Saturday, December 20, 2008

Try Again


By Karla M. Steffens-Moran

It’s a snow day, and my youngest son plops down into the chair opposite me in the living room and says: “I’m bored.” I look down at my coffee and then over to him and say: “Go get a game. I’ll play whatever you want.” He stands, rounds the corner to head up the stairs and returns a few short moments later with the game board for Candy Land: “I want to play this one, but I can’t find the cards anywhere.” I tell him where I think he might find them, but he insists that he’s already looked there; he’s already tried and failed. I’m about to tell him to try again, when the phone rings. A few moments later, following an invitation from a friend, he’s abandoned the notion of Candy Land and trying--in this case--to locate its missing pieces. I however have not given up. I will find the game pieces. I will triumph or die trying.

“Try again; fail better,” is a favorite Samuel Beckett quote of mine. I’m thinking, it sums up pretty much what I aspire to: to not quit. Certainly, I have those days, those nights during which time I question whether or not I should even bother--doesn’t matter what it is--because I have failed, my demons have gotten the better of me--again--and I’m back to the same old place. I know that I’m not alone; we all have that place. For some of us it’s standing on the scale, staring down at the number that we swore we’d never be at again, for others it’s staring at the empty wine glass that we promised ourselves we’d never pour again, let alone drink. For some, it’s lighting that cigarette or yelling at our kids or our spouse. For others it’s working too much or too little, getting into another one of those relationships we know is unhealthy for body or spirit--or leaving when we realize too late that we should have stayed, or any moment in which we allow our fear to dominate over our hope. It’s making the choice to do something that we know is less than healthy--not ever really knowing or acknowledging why--followed by the regret of having failed.

“Try again; fail better.” I speak this mantra as my first hopeful step back to making my life make sense again. It’s getting back up on the proverbial horse, the wagon, the right track, back home and saying, this time will be different. This time I won’t fail. This time it will work: the job, the relationship, the diet, the budget, the workout, the plan. This time there will be triumph.

And in that moment, there is in fact a kind of triumph--of will, of spirit, of hope. This is the moment that French philosopher Albert Camus described in his essay: The Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus has been punished by the greek gods for doing some naughty thing or another and is forced to spend eternity pushing a large boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down into the valley as soon as he’s managed to nearly reach the summit. Camus suggests that the moment of Sisyphus’ heroism is not in his ascent, nor in his task of pushing the boulder, but rather in the moment just after the boulder has rolled back down to rest in the valley and just before his descent back down to retrieve the boulder-- again. It’s the look in his eye prior to that first step: Yes, I can. I will.

It’s in the summoning up of the courage to try again--to do the right thing for ourselves, for others, for the planet. And what better time to contemplate this journey of spirit--the holidays, a few breaths short of that great goal setting day of New Year’s. Certainly, the holidays are a time of great celebration but they are as well filled with more than a few moments of despair, of degeneration of will, of depressed spirit--despite the frivolity. There are gifts and gatherings and good times, but for those who are suffering illness, sadness or recent loss--whether it be of friends, relatives, employment or health, the season can prove a genuine challenge to simply finding the energy, the “wherewithall” to put one foot in front of the other. Back up the hill we go, one arduous step at a time.

“Try again; fail better.” It’s the game of Candy Land as metaphor. We begin with great hope on our journey to King Kandy’s Candy Castle, moving our colorful game pieces past the Gingerbread Plum Trees and sneaking past Lord Licorice who lies in wait, avoiding Plumpy, to make our way through the Peppermint Forest and beyond Gumdrop Mountains, only to be Lost in Lollipop Woods or Stuck in Gooey Gumdrops or Molasses Swamp. We learn before we can read about failure as a part of the game. We learn early on that while the point is to play the game--not simply win or lose, that no matter the outcome, there’s both fun and loss to be had in the drama and suspense of it all.

There will be success. And there will be failure. This holiday season, you may very well gain a pound or six. You may fall off the wagon. You may say yes when you should say no. You may purchase something beyond your means. You may scream at the children or the spouse or the parent. You may gamble on a sure bet that is anything but certain success. You will fail. And then there will be the choice. Wallow in the failure for a moment, but then embrace it and then move on, one foot in front of the other--back up the mountain, back down to the boulder, back to the drawing board, the diet, the healthy choice. Because there’s also something gained in not letting the failure dominate the spirit.

The challenges are many but trust this: the yellow or blue or red Candy Land card that you must draw in order to move forward is in the deck. It may be the next card in the stack or it may be several away, but it is there, waiting for you to draw it. So, this New Year’s, whether you love or loathe the resolutions, be undaunted. Despite the odds, set those goals. Again. Lose the weight gained. Find the job. Get out of an unhealthy--or or into a healthy--relationship. Stick to your budget. Make that plan. Follow that dream. Queen Frostine, Gramma Nut, Princess Lolly, Albert Camus and even Samuel Beckett are all rooting for you--for each of us. “Try again; fail better.” The operative word being: better.

My goal: to find those missing cards before my son Luke gets back home from sledding. Try--again--I hear them calling to me: Aspire. The Candy Castle awaits.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Let's Do It!

Let’s Do It!

A fresh snow blankets the last of the fallen leaves. Ironically, I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas plays softly on the radio in my kitchen, and as Bing Crosby croons, I am reminded of how when I was a child, my house (as is true of my own house today) was always filled with music. Both of my parents were musicians: my mom, a singer; my dad, a trumpeter. During World War II my dad played with Kay Kyser and his Orchestra.

“He was the first of the big band leaders--before Dorsey, before Goodman, there was Kay--who I might add, was also the first to do military touring,” said my dad. “He needed another trumpeter. I was just lucky,” he added as humbly as any son of a fruit and vegetable truck farmer would.

When my dad returned home after the war, he continued to play with a band--weekends mostly. My mom happily joined him--she loved to sing, and sing she did--all the time. She sang at the piano, in the shower, while she was doing dishes, when she dusted, when she drove me to school--but most particularly, she liked to sing at Christmas time.

Weekends, they’d both get dressed up in clothes that literally sparkled, packed up their instruments and sheet music and headed out to play whatever gig their Band Leader Red Peters had lined up for that night. I’d watch my mom putting on her bright red lipstick, blot her lips with a tissue, before kissing me goodnight, and think to myself, how magical it all seemed. I still remember the way she looked: auburn hair swept off her face like her favorite singer Peggy Lee, the lingering smell of her perfume--Lanvin’s My Sin, which she’d dab on both wrists and at the back of her neck. Finally, I remember the image of that big red kiss left behind on the single white tissue that I’d retrieve from her dresser and save. Still, what I remember most clearly is the music--their favorites, those Big Band American Jazz Standards from the thirties and forties.

On Sundays, the morning after their gigs, all their musician friends would come for brunch--likely not having slept for more than a few hours. My mother would fix pancakes and eggs, fritattas and hash browns and rich, black coffee brewed with eggshells. We children were to be seen and not heard, but that was fine with us as long as we could listen as they all talked and argued, laughed and yes, played--sometimes long past dark when my mom would finally send them all packing. Sundays were filled with music: Begin the Beguine, Night and Day, Shine on Harvest Moon, Moonlight Serenade, You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby. Anything Goes, Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love, Cheek to Cheek, A Tisket, A Tasket, Carelessly…and so many more.

I’m certain that’s why I’ve chosen to direct Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story again this year (performed this Friday, December 12th at 7:30 and Saturday, December 13th at 2:00 p.m. in the Mount Vernon District Auditorium). Set in the late thirties, early forties--and featuring a local cast of nearly thirty and technical staff of another dozen students ages five to nearly seventy-five--it brings me back to a time in my own house, a time filled with music. For those of you who may still be unfamiliar, A Christmas Story, is based upon Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, in which he recalls growing up during the late thirties and early forties in his hometown of Hohman, Indiana.

Cast members in this year’s production include: Ed Hill, Amy White, Ray Leeper, Jan Moore, Jim White, Hannah Ganzel, Craig Wilson, Corey Brannaman, Tom Bush, Kai Walberg, David Taylor, Luke Moran, Sam Moore, John Butz, Brenna Mills, Molly Fox, Theresa Gruber-Miller, Jackson Brus, Isabelle Light, Sophie Fox, Jasmine Turnquist-Wernimont, Sammy Murray, Cate Morgan, Kate Liberko, Nick Silva, Tyler Kranig, Jasper Rood and Atticus Rood. Additional featured musical performers include: Jenna Smith, Grace Moran and Anna Butz in a tribute to the Boswell Sisters and Tin Pan Alley. Technical Interns include: Zak Moran, Seamus Taylor, Cece Sullivan, Darrow Center, Lyndsey Wycoff, Tim Gruber-Miller, Hannah Ganzel, Alex Bradbury and Caitlyn Mills.

Similar to today, the years of the late thirties and early forties in which the play is set were years of worldwide economic crisis and world war. These were the years following the Great Depression, of FDR’s New Deal (introduced years earlier by Al Smith as mayor of New York and expanded in Albany when Smith became Governor of New York), of the victory over the Nazi’s in Europe and our eventual return to a time of economic prosperity and peace. Years of tumult, trial and yes, triumph-- during which there often wasn’t much money for the basics--let alone for any extras--it was a time of sacrifice, of rationing, but it was also a time of hope as well as a time when the Radio, Television, Movie and Music Industries as well as theatre, in particular American Musicals, moved into a Golden Age.

My dad recalled how they’d gather around the radio in the evenings and listen to all the old serial antics of Little Orphan Annie, The Shadow, Buck Rogers, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Superman or his favorite: Amos ‘n Andy. He spoke fondly about the comics--known as the “Zanies”--like Eddie Cantor, Ed Wynn, Jack Pearl and Cliff Hall and Joe Penner. My mom shared how they’d spend all day long at the movie house on Saturdays, watching everything from skits to short cartoons, singing along with the bouncing ball, catching up on the movie tone news clips, enjoying feature films like Wizard of Oz, Drums Along the Mohawk, Gone with the Wind or the “Chiffhanger” serials like Zorro, Flash Gordon, the Spy Smasher, Tiger Woman, Those Little Rascals and yes, The Adventures of Red Ryder and his Red Ryder BB Gun!!

So, it is more than fitting that Odyssey Theatre for the Young of Art and Friends of Mount Vernon Lisbon Community Theatre revive this old chestnut, A Christmas Story during this particular holiday season and our own trying economic times. When too many of our loved ones are serving abroad, when the cupboards are frighteningly bare, when we are worried about what the future holds in terms of energy and economics--we need to come together in hope.

We need to laugh, to cry, to sing along with the bouncing ball, to cheer on the antics of our favorite characters--spend an evening gathered together around the radio or an afternoon laughing at the antics of Little Ralphie as he conspires to get the one thing that will make this the best Christmas EVER--despite his mother’s, his teacher’s and even Santa’s warning that: YOU’LL SHOOT YOUR EYE OUT, KID, he does not quit dreaming. In spite of it all, more than anything it all rests upon needing (not merely wanting but needing) “An official Red Ryder carbine action two-hundred shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time."

So, if the weather outside is frightful, or the job or the to-do list is making you exclaim: You’re Driving Me Crazy, or your response to the question, ‘how are you?’ is answered with, ‘I’m working Night and Day,’ or you’re just hoping for a bit of Love Around the Corner, or a single day of Blue Skies, or perhaps you are in need of a Christmas miracle like a rainshower of Pennies from Heaven to pay those mounting bills, then Will You Remember, that this is My Prayer for you. That you’ll take some time to bring your family, your children, your parents, your grandparents Come Rain or Shine, or sleet or snow, to listen as The Music Goes Round and Round, this Friday, December 12th at 7:30 p.m. or Saturday, December 13th at 2 p.m. to the Mount Vernon District Auditorium to see A Christmas Story, so we might be reminded that there is much to be glad about in the simple act of our coming together as a community. I promise if you do, afterwards you may just be whistling: Heaven, I’m in Heaven…and thinking to yourself: Goody, Goody, or perhaps simply Thanks for the Memory.

Yes, Let’s do it, let’s put on our sparkly party clothes, maybe even some bright red lipstick to celebrate the season, Let’s Fall in Love once again--or perhaps for the first time--with the magic of the season, the magic of the theatre, the magic of making merry, of making music! It’s as simple as following the bouncing ball! And a one and a two and a three! Begin the Beguine!

OF SPECIAL NOTE: Odyssey Theatre for the Young of Art will be collecting new and wrapped toys, clothes, books, games, gift certificates and gift cards for donation to South East Linn Community Center’s Angel Tree program for distribution to families in need during this holiday season! Food items will also be welcomed! Please be generous this year! Happy and Safe Holidays! Questions, call 319-213-0147 or visit our website at

The Heart of a Man

The Heart of a Man

“A good old man is hard to find,” my friend, neighbor and theatre cohort Amy teased.

“And we need two of them,” I lamented.

“No problem,” we both said, tongue firmly planted in cheek. And then we both laughed.

We’d been calling old men all week trying to encourage them to take the part of Old Flick in the upcoming production of Jean Shepherd’s classic A Christmas Story. Set in the late thirties, the story is a recollection retold by two old friends--Ralph and Flick--of a Christmas when all little Ralphie needed (not merely wanted but needed) was to own a Red Ryder BB Gun double carbine action--to shoot varmints.

We’d begun the process of casting by drawing up our criteria for men who would be: 1) the right age (over seventy); 2.) willing to do the parts (theatre saavy or at least adventurous enough to learn); 3.) available to do the part ( in other words, in town versus in Arizona or Florida); 4) capable (translation: open-hearted); and finally 5) men who would understand the joy and necessity of owning a "An official Red Ryder carbine action two-hundred shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time"--or better yet, men who had actually owned one.

Again, we’d looked at each other: “Right, no problem, Christmas miracle.” Undaunted, we began our “call and email” campaign. In my heart I was not only confident that we’d find two gentlemen who fit the criteria to do it--we’d find that here were two old men who were meant for the part.

My heart was right. That very day, Ed Hill returned my email with a resounding: Yes! Yes! Yes! He was not only willing and available to play the part of Old Ralph, he was equally delighted to make a few calls to some old guys who might be willing to get involved. Within the week, Ed called me back and said: “Tom Bostwick would like to see a copy of the script.”

That same night, I pulled up in front of Tom’s house, hopeful, nervous. I could see Tom seated across from the front window in his easy chair. He was laughing with and nodding to grandson Zach who was sprawled on the couch to his left. They were watching the game.

I rang the bell and Tom’s wife Marge answered and invited me inside. “It’s cold out there; come on in,” she said, and called to her husband. “Tom, Karla’s here.” The house was warm and inviting and smelled like Sunday supper. Tom came around the corner, and I handed him a copy of the script, hoping he’d like it. I waved to Zach.

“Here for dinner are you?” I asked him.

“Yep,” Zach said and smiled. “Meatloaf.”

Meanwhile Tom paged through the script.

“You know,” he said. “I had a Red Ryder BB Gun. Did everything with it that I wasn’t supposed to do--including shoot out my own eye! No kidding!”

That was the thing about Tom, he was nearly always kidding. A dry, ascerbic wit--much like his son Eric’s--and no doubt like Zach’s. He was full of what my Dad referred to as “the Dickens.”

Marge was hesitant about him getting involved, worried that he was taking on too much what with his church board matters and such. He shook his head as if to assure her that it would be fine, turned to me and said the words that made my heart sing:

“You can count on me.”

And that was it. The following week he was there at rehearsal, delivering his lines with great humor and heart. He was joking with his fellow cast members--adult and child alike--a part of the action, a part of the circle as we shared our names and parts. Afterwards he came up to me and shared how much fun he was having, how glad he was to be involved, how he’d never before seen such a great group of kids. I told him how delighted I was to have found not one but two good old men! He laughed and took me by the arm gently and told me what a great job I was doing. I was taken quite aback by his charm.

“Thank you, Tom,” I said. “That means a lot coming from you. You’re too kind..” That was the Saturday before Thanksgiving. “I’ll see you after the holidays.” To which he replied:

“You can count on me!”

Life had other plans. On Thanksgiving Day Thomas “Tom” Bostwick passed away. That great big generous heart of his gave out. I was in Chicago visiting family when Amy called the day after Thanksgiving with the news. I stood in the middle of Best Buy on Black Friday and cried like a child who had just learned that her own grandpa had died. I could not imagine the circle without him in it. Amy continued to share how happy he’d been, how he’d been telling everyone how glad he was to be doing what he loved, nervous but excited, learning his lines. He’d been in a good place, a connected place, doing what he loved.

My head tells me that’s what matters, that the best we can hope for is to leave this world on a note of joy versus lament, connected versus isolated, full versus hungry. My heart tells me how fitting a tribute to this man so many of us counted on--a generous man who shared of himself: an afternoon of Sunday meatloaf and the game; a good joke; a screw gun to help build a set or repair something around the house; a tall tale about a boy named Tom, born 71 years ago, who one Christmas wished for and received "an official Red Ryder carbine action two-hundred shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time" --a boy named Tom--whose heart was full of mischief and mirth to the end--a boy who shot his own eye out with that Red Ryder carbine actionBB Gun.

A boy who grew into one fine old man, an old man that we were fortunate enough to find. An old man who never forgot the boy in his heart, an old man who remains in the circle, whose absence is felt. This one’s for you, Tom! Count on it.

Monday, November 24, 2008

When Stars Could Be Diamonds and Mud Could Be Pie

To Joy
By Karla M. Steffens-Moran

Early this morning, as I was finishing up the last of the breakfast dishes, my son Zak’s best friend Seamus came to the door, face flushed, unzipped coat wide open despite the morning frost, panting, and asked in a rush of breath if Zak could come out and see “this animal down the street. I think, it was just hit.” He spoke with a measured balance of fear and excitement in his voice. “I thought…well, I wanted to…maybe, well, it’s worth seeing,” he said. Just then Zak came down the stairs and after a brief exchange, he and his best friend walked out the door and up the street to bear witness.

Late last night my daughter Grace peeked her head around the door of the study with a “Mom, Jenna just called me; Kaiden’s Dad is…dead.” She sat down next to me. “They think it was a heart attack. Can you believe it?” she asked, as she stared out at nothing. I shook my head not quite understanding. How was it possible that someone so vibrant, so good-humored, so filled with life and love could be gone in a moment? “No,” I said. “I cannot; I can not believe it.” Just days before he’d been cheering at his son’s track meet.

Yesterday I looked at the doctor and shared my newly discovered family history at my annual well-woman check: “Breast Cancer,” I said, “My little sister. Here,” I added “on the left,” and touched my index finger near to my heart.

And tonight I’m thinking, to whom do you open your heart while you still have a chance? The heart that at any moment may just as easily burst in joy as in pain, in delight as in anguish. The same heart that beats one moment and the next explodes or simply stops. To whom do you share your truest feelings, the same way that they do on those television shows that we all like to live vicariously through rather than risk feeling it, sharing it, opening our oh-so-fragile hearts to others?

I would like to know where the writer is for my life, the one who will draw up the kooky best friend character, the leggy redhead or unconventional blonde girlfriend who will be there through thick or thin like those girls in Sex in the City? It’s so much harder in real life to dare to open oneself up, to force an answer to the question: how are you? Beyond a simple, “fine, and you?”

Because the truth is, I feel sometimes that I’m failing as much as succeeding—whether it be at mothering or teaching or directing or befriending or loving or cleaning or organizing or creating. And there are the days when I think: where are the writers? Where is the plot line that explains it all? And then I think, it’s the ending that ties it all up.

And so I go back to the only thing I know, the here and now—versus the end. I go back to the best friend who rushes excited through the door, or the daughter who peeks her head around the door of the study, or sometimes to the person who inspires me

Steffens-Moran/To Joy/2

to be open, be involved, be connected—like Kaiden’s dad, Ivan. I must let them in; I must open the door to what they want to show me.

Because real life is often times out there as much as it’s in here, and it’s short and I must go and see it, today, in this moment, not later. Because unlike the television shows that must go on, life will not. Sometimes life will surprise you and it will be over and nothing will be tied up, and you will be left wondering, why didn’t I?

“The funeral is Wednesday,” my daughter tells me. “The whole choir is going to be there, to sing.” I imagine the long line of cars snaking their way through the early spring greens of the cemetery, and I imagine the hands of loved ones as their fingertips gently trace the top of the casket, and I imagine the whispered good-byes and God-Speeds to this man--husband, father, son, brother, cousin, neighbor, friend, fellow farmer. He was too young to die, we’ll all agree, too young to go home to the earth he should be tilling. Those of us who knew him only in passing have only the slightest idea of who he was. And yet we grieve for him, and for his family; we ache for their loss, and they should know, how Ivan mattered to all of us--friends, neighbors, and yes, near-strangers.

His life, like a precious heirloom, shattered in a moment--and despite having no way to put it back together, to make it whole and right again, we try. We will come together--family, friends, colleagues, near strangers--and offer up our own single piece, like single sentences that mean nothing until they are strung together to tell the story of this man’s life.

In one piece, we see a man with a large and ready laugh, a ruddy complexion, with hands thick and rough—like my grandfather’s and father’s who were also farmers—always ready to help, a shock of thick dark hair; a passion to be present to cheer and support at the track meets and volleyball games, to serve family, friends, school, community, the land—to do the right thing, above all, obligated to be hard-working and honorable.

In another piece, we see a man kneel down in a field, take a scoop of rich, freshly tilled soil into the palm of his thick, calloused hand, look up into a cloudless sky, and thank God for all that he has in his life: his beautiful wife, his three wonderful children, the fine family, friends and neighbors he has always been able to count on—and yes, for the promise and bounty of the land.

And he makes a wish that his children, that everyone, can someday know this feeling he holds in his palm, in his heart, this kind of connection to something, someone, to know its promise. And then he stands, ready to plant, again.

“You gotta check this out,” says Seamus to Zak, as they head through the door and up the street. “It’s AMAZING!” And I know that he means to point out this animal that has just passed, the beauty of it, the tragedy of it, to witness, willingly.
Steffens-Moran/To Joy/3/Final

And watching them walk through the door and away up the street, my heart wants to break because I know what is up ahead. I imagine that the farmer would smile and nod his approval. It’s all a part of it, he’d say. Don’t look away. Each moment matters; each piece is a part of the story.

I know this. Because that’s what my piece revealed to me--a whispered truth as simple, constant, and pressing as wind across an Iowa field: be present, bear witness. So tomorrow I will walk up the street and pay respect to the farmer who modeled in his too short but abundant life, to love life, to love and protect the land, to open our fragile hearts to others, to take it all in and then try our best to give back.

So, let’s do it…you and I…whatever it is we are most afraid of doing, of trying, of opening ourselves up to; let’s dare. While I have the chance, let me leave the dishes and go out and look at what is here, let my hand open and let loose of the to-do list. Here in the yard, here in the sun or the rain, let me look up into the sky, let me remember a time when stars could be diamonds and mud could be pie, when all that was needed for magic could be found here at the fingertips, here in the heart, here in the freshly tilled soil, rich with all of its possibility and promise. Let the planting begin.


Sunday, November 23, 2008

This is a Love Letter

This is a love letter. It is early October here in Iowa; it’s just before dusk on an Indian summer autumn day, and the sky is a charged Halloween orange and scarlet red. I am driving west on Highway 30 just east of Mechanicsville where the train runs parallel to the road and where--when you’re lucky--you get to race a train that’s heading in the same direction. I am driving behind an old Studebaker, painted with a flat steel gray paint. Dappled sunlight filters through the rows of now dried cornstalks in the fields to the south and west. In the distance, I see a lone farmer clearing his field, a plume of chipped debris spraying straight up and then falling like a light rain back onto the field in his wake. Despite the size of the massive machine he operates, it is still dwarfed by the surrounding landscape--the brilliant sky and surrounding fields.
I am reminded of the picture of my great grandfather that hangs in my family’s home. My great grandfather was a farmer, as was my grandfather and my father. When I was growing up, the picture hung on the wall outside my father and mother’s room, just below a brass crucifix adorned with my grandmother’s rosary. In the photo, the lone silhouette of a male figure is seen--from a great distance. It is dusk, and the farmer is leaning his full weight into the plow pulled by a single Clydesdale. The man, my great grandfather, is dwarfed by the massive field and sky. His task, in proportion to his size, appears unbelievably daunting. Still, he works tirelessly, presumably long past dark.
I never met my great grandfather. He died when my father was a young man. However, I did know my grandfather, although he too died when I was just a little girl. I remember mostly his hands: large, strong, callused and dirty (no matter how hard or often he scrubbed them), and that he smelled like evergreen and mudpies. He was a truck farmer, fruit and vegetables. I asked my dad why they called them ‘truck farmers.’ He explained by describing how he and his father would wake before dawn on Saturday mornings and fill the back of their truck with freshly picked produce. Then they would drive into the city to the open markets, where they’d sell from the back of the old truck till sunset, and then drive back home.
Years after taking those early morning drives to market, my father continued the tradition, farming his own “back forty”--more as a pastime than for a living-- until the year before he died. He proudly cited the fact that he was the last official card-carrying farmer registered in Cook County, Illinois. He farmed the same land that his father and his grandfather farmed long before it became prime North Shore real estate. My father would often joke when we’d drive around my hometown of Wilmette that “the people that thought they were really something had no idea how much manure their fancy houses were built upon.” He helped me to understand through his love of planting--peas and beans, blackberries and eggplant, tomatoes and zucchini--the beauty of the land, the beauty of the farmer.
Before he died he sold his property to a Montessori school so that his “back forty” might be preserved for kids to wander through--maybe even for a garden.
So, this is a love letter to my great grandfather and grandfather and to my father. It’s also a love letter to all the local truck farmers here in Mount Vernon and Lisbon, named Krouse and Miller, Pavelka and Kroul, Knight and Walberg, Burkle and Thornton and Ciha and dozens of unnamed others. It’s also to the bakers like Sue and Ann and Carey and Pat and the two sisters who take the time to bake from scratch with only the freshest of ingredients. So, to all of you farmers, noted or not, praised or not, visible or not, thank you for the beans and broccoli, eggplant, sweet potatoes, butternut squash and sweet red onions.
Thank you for your tireless work behind your own plows. Thank you for loving the land and bringing us good and healthy and real food, for tending to the land, caring for the soil, and for reminding me of what my father taught me: the land that sustains us should never be taken for granted or squandered. The land is sacred. So is the farmer.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Thank you Veterans!

There were no parades today; at least there weren't any in my town. Nor am I able to recollect any such parades when I was growing up. It's November 11th and there's nothing planned that's out of the ordinary. I've just gotten my three children off to school. I've cleaned up the breakfast dishes and put the boxes of cereal back up into the cabinet. I've cleaned some mold off the back porch (that I'd seen when I went to go and retrieve hats and gloves for my three--as the temperatures are plummeting this morning. It's time to go and get dressed, drop my youngest son's bass off at the school and head to work. Typical day for me and for thousands of others just like me. Except for the veteran. While I don't know for a fact how the veterans feel--of any war; however, I imagine this day, Veteran's Day is not just another day for veterans and their families. Come to think of it, it shouldn't be for any of us. And yet it is.

I'm not certain really what to do about that fact. I know what to do on Memorial Day. There are parades and pancake breakfasts and solemn silent salutes punctuated by the sound of rifles firing, once, twice, three times. Fire. Fire. Fire. There are gatherings of people large and small, public and private to mark the day that some of our nation's finest have fallen, never to return home. There's backyard barbeques with hot dogs and hamburgers, cole slaw and lemonade, there's laughter that balances those silent moments of reflection. That's Memorial Day.

So, what about Veteran's Day? Why is it that I, that we, have a tendency to forget with a "Oh, yeah, it's…what is it called.? Oh, yeah, it's Veteran's Day." Perhaps it's because no one has told us what to do, how to honor them. There are no parades, no cards, no somber, no significant slogans. Just veterans. I wonder what it's like for the veteran. There have been a few movies made over the years. The one that made the greatest impact on me, the one that still breaks my heart when I think about it: The Best Years of Our Lives. The ImbD plot synopsis describes it :

The story concentrates on the social re-adjustment of three World War II servicemen, each from a different station of society. Al Stephenson returns to an influential banking position, but finds it hard to reconcile his loyalties to ex-servicemen with new commercial realities. Fred Derry is an ordinary working man who finds it difficult to hold down a job or pick up the threads of his marriage. Having had both hands burnt off during the war, Homer Parrish is unsure that his fiancée's feelings are still those of love and not those of pity. Each of the veterans faces a crisis upon his arrival, and each crisis is a microcosm of the experiences of many American warriors who found an alien world awaiting them when they came marching home. (IMbD, Written by alfiehitchie)

Certainly there have been other films, The Deer Hunter, Born on the 4th of July, All Quiet on the Western Front even Forrest Gump. All of these films--all of them--depict the lives of men and women broken by the wars in which they fought. They show us how they've had to fight to regain some sense of what we refer to as normal--they've had to fight to reclaim the glory of a typical day. The one I was having today--until I realized that I needed to at the least appreciate it differently, not take it for granted. Because somebody--actually many somebodies helped to make this "typical morning" possible. They're called veterans. Today, I honor them. I thank them. Tomorrow I pledge to not forget.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

No Room at the Inn: Arkansas Adoption Ban

No Room at the Inn Appr: 2700 words
by Karla M. Steffens-Moran

Many of us in the past week have been talking about the election. Some are relieved it’s over; some are still riding high on the energy it inspired in the nation. Some feel themselves victors; others feel an acute loss. Some of us feel it was a victory and a loss.

I sat across from my dear friend at the Skillet Café in town this past Wednesday over plates of steaming hot eggs and pancakes, our fingers wrapped around enormous mugs of hot, black coffee, talking excitedly about the true winners and losers in this year’s Presidential Race. We both agreed: the only true losers this time around were the children in foster care waiting to be adopted, waiting for a place to call home.

We’re talking about Arkansas here, the most recent state in our nation to ban legal adoption of children by unmarried couples. The initiative was introduced by the Family Council Action Committee (a self-described “grassroots organization involved in ensuring the confirmation of conservative judicial nominees, protecting the Arkansas Marriage Amendment, and dealing with issues such as the expansion of gambling”). The measure was meant to circumvent The Supreme Court’s overturning of the Arkansas’s Child Welfare Agency Review Board’s policy in 1999 that banned gay people from serving as foster parents.

In its unanimous ruling, the court agreed that “the driving force behind adoption of the regulations was not to promote the health, safety and welfare of foster children but rather based upon the board’s views of morality and its bias against homosexuals.”

So, while Social Conservative blogs decry it “a huge victory!” the courts and advocates of human service agencies all agree that the ban is a genuine blow to the needs of children. How anyone could vote to deny any child a warm, loving, nurturing home is clearly beyond indecent. To do so and claim that it is a “victory in the name of what Jesus would do” is insulting. To claim this loss for children as “a victory for social conservatives everywhere” is cruel and inhuman--and yes, appallingly ignorant.

There is no victory in denying a child a home--for any reason, let alone basing it on some bigoted belief that only married heterosexuals can properly parent. Indeed, there is little evidence to support that “fact.” We need only look at the number of broken (i.e. divorced) heterosexual homes (as well as in-tact married heterosexual homes from which neglected and abused children have been forcibly taken by the state) to prove the point that “we married heterosexuals” have little right to claim superiority in our parenting skills. On the other hand, there is a genuine lack of evidence to suggest that single and/or homosexuals have failed to successfully parent children. Indeed, they are as likely (or more) to provide a loving and supportive home. There is no evidence. There is only bigotry.

I challenge anyone who holds this as his/her core criteria for denying a child a home to do one of several things: 1.) go and look a child in the eye who has been in the foster care system, waiting for nothing more than a permanent and safe home for years and dare to ask what s/he wants; 2.) serve on a foster care review board for even six months; 3.) talk to those wanting to adopt--heterosexual or homosexuals, married or not--waiting to adopt. Dare to do this. I challenge you.

If you do, I promise you it will change you; it will break your heart; it will, at the very least, give you pause to question your beliefs. Certainly, each of us is entitled to believe what we choose. However, those beliefs--no matter how passionately held they are--give us the zero right to deny others their Constitutional rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Our opinions should not invade the rights of others to build families--in particular, if they are opinions based in ignorance. As I have suggested to students in my classes: it’s easy to have an opinion. The challenge is to have a well-informed one. It’s harder to be closed-minded with eyes wide open. The idea that to be heterosexual gives us some secret wisdom to parent is absurd. I’m a married heterosexual and am convinced of only one thing: there should be some test, some rulebook, something that would take some of the guesswork out of this thing we call parenting. The only thing I know for certain is that successful parenting begins and ends with being there. What children need is for us to be there for them. And we heterosexuals don’t have any stronghold--ANY advantage--in that one over anyone by virtue of our marital status and/or sexual orientation.

Because if that was true, then explain this to me. Why in this past year alone have nearly 800,000 children (most if not all of whom come from married heterosexual households) in this great nation of ours been served by the foster care system? Explain to me what happened with those 800,000 children?

I know! Let’s have every one who voted to ban homosexuals and/or the unmarried from adopting children adopt a child waiting for a home. Better yet, let’s include anyone who would vote to do so in any state at any time--and require that each of those voters provide safe shelter to a child waiting for a permanent home. Let’s go ahead and start with those voters from Arkansas, Mississippi, Utah, and Florida who have banned single and/or gay parenthood (we can add any voters who would vote to do so later as needed). I imagine that the number of voters in those early states alone would provide tens of thousands of homes to children waiting for permanent placement. Add to that the sixteen states with similar initiatives underway nationwide and their potential voters, and I think we just might have this placement problem licked.

Funny thing is--and clearly there’s not much that one might consider genuinely humorous here--after searching the web sites of countless such organizations, including the Family Action Council Committee responsible for the 2008 Arkansas ban--there is nothing on those sites inviting its membership to adopt any of these children. And while I do know a handful that practice what they preach, it appears that far too many of these advocates of “healthy family values” are disproportionately busy with their agenda of “being against,” to actually provide a solution, or in this case, a home.

Seventeen years ago, I served the foster care system in Baltimore, Maryland as a member of its Foster Care Review Board. I can attest that the only reason many of these children are returned to their biological parents is because there’s “no room at the inn”; there are not enough homes available for temporary, let alone permanent, placement. There are not enough willing to parent “somebody else’s problem.” So there we sat, around the large conference tables, listening to caseworkers lay out the pros and cons, flipping through the files trying to find some shred of evidence to support the hope that “reuniting” them with their biological parents was not in total vain.

Every month we would review these cases and be devastated. Children forced to eat out of garbage cans, abandoned for days or weeks at a time, starved for attention and time and nutrients; toddlers forced to fend for themselves while caring for younger siblings. These children were ravaged first by parents--of all ages, races, religions and socioeconomic levels--and second by an overburdened system of workers that could only do so much with their limited resources. Children starved, beaten, burned with irons, cigarettes, cut with bottles, sexually mutilated and then abandoned. And these were the survivors. Tough, resilient, courageous children in need of one thing: a safe home.

But there weren’t enough families willing to adopt out of the system. And so back these children went. We had no choice. That’s what we tried to convince ourselves as we closed the case files and headed home for the day. My friend and I would drive home, silently, filled with a sorrow that haunts me to this day, for having sent these kids back to near certain neglect and abuse.

First, do no harm. That should be the criteria before anyone casts a vote on the safety and salvation of a child. Second, know the facts. Third, do something to help the situation before eliminating those willing to do so. Only after all of those boxes have been checked should we allow ourselves to cast any vote on behalf of what we believe is best for another human being--in particular, a child.

As of January 2008 of this year, according to the data collected by the United States Department of Health and Human Services Administration of Children and Families, there were 130,000 children waiting to be adopted. Of those, 84,000 had already had parental rights terminated--translation: had been in the system for on average two years--and were waiting for permanent placement, waiting for someone to make room for them in their lives and homes. This figure does not take into account the nearly 800,000 in 2007 actually served by the foster care system. Who am I you may wonder to speak on behalf of these children waiting to be adopted? Am I an authority? No--and yes.

Yes, because I am adopted. Notice that even though I am a grown woman that I say I am adopted versus I was adopted. This is a distinction to note because truth is, unlike foster care, being adopted is not temporary. Even those of us adopted at an early age know from our core what it means to long for inclusion in a family that will be there for us, who will not abandon us.

And let’s face it, such families are not born, they’re created. Families are not accidents; they’re choices we make. It is a choice to be there for others: through better and worse, richer and poorer, sickness and health, to stay versus leave, to be there. And in the case of those children waiting to be adopted, their wait has just been extended because the pool of prospective parents has been crippled by the bigotry of individuals who believe they know what is best. Those ‘holier than thou’ in the states of Arkansas and Utah, Florida and Mississippi. who believe they know who is better equipped to be a parent: “married couples that consist of a man and a woman.” And while the voters in these states play God in de-vining what makes for a “healthy family,” the children wait.

“Since FY 2003, the estimated number of waiting children has been approximately 130,000 on the last day of each year. The estimated number of waiting children whose parental rights had already been terminated as of the last day of the year has been increasing (from 74,000 in FY 2004, to 78,000 in FY 2005, and to 80,000 in FY 2005). The estimated number reached 84,000 in FY 2007, the highest number since AFCARS data have been reported.” Some have stood up to answer the call of these children. They fight to protect these children just as others work to deny them rights. And the battle rages on.

A circuit court judge in Florida ruled the state's 31-year-old
ban on adoptions by openly gay men and women is unconstitutional.
Monroe County Circuit Judge David J. Audlin Jr. issued the ruling
in the case of a gay Key West foster parent who seeks to adopt the
special needs teenage boy he has been taking care of, the Miami
Herald reported Wednesday.Audlin declared the adoption to be in
the boy's "best interest" and said the Florida law forbidding
gay people from adopting children is unconstitutional. A home
study by a Florida social worker "highly" recommended the foster
father and his partner be allowed to adopt the boy, saying they
provided a "loving and nurturing home.” (Miami Herald, 2008)

My friend and his partner have done that very thing. They’ve provided a home to three young children--siblings who have been in the system for years since nearly birth. I am proud to know and call this family--created from love and from commitment to being there for one another--my friends. Their home began with the opening of their hearts as many such homes wish to do. They are counting on us to open our eyes, our minds, our ears, and yes, our hearts to the truth that family is constructed in many ways. Home is where the heart is open and the mind is open and the door is open.

That’s what we each need a family, a home, a place to return to that is safe and loving and nurturing, with parents who are there for us. Let us all stand united in this, men, women, straights, gays, adopted and adopter, married and single--to defeat any measure that is meant to exclude, deny, diminish the rights of any of our citizens.

The irony of course is that while the House unanimously passes legislation to encourage that children not be left waiting until they “age-out” of the system (which sadly nearly 25,000 youth do each year without ever enjoying what most of us enjoy--a permanent home), coalitions of ignorant soulless individuals work against their efforts. This ensures only one thing: a child is left waiting. Actually 130,000 children are left waiting.

Of course there are organizations devoted to working on behalf of the kids. One such organization: Kids Are Waiting: Fix Foster Care Now is described as “a national, nonpartisan campaign dedicated to promoting foster care reform. Led by The Pew Charitable Trusts, an ever-growing number of local, state and national partners are working together so that our most vulnerable children don't spend their childhood waiting in foster care for the families they deserve.” However, while we applaud the efforts of these organizations, we need not wait for such a ban initiative to show up on our next election ballot. And let’s be clear, someone is working on drafting one for our state because they think they know best. They don’t.

So, let’s instead be proactive. Let’s each of us go one step further than simply saying: that’s not right. Let’s at the least write to our Congressmen and our Senators, write to our current President, George W. Bush, write to our new president-elect, Barack Obama on his new website that is asking us to speak up. Or contact Jennifer Slife and Jennifer Gericke to see about serving on a Foster Care Review Board here in Linn County by calling: 319-362-0829 or write or to get involved. Perhaps it will serve to open a door to what is truly needed, what is truly at stake. While the election is over and the votes are already cast, as president-elect Obama has suggested: the work has just begun. It’s not enough anymore to simply cast our votes and wash our hands of it.

Let’s instead put those idle hands to work on creating something positive. Let’s make it our responsibility. As one of my own three beautiful children pointed out to me on Election morning: “The thing is, Mom, it’s not about being against something; it’s about asking yourself what you’re for.” Change happens when we choose it…and follow up by working for it.

Last night I sat at the theatre watching my own daughter onstage. My two friends sat--all three of their kids in tow in order to introduce them to the delight of going to the theatre-- (two weeks ago it was cheering on the high school football team). Two of the three kids were curled up in their daddies’ laps, heads resting against their broad shoulders. The third was sitting forward laughing at all the antics onstage. The play was almost over. The oldest, a daughter looked up to her dad and asked in a hushed whisper: “Are we going home soon, Daddy?” My friend looked down the row to his partner and they shared that knowing glance: “It’s late. We need to get them to bed soon.” My friend hugged his new daughter to him and whispered back to her assuringly: “Yes, sweetie, we’ll be going home soon.” She smiled. Her wait is over.

One hundred and thirty thousand are still waiting.