The Obamas’ National Day of Service

Recently, the Obamas called on Americans to participate in service projects in honor of Martin Luther King Jr Day.  So my son and I signed up to help at a local goods bank in our city.  A goods bank is like a food bank only with furniture, clothing, etc. for needy families.

About eight years ago, Donna Hunnewell, came up with the idea after sitting through a years worth of meetings of our local Hunger and Homelessness Commission and hearing case workers talk about how much time it took them to track down things like cribs and couches for their clients.  Donna decided that while she could never work directly with the clients herself (she told us, “I’d sit there crying all day if I did that”), she did know that she could gather used furniture and clothes for the caseworkers so they could concentrate on doing their real job, helping these families with job training, housing, health care, and education issues.

Here is Donna, speaking at our volunteer event yesterday:

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At first Donna began informally, using her porch and garage as a holding space for goods, which she delivered in her van.  Then she moved operations to a mini-storage unit, then several units and finally a warehouse.  This past year her Lowell Wish Project surpassed the one million dollars in goods mark and has now served over 27,000 clients, including 600 families that received an entire house full of furniture, right down to the shower curtains and pots and pans.  Remarkably, she and her volunteers can now pull together a whole house full of furniture, etc.,  in just 20 minutes!

So, my son and I arrived and were amazed to join over a hundred volunteers as we sorted donations — everything has a clearly marked place, so it’s very easy to find.  I had to crack up because we were assigned to mitten and hat duty, supremely ironic because my son and I had a rather unpleasant discussion the other day about keeping track of mittens….  SO here we were, sorting donated mittens, destined for families who could not afford to buy such things.  What luck!

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After we sorted and refilled the various bins from an extra bin in the back of the warehouse, we wandered around looking for the places where some odd items that we found really belonged (these items had somehow made their way into the girls’ hats bin by mistake).  As we walked, we saw everyone busy sorting and organizing.

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And we saw so much stuff that had been donated, almost all of which was clean and usable, if sometimes a bit, well, ur, ugly, to be honest.  As we walked by one woman with two teenagers, I heard the mom explaining, “Yeh, it’s not that attractive, I know, but if you had a bedroom window that looked right out to the street, you’d be glad to have this to cover it!”  I saw the teens nod.

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At the end of the day, Donna told us that our band of Obama-incited volunteers had in one morning accomplished what it normally takes volunteers about three months to do.  “You helped make wishes come true.  Thanks!”  She also said that her Project is responsible for reducing the local landfill input by 1%, not bad for a little organization started out of someone’s garage!  Every little bit helps.

We will be going back for sure.  This was an easy service activity for me and my son to do together, and they offer a lot of flexibility for volunteers to come lots of different times of the week, inlcuding evenings and weekends.  “Guilt-free charity” Donna calls it — come again if you want, or not.  They also sponsor 18 service projects throughout the year, including a back-to-school backpack drive.  I’m sure we will find many ways to get involved.

So, on this inauguration day, hats off to the man who inspired over a hundred people ot spend their Saturday morning in a warehouse sorting donations to help out local families in need.  It’s going to be an interesting four years.

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What I’m thankful for…

For Thanksgiving, we went to Grandma’s niece’s husband’s sister and brother-in-law’s house.  in other words, we were with family!  We follow my cousin pretty much wherever she and her husband go during the holidays.  They are the only relatives we have in the Northeast, and it’s to far and too costly to go “home” to California.  Anyway, it was the fifth time we’ve gone down to Connecticut to K and M’s house for the holiday.

This year I discovered something I never knew about K (the brother-in-law).  He had known Martin Luther King Jr. back in the day and had even marched with him.  During the “I Have a Dream” speech, K was able to squeeze his way into the fourth row, right up front. He was a classmate of MLK’s and had even been invited to King’s wedding.

K told me about how “when you go into a situation like what we faced, you have to have a plan and know the plan before ever setting foot there.  People just don’t know what it will feel like or be like when the violence starts or when the threatening presence of the police officers sweeps in.  It’s absolutely necessary to have a plan going in.”

He related a story about one day going into a cafe with a mixed race group and sitting down together to be served lunch.  They were hungry, plain and simple.  But they couldn’t just go get a bite to eat.  They had to have a plan. Ready for trouble, they finally filed in and sat down at a single table, black and white friends together. The waiter just served them their food.  Nothing happened.

At first, I was dismayed by the story, a little annoyed.  I thought, well, at least you could have gotten put in jail.  No beatings?  Bah!

Then I caught myself and realized how utterly ridiculous my reaction was.  It is because of people like K. and MLK, white and black together, that such blatant discrimination is no longer allowed.  As K. put it last night at dinner, sitting there loading his fork with a big bite of apple pie, “I’m sure you’ve already heard it, but it’s true. King marched, so Obama could run.” Then he spoke about how on election night his tears could not be stopped.  K. marched, too.  He helped make a President Obama possible.

So that’s what I’m thankful for on this holiday that is dedicated to gratefulness.  I am thankful that the sacrifices of so many for so long have at last come to this pass, that it is indeed possible for an intelligent and capable man whose father was black and whose mother was white to be elected to our highest office. Because so many marched — including a sprightly, elderly white man with a big fuzzy white beard, who just happens to be my grandmother’s niece’s husband’s brother-in-law — on January 20 we can give thanks for President Obama.

1,500 messages and counting…

LadyBeams, who kindly checked in to see if I was still in the land of the living, expressed some dismay at my absence lately from my blog.  I am, as it turns out, still alive and kicking.  Drowning in work, but still with one nostril clear to breathe through.

You see, I very fooloshly descided to use technology, blogging and Blackboard, for all of my classes this semester.  HUH?  Yeh, what an idiot.  At this point in the semester, I’ve read over 1,700 messages/posts, and I’ve posted somewhere close to 500 of my own.  It’s an insane pace I’ve set for myself, and I’m far behind in grading this work.  Students are really learning, of course, but I am swamped.  Weird deja vu here.  I mean, haven’t I been here before?  Didn’t I swear I’d never come back here again…?

I guess so many messages on the class discussion boards or my students’ blogs wouldn’t be too hard to manage if I didn’t also have to grade regular papers.  Remember that I am an English professor.  That means multiple paper drafts.  Let’s see, 25 freshmen who have written three papers so far = 75. Then 15 sophomore English majors who have written three papers so far = 45.  And 28 sophomore non-majors who have written one paper so far = 28.  And finally 24 on-line students who have written one paper so far = 24.  Mid-term total = 172.  But they aren’t through yet with early drafts, about 107 more to go.  Then there’ll be the final revisions of those papers to grade, almost doubling the number: (279 x 2) – 48 = 510 papers to read and mark this semester.  Don’t get me started on reading quizzes, small assignments such as bibliographies or paper outlines or the requiresd final essay exam in freshman writing…!

I’m not saying this to complain.  Seriously.  I am NOT grumbling.  I’m happy to have a job, actually. 🙂  But the next time you hear someone say that teachers have it too good because they get summer’s off, can you just smack them for me?!

In any case, I’ve never been more on-line in my life.  I just haven’t been here…or at my friends’ blogs lately! Ah, but the semester is only fifteen weeks long.  Eventually it will end, and I can catch up then with my blogging and writing and reading, etc.  Maybe even before then….

Back to grading now for me.  Just one last thing.  As you get ready to vote in Tuesday’s election, I want you to think carefully about things like funding for public education and whome you elect for postions on school boards and all that.  Listen guys, I don’t know any teachers who don’t work like dogs all the time, even in summer.  It’s an incredibly tough job to do well.  Please support our efforts.

And if any of you reside in Massachusetts, please vote NO on Question 1, a propsal to abolish the income tax in our Commonwealth.  We can’t take a 40% hit to our state budget.  Such a move would gut public education, especially public higher ed.  Things are tough enough for educators.  Please support your educators!

Bags, everyone! Bags!

I was shopping at Trader Joe’s the other day and was very excited to see that they have started selling organic, humanely-raised chicken. After what I’ve been reading about feed lot meat, ugh. Anyway, I was very happy to see this. Then at the checkout counter, the guy asked me if I’d found everything I wanted, and I said, “I wish you carried grass-fed beef.”

Presto, he gets this guy to look it up for me in their system, and it turns out there are two marinated tri-tip varieties they had right there in the fridge case that fit the bill. Yippee. Meat I can eat without all the bad health effects of beef and the guilt about contributing to global warming and other nasties. I bought the carne asada type. Yummo. Taco Tuesday coming soon!

Then when I was leaving, I noticed this sign:

I don’t know if you can see the details very well on your screen, but it’s a picture of an adorable little reusable bag crying from inside a locked car. Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me!! I want to go into the store with you…. Or, now that I think about it, maybe it’s a bag that’s tryign to get into your car as you drive away. Hmmm. Well, either way, it’s kinda cute, and er well kinda disturbing.

Okay, so at the time I thought it was adorable. What a NICE way to remind people to stop polluting by using all those plastic or paper bags. Very polite little reminder.

So, I’m sure there’s some awful thing Trader Joe’s has done that I just don’t know about and all that. But for now, ignorance is bliss. And until our CSA meat share starts in December, when I get to purchase the ideal — pasture-fed, organic, and local meat — well, I’ll gladly go to Trader Joe’s. Two outta three ain’t bad.

The local farmer’s market has few veggies left these days. The weather’s turning. I need to pick some apples next weekend and make applesauce and all that. But mostly the growing season in my neck of the woods (New England, USA) is almost over. I tried really hard the last two months to buy the local stuff and preserve it, but there’s no way this year that I gathered enough to last us until spring crops come in. I did, however make a dent in our food-related energy consumption. Next year I’ll do better with more lead time and having figured out what we should have done differently this year.

Meanwhile, I started using my reusable bags everywhere I go, so I’m doing my bit. At Target the other day, the checkout clerk looked at me like I was crazy when I refused — politely — his plastic bag. They’re not just for groceries anymore, folks! Seems like it’s somehow okay now for yout to bring a bag into the grocery store, but eeghads not a REGULAR store, heaven forbid.

Well, anyway, if you want some good sources for buying reusable bags, check these out:

Fair Indigo (a fair trade on-line store) sells beautiful bags — these are quite lovely as well as foldable and reusable

ReusableBags.com sells all kinds of bags as well as other items (lunch boxes, etc.)

Adventures in Buying Local: Visiting the Fishmongrel

I just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  A fabulous read, I thought, as did my book group from church.  I knew that there were good reasons to buy local and all that, but it was inspiring reading about how Kingsolver’s family spent a whole year trying to eat only food grown by people they knew (including themselves).

Okay, in a nutshell, here is the point:  trucking and training and flying and shipping food from thousands of miles away to our grocery stores just so we can have asparagus in September or raspberries in January is taking a huge toll on our planet.  For one thing, look at how much oil it takes to transport those foods so far.  And another point, the kind of super-agribusiness it takes to actually pull that sort of thing off is resulting in an alarming reduction in plants and animal varieties, and that is dangerous because a nasty bug that is resistant to chemicals meant to kill it can come along and wipe out 25% or more of a certain type of food in the blink of an eye.  Plus, food from far doesn’t taste as good as fresh food.  So there.

There’s more to it than this, but you get the basic idea.  Now, here’s the reason I recommend the book.  I KNEW about the importance of local and sustainable food systems and all that, but I didn’t really KNOW it in any way that translated the big issue into my own life.  Reading about Kingsolver’s family, helped me to truly understand.  I read and actually felt hopeful.

So my book group, which is comprised of women from my UU church, read the book and discussed it at a potluck on Sunday night, and we are very excited about working together to help our own families, our church, and our community to be better stewards of the earth, to enjoy healthier and more satisfying food, and to reverse the trend of borrowing from tomorrow for the food whim of today.

For the past month, as I’ve been reading, I have started making changes.  We already belong to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm.  But I never gave a thought to where the rest of our food came from.  For the first time, I went to our city’s farmer’s market this week and got the best heirloom tomatoes and cantaloupe I’ve had in a long while.  I also ran into a ton of people I know (wish I’d taken a little time to freshen up a bit before going!)  Ah, I thought, I can supplement whatver I do not get each week from my CSA with the farmer’s market offerings.  Good.  But…where can I get locally made bread, cheese, and most importantly, grass-fed meat? Cause I ain’t goin back to no feedlot beef never never never.

Well, I’ve been trying to find out about these and other options and it’s like a full-time job.  I will persevere, but I wish it were easier to make the switch.  And that leads me to the title of this post.  Today I finally got around to checking out a local fishmonger’s shop.  Okay, so that’s what I call it.  Is that because I study British literature of the 19th century or do people here in 2008 USA also call a person who sells fish a fishmonger?

My son, whom I dragged all around town on errands today, got a little mixed up by the word, saying fishmongrel instead.  Cutie!

Unfortunately, the place didn’t actually sell fish except fully cooked on a plate and all that. I thought for sure that was a fishmonger shop.  Nope.  No such luck.

Back to more research, I guess.  School starts very soon, though.  If I don’t have my suppliers figured out by then, I’m afraid I’ll not be able to follow through as well as I’d like once I’m back to teaching.  At least I’ve discovered the Lowell farmer’s market.  Can’t wait until Friday when I can get some more of that delectable cantaloupe!

Our Tragedy: On Defending Liberal Values … with One’s Life

No doubt you’ve heard. Another shooting. This one strikes a little closer to home for me. It was a church in my denomination that was hit. What was not immediately in the news, though, is that this crime was apparently motivated by hatred. See this excerpt of a news article I found today:

Two Unitarian Universalists killed in church shooting

By Donald E. Skinner
7.28.08

Two people were killed Sunday, July 27, and seven others injured when a gunman opened fire inside the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church (TVUUC) in Knoxville, Tenn., during the morning performance of a children’s play.

. . . Police arrested Jim D. Adkisson, 58, of Powell, Tenn., minutes after the shooting on a charge of first-degree murder. The Knoxville News Standard reported Monday that Adkisson’s ex-wife, Liza Anderson, had been a member of the church.

. . . Knoxville Police Department Chief Sterling Owen IV said at a press conference Monday morning that a four-page letter written by Adkisson had been found in his car. The letter described his “hatred of the liberal movement,” Owen said. “Liberals in general, as well as gays.” Owen also said that Adkisson blamed the liberal movement for his failure to get a job.

TVUUC is active and well known in the community for its support of equal rights for the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community, women, and people of color. It sponsors the Spectrum Diversi-Tea & Coffee House for LGBTQ teens. In 2006, TVUUC’s youth group joined Spectrum members in organizing a demonstration in a Knoxville park after two same-sex teens were harassed for holding hands.

The morning worship service, attended by about 200 people, was to feature a performance of “Annie, Jr.” by approximately 25 children in the church’s summer musical theater workshop. None of the children were wounded.

. . . the shooter had a large cache of ammunition on him at the time of the shooting but he was unable to use it because members of the congregation quickly subdued him.

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My heart breaks for these good people. To think of those children in that sanctuary having to see this terrible event. It is inconceivable. And yet, is this truly a surprise? We know there is a deep well of hatred in some people’s hearts against gays and those who support them, against people of color and those who stand with them fighting for true equality, against all manner of folk who do not fit within a narrow definition of what it means to be “good” and “righteous.”

The people of that church are doing something so very, very right, standing up for justice in the face of bigotry, prejudice, and a semiautomatic shotgun. May they find healing. May they continue their good work. May people in their community be drawn to a place ruled by love and tolerance.

Information on how you can help:

“In the first 24 hours of its existence, the newly-established Knoxville
Relief Fund has received more than 300 donations. The Unitarian
Universalist Association of Congregations (UUA) in collaboration with
the Thomas Jefferson District has established the Fund to bring
ministry, spiritual care, and practical financial assistance to those
affected by the tragedy in Knoxville, Tennessee. Your gifts will assist
the Tennessee Valley UU Church and the Westside Unitarian Universalist
Fellowship and their members, and will show them that they are not alone
during this time of shock and grief. To make online donations or obtain
further information, visit…
http://www.uua.org/giving/donatenow/117168.shtml

Welcome Back: On Loving Our Diverse and Complicated Country

The audience sat hushed in the oldest church in Lowell this morning. Even the baby near the back who had been fussing for most of the concert was silent. Then the familiar strains began of our national anthem. It was the final song of an hour-long concert. As I looked at the faces of the children, playing in this summer orchestra program for kids in our relatively impoverished and highly diverse city, I saw the face of America. Maybe more accurately, I saw the face of the world. Children of immigrants all, they played their instruments with concentration, skill, and joy. And I cried.

I’ll be the first to admit that I am not really patriotic. I believe that patriotism is a dangerous stance. I fear it causes more harm than good most times. But this morning in that 184-year-old church, I wept. I felt so proud to belong to a country that has welcomed immigrants from every continent in every century since our founding, a place where my ancestors were welcomed when they risked all to leave Norway, Sweden, Ireland, England, Italy, and who knows where else.

Is there anti-immigrant sentiment in the US these days? You bet there is. Is there racism and discrimination? Quite obviously so. Still…there is a man running for president whose father was African. Obama is a first generation American, the son of an immigrant and he could end up holding our highest public office. Our country may have have it’s problems (no argument there), but we are in many ways still a welcoming place for newcomers — at least we ahve that intention and potential.

Like in my city, for instance. We face a lot of challenges here in this historic mill town. From its inception, though, Lowell has always welcomed immigrants. While it’s true that these newcomers generally live in the most degraded part of town when they first come, they often begin to improve their lot well within one person’s lifetime, if not sooner. As each new wave of immigrants has swept into the city — Irish, French Canadian, Russian, Greek, Southeast Asian (especially Cambodian), West African, Caribbean Latino, etc. — they have worked hard and moved out of “the acre” to make room for the next group of arrivals.

And there were these immigrants’ children and children’s children at the concert today, my son among them. Just having returned from Scandinavia and having spent the last three weeks thinking constantly about my immigrant ancestors, I heard and saw the concert with this filter in place.

So I made it home fine from my trip to Scandinavia. Our journey the last day was long and extended even longer due to a violent nor’easter storm in Boston that closed Logan airport. We finally arrived two hours late. At the immigration counter, we waited an especially long time. In our line before us, there was a family that looked to be Indian or Pakistani. The US government let these good folks enter our country, though not without a lot of checking and double checking and triple checking and quadruple checking. But after all that, the officer said, “Welcome to the United States.”

“What was your business in Sweden and Norway?” he asked me when I went up to the window after the family walked away to baggage claim.

I was there doing research for a book about my immigrant ancestors.

“Really?”

Yup. It was a great trip. Gotta lot accomplished.

“Okay. Welcome back.”

Welcome. Yes….

I get frustrated with the erosions of civil liberties and basic civil rights happening these days in the US. I am infuriated that we went to war in Iraq — a senseless and brutal act. I see so much that is broken or damaged in this country, so much work to do that it is overwhelming at times. But I also know that our diverse and complicated country has held and continues to hold out a beautiful promise to millions of people. They are welcome. Let us live up to that promise.