Brit Bennett and ‘The Mothers’

With both of us now fully retired, my wife and I have spent more of our free time than ever burying our noses in books. In fact, Lori’s plowed through more novels and non-fiction works than I have in the past year or so.

We each gravitate to favorite authors and different topics, so it’s nice when we can introduce each other to a new voice.

That was the case recently when I followed her recommendation that I check out one of two books by Brit Bennett, a young African American writer who’s written two New York Times bestsellers: “The Mothers” (2016) and “The Vanishing Half” (2020).

I chose “The Mothers” — partly because I wanted to begin with the debut novel but also because I was drawn to parts of Bennett’s biography.

The author Brit Bennett.

She graduated from Stanford and earned a MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan, where I spent a year on sabbatical as a young reporter. Also, she was born and raised in Oceanside, California, a place I’ve come to know a little bit as it’s where my older sister and her husband live just north of San Diego. Oceanside has long been known as a military town, given its proximity to the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton, but in recent years has become more of a multiethnic tourist draw, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Sure enough, both Oceanside and Ann Arbor figure into the story of “The Mothers.” And Bennett’s voice is a refreshing one that leaves me wanting to read her second book and looking forward to her appearance in Portland early next year. She’s scheduled to speak in February as part of the Portland Arts & Lectures series and I’ve got a ticket. (Yay!)

In “The Mothers,” Bennett writes compellingly about two teenagers, Nadia and Aubrey, who come from opposite backgrounds and establish an unlikely friendship.

Nadia Turner is 17, brainy, beautiful and ambitious but also grieving from her mother’s recent suicide. She lives with her father, a stoic ex-Marine who donates his time and his truck to various community causes, but is quiet and emotionally unreachable. Nadia longs to get away from Oceanside, the only place she’s ever lived, and start school in the fall at the University of Michigan with visions of a career, international travel and new friends,

Aubrey Evans, her friend, is a nondescript outsider. She’s lived everywhere, following her mother as she moved with a succession of boyfriends from state to state, only to have things end the same way, with a breakup. Aubrey shows up one day at the Upper Room Chapel, an African American church, with nothing but a small handbag, not even a Bible. When the pastor asks who needs prayer, she rises from her seat and walks to the altar, crying in front of the congregation.

The girls become acquaintances, then friends, then constant companions and confidantes — except for one big secret.

Feeling vulnerable after her mother’s death, Nadia takes up with Luke, the local pastor’s son. She becomes pregnant and ends up having an abortion. This short-lived romance, if you want to call it that, happens before she becomes friends with Aubrey, and she reveals nothing about it to her.

Nadia goes off to college while Aubrey remains in Oceanside; she embraces Christianity, develops a relationship with Luke (yep, Nadia’s ex) and eventually marries him; she wants a child, but has trouble conceiving.

As the narrative plays out, Bennett raises one fraught subject after another. How do these young women deal with pregnancy and abortion, with romance and marriage, with trust and deceit? How do they pursue personal growth and establish their own version of independence? How do they handle family relationships, their own fraying friendship, and the judgments of their church community?

The latter, you see, refers to the book’s title. The Upper Room church is anchored by a group of older mothers — church ladies, if you will — who know all about the goings-on in town and aren’t shy about commenting on everyone else’s business. They certainly do so in the case of Nadia, extending their moral judgments to include her dead mother and taciturn father. Latrice Sheppard, the pastor’s wife (and, yes, Luke’s mother), is a leader in this regard.

The novel examines the breakdown in trust between Nadia and Aubrey, their efforts to repair the breach, and the impacts of choices they made as teens and as young adults.

Many aspects of the novel are autobiographical. In fact, Bennett was the same age as the protagonist, Nadia, when she began writing it, as she explains in this interview with The New York Times.

Bennett was barely 26 when “The Mothers” came out and even now is just 31. She writes beautifully, with great clarity and emotional intelligence. She not only captures the young women’s personalities and perspectives, conveyed through introspection and authentic dialogue, but also the geneational point of view of the older ladies, particularly the pastor’s wife. They too have faced racism in their lives, along with limited occupational and education opportunities, and narrow societal expectations that they would marry and become mothers. So why wouldn’t they, in bonding over the Bible, pass judgment on these two young Black women and even question their friendship.

“We tried to love the world,” one of those mothers recalls. “We cleaned after this world, scrubbed its hospital floors and ironed its shirts, sweated in its kitchens and spooned school lunches, cared for its sick and nursed its babies. But the world didn’t want us, so we left and gave our love to Upper Room. Now we’re afraid of this world. A boy snatched Hattie’s purse one night and now none of us go out after dark. We hardly go anywhere at all besides Upper Room. We’ve seen what this world has to offer. We’re scared of what it wants.”

“The Mothers” is an excellent book. Brit Bennett’s is an important new voice. I expect I will be reading more of her work for years to come.

Bowling with Mr. Bill

There were a lot of things that had to be set aside during the extended lockdown, and one of them was bowling.

Such a simple pleasure. So I’ve been glad to get back at it, thanks to a neighborhood friend named Bill, who takes on the weekly tasks of rounding up a few bowlers and then reserving the lanes at Milwaukie Bowl, a family-operated bowling alley since 1957.

Are we talking old school? Yes, we are.

It’s a 16-lane set-up with wall clocks that scream ’60s and indoor murals that invoke the style and spirit of Norman Rockwell.

Pre-COVID-19, I used to bowl every Monday night with a group of friends in a coed league. We’d play three games, share some beer, and play “bowling poker” on the side — two cards for a strike, one for a spare, and play your best hand from a half-dozen or more cards.

But when things shut down in March 2020 because of the virus, they really shut down.

Only when things began opening up slowly again this spring did I tag along with Bill to Milwaukie Bowl, which lies 10 miles away in suburban in Clackamas County.

Turns out Bill is quite the organizer and really dedicated to bowling every week. We start at 11 am and finish by 1 pm, typically getting in four games at the senior-friendly rate of $2.50 a game. Where else can you spend $10 and get that kind of return?

I met Bill last year when he became a regular at the afternoon gatherings at our local dog park. He doesn’t own a pet himself, but he walks regularly with a fellow dog owner and then joins our group for more conversation.

He typically wears a Nature Conservancy baseball cap but occasionally brings out another one with a logo of Mr. Bill, the hapless doll (“Ohhhnoooo!!!!”) made famous on “Saturday Night Live.”

Cracks me up every time.

***

But back to the bowling.

League bowling used to be somewhat competitive in that our team was striving for a high finish that would net us a nice cash prize based on our finish in the standings.

This iteration doesn’t have a whiff of that.

The cast of bowlers varies from week to week, so we may have as few as four or as many as eight. Depending on their availability, we may have one or two women in the group. Our scores don’t count and, frankly, I forget my mine by the next day. With absolutely nothing at stake, I think I’ve improved a bit or maybe just held steady. I used to average something like 145; now, I think I’m closer to 150. Then again, it’s easy to backslide. Yesterday, I topped out at 149.

I started bowling with Mr. Bill in late April, and it’s been a good routine approaching five months.

Whether I do well or whether I suck, I look forward to the mental break and physical activity that bowling brings. It’s an opportunity to socialize, even with a mask on, and gives me reason to look ahead to a time when I might play again in an organized league.

VOA 2021 meetup

VOA 2021 writers, from left: David Quisenberry, Lakshmi Jagannathan, Kristen Mira, Tim Akimoff, George Rede, Kathleen Bauer, Jennifer Brennock, John Killen and Eric Scharf. Not pictured: Nike Bentley, Eric Wilcox.

By George Rede

On a beautiful Saturday morning at a Portland brewpub, 20 friends and partners came together around shaded picnic tables and pitchers of beer to celebrate another year of fine writing and expanding friendships made possible by Voices of August.

It’s a familiar ritual and one that I’ve grown to value more with each passing year. 2021 marked the 10th iteration of the guest blogging project that began as something of an experiment in digital communication and has since evolved into something special — an online community that’s produced bonafide friendships.

And why not?

VOA is a rare oasis in a digital ecosystem that too often draws its oxygen from anonymous trolls and shrill diatribes. In contrast, Voices of August offers:

– A place to read well-written, thought-provoking essays.

– A place for civil conversation.

– A place to read elegant thoughts (and a few F-bombs too).

As the editor and publisher of this annual endeavor, I appreciate the time and effort each contributor puts into selecting a topic, writing an essay and then responding to others’ feedback. Often, the ensuing conversations are just as interesting as the original blog post.

It’s easy to see how trust builds and mutual respect takes root. And it’s a pleasure to see the expanding circle of contributors: This year we had people writing from six states (Oregon, Washington, California, Michigan, Ohio and Texas) and two foreign countries (England and Palestine).

Several participants told me they thought this year’s essays may have been the strongest group yet, with writers increasingly feeling comfortable about revealing more of themselves, more willing to share their hopes, doubts, anxieties and lessons learned from different experiences. I would agree.

My own thematic takeaways? They can be summarized mostly in a series of single words.

Celebration. Thanks to Kathleen Bauer for having the foresight to marry that tall, taciturn guy from Maine 40 years ago on August 1st.

Perspective. Thanks to Eric Scharf for putting us in that Uber car with him and two recent immigrants from the Dominican Republic and Afghanistan.

Courage. Thanks to Nike Bentley for showing us what it takes to complete nursing school online, during a pandemic, while raising two young daughters, with support from her husband.

Resilience. Thanks to Al Rodriguez, for prevailing in his battle against prostate cancer while looking forward to becoming a grandparent this fall.

Solitude. Thanks to Eric Wilcox, for taking us along in his kayak on his birthday on an early-morning outing on the Willamette River.

Passage of time. Thanks to Tammy Ellingson (“The hands of time”) and Tim Akimoff (“Forty-seven Augusts”) for giving meaning to the markers of our aging processes and travels in life.

***

But this summary isn’t about my take; it’s about yours — the faithful writers and readers who chose up to four favorite essays, based on criteria that you alone determined. From among so many wonderful essays on so many different topics, experiences and insights, there were six that resonated most strongly and rose to the top.

I was gratified to see that two of the most-favorited were written by “rookies” and absolutely tickled to see that all six came from non-journalists. Each winner gets a gift certificate to a bookstore.

In no particular order, the honorees are:

That we were together was a fluke. She was a stray who happened by one day, and one day I let her look around my house, and that was that. We were a team. It was the best move I ever made. She made me a better, kinder person, and her presence convinced me that I could choose to always treat someone with kindness, love and respect. I could prove worthy of anyone’s friendship and love.

  • Lynn St. Georges, “Unbroken.” A characteristically honest essay about taking responsibility for a devastating gambling addiction and realizing she had the power all along to rise above it.

The sensation of unbroken can only be described in one word – light. The sensation of unbroken is incredible. The realization of being unbroken after a decade of broken is calming relief, and gratitude.

  • Gil Rubio, ‘Thank you for joining us’. A touching narrative about dealing with loss during the pandemic – his job, the death of his brother and mom – and finding comfort in the words of his 97-year-old mother.

I miss talking to my Mom and hearing her Voice, her innocent-but-knowing sense of humor and her sweet laughter … I knew the pillars would fall one day and I would have to stand on my own … I am relying on her Wisdom and the Strength of the Faith that she raised us with, to Guide me and give me Strength.

  • David Quisenberry, “Memories of a village outside Peshawar, Pakistan.” A timely and timeless remembrance of memories “tattooed in my consciousness” about sights, sounds, smells of an ancient culture that transported all of us to a rugged landscape just across the border from Afghanistan.

I remember walking through the village. Mud walls with old weathered doors. The neighborhood awakening to foreigners in their midst. Kids coming out of front gates – gaping at the angleez (Pashtun slang for white people) and giggling to each other. Beautiful kohl eyes of young girls still able to be outside of their homes. Me, trying to sneak pictures with my small digital camera palmed as I walked. A flash accidentally going off.  

  • Jina Bazzar, “Cultivating curiosity.” A first-time contributor and mother of three who gave us a glimpse of life in Palestine and also explored a topic that resonated with many of us who have children.

We bind their curiosity by shutting their minds and their potential with all the can’t, don’t, and shouldn’t walls, layering them so thick and deep, by the time they’re grown-ups, all that bright curiosity they could have used to see beyond the horizon got snuffed out. Inventors, in my opinion, are simply those children who grew up to see possibilities without expected limits.

  • John Morgan, “Grace happens.” Another first-time contributor and father of two sons born with disabilities, who wrote elegantly about the need to put aside our egos when confronting life’s challenges and instead give ourselves to the universe.

Friends, what I have discovered in my voyage is this: Grace Happens if your eyes are open to see it, your heart is willing to accept it, and your own ego is willing to stay out of the way.

***

Thanks to all who showed up at Migration Brewing on 9/11/21, a date that coincided with the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attack on America. We made memories of a different kind that I hope will carry us through the end of this up-and-down, masked-and-unmasked year.

In closing, a special thanks to two people:

Kristen Mira, for inspiring for this annual project. Years ago, she asked me to write a guest blog for her own blog. I liked the idea so much I stole it.

– My wife Lori, for her support and encouragement and serving as a sounding board on all things VOA.

And, finally, a list of who wrote what this year: “VOA 2021 index page

Finally, Ramona Quimby!

The widely admired top-selling author Beverly Cleary. (Credit: Katy Muldoon.)

You’d think that someone living in the Northeast Portland neighborhood made famous by the luminous children’s author Beverly Cleary would have read at least one of her books long ago.

Well, actually, ahem, cough-cough, it took until now. But, hey, at least I can say the decades-long wait was worth it.

I just finished “Ramona Quimby, Age 8” and now I see what all the fuss was about.

During a prolific career that spanned 45 years (1950-1995) and 90 million-plus books sold in 25 languages, Beverly Cleary published three dozen children’s and young adult novels, and two memoirs. Her best-known characters — Ramona Quimby, her older sister Beatrice (better known as Beezus) and their neighbor, Henry Huggins — are known the world over, and their stories are anchored in the Grant Park neighborhood where we raised our three children.

How cool is that?

Ramona and Henry, and Henry’s dog Ribsy are memorialized in a bronze sculpture in Grant Park, next to Grant High School, which was not only Cleary’s alma mater (Class of 1934) but also the school that two of our kids attended. They also attended the middle school named for Cleary, previously known as Fernwood, and Hollyrood Elementary, which appears in the Ramona series as Cedarhurst Primary School.

And there’s more. The Quimby family lives on Klickitat Street, which lies a mere six blocks the north of us, and another Cleary book, titled “Ellen Tebbits,” also is set in the neighborhood, with its title character living on our very own Tillamook Street.

Born in McMinnville and raised as an only child on a farm in Yamhill, young Beverly moved with her parents to Portland at age 6. After high school, she attended junior college in Southern California and graduated from UC Berkeley with an English degree and the University of Washington with a library science degree. She began working as a children’s librarian but eventually started writing her own books in 1950, with an emphasis on ordinary children who were leading everyday lives that young readers could relate to.

She won a bushel of literary prizes and national honorary awards. When she died this year on March 25 at the age of 104, the accolades came pouring in.

Why I didn’t read any of Cleary’s work before now, I can’t say. But just having finished “Ramona Quimby, Age 8,” I can see the reasons for her broad appeal.

The book is the sixth of eight novels in the Ramona Quimby series. It features a simple storyline, uncomplicated characters and accessible language. Ramona is excited to be in a new school with a new teacher and she’s taking the school bus — all by herself.

This particular book was published in 1981, so, of course, it reads in some ways like a relic. The Quimbys are a white, middle-class family of four, living in a home big enough to have separate bedrooms for the sisters. Adults and children alike don’t get mad or angry. They get “cross.”

On the girls’ first day of school, the father presents each of them with a, wait for it, brand-new pink eraser. Ramona, just beginning the third grade, is delighted with the gift, “smooth, pearly pink, smelling softly of rubber, and just right for erasing pencil lines.”

The story is charming but it’s also grounded in reality. Though Mr. Quimby is newly enrolled in college pursuing a teaching degree in hopes of bettering himself, he continues to work part-time, driving a forklift in the frozen-food warehouse of a grocery store chain. Mrs. Quimby also works, as a receptionist in a doctor’s office, which means Ramona goes to a neighbor’s house for after-school care. The parents worry about having enough to pay the bills and they demonstrate their frugal ways by serving lower-grade meats at dinner. (Specifically, something covered with tiny bumps — yes, tongue.)

The book is an easy read (I’d be in trouble if it weren’t), with 190 yellowing pages cleaved into 9 chapters.

Ramona is the focus, of course, and Cleary writes in such a way that her 8-year-old protagonist’s troubles wll be easily recognized by someone who’s encountered the same problems: where to sit on the school bus; how to deal with a school bully; trying to figure out her teacher; putting up with a 4-year-old neighbor girl; and throwing up her breakfast in the classroom in front of her peers — “the most terrible, horrible, draedful, awful thing that could happen.”

Ramona worries about her dad’s thinning hair and about her parents too, as they fret over the cost of car repairs and try to make their dollars stretch.

There’s also a sweet scene — an empowering moment, if you will — when Ramona is alone in her room working on a book report for her teacher, Mrs. Whaley, and is suddenly inspired.

“She knew exactly what she wanted to do and set about doing it. She worked with papers, crayons, Scotch tape, and rubber bands. She worked so hard and with such pleasure that her cheeks grew pink. Nothing in the whole world felt as good as being able to make something from a sudden idea.”

Now there’s something any young reader would appreciate: a relatable example of turning an assignment into an opportunity, a chance to tap into your creativity and feel proud of yourself.

I’m glad I spotted this book in a Free Little Library near our home. I’ll be taking it back there soon to pay it forward. Maybe the next reader will be as charmed by the slightly frayed spine of the book and its title character as I was.

Read more about Beverly Cleary in this exceptional news obituary by The Oregonian’s Amy Wang:

Beverly Cleary, beloved Portland author, dies at age 104

Nomadland: A grim tale of survival

How ironic. Just as I was nearing the end of Jessica Bruder’s fabulous book “Nomadland,” a postcard-size hiring pitch from Amazon arrived in the mailbox.

“A new opportunity has arrived,” it proclaimed. “Are you ready to deliver smiles to your community?”

The world’s largest retailer is recruiting delivery drivers for seasonal and year-round jobs, and new hires can start as soon as 7 days, the postcard says. Applicants must be 21 and be able to lift and move boxes up to 50 pounds.

Amazon is featured prominently (not in a good way) in Bruder’s book, which, of course, became the basis for this year’s Oscar-winning film of the same name. Chloe Zhao won the best director award and Frances McDormand won for best actress.

The movie is outstanding, if you haven’t seen it. The cinematography beautifully captures the open roads of the American West and McDormand is perfectly cast as Fern, a fictional character who never appears in the book but nevertheless serves as a big-screen incarnation of the real-life men and women who populate its pages.

And what a book it is. Better than the movie, I say.

Frances McDormand won her third Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Fern in “Nomadland.”

***

During the course of three years of coast-to-coast reporting and 15,000 miles on the road, Bruder dove deep into her subject: how a growing number of Americans have lost their homes and their retirement nest eggs, and hit the road as itinerant workers in order to get by.

This expanding tribe of gray-haired nomads are a resourceful bunch, typically having purchased used RVs, vans, travel trailers, school buses and even regular passenger cars, and then modified them to serve as their full-time home on wheels.

The transformation from traditional homeowner or apartment dweller is one that’s been going on for years, but gathered steam after the 2008 recession. Millions of jobs disappeared, foreclosures and evictions soared, and savings accounts evaporated in those years. Older workers were hit especially hard. Relatively few found other jobs and when they did, it was typically for lower pay.

Suddenly, many who had planned to ease into retirement were forced to scramble. The answer for many was to say goodbye to their mortgage or rent payment, sell their possessions, and squeeze their aging selves, and often their pets, into a vehicle.

The book’s subtitle is “Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.” That’s no joke.

This is no romantic tale of affluent Americans in fancy motorhomes leisurely crisscrossing the country on an extended sightseeing trip.

No, it’s the story of a fight for survival, largely waged by Social Security pensioners, many of whom are widowed, divorced or loners. These are folks who get by on limited budgets through their wits and moxie and generous mutual support. These are the folks who spend their nights in Walmart and Home Depot parking lots or in whatever free or low-cost campground they can find, trying to steer clear of potential confrontations with police or suspicious strangers.

And as Bruder reports, a key to this fight is people staying on the move, driving hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles to wherever seasonal work can be found, often involving hard physical labor, low wages and few benefits, and much of it designed with nomadic senior citizens in mind.

This is where Amazon comes in.

The mammoth online retailer is among a number of companies and government agencies that absolutely rely on itinerant senior workers to fill their jobs. Other major employers: Home Depot, Walmart, the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, private campground operators, American Crystal Sugar (the nation’s largest sugar beet grower) and Adventureland, an amusement park in Iowa.

Amazon has a CamperForce program tailored to these seasonal workers and puts them to work sorting inventory, stocking shelves and filling orders within their cavernous warehouses known as “fulfillment centers.” Workers literally can walk a dozen miles or more during a single 10-hour shift, and many develop back, knee and wrist injuries, the latter from incessant use of handheld barcode scanners.

Bruder not only interviewed dozens of these older workers, but also got herself hired at a Amazon warehouse in Haslet, Texas, near Fort Worth. There, in the company’s largest warehouse, 22 miles of conveyor belts shuttle boxes around a building large enough to accommodate 19 football fields.

Even before the pandemic, the volume of stuff flowing in and out of these warehouses was beyond belief.

In 2013, Amazon posted record holiday sales. On December 2nd alone, customers ordered 36.8 million products — or about 416 orders a second. That single-day volume on Cyber Monday helped bring the company’s overall sales for the year to a record high of just under $75 billion.

Now? The e-commerce giant exceeds $100 billion in sales per quarter. No doubt the company’s profits were goosed by Americans who turned to online shopping to overcome their boredom during the pandemic. No wonder zillionaire Jeff Bezos can take a joy ride into space on the obscene profits generated by his customers.

To her credit, Bruder also worked for American Crystal Sugar during the annual sugar beet harvest. The company is based in western Minnesota and lords over a two-state region that stretches into eastern North Dakota and produces more than half of the country’s sugar beet fields.

Bruder put in 12-hour shifts at a massive storage and processing facility near the Canadian border that piled up a mountain of beets the size of basketballs in a refrigerated shed that resembled an open-ended airplane hangar on a concrete floor. By the end of the harvest, Bruder said, the heap of beets had grown to the length of two Boeing 747s parked end to end and roughly as wide as the planes’ wingspan. Imagine people in their 60 and 70s working in those loud, messy, frigid conditions, prone to boredom and injury.

***

In the movie, Fern is first pictured in Empire, Nevada, a place that no longer exists after U.S. Gypsum, the town’s only employer, closed its factory at the end of 2010, when demand for its Sheetrock plunged during the housing market collapse triggered by the recession.

Bruder tells the tale of that ghost town, but also goes far beyond it. Aside from excellent writing, the book’s strength is the depth of reporting as she travels from state to state, meeting these nomads and providing valuable context, in particular, for the struggles of older women facing poverty.

At the same time, the book is hardly a compilation of statistics. So many people come to life. Not just endearing “workampers” like Linda May, Bob Wells, Silvianne Delmars and Swankie Wheels, all 60 and older, but younger campers too — millennials already saddled by debt, discouraged by job prospects, unable to buy a house, and also taking to the road.

Lest one feels too sorry for these wandering workers, Bruder tells another other side of the story: the genuine camaraderie amongst them. They typically meet in campgrounds, on the job, and sometimes online, and they are bound to each other by the knowledge they are in this together.

In particular, the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous that Bob Wells organizes each winter near Quartzsite, Arizona, offers a gathering place where people can socialize, recharge and attend seminars on topics such as budgeting (with an emphasis on minimalism and against consumer culture) and the art of stealth parking (aimed at urban vandwellers to help them blend into their surroundings to avoid unwanted attention).

“We need to be alone and on the move,” Wells wrote on his website, “but we equally need to occasionally gather together and make connections with like-minded people who understand us.”

The kinship and tenacity embodied by these nomads is admirable. I imagine that very few of us would last very long on this circuit of constant moving for seasonal, temporary work. And while Bruder shares that admiration, she doesn’t mince words in her conclusion. Because of the ever-growing chasm between what the top 1 percent make versus what those in the bottom half earn, the economic divide is forcing more and more people to consider radical choices.

“Millions of Americans are wrestling with the impossibility of a traditional middle-class existence,” she writes. “In homes across the country, kitchen tables are strewn with unpaid bills. Lights burn late into the night. The same calculations get performed again and again, over and over, through exhaustion and sometimes tears. Wages minus grocery receipts. Minus medical bills. Minus credit card debt. Minus utility fees. Minus student loan and car payments. Minus the biggest expense of all: rent.

“In the widening gap between credits and debits hangs a question: What parts of this life are you willing to give up, so you can keep on living?

***

Finally, a word about Jessica Bruder and her book. I should have read this book when it came out in 2017. I saw the movie before I read the book, but I am so glad to have caught up with it and its author.

I felt a measure of pride seeing Jessica’s work acknowledged at the 2021 Academy Awards. You see, I met her at a journalism convention in New York and helped recruit her to The Oregonian. She worked in the newspaper’s now-closed Clackamas County bureau in Oregon City between 2006 and 2008, primarily covering breaking news, crime and the courts.

Jessica Bruder, a former reporter for The Oregonian, clutches an Oscar in each hand following the 2021 Academy Awards. She was a consulting producer on the film adaptation of her book. Credit: @jessbruder (Twitter)

A graduate of Amherst College, she moved back to the East Coast and now teaches at the Columbia Journalism School, where she earned a masters degree and learned the art of immersion reporting.

In April, she spoke about her work in a virtual appearance hosted by Clark College’s journalism program. Read about it here.

You can also read about the shoutout she received at the Oscars here.

Voices of August 2021: Your favorites?

Sunrise on Orcas Island, Washington. (Photo by George Rede)

Whew! Well, that was invigorating, wasn’t it?

A whole month of guest blog posts from the West Coast to the Midwest, the South, and across the Atlantic to new contributors in England and Palestine.

During this 10th iteration of Voices of August, I found myself entertained, inspired and informed as various writers stepped up to share their perspectives on every aspect of life imaginable. I don’t dare mention any specifics because now it’s time to put on my hat as VOA Elections Chief and Head Vote-Wrangler.

Starting today, please do your part to help choose our favorite essays from this year’s contributions to VOA 2021. Deadline is Wednesday, Sept. 8.

To make your voice heard, send me an email listing your four (not just three, but four!) favorite pieces among the 31 blog posts. I know this is difficult, so I’m making allowances for three-plus-one. Voting guidelines are below.

As always, thanks to everyone for setting aside time to write, read and comment on this year’s body of work. I know I speak for every writer in welcoming the feedback, whether on Facebook or on the individual blog posts. The conversations enrich the overall experience.

Without further ado, let’s get to it.

Here are the rules:

  • Who can vote. As with previous years, anyone who has written a guest blog (this year or previously) or who is simply a regular reader of VOA can vote for four favorite pieces. You decide if you’ve read enough of this year’s contributions to cast a ballot.
  • Criteria. There are none other than your own standards. What grabbed your attention? What resonated with you? What made you laugh or cry? What challenged your assumptions? What made you see things differently?
  • How to vote. Take some time to review the month’s posts here at the VOA 2021 index page and then send the titles and authors of your four favorites to me at ghfunq@msn.com

Thanks, everyone!

— George Rede

VOA 2021 index page

(Photo by George Rede)

An archive of who wrote what during this month of guest blog posts for Voices of August 2021, aka VOA 2021.

Aug. 1: Kathleen Bauer | A tall, taciturn guy from Maine

Aug. 2: Eric Scharf | Finding hope in an Uber

Aug. 3: Luisa Anderson | Learning how to feel whole while being half 

Aug. 4: John Knapp | Return to sender 

Aug. 5: Elizabeth Hovde | Living through your funeral 

Aug. 6: John Enders | An Irish interlude 

Aug. 7: Wendy Alexander | Have we forgotten how to ‘people’? 

Aug. 8: Aki Mori | The tip jar 

Aug. 9: Monique Gonzales | The work from home blues 

Aug. 10: Al Rodriguez | Coming to terms and moving on

Aug. 11: Tammy Ellingson | The hands of time

Aug. 12: Michael Arrieta-Walden | Students deserve a teacher revolution 

Aug. 13: Jina S. Bazzar | Cultivating curiosity

Aug. 14: Michael Granberry | The sighs of Texas

Aug. 15: Lynn St. Georges | Unbroken 

Aug. 16: Rachel Lippolis | All cooped up 

Aug. 17: Eric Wilcox | Deep thoughts on the Willamette 

Aug. 18: Mary Pimentel | Hot momma lava 

Aug. 19: John Killen | A cup of confusion 

Aug. 20: Anna Swinton | The life of an introverted actor 

Aug. 21: Nike Bentley | Courage 

Aug. 22: Tim Akimoff | Forty-seven Augusts 

Aug. 23: Kristen Mira | My inner cheerleader 

Aug. 24: David Quisenberry | Memories of a village outside Peshawar, Pakistan

Aug. 25: Lakshmi Jagannathan | Puppy love

Aug. 26: Gil Rubio | ‘Thank you for joining us’ 

Aug. 27: Lillian Mongeau | Learning my limits 

Aug. 28: Jennifer Brennock | This is not an empowerment essay 

Aug. 29: George Rede | On second thought

Aug. 30: Maisha Maurant | Taking the leap

Aug. 31: John Morgan | Grace happens

Grace happens

John Morgan relaxing off the beaten path. Specifically, Leslie Gulch in far southeast Oregon’s Malheur County.

By John Morgan

About 30 years ago my life was changed by a bumper sticker. 

That’s a pretty cheap way to experience a life-altering moment, isn’t it? Like being so moved by a Hallmark card, or a fortune cookie, or a tee-shirt slogan to alter one’s life course. That is so unlikely or so shallow as to be humorous.  

But it happened. 

And, what the bumper sticker said was a play on a crude saying, with foul language. And a play on a statement so callous, so defeatist, so depressing that it itself is commentary on the troubles of our times. 

The fact is the words of the bumper sticker were the absolute and perfect antithesis of the original saying. They completely negated the original intent and, in the process, overwhelmed it. Believe me I had been in a position many times to embrace the original. Much had fallen on my life to burden me deeply, nay, to bury me deeply in heart and soul.  

My wife and I had been burdened with children with disabilities. That’s right, children, as in two. When we took our first son in for his three-month checkup, the doctor asked how he was doing and we said we had some concerns. Our voyage began there. Cerebral palsy was the first manifestation. As time went on other disabling conditions emerged and we learned a mid-brain structural malformation was the cause. However, the genetics experts said there was no history of such a malformation to be genetic in nature and we should not worry about having a second child. 

We did, and they were wrong. 

Our second son came with the same malformation, and the same disabilities. Why us? How can we possibly handle all this means, all it comes with, all the, frankly, anger?  

Months of constant care. Discovering the greatest burden isn’t living with the disabilities, but being the advocate, and the warrior, with the “system.” Fighting insurance companies, government agencies, school districts, non-profits, and others became a deep burden. Losing time, money, energy, and spirit with increasing urgency.  

Then came the bumper sticker. Turned it all upside down. It read, “Grace Happens.” 

It took a while to truly sink in. Of course, it seems religious. And to many that is exactly what it is meant to mean, and that is fine. But I read it much more broadly. I read the words as meaning, “Let go, it will be ok.” 

You see, we humans come with egos. Those very real things are where our self definition and understanding lie. It is also where our fragilities lie. And we defend those egos in many ways. Yet, when we build our lives around defending and solidifying and calcifying our egos, shit certainly does happen as we are buffeted, pushed, and hammered by forces determined to drive us down. 

Grace Happens is just the opposite. It is a state where we let our egos stop driving us, and instead give ourselves to the universe, to grace as it were, and stop making it all about us. We suddenly open our eyes and can see the universe providing so many wonderful things we cannot see when our sight is obscured by our egos. Worry, fear, anxiety, anger are all manifestations of this self-preservation effort by the ego, and they are our own worst and blinding enemies. 

We learned through time Grace is a state always available to us if we will just have the courage to let go and let it in. The flow of the universe is always presenting opportunities to which we are blinded if we are only focused internally on our egos. With our boys turning our attitudes from burden to openness made the voyage easier in so many ways. 

The author with his two eldest sons, Erik, left, and Matthew.
Ski instructor John Morgan, farthest right in blue jacket, with a couple of adaptive skiers, sons Erik and Matthew in front row.

Notice I did not say it turned the voyage into something great. It wasn’t and isn’t. Grace Happens is a calling to try, to be open, to let go, but it is not an introduction to nirvana. Lord knows that does not exist in the world of children with disabilities, despite Hallmark card sayings that might make you think so. But, in the bigger picture, giving oneself over to Grace in greater measure than to one’s ego does make a huge difference. And, I have learned it gets easier with time and experience, and mostly with being open to what one can learn along the way actively seeking out the learnings. 

These lessons in my life are not focused nor limited to our unique parenting challenges. As a supervisor I have occasionally had to fire someone. I dread doing so, but I have learned over time the fired employee inevitably lands on both feet, and often in a better place than they left. I see businesspeople fail, start again, and ultimately prosper. I see broken people heal not by returning to where they were, but by moving on, moving over, and certainly moving up. No, not every circumstance works out this way, but I can’t help but noticing when it does, and perhaps that is me giving my vision over to Grace. 

I face a new major life challenge right now. My wife has Alzheimer’s. She is young. Diagnosed in her early 60’s. Full of life, and full of promise for what we would be doing together as we approached next parts of life. That was all robbed from us.  

Where is the Grace in this? I made the difficult decision after being her 24/7 caretaker for well over a year to place her in a memory care facility in March. I made the difficult decision to move from our 4,000 square foot, six-bedroom home to a motorhome. I made the decision to deal with our years of stuff with an estate sale. People thought I was crazy.  

No, not crazy; full of Grace. I know I made the right decision for my wife as she is in a safe and supportive environment much better than I can provide and I should not feel guilty about that. I know my own mental health was taking a huge hit being her caregiver. I undertook an audacious change of life because of my embracing of the Grace the universe can provide. As wild and crazy and scary as this transformation is, Grace has shown through so strongly, mostly in the people found along on the way; soothsayers, sages, wise elders, and even friends who shake their heads in disbelief and say they could never do what I have done, but they so wish they could. 

Why can’t they? Fear mostly. Fear of the audacious and terrifying. Fear because they can’t see the Grace that will guide and support them if only they will open their eyes to what the Universe is offering. Fear they can only conquer by not believing in it anymore. 

Friends, what I have discovered in my voyage is this: Grace Happens if your eyes are open to see it, your heart is willing to accept it, and your own ego is willing to stay out of the way. 

Grace Happens.

John Morgan

John Morgan is a fifth generation native Oregonian. He was born and raised in Lebanon and received his degree from Willamette University majoring in Political Science and in Urban and Regional Government. He met his wife, Mary Lynn, at Willamette.

John and Mary Lynn’s four sons were born and raised in Salem. His career has been in city management and urban planning. For the last 20 years he has been a consultant in community and organizational development working with cities and other government agencies throughout the state. In winter he is found at Hoodoo where he is the program manager for Oregon Adaptive Sports leading the adaptive ski school as well as serving as a ski instructor for people with disabilities.

John is an avid photographer and traveler, as well as great lover of all things Oregon.

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Editor’s note: I met John some 40-plus years ago when we were new dads. He and I and our wives all belonged to the same babysitting coop in Salem. We would exchange scrip instead of money and leave our children with each other knowing they were with responsible adults instead of teenagers. (Not that there’s anything wrong with teenagers.) I’ve always regarded John and Mary Lynn as two of the kindest people I know.

Tomorrow: Voices of August 2021: Your favorites?

Taking the leap

Credit: iStock

By Maisha Maurant 

I was recently reminded that leaps of faith can yield great things. 

This month, I led a discussion about the variety of career paths open to someone with editing skills. I chose this topic because I think editors often only focus on the traditional path. They can overlook the vast opportunities available to them.  

Talking with editors about this had me reflecting on the winding – but fulfilling – road that my career has taken. I have lots of experience with taking the road less traveled. This was true even at the start of my career. I was 23 years old and working at my first, full-time job as a reporter when I got an opportunity to move into my dream job.  

At the time, I covered suburban Toledo for The Blade newspaper. But my ultimate goal was to be a features writer. One of my greatest joys had been training in the features department at the Detroit Free Press. The Blade had first offered me a position in features. But I had already committed to an internship at The Oregonian. I wanted to honor my commitment. Also, The Oregonian had one of the most innovative newsrooms at the time. I wanted to experience being at an organization that took an unconventional approach to journalism.  

Some friends thought I was crazy to turn down a full-time reporting job with the beat I wanted to do an internship. I’m so glad I chose to do the internship. I learned so much that summer from outstanding journalists. And when it ended, the features position at The Blade was filled. They hired me for the suburban beat instead.  

It took me by surprise when several months later I was offered my dream job – music and theater critic at the Tallahassee Democrat. I left Toledo for Florida and had an amazing experience. Based on my myriad interests, circumstances and unexpected opportunities, I continued to veer away from the typical path.  

I experienced this just last year. I finished my master’s in organizational change leadership in the spring of 2019.  In the fall, I joined a health system as its manager of culture and engagement.  

Then, the pandemic hit. And my position was eliminated. It was jarring. But it was also the impetus for me choosing to pursue a doctorate degree as I started a new job as an organizational change consultant. 

As I told those who attended the webcast, from the outside, my choices might seem random – even puzzling. But, for me, each step has built on the other and contributed to my development.  

Credit: iStock

Not every choice has ended in the way I expected. But I don’t regret the experiences. I learned from the challenges.  

Sharing my journey led me to think about what advice I would give about taking a career leap of faith: 

  • Spend time examining the array of available opportunities. Be selective. Take time to consider what matters most to you in the work you do.  
  • Stay true to yourself and the unique path you’re on. Even when others have doubt. Your path doesn’t need to be mirror anyone else’s.   
  • Accept that no opportunity is perfect. And, if it turns out it isn’t a good fit, you have options. 
Maisha Maurant

After Maisha’s latest leap, she has landed in a role as an organizational change consultant. She has also recently started a doctorate program in Human and Organizational Learning at The George Washington University.  

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Editor’s note: I met Maisha at a Spirit of Diversity job fair in Detroit when I was The Oregonian’s newsroom recruitment director. She was a student at Wayne State University then and I was delighted when she accepted our summer internship offer. I cherish the connection we’ve maintained over, gulp, two decades and I admire her ability to adapt and evolve within the workplace and higher education.

Tomorrow: Grace happens | John Morgan

On second thought

With Nathan, our first-born child, nearly 40 years ago in Salem, Oregon. Starting to think about my legacy and other issues as the years pile up.

By George Rede

I’d planned to write this year’s essay about the recent U.S. Census Bureau data dump that showed once and for all how this country’s demographics are changing. The number of whites is literally shrinking and the U.S. population overall is “much more multiracial and more racially and ethnically diverse” than previously measured.

I even had a headline in mind: “Brown, here and now.”

That was a reference to the 2003 book “Brown” by Richard Rodriguez, in which he argued that America has been brown since its inception, since the moment the African and the European met. In and around San Francisco, where he lives, Rodriguez saw interracial romance as pointing the way toward a browner future in the U.S. — one that was less defined as purely white and black. I understood exactly what he meant 20 years ago when I gazed into the coffee-colored, oval-eyed face of a suburban college student whose parents were Salvadoran and Chinese.

In this essay, I was going to explore the political and social ramifications of this demographic shift away from the white majority, citing books by Alfredo Corchado (“Homelands” 2018) and Hector Tobar (“Translation Nation” 2006) that have documented the expansion of brown people (primarily of Mexican and Central American heritage) into communities in the Deep South, the Midwest and elsewhere.

But on second thought…

I realized that much of the appeal of this annual collection of guest blog posts lies in what people reveal about themselves. Over the years, this one included, Voices of August contributors have addressed their fears, doubts and losses, as well as their triumphs and insights. They’ve written boldly about death, divorce, parenting, aging and self-identity. With all that in mind, why shouldn’t I?

And so I pivoted to this — a disconnected but hopefully coherent list of thoughts and second thoughts that lately have me contemplating, for the first time, the end of life. Make no mistake. I’m not obsessing over it, and I don’t lead my life as if I have one foot in the grave. But if September marks the beginning of fall, am I not facing the metaphorical autumn of my existence?

After all, I am 68 and life expectancy in the U.S. is 78.8 years.

The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a column last year about the “Hispanic paradox.” Researchers have found that Hispanic Americans, despite poverty, discrimination and lower rates of health insurance, tend to live longer than white or black Americans. As of 2017, we enjoyed a life expectancy of 81.8 years, compared with 78.5 years for whites and 74.9 years for blacks.

I suppose I should take comfort in those statistics. I’m not poor, I do have health insurance, I’m in reasonably good shape and, while I’m far from rich, I’m financially comfortable. Plus, my mom lived to a day short of 86 and my dad passed away at 91.

So here goes, four things and ideas that give me pause:

1. The accident of birth.

I believe strongly that where and when we are born largely dictates the quality of our lives, the freedoms we enjoy (or not), and heavily influences how we see ourselves and others. By that I mean that I did not choose to be born in California to second-generation Mexican American parents. I did not choose to be raised Catholic. I did not choose my first or last name nor the color of my skin. I was born into all of those things — and not others.

How radically different would my life be if I’d been born on the other side of the U.S.-Mexico border? Or in Ghana or Cambodia? How would I see the world if I’d been raised Mormon, Muslim or Jewish, or if I’d spoken French or Hindi growing up? How would my choices have been limited if I’d grown up in Haiti or Russia? What kind of education and career choices would have been open to me? Whom would I have married?

I think of all those things as I watch scenes of desperate Afghans at the Kabul airport, trying to flee their country. I’m here nearly 7,000 miles away in the comfort of my home. Am I lucky to be here? Yes. Did I do anything to merit this accident of birth? No.

2.. Family relations.

Earlier this year, a dear cousin created a private Facebook group page for descendants of my maternal grandparents. The page has provided a means for us to connect across generations and state lines, largely by sharing photographs and childhood memories.

I see faded black-and-white images of now-dead aunts and uncles, as well as more recent color photos of cousins who are very much alive and smiling with one another. I’m glad they are to celebrate each other’s company, but it dawns on me that time and distance have created more of a gulf with family members than I would have liked.

Living in Oregon since 1975, while the bulk of my cousins have continued to reside in California, means I’ve actually spent very little time with members of my family, including my sisters, who live in rural Alaska and just north of San Diego, respectively. In the early years of our marriage, Lori and I would spend a week visiting her parents and my divorced mom and dad, all living in the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Area. But those family vacations with young kids didn’t allow time to go further south and so, as we aged and settled into our Oregon life, we saw less and less of my cousins and their families.

These days, it takes a funeral to bring us together. That’s sad but it’s also the reality. I have no regrets about leaving California, though I do recognize the tradeoffs. Ties may weaken with extended family but that leaves ample room for friendships to bloom with non-relatives. Thankfully, we have plenty of those.

A rare gathering of siblings. With my sisters Cathy, at left, and Rosemany in our former hometown of Fremont, California. We live in three states, separated by 2,500 miles.

3. Forgiveness.

Seeing several photos of my mother — younger, happy and smiling — on the aforementioned Facebook group page stirs ambivalent feelings. I adored my mom as a kid but the relationship became very strained in the last couple decades of her life and I was inclined to visit less frequently. I struggled to even find something to talk about, given our opposing personalities and growing differences in generational, social, cultural and religious perspectives.

As she lay dying, I told her I loved her. I meant it deeply and I know she heard it and understood. Now that she’s eight years gone, I think about other fraught relationships in my life and I recognize I have a choice. I can stew about things and justify the silence on my end. Or, I can resolve to move forward and reach out in hopes of repairing the breach.

I’m reconsidering what to do after recently reading about two profound instances of forgiveness in other families. Both articles were written by middle-aged sons whose fathers abandoned them as young boys. One man learned in 2013 that he had a stepbrother; to his delight, he formed a great relationship with him, only to lose him recently, at age 38, to COVID-19.

“There were a lot of reasons for Joshua to be angry with our father,” the surviving brother wrote. But he wasn’t.

“Giving forgiveness is not about whether the person you extend it to has earned it or not, it’s about you opening the door to love and allowing yourself to take the slow, often arduous journey to healing. Forgiveness is a choice and Joshua showed me and my other brothers what making that choice can look like.”

I get it. And I’d like to bring that perspective to my own relationships — in time. Right now, I’ve got some resentment to work through. Just being honest.

Credit: ianmosscreative.com

My legacy.

At 68, is it too early to think about how I will be remembered? Is it too late to influence those perceptions, even if I wanted to?

For better or worse, I think enough of my life has spooled out in enough settings and contexts that people will make their judgments free of anything else I may say or do in the future. That’s fair.

Was I a good husband and father? A good son and brother? A good friend and neighbor?

How well did I do in my career? Was I ambitious enough, aggressive enough as a journalist? Did I maximize my potential as a reporter and editor? Did I do enough to help others who came up behind me? Should I have left newspapering years earlier to get a masters degree and teach? After all, I loved the interaction, especially with nontraditional students, as an adjunct college instructor.

Did I box myself in by playing it safe more often than not? Could I have been more spontaneous? Could I have sought out more physical challenges and travel adventures? What would I have gained by busting out of my introverted shell several years earlier? How might have things turned out if we’d moved to another state?

Heck, what adjectives will people use and what stories will they tell when I am gone? I have my own answers to all these questions I’ve posed. What’s interesting — unprecedented, really — is that I’ve actually given some thought to these questions. I’m a long way from gone (knock on wood) but it’s intriguing to think about these issues. There’s a certain amount of pride, of regret, and a feeling of missed opportunities that I’m grappling with. But I’m not obsessing about any of it.

One thing I realized about myself, though, is that I’m a connector, as defined in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 book “The Tipping Point.”

Credit: iStock

According to Gladwell, “connectors” tend to be connected to many communities — whether through interests and hobbies, jobs that cause them to work with people in other fields, or other experiences. Their strength is in occupying many different worlds, and bringing them together. 

What is Voices of August if not a manifestation of this quality?

With so many more miles to travel in life, I have places to see, people to meet, books to read, songs to sing, et cetera. I’d rather focus on what’s to come than what’s already happened. So let me end by quoting the second of those two abandoned sons, mentioned above.

“The pandemic has reminded us that life is more than what we do. It is about whom we spend our lives with. We cannot hug a career or laugh with a promotion. We are made for friendship, love and community.”

George Rede is the founder and editor of Voices of August, a mash-up of people and perspectives that enables him to connect old and new friends across the country and sometimes even abroad. A retired journalist and adjunct college instructor, he is a Californian by birth and an Oregonian by choice. Together with Lori, his wife of nearly 46 years, he has lived in four cities in three states, and raised three amazing kids. They share their Portland home with Charlotte, a rescue mutt who keeps everyone on their toes.

Tomorrow: Taking the leap | Maisha Maurant