Category Archives: Culture + World

Living With Books 08: Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Books

Thatcher Wine of Juniper Books at http://juniperbooks.com/

Thatcher Wine of Juniper Books at http://juniperbooks.com/

As I taught Revolutionary history this past spring, it was hard not to be inspired by the struggles founding fathers went through in finding their way to the wording that now serves as the central spirit of American life:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Want to get in the spirit? This clip from the HBO series John Adams is one of my favorites in capturing the emotion of the era.

Wherever you are, here’s to enjoying your celebration of Independence Day. Here’s to kids splashing in the lake, to families getting together with those they’ve been apart from. My boys and I will begin our road trip this week to visit family in North Carolina and DC, and stay at my parents’ house in Connecticut, built only 5 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed. And here’s to those who can’t be with their families, as they serve to protect freedom around the globe.

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As for this little celebration of Living With Books, I post this picture to encourage you to check out the website for Juniper Books The curated book display creating the American flag was designed by Thatcher Wine of Juniper Books, and shared by Random House.

What is Juniper Books? Fantasy job for all of us who love living with books: Thatcher has achieved some fame, curating custom book collections for individuals, designers, architects and hotels. He is particularly known for designing book jackets to create monochromatic displays or a thematic mural across spines of a collection. Sweet.

Read more about Thatcher’s work in this profile in the Financial Times, “Spine Tingling.”

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What about the fireworks?  Check out this great essay by my writing friend Kasie Whitener on shopping for fireworks, “Light Me Up, My Dear.”

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For prior editions of Living With Books:

Source: bookshelfporn.com; original source may be anthropologie.

Source: bookshelfporn.com; original source may be anthropologie.

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Writing Life: Get Out in the World

Annual Sing for Hope installation of pianos in public parks, NYC. Photo credit: posted by Ashley Butler on Sing for Hope facebook (http://goo.gl/2PVae).

Annual Sing for Hope installation of pianos in public parks, NYC. Photo credit: posted by Ashley Butler on Sing for Hope facebook (http://goo.gl/2PVae).

As the school year ends, summer’s long days rush at me — in freedom, yes. Yet the value of my summers off (in addition to spending time with my boys) is the time it affords me for novel revisions.

Are You In or Out?

Both of the novel manuscripts I’ve been working on involve people out in the world.

In Breathing Water, the main character moves all through vibrant scenes from her mother’s house along the Miami River to art galleries throughout Miami to an illicit trip to Cuba to recover threads from her mother’s past. The characters in Wake are on the run through the Irish countryside. I’ve written stories where the main character works charter sailboats, or is the marketing writer for a corporation expanded into India.

My stories move. They travel. The world passes through their fingers.

They don’t happen on the couch in my living room or sitting here at the keyboard.

But that is the irony of the long hours it takes to write and revise a novel: no matter the life and adventure and other world the story captures, so much of that has to be created by a writer trapped at a keyboard indoors. Sure, we can all snag some laptop hours on vacation or mobile work from wherever we might be. Still, hundreds of hours get logged at a keyboard far from the action.

I am ready for that this month. I’ve spent the past two months out in the world – in classrooms with students, on an extended history tour of St. Augustine, at beach parties, at an amusement park… I’ve spent so much time “out there” interacting with people and other places that I genuinely crave uninterrupted hours to disappear back into the work on my novel that has been relegated to 15 minute blocks here and there in the past 2 months.

So no complaints about the work ahead.

Where Inspiration Lies

But a piece in the New York Times got to me yesterday, as a fabulous reminder of what it is to be an artist (amateur tinkerer or pro, in whatever medium) out interacting in the world.

Each year in June, the group Sing for Hope installs 88 pianos into public spaces throughout New York City — there for the sole purpose to be played by anyone who happens by. Each of the pianos is painted or decked out by artists and designers.

  • Click here for the NYTimes article or here for a video link, in which the reporting musician visits and plays with people at several of the parks.
  • For more information, including interactive challenges going on daily (to wit: musicians attempting to play all the pianos in one day, and random players posting pictures), check out the Sing for Hope facebook page here.
  • Are you closer to Cleveland, Paris, Omaha or Boston? The group Play Me I’m Yours is running similar projects with events in those cities; visit streetpianos.com for more info on that group.

I’ll be in New York next month, too late to check out the installation for myself — but the concept alone (and listening to songs being played by various musicians who’ve posted video) was enough to captivate me.

Get Out

As much as I will make the most of my free-to-work hours in the coming months, Sing for Hope is reminder to savor opportunities to go where you can find pianos in a park or fresh fruit at a market or conversation with a friend or the warmth of smelling horses out in a field or the crisp snap of wind in filling sails… or whatever other joys of summer that will stimulate your senses.

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What about you?

Where will you go — or do you wish you could go — to stimulate your senses or inspire your creativity?

To my regular readers, this also serves as a “hello,” as so many friends have inquired about my absence from some of our common forums. All is well — I’ve been busy, in great ways, with work. In February, I took over teaching a 5th grade class, which kept me busy planning not only writing, but U.S. History and science. I’ve kept going with work on my novel, but additional writing time has gone to nonfiction and education materials, including setting up a separate blog and Pinterest, sharing the title Mrs. T’s Middle Grades (Why “T”? I teach under my married name of Thompson). I’d welcome feedback on the new blog (email or DM me), as it’s a baby and in need of tweaking.

I look forward to reconnecting to hear what you have been doing, as well — either here or in our facebook or twitter forums.

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From my Parenting Blog: Parenting Gets Existential

I’ve never loved candy-stripe carnations as much as these that my sons gave to me to celebrate the end of our school year. (That great vase is a bar glass that makes me crave a trip back to Mama Kwan’s bar in Kill Devil Hills, NC.) c Elissa Field

Because it is summer, and because summer has me of the mind of young children, free for long days of unscheduled abandon, today seemed a good day to share an essay I posted originally on my old parenting blog. As I enjoy long days with my boys, I was reminded of this one day with them that so captures how non-writing days serve as inspiration.

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I was the first one pregnant in our generation, on either side of our family.  From those first weeks of confessing it, I ran the steep hill of all the things I would learn about what it took to parent.  Diapers, pack and plays, how to know if it’s sick.  And then they grow up a little.

You work on which vacuum has large enough bore to suck up Cheerios without clogging, teaching yourself to say sugar! instead of shit, and truisms like “hands are not for hitting.”

Mysteriously, I discovered I absolutely love parenting.

Not the least of which is the way its existential challenges never cease to amaze.

This month’s challenge: answering the question, “Mom, what is a hippie?”

My five-year-old said, “It means ‘an old man’.”

His eight-year-old brother corrected him:  “No, it’s a teenager with long hair…  and funny clothes… and…”  He accurately described Shaggy, from Scooby Do, then faltered, breaking down to ask, “Mom, what is a hippie?”

And here parenting becomes existential – because even in their little boy way, they were grasping at something they could not articulate but could sense.  They got that there was some socio-political, socio-historical implication behind the meaning.  That it signified something they did not understand for there to be a hippie in their cartoon.

I begin to answer, but it’s the ubiquitous sound of one hand clapping.  Any explanation of what a hippie is means nothing without understanding the context of the culture they were rebelling against.  In our current environment where the two long-haired boys on my sons’ baseball teams are the sons of fashionista mamas, not grunge, how can they get what a statement it was for a guy to let his hair and beard grow shaggy in an era where hair didn’t touch one’s collar?  Where men and women still wore hats in public, and my grandmother and even my mother still carried spotless white gloves?   Our kids know hippie images as neon flowers on paper cups and napkins at the party store, or the peace signs in rhinestones on the neighbor’s jeans, without seeing them as re-imagined icons of what was once a radical attempt to move toward a gentler, more natural way of being, at a time of corporatization and war.  How do you explain the experience that I remember intangibly as paper butterflies on my young aunt’s wall, fanning out above her black and white poster of “A Bridge Over Troubled Water”?

In attempting to find simple words to explain it, my understanding grows expansive in memory of history lessons and personal experience growing up in the 70s, touched with hindsight and the newer context of the world we have become since then.  I was not a hippie or flower child or child of hippies; my parents were primly republican.  As a child, I associated hippies with broken bottles on the pavement at our playground.  Yet here I am, forty, riding along in my SUV with little boys rattling about in the back (who are fascinated we did not have to wear seatbelts as kids), and feeling a wan tenderness in memory of avocado kitchen appliances and trying to remember what the whole affection for rainbows was about.

My world becomes larger with children.  Not just because more square-footage is required to be able to move around highchairs and train tables and strewn Legos, but because the whole expanse of the universe is new again in their eyes.

Soil that clearly belongs nowhere but between the roots of the hedges and flowers outside is now meant to be dug up, spread apart, carried about and stored in little containers that just would not have occurred to you as meant for analyzing dirt.  That is, not until you have a playdate with brightly dressed, neat little girls who open the little play kitchen and find it caked with dried spattered mud and your son smiles and explains it to her – proudly pointing out how when he shook the soil in a jar with water, the mulch, peat and sand separated into layers, creating a distinct grey, tan and brown rainbow that he’d just been dying to show someone.  He discovered density, you think with pride, at the same time you apologetically wash away the filth and reassure the little girls that there are clean toys here somewhere.

Life is a mystery.  Full of dark turns and surprises and joys and tragedies and things so beautiful and amazing.  You go on vacation and see a sunset or painting or giant gorge in the earth so startlingly beautiful that you honestly could not have borne seeing it without someone meaningful beside you to touch and say, “Look at that!”

Children find this not only on vacation, but in the mundane, the sagging days of life that might otherwise be only about when to fit in grocery shopping and whether a successful day at work was enough to qualify for bonus and if you will be able to sleep soundly tonight.

“Look!” they say, all the time.  “What is that?  Look!”  They pick out the plainest flower at the market and fall in love.  You find rocks in the bottom of your purse, a wilted  feather left for you beside your bed, stray bits of hardware clanking in your dryer.

And they take what we have known always in our lives – something as irrelevant and silly as a hippie – and hand us a whole cosmos of depth and meaning to wrestle with.

“What is a hippie?” I repeated, ready to say something about how people sometimes choose their clothes to express their feelings about the world, or maybe share something about what it was like to be a child in the 70s, or how the times then were or weren’t like our times now.

But they were laughing at something.

Just at the point they had me thoroughly wrapped up in the riddle of it, the boys moved on.

In the same effortless way they expand our lives with depth and complexity, they model for us simplicity.  My boys decided, simply, that “hippie” will be their favorite new word for anything weird… whether or not they really get what it means.

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Related Posts:

More on finding inspiration when least expected: Writing Life: Today’s Job – Non-writing Days

Reading this summer, including with my boys: Summer Reading List 2012

Another post on challenging conversations with kids: Reminders of What We Wished Lost

Are you a writing parent? Where do you find inspiration or challenge in balancing family with work?

 

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Enjoy your summer day, all!

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How Could This Be My Story?

Elissa Field fiction Jar of Teeth

c Elissa Field

I’ve been working on a short story that I really like, called “Jar of Teeth.” Much of the experience has been head-over-heels story-love.

I love the central trope of the teeth.  I have enjoyed, fascinated, the research the story has demanded: set in a natural history museum, texture coming from the main character’s job there. In no hurry to be done, researching and writing the story has taken several months beyond the week I laid down the initial storyline, about a conflict between a mother and daughter.

None of this surprises me.

But I was taken aback to discover, in this story and in one of the novel drafts I’ve been working with, undercurrents I had not set out to convey. A curve-ball in the process.

I am, in part, an occasional activist, a history teacher, an avid follower of international affairs. It should follow that, if I write a story about an issue about which I hold beliefs, those beliefs might be reflected (or even argued) in the story.

Yet I’ve been fascinated to realize that these two works have a message that is their own — not necessarily mine.

I’m not certain yet what I think of that, and this blog is my attempt to think it through.

When I wrote my very first novel draft (Breathing Water), I had to shut myself up: delete whole paragraphs of real world politics about balseros fleeing Cuba. If I believed it, if it was an important message for readers to know, should it be left in? No.  Historical context was interesting when it fit the thoughts and memories my characters would have, but I understood, even in my earliest drafts, that novels are about story, not diatribe, and extraneous “message” did not belong there and was edited out.

All the same, the unfolding events and character experiences were at least consistent with what I believed; they didn’t contradict my beliefs. That seems natural.

The raw novel draft I was working with this past week (so far called Rajeed’s Wife) was another matter. As written, in its raw state, it starts with a strong, independent, modern woman, who is thrown, through situation of the man she falls in love with, into a very traditional role.  She then falls prey to traditional dangers, in a near fairytale, Red-Riding-Hood-entering-the-forest manner that leaves her entirely vulnerable, near death, with her husband in the traditional role of trying to rescue her.

The retro-mythology was intentional, but I can’t help asking myself, Why?

Unlike my motivation in writing about my character who lost family members in his trip over from Cuba, this other draft does not evoke any “message” about the community it is set in.  The novel connects to recent international events but without attempting to take on an issue.  In some ways, if not in opposition to my beliefs, the focus on saving the main character is at least more petty than the conversations I get fired up about in current affairs.

It is unapologetic in being an in-and-out-of-the-wilderness tale about love, not social justice.

“Jar of Teeth,” on the other hand, does take on an ethical issue, albeit coming at it sideways, so the “issue” is never named, only described in parallel (or in chalk line) by what happens in the story. I wasn’t startled by the story, or the main character’s beliefs and actions. They rang true. But it surprised me to not realize until the story reached its third draft that the main character’s self-accusations implied a backhanded judgment of an entire worldview represented by her daughter.  Um, wow, I once marched on Washington over one view, and here my character is expressing relative condemnation of (at least her experience) of the same issue.

First reaction: insecurity.  Damn.  All this work and what I wrote is wrong.

Second: fascination.  How can a story I wrote, about a character I created, whose entire experience unfolded out of my own empathy and knowledge of what she would feel and do — go counter to my own beliefs?

Then: does a writer have a responsibility to only use the platform of publication for work that is consistent with their beliefs?  Is a story that goes against their own doctrine “broken”?

Somewhere, at this point, I found distance enough to realize: I wrote what was the truth of the characters and their story.  In conversation among writers and editors and agents and readers, over and over it’s said that what matters in fiction is having meaningful characters and revealing a compelling story.  A message may be inherent; readers may learn something. But this is not what gives a story life.  I knew, even when editing that first novel draft, that doctrine or moralizing can be death of the work.

The extreme then clicked: One only has to imagine Nabokov writing Lolita to get that one can write about things that run contrary to behavior they would recommend.

Clearly, the question isn’t whether I’m allowed to write ideas other than my world view, but what about discovering it in these drafts left me feeling insecure, as if I’d done something wrong?

For the raw novel draft, insecurity is sign that I need to understand why I would have written a contradiction. In the little time I’ve spent reflecting on this, by asking “why?” I begin to notice what may be missing in the story, or where energy is falling on the wrong foot. Other characters begin to speak and I think the story belongs to more view points than that central character. I get a stronger sense of where it is going, panic averted, especially knowing it’s a backburnered project, in line behind other work. No rush.

Not backburnered, “Jar of Teeth” begs to be done; a rift in concept would not be welcome. The contradiction plays out in my midnight thoughts. Does the story directly contradict my beliefs?  For example, since learning a friend’s son shot himself with her gun years ago, I’ve been against guns in a home with children, so it would go against my beliefs to publish a story that glamourized a gun in a child’s home (not this story’s theme).

I realize that the perspective in “Jar of Teeth,” is not a contradiction, but an idea at the periphery of my beliefs.  Like saying, “I hate war,” but writing compassionately of a soldier who found humanity or brotherhood in the trenches.

My father used to speak of night vision, when sailing in the dark: he taught me that things become invisible when you stare at them directly; you see them only by looking slightly to one side or the other.

I think this is what I was doing, with this story. Not writing directly what I might believe, but coming at it from an angle, with the added energy of challenging my usual thoughts. I hope this week’s insecurity has made me question my work in ways that ultimately make it stronger.

4/28: As follow up, here is an interesting perspective from guest blogger Mike Duran, on agent Rachelle Gardner’s site: “Are You Responsible for What Your Characters Say?” While Stephen King says criticism is usually provoked by dialogue, I can’t find my most dangerous revelations occur in interior character reflection.

 

And, what do you think?

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Reminders of What We Wished Lost

Chellberg barn, Indiana

A couple years ago, reading to kindergarteners, I had to pause and explain a barn to them. Red building, animals, in the picture in their storybook — they got that. They didn’t know the essence of driving down roads where barns stood on duty behind hundred year old family farmhouses. Didn’t know the gaps of daylight between rough-hewn siding, the smell of hay and manure and sweat, the forbidden dangerous glee of daring to jump from hayloft to floor. Didn’t know what it was to be absent all day, unaccounted for, only coming in for dinner smelling faintly of puppy and horse, hands and face smeared, hay jutting from loosened braids.

There comes a point where things that once had meaning no longer make sense.

We can’t cling to this or mourn it; it just is.

Yet it is a daily part of conversation.  “Ebook or print book?” hashtags debate all over twitter. Do we despise the ability to zap books instantly to our palm, if their existence eradicates the crisp smell of printed pages? Do we eye-roll at students who bypass libraries, assuming anything worth knowing has its own site?

This week I was reminded of another side to this: what of things we wanted gone? Do we bemoan these, as well, once they’ve left us?

Yes, in their own way. Drive out evil, but record it, turn a light on it, that it should not be repeated.

Arundhati Roy turns attention on child molestation, Toni Morrison on abuses against African-Americans, Lisa See on Chinese foot binding, Michael Cunningham on the AIDS epidemic, Jane Austen on gender bias in landholding rights, Jay Asher on suicide. German occupation, 9/11, drug and alcohol abuse, slavery, child neglect, fear of the wild, poverty. Those examples, just from the shelf in front of me, fall short of all literature seeks to record of what we wanted purged.

What is interesting is the feared void that follows such a purge: First the purge, then the teaching — the books, the movies, the retelling — to keep what was purged alive in our minds.

Much like needing to explain a barn, as mother to two young boys, I’ve had this thought close at mind over the past weeks, on heels of the controversy over the headline about Jeremy Lin, so stupidly published as “A Chink in the Armor.”

Author Matthew Salesses has come to my attention over the past year for his insight and intelligence, in writings I’ve followed through Twitter. He is someone I can identify with, as a sensitive parent, thinking ahead to the world his daughter will grow up in, but reflecting back, also, on the opportunities and exposure of his childhood. What I learned about him today is his perspective as an Asian American, which he reflects with exceptional candor and sensitivity in his essay, “Different Racisms…the Rules of Racism are Different for Asian Americans,” on the Rumpus.

After reading it, I tweeted my appreciation to him.

Seconds later, I couldn’t help adding: “FWIW, if I heard the word chink, an Asian slur would be the hundredth+ meaning I would think of. Dumb? Or just not my thinking?”

Tweets are limited in dimension. Even as I clicked to send this to him, I worried, considering the heart he bravely peeled open in his essay, would he think I was arguing, that I was trying to minimize or dispute the cruel things said?  So I later clarified with him: really, for better or worse, I hadn’t heard someone use “chink” to describe a person since I was in high school.  (Which was, um, not last year.)

In fact, in describing the barn, above, I began to say “chinks of light” come through the planks, an accurate representation of what I meant — but was suddenly disproportionately conscious of the word’s double-meaning, from reading his essay.

It’s not that Matthew’s essay was the first time this has occurred to me.

I spent my early childhood in Detroit, in a mixed race, mixed religion neighborhood. I’ve lived in homogenous, protestant white communities, but at the moment live in a neighborhood where we are the white minority, in race and culture. In Charlotte, North Carolina, I was bussed into the inner city and taught by a teacher who’d marched with Martin Luther King. I crave diversity in my friends and cultural interests, and tend to be a little hyper-sensitive about racism and other forms of bigotry.

But what happens, 20 years into “political correctness,” when we have lived so long shunning slurs?

In the first years, like me avoiding “chink” in describing the barn, we are hypersensitive of the Words We Must Not Say. We know these words. We catch them before they escape lips. We flinch when we hear them said. If we’re good, we roll eyes or even yell when friends try to slip them in as humor. (Equally, we know there are those who savor saying them in badness.)

Now comes the weakness. When do we become like kindergarteners, not knowing a barn?

Even for point of illustrating, I refuse to type a list of slur examples to make the point. I. will. not. type. those. words.

So how do we continue to know them and the impact they have?  How do my sons know I’d skin them alive for saying the n-word if I’ve purged it so fully that such conversation never comes up?

In this, do we reach a point where we don’t remember the words we were to avoid?

Quite fairly, Matthew challenged me. Would I really not think chink was a slur “even if [I] heard it addressed to an Asian person?”

Have I really never heard “chink” said of an Asian? Have I never witnessed an Asian friend feel marginalized? Shine a light on something and you see — or remember — what did not otherwise come readily to mind.  In North Carolina, in the all-white neighborhood where we lived one year, my girlfriend from the Philippines shared her immense pain and rejection over how different her family was from the families around us — no matter that I loved her family and remember her grandmother’s fish and rice (bane of her existence), affectionately, to this day. I went to high school outside of DC, where Asians made up 20-30% of our school (some born in the US, some whose parents were working temporarily in government agencies, a few who spoke little English). I read Matthew’s essay now and remember — in nauseous horror — that a beautiful friend of mine, who all my friends thought very highly of, was nicknamed Chinky. Did she like it? Did she accept it and say nothing? Did we ignore it blindly? Does she avoid being facebook friends now out of long ingrained pain caused by it?

Matthew’s essay raises the point that racism toward Asians is often dismissed as being flattering, as if that made it okay.

There’s another truth. Within the first chapter of the textbook for my education course on Diversity, I read one sentence that struck me as very powerful. Statistics proving bias were not disputed. But surveys reveal that the race(s) and gender favored by the biases do not associate themselves with originating the bias.  In the survey, it was white males saying they don’t think of themselves as wanting to perpetuate stereotypes that held others down, and saw themselves as products of the bias as much as those hurt by it. (I can’t help add that the grass isn’t greener: As a teacher, I’ve witnessed significant prejudice and judgment of white boys from teachers and peers, who blatantly judge them lazy, disruptive, trouble makers, etc. But that’s very different trend.)

The point of the survey grabbed me because I think the disassociation from responsibility goes further than just those at the top of the hierarchy. Take someone like me. I am a writer, well educated, particularly focused on understanding diverse cultures worldwide. I personally feel no prejudices against races or genders or religions. Know myself, rather, to crave differing perspectives.

Do I then become part of the problem? Because a person like me — a person who wants us all to get along and not re-engage prior offenses — isn’t going to take the preemptive step of saying, “Remind me of all the things I want to avoid doing.” I’m going to assume, just because my heart is in the right place, my words and actions will be without barbs. This isn’t just random theorizing. For years, I’ve called my boys my “monkeys.” I’m a friendly teacher and sometimes nicknames slip out when talking to a student. I came up cold one day, having just called a boy in my class monkey and wondering, “Wait. Is he going to think, ‘Aw, she likes me as much as her son’? Or is that a slur for something?”

Before teaching, I worked years in the courts, where political correctness was all consuming. No Christmas tree without a menorah beside it. No menorah or Christmas tree the year no one could figure out what to do about Kwanza or Ramadan. Race, disability, religion, gender, nationality, native language – we danced to be fair and equal with all, to the point even friends weren’t sure how to talk to one another any more.

But here I am, now dumb in my blindness to what might hurt others, bleached beyond sensitivity, back into dangerous territory.

Working to avoid pitfalls doesn’t mean they are no longer there. The fact we haven’t said a word or heard it lately doesn’t means bigotry isn’t alive and well — in memory or continuing experience.

It is a curious thing to wonder, are we at the point where remedial vocab training is needed? Do I teach my sons the words, the prior hurts, the things done wrong in the past, just to say, “Don’t do that”?

In literature, at least, we have the treatment, if not the cure. I told Matthew I thought his essay important. As happens throughout literature, he shines a light on one experience so that we can’t ignore the hurting that goes on, despite any best intentions.

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