Until It Becomes Personal

Friends of Luis and

Friends of Luis and Nahily (some since preschool)

It is somewhere else and happens to someone else, not in your hometown, not in your classroom, and not with your kids.

Missouri dad shoots at wife, kills their infant child. May 24, 2016

Father killed 3 children, wife, then himself in Pennsylvania home. August 15, 2016

Dad kills two children then himself in Beaverton, Oregon. October 5, 2016

The morning we got the news, I heard Jody talking on the phone downstairs. When she came up she handed me the Saturday paper.

Man, two teens dead after south Minneapolis domestic shooting.

14440642_10210326956788272_3891113084642446291_n1“This is Luis,” she said. “No, not Luis,” was my response. “Not our Luis.”

I immediately went to the last time I saw Luis. It was at our house this past summer. Luis’s birthday is a day before Juan’s. Through the years they have been to each other’s birthday party. This year, Juan’s party was on Luis’s actual birthday. A van load of teens sang “Happy Birthday” to Luis when we picked him up for paintball and again when we cut Juan’s birthday cake.

Each Happy Birthday elicited from Luis the tiniest of smiles. Luis didn’t smile much. I’d see him from time to time in Juan’s classes when I’d accompany Juan because I was trying to understand why he was tardy. I never did figure it out. But it would be old home week for me when I’d see Luis and the other students that I knew from being a school volunteer.

On one of my ‘why are you tardy’ class visits, his friend Oliver asked me why I was there.

Running for Luis

Running for Luis

“It’s bring your mother to school day,” I told him. “Obviously, no one else got the memo,” I added, as I looked around the classroom.

Of course, I’d do what I could to embarrass Juan. I’d pull a chair up and sit right next to him, say hi and wave to his classmates.

During that class, I spent a lot of the time watching Luis. He was different. Quiet. Didn’t say anything. I mentioned this to Juan. “Luis never says a word.” He agreed. “Sometimes, Kevin can make him laugh,” he said.

When it came time to tell Juan about Luis, I knocked on his bedroom door. His room was a dark cave with only the glow from his iPhone. I flipped on the light switch, sat down and handed him the Saturday paper. “This is what’s called domestic violence. This is your friend, Luis.”

I’m no stranger to domestic violence. I grew up in a home that was violent. One particular afternoon, when I was Juan and Luis’s age, I had my hand on the phone in the kitchen. I was sure my dad would kill my mom or my mom would kill my dad. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them as they circled each other. Two of my older brothers were discussing amongst themselves how to break up the fight. I was debating whether I should call the cops from the house phone or run to the barn and use the barn phone so my parents wouldn’t know who called. I couldn’t pull myself away. I was afraid of what would happen if I did.

Richfield Boys Cross Country Team

Richfield Boys Cross Country Team

In parenting Juan and Crystel, I’ve been adamant that our house be a safe zone. Negative talk or actions are not tolerated. Jody and I’ve extended this safety to their friends. “Tell them where our housekey is. Let them know they can come here if they need a place to come.”

What I didn’t realize then is that Jody and I were creating a safe haven for me. I’m able to finally rest. I fall asleep. I snore. I’m not always on alert. I’m not afraid anymore.

Soon after Crystel learned that Luis had died from domestic violence she asked me if I ever got mad at her. I paused, “Mad enough to shoot you in the head?”

She hesitated, “Well, yeah.”

I told her, “No, I never get that mad. I don’t even get mad enough to hit you. You irritate me sometimes. But, mostly I just like being around you and Juan.”

I knew the conversation was over when she took it to where she usually takes a conversation, “Do I irritate you more or does Juan?”

Richfield Girls Cross Country

Richfield Girls Cross Country

Later that day, I realized that I had forgotten to tell her something so I brought it up the next day. “Luis didn’t do anything wrong. His dad wasn’t mad at him. Luis is dead because his dad was mad at his mom. Not because of anything he did.”

In talking with Veronica Bach Dowd, a very close friend of Luis and Nahily’s mom, Maria Romero, she spoke about how difficult it is for Latino women to report abuse. Veronica previously worked at Casa de Esperanza as an advocate for battered women.

She explained that in Mexico, domestic violence is common. For a Latino woman in a new country it’s even worse because of the isolation. Women are isolated because of language barriers, not knowing about resources, and not having any money. The abuser “takes care” of the woman by driving her everywhere to not allow her to get a driver’s license. The abuser “takes care” of the woman by paying for everything to not allow her to be independent and self sufficient. She added, “Control is how abusers keep abused women invisible.”

A Latino woman may be afraid to report abuse due to the threat of being deported, or having their children taken away. The abuser and the children may have residency, but the woman might not. The Latino woman is stuck, remains invisible, and under the radar, so she uses makeup to hide the bruises and great excuses to avoid questions.

That’s why Veronica helped open a resource center for Latino women. It was a little office where any woman could go to ask any question. She would help them open Hotmail accounts so they could email people in their home town in Mexico.

14570430_10154728863962384_4945550604691041982_n1Veronica has been friends with Maria for over nine years. She watched her grow from being in a cocoon, to a caterpillar, to a butterfly. Her eyes kept getting bigger and bigger. Veronica helped in Maria’s transformation by assisting her with filling out her first online application to become a paraprofessional at Richfield Dual Language School. Veronica watched Maria grow into a strong, self sufficient, beautiful free woman.

Juan and Luis

Juan and Luis

Until it becomes personal it is somewhere else, some place else, somebody’s else’ kid. Luis, his sister Nahily, and mother Maria Romero, have made domestic violence personal for our house, for our school, and our community.

For families experiencing domestic violence, Casa de Esperanza and The Family Partnership offer Spanish- speaking resources.

Great Cathedrals: Power, Greed and Inspiration

When my husband and I travel in the United Kingdom or Europe, we always visit some of the great cathedrals. That may seem odd, since neither of us is very religious. But cathedrals like St. Paul’s in London embody history, politics, and faith in a very visceral way and I’m very interested in history. The experience encompasses the best and worst of human nature.

The Shock and Awe of Churches

The architects and benefactors of great cathedrals intended to create a dramatic impact. And St. Paul’s does. The cathedral is an architectural marvel. The main aisle of cathedral goes on and on—while standing at one end of the church, I can see the other end, but just barely. The arched ceiling and dome soar high above the seats. Everywhere I look there are intricate decorations and many are covered with gold. I immediately feel small and insignificant in face of all the space and history, but that feeling gives way to a faint unease.

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0. Wikimedia Commons furnished this photo of the nave. Tourist photography isn’t permitted in the church.

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0. Wikimedia Commons furnished this photo of the nave. Tourist photography isn’t permitted in the church.

Sightseeing in a Place of Worship

Though I’m no longer a practicing Catholic, that upbringing is ingrained in me. It feels odd to see the whole gamut of tourists wandering around snapping photos (where permitted), peering at inscriptions on statues, ducking into alcoves, zigzagging across aisles in front of the pulpit and behind the altar, talking and pointing. There’s something distasteful about it, although obviously, I’m a tourist doing the same thing.

The premise of sightseeing in church is complicated. Many cathedrals charge admission and I assume the money helps maintain the building. Perhaps the religious authorities are also trying to give ordinary people access to a beautiful and potentially inspiring place.

Tijou gates - Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0. Wikimedia Commons

Tijou gates – Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0. Wikimedia Commons

Incredible Excess

Cathedrals like St. Paul’s, the duomos in Florence and Siena, and St. Peter’s in Rome, all contain elaborate decorations—intricate mosaics, detailed wood and stone carvings, painted frescoes, golden candlesticks, chalices encrusted with jewels, lavishly embroidered altar cloths. The excess is fascinating but off-putting. I think about all of the money invested, perhaps for the glory of God but also as a demonstration of the power and wealth of the church, whether Anglican like St. Paul’s or Catholic like St. Peter’s in Rome. At first I am awed by the gilt and filigree, but then reminded of the greed, intolerance, and corruption that religious institutions have displayed historically.

Politics and Religion Are Intertwined in St. Paul’s

St. Paul’s was originally built as a Catholic church in 604. In 1087, it was demolished by fire. Rebuilding began in 1087 and the church was reconsecrated as a Catholic church in 1300. The Protestant Reformation, begun by Martin Luther in 1517, in response to the corruption in the Catholic Church, swept through Europe. In 1534, King Henry VIII split from the Catholic Church and established himself as head of the Church of England, so he could marry Anne Boleyn.

Politics and religion remained intertwined and turbulence continued in England until the 1660’s. During this period, St. Paul’s fell into disrepair and was used for a variety of things, including a marketplace. In 1666, King Charles II commissioned architect Christopher Wren to rebuild St. Paul’s, but the Great London fire destroyed the church and work was delayed until 1669. The church was completed in 1710. Now an Anglican church, the new St. Paul’s reflected the politics of the day.

In the dome is a mural with scenes from the life of St. Paul. It was painted in muted colors—a departure from the colorful decoration in Catholic churches. Statues and imagery of saints and angels is limited, in keeping with Protestant philosophy. Instead, statesmen like the Duke of Wellington and Admiral Lord Nelson are ensconced in huge lavish crypts. St. Paul’s remained a more somber looking place until the 1890’s, when Queen Victoria declared that it was dreary and uninspiring and asked to have mosaics installed.


Wellington monument – Photograph by George P. Landow (http://www.victorianweb.org/ sculpture/ stevens/29.html)

The influence of politics is evident in the lavish decor, which speaks of wealth and power of the monarchs, the Church of England, and England itself. It’s also obvious in the inclusion of statues of political figures instead of religious figures.

I dislike the dichotomy and wish it could simply be an inspiring place of worship. But then I recall the way thousands of people flocked to St. Paul Cathedral at the end of World War II and realize that for many ordinary people, the cathedral is a spiritual place as well as a national symbol.

God in the Details?

Then I focus on the decorative details and think of the craftsmen who spent years setting tiny tiles to create the mosaics. Or the woodcarvers who labored and fussed over the leaves in the choir stall borders. Or the metalsmiths and artists who made the Tijou gates and the chalices. Hundreds of artisans throughout the church’s history worked to create something important and lasting. I want to believe that devoting years and years of their lives to the work was an expression of their faith. Thinking of the craftsmen restores my appreciation for the cathedral.


Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0 Detail of quire (choir) mosaics.

Wood Carving closeup.png

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0. Detail of wood carving in choir stalls.








Crossing the Threshold


I didn’t notice the absence of my siblings, the eight closest living relatives to me. At other times, I have. I felt the longing for people who knew me, grew up with me, had a similar life. There was a time I yearned for them to see me and acknowledge my accomplishments.

The room was full of friends. People who supported me. Listened to my words. Really, listened to me.

Imagine if that teenager had had that support when she was 13, 14, or 16. Instead of the silence that accompanied the aloneness that scraped at my young heart. I was a pariah in my own family.

“When’s the baby coming home, Ann?” My 5-year-old brother who did see me would ask. “When’s the baby coming?” He wasn’t yet trained to pick up the subtleties, of who was in or out of the fold. He’s now dead. Died of a heroin overdose when he was 29 years old. I don’t hold any notion that he would have been there Friday night if he lived. My family runs in a pack or as a lone sheep in a gully.

With a sunkeness, I’d pat his sun streaked hair. It had the look and unruliness of summer cut straw.

Every time I speak of my birth son, the baby who didn’t come home, it’s a homecoming.

author 8-years-old

author     age 8

I live in this body. I breathe this air. I’m here to tell you that it does happen. Sisters sometimes get pregnant by a brother and have their baby and then if they are lucky enough, they get to write a book about it that people will read and celebrate with you at a book launch.

I recently read a Facebook post from a high school classmate who read, House of Fire, and she said that it had a happy ending. She was encouraging another classmate to read it.

Think of that. Out of tragedy you can have a happy ending. You can be a happy ending.

I was very happy Friday night at my book launch. Because you were there. And, if you weren’t, you sent me good wishes. All of me was up there at the podium, and it was enough. It has always been enough.

At the podium, I thanked relatives who came. And someone asked me later if my relatives were actually there. I smiled. It would have been something to point out a brother or sister. I would have wished for that before Friday night. But on this Friday what I had was abundance. “The relatives that are here are the chosen aunts and uncles that are in the book,” I said. Except my niece. That brave niece who came. Who fortunately doesn’t have the same story line I do though she’s looked across the fence at mine and knows it to be true.

My 40th high school reunion has come and gone. Not that I attended it. My book did though. Classmates are now reading, House of Fire. I’m in awe of the support. It’s unbelievable to that young teen who had nobody.

Coming home can be a difficult journey and yet the most wonderful. It has a happy ending.

photo-for-oct-21-reading_2If you’d like to hear more of my voice or you weren’t able to make it to my book launch, please join me and Su Smallen on October 21st at 7pm at Hamline University.

“Su Smallen´s new poems, a lexicon of snow, sing with notes of grief, sorrow, joy and resilience, pondering that great Midwestern element. . . . I am grateful for what this talented poet brings forward: pressing with renewed trust her words onto the pages the way you step — well, through snow.” – Spencer Reece

“House of Fire is a book of naked, sharp-edged truth, a journey into and through immense darkness. Yet it is also a profound testament to our deeply human ability to heal and transform.”
– Scott Edelstein







I’ve Never Been a Daredevil, But . . .

As I settled into my seat at the movie theater and muted my phone, an unwelcome thought sneaked in, “Is going out to the movies risky behavior?” I stifled it quickly, “A crazed gunman in the old-fashioned Edina Theater? That’s silly.” Worrying about my safety at movie theaters never used to cross my mind. I resent having to consider it now.

It’s disturbing to realize so many of the ordinary things I do put me in the kinds of places where mentally ill people or terrorists choose to murder and wreak havoc. However, I have no intention of curtailing my activities.

Shopping at malls – I don’t spend much time in malls, but while there, I have never worried about my safety. However, the shoppers in the mall in St. Cloud, Minn. or near Seattle, Wash. probably didn’t give it a second thought either.

Tutoring at the high school – I love the work I do tutoring adult immigrants and have never felt remotely threatened by any of them. The students I know are hardworking and determined to learn, get better jobs, and live the American Dream. But schools and colleges have been the scene of mass shootings in recent years. Perhaps I should be worried, but I refuse to be.

 Visiting international cities – I enjoy traveling overseas, but because of the history of terrorism in London, Brussels, and Paris, I will have to consider my safety in airports as well as in the cities themselves when I go. Losing my luggage or getting pickpocketed seem like more realistic threats than terrorism, but I can’t help being aware of the potential for an attack.

Often, public places happen to be the settings where a personal grudge is played out—I might not be the target—but I still could be injured or killed by a stray bullet. The issue is not that one middle class white person has to think harder about her safety. It’s that no matter who you are or where you live in America, you are at risk of mass shootings, because of our gun laws and cultural tolerance of violence.

Equally troubling is that zealots with knives, trucks, and bombs threaten people across the world, not just Americans.

I remain defiant. There are no easy solutions to gun violence and terrorism. But part of the solution has to be resistance—resisting the impulse to hide and resisting the impulse to shrug and say, “Oh well, what can you do?” We have to keep fighting for change.

Although terrorism and acts of mass violence are now part of our reality, I refuse to give in to fear. I’ve never been a daredevil, but I have no intention of giving up activities I love like movies, shopping malls, tutoring, or traveling.

No Merit Badge For This

davannis“After Penn Fest, Ryan wants me to come over and hang out and then we’ll go to the Mall of  America”, Juan said.

Juan would be finishing up his shift at Davanni’s. His second job. He was a line judge for soccer over the summer. A fellow cross-country runner told him that Davanni’s hired 14-year-old’s. His cross-country coach introduced him to the hiring manager.

I gave him a sideways look. “Who else are you going with? Who are you going to meet up with? I’ll need more information.”

“Just us,” he said.

I gave Juan the usual response. “I’ll have to check with his parents.”

We were driving home from Boy Scouts. Juan had hoped to have his final three merit badges checked off. (I was, too. If he’s in scouts, I’m in scouts.) He’s aiming to get his Eagle Scout by the end of this year.

Turning on Penn Avenue from 50th Street, I asked him. “What would you do if there was a fight in the food court?”

Eagle Project, Antiqua Guatemala

Eagle Project, Antiqua Guatemala

He dodged, displaying a typical defensive teenage move. “Ryan and I won’t be in the food court.”

I persisted. “Still, what if you were and a fight broke out?”

Juan described some superhero ninja moves he’d make leaping over railings, running faster than the speed of light. Then he paused, “Ryan isn’t as fast as me, though.”

I didn’t tell him that Ryan was white and didn’t need to be as fast as him.

Instead, I said, “You’re Hispanic. If you’re running from a fight, police could think you were a part of it. If the police ever stop you, you stop. You don’t argue, you lay down, and when you can, you call your moms.”

I went on to tell him that there were at least 10 teens arrested at the Mall of America the day before. All were juveniles, ranging in age from 12 to 15.

Juan is 14.

He doesn’t have any fear of the police. He shouldn’t. I’m a volunteer Police Reserve Officer, Jody is currently going through orientation to be a Police Reserve, and he’s never been in trouble.

He’s known to the Richfield police because he’s helped me with police patrol, vehicle maintenance on police cars, and wrapping gifts with the police at holiday time for Heroes and Helpers.

After his eight grade school year, he’s planning on becoming a police explorer.

Juan has no thought of being concerned. He’s an A/B student and active in three sports. All of his interactions with police have been positive.

Still, when there’s a melee involving 200 juveniles, he’s just another Hispanic. I thought of him getting thrown to the ground, kneed in the back, his arm twisted behind him.

I repeated, “If you’re ever told to stop, you stop, you don’t argue, you lay down, and when you can, you call your moms.”

I left him with these words, “What the police see is a Hispanic running away.”