From this day to the ending of the world…

On the morning of October 25, 1415, I doubt that King Henry V of England had much thought of surviving to the end of the day let alone having his name eternally associated with the date of October 25. Much of the credit for that welcome to one Mr. William Shakespeare, but the fact remains that Henry did something that ensured his connection to October 25.

Several hundred years later and a few hundred miles northeast, another group of men ensured their eternal connection October 25 for a less exciting reason. While Henry V is remembered for his military victory, the Light Brigade of 1854 is remembered for their defeat in the Battle of Balaclava in Crimean War. The Brigade would probably be simply relegated to the lesser pages of history books if not for Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Tennyson took a moment of confusion and brought it to life. He took a disastrous battle and made it unforgettable; he made its warriors immortal with his pen. The story of the battle is not commonly taught in American schools, but the poem is. The poem lives on and carries on with it the memory of all those who died as a result of the battle.

A few years ago, one of my high school students looked at the poem and said, “Oh, I know this! It’s from The Blindside.” Naturally, my response was “Great, but do you know the story?” I slid a few Raglan Cardigan jokes in there and told the kiddos the story. Then we talked about how the story lives on due to literature.

I love literature, and this day (October 25) reminds me of one of my reasons. Literature carries messages to the future. It tells stories to people who might never have otherwise heard them. The British sense of duty is conveyed to future generations by The Charge of the Light Brigade. It tells us what mattered to the world in which that tragedy occurred. Yes, a group of brave men died, but they were committed to their cause and they did their duty to Queen and Country.Those were important values for their society.

I know and love the story of Henry V because of the Shakespeare play of the same name. If not for Shakespeare-and subsequently Kenneth Branagh and The Hollow Crown, I might have encountered him briefly on the pages of a history book as a high school freshmen, but I never would have been enchanted by his story. Literature brought Henry to life for me, and I was enchanted by him.

On October 25, I find myself rejoicing in a victory that happened six centuries ago. I find myself saddened by the loss of innocent lives at the Battle of Balaclava. But most of all, I find myself grateful that literature in all of its various forms helps us to preserve history. And may that continue to be true from this until the ending of the world.


Me too.

When “me too” started buzzing around the internet as a way of saying that I too am a woman who has been sexually harassed and/or assaulted, I knew that I should chime in. It’s two words. All you have to do is type them and share them. People need to know that this sort of thing is far more common than anyone wants to believe.

But I was scared. I knew that I should tell my story, but it’s hard. It is hard to tell the truth about something when for far too long you’ve been told to be silent about that very thing.

See…here’s the thing. On Saturday, September 20, 2008, I was sexually assaulted. I was not raped, but I was taken advantage of. I was young. I was naive. And I was in a foreign country. I was in a place where everyone said that I had to experience the local culture. I had to explore. I had to try new things. I had to do things that I wouldn’t normally do.

So I bought a dress, a dress that was very pretty. I put on the dress. I let someone do my hair. I did my makeup. I went to a club. I wanted to have fun. I wanted to avoid Red Bull and Vodka.

By the end of the night, I had managed to avoid Red Bull and Vodka but not the smell of that pairing. And I had not had fun.

I’d gone into the evening with an idea that I’d dance with a few girl friends and maybe a cute guy. But I just wanted to have fun. I thought I was safe because I fit in with Spanish women. I was olive-skinned and dark-haired; surely, Spanish men would find me boring. They’d have no interest in me in my pink and brown halter dress with my brown sandals. Oh, I was wrong.

Instead, I’d had a random man I’d never even spoken to pull me away from my friends and stick his tongue into my mouth and his hands in places well…I wouldn’t want to tell my mother about. I was scared stiff. I went along with what he was doing because I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t tell you what I was thinking. I don’t know if I was. I just know that I was scared. I don’t know what would have happened if not for Colorado Boy.

Colorado Boy was a boy in my study abroad group who was nearby when this happened. I don’t know if we’d ever even spoken before. (I don’t even know if he was actually from Colorado; that’s just what my brain named him for this post.) The first time that I was aware of CB that night was when his hand was on my shoulder and he was saying something about his girlfriend. He pulled me away from Spanish Dude #1 telling the guy to get off his girlfriend. Who knows what SD#1 thought of CB? I don’t care. What I care about is that CB pulled me into a circle of girls who asked me if I was alright. They was kind. They were gentle. They reassured me that they were there if I needed any help.

The night went on. Another Spanish Dude wanted to dance with me. I wasn’t yet smart enough to say no, and I didn’t realize how far he’d managed to get me away from my group of friends until he asked me if he could take me home to meet his mother. I’m not dumb; I knew what that meant. But I couldn’t see any of my friends. I didn’t want to pay my taxi fare back to the hotel alone, and I didn’t want to disappear on my friends.

And somehow, I figured out a way out. I told SD#2 that I’d go home with him to “meet his mother.” But first I needed to tell my friends where I was going so that they wouldn’t worry about me. I walked off where I claimed I saw my friend and hid in the bathroom for ten minutes. When i came out, SD#2 was gone. Who knows what he thought about me in that moment, and honestly, who cares? Then, I went off in search of my friends. I eventually found them, and one of my friends and I agreed that we were ready to go home (being a bit bored of the club thing). So we began (slowly, it took over an hour) collecting our friends and back to the hotel we went.

I woke up the next morning tired and a little wiser and much sadder. I threw away the dress and shoes. Over the next several months, I battled an odd sadness that I couldn’t understand. Why was I so sad about what had happened? I’d been willing to dance with those men at first. I’d gone along with what they wanted. Sure, I jumped every time I heard a song (that I don’t even know the name of) that had been playing in the club that night. Vomit rose in my mouth whenever I smelled Red Bull. But I couldn’t understand why; I’d let those guys touch me.

Odd as it might sound, it wasn’t until I began watching Downton Abbey that I began to realize why I was so sad. It was 2011, more than two and a half years after my Spanish escapade. As Lady Mary’s storyline with Kemal Pamuk began to unfold, I heard so many of my friends condemn Lady Mary as impure or unchaste for her behavior in that night. And through that, I finally came to understand the sadness that even a good and kind therapist hadn’t been able to help me through.

If Lady Mary’s behavior with Kemal had been all her fault, then so had mine with those men. I had gone along with their actions because I was afraid. I didn’t know what to do, and so I let them do what they were doing. I hadn’t fought back because I hadn’t known how to. And I’d never told my story because I was afraid of being judged as impure or unworthy. That I hadn’t ended up hurt more badly or in more trouble was purely an accident of grace-CB’s timely intervention and an open bathroom stall where I could hide.

It took me a long time to accept that I’d been assaulted. It took me a long time to accept that what had happened was not my fault. But here’s the thing. It wasn’t my fault. None of the stories that have come out recently about women who suffered sexual harassment, assault, or abuse were the woman’s fault. Too many women (myself included) haven’t told their stories out of fear of being judged or not being believed. Someone once told me “You were in Spain. You just didn’t understand the culture.”

I don’t know that the problem was my lack of understanding of Spanish culture. I think the problem was that far too many people forget that every other person with whom they meet is a person, is an individual. It is too damn easy to treat others like objects and forget that these are individuals with rights and dignity. We need to change that. We have to change the narrative-not just for women, not just for men, but for all humans. We need to treat every human with respect and dignity.

Far too many people-both male and female-have stories like mine. We need to change the narrative so that more people feel safe saying “Me too” and so that fewer people have a reason to say that.

The Pursuit of Excellence

It’s my favorite week of any year that doesn’t contain the Olympics. It’s Nobel Prize week. Nobel Prize week (and the Monday after aka Economics Monday) is my favorite week of the year. I’ve always liked the Nobel Prizes because they celebrate what’s great about humanity; it’s a week of celebrating great accomplishments of the human race.

But my love affair with Nobel Prize week really took off in 2014. It was a rough year for humanity and for me personally. I was quite honest when I told my students that week that I didn’t expect anyone to win the Nobel Peace Prize that year because I didn’t know that anyone really deserved it. And then Friday rolled around and the award was given to one of my personal heroes, Malala Yousafzai, and Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian children’s and education activist. That won my heart because in that moment the Nobel Institute had, in a really hard year, found something really and truly great about humanity.

The more that I thought about it, the more I came to love Nobel Prize Week. I love this week when we focus on what humanity has done well. In years when there are no Olympics, it’s probably my favorite week. I think that it’s really important to focus on our strengths, to look at what we do well and honor that. If we want to become better people and do better as a human race, we need to focus on what we do well.

Similarly, I love the Olympics. Yes, they’re imperfect. They can be surrounded by corruption, bribery, and steroids. But they can also be surrounded by beautiful reminders of the resilience of the human spirit. The heart-warming stories that come out of the Olympics serve as reminders of what we as humans are capable. We may not all be able to run like Usain Bolt, but we all have greatness inside of us.

That’s what I love about weeks like Nobel Prize Week and the Olympics. I love weeks that remind us that we are born with the ability to do great things and to be excellent in side of us. Greatness and excellent don’t look the same for everyone, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. We have to find our strengths and our greatness inside of ourselves and use those things to the best of our abilities. Some people may be great writers, others are great runners while others are great doctors. We won’t all be in the Olympics. We won’t all win Nobel Prizes. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive for greatness or celebrate the greatness in others when we have the opportunity.

The smallest one was Madeline…

Last night, I was drifting off to sleep when soft almost squeaky “ma-row” sounds started coming towards my room. “Maddie,” I called. “Maddie, come here.”

Sure enough, Maddie came into my room, climbed up on my bed, and allowed me to pet her for a few minutes. That’s life with Maddie these days. But life with Maddie wasn’t always like this.

Maddie is my cat. She’s a tortoiseshell who weighs about ten pounds. Her hobbies include playing with bottlecaps and snuggling with books. She was born in May 2016, and she came into my life on August 1, 2016.

I first saw Madeline on the Michigan Humane Society’s website on a Tuesday in late July of 2016. I sent the link for her adoption profile to my roommate with the comment “Doesn’t she look just like baby Scouty?” At the time we had two cats, Jem and Scout. They were about a year old and a handful. We didn’t need another cat. So, Corallini (as MHS was calling the cat) wasn’t for us.

Fast-forward to the following Saturday: Scouty had gotten sick suddenly, and before I really knew what was happening, I was sitting alone on the floor of a vet’s office with a dying cat in my lap. With only three friends on the other end of a Facebook Messenger convo to keep me company, I had to make the hardest decision of my life. Scouty went to the Rainbow Bridge .

When I came home without her, Jem was lonely. Jem is an extrovert if ever a cat was one. In fact, he might be a puppy. He followed me everywhere. He watched movies with me. Scouty was his sister, his littermate; he’d never been alone in his life. I knew that Jem needed a new best friend.

And that Corallini on the MHS website came into my mind. Within 24 hours of Scouty’s passing, I’d decided to go to MHS on Monday to get a new cat. Preferably Corallini.

When I got to MHS, they let me into the kitten room. They had a few little loves in there, but I knew that I needed this little baby more than she needed me. She was listed as high needs. I was told that they weren’t letting her go to a home that didn’t already have cats. I told them about Jem; they decided that Jem would be perfect for the kitten.

I wanted to rename the kitten, and she was tiny. I quickly settled on Madeline in reference to “In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines lived twelve little girls in two straight lines…the smallest one was Madeline.” My kitten was the runt of her litter. She was tiny; I was told she had “runt issues.” She was Madeline.

I took her home. She complained once I started driving, but she settled down a little when I turned on some Mumford and Sons. With time, I’ve learned that she just likes music generally.

I brought her into the apartment, and we introduced her to Jem. He wanted to play; she reared all two pounds of herself up and hissed at the fifteen pound cat trying to bat her around. By the end of the week, they were BFFs. They snuggle. They bathe each other. 

Maddie took longer to warm up to people. But she’s made it clear that while she’s never going to be the snuggliest cat in the world, she likes us. She hugs my arm sometimes. She purrs when I’m near her. She loves being scritched and petted. She will sit still while you read to her if she can snuggle with your book. She loves to carry socks around. She will put them in her favorite places. She loved the Christmas tree.

She’s a funny little darling. She’s well behaved. She likes her friends although she does not deign to have many of those. She will come running if she hears a bottle being opened or hears ice being moved. She always wants her socks to be near herself. And I’m exceedingly glad that she and I happened into each other’s lives at just the right moment.

But I am le tired…

There are things in my life that I care about-my family, my faith, my job, my friends, my cats, and my knitting. Books and Netflix are pretty important. Especially books; I love books. For those things, I can rouse up energy to do many, many things. But for me expending energy into all of those things can be exhausting. And at the end of the day, I am tired.

There are other things that I could do with my life, but I choose not to because I’m tired. I was recently talking to a few friends about online dating. I’ve tried it before with less than exciting results, and I don’t really want to do it again (EVER) but a few people have advised me to try it again. (Side note: Why do people give free unsolicited advice to single women so often?) So we were talking it through. Should I? But here’s the thing. I’m tired. I live consistently fluctuating between a little tired and completely exhausted. Some of this is my job. Some of it is the circumstances of my life. Some of it is the betablocker that I swallow every morning as a migraine preventative. Basically? I’m tired. I don’t have time to put my best side forward in yet another area of my life.

From 8am until 3pm every day, I play the role of Ms. Warm-Friendly-Loving-Sweet-Extrovert. I’m not an extrovert. I’m just not. I’m not always super friendly or warm in real life. But for several hours a day, I ooze warmth. I bubble and giggle and tease. And don’t get me wrong; I love kids. I love my job. But it’s hard not only intellectually but also emotionally. It is draining to pretend to be Ms. Happy-Go-Lucky all day when I’m really just a cucumber with anxiety. Let’s be real, kids; that’s exhausting.

And because I’m tired, I just don’t have the energy to try to impress other people. I recently had dinner with a friend and when she asked me how I was, I just told her the truth. I’m exhausted. I’m not subtle when I’m fully awake; I’m a sledgehammer when I’m exhausted. If I’m tired, I’ll tell you. If I’m crabby, I’ll tell you.

Does that sound like someone you want to go on a date with? I wouldn’t want to date me. I barely want to get me out the door. (Admittedly, that’s because I want to be sleeping.) I think that I’m a better teacher if I rest as much as possible. And I think that we’re all better off if I’m not dating right now. I think we’re all better off if I’m celebrating National Beer Drinking Day while reading or watching a good show on Netflix.

When you read a book as a child..

“When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.”

-Kathleen Kelly in You’ve Got Mail (written by Nora Ephron)

When I was in the third grade, I had a pretty high reading level. I read voraciously, and I read everything that held still long enough. (I knew WAY too much about how much riboflavin was in my cereal, but I didn’t know what riboflavin was.) Somehow, I got my hands on The Diary of Anne Frank that spring. When I told my teacher that I was reading it, she told me that I shouldn’t have been reading it because I couldn’t handle it. I’m not sure what she meant by that, but I ignored her and finished the book. Maybe she thought that I couldn’t really understand what was happening to Anne or I was too young to read about such a dark period in history; I don’t know. I had looked Anne Frank up in the dictionary before I read the book (don’t ask why the dictionary and not the encyclopedia) and I knew that she died in a concentration camp. Also, that wasn’t the first book that I’d read about the Holocaust; I had a pretty clear (but sanitized) idea of what was going on in the book.

Fast forward to seventh grade: I found a copy of A Tale of Two Cities (thanks, Mom!), and I wanted to write a book report on it. I’d read the Great Illustrated Classics version around age eight or nine, and I wanted to read the real book. So I asked my seventh grade literature teacher (Liz Davis, you rock wherever you are!) if I could do a book report on it. She said sure. She told me that if I got into it and found it too hard I could change my mind. I didn’t change my mind. I loved it. Mrs. Davis also let me write book reports on Pride and Prejudice and Oliver Twist. She determined that I could read well enough to understand the text, and I’d handle the material pretty well.

There’s a huge difference between those two teachers. One tried to hold me back to the normal third grade reading level and material; the other let me go explore the world of literature at my leisure-but not unsupervised. As an adult, I can well understand that it can be hard to work with students who are reading above grade level. It can be challenging to find them books that are appropriate for their maturity and their reading level. But I wasn’t trying to read Danielle Steele; I wanted to read good literature.

The books that we read as children are vital. I can’t tell you how many times I read P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins books as a child. I read the Jackson District Library’s illustrated copy of Peter Pan numerous times. I read these books because I was looking for books that I enjoyed and that challenged me. As I got older, my mom (an elementary school librarian) helped me to find books that I would read for challenge and enjoyment. Yes, I read plenty of crappy young adult lit that I’ve forgotten, but I also read a good deal of really quality literature that has helped to shape me into the adult that I am today.

I’ve also reread many of those books as an adult and understood them differently. In my twenties, I am able to relate to and understand Anne Frank and Charles Dickens in ways that I couldn’t when I was a child. But that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t have read those books as a kid. Meeting Sidney Carton as a kid helped me to understand that heroes don’t always look or act like we expect. As an adult, I understand and appreciate him in a fuller way. But that doesn’t mean that my initial encounters with him were negative or pointless. Anne Frank gave me an age-appropriate window into the tragedy of the Holocaust, and I will never resent or regret that.

The best bit of reading advice my mother ever gave me was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle when I was in fifth or sixth grade. (I canNOT wait for the new AWIT movie coming in March 2018.) That book turned me on to one of my favorite authors, and I read L’Engle voraciously. I love exploring the worlds she created and the characters who inhabited them. L’Engle taught me, among many other things, that intelligence and faith could coexist. I learned so much about science, literature, faith, and life from L’Engle.

The books that I read as a child helped to shape the adult that I became (or am becoming). Anne Frank taught me about endurance through suffering. J.M. Barrie and P.L Travers taught me about the power of imagination. Madeleine L’Engle opened the world to me. She introduced me to John Donne, Mr. Rochester, Fortinbras, time travel, and tomato sandwiches. In fact, I think that I need to revisit her very soon. It’s time for another round of hot chocolate, tomato sandwiches, and time travel.

Making Sounds With Consonants and Vowels

Several weeks ago, I was talking with a friend when she said the word “hell” as a curse and then immediately apologized. I told her not to worry about it especially given that in the same conversation I’d said shit and at least a few variations of fuck.

I’ve come to realize that I have a fairly liberal view towards swearing. I was discussing this mentality with a friend who is, like me, fascinated by learning languages and understanding their structures. Language is just words, and words are just combinations of consonants and vowels. The word fuck is just four letters: three consonants and one vowel. It’s just a word.

In and of itself, a word has no power. About a year ago, my friend’s then three-year-old nephew was wandering around his parents’ house singing it because he’d heard someone say it. He didn’t know what it meant. He had heard it someplace, and it just sounds to him. It was just making sounds with consonants and vowels.

Those sounds constructed of consonants and vowels only develop power from the situation in which they are spoken. If I don’t know the meaning of the word, it’s just an assemblage of sounds. It’s meaningless to me as a speaker. But if I am filled with rage and I give voice to that rage, then the rage gives meaning to the word. If I speak from bland and casual frustration, then the word has substantially less power. For example, my mild “Well, fuck” when I learned that the movie theater (to which I had driven and where I was supposed to meet my friend) was closed due to a power issue is much different than the time I told the driver who had just cut me off in traffic what he could do to himself. (Not that he ever heard me, but that wasn’t the point.)

Words do not have power in and of themselves. “Hell” or “fuck” or any other word is merely a combination of consonants and vowels. It’s a string of sounds. It is the emotion of the speaker or writer that gives those sounds, those consonants and vowels their meaning and their power.