Your silence is protection that they do not deserve

If she had lived, my mother would be turning 66 on March 2nd, 2013. She died in 2007 of an enlarged heart, which, to me, has a poetic justice to it. My mother did not give love easily, but she gave it fiercely.

My mother spent much of her life married to a man who despised her. A man who would beat her, and then turn to his youngest daughter and say, “Why are you crying? I’m doing this so you can do what you want.” A man who routinely called her stupid in front of her children. A man who, on the day the family portrait was to be taken, told her to stay home because she was too ugly to be in the picture.

His cruelty made my mother cruel for the longest time. She couldn’t beat her husband, so she beat me, instead (I was his favorite, you see). Then, in 1994, the OJ Simpson trial happened. My mother drew the parallels. She watched the trial obsessively. She drew strength from this public discussion of male power over female powerlessness. Only a few months after the trial ended, my parents divorced, my father’s attempted rape of my mother being the last straw.

It wasn’t so long ago that a husband forcing his wife to have sex would not have even been called rape. It wasn’t so long ago that women couldn’t open credit card accounts without their husband’s signature. It wasn’t so long ago that a man in a bar bought me a drink, and when I said goodnight, I was going home, he said, “I bought you drinks and that’s all I get?” (That really wasn’t very long ago; less than a year.)

We live in a culture where women are destroyed every day. A world where a nine year old black girl is called a cunt, and people laugh. A world where if we don’t laugh along with the rape jokes and the inappropriate advances, we’re called bitches, or frigid. Where if we get visibly upset, we must be “on the rag.” A man speaking loudly and emphatically about what he believes in is a man to be admired. A woman doing the same is a crazy shrew.

After the divorce, my mother was able to be kind again. She was the most polite person to those among usĀ  whom we often look right through–waitresses, bus boys, cashiers at the grocery store. My mother had a kind word for all of them. She was a staunch advocate for her disabled son. She was the biggest fan of an awkward, chubby girl who had big dreams of making music, writing beautiful plays, and being a person of value one day. My mother loved her kids more than anything, and she loved her small group of friends, and she loved the elderly men and women she cooked for at the town nursing home. So much of her life, her love had been stymied; no wonder, in the end, she died of an enlarged heart. So full of love.

I learned from my mother how to escape. How to stand up for myself. How to believe, without outside validation, that I have worth. I deserve happiness. I deserve to have my voice heard. I deserve to have opinions.

I am a songwriter as well as a librarian. I can’t tell you how many times men have said to me, “Why don’t you write songs about something other than relationships?” Meaning, Your experiences as a woman have no value. They don’t interest me. You don’t matter.

In my work as a librarian, I am told the same thing. No one wants to hear from children’s librarians unless we’re talking about technology. You know what? I don’t care. Children don’t need technology programming. Sure, it’s nice. It’s fun. But do they need it? No. They need love. They need me to see them, and recognize them, and validate that they matter. They don’t need me to shove an iPad in their face and show them an app. They need to hear me tell them fairy tales, and nursery rhymes, and show them the way to being creative and happy human beings. There will be time enough for tech. They don’t need me to lead them to it. They will find that on their own.

But storytime, and crafts, and simply listening–this is women’s work, and therefore, has no value. And if a woman gets too big for her britches, she is harassed until she shrinks back into the shadows. Back in her place. Silenced. While men who sexually harass women are given awards. Accolades. Pats on the back.

This is larger than librarianship. This is a huge cultural problem with no easy solution. But change happens one step at a time. So I am beginning with my circles–one of those being the world of librarianship.

If you’re harassed by someone, don’t stay silent. Your silence is protection that they do not deserve. When you see misogyny and sexism running rampant, speak up. It isn’t easy. It’s hard work. It’s women’s work.

If you need me, I’ll have your back. After all, I learned from the best. My heart can hold the entire world. There’s room enough in it for you to help you be strong.

Muffins with Mom

Years ago, at one of my first library jobs, I had a weekend morning program that I called “Doughnuts with Dad.” I believe it was around father’s day, but it might not have been. All I did was brew some coffee, buy some doughnuts and juice, gussy up the tables with some table cloths, throw out some toys, crafts, and books, and I called it a program. Dads and kids of all ages came to eat, drink, and be merry. I circulated, talking to families, promoting our programs, and generally just having a lovely time.

I’ve done this at my current place of work several times now, and I’ve expanded it to include a Mother’s Day version I call “Muffins with Mom.” (One year it was Milkshakes with Mom. That was a nightmare. The milkshakes, I mean.) It’s the same gist as Doughnuts, but around Mother’s Day and with muffins.This year in addition to our cute Mum themed craft, we also took pictures of Moms and kids and I’m going to be turning them into custom READ posters. I also had some leftover blank board books from National Library Week, and a couple of moms actually used them to write their own family books!

Which is another thing I like about this program–if you can get your library to market it outside of just the children’s department, it’s a great inter-generational program. Crafts and treats aren’t just for kids! We actually had an adult mother and child pair, and I was so happy to see them! And allowing the adults to do the craft projects was great fun, and has great value for everyone. Why should kids be the only ones who get to enjoy the relaxation of coloring, cutting and gluing? If you have enough supplies, go ahead and let the grown ups join in!

I like these kinds of programs for several other reasons, too. I like that it’s on the weekend, which I think is a time that many librarians don’t think to do programs. I think for a lot of families, weekends are just a better time to come out. Often people don’t want to go out again on a weeknight if they don’t have to, and the pull will have to be pretty spectacular to get them in the doors–I’m thinking Lego Master Builders or a magic show. But the weekend is a little less hectic for some families, and a good time to try some programming. I’ve noticed we get some of our regulars, but I’ve also noticed a lot of people that I never see at any other programs.

Another thing I like is that it’s a passive program, where I can relax (to a degree) and interact with people without being on stage. So often as a children’s librarian I have to be “on” which really taxes my normally introverted personality. At these programs, I am still on but in a much more low key way, being a hostess and making sure everyone gets coffee, a pastry, and has enough materials for their craft project.

I also like this program because it allows people to do something nice for Mother’s Day that is free. So many places offer expensive Mother’s Day brunches and the like, which not everyone can afford. I always make sure to have nice food (this year we got some donations, which always help), something that’s nicer than what people might buy for themselves, just to make it special.

This is what I like to spend time and money on, rather than ebooks*. I think it’s a smart investment.

*I’m mad about ebooks and all the time librarians spend talking about them and thinking about them and blah blah blah and this is my passive aggressive way of complaining about them.

Listen, I’m Telling You Stories

Funerals are not for the dead, they are for the living. They are for those left behind, to act as a comforting play in which we know all the roles and there is no twist in the second act.

My mother would have hated her own funeral. It was a maudlin, religious, church bound affair, with a sermon by the very affable ginger haired priest, and some hymn played by the equally affable church organist. If I hadn’t been wracked with grief–if her death hadn’t been such a surprise and a shock–I would have known to have cut the hymn and played a recording of Mama Cass singing “Dream A Little Dream” or perhaps the Beatles singing “I Don’t Want to Spoil The Party.” The church location was fine, I suppose; it was the same church where her own mother had been the organist until her death, but the rest of it…ugh. My mother was many things, but she was not overtly sentimental or sappy. Where other mothers might have sent a card featuring a plucky kitten grasping a tree branch, with the sentiment of “Hang in there!”, my mother tended to send cards with lines like “Don’t forget that you’re the shit!”

So her funeral, with its heartfelt speeches and quiet sobs, would probably have galled her. “Jesus Christ on a crutch!” she’d say. “Don’t you have anything better to do? This town has bars, you know.”

My mother had grand aspirations as a girl. When I was young, I found some of her poetry, and several lines of it have stuck with me since I first read them:

Laying in the Weeds

Sing a song of love
Sing a song of hate
Sing a song of dreams
That always have to wait.

Simple, and not very good, you might think; but what might my mother have become if she hadn’t dropped out of college to move back home and work at the town factory? What if she hadn’t met my miserable, mentally ill father, who managed to charm her into marriage, and after that made it his mission in life to make her miserable?

Once, during a phone call, one of the few times I ever heard my mother cry, she said her terrible marriage had been worth it, because she’d gotten her four children out of it. To give me and my siblings life, she’d abandoned her own–her dreams of being a poet, a singer, a college graduate, the life of being a girl who met her girlfriends in the cemetery for picnics of pizza and beer–she replaced these with four children who tried her patience but whom she loved fiercely, and owed their existence to a man who was as cruel as Bluebeard but not half as sane.

I learned recently that even after birth, for decades after, fetal cells can remain inside the mother, and sometimes will act as positive agents, fighting diseases or repairing tissue. I wondered tonight, as the rainstorm lashed outside and I could not sleep, whether or not my baby cells fought to save my mother’s heart when it was slowing, breaking, and ultimately stopped early one morning in 2007. I hope they did. I hope they tried, because I would have, if I had been there.

I was not ready for my mother to go. Are we ever ready to lose the life of one we love, who sacrificed everything for us? Do we ever recover from the pain of losing them, or the joy of knowing that someone, once upon a time, loved us so much, and so deeply?

My memories of my mother are inextricably intertwined with certain stories. I discovered Stephen King by raiding my mother’s bookshelves, and to this day I still rue the loss of her limited edition copy of The Eyes of the Dragon, signed by the author and chewed by dog and lost in a house fire when I was fourteen. Whenever I watch Labyrinth I spend a moment of two thinking of the morning I woke up at five a.m. and wandered downstairs to find my mother and my little brother watching it because neither of them had been able to sleep. Sometimes I will listen to George Carlin’s Classic Gold album– which I really don’t have to any more, since I have it practically memorized– and remember the time my mother was listening to it in the car on our way to the Indian Head Supper Club to have lunch with my Aunt Pat, my mother’s bitchy, long haired chain smoking sister.

These stories–these connections—are what is vitally important to our lives. I don’t want us to forget that. We tell stories, and we keep stories, and we create stories so we can become ourselves, and remember the people who helped us along the way.

That’s what matters.