I made my poetry slam debut last week. Sponsored by one of our high school seniors, I smiled “maybe” when she invited me to slam. Though intrigued, I had written little poetry to date.
Two days before the event, I resurrected a stream-of-consciousness piece from my cell phone. I revised. Rehearsed. Then spoke from my heart.
Update Your Progress: February 8, 2017 at 6:24 AM
you started reading
The Memory Book
41 days ago
Update your progress
My dad died 34 days ago
is that what you're asking?
dictate words into cell phone
read "time flies" on WaPoUpdate your progress
Calls and emails unanswered
Members of Congress ignored
voter suppression et al
he became president
Update your progress
We marched in Helena
The woman beside me said,
"isn't it nice to be aroundthinkers?"Update your progress
I fell on my driveway
wrist to shoulder swallowed whole
got me through
Update your progress
I returned to the treadmill
to walk and to read
Muslim ban and Cabinet nominees
sabotaged my mind
Update your progress
my heart bleeds for our country
my father rests in peace
It was a new word for me. Queer. 1967, age eleven, I sought out my twelve-year-old brother, careful to catch him out of earshot of younger siblings. “What’s a queer?” I asked.
“Ssshhh!” He flicked his head toward the adjacent bedroom where our mother was putting away laundry. “Mom will hear you.”
His stage whisper so loud, I was certain she heard him, not me. I left, question unanswered.
I had a fallback plan: Julie, our thirteen-year-old neighbor. She would tell me. And she did. I don’t remember her words. Straightforward, they didn’t leave a lasting impression. The shushing did.
I didn’t fault my brother, though. Growing up in the 1960’s, the families I knew didn’t talk about “the birds and the bees.” I added “queers” to the list, and moved on.
Twenty years later, I had my first baby. When I changed Eric’s diaper, I practiced saying “this is your penis” and “this is your scrotum,” determined to say those words as easily as “Head of hair. Forehead bare . . .”
When he was four, I borrowed a kids’ library book to read to him and to one-year-old Colin. It had cartoonish drawings and talked about bodies and making babies, subjects I did not want to be taboo. That same year, Eric traced a panty liner on a piece of paper. He presented his drawing, pride palpable: “I drew a uterus!”
His drawing did look like the knitted uterus I used in my Lamaze classes. I reveled in his artistry, creativity, and in the way the word rolled off his tongue.
Fast forward twenty-five years. I wish I had known to look for LGBTQIA books. That acronym was not in my vocabulary back then, but acceptance, empathy, love, and tolerance were. I have learned that I am an ally. And Eric is queer. He is also a Fulbrighter. A City Year AmeriCorps alum. An Education Pioneer. A TeamChild Board Fellow. And an MPA. A recent graduate of University of Washington, he was nominated to be both a Husky 100 and a Luce Scholar. He is fluent in Spanish; has lived on four continents; and is compassionate, kind, and an inspiration. His sexual orientation does not define him.
On the eve of his seventeenth birthday, Eric left Montana to spend a year in San Miguel de Tucumán, Argentina, as a foreign exchange student. Four days ago, I donned a pair of Argentine earrings he gave me, harnessing his courage as I prepared to embark upon my first solo door-to-door canvassing. His political activism began in high school when he restarted an Amnesty International club for his senior project. My activism, spotty throughout the years, kicked up last summer. In recent weeks, it has been on overdrive.
Montana has a special election coming up May 25. Our lone seat in the House of Representatives was vacated in March. I have been working hard to elect Democrat Rob Quist. He represents Montana values, including equity. His Republican opponent opposed non-discrimination ordinances in Bozeman and Butte. But equity is a Montana value, so both ordinances won easy victories: Bozeman unanimously; Butte 10-2.
At a recent Special Election Action Forum, a speaker shared a conversation she had had with her mother. When she referenced LGBTQ rights, her mom asked, “What does the Q stand for?” then said, “Oh. That’s a word I don’t use.”
Her mom is a Baby Boomer, like me. I didn’t use ‘queer’ growing up, either. I do now.
Last week, while tabling on the University of Montana campus, I talked with another Baby Boomer. He expressed concerns about the candidates. I rattled off Rob Quist’s Montana values: public lands, affordable health care, Medicare and Social Security, public education, Second Amendment Rights. He told me he had been in the healthcare field, so we talked about that.
Then I shared the heart of my story. I told him I had never really campaigned before. I said that Rob Quist believes in equity, and I was fighting for my queer son who cried for two weeks after our November election. The current Republican candidate had fought non-discrimination ordinances, I said. I tried to keep the quiver out of my voice when I added that my fight was to elect a man who believes in equity.
He listened, then said that my son should not have to worry about being treated equitably. He put his hand on my shoulder, and told me he would vote for Quist “for your son. My wife will, too,” he said.
I thanked him, hoping he realized the depth of my gratitude.
I had another tender conversation when I knocked doors two days later. The man told me he had lost his wife the week before. His words matter of fact, I asked about her. Sixty—my age—she died too young. He told me about her cancer and her medical bills. I told him about my dad, who had passed away three months before, five days after breaking his hip. Eighty-nine, he had a good, long life. We talked about affordable healthcare for all.
I told him I was campaigning because I had a queer son, and because Rob Quist believes in equality.
“Your son is what?” he asked.
“What does that mean?”
“It’s an umbrella term for non-heterosexual,” I said. I told him it was a reclaimed term, not the slur of our youth.
“I did not know that,” he said, words thoughtful and deliberate.
We talked a bit more about his wife’s upcoming celebration of life before saying goodbye.
When I reached the sidewalk, he called, “Tell your son there are people out there who support him.”
“I will,” I replied, voice catching.
Tears threatened as I walked to the next house. His words affirmed what I knew, and gave me resolve. Montana has a single seat in the House of Representatives. I will continue to fight for Montana’s voice to be one of affirmation, safety, and inclusiveness.
At times I carted board books and picture books to class, one for each student to peruse as I pitched our public library and its special children’s offerings. I hoped those efforts resulted in some library visits, not only because of my lifelong love of reading and libraries, but because one of my parenting highlights involved my lap, two boys, and good books, which segued to sitting on the couch, bookended by Eric and Colin reading “a page and a page.”
My days and nights of Lamaze classes, OB nursing, and read-alouds are long behind me. I miss the magic of birth, but I love the magic of books. Last week a teacher shared a conversation she’d had with her four-year-old grandson about a “chapter book” he’d recently finished, and about his pride at listening to longer books. We talked about Imagination Library, which prompted me to take another look at its website. Two days ago, the number of U.S. children (birth-age five) registered was 900,712. Today, that number has morphed to 939,462. Beautiful. I hope stories and books continue to thrill those kiddos into high school and beyond.
More than two years have passed since I left hospital nursing. The words I penned in my farewell note to my obstetrics colleagues, some of whom I’d worked alongside for nearly twenty-two years, were bittersweet. I’m replacing the magic of birth with the magic of books.
Since then, I haven’t looked back. I now have the pleasure of working with two exceptional teacher-librarians at Hellgate High School.
Daily, I’m touched by interactions with students and staff. Students’ impassioned “you have to read this!” recommendations have introduced me to books I would not have chosen on my own. I’ve had occasion to suggest books as well, not only the gut-wrenching, realistic fiction I gravitate toward, but other genres too. Along the way, some students have confided heartbreaking experiences of their own.
Others have shared their interests and aspirations. Months ago I asked a student her last name in order to loan her a book. I’d remembered her first name, but had to clear out some of the nursing stuff in my memory bank to make room for more names, I explained.
“You were a nurse?” she said, not waiting for a response. “Was it worth it? I want to be a nurse.”
“It was.” We chatted about nursing as we walked to the stacks, to a collection of stories by nurses.
Flipping through the pages of my book she said, “I’ll have to read this,” then told me she’d read it later. As we returned to the front, she said again, “I want to be a nurse. I want to do something important.”
I told her that was great, that we need more nurses. I told her I’d been at hundreds of births, which had been important, “but sharing books is important, too.”
She shot me a quizzical look, unconvinced.
I’ve seen her several times since, and she’s borrowed a number of books. She hasn’t read my nursing book yet, but I hope she will. And if she does choose to become a nurse, I know she’ll be an asset to the profession.
(mīn(d)-fəl-nəs) n. the quality or state of being mindful; the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis www.merriam-webster.com
The importance of being mindful hit home in a painful way a couple of months ago. The instant I put in my contact lens, I realized my mistake. Instead of applying wetting solution, I’d reapplied cleaning solution. The stuff that carries a bold printed warning: Not for use in the eye, cleaner could damage the eye.
I struggled to get my contact out. I don’t know if the thoughts racing through my mind made my fingers less nimble, or if the soapy solution created more suction than usual on my gas permeable lens, but it took too long to pop it out. Fifteen seconds, give or take. Fifteen seconds, magnified tenfold.
To make matters worse, we were in Brazil. The nurse in me knew that I needed to rinse my eye for fifteen minutes. We’d been advised not to drink the tap water and, though no one had said anything about using it as an eye rinse—who would’ve thought—it didn’t seem like the best idea. But we were nearly out of bottled water, so I rinsed with tap. Two minutes, max. In part because rinsing made my eye hurt worse. In part, too, because I wondered if something in the “do-not-drink-the-water” might be equally damaging to my eye.
I asked my son Colin to look up “contact cleaner in eye” on the internet, unsure if I needed to scout for a place to have a Sunday morning eye exam. His sleuthing was reassuring, so I grabbed money and my pocket English-Portuguese dictionary and headed to a nearby pharmacy.
On the way, I heard someone calling my name, and was joined by two Daves, fellow Missoulians en route to the supermarket. Dave K. accompanied me to the pharmacy, his English-Portuguese phone app at the ready. The pharmacist, who didn’t speak English but who had bailed me out days earlier when I’d shown her the word nausea, nodded when, this time I pointed to eye drops. I hadn’t expected to find that in my little dictionary. But there it was.
After she handed me sulfacetamide drops—prescription medication in the U.S.—I tipped my hand above my eye and asked, “Água?” Reaching over the counter, she pointed to eight-ounce bottles of saline. Thinking that bottled water might hurt less, I paid for the eye drops, then Dave and I continued on to the neighboring supermarket—I to buy water, he to buy water and a snack for his teenaged son.
I did a second rinse with the bottled water when I returned to our apartment. It hurt as much as the first, so I kept it equally short. My eye had watered nonstop since its cleaning solution assault, so I hoped my abbreviated rinse, coupled with the tears, would be adequate. I followed the rinse with eye drops, which I continued to use three or four times each day, even though inching that bottle toward my eyeball gave me the willies.
I wore my glasses for days; the swelling resolved; and, true to Colin’s internet research, I didn’t suffer permanent eye damage.
My take-home lesson? Be present.
I had a chance to practice on our way home when our Chicago flight was delayed. Our departure time changed three times as 9:47 a.m. morphed into 12:27 p.m.. I walked, had a bowl of chicken tortilla soup, and perused a display of self-improvement books. Summing up the lesson I learned the hard way in Salvador? A quote I discovered in Frank J. Kinslow’sBeyond Happiness: Finding and Fulfilling Your Deepest Desire, “The mind set firmly on the present is at rest.”
I wish I could’ve captured the expressions of the Hellgate High School students’ and recorded snippets as they listened and responded to my pitches. “I’ve heard about this book,” one boy said. “He had to wear a button that said, ‘I am Chinese,’ didn’t he?”
Another said, “I love this book!” adding, “I have a copy,” which freed the remaining book for one of his friends.
Along with a brief chat about Hotel, I told the students that Jamie lives in Great Falls (one hundred seventy miles away) and that “he’s a big deal”—having recently traveled to cities across the U.S., Italy and Norway with his newest book, Songs of Willow Frost. I told them he was in Missoula last fall for The Festival of the Book and I had the pleasure of meeting him.
Some were duly impressed.
They laughed when they heard about Jamie’s “Houdini” dog, Dexter, and the YouTube video that had garnered more than twenty-seven thousand views. In the ensuing days, Dexter has become even more famous. As of today, his viewing audience has escalated to 40,670.
For those I didn’t capture at “Hello,” something in our conversations closed the sales for most of the students I encountered that afternoon. Once books were in hands and I’d received permission to take and post photographs, I took out my camera. For the third year running, my favorite part about being a World Book Night giver?
Jamie penned a letter two weeks ago, though I didn’t discover it until yesterday. To those who received a copy of his book, this letter’s for you. To those who did not, read it anyway. His letter—and the above tweets—prove what a cool guy Jamie really is.
It is the time of year when many high school seniors are immersed in college applications. Some have ideas about what they want to pursue after graduation. Others do not.
As I worked my way through my final year of high school forty years ago, I knew I wanted to follow in my mother’s footsteps and become a nurse. A Butte Central classmate, Janet Finn, was planning to study pre-med. Another classmate, Leah Joki, had plans to undertake a fifth year of high school in Belgium, then come back and become a film critic. None of us envisioned that, years later, we would be authors.
Last month, the three of us took a road trip back to our roots to read from our most recent works. We read at the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives at noon and at the Finlen Hotel Copper Bowl Ballroom that evening.
Our audiences were a mix of people we knew and people we didn’t; of folks with longtime Butte ties and relative newcomers. At our evening reading, a three-generation family whom we did not know sat in the front row. We learned that the grandmother had penned a memoir about growing up in China and the Philippines during WW II. The dad, a Golden Gloves boxer, had coached prison inmates in the sport. The mom had worked as a nurse at Saint Patrick Hospital in Missoula, and their daughters—one in college and one in high school—aspired to become an actor and a writer.
Years have passed since Janet, Leah and I were the ages of those girls, and our lives are different than what we had imagined they would be. Janet teaches in social work, women’s studies, and international development studies at the University of Montana. Leah received an MFA in acting from the University of Montana last spring. She recently wrote and performed her one-woman show, PRISON BOXING, at Missoula’s Downtown Dance Collective. I, after a long and fulfilling nursing career, am working as a library media assistant in a Missoula high school. We all have works in progress.
To the girls who were seated in the front row at the Copper Bowl Ballroom, best of luck as you pursue your dreams. To Leah and Janet, our high school English teachers would be proud.
When I tell people that my novel, Nanny on the Run, is based on my summer of 1977, I’m sometimes asked, “What percentage of the book is true?”
The answer is difficult to quantify.
Like Bridget, I was a nanny on the run in New York City in 1977. The guts of my experience are what I used to shape the fiction that is Bridget’s story. And fiction it is. I began the story years ago. Then, in 2002, The Nanny Diaries hit the shelves. Not wanting my work in progress to be viewed as a copycat novel, I started over. I wrote my true story—but changed the names of some of the key players.
I finished the memoir in 2005. After an unsuccessful attempt to find an agent or publisher, I tucked my manuscript away. I hadn’t intended to write the truth anyway, so it seemed fitting to box up the pages and slide them under my bed. The end, I thought.
Instead, it was only a hiatus. In 2010, I began anew. Rather than resurrecting my previous fiction, I started over. That result, Nanny on theRun, was published nearly six months ago.
When I contemplate Bridget’s story, I think about the Play-Doh 3-packs of my youth.
I envision yellow as my life, blue and red as fiction. Bridget’s story is a patchwork of yellow—those places where her story mirrors mine; green—blue mixed with yellow to symbolize the places where my story undergoes change and morphs into Bridget’s; and purple—a blend of red and blue to signify where Bridget’s story is purely make-believe.
My intent to not tell my true story carries through to today. When asked questions about me or my summer, my M.O. is to steer my answers back to Bridget and her story. But I will tell you this. Three parallels between Bridget’s summer and mine are that we each felt like fish out of water. We were treated like servants. And both of us left without saying goodbye.
As for bits of yellow? Bridget and I share the same hula hoop record. We both were candy stripers. And each of our dads were Golden Gloves boxers in their youth. But mine was tougher.
One of my annual highlights for the past several years has been attending the Montana Festival of the Book. I love everything about the Festival: readings and panel discussions; chats about the craft of writing and about the publishing industry; films; vendors and the Festival bookstore; and the opportunity to meet and mingle with authors, agents, editors, publishers, and other Festival attendees. As its website states, “The Humanities Montana Festival of the Book is one of the biggest cultural events in the Northwest.”