Skip to content
August 13, 2017 / thomcaraway

Valuing Our Roots: A Reflection on Charlottesville

by Katherine Karr-Cornejo

The phases of my life have offered many opportunities and challenges, and when I think of my years in graduate school, I remember a time of my life that I value, but that I’m also glad I’ve completed. The intense and all-encompassing focus on my professional training and development, to the exclusion of so many other parts of life, shaped who I am both personally and professionally. But I am glad to live my post-graduate life, with a different rhythm and in a different place.

Place and space have profound effects on my intellectual and spiritual development, as I know from my experience moving around as a child. The sense of being from or of a place was never one that I felt I could put on with any sort of authenticity, because my roots are in people and experiences and places in particular times that no longer are. Even in my thirties, when I’m asked where I’m from I’m never sure what to say, or what people mean by it.

I have strong roots. They’re just not linked to a place that exists anywhere outside of me.

Places where one might think I could say I’m from – my parents’ cities of origins – are places that I’ve only visited or lived in as a college student. The different cities and towns that we lived in while I was growing up all left their mark on me, but none of them are today what they were then, which is as it should be. I have always treasured the advice that my mother gave me: always value a place for what it is. It is impossible to recreate an experience from another time or another place, and to expend my energy doing so only brings pain and disappointment.

This brings me to the odd fact that Charlottesville, where I lived for six years while completing my MA and PhD in Spanish, is the place that I have lived longest in my life. But when I think of Charlottesville today, the people with whom I had the closest relationships living there have moved elsewhere, and I find myself thinking of Charlottesville not as people but as experiences and places that no longer are.

The first few years I lived in Charlottesville I had a very limited experience of the city and region. I depended on public transportation. I was trying to sort out getting married to someone living overseas. I had very short personal funds. I spent all of my time teaching or studying. The 45-minute winding (but free!) bus ride one way to the grocery store was time I could use to make a dent in the pile of grading. My only additional activity was attending church, and I ended up at my parish, St. Paul’s Memorial Episcopal, because I could walk there in a half hour from my apartment. I lived my life in an area of less than a square mile.

I did not find myself downtown often, as I had to take the trolley, and I didn’t have much money to spend once I got there. It wasn’t until I had lived in Charlottesville for 3 years that I found myself taking the downtown walking tour that the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society offered. To my surprise, an older woman who I recognized from church was our guide, though she did not recognize me. Of the tour itself, I remember enjoying going inside different houses of worship and hearing about their architectural histories, and the oppressive humidity of being outside in Charlottesville in the summer, even though it was early in the day. We stopped in both Emancipation Park (at the time, Lee Park) and Justice Park (at the time, Jackson Park), and in both our guide drew our attention to the statues of Confederate leaders. She said, at the foot of the Stonewall Jackson statue next to the courthouse, “I just think equestrian statues are right pretty.”

I have that quote written down in a small journal, a few pages after my notes about my spouse’s immigration paperwork and others about 19th century Anglican attitudes towards candles in worship. The statue to which she referred was next to the courthouse that I had to go to in order to get a court order to hyphenate my name when I married, because the Virginia DMV would not accept my marriage license as proof of marriage. In my gut I still remember standing in that room, shaking, as a clerk called the authenticity of my marriage into question, and my anxiety having to go through the paperwork in the courthouse.

Much to my shame, I have a picture from the end of that tour of downtown, grinning with two friends in front of the Stonewall Jackson statue. Much to my shame, I didn’t understand much about who he was or what he meant to people in Virginia, especially to African-Americans. Much to my shame, I didn’t recognize the problem of my lack of knowledge, and went back to my square mile of academic life, focused on my own area of interest, and didn’t realize until years later what exactly it was that I had seen. Our guide’s comment about equestrian statues seemed off to me, but I just chuckled to myself as I wrote it in my journal, thinking of it as an eccentricity.

It’s not. Reducing Lost Cause propaganda—the statue was installed in the park in 1922, and was the focal point of the first major white supremacist rally this summer in Charlottesville—to eccentricity is denying its connection to the systemic racism that pervades our country and popular memory of its past. We (white people) need to look at the narratives we tell ourselves about history with a critical eye. We (white people) want to be the exception, the person who hasn’t benefitted unfairly from the oppression of others. I still remember my own attitude during 8th grade social studies in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, and my sense of smug superiority of being a Northerner whose side “won” the Civil War when we were taught North Carolina history. I had no idea that racist attitudes and policies were also prevalent throughout the north, even after the abolition of chattel slavery. How many times have you heard someone say, “my ancestors never owned slaves”? How many times have you said it yourself?

Whether or not your ancestors participated actively in the Atlantic slave trade is beside the point. We cannot control the actions of the past. We can, however, work to understand those actions and their impact and, where appropriate, dismantle the systems that perpetuate the inequalities and dehumanization that have resulted from those actions.

Every white person in the United States benefits from the ideology of white supremacy, even those of us who recognize its harm and desire its destruction. The content of your character doesn’t depend on the actions of your ancestors, but rather, on how you react to your own ignorance about those actions writ large. Our roots can intertwine with others, and in the process they can lift us up, together and stronger, as a wonderful and diverse community. Or they can drag us down into cycles of exploitation, inequality, and pain.



Katherine Karr-Cornejo lived in Charlottesville, Virginia between 2005 and 2011. She currently lives in Spokane, Washington, where she teaches Spanish and Latin American literature and culture at Whitworth University. She misses the fried chicken and Alderman Library, but not the humidity.


July 31, 2017 / jennrudsit

Summer Reading: Spending Summer Scared

by Lyle Enright

Winter tends to be the time that many associate with the darker parts of the imagination. The cold drives us inside, the sun goes down early, and we celebrate that turnover at Halloween. But summer also has its ways of luring us into dark places, and it isn’t only because the Hollywood Blockbuster season gives us our yearly dose of creep. Bats sweep through the air against huge, sad moons the likes of which you never see during the winter. We spend more time outside, hardly noticing the settling dusk. These are the conditions for real exploration, as kids sneak off to cemeteries or abandoned buildings, wandering around to see who gets spooked first.

“Think of just about any horror film,” says Houston Baptist professor Philip Tallon, “and you will find that it works upon us by tearing down some boundary we had in place, but perhaps forgot was there.” Tallon explains that this sense of violation “is a discomforting aspect of horror, but there is also a desirable quality to it. It terrifies us and gives us a sense of moral, social, and aesthetic stability.” Perhaps, but do we really believe in such stability today? Is there a place for such stories–or even their subversion–when our politics are unpredictable, people live in fear of being scapegoated and harassed, and it seems the threat of a new war is around every corner?  In a widely-read essay appropriately titled “Real Horror” (2003), the late professor Robert C. Solomon said that “art-horror” provided a buffer for our psyche simply because it wasn’t real; that buffer collapsed on September 11, 2001 and took the pleasure of horror stories with it.

And yet, if anything, horror seems to have seen a renaissance in the 21st Century. Films such as The Ring (2002), Saw (2004), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and most recently Get Out (2017) are all powerful standouts, while in the world of literature Stephen King continues to publish prolifically alongside such recent successes as Coraline (2002), Let the Right One In (2004), World War Z (2006), and John Dies at the End (2009). What is it that keeps us coming back to such stories, when it seems that all we need to scare ourselves is to turn on the news?

Reflecting on the works of Hans Christian Andersen, the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska said that “The Importance of Being Scared” is less complicated than Tallon makes it out to be. Rather, it involves recognizing that “evil stems from intellectual and emotional stuntedness and is the one form of poverty that should be shunned.” If Szymborska is right, and evil is a form of intellectual poverty, this is a lesson that is often lost under the din of partisan politics, where the “bad guy”–the “monster”–is always someone else, whether it be the person in power, or the person who wishes they were. Perhaps horror stories remain a better, subtler means of drawing us towards that realization and placing us on our guard, even against ourselves. That, at least, is the rationale with which I will be teaching my students in the Fall. During the Summer, I’ll be re-reading my way through the course syllabus, and re-learning the lessons I hope to convey:

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley (1818). The fragility of human mastery is a major element of Frankenstein. At a time when we seem to be returning to science as a discourse of control and mastery in the face of “post-truth” politics, perhaps Shelley’s novel still has other ways to humble us.

Dracula, by Bram Stoker (1897). Manifesting anxieties over modern psychology, sexual politics and xenophobia, Stoker’s Count Dracula is also an excellent example of a character whose malice survives any sort of deconstruction or Hollywood domestication.

Select Fiction by H. P. Lovecraft (1917-1935). Lovecraft’s “weird” fiction demonstrates a uniquely Darwinian sense of horror, framing humanity as a cosmic accident. What makes Lovecraft’s fiction so uncomfortable is the way his huge themes play off smaller details; it is easy to abhor Lovecraft’s politics, but the deeper question of his writing is whether any of it really matters.

The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter (1979). This collection of re-told fairytales gets underneath the roles of fear and power as tools of control, but hardly in a liberating sense. Rather, when Carter shifts power to otherwise marginal characters, she is quick to remind us that in such cases, someone still has power, and as we know, power corrupts… 

Falling in Love With Hominids, by Nalo Hopkinson (2000-2015). Perfect for summer reading, Jamaican speculative fiction writer Nalo Hopkinson infuses her stories with Jamaican folklore and magic to create tense and unsettling post-colonial scares that touch a number of nerves.

A Head Full of Ghosts, by Paul Tremblay (2015). A postmodern love-letter to The Exorcist (1971), Tremblay’s novel is also a thoroughly 21st Century scare written for university humanities students, accusing academic “Big Theory” of being a coping mechanism rather than a cure and demonstrating that trauma continues to run deeper than our diagnoses.

Lyle Enright is a doctoral candidate at Loyola University Chicago. Horror fiction is his favorite way of taking a break from his dissertation, which explores intersections between contemporary literature and political or “radical” theology. Lyle has also written for Renascence, Textual Cultures, Relief, and Homebrewed Christianity to name a few. You can find him at, or on Twitter @YnysDyn.

July 20, 2017 / jennrudsit

Summer Reading: It’s All About the Setting

by Sunni Wilkinson

The summer I worked in Alaska for a helicopter tour company, I spent as much time reading as I did camping, or working for that matter.  Sometimes I read in tandem with working or camping, either to pass the time at the front desk before another gaggle of tourists came in for a flight to the glaciers, or in my tent next to Lower Dewey in the evening as I reassured myself that the rustling outside the thin skin of my tent was the wind and not a lumbering, hungry bear.  The book I kept with me most of the summer and took my time enjoying (at a whopping 688 pages) was Middlemarch by George Eliot.  Just now, as I opened the book to see what I’d underlined, I found some fireweed I’d pressed between pages 220 and 221, a reminder that this book was good company in a wild setting.

For some reason, the books that stand out to me most carry along with them the memory not only of the plot, the characters, and the language, but the setting where I read them.  Middlemarch is the name of the fictional town where the story takes place, and while I loved the setting – pre-Industrial Revolution, old English estates, country churches – it seems pertinent that I read it in a quiet place where the reaches of the sky and the ocean reflected the vastness of Eliot’s insights.  It’s a story whose two main protagonists face their own limitations and those of the people they love, live through both success and bewildering failure, and (spoiler alert!) die more or less unheralded for their life’s work.  But it’s apparent to the reader that both characters have been selfless – something Eliot clearly celebrates – and have made life better for others.  That’s a lot to take in, and believe in, and it helps to have the company of trees and lakes and mountains while you absorb it.

Anne Patchett’s novel Bel Canto was a perfect beach read for me when I visited Hawaii for the first time several summers ago.  Set in some unnamed locale deep in South America, the story shows how the lives of illustrious guests at a party (an opera singer, a Japanese businessman, diplomats) change drastically and forever when they are suddenly besieged by local terrorists.  The tension of a hostage situation is never more powerful (or pertinent) than when you are baking in the hot sun and waiting for the crowd to thin so that you can wade into the water without too many people scrutinizing your cellulite.

The summer I turned 17, I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula every evening before bed.  Somehow listening to the crickets or the hum of our air conditioner and knowing that a bright and cheerful sun would rise the next morning soothed me, so that I could happily remind myself that no vampires were going to lure me out of my bedroom and suck my blood.  Summer is just too cheery a time for such things.  If I’d read Dracula in the fall, I would have found myself sleeping on my younger brother’s floor every night.  Overactive imaginations have their downside.

This summer while my kids spend hours jumping on the trampoline with the sprinklers and dripping Otter Pops all over the patio, I will be finally attacking what I have, to this point, considered a beast of a book: The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson.  At 841 pages, it’s behemoth, like that food chain demonstration where one seemingly large animal (say, for metaphor’s sake, Middlemarch) is devoured by an even bigger animal (Emerson).  It’s so big that I am already planning to skim parts and skip around at my own whim.  But there are treasures there I know I need as a mother who is desperately trying to reclaim her brain cells.  One of them I’ve already located, and it sheds light on how and why we read in the first place: “Every spirit builds itself a house, and beyond its house a world, and beyond its world a heaven.  Know then that the world exists for you….Build therefore your own world.”  Isn’t that what we do when we read, when we choose what and where and when to read, when we process stories and language in a way that becomes a part of our lives?  Every time I sit down in just the right setting with just the right book, I feel like I’m building another corner of my world.

Sunni Wilkinson holds an MFA from Eastern Washington University.  Her poetry has been published in Weber: The Contemporary West, Red Rock Review, Gulf Stream, Rock & Sling, and other journals and anthologies and has been nominated for two Pushcarts.  She teaches at Weber State University and lives in Ogden, Utah with her husband and three young sons. She also blogs at

July 13, 2017 / jennrudsit

Summer Reading: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

by Ann Marie Bausch

I might never have discovered one of the most important books I’ve ever read if not for an unlikely ally: Fox News.

In 2009, author Reza Aslan did an interview on the network to discuss his latest book, a history titled Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. The clip circulated widely on social media and other TV programs. The reporter seemed to have been given instructions to scowl as much as possible and to repeatedly accuse Aslan of concealing the fact that he was a Muslim writing about Christianity, and, of course, concealed or not, how dare he.

With cordiality and graciousness, Aslan reminded this reporter of his educational credentials (his degrees include a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard and a PhD in the Sociology of Religions from the University of California) and, of course, that he had chronicled in the introduction to Zealot how he, as a young Muslim boy, became interested in Christianity. As is often the case when a book is disparaged by a so-called authority, the result was predictable: I and millions of others went out and bought the book. Sales soared.

This was all great fun, but I am sincerely grateful to this news clip for bringing the book to my attention.  Raised Catholic, as an adult I felt suffocated by dogma, frustrated by the Church’s judgmental politics, appalled by the scandals, and doubtful of any of the literal ideas about the divine presented by organized religion as certainties not to be questioned. Zealot sought to reveal the Jesus of history—not the deity, the Messiah, the Christ, but the man of flesh and bone who walked the earth, who breathed real air and talked and ate and slept and contemplated violent political revolution during the Roman occupation of 1st century Palestine.

Zealot might not be the kind of book everyone would consider a “summer read”—but really, aren’t we past being limited to breezy love stories with no substance? This is a book that is worth all of the buckling down, you’ll need to apply to reading it.

My copy is now full of dog-eared pages and underlined passages and notes penciled in margins.  Here are some of the ideas I found most intriguing:

“Luke himself, writing a little more than a generation after the events he describes, knew that what he was writing was technically false.  This is an extremely difficult matter for modern readers of the gospels to grasp…most people in the ancient world did not make a sharp distinction between myth and reality; the two were intimately tied together in their spiritual experience.  That is to say, they were less interested in what actually happened than in what it meant.  It would have been perfectly normal—indeed, expected—for a writer in the ancient world to tell tales of gods and heroes whose fundamental facts would have been recognized as false but whose underlying message would be seen as true.”

Gasp! You mean…I now have permission not to take every word of the Bible literally but to glean a story’s general meaning and move on?

On the commonly held view of Jesus as an “inveterate peacemaker who ‘loved his enemies’ and ‘turned the other cheek,’” Aslan presents evidence that the early Christian church largely concocted this idea after Jesus’ death to avoid the wrath of Rome:

“The Jesus of history had a far more complex attitude toward violence…how else could [the Kingdom of God] be established upon a land occupied by a massive imperial presence except through the use of force?…There is no evidence that Jesus himself openly advocated violent actions.  But he was certainly no pacifist. ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth.  I have not come to bring peace, but the sword.’ (Matthew 10:34 / Luke 12:51).”

Other historical facts:  Jesus had brothers and sisters. He was almost certainly illiterate (“There were no schools in Nazareth for peasant children to attend.) He may even have had a wife.

One of the loveliest qualities of Zealot is that nowhere, not for a moment, does Reza Aslan seek to disparage or disillusion anyone’s Christian faith. What he does is to distinguish faith from history, and to examine how the terrestrial events of the first century became the religion we know today. In our current political climate, could there be anything more important than separating facts from myth?

What all of this amounted to for a reader like me was relief. Relief from the burdens of modern ideology. A dissolving of hostility and suspicion anytime I heard the word “Christian.” An ethereal figure who looked down upon me from a cloudy place in the sky—that had long been inaccessible and alienating. But a real person who struggled, who suffered, who was often misunderstood but strove mightily to do what he believed was right: this I could connect with.

And so it was that a Muslim writer separating history from religion awoke in me a deeper interest in Jesus than any Christian church service ever had. Freedom, surprise, fresh ideas: what more could one want from summer reading?

Ann Marie Bausch is a writer and dog mom from Norfolk, Virginia.  In addition to the Rock & Sling blog, her nonfiction has appeared on The Mighty, and her fiction is forthcoming in Narrative Magazine.  Find her at or on Twitter at @anniebausch.

June 28, 2017 / jennrudsit

Summer Reading: Delights of Defiance

by Amanda C. R. Clark

The house is quiet; parents are sleeping. You create a tent under the sheets; you switch on the flashlight. You fumble the book open, acutely conscious of its crinkling pages. And then, you read. Just you and the book and the delightfully stealthy act of being awake, late into the night.

There is a joy, too, in reading as adults, in the summer, at leisure. It is a luxury we rarely allow ourselves, sometimes only on planes or on vacation. But do you remember that stealthy act of reading, under the bed-tent, late at night, in the dark?

Sometimes our world goes dark, and we need reading more than ever. Sometimes reading is our deliverance.  

China’s infamous Cultural Revolution, from 1967-1977, is often called, in China, the “ten-year catastrophe.” Books (and the libraries that housed them) were deemed part of the “four olds:” old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits. Books were destroyed, often by fire, in order to “free” and “save” the country from an oppressive, feudal past. It was a misguided effort to wipe the slate clean and start anew.Picture1

Those who had formerly lived a life of the mind—scholars, writers, students, artists—felt the deprivation of books and libraries in an especially profound and painful way. Some sought, and obtained, illegal books to read, doing so at the risk of various punishments including beatings, public “struggle sessions,” detention, limitation or denial of food rations, unemployment, and forced relocation into harsh and remote labor camps. Rather than being deterred, many intellectuals became obsessed with secretly obtaining contraband books, both foreign works in translation as well as classic Chinese Confucian texts. The literature—and the physical, defiant act of reading—had a profound effect on those who dared to read, revelations that are expressed repeatedly in the memoirs and autobiographies of those who lived through this era.  During this time, when the illiterate were praised and the literati were sent to the countryside to be “re-educated,” and when forms of communication were state-controlled, watched, and scrutinized, reading was a defiant gesture of independent selfhood. Although most intellectuals eventually were able to return to the cities, they were forever haunted by the shadow of a violently ruptured past.

coverIf there is one book you schlep to the beach disguised between mindless paperbacks, perhaps it will be the short but captivating novel by Dai Sijie, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Dai draws us into the world of the Cultural Revolution following the path of a pair of lovers and their love for the secret reading of forbidden Western books. At times an uncomfortable and disappointing book, the themes of power, fear, passion, education, and longing, stay with you long after the last page is read. While drawing you close to questions about knowledge and the power of print, it will take you far away, not only to the China of the mid-twentieth century, but to rural China during a time of tumult.

George Santayana quipped that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. I suspect there is much that those of us living in the contemporary United States can learn from China’s twentieth-century past. Is monetary wealth a source of liberation? Or is it knowledge, literacy, and education? Will we again, as adults, return to our late night, flashlight-lit, under-cover reading habits? Will the thrill of reading return to embolden and mature us as it did once did before?

Recommended reading:

Dai Sijie, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress: A Novel (2002).
Jung Chang, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (2003).
Kang Zhengguo and Susan Wilf, Confessions: An Innocent Life in Communist China (2008).
Wu-Ming-Shih and Pu Ning, Red in Tooth and Claw: Twenty-Six Years in Communist Chinese Prisons (1994).

Amanda C. R. Clark is Library Director at Whitworth University. She has published in areas of architecture, biography, book arts, and the significance of books. Clark holds a PhD in library and information sciences from the University of Alabama.  

June 12, 2017 / jennrudsit

Summer Reading: Daughter of Time II

by Laura Bloxham

In Josephine Tey’s mystery A Daughter of Time (1952), Alan Grant, a Scotland Yard Inspector, is confined to bed with a broken leg.  He’s bored until he begins his investigation of Richard III, popularized by Shakespeare in a none-too-accurate historical fashion.  He needs an assistant to do his legwork, so to speak, in this era before the Internet.  I understand Alan Grant.  I spent last summer in a rehab facility with a broken ankle.

Summer reading has been largely my choice.  I plan. I hunt. I gather. I stack.  My book categories vary from classics to trash.  I also have my Kick Ass Women’s Summer Reading group.  We meet over lunch to discuss the kick ass women authors and characters we are indulging in from week to week.  So much for my plans last summer.

I probably had more control that Alan Grant did.  I could have sent someone to my house for the stack of books.  I could have (and did) order Amazon to deliver books to my bedside.  But circumstances changed my reading regimen last summer.

In the emergency room, while I was being prepped for surgery, my friend Jenny recommended Gene Stratton Porter, A Girl of the Limberlost (1909). Right there I ordered Limberlost delivered to my kindle.  What a relief to know that when I woke I’d have a book, a new discovery, waiting for me.

During my four-day hospital stay, Carol, a Sunday school book club friend, brought Frederik Backman’s My Grandmother Told Me to Tell You She’s Sorry.  I’m not much for fantasy, Harry Potter excepted.  But early on in Backman’s book I was hooked.  Then on to A Man Called Ove.

Meanwhile, the Kick Ass Women were reading and meeting without me.  I read about their books in email summaries.  Helen recommended Jana DeLeon’s Louisiana Longshot for travel entertainment.  Worked for me too in my confined state.  The protagonist is a CIA operative with a hit out on her, now going underground as a former pageant queen.  The first mystery in the series is kick-in-the-butt funny.  The second book a bit predictable.  

I measured the physical reality of my summer by the weeks in a non-weight bearing cast, the weeks in a boot with limited weight bearing, and my slowly increasing ability to move.  My mental reality I measured by reading, most of which I had not expected to come my way.   While I might have chosen mysteries anyway, now they were distractions of another kind.   I didn’t mind institutional food and constant vital signs being monitored when I was reading Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling), The Silkworm and Career of Evil,  Jeffrey Deaver, The Steel Kiss, Allyson K. Abbott, Murder with a Twist (gift from a visitor),  A.A. Milne, The Red House Mystery (also a gift).  I added Malice by Keigo Higasino to my kindle book queue (recommended by kick ass member Katherine’s mother).

In the non-mystery realm, I found I liked the concept, the premise of Katarina Bivald’s The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, but not the execution of it.  I read a couple books, including Jane Yolen, The Devil’s Arithmetic, for the Holocaust Literature class I thought I was going to teach in the fall.  That did not happen; but the reading was worthwhile anyway.

By the time I returned home to my stacks of summer reading still waiting for me, it was September. To be sure, I had not solved the historical mystery of the actual Richard the Third.  But I had discovered that, despite physical limitations, I could relish new reading adventures, planned or gifted. Thomas á Kempis wrote (scholars have suggested it is a shortened version of what he actually wrote), “ . . . I have sought peace and not found it, except in a corner with a book.”  I might substitute “hospital bed” for “corner” and make the saying the capsule of my summer reading.

Laura Bloxham was born in Seattle and raised in the Seattle Public Library.  She loves baseball and reading mysteries.

June 5, 2017 / jennrudsit

Sympathy, Empathy, and American Healthcare

by Liz Backstrom

When I stand on curbs or in parks for a few hours with a protest sign, I start looking for something to do, and inevitably I end up making new friends. It’s not as hard as I thought, even for an introvert like me. We may have nothing in common but the corner we’re on, but by the time we’ve been there for an hour, we’re inevitably sharing stories and swapping slogans.

At a healthcare protest in Spokane a few weeks ago, I met a nurse. “Why are you here?”

“I’ve been a nurse for 40 years,” she said. “I’m not here for me. I have great healthcare. I’ve got mine. I have a good plan, my kids are covered – but so many of my patients aren’t. They were just starting to get on their feet, and then this.”

I thought about that. For now, I have mine too. I grew up poor, but now I have a health plan that covers my pre-existing condition. If I get a seizure at the wrong time, I might die, but at least my family can pay my bills. For probably the first time in my life, I’m middle class.

I’m not on the curb, and lots of us aren’t, because we want ours, although I’ll admit it, I’m scared for myself if I lose my job. I’m here because I’ve spent my whole life hearing stories of people who had theirs – whose lives were going along just fine – until they weren’t.

Hundreds of people end up at the food bank where I work because of high medical bills. They go from shopping with a nice car to shopping with a cardboard box and a wagon because they had the audacity to get sick. Some of them are homeless.

Usually a well-meaning person comes along halfway through this story and says something like – Why are they at the food bank if they can afford a car? Or why do they have kids at all if they can’t support them? It’s all a variation on “if only that person had made better choices, they wouldn’t be where they are, and I would do better.”

I don’t believe we say things like this out of malice, usually. We mostly believe we could do better, if we were put in that set of circumstances and had to make those choices.

In a recent essay for NonProfitPro, authors Otis Fulton and Katrina VanHuss point out how easy it is to ignore another person’s suffering if it’s not something we ourselves have experienced.

In his book “Mindwise” University of Chicago professor Nicholas Epley describes the importance of “distance” and the ability people have to imagine what others are thinking or feeling.

Epley says, “Distance is not just physical space. It is also psychological space, the degree to which you feel connected to someone else. The ability to feel empathy for another group decreases as distance increases. In some cases, distance can grow and shrink. For example, when you get in an argument with your spouse, you feel ‘distant’ from them. Then, you can feel the psychological distance diminish when you resolve the conflict.

But distance from groups that are unlike ours is more difficult to close. People who are viewed as ‘too different’ from us can completely shut down our ability to connect with them.”

Author Matthew Desmond examines the same phenomenon in a piece about housing prices and wealth inequality:

“We tend to speak about the poor as if they didn’t live in the same society, as if our gains and their losses weren’t intertwined. Conservatives explain poverty by pointing to ‘individual factors,’ like bad decisions or the rise of single-parent families; liberals refer to ‘structural causes,’ like the decline of manufacturing or the historical legacies of racial discrimination.

Usually pitted against each other, each perspective serves a similar function: letting us off the hook by asserting that there is a deep-rooted, troubling problem — more than one in six Americans does not make enough to afford basic necessities — that most of us bear no responsibility for.”

This kind of thinking lets us feel sympathy – bad for someone – but not empathy – what it could be like to be in another person’s shoes. The two are vastly different. It allows us not to feel anything for those less fortunate than ourselves, especially not the possibility of a shared experience. And then we don’t do anything, because why should we? They made mistakes, we didn’t, and we’ve each faced consequences from those choices.

Except it isn’t like that in real life, at least not for most people I know. Some folks using the food bank can’t qualify for food stamps, because they aren’t poor enough. Sometimes they drive up in a car that looks a little too nice for a food bank user. Did you know if you have a house and a car, you have to list those as assets on a food stamp application?

Some still have jobs – working full time, even, but can’t quite cover the costs of raising children, or medical bills. Some stories go like this: “I worked for 20 years, and then I got (medical condition I couldn’t pay for and/or that forced me to stop working) and I couldn’t get back on my feet.”

One thing most stories have in common is the people telling them never thought they’d be there. They thought it could never happen to them, until it did.

This isn’t a threat. It’s not an admonition to be like me or share my political views. It’s me sharing what I’ve learned over a lifetime of being poor and working with the poor.

Eventually, life happens to everyone – it is the great equalizer. Someday, you might be in the position to not contribute anything. To have done all you can, made all the right choices, and still it happens – the unexpected diagnosis, the request to take early retirement, the days and weeks and years of working two jobs, only to learn your insurance doesn’t cover a fire when you lose your house – then what? No one bears any responsibility for you, do they? Are you still worth something?

Liz Backstrom is a freelance writer for Spokane Faith & Values and works as a grant writer for Second Harvest Inland Northwest. She has a BA in journalism from Western Washington University and an MPA from Eastern Washington University.

May 25, 2017 / jennrudsit

Make it New: A New Adaptation

by Andy Zell

My ten-month-old daughter is a terrible sleeper.  She wakes up multiple times per night and needs to eat at least twice if not more to make it to morning.  This is hardest on my wife because at night she bears most of the burden.

My main excuse for doing so little with the baby was that for a few months, I was dealing with the sleep problems of our three year old.  He would wake up nearly every night and cry and scream.  It was up to me to help him back to sleep. I became so attuned to his crying that I would wake up as soon as he started across the hallway, but I would sleep right through the baby who wailed in the same room as me.  For my wife, vice versa.

I’m not at my best in the middle of the night. My usual strategy was to lie down on the floor next to his bed (his mattress is on the floor) while he took his time calming down and falling back to sleep.  If I tried to leave before he was completely unconscious, then the cycle of crying and screaming would repeat.  This meant that I usually fell asleep on his floor and slept there for a few hours each night.

After talking with his pediatrician, I knew this couldn’t go on. It was hard on me, but for him it was establishing bad habits. He needed to re-learn how to fall back to sleep on his own.  Using the doctor’s suggestions, I slowly started to distance myself from his bed.  Instead of lying down next to him, I would sit on a chair while he went back to sleep.  I got less sleep, but I did make it back to the comfort of my own bed.

It didn’t happen immediately, but over the course of weeks he needed me less and less.  Now he sleeps through the night, and I am left with no excuses for not helping more with the baby.  I think the baby also has bad sleep associations.  For many reasons (she’s highly distractible when feeding, and bedtime with four kids is chaotic at best, among others), we’ve gotten into the habit of feeding her right before laying her down.  So she associates snuggles and eating with going to bed.

The most helpful sleep book we found is Jodi Mindell’s Sleeping Through the Night, where she talks about the importance of bedtime routines and sleep associations. It’s a lesson that we’ve used to good effect with three other kids, but somehow we’ve forgotten. Being a parent is hard.  We never have it all figured out, even when we’ve done it well in the past.

And it’s so easy to coast and think that the present routine is going to keep on going forever.  One child suddenly drops the second nap from the schedule that had gone on for months.  The sweet three year old turns into a biting and yelling tantrum machine.  The previously compliant one starts peeing on his carpet to get attention and boy does he ever!  Things change all the time, and I don’t like change.  But I have to approach situations and my kids as the unique individuals they are.  When I get stuck in my own ideas and expectations, inflexible to the context and to the persons my kids are becoming, I get frustrated.  I have to adapt.

My wife often reminds me, “This too shall pass,” whether good or bad, and it will.  It’s up to me to be open and ready for what comes next.

Andy Zell tutors writing part time, but mostly he’s a stay at home parent for his four young kids. He writes about books, music, faith, and life on his personal blog and occasionally uses Twitter @strangerextant.

May 9, 2017 / jennrudsit

Sweet Child, You Are Loved

by Julie Riddle

I hung up from my phone conversation with our assigned foster mentor, feeling a mixture of relief, excitement and trepidation. I had left a voicemail for her one afternoon this spring, expressing my husband’s and my concerns that we wouldn’t be able to handle being foster parents. She had returned my call while I was eating lunch and reading a novel I had checked out from the library.

A few days before I called our mentor, my husband and I had completed a 24-hour training program (six hours across two weekends) with Fostering Washington as part of meeting the requirements to become licensed foster parents. At the program’s opening one of the trainers said, “We’re going to hit you with the gloom and doom first, but don’t worry, it’ll get better.” At another point that first day one of them said, “Being a foster parent is the hardest thing you’ll ever do. It’s also the most awesome thing you’ll ever do.” The trainers were longtime foster parents and had adopted foster children; they taught as professionals and from their own experience, and I soaked up the helpful insights, facts and information they shared throughout the program.

On the final day of training my body was worn out from sitting for two weekends in a stuffy, fluorescent-lit room, but I still felt capable and hopeful. By the time training concluded that day, however, those positive feelings had deteriorated into discouragement and despair. The tipping point came during a panel with former foster children who had aged out of the system; their parting advice was: “The best thing you can do is take care of yourselves. Foster children will do everything possible to prove that you will abandon them. They will push you as far as they can to see if you will break.” My husband and I made eye contact and shook our heads slightly. What are we getting ourselves into?

During the four days of training we had encountered a fat manual’s worth of gloom and doom; as we neared the program’s last hours, the manual and the instructors remained starkly absent of hope. All kinds of hard; no signs of awesome.

In the days after the training concluded, my husband and I talked and prayed together, we each did a lot of thinking, and I prayed alone. Every time I prayed, a gentle, insistent sense arose in me – Do this…You can do this…I want you to do this – the same sense that had been prodding me during the past six months as my husband and I discussed fostering a child and researched the process, and I, initially resistant to the idea, had begun praying about it.

During those months all sorts of support had surfaced. Everywhere I turned it seemed that friends, colleagues and acquaintances had fostered or adopted children, or were related to someone who had. Our pastor. My doctor. My three best friends. My mom’s best friend. A writer-friend of mine in Iowa who had fostered dozens of children with her husband, had adopted two foster children, and led training workshops for the state.

These people provided information, ideas, advice and encouragement, affirming my prayer-led sense to pursue foster parenting. So my husband and I began filling out an abundance of application forms and participated in the training, where our eagerness collided with doubt.

On the phone, our foster mentor seemed cheerfully unfazed at the anxiety that gripped my voice as I explained our fears. “It’s great you’re asking these questions,” she said. She gave me a pep talk and provided clear directions on how to best ensure that the child placed in our home would be a good fit for us and us for him. I took notes, and at the end of our conversation I thanked her for helping us find our way back to you can do this.

After setting down my phone I returned to the novel, The Portable Veblen (quirky, funny, thought-provoking), and opened the book to the page I had been reading when our mentor had called. I turned the page to place my bookmark and discovered a handwritten note, penciled in cursive on a square of blue stationery:

“Sweet child,
you are not alone,
and you are loved.

This note from a stranger was meant for me. And it was meant for the child who would one day come to our home. I slipped the paper from the book and placed it on my bedside stand. Before I returned the book to the library I slid a square of stationery between two pages and wondered who would come across it. I hoped the message I had passed on would find the reader – as it had found me – at just the right time, the surprising words offering confirmation, reassurance, peace.

Julie Riddle is the creative-nonfiction editor for Rock & Sling and the craft-essay editor for Brevity. She works as senior writer for marketing and development at Whitworth University and is the author of the memoir The Solace of Stones: Finding a Way through Wilderness (University of Nebraska Press). Learn more at


April 20, 2017 / jennrudsit

Make it New: Prayer

by Lyle Enright

In the opening pages of her Prayer Journal, Flannery O’Connor explains her project to God:

“I do not mean to deny the traditional prayers I have said all my life; but I have been saying them and not feeling them. My attention is always very fugitive. This way I have it every instant. I can feel a warmth of love heating me when I think & write this to You.”

I felt a delightful irony as I read this, because I had come to O’Connor’s journal with the inverse attitude: she longed to “write a beautiful prayer,” though she had “nothing to do it from.” I had nothing from which to pray, and so I wanted to pray her beautiful prayers—hers among others—to try and find it.

I grew up in a praying household, one which included me in the dinnertime rotation and set aside time to ask protection over our doors and windows at night. All of these were good things, but they never moved in me the ways they did my mother and father. I often parsed those prayers for the right economy. My mom, at least, still remembers one time when I systematically thanked the Lord for every item on the table, down to the napkins and the ketchup. My father did the most pious thing he could have done and laughed, prodigiously, though I was sure I’d provoked some sort of blasphemy.

So when I learned the Lord’s Prayer, it was one of the most liberating moments of my early religious development. The roteness and authority of it were exactly what I needed to get through meal- and bed-time rituals. However, my father (in an exceedingly strange move for a pastor, I felt) rarely let me get away with simply praying to God the way God prayed to himself. “I want to hear your words,” he would tell me, yawning as he tucked me in. “I want to hear what you say, what you think.”

The idea that this had ever been the point of prayer was news to me, though I didn’t tell him that. I obliged, but somehow never really felt right about it. This is still true, over twenty years later, and all the more acute. Years of literary theory have ruined me in the search for “my own words”—though perhaps Christian college prayers, with their variously recombinant vocabulary of “just,” “good,” “father,” “move,” and the occasional “Whattap Jesus” did that for me a long time ago.

There is an undeniable pragmatism, under such circumstances, in defaulting to “groans too deep for words” but that doesn’t nourish forever either, and I realized that what those groans lacked was grammar. The language of everyone around me was sincere, but it often prayed God down from Heaven into “this place” (wherever that was). I wanted to pray God up, through my body and into the world, and had no vocabulary for doing so. Not until I looked, of course.

Slowly, I found that what I wanted was in those “rote” prayers which so many people had told me were empty and made you complacent. I found it first in the poetry of John Donne and Czeslaw Milosz, then in the Prayer Journal of Flannery O’Connor, but most of all I found it in the Prayer Book of the Orthodox Church, in the trisagion and hesychasm, in the Third Prayer of St. Antioch. Again I felt liberated; I wasn’t stumbling over myself, looking for words to say, but was mulling over the words in front of me, wondering what logic or wonder knit them together this way, how I might be changed by their mere presence. Strangely, I didn’t feel so much that I was using these prayers as being used by them.

So when my cousin went into labor toward the end of December, I did something I’d never done before: I went alone into my office and said vigil. I got on my knees, barely recognizing myself: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us,” I said three times, crossing myself, bowing. “I entreat You who loves all people to bless Your servant who is with child.” I was amazed that someone in the past had penned this prayer for this purpose. “Ease her labor, bring her to safe delivery. Open the treasury of Your mercies and Your compassion to her.” I did this ritual three times, each time becoming more convinced that I was in the proper place, the proper posture for something like true intercession—facilitating willing Spirit into rigid, anxious matter.

I bowed one last time and left my place. My mother called me the next morning to tell me that a healthy baby girl had been born, an easy delivery.

“I know,” I said, cutting my words short so as not to carelessly say: “I was there.”

Lyle Enright is a doctoral candidate at Loyola University Chicago, where he studies religion and literature. He blogs inconsistently at , and you can also follow him on Twitter @YnysDyn.