Writing Is Fun!

cheeriosToday, while sculpting chapter intros for my thesis I got to use a really fun building material. It’s like the day your mom would drop you off at kindergarten, you’d enter the room and see waiting for your eager little hands blobs of green and red and yellow Play Doh on one activity table, Cheerios on another table; and multicolor marshmallows on another table. You just KNEW you were going to have fun that day!

plasticineToday, my my rainbow marshmallow was a fun fun word I got to choose for my art and craft project for the day: “HERKY-JERKY!” Yes! I have the most fun vocation in the world. I get to play with words. I get to rub plunge my grubby little paws into piles of delicious words, grab my favorite color, and POP it into my mouth. And today’s word made me smile, made me feel like the luckiest person in the world to call myself a writer. It’s the little things.

It’s not the most elegant sentence I’ve ever written, and it’s just the rough draft (self-protective disclaimer), but here’s the sentence: “Another essay, a heartfelt motherhood-themed mosaic by Robin Black grabbed me by the throat, not only with its content, but with its form, which reflected the angst of parenting decisions in its own herky-jerky structure and section titles.”     Big Cheerio Rainbow

College Search Fun: Dirty Dirty Hippies, Elephant Girls and Walmart Oh My!

"Don't blink!"
“Don’t blink!”

There is enough hilarious college slam content in the ether to start a blog devoted to candid student reviewery. But who has time?

Some of my favorites today, from Students Review, offer balance to the admissions polish.

Oberlin (Boy and I just visited and were wowed by the art museum—Monet, Hopper, Arbus and antiquities—and a phenomenal junior violin recital. And, the friendliest admissions rep in the world.)

This is a school for a small precentage of freaks and geeks. Firstly you will do fine here as a homosexual, a hipser, or a hippie. There are all kinds of drugs here from shady hippie dealers that preach against capitalism, but have high prices. Lots of homosexuals, which isnt bad in itself, but they seem to hate on heterosexuals as if they are evil. Everyone is either snobby because they came from an East coast prep school, or a dirty dirty hippie. 

Hanover College (never been)

People are right this school is a waste… the professors dont speak english and the women look more like elephants… our teams are terrible… i think they should send murders here for punishment

Kenyon College (blew the boy and me away at junior visit day yesterday: campus more gorgeous than the website shows, killer bookstore, charming Amish presence, unreal town, like stepping into 1850 or Hogwarts, and also—Paul Newman and John Green)

No matter what people tell you, there is a very high possibility that you will feel isolated here. I go to Walmart for fun. I do not like Walmart when I am living at home. But here, it has become a great adventure.
from Kenyon Galleries
from Kenyon Galleries

Beautiful Things Out The Dust

Since I’m eyebrow-deep in thesis finalization, blog writing just ain’t gonna happen anytime soon. In the meantime, this song keeps me going. You gotta love a cello, xylophone and guitar with stripped-down vocals. I hope it soothes you as much as it does me. (See lyrics, below.)

“Beautiful Things”

All this pain
I wonder if I’ll ever find my way
I wonder if my life could really change at all
All this earth
Could all that is lost ever be found
Could a garden come up from this ground at all

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

All around
Hope is springing up from this old ground
Out of chaos life is being found in You

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

You make me new, You are making me new
You make me new, You are making me new

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

Guest Post From The Tolkien Scholar In My House: English to Orc (Orkish?) and Back

Since the thesis gods have smiled upon me and I’m finally churning out chapter intros, I’m pleased to share the blog today with my resident Tolkien Scholar, JPC. Enjoy.

an Uruk, by the author
an Uruk, by the author

For those of you who wish to learn Orkish, a less-pretty language spoken by Orcs, Trolls, and some Men in Middle-Earth in the Third Age. Orkish dialects were usually vulgar forms of the Black Speech of Mordor, the language written on the Ring. These words are scrounged from what little Tolkien wrote of the Orkish language as well as some reconstructions by Tolkien linguist David Salo.

An example of formal Black Speech as written on the One Ring:

“Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatûl,
ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatûl”
“One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them”

Some examples of colloquial Orkish written by Tolkien himself:

Improper Nouns



“old man”

“slave” (lesser Orc, common Goblin)





“Noldor” (Golodhrim, Exiled Elves)

“Man of Gondor”


“Dark Tower” (Barad-dûr)

An actual quotation, from the books:

“Uglúk u bagronk sha pushdug Saruman-glob búb-hosh skai…”
“Uglúk to the cesspool, sha! the dungfilth; the great Saruman-fool, skai!”
– Grishnákh, an Orc from Barad-dûr, Book III of The Lord of the Rings

A Few Helpful Phrases in Orkish (courtesy of this website)
“Ashdautas vrasubatlat” — “Someday I will kill you” (a standard Orkish greeting)
“Nar udautas” — “Not today” (the standard reply)
“Nar mat kordh-ishi” — “Do not die in bed” (This has several meanings.)
“Ang gijak-ishi” (Angijak)– “Iron in the Blood” (a high compliment)
“Lul gijak-ishi” (Lulgijak) — “Flowers in the Blood” (usually in reference to Elves)
“Amal shufar, at rrug” — “Where there’s a whip, there’s a way.”
“Snaga nar baj lufut” — “Slaves don’t make war.”
“Ambor mabas lufut” — “Liquor after war”
“Vras gruiuk” — “Kill the women”
“Mabaj nar armauk” — “I have no enemies” (an Orkish lament)
“Mabaj bot ob armauk” — “I have a world of enemies”
“Mirdautas vras” — “It is a good day to kill”
“Vrasubatburuk ug butharubatgruiuk” — “We will kill all the men and take all the women” (the Orkish equivalent of ‘cheers’)

Orkish Oaths
“Afar angathfark” — “By the forge of my soul!”
“Afar vadokanuk” — “By all the dead!”

Orkish Insults
“Lul gijak-ishi” (Lulgijak) — “Flowers in the Blood” (literally “bloomblood”) (interchangeably “Elf” or “Wimp”)
“Zanbaur” — “Elfson”
“Nar thos” — “No Sack”

Some Orkish Names

Enjoy croaking in the foul tongue! –JPC

A Pleasant Day to Be My Kids: How To Throw Off An Abductor—Make A Scene

Self-Defense By Ethel
Self-Defense By Ethel

I don’t know what it is about being sick that sends the mind into the dark places, but moments ago as I drove home my sweet innocent, exercise-flushed daughter from her bball game, and my son from the dropping off library materials (Citizen Kane blu-ray and some evolution art book), it occurred to me that if they suffered or died at the hands of an abductor without my ever having told them to “do something,” I would never forgive myself.

Like, scream or something. I mean, if the slimeball sticks a gun into my babies’ backs and tells them not to scream or he (or she) will shoot, I want them to scream like banshees, because there is no chance they’ll be heard in the woods or cave or basement or wherever he or she takes them.

So between violent sneezes at the corner of the 1st and Main stoplight I say to my naive suburban children, “If you are confronted by a would-be abductor who says not to scream or they’ll kill you, I want you to scream anyway. Because that’s going to be the best way-” and the son interrupts, “-to die?”

Well. Not necessarily, and I try to explain my rationale, that it might be your only chance, maybe, to be heard and rescued. And then I say, “Well. Just do something, and loudly, something unexpected. Like maybe, for instance–make a howler monkey sound at as booming a volume as you’re capable.” They start laughing and for the rest of the drive home join in on what becomes a brainstorm of ways to catch our abductors off guard, freaking them out with the element of surprise and novelty. Chewbacca-2-Among the ideas:

  • Bust out your best Wookiee roar, but eardrum-busting LOUD
  • Hysterical, Cuckoo’s Nest-nutso laughter
  • Criticism, in the form of a Randallesque narration: “Oh, Mr. Abductor Man, how pathetic do you have to be to stick a person up with a gun, I mean, how desperate can you get? I mean, how cliche can a criminal be? Oh, NOW he’s cocked the gun, guess I’ve really pissed him off now, but if I shut up, he’s going to keep abducting me, so I’ll just keep running my mouth off until a)he shoots me, which I doubt he’ll actually do because he’s dumb enough not to have cocked the gun before now he probably doesn’t even have a loaded gun, or b) he just lets me go because I’m just so anooyyying. Is that what you’re gonna do, mister? Is that what you’re gonna do? Okay…
  • the black speech of MeowrdorChanting the Black Speech of Mordor
  • Show tunes: break into an Ethel Merman impersonation singing, “There’s NO business like SHOW business, like NO business I KNOOOOOW, there’s a MAN pointing a GUN at my back, PLEASE call nine-one-oooooone….”

Oh, so upon further research I see that screaming’s a bad idea. But doing “something” could save your life. Running away is one idea, according to the WikiHow’s How to Thwart an Abduction Attempt: 10 Steps. But I still think belting out a little Ethel Merman could work. I hope neither they, nor I , nor YOU, ever have to find out. Be safe! Do something! Make a scene. Run. Lie. “Fight as if your life depends on it,” because it might.

Praise Craze Part 2: Us and Them, “Love Take Me-Love Take Me Over,” Especially When Faced With A Smoking Handicap Parking Tag Fraud

Palm-Trees-BendingSo these ideas (you know, from Part 1 wherein I sang Amazing Grace with a naked stranger) began pinging around inside my head the other morning as I tooled around in my car between the bank and Target. In an effort to refocus my thoughts from Twitter, kid worries, my thesis and job woes onto Something Bigger than myself I turned the dial from NPR to the Christian station (which I can tolerate only about 10% of the time due to my saccharin intolerance, I’m a bad Christian).

<An aside.> But back up a minute. I’ve been inviting God into my writing life more. Okay, more begging than “inviting” him—to invade, pervade, take over my writing process. This practice was born in the midst of some pretty paralyzing writer’s block a couple months ago, and I’ve found that it has helped. But careful what you ask for, right? <End of aside.>

A turn of the thumb and forefinger, and lo, a David Crowder Band song shifted my attention to this idea about love—God’s love—that I hold to be true. Singing along into my imaginary steering wheel microphone elevated me, sweeping up my spirit, whipping with it my emotions and thoughts into an epiphanic dust devil.

He is jealous for me,
Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree,


Bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy.

. . . And I realize just how beautiful You are,
And how great Your affections are for me.

[Swept, I’m swept, I’m bent, like a tree and this really happens as I steer between Chase and Target]

And oh, how He loves us, oh,
Oh, how He loves us,
How He loves us all 

Oh, how he loves us oh, Oh, how he loves us…

I’m feelin’ it. I’m lifting my right hand, singing, with heart and soul and voice, having some church up in my minivan. God, He loves US! just wow!

THE_BLOB-4And on the horizon of this ecstasy a giant writing prompt blob looms. I don’t veer, don’t get out of its way. I let it gobble me up in its path: The “we” who sing this very song on Sunday mornings in church, while singing, become proprietary with this love. We hoard it at the same time we can barely believe it ourselves, the small portion we can grasp even as it spills from little hands. From our little human-sized praise bubbles we proclaim, Abba loves ME ME ME, with the subtext not THEM THEM THEM.

That idea blob, which is morphing into this blogpost, began to take shape in my mind, forming into mental notes for me to assemble later on a page. I thought about those Christians, how all those “other,” churchier people tend to claim, deep down, that God’s love is reserved more for them, a blessing for their devotion, that it doesn’t apply to the ones they deem out of God’s will. They may *say* God loves everyone, but they really view “those other people” as more worthy of judgment than blessing—people who are gay, divorced, atheists, unfaithful, the people who advocate for the gay, the divorced, the unbelieving. People who aren’t them.

And I’m swept up with the compulsion to announce to *those Christians* this: that God loves “us” means God loves “THEM” too! Whoever “them” is to the singer of the song, proclaimer of this truth (“how He loves us”). Gosh, I will write this down, I’m thinking in my car. Thanks God for this epiphany, which maybe can help persuade those judgmental people who hate on my gay friends, maybe I can craft something that in writing will communicate that David Crowder’s song applies to the people not in the pews too.

So I’m in my car, my writer engine revving with ideas, and a dear friend, an atheist I love and admire enters my mind and I see that she, too, is covered in that wide blanket of love even if she doesn’t believe and even if she finds it irritating that I do. I can sing the song at the top of my lungs with her in my mind, lifting beautiful-M to the throne of the Most High on my quavery alto, and she can’t do a thing about it! God doesn’t just love “us” so. He loves HER too.

This calls for prayer.

Me, to God, at the stoplight to turn toward Target: Thank you, God, for this idea, these thoughts, these fresh perspectives. I will write about them. God, help me to remember these concepts so I can write about them later when I get home. [Oh. The arrogance.]

God, to me, as I pull into my parking space: Sure thing, Beth. And while I have your attention…

God Loves Her Too? Yup.
God Loves Her Too? Yup.

I pulled into the expanse of Target parking feeling relieved to have a clear writing direction for a change so I wouldn’t have to just sit there later curing writing time staring at a blank screen. I turned off the engine but left the keys in the ignition. I wanted to sit there in that sacred space and enjoy the rest of the song, when a nearby unfolding scene bumped the needle out of my groove. In my line of vision a woman, cig hanging out her mouth, pulled into a Handicap parking spot. Yes, she did have a tag, but she was smoking and looking pretty agile. I sat there and watched her get out of the car and for all my strength didn’t hop out, chase her down and tell her her legs or back must be feeling better. She practically skipped to the door. I fumed. Urrrg. Grrrr. The nerve of people! When that damn song rushed back at me like an irony-shaped boomerang. Oh, how he loves that handicap fraudulent woman oh, how he loves her. … I laughed at myself, burned up inside over my overinflated sense of justice, and went in to shop.

imagesA half hour later, I steered my cardinal-red cart loaded with first world necessities when I noticed the handicap tag faker’s car again and realized she would have to make it into this part of my “inspired” blogpost. I had heard a song in a new way to share with people who (I felt) might need to have their perspectives tweaked, and God decided to tweak mine. He was good enough to remind me that as open and accepting as I think I am, there are plenty of people who make my internal list of judgement-worthy humans I find difficult (or impossible) to love. And who knows — maybe handicap spot skipper is recovering from chemo. Maybe she has a family member with ALS. Maybe she’s seconds away from needing a trashcan. Maybe … who knows? It’s none of my business. My only business where she is concerned is to show her love.

The song on the radio when I turned the key to leave sealed the deal, but, well, I didn’t make bold enough mental notes to remember the title. I was too busy praying for God to help me be a better lover. Steve Curtis Chapman’s catchy Love Take Me Over will suffice, its message just as effective as the song I forgot.

This is what I’m sure of, I can only show love
When I really know how loved I am
When it over takes me, then it animates me
Flowing from my heart into my hands

Love, take these words that I’m speaking
Love, take these thoughts that I’m thinking
Love, take me over
Love, fill up all of my space and
Love, stand right here in my place
Love, hear this prayer that I’m praying
Love, take me, Love, take me over
Love, take me over.


Praise Craze Part 1: Singing Amazing Grace Naked In the Shower With a Naked Stranger

The Right Reverend Kevin
The Right Reverend Kevin

Certain church types are really into praise music. They engage in a practice that must strike non-churchies as silly, ridiculous, and maybe even a little embarrassing. They—okay, we—have this bizarre habit of singing at full voice, under the steeple with of all the peeple and also within the privacy of our own earbuds, songs to proclaim doctrinal tenets we hold to be true.

Just tonight, after my swim at the Monon I stepped into the shower room to hear a thin voice over the spigot din singing Amazing Grace, the Chris Tomlin version (9,466,900+ views, zowee). And yes, I joined in to harmonize with the naked stranger four stalls down as I lathered, rinsed, repeated. How could I resist? I mean, “My chains fell off, I’ve been set free”? Also, Elf.images-1

As a matter of obedience and tradition, generations of Christians have sung hymns and other spiritual songs to connect the corporeal and the spiritual while recognizing the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Doing so is an act of worship, yes, but at its heart, praising musically is part celebration, part theologically acceptable mantra, driven home by Kevin Bacon in an impassioned exegesis of Psalm 149 in the city council scene of the 1984 classic Footloose.

And I think there’s another, more practical reason some of us engage in serial worship song singing: forgetfulness.

As Christians are we not supposed to operate from cell-level assurance of our status as dearly loved children? It’s what we preach. But as run-a-the-mill Earth dwellers with hoomin brains and limited capacity for memory we lose sight of the part about being created “in God’s image” and “a little lower than the angels.” For whatever reason we can’t help but insist on clinging to a self worth baseline that keeps us stuck feeling unloved, even unlovable.

Enter the psalmists and songwriters, who, since 1000 B.C., have penned songs to: 1) Help us praise God and 2) Help us forgetful sheep to remember that God’s nature is love. And this was before existential angst was invented.

By singing these songs in church, our cars, at home in private or with a naked soprano at the gym, we call on the lyrics to remind ourselves that we don’t completely suck; and when the lyrics are set to music we like, we are elevated to a state where we even feel loved and lovable, at least temporarily. If we can get that, if we can apprehend God’s love, we’ll have a chance of passing that love along to others, which pretty much sums up the greatest commandments according to Jesus:

Matthew 22:36-40 New International Version (NIV)

36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Check back in a day or 2 for “Praise Craze Part 2: Love Take Me, Love Take Me Over, Especially When A Smoker With A Handicap Tag Pulls Into A Handicap Parking Space and Nimbly Skips Up To The Target Entrance While I’m Trying To Have Church In My Car With The David Crowder Band”

Adventures in Parenting Jack: Translating Halldór Laxness (Say HUH?)

I was working on a meditative essay to post on this here writey blog, but the following Facebook status update by my dear son, pictured below (in what I think should be his online dating profile picture, should he ever online-date in his twenties), derailed me. You’ll understand why.

Oh, and as any good anglophile, he punctuates the UK way. Also, why do I even try to write? OY, this kid:

For those of you reading Independent People, the protagonist’s name, Bjartur, is Icelandic. That means it’s not pronounced like American English. It’s not pronounced “buh-JAR-der” or “buh-jar-TUR” but “bee-ART-oor”. The letter j in most European languages besides French and English is just a consonant version of the letter i. That means it makes the same sound as i does (ee), but is not stressed as a vowel. It’s kinda like the consonant y in modern English.

Also, the word “bjartur” comes from Old Norse (bjartr) and is cognate with Old English “beorht”, whence comes “bryht” and thereby “bright”. “Beorht” in Old English was later shortened to “Bert” and was often used as a suffix in names like Albert, Athelbert, Egbert, et cetera, so to avoid all this pronunciation confusion, one could simply refer to Bjartur by his English cognate name:
"Oh....hello, ladies." Username: LiteraryCatMan
“Oh….hello, ladies.” Username: LiteraryCatMan

Disclaimer: I take no credit for the kid’s head. He had it when he emerged from the womb. Credit goes to his Designer and to Jack, for all the study and research that led to his acquisition of linguistic knowledge. It’s a beautiful mind, in spite of his mortal mother. It’s just Jack.

Wintertime – Living is Easy

In honor of National Heart Month, and drawing inspiration from my new buddy Tombee Taker who just re-blogged his BlogFestivus post (http://shoutsfromtheabyss.wordpress.com/2014/02/09/blogfestivus-day-nine-and-to-all-a-good-night-2/), I’m throwing this one back out there into the blogosphere.

Beth Bates

winter is easyApproaching the six year anniversary of the 95 percent blockage in my 38 year-old lower anterior descending artery, I’m still counting my blessings. Happy to be alive, that’s what I am. I snuggle longer, stress less, laugh more, eat dessert first, kiss my sleeping kids — all that jazz. But: I miss shoveling snow!

At the end of a week in the hospital recovering from my freak heart attack, the doctor sent me home with a list of activities and corresponding time frames when I would be allowed to return to them. “Walk a block – one week. Light house work – two weeks. Climb stairs – three weeks. Have sex – four weeks. Shovel snow – NEVER.”

Indiana was blessed with a lovely snow storm last night. Balm to my soul. Anyone who knows me knows I didn’t leave Colorado in my rearview mirror seven years ago. It hangs…

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Writer’s Block Ain’t No Thang

it hurts

Writer’s block is bullocks. That’s what I always thought. Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block, that’s what this guy taught me—along with the discipline of writing daily. And also, carpenters don’t wait for a muse, they just pick up the hammer, the nail, and pound. Writer’s block, I have always been convinced even before this guy confirmed it, is a pet habit of the indolent. I never had it. I loved to write. Love to write. Restraint might have been a good thing, actually, healthier for family relationships, back when I was churning out the prose word after boundary-free word. I was never blocked. But then. But-

But then—

Or maybe it is a thing.

Or maybe I’m lazy.

Or maybe I’ll have to go back to the 30-minute limit.

Those Christians. And These Strip Clubs.

From Beth Bates: Here’s the deal. Indy-based social justice magazine World Next Door deploys micro-cadres of talented photographers and writers each year to report on injustice throughout the world in order to raise awareness among us entitled folks tucked all cozy and tight in our top 1% bubbles. I’m proud to call the writer of this post my buddy not just because of her skillful, effortlessly winsome way with a pen (which really, at times, can tend to infuriate self-conscious MFA-writer-me) but also the clarity and power with which her content challenges readers. Brooke has a gift for throwing down the gauntlet while making readers laugh, cry and fist-pump the air. (Check out her fist pumping in Nepal post when you’re done with this one. And if you have an iPad, why not download a World Next Door while you’re at it?) Strippers, cupcakes, and no-strings love: Vegas, baby.


*This post was written while on assignment with World Next Door: a digital social justice travel magazine. Check out our website (www.worldnextdoor.org) for more information and download our most recent issue! This blog became an excerpt of this feature story our Las Vegas magazine issue about The Cupcake Girls, published in February 2014.


Well. We’re going on a cupcake-delivering-strip-club-run tomorrow. Jeff and I will stay in the car, of course. The point of all of this cupcaking is to build relationships, and bringing a couple of eager new photojournalists into the clubs just to see what happens, outside the context of relationship, sort of turns it into a side-show.  Plus, you have to serve on another Cupcake Girls committee for 90 days first, which we haven’t done. I guess “Eating Cupcakes” is not one of their other service areas, anyway. Blast!

That said, our second week has been…

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It’s Not Flashy, It’s Not the Himalayas Or Vegas; BUT Giving Back (and not) Can Happen Here and Small

I started writing these thoughts as an entry for a Thanksgiving season “giving back” essay contest my MFA program was hosting, but when I missed the deadline (over dread of rejection) I decided to make it mine.

Cupcake Girls
More on Cupcake Girls

Last month my girlfriend Brooke passed a few nights holed up in a Katmandu apartment, praying and fist pumping against injustice, ticking down the niggling hours her husband spent in Nepal brothels with prostitutes the age of my 9th grade daughter. He and two men from an organization called Tiny Hands* were there to gather evidence via interviews—and used condoms, when they could got their hands on them, yes-you-read-that-right—for local authorities to use in the prosecution of sex trafficking perpetrators. Brooke and Jeff are taking a year away  from their real jobs as social worker and physical therapist to travel the world writing and photographing for a social justice travel magazine—first to Rwanda, then Cambodia, Nepal, Vegas and Cuba.

Kind of kicks the shit out of the cans of creamed corn and kidney beans I plunked into a grocery bag and placed on my front porch for a local church to pick up for their food drive a few Sundays ago.

And then some little girl featured on Christian radio, Gracie, just five years old, knocks me down. She got it in her mind after watching Cinderella or some such shoe-related fairytale that she wanted to collect 67 pairs of shoes for children whose parents can’t afford them. She handily exceeded her goal to the tune of 80 pairs to donate to this organization that exists to shod “orphan souls” around the world.

Kind of makes my one shoebox a year stuffed with underwear and crayons for Samaritans Purse to send as Christmas gifts to kids across the ocean look anemic, flaccid, half-hearted.

DIY bookshelf makeover
The Boy’s DIY Book Shelf

The same week I heard the shoe story on the radio, I stopped by Menards for supplies for a thesis-avoiding DIY project restoring a couple dated bookshelves, one for my son’s extensive book-and-stuff collection and one for my office. On my way out carrying a bag stuffed with multiple, unnecessary cans of paint and primers in various colors, I passed a cashier dragging a Volkswagen-sized box labeled “Wrapped New Toys.” Customers invited to donate new toys to kids in need took me back ten years: When my kids were little, the week before Christmas I’d have scan the toy room for toys they no longer played with, intending to teach them the value of sharing (and, conveniently, to make room in the clutter for their new booty due the 25th). We’d wipe down discarded cars, Barbies, dinosaurs, books and building blocks, wrap them in festive paper and bows, and haul them down Christmas Eve night and leave them outside the front door of the Hispanic church. That was fun.     It now strikes me as presumptuous, and maybe even a little condescending. Our hearts were in the right place, but I’m sure it was more fun for us to play Santa than for the church secretary to be burdened with schlepping the heavy box inside (or to the dumpster, because how on earth would the gifts be disbursed or trusted to be safe?).

In an interview I read a few years back, Tom Hanks (or, I don’t know, maybe it was Billy Crystal) said the key to a strong marriage is to out-give each other, to out-generous your spouse. If every person in town would apply this principle to his or her sphere of influence—the gas station attendant beleaguered by lottery customers, the downsized mid-level management guy slinging fries since the banks ruined the economy, or even the neighbor across the street who never wants to wave back at you—what kind of sweetness would it lend to our lives? What kind of heaven on earth would we create if we out-gave the people who get under our skin and those we love, or those we love who get under our skin?


Which makes me think about the idea of applying the Out-Give-Your-Spouse thing to the greater world, but in reverse. As in, not giving back the garbage dumped into the laps of our experience. A Twitter acquaintance  recently posted, “I wonder if Saab comes in a doesn’t-tailgate-me model,” to which I replied, “BMWs too.” What is it with import drivers, like the BMW that always seems to tailgate me down my own street on its way to its more affluent cul de sac?? I suppose they feel they’re entitled because, well, they have created a world in which they are. They’ve worked for it. It chaps my hide, hard, to be tailgated in my Toyota minivan by a shiny, spendy import (Mercedes drivers seem to show more consideration, however), but then I find myself doing the same thing to the timid Ford Focus driver creeping through the roundabouts that clog my city’s avenues. I growl from behind the tan vinyl wheel of my middle class vehicle, and snark, “C’mooon, man, drive!” I try not to cuss. I don’t even notice that I’m trailing closely, and for me it has nothing to do with entitlement but everything to do with impatience and bad manners. My own. And then I notice the silver headed driver and feel guilt pelt my stomach. And I think, B, how bout not giving back once in awhile?

So this week, three weeks from Thanksgiving, my Nepal sex traffic fighting friend and her husband are headed to Vegas for their next mission: helping and reporting on Cupcake Girls, an organization that shows God’s love by offering cupcakes (and other services, including medical, financial, dental assistance) to women who work in strip clubs and leaving tracts and judgment for other so-called Christians. Her blog post about the Cupcake Girls pricks me with a question: What will I be doing to show God’s love during the three weeks they’re in and out of seedy joints? In between dipping in and out of O’Malias for dinner stuffs, buying presents, painting furniture, obsessing over dust and décor in my home, and baking pumpkin pies, maybe I can look for small ways to give back and NOT to give back.

I’m just not in a position in the current stage of my life to afford, in time or money, the grand gestures. But that doesn’t take me off the hook to invoke a little heaven on earth, to give back blessings—of friendship, kindness, hospitality, generosity—with which my family and I have been embarrassingly showered. Even without the freedom to donate weeks and months of time or loads of money, it is possible to open my eyes to ways in which I can out-give my family and people in my community. Brainstorm:


  • Bake a loaf of spice bread and walk over to the widow across the street.
  • Make a little extra soup and take it to the nutty neighbors in ill health, the ones with the frequent visits from cop cars and fire trucks.
  • Place a smile in my voice with an incompetent customer service person on the other end of my phone call.
  • Offer a kind word to a bag boy.
  • And how easy is it to throw into the shopping cart cans of veggies or bags of beans when you see “10 for $10” and drop it all off at a food bank or the Methodist church on the corner? (All Methodist churches have food banks, don’t you know.)


  • Choose to rag a little less on my kids for their messy bathroom and comment a little more often on all they do to make me proud, appreciating a little more the ways in which they lighten our home with youthful abandon.
  • Instead of, “Your room is out of control,” say to my creative daughter, “The fact that you’ve spent so many hours practicing guitar really shows in the quality of your playing, Grace. You sound amazing.”
  • Or instead of saying to Mr. Bates, “Would you please squeeze out the wet sponge instead of leaving it in the bottom of the sink to rot?” try, “Honey, I feel really grateful to have a partner who is so helpful in the kitchen. I’m aware not many husbands pick up a dish sponge let alone use one on dirty pans.”
  • Pray for the guy in the BMW riding my back bumper.
  • You know. That sort of thing.

All in all, a long, meandering way of saying: Give back good stuff to the extras and main characters in your life story; harness and trash the bad stuff and negativity doled out or spoken into your life, which you might be leaching out without realizing it.

*Click for more information on Tiny Hands International.

To read the social justice travel magazine for which friend Brooke reports and photographs, click World Next Door.