Everything That Rises Must Converge

405My experience as a Loft Mentor Series speaker.

It had been going on for some time before I noticed. My daughter was choosing an adult out of the people milling about at the Loft Literary Center after the Mentor Series Reading, taking him or her by the hand, and leading the person to open floor space. Once there she generated a dance routine for the adult to follow. After their two-minute routine was complete, she released the adult back into the gathering and chose a new person. Each person learned and performed a never-done-before dance routine. My son followed along videotaping each jig.

Who is this girl? And what magnetism does she possess that adult men and women will willingly leave the fold (and food) to dance with her? Even Jerald Walker and Mark Anthony Rolo, acclaimed authors and mentors, followed her as did many others.
All I could do was stare and see if anyone needed saving. They didn’t. They were enjoying the girl.

At three-years old, this girl could not talk intelligibly. Part 3 of my memoir, House of Fire, speaks to this. Thank God for the goat, it begins. During one of our camping trips, both my partner Jody and I thought that the other person had the girl. When I understood that neither one of us did all I could think was, The girl can’t tell anyone her name, where she lives, or who her moms are. We sprinted back to the the animal pens, which was the last place we saw her. She and the white double-bearded goat stood in companionable silence, the goat chewing her cud, the little girl waiting for her mothers to return.

The girl was diagnosed with articulation disorder and on two occasions we were asked by the school district to have her tested for autism. Jody and I refused. We were afraid she’d be mislabeled.

I mentioned this to a fellow mentee on Friday night, told her that I was in awe of the girl. She said that the girl just needed the right fertilizer and that Jody and I provided it for her.

I think she’s right.

I thought about myself. How my life’s work has been to be visible, to stand and speak my truth.

All this love, this fertilizer, brought the very best out of the girl and me on Friday night, the night of my Loft mentorship reading.

I recalled a quote,

“Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Yellow tulips flowers. (3)[1]I did the only thing that I could do when we got home. I presented the girl with a bouquet of tulips that I was given. After all, she gave quite a performance.

Advertisements

“Whose belly did I come out of?”

dsc00095[1]July, 2013. My cell phone rang. I stepped out of the dining hall at Tomahawk Scout Reservation, in Northwestern Wisconsin, wove through dozens of 10-year old Cub Scouts to reach the flagpole. “Hold on, hold on,” I said to the caller. I looked up to the sky hoping that a satellite would keep us connected. Jerod Santek from the Loft Literary Center was on the other end saying that I had won the 2013-2014 Loft Mentor Series for Nonfiction. “Can you hear me?” he said. I could. But after submitting to the competition for over ten years and being a finalist four times, I didn’t know what to say.

Friday, April 18th, at 7 p.m. I will read an excerpt from my memoir, HEALING FIRES.

“Whose belly did I come out of?” five-year old Crystel asks. “Yours or Mama Joey’s?” Milk spills from her spoon into her cereal bowl.

Thirty years of breaking free from the cycle of violence and discovering my true self prepare me to start my adoptive family. The challenge of creating a home of love, safety, and joy is tested by dysfunctional ghosts and dark memories from the Wisconsin farm where I was raised.

It’s the culmination of my work with mentors Mark Anthony Rolo as well as my work with Loft Literary Center instructor Mary Carroll Moore.

Also reading is Jerald Walker and my fellow mentee Pamela Schmid.imagesGECE7253

Mark Anthony is an enrolled member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. His memoir MY MOTHER IS NOW EARTH won the 2012 Northeastern Minnesota Book Award and was nominated for a 2012 Minnesota Book Award.

When I opened Mark Anthony’s book and read his first lines, “My mother wants to be buried in fire. She races into a burning farmhouse, letting serpent flames twist around her legs,”my mouth fell open. I had submitted a writing sample that started with these words, “I’m on fire. I scream. I run. Flames chase me. I fall to the grass, slapping at my shoulders, my back, my side. Digging my shoulders into the ground, I pitch back and forth, back and forth. The fire follows.”

Under Mark Anthony’s tutelage, I have restructured my memoir to merge my past and present story just as spring water runoff flows to creeks and further downstream joins the river and finally the ocean that embodies us all.

Jerald Walker’s STREET SHADOWS: A MEMOIR OF RACE, REBELLION, AND REDEMPTION was also very influential. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Jerald is a recipient of the 2011 PEN New England/L.L.Winship Award for Nonfiction and his book was named a Best Memoir of the Year by Kirkus Reviews.

When I read Jerald Walker’s memoir, I finally understood how I could meld past and present together in my memoir. I studied his structure, counting the number of pages he used for his present story and then his past. I attempted to locate where he brought them both together. All the while, I resonated with his efforts to rise above the circumstances that he was born into.

7ac30fe0b702dd387b1f0ab4fcd06c36[1]Pamela is the creative nonfiction editor for Sleet magazine. Before receiving her M.F.A. degree from Hamline University, she spent more than a decade reporting and editing for the Star Tribune and the Associated Press.

Pamela says this about her memoir, “In MY BIG BOOK OF YEARNING, I chronicle my son’s arduous journey to speech and reflect on the way words empower and ensnare. I also try to untangle the threads of silence that took root in my family generations earlier, before giving rise to this little boy who desperately wanted to speak but could not.

”Pamela will be reading an excerpt that explores Eli’s fascination with music, and the way music can bridge the gap to speech. “When I sang, I became somebody else, someone more certain and sure. When it was just Eli and I and the songs, I felt the scales of a dragon on my back.”

Please mark your calendars for April 18th at 7 p.m.

Join Jerald, Pamela, and me as we read to you from our memoirs.

Loft Literary Center

1011 Washington Ave. S

Minneapolis, MN 55415

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Being A Role Model

13355524[1]Recently, while Mark Anthony Rolo was visiting the Twin Cities he stayed at our house. Mark Anthony Rolo is the nonfiction mentor for the Loft Mentor Series and offered to devote a Saturday working with the nonfiction winners. Since he travels from northern Wisconsin, I extended an invitation to him and his dog. Our house would also serve as a meeting place the next day.

I’m sure that I told Antonio and Crystel that Mark is one of the Loft Mentors who’s working with me, but Crystel didn’t really understand until I said, “He wrote a book. It’s in the living room. The one with a picture of him and his dog Rock on the back cover.”

She got the book. At that very moment, Mark was sitting by a fire we had built in the backyard.

“That’s him? And that’s Rock?”

“Yes.”

6815689230_1497703279[1]Crystel loves books. Finally, it clicked that she had an actual living author right in her backyard. That was almost too much for her eleven-year-old brain to grasp.

I was hoping, as any mother might, that this also elevated me in her eyes.

Antonio and Crystel spent a lot of time playing with Rock, tugging and pulling and throwing. And, even though they could have left during the adult chatter around the fire, they didn’t disappear. I hoped that it was because they found us interesting, but truth be told, their electronics were banned for the weekend. So what else is a kid to do?

Later that evening, Crystel couldn’t contain herself any longer and told me, in the presence of Mark, that she was going to write a better book than me.

Mark making his mother's bread.

Mark making his mother’s bread.

Around noon the next day, she pulled me to the side in the dining room and said, “Are those people in there famous?” She motioned to our living room.

I thought of the four of us, all mentorship winners, all wanting to publish a book.

“Yes, they are,” I said. “They’re authors. They’re going to publish their books.”

That evening, long after everyone had gone, Crystel asked if she could read Mark’s book. “You’ll have to ask Mama Jody. I think she’s reading it.”

“Sorry, I’m reading it, Crystel,” I heard from the other room.

On Monday when she came home from school, she asked if she could take Mark’s book to school the next day. She had told people that a famous person had stayed at her house and she had the book to prove it.

Lately, Crystel has begun to ask, “Can I work on my book now?” And then she brings her computer over to where I’m writing and she writes with me.

This Saturday, she’ll meet another famous person, Ellen Shriner, my WordSister partner.

9780985981822_p0_v2_s600[1]Ellen is reading at SubText Bookstore. Contributors will read from Holy Cow Press’s anthology The Heart of All That is: Reflections on Home.

You’re all invited to the reading — 7p.m. on Saturday.

I love being surrounded by famous people and that my daughter wants to be one too.

STRAIGHT TALK about TEENAGE BOYS

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEvery week on Sunday, I receive an email alert about new nonfiction titles that are new to Hennepin County Library.That’s how I came to have in my hand the paperback STRAIGHT TALK with YOUR KIDS ABOUT SEX by Josh and Dottie McDowell.

Skimming the book, I stopped at page 127 and read: A young couple that lives near us always asks if there is an older brother in the family where their children have been invited. If there is, they have a family policy that the kids must play at their house, not at the neighbor’s. They also have a policy that no teenage boy will ever babysit their kids. This may seem strict, but it is simply for the safety of their children.

That’s when I knew that I had to write about my experience with teenage boys babysitting our children.

Antonio, Crystel and Charlie

Antonio, Crystel and Charlie

Ten years ago, with intention, Jody and I brought teenage boys into our home and into our lives.

We are lucky to have had teenage boys in charge of and responsible for our children.

Our family unit consists of two women, a boy, a girl, two dogs, two cats, two hamsters, and 10 fish.I can’t imagine the boy and the girl growing up without the experience of having other boys and men in their life. Well, maybe I can imagine, which is why we purposely have uncles that visit them on a regular basis and have had Charlie and Sam as their babysitter.

Though, Crystel has informed us that she is never, ever going to get married, how in the world would she learn to be at ease in the company of men if she didn’t have older males in her life? And, what message would we be sending Antonio about his worth as a male if we align ourselves with the belief that teenage boys are not safe?I agree that men are a different species. Antonio, our son, is one of those species. He needs to know how to navigate with his kind. He isn’t going to gain that knowledge secluded in a house full of women.

Antonio LOVED to eat snow. Here he had a whole snowman to eat!

Antonio LOVED to eat snow. Here he had a whole snowman to eat!

Down the street from us lived a house full of boys. I walked down to that house 10 years ago when Antonio and Crystel came home with us from Guatemala and asked their single mother if her sons would like a babysitting job. Charlie was 13-years-old when he started caring for Antonio and Crystel. Antonio and Crystel were still in diapers and not yet walking. And, yes, Charlie has changed their diapers a time or two. Charlie continued babysitting Antonio and Crystel right up until he was 17-years-old and then his brother Sam took over.

Sam was 12 going on 13 when he took over their care. Sam had a tough initiation with the children because they loved and adored Charlie.

Antonio, Charlie, and Crystel at Charlie's graduation party

Antonio, Charlie, and Crystel at Charlie’s graduation party

But you know what, in short order it became “Sam.” “Sam.” “Sam.”This isn’t to say that my children give their loyalty easily or to just anyone.

When we first took them to an in-house daycare at seven and eight months old, it was simple enough to slip off in the morning, but when I picked them up to bring them home in the afternoon they would sob so hard in the car that I would have to pull off the road onto a side street and take turns holding them until they felt safe outside of my arms. Only then could I drive again.

Leaving them in the care of someone else so traumatized them that Jody and I decided one of us would have to be a stay-at-home mom.But now, Antonio and Crystel would like us to have more dates so Sam can come over and babysit.

Crystel, Sam, Antonio

Crystel, Sam, Antonio

Saying that Sam is the children’s babysitter doesn’t do him justice. Instead I describe him as their adult male caregiver. He has been their fulltime caregiver for the last four years. During the summer he spends over eight hours with them every day from the time school lets out in June until it starts again in September.

Sam manages the children’s summer schedule which includes reading, writing, math, cooking, swimming lessons, dentist appointments, orthodontist appointments, Tae Kwon Do, engineering, exercise, and field trips.

Sam taught them to read

Sam taught them to read

This summer they worked their way through the books Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn and Hal Iggulden and the Daring Book for Girls by Andrea Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz.Antonio and Crystel have had options to do the park program, community activities, a season pool pass, Fun Club, etc…. but they choose Sam. They figure they have it all. And, they do. Most often in the afternoon I come home and all three of them are playing in our backyard swimming pool. They don’t feel like they are missing out on seeing their friends as Sam also watches them when playdates are scheduled.

During the summer Sam, Antonio, and Crystel bike all over Richfield. I often get compliments by people who have spotted them: Police Officers, Tae Kwon Do instructors, and friends. They are surprised how mobile and safe Antonio and Crystel are. The dentist remarked to me how Sam was definitely in-charge during their summer appointment but was struck by their affection for one another.

Sam has spent overnights with the children when Jody and I have gone on our own adventures. We were thankful that we had him to call when we were in Mexico and their Aunt and Uncle who were staying with them had to leave suddenly. Sam went over to our house, spent the night with Antonio and Crystel, and got them off to school the next morning before he himself went to school.

"We like playing with him the most."

“We like playing with him the most.”

I asked Sam what he liked most about babysitting Antonio and Crystel and he says it allows him to be a kid. I asked Antonio and Crystel what they like most about Sam and they said that he plays with them all the time. A good match.

This year at school conferences (4th grade) Antonio and Crystel’s teachers were impressed because they generally see a dip in reading because of no school during the summer. Antonio and Crystel’s reading level had actually increased and there was a steady incline in skill. Sam taught them how to read when they were five.

IMAG0013Crystel is looking forward to the day when she can start babysitting. After she turns 11 and takes the community babysitting class she will be ready. She has had Charlie and Sam as excellent role models in being a great babysitter.

Sam is 17. Antonio and Crystel are 10. In taking the baton from Charlie, Sam has been big brother, friend, teacher, and guide to our children.The straight talk about teenage boys is that our family has been blessed to have had two teenage boys tending too, caring for, and loving Antonio and Crystel.

Truth Telling

Truth: Antonio doesn’t know that Crystel is providing rabbit ears. Truth: They love each other and are best friends.

I am adding an extra post this week and skewing a bit off the Guatemalan trail and onto the mommy track. I will be back online with another post on our Guatemala trip in a couple of weeks.

Truth Telling

I had been waiting for the right time to broach the subject with the children. I thought this was it: Sunday morning, quiet, not a lot going on yet, and we were all together. That’s another way of saying that I had them captive at the breakfast table. Antonio was reaching for more bacon, Jody was buttering her toast, and Crystel was eating her cereal.

I went to the livingroom and grabbed the book, My Two Moms, by Zach Wahls.

Sitting down, I flashed the cover. The front showed a young man in a suit jacket and tie being kissed on the cheeks by two women. This book wasn’t new to them. I had been reading the library book the past two weeks and it had sat around the house in plain view. One evening Antonio asked me what it was about. “This guy has two moms just like you,” I said. “He also has a sister. I am reading what it was like for him growing up. He’s in college now.”

There were a couple of things I read that surprised me. One was disturbing. I told Jody about it while we were walking the dogs. Zach said he felt bad that sometimes he lied about his home life when he was growing up. He wasn’t always truthful in responding to other children when they asked about his father (artificial insemination) or his family. This started when he was about the same age that Antonio and Crystel are now.

I was surprised to know that Antonio and Crystel might already be getting awkward questions. And if they are like Zach Wahls, they might already be making up answers. I told Jody that I didn’t ever want our kids to feel bad about being less than truthful about their personal stories. Children have enough weight to carry on their short little shoulders. I think it’s unrealistic to expect children to say, “I don’t choose to answer that question. My story is my personal story.” Sometimes it is easier for children to lie and that is the route they go.

Certainly that was the route I took when Antonio and Crystel first came home, as infants, even though I hold honesty in high regard. I got a lot of questions while standing in checkout lines. The most frequent was, “Are they twins?” At first, I answered with the truth and nothing but the truth. “No they are six weeks apart”. The truth didn’t feel right. It was incomplete and not acknowledging their bond as brother and sister. So I added, “They have been together since they were born.” I’d look at these two infants in their stroller shake my head and wonder what they were making of my conversation. I’d chastise myself for giving too much information. Information the children didn’t even have yet. I was afraid that I had a grace period to get the answers down before the children understood what I was saying. Sometimes I would just say, “Yes, they’re twins.” Neither answer was comfortable.

Since I had trouble responding to even the most basic inquiry, I didn’t hold any illusion that Antonio and Crystel could negotiate every question that came their way as grade-schoolers. Sometimes the questions weren’t so simple. One time, while bagging our groceries, I was asked, “How much do they cost?” They were referring to the toddlers and not the milk and eggs.

On our walk I let Jody know that this was a discussion I meant to have with Antonio and Crystel. It wasn’t a complete surprise to her when I came back to the table with the book.

“I want to talk to you guys about something,” I said. “You know this book? This is about a guy just like you who had two moms. He wrote about what it was like for him growing up. He said he felt bad when sometimes he would lie about his family.”

Crystel turned away from me, waving her hands, “Why do we always have to talk about this . . . ” she started.

I stopped her, “No, this is important.” The children know how I feel about them being honest. I think she was expecting that I was going to tell her and Antonio that no matter what, I never want them to lie, even if it is uncomfortable, even if it is intrusive, even if they don’t want to answer.

“If someone ever asks you about your personal story and you don’t want to talk about it, and you lie, that’s okay. I don’t want you to ever feel bad about that. You love your moms, we love you, and that is all that counts. When it comes to your story, it is your story. Don’t ever feel bad about not being truthful. We know you love us. We love you.”

Finished, I got up and put the book back on the shelf. Sitting down, we continued on with breakfast.