Thursday, June 18, 2015

On Being Not Black

I have used words in this essay that I would never use in normal conversation, but if we are going to HAVE this conversation, they need to be said.

I am three, and we have just moved into our first house in a new neighborhood. The doorbell rings, and a woman on the other side offers my mom a piece of paper. The next Monday, my mom drops me off at a church for Vacation Bible School, along with my two friends, Denny and Robyn. When she arrives to pick us up, my VBS teacher says in a booming voice through the car window, “YOU MUST BE LEIA’S MOM!” It’s obvious because we are the only white children at an all-black Baptist church.

I am five, and I am visiting my dad at the Safeway produce warehouse where he drives a forklift. We are in the lunchroom, and his friend, Marvin, is laughing and telling stories. He’s enormous and darker than any human I’ve ever seen with bright pink lips. His hands are like frisbees but so gentle when he touches my arm. I go home and draw a picture of his face and fill up the whole page with his football shaped head.

I am seven, and we are attending a new church in the suburbs. One of my first friends is Rachelle. She’s wears her hair in puffy braids. She comes over after church and plays in the sprinkler in my backyard with me.

I am eight, and I am playing tag. I’m running after my friend, Leslie, who is always so much faster than me. I reach out and grab her ponytail, and it comes off in my hand.

I am ten. I go to a prestigious private school in OKC. My friends, Teryl and Jasmine, decide we are just like TLC—Teryl is T-Boz, I am Left-Eye, and Jasmine is Chilli.

I am eleven, and it is Christmas Eve. My grandpa is telling a story about a man he worked with at the Pet Milk plant—one of the hardest working men he’s ever known, a Negro. My Grandma corrects him, “I don’t think it’s okay to say Negro, Leonard. It’s black or African-American.” She looks to my mom for assurance.

I am twelve, and my mom is telling me a story about when she was younger, about how there were only two black families in her town growing up, the Starks and the Clarks. She tells me about how angry she would get when her brother, a police officer, would talk about arresting dirty niggers or tell jokes about buying a nigger for a nickel.

I am fourteen, and I am reading To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time.

I am fifteen, and a boy from my church says he is going to “drop the Cosby kids off at the pool,” and I say nothing when I realize he means he’s going to the bathroom to poop.

I am sixteen, and a white boy at our predominantly white high school in a suburb of Oklahoma City known for white flight in the ‘70s, stands up in a school assembly and announces that he’s wearing his nigger-kicking boots.

I am nineteen, and I work at Red Lobster as a waitress. During a break, I sit in the smoking section with a girl named Carrie. She has blonde hair and tan skin, and she smokes Capris. She says flat out, “I won’t serve niggers.” When I ask her why, she says that she hates them. When I ask her why again, she says that her first job was at The Buckle in the mall, and one night, she left work, got in her car, and a huge ass nigger motherfucker had crawled in her backseat while she was at work. He told her to pull the car over and then raped her on the side of the road.

I am twenty-six, and we are living in Charleston, SC because my husband is stationed at the Air Force base. We need to buy a new car, so we head to the Toyota dealership. During the test drive, the dealer says to my husband, “You ever shop at that Kmart? You shouldn’t. Owned by a bunch of niggers.”

I am twenty-seven, and I am in a Sunday school class. The leader is a pillar of the community, a white man in his seventies, life-long southerner. He says of the upcoming election, “If Obama gets elected, we better be ready and loaded for when they riot.”

I am twenty-seven, and in another Sunday school class, a white woman in her sixties makes the point that the Bible doesn’t actually say slavery was wrong.

I am twenty-nine, and my white friend Natalie tells me a story. She was taking her daughter’s friend home from school, and a young black man in a t-shirt and running shorts was jogging in place at the intersection. When she waved at him to let him know it was okay to cross, the five-year-old girl said, “Miss Natalie, you shouldn’t wave at that man. Black people are scary.”

I am thirty-one, and I mourn the loss of Trayvon Martin as I watch the story unfold. My boys wear hoodies every day. I am living in Olympia, WA where there are distinctly so few black people that I can’t believe a place like this actually exists. The next day, I overhear a conversation at the public library between two women whose children are enjoying story time, and I hear the word “post-racial” for the first time coming from the mouths of women who never actually interact with anyone who is not like them.

I am thirty-four. I am weary. I can’t engage on social media because it leaves me in tears. Nine people were shot in a house of worship because of the color of their skin. It’s June 18, 2015, but it feels like September 15, 1963. And as much as I want to stand up, speak out, do something—I feel paralyzed by the repeating narrative that is playing out on news stations and social media—the same damn conversation we’ve been having my entire life. The same damn conversation we’ve been having my mother’s entire life. I’d love to end with some words of hope, but I don’t have any. Frankly, I am just so damn tired of having a conversation full of empty words.

So, instead, I offer my story in an effort to encourage others to tell theirs. Racism is real and alive and as deadly as ever. These more recent stories are not surprises—they are exactly what I expect from a nation of people in complete denial about our heritage and history. They are exactly what I expect from a people unwilling to lay down their boxing gloves for one minute to realize that we are not supposed to be fighting each other. More people are dead. More people are going to die tomorrow. And the day after that. And the day after that. And it’s our fault—all of us. I am tired, friends, and I can’t stop crying, and I am so, so angry and sad—at the circumstances—and at the fact that I don’t have the answers.

My thoughts are with the people of Charleston, SC today, a place we called home for six years. May you find peace and solace in the arms of friends who are grieving with you.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

New York, New York! Part 2

I wrote a part 1 about my time at the SCBWI conference in NYC, so I guess that necessitates a part 2. If you don’t have time to read this whole thing, here’s a summary: either great things are going to happen, or I’m going to die because my brain explodes.

So, first a note about the conference itself—everything I attended fell into three categories: critique, industry information, and inspiration. Some of the things fell into more than one category.

Some things that surprised me in a good way:

  1. Many of the agents and editors were way more approachable than I expected. There is definitely a prevailing thought that industry insiders are aloof and too busy to smile. Not true at all. Some of them were less approachable, but it came off more as personality type, not ivory tower snootiness.
  2. Some of the authors I have stalked idolized read have no idea how famous they are, or at the very least, fame seems to have had less of an effect on them than other “celebrities.” (On a related note, it must be exhausting being that nice to so many weird fangirly people.)

Some things that surprised me in a bad way:

  1. A disturbing number of people like to eat bagels+lox+capers at 8:30 in the morning.
  2. No one offered to publish my book on the spot. (I MEAN, IT’S BRILLIANT.)

Okay, just kidding. I’m not surprised that no one offered to publish my book. That’s not how these things work. But seriously, people. What is up with the lox and capers thing?

NOT breakfast despite what this blogger and many others believe. Gross.
So, what now?

Well, I have this book, and I think it’s a really good book. Based on the information I gleaned from sessions about writing, critiques with agents and editors, and panels, I think my book is ready for the market for three main reasons.

  1. The market is begging for diversity. (See #WeNeedDiverseBooks on Twitter.) My book is set in Ghana and Togo and chronicles the relationship between two Ghanaian girls and two American boys who are visiting them. I am relatively knowledgeable about what is on the shelves for children—I’ve spent half my life sitting in the children’s section of bookstores and libraries done extensive research about what is out there for kids re: stories about Africa, and I think there is room for my book. In our house, we’ve read picture books like I Lost My Tooth in Africa by Penda Diakite and Baba Wague Diakite (set in Mali) and Boundless Grace by Mary Hoffman and Caroline Binch (set in Gambia). I’m familiar with what the middle grade world has to offer re: African stories, and it is overwhelmingly stories about Egypt and South Africa. Anthony Horowitz (who was a pretty dynamic speaker at the conference) set one of his Alex Rider books in Kenya. I have yet to find a successful middle grade novel set in Ghana and/or Togo (please let me know if you know of one because I’d like to read it!). There are other great books out there about Africa, but as I have said before, Africa is a continent made up of many diverse countries/people groups, and I’m on a personal mission to stop this nonsense where we talk about Africa as one big ambiguous place.
  2. The second thing I heard that comes as no surprise is that agents and editors are looking for something “brilliant and original.” Here’s the truth about writing—we’re all writing the same story over and over and over again. There are only really about five themes that get tossed around and spit-shined into something “new.” My book is about family and friendship and traveling. It’s about breaking down stereotypes and personal biases after being exposed to new information. It’s about a clash of cultures so to speak, but I attempt to offer balance in perspectives through multiple narrators. This isn’t a story about people from the West traversing the “dark continent”—that’s been done far too many times (and is frankly offensive), and our world is ready for nuance. I believe my book provides a fresh take; it’s a story that needs to be told.
  3. Jordan Brown, senior editor for HarperCollins Children’s said in his “Seven Rules for Writing Middle Grade” session that there aren’t actually any rules. There are some significant suggestions based on what the industry tends to publish, but the overwhelming theme of his talk was “You can do anything you want, as long as it works.” For every “convention” out there that tells me what not to do, I can find you an example of a book that defies that convention. Don’t start a book with dialogue—oops, Charlotte’s Web. Narrators can’t be dead—oops, The Lovely Bones and Before I Fall and Thirteen Reasons Why. Middle grade MUST be completely plot-driven—oops, Kwame Alexander just won the Newbery for his book The Crossover, and the plot is tertiary to the character development/family dynamic and the beautiful verse in which it’s written. I’ve taken some risks with my book—it’s set in Africa; it has multiple narrators; it relies heavily on characters over plot (not that the plot is lacking, but it lacks some of the BOOM POW action/crazy twists/comedy of errors plot elements that are found in much of what is being published in middle grade right now). Bottom line: I still think it works, and I think it works well enough to start querying agents.

My current plan of action is this: 

  1. Make more lists because this post does not have enough lists.
  2. Spend this week going over all my notes/business cards/handouts from the conference.
  3. Spend the next two weeks working on tightening the beginning of the book and doing a major revision of the last two-thirds of the book (while balancing family/Somebody’s Mama/sub jobs).
  4. Attend one more conference in March, and then spend the rest of the month querying agents.

It’s an odd feeling sitting on this kind of energy. One minute, I feel like a cast member from Girl, Interrupted and the next I feel like Hermione punching Draco in The Prisoner of Azkaban—I, of course, am Hermione, and Draco is all the serious doubts and insecurities telling me my book sucks and I should just go get a job at Burger King.

So, that’s all I’ve got right now. I’m working closely with a couple of beta-readers who are picking apart my book line by line, and I’m sitting down every day to work. Wish me luck!

Friday, February 6, 2015

New York, New York! Part 1

Traveling alone is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Traveling alone to NYC for a writing conference—well now, get on back. I realized in sitting down to write this post that I essentially started blogging because I was inspired by a trip to NYC (which you can read here and here and here because it’s three parts and ridiculously long because I didn’t understand how blogging works). So, this feels all sorts of full circle right now. 

I’m writing this post for my mom, who is nearly bursting because she needs to know everysingledetailabouteverythingrightthissecond, and for Sarah, who wants to know why I’m not posting all over Facebook. 

I left Belleville Thursday afternoon via Metro to fly from St. Louis to New York City. I settled in with a book (The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau for the sake of anyone interested) for the hour-long ride. On the very next stop, a man got on, sat directly in front of me, and proceeded to pen the great American novel via text WITH ALL OF THE SOUNDS ON HIS PHONE TURNED ON. All of them. Oh, and it was a flip phone, like the very first cell phone I ever had a million years ago, so every single button was deep deep deeping. Forty-five minutes into the ride, I developed a tick and used every ounce of energy in my body to not grab the phone out of his hands and throw it out the doors right before the lady voice said “Please stand clear, doors closing” at the next stop.

Luckily, he got off before I had a chance, and at that stop, another man got on and sat on the opposite side of the aisle two rows in front of me and immediately started barfing all over the train floor. The rocking of the train and angle of the floor spread his reverse liquid lunch in a ten-foot radius.

So, um, rough start.
HOWEVER, I breezed through security (already checked in and carrying on) to find my flight delayed. I got out my mental juicer and made quick use of those lemons (or in this case limes) by enjoying a giant margarita while I waited.

The flight was uneventful, and more importantly, my seatmate was THE PERFECT TRAVEL COMPANION—and by perfect, I mean the only conversation we had the entire flight was when I said, “That’s me” when I pointed at my window seat, so he would stand up for me to scoot by. I take that back—he made a cooing sound (really, like a happy baby) as we were landing and pointed out the window as we passed New York City At Night. We smiled dopily together at the Statue of Liberty, and he cemented the fact that he was my people. 

By the time I got to my hotel, it was almost 10 o’clock. Let me tell you—I can not say enough about how awesome this hotel is. The concierge looks like Bo Jackson—like this Bo Jackson from 1986. I have no idea what 2015 Bo Jackson looks like.
The manager on duty called me over and then apologized for the smell and told Bo to tell the potheads outside the main door to move on down the road. I told her, “No worries. I just lived in Washington state for three years. If anything, it makes me nostalgic for home.”

Okay, wait—let me go back to why the hotel is awesome. So, my “pod” is teeny tiny and so efficient, and if I had a mini-fridge, I could just move in here full-time.
I'm standing on my bed in this picture. Otherwise, the selfie
looked like a floating head due to my short stature.
I closed these blinds because I was feeling a little Rear Windowish.
Downstairs is this hip restaurant/bar called Salvation Taco, and there are jars of peppers and Jesus statues everywhere. I told the waiter I was starving but needed something that wouldn’t give me indigestion because I’m an old lady I needed a snack. He suggested the al carbon quesadillas but warned me that they were a little spicy. Aaaaaaaaand, I ordered another margarita because I’m on vacation, and nobody is the boss of me. (P. S. New York spicy is not spicy. It’s weeny crybaby spicy, but the quesadilla+tomatillo salsa was still amazeboobs.)
Snapped a picture at the last minute because everyone else
in the restaurant was doing it, and I was trying to fit in.
So many holy pepper jars.
After inhaling my snack, I inched my way out of the restaurant through the throng of beautiful people (men in their late 20s with light brown dress shoes and pocket squares and women with Brazilian blow outs) to make it back up to my room. 

I prepared for the next morning by laying out my clothes and lining up all my toiletries in my cutesie little bathroom and crawled into bed. I called my boys to say goodnight and then flipped on the TV. 
Allow me a moment to love them more than everything.
After scanning the late night drivel, I turned it off and willed myself to sleep. Unsuccessful. What if I came on the wrong day, and no one is there tomorrow? (Turn on phone; check email; confirm dates.) What if I take out my pages at the roundtable and find out I printed the wrong pages? (Get out of bed; check pages; place pages back in bag.) What if there’s a fire in the middle of the night, and in my haste to not be burned alive, I run out into the frigid New York night in nothing but these sleep pants and this flimsy nearly see-through t-shirt I brought because it’s sooooooooooooooo comfortable but now all the hip guests in this fancy hotel will see my old lady nipples? (Get out of bed, pull suitcase out from under the bed; pull out sweater just in case.)

Somewhere between ridiculously late and ridiculously early, I fell asleep and woke back up and dressed in what I thought would say, “Hey, no big deal. I’m a writer, and I take this very seriously, but I also like to be comfortable, and we writer types who do this all the time know how cold these hotel ballrooms can be, amIright?” I regret to inform you that I did not take a picture of said outfit, so you’ll just have to take my word(s) for it.

The conference went like this:

7:45 Smile and introduce myself. “You need to go to the writer check in. This is for illustrators.”
7:45:30 Smile and introduce myself. “Registration opens at 8:00.”
7:47 Stand in the bathroom taking down and putting up my very casual top knot over and over and over and over in an effort to look effortless.
7:50 Get a piece of pound cake and a black coffee and stand near people I don’t know hoping they talk to me.
7:51 Talk to Lois, David, and Jodie and burn my mouth with coffee.
8:00 Be fourth person in line to get packet. Organize the million sheets of paper and find my place at table #9. Meet my tablemates and panic because I’m the only one not wearing purple.
8:30 Sigh with relief when other tablemates arrive and are not wearing purple.
9:00 Stop chatting and listen to panel of real live human agents discussing queries.
10:15 Round table with real live human agent and seven other participants. Receive feedback. Give feedback. Feel generally in love with the world.
12:30 Business lunch with Becky Straw, co-founder of The Adventure Project, current partner for Somebody’s Mama’s quarterly project. Forget to take a picture with her, but it totally happened.
1:45 Second round table with real live human editor. Halfway through, fidget with earring, lose earring back. During break, climb under table to find it, aiming backside at said editor. Give up finding earring back because realize look like insane person. At end of session, editor finds earring back under her chair and graciously hands it back.
3:45 Tweet at editor apology for climbing under table and put phone away in time to listen to panel of real live editors talk about manuscript revisions.
5:00 Pack up bag and feel generally in love with the world.

Part of me really wanted to find a cohort for dinner, but most of me was exhausted from interacting with real live humans for nine hours and fifteen minutes in one stretch, so I headed to dinner alone at the Italian joint across from my cutesie hotel. I had pinot grigio and fettucine alfredo (basically the adult version of grape juice and mac&cheese) and walked back across the street to prepare for Saturday’s festivities.

I still have two days at this conference, so stay tuned for another installment of “It’s been so long since I blogged regularly that I forgot that you can’t write pieces this long and expect people to read them.” 

In summary at the halfway point of this getaway, I can’t believe this is my life.

Monday, January 26, 2015

On Writing (for Real)

Nearly two and a half years ago, I entered a new phase of life—one in which I gave myself permission to write with a purpose. I’d been blogging to stay sane (like so many other mamas of littles), but I found myself looking at five hours a week with both of my children in school, and I was ready to be a real writer.

Well, as life would have it, I did do some writing, but not nearly as much as I wanted, and then everything went topsy turvy when I found myself homeschooling and running a non-profit project, which took all of my waking brainpower hours.

Then, this past summer, almost two years after vowing I was going to be a real writer, I was in a completely new phase of life—with both children in school all day every day, living in a new state where I had very few true commitments or friends who required face time.

For those of you who have been following my tiny saga on social media, let me just say THANK YOU for all of your kind words and virtual fist bumps as I updated you on my progress. I’m not vain enough to think that you’re all lying awake at night wondering how soon my book will be finished, but I do know that my village has carried me up the mountain with texts and phone calls and snail mail, as well as the barrage of ‘likes’ every time I update my word count.

I realized somewhere along the way that I was posting word count updates, but I wasn’t really filling anyone in on content. So, for anyone who is interested in what this process has looked like for me thus far, here you go.

I committed to plopping my butt down for two hours five days a week. I wrote it on my to-do list every single day—8:30-10:30 WRITE. From mid-August to mid-November, I sat. There were a few days sprinkled in there when the piles of laundry won, and of course, there were a couple of days when life said, “Oops! You have a sick kid!" or "This appointment can only be scheduled in the morning.” But really—and this is HUGE—my butt was on the couch (or bed or chair) for about 91.5% of that scheduled time. A solid A-.

Just about every book on writing gives this as the first piece of advice—you have to have a schedule. Many of them also say viewing writing as an actual job and not a hobby is crucial to success. This is hard for me. Every job I have ever had has been paid by the hour or at the very least by tips. The idea that I could put hours and hours and hours of work into a project and never be compensated in any way gives me the tummy rumbles.

I mean, yes—writing is an art, a craft, a hobby, an outlet. And there is intrinsic worth and satisfaction, not to mention therapeutic benefits in putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). SURE. But when Scott and I came to the decision that I would take a gap year of sorts while both of our children are in school full-time before pursuing full-time employment (the kind with a guaranteed cash money check that comes every other Friday), it wasn’t so I could find myself.

I am not lost. I do not need to be found. I want to be a writer who sells books.


I began by writing essays about ALL THE THINGS. My goal was to write a memoir-ish book in the same vein as what I’d been blogging for several years. Creative non-fiction for adults has been my jam since grad school when I wrote a book about my time on the Mercy Ship off the coast of West Africa. It comes easily, and it’s one of my true loves.

My first true love, though, has always been writing for children. I wrote my first legitimate picture book in high school—a story about a little girl named Penelope who hates getting up for school in the morning (I can neither confirm nor deny the possibility of autobiographical content in this story). I have written bits of other picture books along the way.

So, when my adult non-fiction started feeling forced and unlovable, I fell into the loving arms of children’s lit and wrote a picture book called My Name is Elikem, based on one of our dear friends in Ghana. I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and found a local critique group to help me figure out if the book worked at all. The overwhelming response was, “THIS IS NOT THE WHOLE BOOK.”

The problem with that response is that picture books can only be so long, and the story people were asking me to tell was a longer one than would fit in 32 pages.  Someone—I don’t remember who, but I’m going to say it was my friend, Katie, because I love her—suggested I try to morph it into a middle grade novel.


This had never occurred to me, so I went home and stared at the screen for a few days trying to picture what that would look like. Over the next few weeks, an idea for a middle grade novel based on our travels to West Africa emerged like a group of old timey baseball players in a corn field. I started building, and it came.

I leave on February 5th for NYC, where I will present the first 500 words (gulp…) to a round table critique group including important-ish agent/publisher types. I’ll spend the rest of the weekend hobnobbing and trying not to stutter or draw too much attention to my nervous pit stains. This conference will be the first of its kind for me, and best case scenario, I’ll make some connections with people who can be guiding lights for me to figure out the best path for turning this book into a published book.

Again, thank you to everyone who has encouraged me thus far. Cross your fingers and say a prayer or do whatever else you do that I have the right words at the right time to convince the right people that this is the right book for right now.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Why It's Okay That I'm Not in the Top 7

Those of you who are friends with me on Facebook are overly aware that I’ve been competing in a competition to win a contest to travel to Rwanda with Noonday Style and International Justice Mission.  The top 7 will move on to the next round, and I ended the competition in 9th place.

Obviously, it’s disappointing.  This trip would have taken me to a country I’ve wanted to visit since I was a child.  I would have been able to network with some really great women about the issues Somebody’s Mama is working to address every day.  And don’t get me started on the feelings I have about the outpouring of obsessive-compulsive voting love that I’ve experienced throughout this process.  My village showed up in a major way, and that alone was worth being in this competition on a personal level.

So, what now?

Well, life.  In the midst of the flurry that was this week, I was still an Air Force wife waiting to hear back about when my husband might come home from deployment.  I was still a mom who got to feed and clothe and teach and snuggle two boys.  I was still half of Somebody’s Mama, working to finish out a maternity unit in Sierra Leone.  I was still a council member planning a spring stewardship fair at my church for this weekend.  I was still the daughter who got to fly in and surprise her mom at her retirement party.  All of those things happened while we were tap-tap-tapping away for votes on anything that would connect to the internet.

I shared this week—when I reached 8th for the first time—my thoughts on what would happen if I never moved up from 8th.

“…Because my heart is brimming, I'm questioning what happens if I never get past 8th place. What does any of this mean if this is as far as I get? So, in your honor, I have responded to every opportunity for kindness that has presented itself, keeping in mind the kindness that you have had for me this week.

TOGETHER, we shared pizza with a man whose sign said "Hungry." Together, we threw change into the fireman's boot for MDA. Together, we bought a Sophia the First DVD for a stranger in the line at Target whose card was declined (he hugged us and cried with us). Yesterday, we took leftover wedding centerpieces to my friend Erika's elderly neighbors. I wish that moment of watching our boys sharing fresh flower love with Carolyn (aged 102) could have been frozen in time. We did every single one of these things TOGETHER because I believe the love we take needs to equal the love we make.

I started counting up the number of people who have liked or shared the link and decided something should be done in your honor. I lost track at some point when the number went over 100, so I'm just going to round up and donate $150 to the Somebody's Mama maternity unit project on behalf of all this social media love. So, this morning, whether I move up or not, we are being love together, and I can love because you loved me first.”

And then, I DID move up from 8th.  In fact, this morning, I was still in 5th place when I woke up.  All day I watched as I fell further and further behind, baffled as person after person shared and voted in a frenzy.  In the end, I’m not going to say something stupid like “everything happens for a reason.”  The reason I didn’t get to 7th place is because other people got more votes than I did.  We tried our damnedest.  We really did.

We even made this awesome video that still makes me teary every time I watch.
I called on my village to rally, and rally you did.  And when the clock struck 11:59 (or 9:59 in the Pacific time zone where I am), people immediately started sending messages of encouragement.  Let me just tell you—I can die a happy woman after the nice things people have said during and after this competition.  I mean that—it was like a week long eulogy for which I didn’t have to die to hear.

So, THANK YOU again for all of it.  I blogged a million years ago about failure, and since then, I’ve been trying more and more things to get used to failing.  Maybe that sounds stupid, but I think it’s an important life skill to hone.  We’ve all heard the stories about how Michael Jordan’s high school coach cut him from the team and how Abraham Lincoln lost a gazillion elections before he became president.  Those guys turned out okay, so I’m pretty sure I will, too.

This whole thing started because they asked for storytellers to apply.  One thing I know about writing is that sometimes the best pieces go from good to great because of editing.  I have removed sentences, paragraphs, sometimes entire chapters to a make a story better, so that's what I think is happening here.  This chapter doesn't fit in my story, and my story will be better for it.

In the meantime, I’m excited to see how the rest of the competition unfolds and to continue following the work of International Justice Mission.  Excuse me while I go finish this maternity ward.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

On Being Human

Thursday mornings are my Sabbath.  I don't set an alarm, and I guard these hours from busyness with ferocity.  Most often, I do a little laundry, give the kids cereal, and hunker down with a book and/or internet reading I've been saving throughout the week.

I have to confess that the last two weeks I've been feeling a heaviness—one that comes and goes because I live with the curse/blessing of being unable to disconnect from sorrow—not the inner sorrow of being human but the bigger sorrow of being part of humanity (which I've found is actually the same thing).  

So as I scroll through the news stories about kidnapped schoolgirls and racist businessmen and death penalty debacles and D celebrity heroin overdoses, I have to stop and breathe and live with the tragedy.  It hurts because as much as I'd love to stay above the emotions that bubble to the surface with these headlines, I can't.  I don't have the ability to separate headline life from real life.


And that is a big but—I also feel an overwhelming sense of hope in that inexplicable way that happens when life is hard.  Let me just tell you about a few things that happened this week.

One of my kids in Togo posted a picture of a “photo de famille à CEHBED”—a photo of his family at the orphanage.  Did you get that?  HIS FAMILY.  Because our kids—orphans—are being loved and encouraged and brought up to believe they are part of a family—one with a mom and a dad and dozens of aunts and uncles—and the siblings.  So many brothers and sisters.

And the moms and dads with pictures and videos of kids riding their bikes for the first time or singing in the talent show or telling jokes or falling asleep at the dinner table or sleeping next to the dog or throwing toys in the toilet—you know, doing all the things that kids do.  It’s not minor minutia.  These things matter—because these parents are recognizing the joys (and challenges) of parenthood and inviting us to be a part of their story.

And the petitions we can sign to affect change in Washington and around the world, the invitations to write to our congresspeople, those activist friends of mine who take time out of their rat wheel living to say, “Wait just one minute—I won’t let this happen on my watch!”  God bless the activists for waking the rest of us up.

Let’s talk about the devastation from natural disasters, but let’s talk more about the clothing, food, and water drives.  Let’s talk about neighbors helping neighbors—about boyfriends rescuing their girlfriends from falling walls and children found alive in the rubble because rescue workers have gone without sleep for days.  Let’s talk about beauty from ashes, mourning and dancing hand in hand.

And how about the people deciding today is the day to make the big step in the right direction?  The new house in a new city because of a new job.  The writing workshop that marks the start of a new dream.  The first AA meeting—or the first in a long time.  

And can we talk about all the new babies that were born in the last two weeks?  So many—and I cry EVERYSINGLETIME someone posts those gooey, wrinkly pictures with their private parts waving hello to the world because even though they don’t know it yet, these mamas and daddies have just unleashed world-changing potential into the universe in the form of a wiggly, crying bundle of flesh and blood.

And the pictures of all the fighters—the ones with bald heads and puffy faces and equipment in their noses.  My loved ones, your loved ones, our friends’ loved ones—and we’re reading their blogs and raising money for their care by running races and shaving our heads and celebrating small victories in their fight because they’re OURS—they belong to us, and no matter what’s ahead we need the world to know that we’ll be right by their side the whole way.

And allow me a moment to reflect on the work I’m doing right now—my heart is shattered by the statistics about women and babies dying in Sierra Leone.  My friend, Gay, who visited the hospital where we’re trying to build a maternity unit said, “I saw more women and children die in seven days than I did in my more than twenty year career as a nurse.”  It’s enough to make me double over in physical pain, bringing me to my knees in prayer.


More than sixty people have said NO.  We won’t let this be their story—OUR story—we can do better. And we’re doing better.  Together.  Because that’s the best way to live.

So, today, on my Sabbath, I’ll be watching my kids ride their bikes through the window as I fold a basket of laundry and build a maternity ward.  In the immortal words of the prophet, Ben Harper, “I’ve felt pleasure, and I have felt pain, and I know now that I can never be the same.”

Namaste, friends.

Monday, February 24, 2014

To Go to Togo 2014

In 2003, when I was but a wee lass, I hopped a ship to West Africa and found pieces of my heart I didn’t know were missing.  I was young, unmarried, without children, and idealistic as anyone.  Eleven years later, I’m humbled to think of the person I’ve become because of the relationships I’ve built with my Togolese friends.  Since my initial trip with Mercy Ships, I have returned twice: once to introduce my dad to Togo and then six years later to introduce my husband and firstborn.  When I started telling people that we are returning to West Africa in March, I was met with a myriad of responses.  

From friends who have known us a long time, things like:

Wow, that’s exciting!  
What are you doing this time?
How can we help?

From people who haven’t known us as long:

You’re taking your children WHERE?
Where’s Togo?

The whole story is a long one (hey…wait…maybe someone should write a book about it…), but I’m going to do my best to sum it all up in less than a thousand words.

When I returned to the United States after my stint with Mercy Ships in 2003, I had a plan to help a pastor who was caring for 77 orphans who lived in his front yard—a monumental task to begin.  Within months, we’d procured funding to cover the costs of food, education, clothing, and basic medical care.  

Along the way, we’ve partnered with Pastor Celestine and the children of CEHBED (an acronym for something really long and French) to create a safer, more sustainable living environment for the children.  (You can see the building we helped build in this video shot in 2011 by members of a partner church in Bristol.)  Many of our kids have gone on to attend technical schools to learn how to be mechanics and seamstresses.  The twelve-year plan has included building the new building, continuing to provide for basic needs, and helping them start small enterprise businesses to provide a sustainable income for the orphanage.

Aside from our work with CEHBED, we have partnered with two other pastors: Tomety, in the remote village of Badoughbe, and James, the leader of a fishing community in Lome.  Both pastors run sustainable businesses that employ members of their communities and have facilitated micro-loan programs for widows and single mothers.  

In rural Badoughbe, we partnered to build the first school in the community and to start a poultry farm that will make the school self-sustaining.  In the fishing village, we helped Pastor James build a church, which serves as a true community center for many things, where they had been meeting in an open air hut that was vulnerable to the elements.

You may have noticed that I used some form of the word “sustain” several times, and that wasn’t on accident.  When we talk about “changing lives” or “changing the world,” our organization believes in empowering people to do the hard work of changing their communities.  4HIM has a history of giving a hand up, rather than a hand out to our neighbors and friends, and we have learned that when we approach giving in this light, everyone learns, everyone feels loved, and everyone wins.

My family of four has committed $8,750 to our trip this time around.  We’ve saved a good portion of that ourselves and asked some of our family members to consider giving us the gift of this experience as a family for Christmas this year instead of giving actual gifts.  On the outside, that might sound like a sacrifice, but we consider spending this money an investment in pure joy.

In the past, when I or other friends have traveled to Togo, we have experienced situations that were so simple to solve.  For example, we met a woman whose mode of transportation was two buckets.  She was missing legs, and her system was to sit on one bucket, drag her second bucket in front of her, and then hoist herself to the second bucket with her arms.  She did this repeatedly to get anywhere she needed to go.  For $35, her life was changed when some team members purchased a wheel chair for her.

At other times, we’ve shown up to find that the children of the orphanage needed new mattresses because of a bed bug infestation or new shoes for school, but Pastor Celestine did not want to ask for help, and we are able to meet these needs with a few hundred dollars.  When we do these things, we use money from our own pockets and from the general fund at 4HIM.  It’s the kind of giving that has immediate, tangible results.  Again, this is the kind of giving that equates with pure joy.

So, for those of our friends who have asked how you can help because you’ve been around long enough to know what great successes we’ve had, this is how you can help.  Please donate to 4HIM’s general fund by clicking on the link below.  

In the special requests section, type “Johnson Togo Trip” and every dollar will go toward these sorts of amazing, immediate needs we see along the way.  We have a couple of things in mind already—things that we believe will be a blessing to our friends in Togo.  
Modeling some gifts from our friends during our 2011 trip!

1. Our friend, Jamie (pictured third in line above) shared her desire that the CEHBED orphanage have a library.  She sent three popular picture books in French for me to pack in my suitcase.  My desire is that we can add to this library while we are there at a bookstore in Lome (buy local!).

2. While we visit Pastor James in the fishing village, we hope to visit as many neighbors as we can to give each family some rice and beans.  The village is made up primarily of widows and children, and we want to do something simple to make their day better.

3. When we visit Badoughbe, we will be helping with some of the planting and work around the poultry farm, and we are hoping to help them purchase some needed supplies and tools.

These are things we know we already want to do, and I know that we will come across more problems to solve along the way.  We would be honored if any of you would partner with us!  Thanks for reading our story, and thanks in advance for your support and prayers for traveling mercies.