Long, long, ago, in a galaxy of sippy cups far away, a youth group friend told me about Scary Mommy. (Oh yes, former youth group members like snark as much as anybody.). Perhaps I've found my sweet spot, because despite multiple rejections from Guideposts, I just published my first piece on Scary Mommy! It's about my experiences as a female Boy Scout volunteer. And yes, that's me in the header photo, holding a falcon. I mean, who wouldn't want to hang out with a falcon?!
Here's a link: Scary Mommy Scout piece
So, this quasi-quarantine summer is turning out to be a productive season. My YA historical is well under way. My kiddos still have a few activities to go to. I've read a few good books. And, my hair color is now RED...a better match for my firebrand personality.
A rare toilet paper sighting, early on a Sunday morning, during the COVID-19 outbreak.
In this corona-virus shutdown, I find myself in a place of unrestful comfort. No one at our house is visibly sick. We’ve got soap, toilet paper, WiFi, and a well-stocked fridge. Gratitude is my outer garment, but anxiety lies just beneath. Unlike a lot of my neighbors, I have survived a life-threatening disease. I’ve spent a few days in a coma and on a ventilator. My family was terrified, and I couldn’t see my kids for more than a week. I remember the sense of invincibility that I had before I got sick, the effervescent gratitude of survival, and how much my life has changed since that time. And I wonder if those that do contract COVID-19, and survive, will struggle with aftermath symptoms like I did, and if so, which ones. Hearing loss? Motor control? Memory? Or will it even be hard to breathe?
It’s been interesting to see other people develop the OCD/germophobe tendencies I’ve lived with for years. A video meme featured a young guy washing his hands repeatedly after accidental touches to the faucet handle and his face. I get this. I tend to open doors with my knuckles or a sleeve, even when there’s not a pandemic. Usually, I’m able to turn off the voices in my head, especially when I’m teaching music, though I cringe if a child returns from the restroom and announces, “I forgot to wash my hands!” I turn off the voices that screech “That’s dirty!” because I love people and don’t want to alienate them. And now that the Great State of Ohio has moved all schools to digital instruction, I only have to worry about the cleanliness of my own home.
So here I am, indirectly benefiting from this crisis by being home from work, while also haunted by those for whom staying home is not a privilege. An ER nurse at one of our local hospitals has contracted COVID-19. I’m terrified to hear about personnel without gowns and masks. I pray for them. I pray for their families. And I pray for my students, for whom school is a bright spot they’re missing out on.
It’s a sober time.
A couple of friends decided to rent a cabin to get away from the stress. I declined to join them (though that's not a slam on them, 'cause I love them to pieces). I have more peace at home right now. I have more time with my immediate family. Work on my writing has replaced the trip to see my mother in Florida, who happens to be one of the immune-compromised folks we are all working so hard to protect. A live-streamed service replaces our weekly time volunteering at church.
And as I write this, I’m watching the news conference of Governor Mike DeWine and Dr. Amy Acton, two figures who have put politics aside to slow the pandemic. Our state’s on a stay-at-home order until April 6.
I am eager for life to return to normal, but not so eager as to risk the spread. And I’m deeply grateful for those on the front lines: the healthcare workers, the police, the truck drivers, those making and selling our food. And yet, there’s a part of me wishing I could do more.
I leave you with one anecdote on how this epidemic affects our youngest ones. On Friday, I took some supplies to the food-and-lesson pickup at the school where I teach. And I saw one of my first graders. His face lit up as he saw me through an open doorway, and as he ran toward me, I said “Long-distance hug!”
He must not have understood, because he buried his face in my tummy and wrapped his arms around me. And I hugged him back. And as I did, I thought about what Jesus said about following the spirit of the law instead of the letter.
Exercise caution. Follow the guidelines. But hold people as close as you can.
Imagine you’re thirteen, and you’ve been best friends with your same-age stepsibling since you were tots. Matter of fact, everyone calls you “the twins.” But in just one short year, you go from this...
...because your dad finally made the big time with his heavy metal band (which is something along the lines of Korn):
“Hey, y’all, I’m Haven, and animals are my jam!”
“Sup, I’m Marlin, and I run with the popular kids. I can’t wait to get on the select baseball team.”
But while Dad’s out doing this...
Mom is doing THIS...
And suddenly, no one’s rocking steady.
ROCK UNSTEADY is set in modern-day Kentucky, where suburban McMansions are quickly overtaking the tobacco fields. The primary conflict’s between Haven and Marlin. They’re insanely jealous of each other, and what one wants is at odds with what the other needs. I drew upon my experiences as a rural Kentucky teen, a 4-H mom, and a loved one of an addict to craft this suspenseful modern yarn, told from Haven and Marlin’s points of view.
I have a blue-and-white badge that identifies me as a teacher in a large, urban school district. It carries just a tiny bit of power—as in, activating the elevator and entering through the side door—you know, the one without metal detectors. But that same badge, and the position it signifies, gets me some wrinkled noses in the lily-white community where I live. Since I’m an #AuthorEducator whose teaching works synergistically with my writing—even in the thick of the August rush—allow me to clear up a few misperceptions.
“Oh. Cincinnati Public.” For some white folks in the suburbs, those words are handled in the same way you’d pinch a Clorox wipe between your knuckles after wiping a toilet. As in, Oh, it’s necessary, but I try to stay far, far away. A few years back, I taught for a diverse suburban district, and I asked a teacher friend, “Why do people have such an attitude about Cincinnati Public?” She—a white woman with many black friends—answered bluntly: “They’re afraid of black people.” A couple years later, I met a white single mom who substitute-taught, and spent every penny of her meager earnings on an apartment in an affluent district. “I would do anything to keep my daughter out of Cincinnati.” But not long later, I was hired by the district, and sent my own son to kindergarten at a CPS magnet school. So there’s that.
“Are all your students black?” Yes, people actually ask that, and no, it’s not true. At my school, we serve Appalachian, African-American, Hispanic, and multiracial students. And I still tense up when I recall convos from earlier in my career, when SO. MANY. PEOPLE. attributed “the behaviors” to “the black kids.” Please believe me when I say this...you’re harming everyone with this stereotype. Parenting styles, individual talents, income, and yes, even privilege are so much bigger than color. I have worked with beautifully advantaged black children, and white kids who railed against a world that they believed hated them.
“Those teachers aren’t as qualified.” I have brushed up against some fabulous brains during my time at CPS. And I mean brains that are street smart as well as grade-and-test-score smart. We don’t just present content and plan experiences...we also spend countless hours on interventions to dismantle the barriers to learning that sprout up at every turn: hunger, racism, family dysfunction, drugs.
“I heard you all got a raise.” This was reported to me in a bright, chipper voice by a staffer at my son’s school, after we moved to the suburbs. I smiled and nodded, thinking of how she heard about this on the news, and how conservative talk radio pundits would rail about how taxpayer dollars were being flushed. I also thought about eighth grade boys prying the bars off my xylophones, and seventh-grade girls spitting in my hair when my back was turned, and late nights, typing and grading at my computer. And, I thought about how Cincinnati teachers report to work on days of freezing cold, leaving our suburban kids at home because it was deemed unfair for us to stay home for inclement weather.
I think I earned it, don’t you?
“You must be glad to leave all that behind at the end of the day.” Actually, it’s a little sad. Have you ever seen The Princess and the Frog? Do you recall when Tiana and her seamstress mother left rich Lottie’s house and rode the streetcar, past the mansions and their lawns, to the lot of tiny row houses? I make that journey in reverse when I leave the city for the four-bedroom houses of my ‘hood.’ See? Even when I call it my ‘hood,’ you see the irony. (No cultural appropriation intended). I didn’t grow up with money. But rubbing shoulders with the poor every day gives me an awkward relationship with what I have.
I know some, but not all, of the stories my students live. But my greatest hope is that they feel heard and validated by me. And if I am fortunate, it won’t just be within the white walls of my classroom. It’ll be in the white pages of the books I write, bringing their hurt and joy into full color. And maybe my story will spur them to write their own. Because stories live. Even when they come from those kids. In those neighborhoods.
At the end of each school day, I stuff the badge in my purse before beginning the long trek home. But I still feel its weight around my neck.
One man’s trash is another man’s recovery button for family traditions.
A couple of weeks ago, one of my stepsons showed up at our house with a hand-wrapped gift for my husband. I was a little surprised, since he’s not at the age of earning his own money yet. I was thrilled to get a new blender from my oldest stepdaughter last year—who waitresses—and joked that it replaced a blender that was about as old as she was. So the present from The Blur, as I’ll call this stepson, went under the tree.
Yesterday, when we opened gifts, my husband unwrapped the Blur Box to find a carefully handpainted Steelers logo on canvas, and….a Steelers sweatshirt. I wondered, how did a junior high kid foot the bill for NFL gear?
Turns out he didn’t.
On December 2, the Steelers suffered a heartbreaker of a loss to the LA Chargers. My husband, being the cool cucumber that he is, made his own charge out of our local Steelers bar, yanked off his Steelers sweatshirt, and threw it in a garbage can. Unbeknownst to me or his dad, The Blur fished the sweatshirt out of the trash can and obscured it under his own hoodie.
By then, my husband had reneged on his vow to never watch the Steelers again, which was a relief to The Blur and I both, since he’s evangelized us into Steelers fans, and we really love our Steelers bar.
I complimented The Blur on his ingenuity...and politely asked if the shirt had been washed. It hadn’t. But hey, easy fix.
And I’m glad this kid knows the value of a dollar.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all--even those dad-gum Patriots. And for more on our fabulous local Steelers bar, follow me on Instagram @elenavalewahl .
Last night, I went to see Bohemian Rhapsody with my husband and some of our kids, after our ten-year-old had begged for weeks. Some of you know I started out in screenwriting, and, as the filmmakers intended, I identified with Freddie Mercury on many levels: the search for acceptance in romantic relationships, the creative differences with his bandmates. But more than anything else, the high that Freddie got from making and performing resonated with me.
At eighteen, I had a crazy plan to major in biology and minor in music. I thought I could make a difference as a doctor for the underprivileged. But during my senior year of high school, when my Saturdays were filled with choir competitions, a minister from a church I didn’t attend talked to me about my future options. Elgin Emmons taught English at my small-town school as well as serving in the pulpit of a Methodist church, and I’ll never forget what he said about public education: “I can reach young people here who would never darken the door of a church.” So, teaching was a back-pocket option when I started college, despite the premed plans.
Then, late in my first semester, the music department hosted visitors from the Cincinnati College- Conservatory of Music. They joined our tiny Freshman Theory class to sing an acapella motet: If Ye Love Me, Keep My Commandments by Thomas Tallis. And my whole world shifted, because I literally felt like the music could levitate us into orbit. I thought, I have to plug people in to something this powerful. And I changed my major to music education.
Freddie Mercury’s immigrant parents might have preferred to have a doctor or an engineer for a son. But Freddie plugged into the power and, through his performances, plugged millions of others in, too. Like everyone else, I absorbed the vignettes about the genesis of hits like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” and “We Are the Champions” with a smile. But in the closing scene, when Queen performed “Radio Ga Ga” at Live Aid, I could not sit still. I was there. Not literally--though the concert’s publicity was well within my Gen X memory. I was Freddie Mercury--the kid with the radio as her only friend. I didn’t have a CD player until high school graduation. I’d wait for hours for a favorite song to play on the radio and record it on a cassette tape--piracy before MP3s. Music is my drug of choice. I never needed chemicals to get high, just a favorite bass line or harmonic progression.
I still plug into the power of radio. You’re giving someone else the power to choose the next song. You never know what dud--or gem--might play next. And despite my busted vocal cords and limited piano ability, what do I spend my days doing? Getting kids plugged into the power of music. It’s my privilege. They may favor different songs, but as long as they can plug in somehow, I’ve done my job.
And it’s an irony--maybe not intentional--that Lady Gaga chose the stage name that she did, when her pushing of artistic boundaries has affected today’s youth in the same way as Freddie’s push influenced the 70s and 80s.
By creating, we reflect the glory of our creator. I will never tire of going ga-ga with music.
They say the current drug epidemic touches everyone. I’ve put drug use in my work--albeit on the fringes, as a pastime of side characters, or a backstory for dysfunction. But perhaps the way I write about chemical dependency is shifting. Yesterday, I had the distinct displeasure of attending my first overdose funeral.
Forgive me if this post seems like vaguebooking. As writers, we don’t have permission to tell everyone’s story, so I’m omitting a lot. But here’s what I can share. I didn’t know the deceased, but I knew his mother. And the pain on the face of this otherwise cheerful woman is indescribable. “I don’t know how to go on.” She then described a cycle of getting clean and relapsing that went on for several years. Behind the coiffed hair and mascara, her anguish was sharp. We try to share the burden, but we can’t.
An uncle had given a remembrance--mostly humorous stories, with a note of “if only.” After the service, I debated talking to said uncle. Too weird? Too intrusive? I cocked my head to the side, more shy than I normally am. I complimented him on the eulogy, then admitted the real reason for my interest.
Someone close to me is using.
“The only advice I can give is this. You really can’t help them until they’re ready for help.”
And I nod. I’ve heard this before. And I am powerless.
I studied the faces of those in attendance, wondering who was an addiction bystander, powerless to help, and who was using right alongside the deceased. I prayed for a wakeup call amid the tattoos, squirmy babies, pressed dress clothes, and ankle monitors, knowing that drug abuse is not a respecter of persons, and that anyone around me could be the recipient of my plea. All I can do is pray--knowing that thanks to the gift of free will, even the man upstairs can’t tie the hands of the addict.
Four weeks ago, I met ‘Sally’ at church. She told a hopeful story--her daughter was a year and a half clean, after a prolonged battle that included jail time and sleeping rough. Two weeks ago, I felt especially frustrated by the addict in my life, and wanted to confide in Sally--but could find her nowhere. Last week, she waved, but didn’t have time to talk.
Today, a young woman helped me restock the coffee station. She didn’t mention much about her life--just that her mom also helped serve the coffee. I asked her name.
I smiled. She didn’t know how much I knew about her. Nor did she know she was a light at the end of my tunnel.
Later on, I saw a post on the social media page for our homeowners’ association. One neighbor, pleading with us to help another, one of the most active people in our neighborhood group. His wife needs rehab. He needs a $6,000 deductible, paid up front. A GoFundMe’s been started. This is suburbia. This is America.
I sympathized with addicts. I had compassion for people in their inner circle. But it’s a different ballgame now.
We are Aztecs. We have a society that’s advanced, admirable. We have systems to feed our people, engineering to build jaw-dropping structures, arts and culture--yet we’re clinging to human sacrifice. I can’t think of another metaphor for the mass shootings whose numbers of dead continue to escalate. The altar at which we spill the blood of our citizens is the “right to bear arms,” which currently supersedes the right to health care, an education, food, or life itself.
We are told it’s a sacrifice we have to make for that great American cause called freedom. We are told law-abiding citizens need guns to use on the criminals. Who’s next? It could be you. You, who felt like an action movie star upon purchasing that AK-47, could find your own firearm pointed at your head, with someone else’s hands on the trigger.
You can call me liberal, or a snowflake--but only if you enjoy saying what’s untrue. I am a Kentucky native raised in a gun culture. I learned to shoot clay pigeons at summer camp; my father taught me how to line up a pistol’s sights. Guns are of high interest to kids, including my own son, who owns a locked-up BB pistol. They appear in the novels I write. In my family, gun owners outnumber those without. But at least two family members I’ve spoken with refuse to join the NRA; they’re not buying into their agenda. Sadly, our lawmakers are. And in this case, it’s the Republicans who are complicit. They receive huge campaign donations from the NRA, so they have to appease. Dirty money. I’m a moderate who’s probably voted for more Republicans than Democrats—but the Republicans are directly responsible for this problem. Biased journalistic sources are also complicit. It’s the false belief, fueled by biased news outlets, that any candidate other than the furthest to the right will “take our guns.” Some even believe that the Las Vegas massacre was an inside job—perpetrated by the government for legislation they deem unnecessary.
Unnecessary. When one person took out fifty-nine.
I know what the Second Amendment says. It promises the “right to bear arms.” It does not state that gun ownership cannot be regulated in any way. The drafters of said Amendment lived in a world where a smoothbore musket took thirty seconds to load—on a good day. If a madman ran out on a crowd with intent to kill, the number of lives taken would be limited by his ability to reload, and the ability of the crowd to bum rush him. The founding fathers could not have anticipated high rises, surveillance cameras, semiautomatics and bump stocks.
It seems to me that the character of violence has changed in this country. I watched the local and national news from a very young age, and I was aware of shootings, war, and terrorism. But in a piece I wrote a year ago, I noted that the Columbine massacre of 1999 had a greater effect on me, at age 22, than other national tragedies combined. And here is another area where the media is complicit--our fame-driven culture that spurs people to acts of violence for the notoriety. Our 24/7 news networks opine on why he did it, and the image of the perp lives on. The Las Vegas shooter (name intentionally omitted) does not fit the profile of someone “disadvantaged” enough to off dozens of complete strangers. For that reason, prevention in the mental health and criminal justice systems becomes an ever-more-distant proposition.
Violence has existed since the dawn of humankind, but some violences are more closely linked to personal grievances. Let’s unpack a meme posted by a Facebook friend:
I’m an urban educator, so of course I agree that smaller-scale gun violence is a big issue. But I don’t fully agree that the media doesn’t talk about it. I’ve certainly heard about it on my news outlets. True--criminals in Chicago don’t follow the gun laws. True--many of those killed in Chicago are black, and the media usually places a higher value on white deaths than minority ones--and that says a lot about this country. But most of the shootings in Chicago are drug-related. Sadly, many victims are innocent people caught in the crossfire. This is a tragedy on its own. However, there’s a trajectory of human conflict to which these shootings can be traced--narcotics networks, gang turf wars, domestic disputes, and the heightened sense of fight-or-flight experienced by many in a poverty culture. It does not justify death; it doesn’t soothe those left behind. But it’s at least in line with the fabric of human history, traceable to Cain killing Abel over jealousy.
What disturbs about our mass shootings is that there’s no trajectory of human conflict. They occur for reasons even more sinister: the thrill of shooting or the fame of being a murderer.
And herein lies gun control. If we instituted some common-sense restrictions on guns--like maintaining the silencer ban, improving weapons screening in public places, barring bump stocks, and running background checks--we wouldn’t circumvent every shooting. But we would make it more difficult to kill so many people at a time.
As of this writing, Australia’s had only one mass shooting in 21 years. After the last one, they banded together to create new gun laws and enforcement measures. They’ve reduced not only massacres, but also interpersonal-conflict shootings like the ones in Chicago, and suicides by gunshot. Guns are still owned and used--but mostly on hunting land and shooting ranges. They decided that keeping their citizens alive was more important than feeling like an action hero.
In my preteen years, a favorite pulpy tome was Aztec by the late Gary Jennings. He painted that culture as a twin of ancient Rome--full of lust and excess. Thirty years later, I remember the terror of a young Aztec girl being forced off a platform to her death. Her society tolerated a system that ripped the life from her hands. Only the temple guards had an active role in her death. But her neighbors looked the other way. No disrespect to the Aztecs, or the Romans, but their societies no longer exist. If we can do something about mass shootings--however imperfect the solution--then shouldn’t we?
I love free speech, and I love freedom of the press--but the way it manifests in social media is only feeding the political polarization of this country. We speak our mind in memes: "Everyone's too easily offended these days!" "History's being destroyed!" While there are times these sentiments are true, it really shows respect for others to try to understand the issues at hand. My close friend, journalist Feoshia H. Davis, had to work under the nose of a Confederate "war hero" as a newbie reporter. Please read her case for the relocation of Jefferson Davis' statue.
Feoshia Davis: Tradition permeates Frankfort, but it’s time for Jefferson Davis’ statue to go to a museum
I’m back at my writing desk after a week at the county fair--my youngest son’s first year as a 4H participant. After a beautiful time of celebrating youth achievement and animal husbandry, a jarring image brought me to tears last night: rabbit, grasped by the ears and thrown headlong into a truck.
Another 4H mom asked me if I’d seen “the truck,” and her tone told the whole story. She described how the truck came for market rabbits--the ones raised and sold for meat--and how disturbed her daughter was by the rough handling of them. “They even took a Mini Lop, a show rabbit, just ‘cause the owners didn’t want it anymore.”
I thanked her for warning me, grateful the truck was long gone and the boy had run ahead. You see, one of those “meat rabbits” had played an important role in his competition.
My son started rabbitry with one animal, an adorable black Netherland Dwarf. “Jason” is normally cooperative, but the heat and stress of the fair had gotten to him. He’d nipped at me on the first day, and when my youngest reached into the cage to remove him for the competition, Jason chomped on the cuff of his white Oxford shirt. He wailed. I pulled up his sleeve and hollered, “No blood! You’re OK!” But the boy was still hysterical.
Just before this happened, a tall teen from the Junior Fair Board had offered to help my son with showmanship, where 4Hers flip their rabbits over to exhibit their animal’s underside--a sort of vet exam from very young hands. Now, this same teen volunteered to help get Jason out of the cage, and showed my son, again, how to carry the wily beast tucked in, with the eyes hidden.
As they walked to the show table, my only hope was that my son would get through the competition. I stood behind the line, and a ball of black fluff bounded down the table’s green turf. Houdini had escaped.
The tall teen approached me. “I’m gonna let him use one of my rabbits.” I nodded. A meat rabbit--a completely different breed--but docile.
I sweated behind the red line, the line that forces 4H children to perform without parental help. My little boy, so serious, described his own rabbit and identified the breed of the loaner rabbit. I snapped pictures of him talking to the judge, and sitting on the bench after, his face etched with stress.
When awards were announced, I kept my phone out for pictures, hopes sub-basement low. Seventh place, sixth, fifth, fourth, third, and second--my son’s name.
Second? There has never been a parent so excited for second! And the flash started popping.
Later, the judge approached me. “He answered every question correctly.” Which he could not have done without the loaner rabbit. No one “shows” at the fair without a creature in his hands.
The next day, my son pushed his fingers through the unmarked cage of the meat rabbits. He wasn’t sure if the rabbit he was petting was the one he’d shown. “Do rabbits go to heaven, Mom? Will this rabbit go to heaven after it gets eaten?”
I nodded, touched by my little St. Francis’ heart for animals. The tall teen smiled, bemused.
Toward the end of the fair, my youngest briefly mentioned “rescuing” the rabbit he had shown. But he didn’t mention it a second time. Acquiring an animal shouldn’t be done on an impulse. He was sad that the rabbits were being raised for meat, but I explained--again--that the burgers and chicken nuggets that we eat were once creatures too. We respect vegetarians, but we’re not in that camp.
Yesterday, I phoned my grandmother, age eighty-eight. She shared her fond memories of eating rabbit-both in her home country of Germany, and after moving to Appalachia with my Pappy.
But she refrains from sharing these memories with my son.
In my writing, I explore undertold stories. Perhaps one of these undertold stories is that of rural kids and their unique relationship with animals. Creatures great and small play multiple roles in our lives. I explored this concept in my novel CIRCUS. Where is the line between use and misuse of an animal? How can we do it in a way that preserves dignity for all parties?
I once read that some Native American hunters thanked an animal before taking its life for materials and meat. I don’t think the rabbit truck crew went to that much trouble. But in my heart, I am thanking the rabbit whose last act was allowing a nervous nine-year-old to poke and prod him. We can’t always prevent the truck from doing what it’s paid to do. But we can celebrate the compassion that our children learn from working with creatures great and small.