Sunday, December 9, 2018

Holiday Drama

I used to think depression around the holidays was a newer struggle for me, until a quick tour through old journals last December showed that it's one of my oldest traditions. This year I began strategizing early to head off, or at least minimize, the holiday blues. Back in September, I auditioned for my second community theater show this year, and to my surprise, I got a part!

Hurrah for intensive DRAMA THERAPY!

If you haven't seen the classic film Harvey, starring Jimmy Stewart, well, you probably should. In keeping with my "Living Backwards" motto, I am playing a twenty-something single girl: Myrtle Mae. A stay-at-home-daughter, if you will! Myrtle Mae and her widowed mother have been cast on the generosity of her uncle (and his imaginary friend).

This 40's hairdo has been too much fun.
Harvey was the farcical creation of Mary Chase, a journalist from Denver who kept on writing stories of all kinds as she raised three sons with her news editor husband, and the play won her a Pulitzer during World War II. I love being part of plays written and directed by women. This one also happens to include relevant themes like mental illness, feeling trapped, loneliness, and male doctors not believing women. Not to mention the complexities of living with someone who has a "relationship" with an unseen entity!

"Play-acting" as the Puritans in The Witch of Blackbird Pond called it, has been a fun challenge and a very welcome distraction. Memorize lines? But, of course! Didn't I memorize entire chapters of the Bible once upon a time, to recite with my siblings, sometimes with coordinated motions? Every night I get to have angry outbursts and tearful meltdowns, speak sarcastically to my stage "mother", curse the invisible being who makes my life miserable, and despair of ever being found by a man who will be my ticket to a wider world.

Myrtle Mae with Aunt Ethel!
It's been strangely therapeutic to work with a team of no-longer-strangers to create two hours of living, breathing art that will no longer exist after today. Each performance is a dance as together we weave a tapestry of words and movements for our audience--painfully attuned to their sighs and their giggles, their gasps and their coughs; their guffaws energize us. Gently, subtly rescuing each other when one of us stumbles over a sentence or misplaced prop, we own our mistakes and do all in our power not to repeat them as moments of intensity under the lights alternate with stretches of backstage boredom.

The camaraderie of the cast conjures memories from my cultic past. The intimacy of sharing darkness, close spaces, eye contact (remember that one?), dressing rooms, inside jokes, script books, snacks, even bobby pins, with people one may only have known a few weeks is uniquely exhilarating...and exhausting.

Seeing how people look after each other has reminded me how each individual's success (or distress) directly affects that of the whole. Each person's contribution is valued, and supported. The show is an organism made of many individuals filling unique roles--each one vital and, at this theater, each one is a volunteer effort.

Tomorrow night, I will miss these friends. I will miss their kindness, their quirks, and their silly banter. I will miss the anxiety of stepping into a new scene and the sense of accomplishment of stepping out of one. I will miss the countdowns, the cues, these phrases that have finally begun to roll off my tongue when they are supposed to. Perhaps what I will most miss is having a professional coax my hair into victory rolls!

And you may catch me wearing white gloves and 1940's makeup at the Kroger from time to time, just for the fun of it.

In my PJs, learning my lines.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Patriarchs, Purity, and Virginity Tests

Some art is constructed out of pure rage.

Did you know girls are jailed in Afghanistan for failing "virginity tests"? That tests for so-called "virginity" are used all over the world to determine whether a woman qualifies for employment, or education, or even marriage? Even here, a woman's sexual activity can diminish her worth in the eyes of her community, or even the laws that are supposed to protect her.

I'm not surprised, of course. If there was one message that came to me from all directions with surprising agreement, it was that the best gift I could possibly offer my future husband was an untouched vagina. Tampons were viewed with suspicion not merely as a health hazard, but because they posed the risk of "prematurely" stretching a hymen, which could mean no bleeding on one's wedding night. Horrors!

Deuteronomy 22, which I had read more than a dozen times before my own wedding night, assumed that a bride's parents would hang onto the bloodied honeymoon sheets (euphemistically called "the tokens of the damsel's virginity") to produce as evidence should her husband later try to worm out of the marriage by accusing her of having had premarital intercourse.

And in this Old Testament gem, Moses himself orders the Israelite army to use virginity tests as an act of war. It's rather horrifying in any translation, including the Jewish Publication Society's Tanakh (1917):
Now therefore kill every male among the little ones,
and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.
But all the women children,
that have not known man by lying with him,
keep alive for yourselves.    Numbers 31:17-18

The Good Book, indeed.

Even Jesus, in the story supposed to illustrate his compassion and respect for the woman he met at the well, quickly brings up her sexual history ("you have had five husbands, and the man you have now is not your husband"), establishing her unworthy position in the patriarchal hierarchy with a single sentence.

It was a revelation to me to realize (not that many years ago) that a woman's value is not, in fact, tied to her sexual experience, OR to her lack thereof. That my sexual history is my own, not a gift I present to a partner. And a woman's sexual experiences, consensual or otherwise, ought certainly never influence society's interest in her safety or well-being. 

Fuck you, Moses.

Friday, October 26, 2018


I spent a significant part of the summer trying not to be swallowed up by a black cloud of depression. 

It wasn't terribly obvious. I was still doing all the things a mom does: grilling, shopping, laundry, planning activities, taking the kids to the movies, baking pies, teaching my oldest to drive, swimming, walking, ice skating, making birthday cakes--plus painting, and writing. All while trying not to drown in a pool of my own tears.

This piece was going to be monochromatic, but then I couldn't keep the colors out of it. Which is why I called the result High-Functioning


My youngest had asked for a tree on her wall, and I couldn't think of a cheerier project to keep me moving in spite of my what-is-even-the-point-of-anything funk.

Painting together made for some great mother-daughter bonding. Especially when she insisted on a squirrel, and we had to figure out together how to achieve it.

The clouds have thinned considerably since then, and our tree is a pleasant reminder that happy things can still grow in dark times. 

Autumn Leaves

As satisfying as it is to watch my novel take shape, I can only spend so long in that toxic world-inside-my-head before I need fresh air. When the words get to be too much, I'll take a day (or a week) off from writing. Sometimes I spend all day in the kitchen, sometimes I visit the botanical gardens or see a movie, sometimes I meet a friend for lunch, and sometimes I take my paints out to the porch and play with the colors until the blank canvas turns into something new. 

I picked leaves from my backyard for this one, painted them with gold paint, and pressed them onto the canvas. I hadn't expected to stay with the blue palette that day, but it fit my mood, while also improving it. 

This one is 9" x 12" and I haven't settled on a title, but it is hanging over my couch for now.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018


I'm finding that art is one of the very best ways to rid myself of "demons" from the past. I painted the flowers for my mother, in front of the curtains that hung in her room when she would beat us with a wooden spoon.

Last Thanksgiving I again found myself trying to hack up the expectations of a multi-generational Normal Rockwell holiday dinner with the women in aprons serving platters on a spotless white tablecloth. We had just watched the second season of Stranger Things, so the turkey became my toothed monster.

I remember when my friend had to give up her rainbow stickers because rainbows had supposedly been co-opted as a "New Age" symbol. Decades ago, my mom and I cross-stitched more than our share of Bible verse mottoes. They hung in the kitchen, the living room, over the toilet... This line from Genesis doesn't get enough play, in my opinion, and encapsulates why I'm glad not to be in a relationship with the god of the Bible anymore.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Violated by Violence

Let's face it, this year has been tough.

I hate the violence in our world.


I hate school shootings.
I hate that my kids have to practice for school shootings.
I hate when the teachers aren't allowed to tell my kids that it's just a drill.


I want America to be a safe place for kids.
All kids. Everybody's kids. Kids from anywhere.
Bored kids, bilingual kids, hungry kids, scared kids.
Kids in dresses, kids in leggings, kids in hoodies, kids in scarves.
Kids with blue hair, red hair, braids, dreads.
Kids with dreams, kids with bruises, kids with kids.
Pregnant kids, lonely kids, tired kids.

And when kids aren't safe here, I feel shattered.


Thursday, October 18, 2018

Hung Out to Dry

The tiny clothespins caught my eye at a craft store.
They were real, with working springs.
I bought them on a whim and an image began to take shape.

I sketched it quickly with pastels on cardboard from the recycling bin.

Later I got out the sewing machine.
The skirt and jumper are cut from outgrown jeans.
There is eyelet lace on the Mom-size bloomers.

And several months after I hung it on the wall, this very familiar scene from my younger life became the opening scene for my novel.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018


Sometimes I begin with an idea. 
Other times I just know I need to take time for art, 
so I spread out a blank page or canvas, 
pick up a brush or a crayon, 
and wait to see what will happen next.

Playing with pastels

Playing with paint textures and brush strokes

Monday, October 15, 2018


A strange thing about art: sometimes I make things I can't explain and don't understand.

I was in a play about women who made important 
discoveries in astronomy at Harvard, 
and this happened.

 This one is tiny.
I meant to paint in all gray tones that morning,
but some red found its way in anyway.

I have multiple title ideas for this one, 
but maybe it's better left to the viewer.

This one is definitely about womanhood.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Inspiration & Imitation

More miniatures.

My kids' animals go to the art fair
--on our end table! 

 This was inspired by an artist whose work 
I admire at an annual Wichita art fair.
(Metallic acrylic paints on canvas.)

 It's nowhere in particular, though the gray 
building was inspired by the Wichita skyline.
And those could be cherry blossoms.

 A Michigan peninsula, of course.

 An untitled favorite.
I was thinking about relationships,
seasons, friends and lovers--
and this happened.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Art Therapy

On a happier note, here are a few paintings on miniature (2") canvases. I am all for art projects that don't require much clean-up! These are small enough that I can set everything up on a little table on the shaded back porch.

This favorite is a magnet on my fridge.
I've always loved paisley patterns
and metallic acrylic paints are too much fun.

 This one was inspired by a winter sunset 
silhouetting the sycamores in our neighborhood.

Also a magnet.

Of course, ripples and swirls are a recurring motif. 
This happy one reminds me of cupcakes.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Wooden Spoons

I realized last month that I haven't shared much of my artwork here. So I'm going to start a series of art posts with a heavy mixed-media piece I titled Broken.

For the last year, Broken has hung on the wall in our living room near the fireplace. Creating it was an act of healing for me, as years of trauma worked themselves out of my body and into the paint and clay.

Some find it disturbing to look at art about religiously motivated child abuse, but I've found something reassuring in seeing pain externalized and safely pinned to the wall. I'm finally ready to find it a new home, though.


Like all art, it is personal, and I'm afraid 3-D lace, charcoal, and metallic stickers don't translate well into pixels on a screen. But here's a close-up anyway:

Detail of Broken

Thursday, September 27, 2018


I flipped through an old journal today and parts made me laugh while other bits made me want to beat my head on something. I've gained much distance from the girl I was then, but it was so real at the time.

July 23, 1991  Sunday night I asked Momma about perfume—I’d like to start wearing it, not as an allurement, but simply because, well, “perfume rejoices the heart”. Momma didn’t say no, she gave me the go-ahead to choose a kind and let her smell it!

July 24  Our septic was repaired and our phone line went out of commission. We did some baking, the cleaning, and some laundry, and carried on an active social life (Mrs. E----t, Mr. H----h, invitation to Doyle B---’s for dinner on Sunday…). A--- and I went with Dad to the church business meeting. I was grieved and distressed by some intentions the Board made known at the meeting—more signs of a lukewarm church.

July 25
I sense I haven’t been too wonderful in my attitudes at home lately. Lord, give me grace. Change my heart—take my will and make it Thine!
July 26  This morning I rose early to do some work on my skirt before work. I worked at Jo-Ann Fabrics for five hours, earning $21.25. Not bad! This evening I read part of the Russian alphabet book I got from the library last week. I’m finding it really helpful. 
July 27  I finished my denim skirt. This evening we got pizza and watched The Hiding Place video—a great combination for a fun evening! We picked some sweet corn from across the road for lunch. It was SO tender and sweet! The Lord really provides the best for us!
July 28  This morning some of us were ill, so only us four oldest went with Dad to church. We had to leave before the sermon again [we walked out to protest rock music]. Only the Lord Jesus knows what a struggle that is! I am committed to God’s will, but it’s certainly not easy.

July 29  We made donuts, I studied some Russian.
July 30  This afternoon Dad took me to Gaylord to help him get some data. This evening Dad mentioned that I had some pay coming—I had totally forgotten about that aspect! He insisted on paying more than I really earned, too! Truly God is good. Once again, He’s providing.

July 31  I worked on some correspondence and helped clean the kitchen (cabinet-organizing cleaning). The babies went to the doctor, Momma and Dad brought home pasties. Many of us have miserable colds. Lord Jesus, I’ll need Your strength for tomorrow! Thank You for making it available to me!
Aug. 1  A tiring day. Five of us are on antibiotics now. I slept in, helped some with meals and babies, and read and laid around feeling miserable. I did plan many projects to work on when I’m feeling better, however! Lord, please work to perfect my attitudes! I want to be a crown of glory in Your hand!
Aug. 2  This morning we cleaned, this afternoon most of us laid around in the living room feeling miserable and watching videos. It was pretty much fun. 
Aug. 3  I wrote to Becky and the others cleaned the shed. I did some ironing and experimented with spray starch and sizing. I nursed my cold and this afternoon Dad took five of us to the library—I found The Tempting of America by Robert Bork and an introduction to Russia.

Aug. 4  Right now I am in my room playing with [two-year-old] Timothy. We’re having fun singing up the scale and playing with a white feather that he discovered on the floor from my pillow.
Aug. 5  Today was reasonably pleasant and enjoyable. Also, my cold is improving.
Aug. 6  A full day—work in the morning and play in the afternoon. For some unexplainable reason I felt strangely thoughtful and even almost sad as I worked by myself. I’m afraid my joy in the Lord is ebbing—guess I need more time in the Word, or maybe I just need to throw my whole heart, my whole life, into making Momma successful. That’s it. I know that’s what I need to do. I must work to make my parents, my family a success. This is not easy or natural for me! I forget often.
Aug. 7  I am still having occasional pain in my toe (the one I possibly broke a few weeks ago) so I soaked it in mallow water for a while today while I worked cross-stitching a bib for Beth’s baby shower tomorrow.

If I could speak to my fifteen-year-old self, I'd tell her that her heart is beautiful.
That she is allowed to rest.
That even if she wasn't as kind and diligent and inquisitive as she is, she deserves just as much care as the friends and family she wants so much to serve.

And I think, if she heard that, she would cry.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Racism & Middle School

When I pick up my middle-schoolers at the end of the day, I park on the north side of the school. Because I park on the north side, nearly every child who walks past my car is African-American. If I parked on the south street, or the east, or the west, where the houses are bigger, most of the kids walking home would have different complexions. But I park here and this is Wichita.

Despite the downtown sculpture commemorating one of the first lunch counter sit-ins for civil rights, Wichita still has ghetto neighborhoods. The word sounds pejorative, politically incorrect, but the dictionary assures me it is the correct choice: “a quarter of the city in which members of a minority group live especially because of social, legal, or economic pressure”. Wichita definitely has ghettos and one of them is north of our school. We’ve talked about it in the car. You don’t have to be a sociologist to notice that all the kids clustered at the crosswalk heading north are black.

Diversity is one of the things we love most about our middle school. It was certainly one of the first things I noticed. One in four students is black. Similar to our elementary school, fewer than half the students are white, and the school has strong Hispanic and Asian representation. Many of my kids’ classmates are bilingual. When my kids spend time with them, they are introduced to other languages and customs, unfamiliar foods and religious traditions. I’ve come to see that building these connections is not merely enriching, but essential for a healthy community.

Even so, I was unprepared for our middle school’s cultural showcase family night last month. My sixth-grader had interviewed an elderly relative, gathered photos, and researched the history of her Kansas heritage, while my son had created a presentation around a family recipe from Pennsylvania, complete with samples to share. Our calendar was a jigsaw puzzle of assignments, schedules, and places to be, so it wasn’t till I delivered my children on time that night and began to look around that I realized hundreds of other students had done the same things.

In one room students exhibited colorful posters depicting their heritage, values, family traditions, religious symbols, hobbies and allegiances. As we milled through the crowd of other families, the posters forming a collage on the floor, I paid extra attention to the diversity of religions—Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, Protestant, maybe others I’ve forgotten—and appreciated the creativity that went into each poster’s design, revealing hints about the personality of the student presenting it.

The school's lunch room was transformed into a crowded international food court, each student’s booth offering a taste of a dish important to his/her family. Next to midwestern staples like apple pie, monkey bread, and—my favorite—“funeral potatoes”, sat traditional homemade tortillas, Mexican mole, South American ceviche. There were dishes from Norway and Lebanon, Germany and Japan. Parents and children jostled elbows past platters of hummus, fish, sticky rice, two versions of lumpia, and plenty of recipes I didn’t recognize. I sampled the layered Vietnamese coffee-coconut-&-pandan jelly and a syrupy golden dessert made with semolina.

Some children had compiled websites to present information from their family heritage. Others had typewritten reports based on interviews with family members. We skimmed stories about people who’d grown up in Beirut, in India, in Bangladesh, in Vietnam, on the Korean Peninsula. Each story (and I only read a sample of the dozens arranged on cafeteria tables) connected to one of my child’s classmates, made the places on the news feel a little closer.

It wasn’t until we got home that I felt something had been missing. Some place. Some one.
Africa! And not African stories or African cuisine, but Africa’s people. While the rest of us celebrated the families and lands we hailed from, Earth’s second most populous continent had been absent from the school that night. I hadn’t seen any soul food, no interviews that mentioned Martin Luther King or Jim Crow, no posters by African immigrants. Had I overlooked them?

At elementary school enrollment, at middle school concerts, at high school project fairs, I always rub shoulders with black families, many of them. How had I overlooked them on this night? The next day I quizzed three other parents who’d attended. Had they noticed any African-American students or parents? They couldn’t remember seeing any, either..

That’s when it hit me that the culture fair was only for students, like mine, enrolled in the academically rigorous pre-IB program. The first time I heard of it was when a teacher recommended it during 5th-grade conferences. Parents have to submit complex applications with multiple teacher endorsements and students have to achieve high enough scores on special weekend testing days.

Only one Wichita school offers the pre-IB program and space is limited. It’s a fantastic program for my children, keeping them challenged while preparing them for success in high school, where grades count for scholarships. But in a school that’s 25% black (drawing students from elementary schools that range from 12% to 52% black) the pre-IB program, as far as I can tell, no more than 5% black, at most. African-American males are almost non-existent in pre-IB.

When I tagged along with my daughter on my first middle school field trip, I was startled to see that the black boys she’d had as elementary classmates had disappeared, along with most of the black girls. In their place were more white kids, more kids from all over Asia and the Middle East. And though its presence was subtle at first, their families had more money. Here, my kids learn alongside their African-American peers only in their elective classes and in P.E., where expectations are lower, discipline laxer, and the students my kids now breezily refer to as “Reg. Ed.” suffer considerably less performance anxiety.

It pains me to consider that much of my kids’ middle school experience is, for all practical purposes, segregated. It pains me because when people are segregated, both sides lose. And it pains me because as I sit at the curb in my late-model SUV watching obviously “Reg. Ed.” kids walk home across Central Avenue, I wonder how pre-IB adolescents can avoid developing a sense of elitism.

I put my kids in public school because I wanted them to be part of the mixed-up circus that is the human family. I wanted to throw my lot in with that of the whole community, give my kids a common experience with their peers, sharing the same rules and opportunities, neither fearing nor feeling superior to people with different backgrounds. And yet, if African-American kids aren’t getting into competitive classes, can we call our education system equal?

Are black students failing the required testing? Or are their parents not applying for the program? Does it sound too stressful or intimidating? Is pre-IB an elite secret? Are teachers recommending the program as an option for black students? If not, why not? Are black students falling behind their peers in elementary school? If they are, how can we help? It surely wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that from the beginning of their education, perhaps the only black adult male they see at school is the custodian?

Representation matters. It matters for the population represented, and it matters for those who observe. Kids aren’t stupid. Every morning they hear words like “one nation”, “indivisible”, “justice for all”, but at the end of the day the black kids walk north. Because in Wichita, we’re not all equal. Not yet.

Wichita ceased mandatory busing for school integration years ago, and today many of our schools are once again predominantly one race or another. And it’s no secret that the black elementary school in the neighborhood to the north and the Hispanic elementary school to the west are made up almost entirely of low-income students, while the mostly white school to the south is considerably better off. Those kids come together to share a building for the middle school grades, but they do not share the same experience.

We need more diversity; we need more equality. We need better funding for ALL elementary schools, especially those in low-income areas. We need more black teachers. We need better pay for those teachers. And we need to address the socio-economic factors that allow ghettos to exist at all. In 21st-century Kansas, one’s chance of survival to school age should not be dependent on one’s race, or one’s zip code.

I ponder these things and drum on the steering wheel. And then my kids climb in. They squeeze in their backpacks, their instruments, their lunch pouches. They buckle their seat-belts. I turn the car east and ask about homework. We talk about snacks, and what’s for dinner.