up and look at the cold, clear night sky.

When my kids get the things they want for Yule, they’ll know it’s because their parents worked hard, and that every gift cost real money that someone had to earn. They’ll learn the joy of giving by seeing and understanding why we’re happy that they’re happy with their gifts. The holiday magic will come from family stories and traditions, from the candles and songs on the darkest night of the year, and from the Time Lord with a Christmas special that we can feel good about our kids believing in.

Sep 20, 2013 - Uncategorized    1 Comment

What I Can Do For You

I didn’t set out to be a Woman of Mystery. Really, I didn’t–I’ve always thought the whole thing with secret identities was super-hokey.

But it appears that some folks don’t actually know what all I can do. That probably has a lot to do with having a number of different jobs, some of them concurrently. So I thought that maybe I’d write a post that just stands as a more chatty sort of CV, for future reference. I know I’ll be back in here to fiddle with the things I’ve left out, but this is basically me.

EDUCATION

I have 15 years’ teaching experience. Most of that is at the university level, but I substitute taught for middle and high schools for 3 years, where I was a special favorite of the foreign language teachers. I also have experience teaching short-term history and foreign language courses for homeschool collectives where kids to get instruction on subjects a little more technical or diverse than most parents can provide.

I’ve written whole courses, including websites and primary source collections, for Western Civ, Intro to World Religions, Women in Religion, Early and Medieval Christianity, and Rhetoric and Composition. I lecture, I organize group activities, I lead discussion groups, I write and grade exams, and I give one hell of a test prep session. And I am exactly the person you want to bring along on a trip to a museum or an historical site. (I may not be the person you want to go see a movie about medieval times with, though.)

I can train folks on skills commonly used in (but not exclusively by) community organizing. I’m a good consultant on issues of diversity, especially women’s and LGBT issues and neurodiversity, because I can effectively articulate the reasons why things do or don’t work.

EDITING/PUBLISHING

I offer professional services in copyediting and proofreading, as well as art direction. I edit for content, consistent style and voice, continuity, and flow. I can also check formatting in academic work using MLA or Chicago style. I’m good at highlighting problematic topics and language that might not be accessible or welcoming to every reader. And I’m like the kid from The Sixth Sense when it comes to proofreading: “I see typos. Everywhere.

I have had paid gigs editing and/or proofreading academic papers, roleplaying games, board game instructions, marketing material, self-help books, and SF/F novels. I’m eager to branch out into editing more genres of fiction (I would rule the world at romance novel editing), and I’m looking forward to my first paid job translating a major work from French to English soon.

I adore doing art direction, especially for RPGs, because I get very clear images in my head from the text, and I’m good at describing them for artists to interpret. I include copious photo references (all digital links these days) for people, places, correct period costumes, weaponry, and other relevant details.

CREATIVE

I crochet, knit, cross-stitch, sew, and make jewelry, as well as a number of more or less useful one-off crafts. I brew herbal medicines in my kitchen, including “magic stuff” which may be the most useful substance ever invented. I perform tarot card readings (yes, it seems to work equally well over Skype, email, or Twitter). I blog, and I write short- and long-form fiction–I would dearly love to participate in an anthology. I can design meaningful multi-faith (or no-faith) rituals for any occasion, like weddings, memorials, or baby blessings. I’m good at public speaking, and have performed speeches, sermons, and MC duties. I’m designing my first card game; I’m also writing a roleplaying adventure that teaches social skills to kids on the autism spectrum.

How to Be An Activist

It’s been a pretty harrowing June, and the last 24 hours have encapsulated the atmospheric highs and stomach-churning drops of being fully engaged in our democratic process. The Supreme Court decision to gut a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, the inspiring filibuster of a draconian anti-abortion bill in Texas, and today’s SCOTUS ruling on marriage equality have been a rollercoaster through elation, despair, outrage, cynicism, hope, admiration, and faith in the people, if not the process.

Through it all, I’ve fielded a number of questions about how I can stand to invest so much of my heart and effort into issues so much bigger than myself, many of which don’t even touch me in my place of acknowledged privilege. Personally, I’ve never felt like I had much of a choice–I couldn’t not care or act on that feeling. But here’s a brief primer in how to find that commitment in yourself.

Step #1: Figure out what you believe in. Everyone has core values, and those are the only things that can motivate someone to stand up and fight the good fight. If all you can come up with are things like “I believe Han Solo shot first,” or “I believe in cake,” or “I believe that Washington is evil,” you’re not digging deeply enough–you’ve got to strike bedrock for this to work.

If you believe in the magical, transformative power of books, put in some time to improve library access or literacy programs. If your faith is important to you, figure out ways to act on the belief that all God’s children are worthy of love, or that this planet was given to us as a sacred trust and should be preserved. If your religion is democracy, work to bring sunlight and integrity back to the broken processes that limit our rights.

My bedrock truth is that every single person has inherent worth and dignity, and I act on this in a multitude of ways. I work for racial and LGBT justice. I strive for more accepting and safe schools for our kids. I speak out for freedom of the press and against the death penalty and mass incarceration. I march for each woman’s right to choose. I stand up for rights and respect for disability rights and neurodiversity. So many issues, one underlying principle.

Step #2: Show up. I’m not being trite or overly simplistic. Inertia is the greatest enemy to getting active on the issues that move you, and it’s why you need that deeply motivating value to clear away obstacles. Don’t know how to get involved? There’s this fantastic thing called the Google Machine. Use it. Scheduling conflicts? I don’t know an organization anywhere that won’t take whatever time you can spare, whenever you can spare it. Afraid of being challenged? Good. New experiences do that. But when you act in spite of that fear, you are most open to the experiences that will expand your views, your world, your circle of friends, and your hope for the future.

Two important things about showing up, though.  First, show up as an apprentice. Too many groups swoop in as “suburban saviors,” with big ideas about how to fix people’s problems in a weekend. These solutions are the likeliest to stick, and they come from a place of privilege and self-gratification, not true altruism. Don’t come with an agenda–show up and ask how you can help.  Second, keep showing up. Again and again, on the issues that matter to the community you’re joining. Let them know that you’re an ally who can be counted upon.

Step #3: Profit. Okay, I’m mostly kidding about this, but stick with me. You’ll never make big money doing good works, but that’s not why anyone gets into it. The dividends are much more varied and durable than money, though. When you keep showing up, you learn new skills, many of which spill over into the rest of your life and make you a better worker, partner, parent, and friend. The base of people you know explodes. If networking is king in the new economy, activism is like LinkedIn that actually helps people. Also, you’re going to have a ridiculous amount of fun. If you’re not having fun at least part of the time, then it’s not activism that’s failing you–it’s that you haven’t found the right group of people to do this work with, so keep looking!

Another important note: Profit happens, yes, but investing yourself in issues and people comes with ups and downs. The only way to keep the fire lit under your chair is self-care. Set boundaries about how much time and energy you can afford to give, so you don’t flame out in a few months–AND THEN KEEP THEM. Organizers are going to test those boundaries, and defending them is excellent practice for doing so in other parts of your life. And when you do feel like you’re burning out, don’t turn inward and shut down. Reach out to other activists who’ve been doing it longer than you. Ask how they stay fresh. Trust me, it works.

So that’s it. It’s not superhuman, it’s not rocket science. Pick something that matters to you, show up ready to work, and keep coming back. Every single person is an activist waiting for an issue, and we never know when we’ll break through and make history.

 

 

Mar 17, 2013 - Uncategorized    No Comments

Relics of a Well-Spent Life

In a massive storm on the Eastern Seaboard in the 1800s, the deadliest and most destructive until Hurricane Sandy hit last year, residents of one seaside community reported watching one house lifted right off its foundations by the storm surge. The house then sailed back out on the waves, fully intact and upright, until it crossed out of sight on the horizon. It was never seen again, but the owner (so the story goes) found precisely one china plate from her mother’s heirloom set in the sand two miles down the beach in the days after the storm.

It’s very trendy to say that one could really do without every thing they own. We downsize, we donate, we do with less, and we feel very virtuous about it. “Stuff just weighs you down,” we say, and we’re not wrong. Objects are attachments that keep us from being fully mobile, fully free.

I’d be lying if I said I’d never contemplated a merry blaze as I cleaned up one more piece of homework, one more sock, one more crayon. We have things in a storage unit back in Wisconsin that we haven’t seen since we moved almost three years ago, and I can’t honestly say I’ve missed many of them. And there’s certainly more in this apartment than we truly need; the difficulty actually comes with disposing of much of it–where can it go, if recycling isn’t possible when reducing, but contributing stuffed animals and kitchen implements to a landfill?

I’ve even trained myself out of several things I thought I could never do without. I used to answer the “What would you save in a fire?” question quickly: “My photos.” Never mind that they took up four heavy crates, I had plans as early as high school for how to throw them out onto the lawn before seeking refuge myself. Now, I’m okay with digital files instead of physical prints. I still have files upon files of papers from my grad school and teaching days, but much like my photos, if I could get them all scanned and searchable, it would be a joy to cart them to the recycling center. And I’m even adjusting to not owning a physical object that contains my music and makes it portable. I might even believe in The Cloud someday.

DeathAutographBut I have a collection of precious objects that I’m not willing to part with. They come from creators and givers who’ve provided years of joy and inspiration. Many of them are signed books or CDs, inscribed with my name and personal messages. I’ve had people in line tell me that I was an idiot for asking for personalized signatures–“It’s worthless now!” they said as they saw my name on it.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

Relics are common in every world religion, but they play a unique role in Christian belief. Because Jesus’ death and resurrection are the primary incidents of divine intervention at the core of the faith, it was believed that saints who chose to die for their faith rather than save themselves through abjuration were touched by God at the moment of their deaths as well. This transformed the graveyards of martyrs from unclean and unlucky places into the homes of the divinely touched dead. The celebration and white clothes of early Christian mourners, as they paid homage in the unsafe burial grounds outside city walls, made ancient pagans very uncomfortable, yet another reason they rejected the Jesus cult for so long.

Ancient people also believed that the location of a past miracle actually raised the chances of another miracle occurring in the same place, rather than our modern notions of lightning never striking the same place twice. If death is the ultimate miracle, than the remains of the dead become the ultimate location for a potential repeat. And the fact that those remains made that miraculous location physically portable was just the icing on the morbid cake. If you could carry an object with you that made you more likely to have a personal experience with God, it’d be hard to pass that up.

I’m certainly not claiming that any of the objects that mean so much to me are divine connections, but they do serve as concrete links to to a moment of human contact I shared with someone I love and admire. Friday night, Darling Husband and I went on a date to see a radio show taping featuring comic Paula Poundstone and musician Robyn Hitchcock (of The Soft Boys and the Egyptians fame). Robyn’s music was part of the soundtrack of my high school and college years, and Paula’s comedy was one of the earliest bonding experiences with the DH after he moved to the States 16 years ago. I had stuffed my two favorite CDs and a Pretty Good Joke Book from Prairie Home Companion into my tiny purse, on the off chance that we got to meet them, but after waiting for more than a half-hour after the show, it seemed less likely. I bugged one of the staff members, explained how one of the CDs was an incredibly rare bootleg of a concert booked under a different name. They said Paula was probably taking off, but Robyn would be out in a bit.

RobynHSo when both came out the door, I sort of blanked. I totally forgot about the Joke Book, and started telling her about how the DH and I met, and the funny lines that have become in-jokes between us. She seemed genuinely pleased, thanked us for the kind story, and happily signed our show program to the both of us. With Robyn, I had a whole extended conversation about the bootleg, and the cover art of the other CD which had been modified in the second pressing, and as random and delightful a variety of subjects as I would hope from the godfather of surreal UK proto-punk and alt-pop. I explained how my boys enjoyed when I sang one of his songs to them, and he scrutinized the picture of them I showed him. He asked their names, and took a funny picture with me.

By the time we left the theater, I was shaking and teary at how kind and engaged both stars were to an obviously flustered mega-fan. And I was holding onto two more precious relics. They’ll never show up on eBay or any other fan site for sale; their meaning is entirely personal. But whenever I touch them and look at the inscriptions, they collapse the time between when those marks were made and when I’ll be in the future, bringing the joy and miracle of human contact fully back into the material present.

People are right that I don’t need objects or photos to remember important moments. There’s no doubt I’ll remember that moment any less clearly in 20 years than what I had for breakfast the morning before. My autistic memory is indelible and visual, so it’s even less trouble for me than for many people to pull up the images and conversations that left deep impressions. But my brain is also highly sensitive to sensory memory, so the touch of a CD jewel box, or the sound of a mixtape, or a porcelain statue, or the silky pages of a graphic novel evoke an even stronger sense of time and place.

These precious objects perform the miracle of bringing past joy into the present; that magic is wrought through the application of a Sharpie and a moment of human interaction. And as my collection of relics grows, I know that I could no more part with these attachments than with the experiences that created them.

WitsSwag

Mar 6, 2013 - Uncategorized    No Comments

Why Be An Activist?

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Because only people who want to show up, show up. No bad attitudes.

Because by coming together on a specific issue, the group has already self-selected by common interest, so you’re likely to like the people you volunteer with.

Because when people are already there to help other people, they make the best kind of friend.

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Because you never know whom you’ll meet when you announce your allegiance.

Because you’ll never feel as appreciated as when you share your unique talents for a common cause.

Because if you can, you’ll be standing up for yourself and someone who can’t.

Because you get to tell your own story, and who doesn’t love to talk about themselves?

Because it restores your faith in beauty, truth, and love.

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Because smiling while you protest makes the opposition nervous.

Because your experience and your presence are unique, meaningful, and needed.

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Because the halls of power belong to you.

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Because revolutions have laughter and dancing and good snacks (or at least they should, if they’re good ones).

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Because when you’re in a crowd, marching and chanting with one voice, you are unbelievably powerful.

Pride at Capitol

Because there aren’t many activities in life where everyone wins equally, no matter how much they put in.

Because you don’t have to be good to do good.

Because there’s a good chance your parent, grandparent, or ancestor wasn’t allowed to speak out like you can.

Because, while the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, it ain’t there yet.

Because we all do better when we all do better.

Witchin’ in the Kitchen

I wrote this essay almost 15 years ago, deeper in the dark of winter than I am right now. But at a friend’s request, and because every word of it still rings as true today as it did when I wrote it. The only thing that’s changed in all this time is that I’m a better, more inspired cook than I was when I was just starting out. I’ve delved into ethnic cuisines, and I’ve learned to trust my senses and my reading skill when combining ingredients. That’s another kind of magic: the confidence that comes with age and practice. But that’s a different blog post.

*****

The time for ritual is at hand. I stand in the place of my power, tools of the magic I will work laid out before me– silver, wood, and steel. Fire and water are at my command, earth and air held back by my will. In this time, I will draw on the forces of creation, shaping elements. Here, I am an alchemist, a hand of the goddess herself.

For I am a kitchen witch.

I embrace this title proudly, despite lingering associations with the silly wizened dolls on brooms available at most craft fairs. As a name, it covers it all–my faith, my pleasure, the locus of my greatest power. No hallowed circle, no standing stones could imbue me with more strength or more possibilities. One friend firmly maintains that, when it comes to the Craft, if I can’t do it with Morton’s salt and a wooden spoon, it can’t be done.

While I am not so bold as to commit to such a statement myself, the power of the kitchen, and what it summons and creates, is not to be denied. Though I began down the path of Wicca in solitude, I learned the magic of cooking as all good magics are best learned : at the elbow of a wise and laughing grandmother. The rules were simple. Wash your hands. Clean as you go. Read the whole recipe before you start. Measure with care. And, most importantly, share the joy as often as possible–that’s why there are always enough beaters and spatulas and bowls for everyone. If you abide by that last rule, no spills or scorches can spell failure. Just vacuum up the oatmeal, wash the egg out of your hair, and laugh about the fun you had.

I know, it doesn’t sound much like the holy tenets of any faith, or even much of a New Age philosophy. But the results simply could not be missed. Even as a child, I recognized the phenomenal power of what we created in that tidy sanctuary of counters and appliances. We’re talking full sensory miracles here, folks. The smell hits you when you walk in the door, enveloping you in a warm blanket of knowledge that, here, you will not go hungry. Someone cares enough to spend time and energy to refresh and nourish you. That simple understanding, at the most primal level, cuts loose the weight of the world, letting your spirit rise. The sight of flushed skin and flour smudges brings light and laughter, and sneaky little dips into aromatic steam and unfinished delights allow you to keep a greedy secret that heightens anticipation. All these things seal the feeling of community as you finally join in the simple pleasure of sharing tastes, sensations, and satisfaction, even if only with one other person. No wonder “communion” takes place with food in so many religions.

But I have to be honest about something, and it’ll probably blow the lid right off any sort of “kitchen witch mystique” I may have managed to build. I am no gourmet. I’ve never taken a cooking class. Those brownies which my friends and co-workers steadfastly maintain are the best they’ve ever tasted? Betty Crocker, Fudge Supreme, $2.49 with coupon. That chili whose aroma wafts out like tickling fingers when I open the door on a cold winter night, drawing my husband in all the quicker? Packet of spices, canned beans and tomatoes. Simmer on low for 20 minutes. That’s it. And I’ve never made a secret of it.

The rave reviews continue, with every potluck dish and party treat. Is it because I always stir clockwise, letting goodwill flow into the smooth batters and sauces? Most likely not. And I’d feel terribly silly if I sprinkled water and invocations over my electric oven to ward off burnt bottoms or mushy middles. My power as a kitchen witch, so far as I can tell, comes solely the enjoyment I take in doing something simple that will produce happiness in others. As I skim my finger down the well-worn page of my favourite cookbook, I’m already thinking of the smiles and hums of pleasure that my “magic potion” will summon into existence. As I clean shortbread dough from my utensils and fingernails, I can already hear the surprised exclamations of delight ringing in the doorway as visitors first hit that gorgeous wall of aroma. And hours later, after the cupboards are closed and the counters are clean, I can still smell the lingering scent of crushed herbs and sweet essences on my fingers, and I fold them beneath my nose and breathe prayers of thanksgiving for the chance to bring joy to those I’ve fed.

So I may not always remember all the poetic invocations when I call the Watchtowers in a Circle, but I remember the favourite food for every loved one in my life, and most of the recipes. And so I might be dreadful at keeping a proper herbal grimoire stocked–my spice racks are the envy of all who survey. I consider myself well on the road to the Lord and Lady’s wisdom, because I know the seat and value of a generous, abundant power within myself, one of the greatest signposts on everyone’s spiritual journey. And when I get there, I’ll be sure to have a dish to pass.

Jan 23, 2013 - Physical Ed, Uncategorized    5 Comments

Freedom of Choice

My mom could have legally aborted me.

Not that she did, obviously. She didn’t even want to. I was her first child, conceived in wedlock at a perfectly reasonable childbearing age.

But I just turned 38 in December, which means that about a year and three months before I was conceived, the Supreme Court ruled on the case of Roe v. Wade and declared that American women had a Constitutionally protected right to seek an abortion for whatever reason they saw fit. And when my mom discovered she was pregnant in the spring of 1974, she had more options than she had only fifteen months earlier.

The historian in me watches the observance of Roe v. Wade‘s 40th anniversary with a mixture of gratitude, dismay, and bemusement. I’m grateful to have lived my whole life in an America where the highest court of the land could write such a powerful statement of trust in women’s wisdom about their own reproductive rights. I’m dismayed that, in the intervening time, people who don’t trust women with such power have been so successful in circumventing this fundamental, adjudicated right.

And I’m utterly bemused by the multiple levels of collective amnesia surrounding the real history of abortion, fraught as it is. The surveys released this week that showed how few women under 30 actually know that Roe v. Wade was about abortion have conjured a great deal of justified facepalming. But I’d like to see a little acknowledgement that abortion is as old as civilization, and that for most of that time, women had control over those decisions. It wasn’t considered a conflict with one’s religious beliefs; every medieval woman knew how to make tea from rue, tansy, bayberry, or pennyroyal to “bring on late menses.” Only with the  pathologizing of reproduction, with male doctors in charge, did abortion become a battleground and women the most unreliable judges of their own best interests.

I’ve said for a long time that I’m unequivocally pro-choice. I turned out for the 2004 March for Women’s Lives in Washington D.C.. I march at Planned Parenthood on Good Friday, as a visible contradiction to the crowds of abortion opponents who clog the sidewalks to shame and condemn the workers inside, despite the lifesaving work (overwhelmingly above and beyond abortion) they do for our communities’ most vulnerable women.

But I’ve always said that, while I’ll gladly fight for every other woman’s choice, I couldn’t choose that for myself. I’m a living, breathing paradox: an anti-abortion, pro-child,  pro-choice American woman. And I am far from alone in this slippery category. In fact, I have a feeling that we’re the silent majority.

I’m incredibly fortunate to have chosen when and how many times I became pregnant, and that I was able to carry those pregnancies to term. That said, my pregnancies were absolute hell. I was nauseated and vomiting 20 hours a day for 5 1/2 months with the first one, 24 hours a day for 7 1/2 months with the second, which contributed to the most excruciating, interminable flares of fibromyalgia in my entire life with the disorder. And as much as I love and prize my amazing, energetic, hilarious, brilliant, gorgeous sons, they both have special needs that make parenting an exhausting challenge on the best of days. As my husband and I age, the chances of another child bearing those same conditions only rise.

So I need to be perfectly honest: if I became pregnant again, I don’t know that abortion would seem as impossible as it once did. My health would suffer immeasurably, leaving me unable to work, so our family’s finances would strain to the breaking point. The upheaval would have a massive impact on the equilibrium and routine that help our sons function, with unimaginable consequences. It’s said that all a child needs from its family is love, but diapers and an active mom help too.

And before someone suggests that I’m too educated and self-aware to face an unplanned pregnancy, let’s be honest: education doesn’t magically repel sperm anymore than a lack of consent. While our kids are a phenomenally effective form of birth control, like any other form, they are not 100 percent foolproof. By age 45, over half of American women will experience at least one accidental pregnancy. And 61 percent of women seeking abortions are already mothers; more than three-quarters of them cite the impact of another child on their precarious balance of responsibilities. (All statistics are from a 2011 study by the Guttmacher Institute.)

I don’t have a story to tell about how abortion has impacted my life. I don’t have an important point to make on this anniversary of a landmark declaration of rights that are in some ways more difficult and dangerous to exercise today than 40 years ago. I don’t even have a deeper analysis of the shift in my feelings on my own holistic, reproductive health.

What I do have, though, thanks to Roe v. Wade, is a choice.

Secondhand Smoke Signals

  • “My cousin lives in Turkey, and he says he heard that only foreign fighters are carrying on the conflict in Syria.”
  • “One worker told a story of another man who said he heard someone on his assembly line talking about the sores and bone spurs on his feet that never healed because every day was an 18-hour workday.”
  • “As a doctor, I’ve talked to parents whose autistic children were so precariously balanced that something as small as the cancellation of a play date threw them into a violent rage that ended with the child menacing the parent with a knife. We need the resources to help these children get the hospital care they need.”

Now, I did a stint in journalism school when I first went to college, and I’ve seen more than my fair share of Law & Order marathons, so I won’t make assumptions that everyone sees the problem that those three quotes have in common. All three are fairly egregious exaggerations of unsubstantiated hearsay, which just won’t fly in a respectable publication or a court of law. It’s easy to imagine how they would be received. As journalism, the writer who submitted them would be laughed out of the newsroom by everyone from the copy editor to the cub reporter working the obituary beat. As testimony, the judge might file the objection herself before the opposing council could even get out of his seat.

Or worse: you could end up like Mike Daisey. He’s a performer who got a lot of attention for a one-man show called “The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” especially after Jobs’ death. Daisey’s work and the publicity it garnered brought the labor conditions at Apple’s subcontractor factory in Shengzhen, China to light for many people, driving the debate about the real cost of iPads when workers were committing suicide because it was preferable to another day on the Foxconn assembly line. The producers at WBEZ’s radio show This American Life were so impressed by Daisey’s show–the harrowing eyewitness accounts from his own trip to Foxconn, the tragic testimony he collected from abused workers, and the shocking indifference he exposed in Apple’s administrators and consumers–that they adapted the show for an entire hour-long episode.

Except Mike Daisey was lying. Conditions were horrible at Foxconn’s factories, and workers were suffering and dying for our shiny appliances. But he hadn’t seen the things he had said he’d seen; some of the testimony he recounted hearing firsthand was really second- or thirdhand. Ira Glass and the TAL staff (as were countless other journalists and media figures who’d given Daisey a platform and endorsement) were so embarrassed and furious at being duped into telling their audience things that weren’t true that they tracked down Daisey’s interpreter in China and got the real scoop on his visit. They then had Daisey back on the show for Ira to interview in what can only be described as one of the most excruciating half-hours of media ever produced. I highly recommend listening to both the original show and the retraction episode, but be warned: it’s brutal.

The level of outrage and disillusionment that accompanies the exposure of a reporter who doesn’t do due diligence is high, and it should be. We depend on people to get into the places, talk to the people, witness the events that we just can’t as regular, everyday people. Secondhand or thirdhand isn’t good enough, because we know that each degree of separation from the source costs us an unacceptable toll of perspective and authenticity.

But we accept it every day in stories about autistics and the mentally ill.

When’s the last time you read a story about autism that quoted an autistic child or adult? I’ve seen plenty of stories in which experts and parents tell you what their child’s behavior means, but I’ve never seen a feature that reads, “When I’m flapping my hands, it’s a way for me to stimulate my senses so my mind is free to focus on other difficult tasks, like putting words to my ideas so you can understand them.” Most autistics are capable of speaking for themselves, and new technologies allow more non-verbal people to communicate clearly and effectively. In fact, I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of my copy of the new anthology, Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking, and I loved the diversity of autistic voices included in the documentary Loving Lampposts.

The most recent example of this lazy, ignorant, shameful abridgment in the media is a cover story for the USA Today by Liz Szabo. In over 3,000 words, not counting captions for the color pictures and infographics, the article quotes not a single person with a mental illness or disorder. It’s not like there was no one to talk to. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), approximately 57.7 million American adults experience at least one episode of mental illness a year. And current estimates suggest that 1.5 million people on the autism spectrum live in the US. That’s more than the population of the New Orleans metro area, more than the populations of Alaska and Wyoming combined. More than the number of active duty troops in the US Military as of December 31, 2011.

Foxconn employs 1.3 million workers. We were dismayed and angry that a man who had no direct personal experience of their lives claimed to speak for the voiceless. We called for and received a public immolation of his reputation. But one in four American adults has experience with a mental illness or disorder, and we’re okay with “experts” and surrogates dominating the debate?

Our country has a lot of work to do on issues surrounding mental health. Destigmatization, holistic treatment, restorative therapy for mentally ill criminals, and long-term strategies for integration and care all need our attention desperately. But right now, how about we start by insisting that the affected voices be in the room? Put the subjects on the list of people to talk to for a story, or a study, or a hearing, or a forum. I used to think this was obvious–at least, until this hearing on contraception:

But we wouldn’t take a commission on racism seriously if it only had white people. And we wouldn’t stand for an article about what it’s like to have breast cancer without a single survivor quoted. We value those voices rightly, because their experience is irreplaceable.

We have to hold the media–and ourselves as consumers–to the same standard when it comes to mental illness and disorders like autism. Sometimes, secondhand just isn’t good enough.

********

UPDATE: Within 12 hours of posting this, I had a message in my Facebook inbox from…wait for it…Mike Daisey. I was frankly stunned that my little blog had ended up on his radar, and suspected mechanisms like Google Alerts and Reputation.com, until my boss told me that Mike had been Our Man On The Inside at Amazon for Atlas Games (the company I work for) for quite some time, and had even written content for our Unknown Armies roleplaying game line.

The message was very polite, and included a link to his blog for updates on what he’s been doing since to make reparations and keep his conscience clear. By all means, read it if you’d like to follow up the story–I’m all about getting my sources right. And I hope my original post adequately conveys my intention to mark Daisey’s work as instrumental in opening the public discussion about the labor conditions behind our favorite devices.

Daisey also mentioned a major article in WIRED Magazine about Foxconn that fails to cite a single worker, but hasn’t been held up to the same scrutiny as his work. All of which goes to show that the media still isn’t serious about talking to the subjects and victims of oppression, only about them.

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