KaBooM WritersKaBooM Writers

Welcome to the online presence of KaBooM, a writing group that has sustained the creative lives of a diverse group of women for over a decade. We hope that getting to know us will inspire you, too!Welcome to the online presence of KaBooM, a writing group that has sustained the creative lives of a diverse group of women for over a decade. We hope that getting to know us will inspire you, too!

Welcome to the online presence of KaBooM, a writing group that has sustained the creative lives of a diverse group of women for over a decade. We hope that getting to know us will inspire you, too!


The KaBooM Writers Notebook: Our Blog

Jane Gentry Vance, The Fairy Godmother, The Buddha, and Effie Waller Smith

Buddha peace

 

by Leatha Kendrick

I remember the day that Jane Vance said to me that thinking about working (writing) was not the only thing in her life.  I, who was always fretting that I should be “getting some work done” rather than enjoying the afternoon with a friend.  She said something to the effect that life was for what we were doing — being together, enjoying a day on Morgan Street on her front porch and walking downtown for lunch and a visit to the consignment store on Main Street.  It was about the trees and flowers along the way, the conversation, the sandwiches and saying hello to the neighbors and friends who drifted through the small restaurant where we ate, her excitement at finding a good buy at the consignment shop — this was life.  Life was for living.

Jane had found a peace with the balance of her life, while I was still driven toward “getting somewhere” in my writing: to write more and write better, to publish more, to finally feel that I’d done enough in writing as (and I see now what she must have seen) I had in all aspects of my life.  Too often the “driven” quality reigns in my psyche and, I suppose, my spirit.  “Hungry ghosts,” my therapist used to call is, citing the Buddhist idea of samsara and what keeps us stuck in the materiality of this life.

“What we want” doesn’t always take us where we imagine it will.  I am thinking about Effie again, with whom I feel so often in accord.  Effie Waller Smith, the Appalachian, African-American woman poet I’ve been researching and writing about, who wanted to be a respected writer known for her poems, but also wanted a husband and family, and at one point was convinced she wanted a communal religious life in Wisconsin with the Metropolitan Holiness Church Association (known in their Waukesha, Wisconsin, community as “the Jumpers”).  Effie married twice and twice she divorced the man she’d married.  She and her mother sold all their possessions and land and gave the proceeds to the Jumpers, only to become disillusioned with the sect and want out.  Effie had to sue to get at least part of their money back.  Like Effie, things I have pursued have not always turned out to be what I expected.

I imagine, though, that Effie would look back on her life (as I am doing lately) and decide that on the whole what she wanted had been trustworthy.  That when she (and I) commit ourselves to something — a faith, a family (she adopted a daughter and had the joy of raising her to adulthood), an orderly and nurturing home, and/or an art (writing, but also the arts of teaching, of gardening, of friendship) —it brought us deep satisfaction.  Through uncertainties and blind alleys, life finally comes down to “falling down nine times and getting up ten.”  Each day, the decision is as simple as taking the next step, which is to step into your own life more deeply.

No, I don’t trust magic.  I resist the idea of a fairy godmother.  I am probably a natural Buddhist — and as far as I can tell, Buddhism is a very practical spirituality.  Nothing is going to rescue me from myself, except the gradual awakening that comes from falling down nine times and getting up ten.  My ideal writing life would not look a whole lot different (from the outside) than the life I have been leading.  What I would change is invisible mostly — I would be freed from the despair and angst of never feeling as if I am doing enough.  I would find the peace and inner balance I felt in Jane.

This would mean knowing that I am enough.  This would mean enforcing reasonable boundaries while also fulfilling a commitment to myself.  So, yes, I would make time for my writing.  Calmly and gently, daily, weekly.  I would allow writing to become my practice — spiritual and mediative.  I would trust small changes and incremental tasks, set in motion by reflection and by making the decisions I have to make to ensure that I will have the space, the time — and maybe most importantly, the friendships — that will nourish my work.

The Fairy Godmother Asks, “If I Could Give You Any Life You Wanted, What Would It Look Like?”

Her Smalls

Last Tuesday, I left our KaBooM meeting at noon, drove home, heated leftovers, and worked the daily crossword. An hour later I was walking.

Yes. I just opened the front door, walked through it, and spent the next forty minutes looping my neighborhood. The air was brisk but cloudless so the walk refreshed, filling my lungs and bloodstream with as much oxygen as a girl can handle.

I left my earbuds and podcasts behind. Instead, I let my thoughts play over KaBooM’s conversation, which had culminated with the Fairy Godmother Question. I think of such conversations as calibrations, thirty-thousand-mile tune-ups, wellness exams (or appointments made for minor illness). We need them periodically to right our ships.

What struck me first was the ease with which I started my walk. I just opened the door, walked through, and pulled the door shut behind me. Perhaps I should have stretched or filled a water bottle, but I didn’t. I was pulled by the beauty of the day, the limits on my time, and by my mental and physical need to stretch and move. I wore walking shoes and socks but considered no other special equipment.

Walking is an established habit, borne out of medical and psychological necessity. Walking ensured a quick recovery from surgery. Walking enabled me to maintain my sanity while recovering from medical treatment. Walking helped me keep off the ten pounds I lost during that process. I’ve been rewarded by a twelve-point drop in my glucose number, a drop that took me out of “scolding” range. I’ve been rewarded by drops in cholesterol that make medication unnecessary.

There’s much at stake with my walks, yet I can just open the door and without fanfare begin a walk? So why is writing, an equally life-giving, sanity-maintaining necessity, so much harder for me to initiate? Why do I surround myself with rituals before writing that sometimes prevent me from ever getting to the activity itself? The cup of coffee, hot, with just the right amount of my brand of creamer. E-mail checked and critical messages answered. Worries over interruptions, real and imagined. The dishwasher that has competed for my attention for forty years. Forty years, and I haven’t figured out how to outsmart that bitch? Shame on me.

Of course I know the answers to these questions. It’s time for recalibration, a wellness exam to cure a minor illness.

I must re-establish writing as a habit. For many years I spent summers with a writing project, beginning every morning with thirty minutes of quiet writing time. That early motion of the pen almost always resulted in my returning to that work throughout the day, whenever snatches of time could be found: between classes, at lunch, before bed. Momentum begun is difficult to arrest.

So, Fairy Godmother, thank you, but I do not want a different life. I want more of the same. It’s up to me to tweak time; to shave a bit here and attach it there. I will consider whether there are activities that sap more energy than I can afford to give, but this strikes me as an unusual activity for a retired person who ought to be wise enough to have given up those things which are truly draining and give nothing back.

I can manage thirty minutes of quiet writing time. I will walk though the door into the fresh air of my own brain without fussing about “getting ready to write.” I’d like to re-establish this habit and see if I can regenerate momentum.

How would you answer the Fairy Godmother’s Question?

Photo credit: “Her Smalls” by Jan Isenhour

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Letter to a Poet I Will Never Meet

effiesmith1

 

On the last day of Women’s History Month, I am sending out this letter to a poet I will never meet— Effie Waller Smith: b. January 6, 1879, Chloe Creek, near Pikeville, Kentucky; d. January 2, 1960, Neenah, Wisconsin

First, some of Miss Effie’s words, her poem, “Preparation:”

Preparation

I have no time for those things now,’ we say;
“But in the future just a little way,
No longer by this ceaseless toil oppressed,
I shall have leisure then for thought and rest.
When I the debts upon my land have paid,
Or on foundations firm my business laid,
I shall take time for discourse long and sweet
With those beloved who round my hearthstone meet;
I shall take time on mornings still and cool
To seek the freshness dim of wood and pool,
Where, calmed and hallowed by great Nature’s peace,
My life from its hot cares shall find release;
I shall take time to think on destiny,
Of what I was and am and yet shall be,
Till in the hush my soul may nearer prove
To that great Soul in whom we live and move.
All this I shall do sometime but not now –
The press of business cares will not allow.”
And thus our life glides on year after year;
The promised leisure never comes more near.
Perhaps the aim on which we placed our mind
Is high, and its attainment slow to find;
Or if we reach the mark that we have set,
We still would seek another, farther yet.
Thus all our youth, our strength, our time go past
Till death upon the threshold stands at last,
And back unto our Maker we must give
The life we spent preparing well to live.

—from The Collected Works of Effie Waller Smith, Oxford University Press, 1991.

Dear Miss Effie,

I have only found you and your work in this, my sixty-sixth year of life.  Though you were a Kentucky poet born and raised 50 miles from my home in Floyd County, Kentucky, I had never heard of you.

It was your poem, “Preparation,” that made me write to you.  I heard it read aloud about a month ago when you were inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame in a ceremony in Lexington at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.  Though the reader, Frank X. Walker, did a fine enough job of presenting the poem, I could not help but wish that a woman had been chosen to read it — any woman, black or white. Though your poem does not declare itself a woman’s poem and could apply equally to men and women, I think that too often it is women who allow the “ceaseless toil” you write of to come between them and “what [they were and are] and yet shall be.” At least when I heard the poem and heard the fact that you had stopped writing at the age of 38 (at which age I was just starting out), I felt that teaching or mothering or other kinds of care-giving had surely pushed your vocation of writing to the side.

Now I have read more about your life — how you moved to Wisconsin to live in a strict religious commune with your mother around 1919, for instance — and I see that your story is more complex than I had imagined.  For one thing, it’s clear that you did not let teaching and supporting yourself, moving from place to place, marrying or divorcing stop your important work of crafting poems.  You published steadily from at least as early as 1902 — when you were 23 and finishing your course work at the Kentucky State Normal School for Colored Persons, now Kentucky State University — until 1917, when as far as I can tell, you were living again in or near Pike County.  You taught in Kentucky and Tennessee during that time.  By 1909 you’d been married twice (in 1904 and 1908), each marriage brief, each ending in your divorcing the man.  You’d lost your only child (I haven’t been able to find out if it was a boy or a girl) when it was a young child.  You’d seen enough violence in the mountains to last you a lifetime, including the murder in 1911 of your ex-husband, Deputy Sheriff Charlie Smith, who had also been a lifelong friend.

Your self-possession astounds me, even from the distance of all these years.  What I have discovered of your life makes me certain that the more than forty years you spent not publishing poems were a deliberate act, at least to some degree, on your part.  Because I am a woman, too, who struggles with how and even whether to continue to pursue publication, after twenty-five years of publishing poems and other writing, I wish I could talk to you.  Your last publication, a sonnet you entitled “Autumn Winds,” was in Harpers, for goodness sakes.  One of the most prestigious places in the nation.  Why did you stop publishing?

Your work itself gives us some clues — its somber mood, its intense religious overtones.  And the fact that World War One was raging and that you had lost your only child may have been part of the beginning of your silence.  You had to have been weighed down with grief.  You moved away from your beloved hills, which has been not only a solace, but a source of imagery and inspiration for you.  Was it the convergence of all of these things?  I have moved twice this past year and often find myself wordless, unsettled in a world that seems more than ever bent on violence and hatred.  Was silence your answer to despair?  I don’t want to believe this.  Was it an act of faith to relinquish your writing career?  Or were there other “hot cares” that kept you from your poems?

Writers and scholars before me have wondered at your disappearance from print, and I am grateful for what they discovered or pieced together about your life.  In next week’s blog post I will continue this letter, using the work of David Deskins, Elizabeth Engelhardt, and your adopted daughter, Ruth Smith — as well as your own words  — to piece together more of your story.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Snowfall

Holly and Wood Pile in SnowThirteen Ways of Looking at a Snowfall

 

 

1

Through air tinted white,

a frozen mist descending, descending.

2

After the fact,

at what happened while you slept.

3

A sideways howl, driven by the wind.

4

Flat on your back, as a snow angel.

5

A relief from all that was scheduled

when the roads were passable.

6

A wall closing in.

7

A postcard to send.

8

Wet on your cheeks,

a sign of warmth.

9

A highlight on a dark tree branch,

marking the lines.

10

From beneath bright lashes

weighted with flakes.

11

One thick, soft flake.

Then another.

12

The chores of bundling and unbundling children,

warming the pipes, shoveling the walk.

13

Undelineated white

of ground and sky.

 

Susan Christerson Brown

 

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Honoring Elizabeth Hardwick

 

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Elizabeth Hardwick is a Kentucky writer I’ve met only on paper. The loss is mine.

Recently I had the honor of reading an excerpt from her work on the occasion of her induction into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.

Hardwick was one Kentucky writer who got away. After finishing the BA and MA at the University of Kentucky, she enrolled in a PhD program at Columbia. For the rest of her long life, her contact with hometown Lexington was minimal. In the sixties she was part of a team who founded the New York Review of Books, as a response to a perceived softness in the reviewing style of the New York Times. The timing was brilliant as the Times was on strike for some months, and advertisers had marketing dollars to risk on a new publication.

Hardwick wrote reviews, literary biographies, essays, and novels. I think of her as a woman of letters, a vocation that sounds more old-fashioned and isolated than it ought to. Not only did Hardwick advocate for more demanding book reviews and better writing, but she also visited places like Selma in the mid-sixties and wrote about the experience for NYRB.

One of my favorite comments about her comes from the obituary that Mark Krupnik wrote for The Guardian:

“[Hardwick] was born into a large family in Kentucky, a southern border state that tends to produce literary sensibilities very different from those that flourish in the deep south. Her father was a left-leaning blue-collar worker who ran a plumbing and heating business. No doubt it contributed to her alienation from the mint julep school of southern writing that she was a city girl, from Lexington.”

I considered a number of her essays (you can read many online) before choosing a passage from her third novel Sleepless Nights, published in 1979.  Sleepless Nights is described as hybrid in form: somewhere between novel and memoir. It’s an artfully arranged collection of letters, portraits, musings, remembrances of the past and connections to the present: in other words, concerns that keep us tossing and turning at night. The book often feels like a glimpse into the writer’s notebook of a meticulous observer possessed of a singular gift for the apt metaphor.

While I didn’t choose the following passage from Sleepless Nights, it serves to introduce you to Hardwick: her mastery of the list, the complexity of her thinking, the diversity of the influences that worked upon her, the perceived limitations of her time:

“Tickets, migrations, worries, property, debts, changes of name and changes back once more: these came about from reading many books. So, from Kentucky to New York, to Boston, to Maine, to Europe, carried along on a river of paragraphs and chapters, of blank verse, of little books translated from the Polish, large books from the Russian—all consumed in a sedentary sleeplessness. Is that sufficient—never mind that it is the truth. It certainly hasn’t the drama of: I saw the old, white-bearded frigate master on the dock and signed up for the journey. But after all, ‘I’ am a woman” (Sleepless Nights, p. 8).

Hardwick’s life and career had their own brand of drama, of course, every bit as fraught as any quest by sea.

Photo source: Getty

 

Claiming a Space, Making It Yours

                       “Virginia Woolf has said it: What a woman (what any writer) needs in order to write is a room of one’s own.     It is not simply a matter of space — it is a space of one’s own that is needed.”  —Pat Schneider, Writing Alone and With Others

 Google “writers on their rooms,” as I did, and you will find blog posts, TV series, photo sequences, books examining “where I write.”  Even non-writers seem fascinated by the spaces in which their favorite authors spend their creative time.  As a tourist I have visited writers’ homes — from James Thurber’s house in Columbus, Ohio, to Anna Akhmatova’s apartment in St. Petersburg, Russia, and many spaces in between.  Something in us wants to see the rooms where writers sit doing their invisible work.  As if by entering that space we could enter the artist’s process.

In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard muses, “ . . . if I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamers, the house allows one to dream in peace.”   Writers’ rooms fascinate us because they house the dreaming that is the creative process.  The contours of walls, the angle of light, even the stacks of papers and books become the shape of that dreaming.

The need to understand writing spaces became urgent for me as my husband and I consolidated our family home of thirty years with my separate writing space of more than ten years — combining two kitchens, two sets of everything, including two writing rooms from two different phases of my writing life.  In my relief at letting go of the burden of a home too large for two people and my anticipation of no longer having to maintain two households, I denied what the moves meant for me as a writer:  the dissolution of a space I had slowly claimed in which to do the creative work essential to my wellbeing. Instead of the joy and ease I had expected to feel in claiming our new space, I have felt mostly anxiety — the primal terror of “disassemblage.”

In an essay I wrote twenty years ago I described the writing room I created for myself in our family home.

 But one room of the house is mine alone, reclaimed from Barbies, Little People houses, and the spring- frame rocking horse–Shy Anne (Cheyenne)–where [our oldest daughter] sang to Sesame Street.  Sitting in the quiet of what has become my writing room, rereading Wallace Stevens’ “Idea of Order at Key West,” I understand it at the level of the body: “there never was a world for her/Except the one she sang and, singing, made.”   Here, in what was the playroom for the first six years of this house, my girls sang themselves into existence.  Those years the bodies of my children enfleshed Paradise, ordered the universe.

And beyond that Paradise, this angled space above the garage has become my retreat:  to three favorite chairs, two desks, and half a dozen bookcases filled with poetry, volumes on craft, essays, science, and theology—my  room.   What is distilled here is an inner landscape, a different kind of garden, and one which it has taken me years to claim.  Beyond Edna’s pigeon house and the insanity of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Yellow Wallpaper, I have brought Lessing’s “Room 19” home.  My place of solitude.  To not create this place, I finally understood, was death, a drowning in other people’s needs, a suffocation.  Here writing continues like the heartbeat in the center of the chest, life within a life.  My home.  [“No Place Like Home,” The American Voice, No. 49, Summer, 1999]

Of course, my old spaces, dismantled in the course of moving, are not recreate-able in this very different room.  Everything from the compass to the floor plan make it impossible. I can’t quite find myself in this room I have chosen, and I’ve given up my old writing rooms, which makes me angry as well as anxious.  Above all I’m impatient to get on with work long interrupted by this dual move which has dragged out now for five months.

Tonight, reading and preparing to write, I glanced up and for the first time felt my new writing space taking shape:  the space seemed to gather itself around my ratty peach recliner (reclaimed from that first writing space) and the desk moved from my writing studio, set at  90º  to a scarred work table inherited from my grandparents’ business, and the bookcases along the walls and the lamps I have gathered over years.

Yes, there are boxes to be unpacked and things to be sorted, put away, let go of, but I am making (again), in my intuitive, slow and inexact way, Woolf’s “room of one’s own.”  Inimitable.  Suiting only myself.  A dreaming space.

 

 

Going Soft

A few days ago, in a class offered by Karen Lodes at The Yoga Meditation and Therapy Center, I encountered a new way of thinking about the body and how it is affected by tension.

Our bodies exhibit the properties of both liquids and solids. We can be fluid and flowing, like a liquid, or rigid and unyielding, like a solid. We’re healthier when we’re soft and relaxed; we develop problems when we can’t let go of tension. And of course, the state of our body reflects our state of mind.

Frozen Falls on Limestone

 

A mixture of corn starch and water offers a vivid demonstration of a substance that can behave either as a liquid or a solid, depending on the force exerted on it. Pound your fist onto the surface of the mixture and you’ll meet a solid wall that can’t be penetrated. Press your hand gently into the mixture and you’ll easily penetrate it. This video is fun, and shows how it works:

 Walking on Water: Corn Starch and Water Demonstration

As I think about approaching my work in the new year, I have this demonstration in mind. In order for a new idea to penetrate my psyche, I need to be soft. For the work to flow through me, I need to relax enough to make that possible. If I’m worried about what the next project should be, or when I can finish it, or whether I’m up to the challenge, my thoughts are going to be calcified and the work isn’t going to flow. Force creates resistance.

The discipline to show up at the page is necessary. But so is the discipline of breathing, of relaxing, of letting go.

 

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Inspired by The Crimson Tide

deandew-white-top

Several weeks ago, I was watching a football game on TV. Although I appeared to be calmly lying on the couch under a blanket, my heart was pounding. The Alabama Crimson Tide‘s best running back had just fumbled the ball on the six yard line and LSU had recovered. There was a minute and fifteen seconds on the clock.

It appeared that Alabama’s quest for the SEC West title was doomed. All LSU had to do was score. WIth only six yards to cover in four downs, it would take a miracle for the Tide to win. At this moment the score was tied, 10-10. Alabama’s coach, Nick Saban, told the defense that if they held LSU to a field goal (3 points) that he was confident the (struggling) offense could score its own field goal.

Saban “spoke the word,” as Florence Scovel Shinn claims in her book The Game of Life And How to Play It, is the way to success. This book was on a list of recommended reading given out by Margaret Wrinkle, author of the astonishing novel Wash, at the Kentucky Women Writers Conference last fall. Shinn says that “Two attitudes of mind cause loss, depreciation, or fear of loss, which makes a picture of loss in the subconscious.” Clearly Saban was describing a win to his team, despite the outward appearance of impossibility: stopping a powerful team from scoring a touchdown and then seeing his own struggling offense go 50 yards in under a minute and score a field goal.

Yet, that is exactly what happened in the football game. LSU was pushed back away from the goal line and scored a field goal. Alabama got the ball back with 55 seconds to go and manage to move it into field goal range and score its own three points. Alabama then won the game in over-time. And will now have the chance to win a national championship.

What inspires me about this game is the fact that the Tide planned to win, even if it was at the last minute, when the appearance of facts: little time left, the opponent about to score, suggested a loss. It is a good lesson to consider as a writer. When rejections mount, the writer, who must believe in her game plan, her preparation, her work, continues to aim for the win. I am working with Shinn’s ideas that “your word is your wand” and that “Spirit is never late.” I am developing the confidence that although events may make a loss seem likely, that if you have faith and stand still in the face of opposition, that your best path will manifest.  Perhaps this faith that I will reach the goal is the most necessary element of success, after all the hard work, the desire, the revisions, the attempts at getting every word right.

And, just for fun, here’s a video of another Tide fan who was clearly inspired by the play of one Crimson Tide player, Amari Cooper.  

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Inspired by Speech

Last week I tuned in to the National Book Awards dinner—or as I call it, the Academy Awards for Writers. I do recognize the significant differences between the events: NBA streams live, so you balance your laptop for over an hour so as not to lose the feed. During that awkward interval you listen to the tinkle of glassware and the murmur of conversation while watching still images of book jackets and author photos. The folks who eventually step to the dais are clothed and seemingly free from surgeries that purport to stay the effects of aging.

And yet this show, for all my doubts about awards, inspires me as I watch my heroes, America’s writers, step to the microphone to acknowledge their moments of success and to comment on what it means to be a writer in this moment, in this place.

In 2011, the show-stopping acceptance speech came from Lexington’s own Nikky Finney whose book Head Off & Split took the poetry prize.

This year, were it not for a series of unfortunate comments from emcee Daniel Handler, the distinction of showstopper would go to Ursula K. Le Guin, age eighty-five, a writer of speculative fiction who won a lifetime achievement award—the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

Screen-Shot-2014-11-19-at-8.39.31-PM

Le Guin used her camera time to offer a sobering critique of the current state of publishing. (Click here to watch.) She alluded to the recent dispute between Amazon and Hachette over pricing in this scorching comment: “We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa.” “Right now,” she continued, “I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art…”

These brave comments strike close to the bone. Recently I had the opportunity to pitch my novel to an agent. “What are these surprises you mention?” asked the agent. “Illegitimate births, rape, murder, incest, pornography?” In my imagination her voice grew more high-pitched and eager as the list of perversions lengthened.

“Not in this story,” I apologized. “These characters have their own issues to worry about: caring for aging parents, watching a town be destroyed by greedy developers, acknowledging the torn fabric of race relations.”

I thought about that conversation when Le Guin made this comment: “Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.”

This morning I’m back at my desk focused on telling the stories of the characters before me on the page rather than the stories that someone believes will sell. I’d like my stories to sell, of course, but not because I add salacious detail to make them marketable.

Félicitations, Ursula K. Le Guin. Your well-chosen words bring honor to you, to all of us who struggle daily in the name of art.

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Mo’ne Davis will share her story: “I hope it encourages people to take a chance and play the sports they want to play and not just the ones people expect them to play”

Mo'ne Davis (photo: Eric Risberg/Associated Press)

Mo’ne Davis (photo: Eric Risberg/Associated Press)

Few pieces of news could make my Monday like the announcement that come March, we can expect a memoir from teenage athlete Mo’ne Davis, she of Sports Illustrated cover last summer (and the accompanying article by Albert Chen), and the “I Throw Like a Girl” Spike Lee video for Chevrolet.  And to hear that for this writing project she is said to be teaming up with author Hilary Beard, whose previous collaborations include “Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life,” is even better news, as it suggests that in her newfound fame and media scrutiny, she is good hands, and will be supported and mentored by wise elders.

http://static.squarespace.com/static/52687ed6e4b0b1f7d808ece3/t/52715587e4b023f89fe8977b/1383159175582/_CLC0156.jpg

Author Hilary Beard

To observe that Mo’ne Davis seems wise beyond her years is a cliche, yet one I return to when I read in the HarperCollins announcement of the memoir when Mo’ne says: “I’m just a girl that likes to play sports and I’m excited to share my story with everyone” … “I hope it encourages people to take a chance and play the sports they want to play and not just the ones people expect them to play.”

For weeks before today’s announcement, I’ve been trying to summarize what the example of this dignified, grounded young woman does for my spirit: how it lifts and inspires me beyond all rational explanation. Perhaps it’s partly that she exemplifies the gains made by female athletes since Title IX of the Civil Rights Act was passed over 40 years ago, which are astounding and worth recalling for ourselves. Now that the world that is possible for women and girls feels completely different from the one I grew up in, the gains we have made are worth remembering. 

For example, I’ve also been watching the PBS series Makers that documents, in oral histories, the women who have pioneered in so many professional fields. Watching these stories with my teenaged son serves as a salutary corrective to the impulse to take for granted the gains earned by these women. When my son heard Sallie Krawcheck reveal that photocopies of male penises were landing in her desk every morning, his shocked look reminds me: yes, we have traveled far. But we NEED to tell these stories, so that the gains are never minimized. (Educators: you can use the free discussion guides and lesson plans for this series at the website found at http://www.pbs.org/makers/discussion-guides/. )

Historian Gerda Lerner

Historian Gerda Lerner

Years ago I read something called “Lerner’s Law” referring to the pioneering work of historian Gerda Lerner. The “law” went something like: in the case of women who are pioneering in a field where women were not welcome, the fact that they know of one other single woman who achieved a similar feat made it exponentially more likely that they would be able to accomplish their goal. As I undertook research for this post, I could not find that comment: if you are reading this and are able to supply an attribution, I would be most grateful if you could let me know in a comment below. The nearest quotation I could find came from her book The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From Middle Ages to 1870 (pub. 1993):

[T]he fact that women were denied knowledge of the existence of Women’s History decisively and negatively affected their intellectual development as a group. Women who did not know that others like them had made intellectual contributions to knowledge and to creative thought were overwhelmed by the sense of their own inferiority or, conversely, the sense of the dangers of their daring to be different….Every thinking woman had to argue with the ‘great man’ in her head, instead of being strengthened and encouraged by her foremothers. 

photos: AP images

Pioneering marthon runner Katherine Switzer does battle as the first woman to run in the Boston Marathon. Photos: AP images

So whether or not Mo’ne fully appreciates the historical precedents that brought her where she is today (and what teen can grasp on whose shoulders she stands?), I find myself calling to mind the intersections of  essential gains won by pioneers who’ve received some recognition as such: what was won for all of us by Katherine Switzer, the first woman to run in the Boston Marathon. She registered for the race using her initials, so that until she showed up to run, no one expected a woman (above is a series of photos documenting Katherine’s participation being discovered by Jock Semple, race official, his moving in to intercept her, then his being bounced himself by her boyfriend, Jack Miller). The recent #Likeagirl campaign reminds me that there are some strong voices reclaiming athletic abilities for women. They are welcome!

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Standing-On-My-Sisters-Shoulders/55438180809

The heroines of the Standing on My Sisters’ Shoulders documentary

But there are other pioneers I see even less recognized. For Mo’ne Davis inherits a legacy from Civil Rights foremothers in a way different than I do. The film “Standing On My Sisters’ Shoulders” reminds me of stories we are far too quick to forget, if we ever knew them at all. The film exists because

most of us have never heard of Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine, Unita Blackwell, Mae Bertha Carter, or Victoria Gray Adams. But without the efforts of these women, the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi would not have been possible. In a state where lynching of black males was the highest in the nation, a unique opportunity for women emerged to become activists in the movement. This is their story of commitment, bravery and leadership in the face of a hostile and violent segregated society. In the name of freedom and equal rights, these women bravely faced great adversity and risked their physical safety, their jobs, and even their lives.

The accompanying book, “Pieces From The Past:  Heroic Women In Civil Rights” (edited by Joan H. Sadoff; co-Edited by Dr. Robert L. Sadoff and Linda Needleman) allows the women profiled in the film to continue telling their stories in more depth.

So: on a day I celebrate Mo’ne Davis, here’s to honoring all our foremothers, their divinely strong shoulders, and the incalculable benefits we enjoy even on the days we forget them.

  

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