What does it mean to work as though we live in the days of a better civilization? Although frequently attributed to Alasdair Gray (despite his disavowal), the line belongs to Gray’s contemporary, Canadian Dennis Lee.

In Civil Elegies, Lee writes:

And best of all is finding a place to be
in the early days of a better civilization
For we are a conquered nation: sea to sea we bartered
everything that counts, till we have
nothing to lose but our forebears’ will to lose.
But what good is that in a nation of
losers and quislings

Although Lee’s early work denounced Canada’s colonial complicity and earned him the Governor General’s award in 1972, he is better known for his children’s poetry. In fact, his poetry was a favorite of engineering professor Deb Chachra, who recently namechecked Lee in Metafoundry, her newsletter on the nexus of infrastructure, engineering, art, and individuals.

In issue 73: Our Cyborg Collective Body, Ourselves, Chachra invokes the slow-burning apocalypse in William Gibson’s scifi novels (specifically, The Peripheral and Agency) to describe the current COVID crisis. She then cites Lee’s poetic injunction, calling on us to imagine a systemic, collective response.

What would it look like, after all, to build an infrastructure fit to serve a better civilization?

According to Paul Graham Raven, infrastructure is a “tool,” “an extension of baseline human abilities.” It’s a systematized technical augmentation–but with a biological input (us!).

In the context of COVID, we know our bodies have needs that manifest individually but must be met collectively: We become infectiously ill individuals, sometimes so ill we must be isolated from the collective to be cared for by the collective before returning to the collective. Needs like these are met (or not) through infrastructural responses, such as public health (but also public education).

Yet, to build tools to meet the needs of a better civilization, we must not only identify needs that have not yet been met, but also determine those needs that have not yet been recognized as the responsibility of the collective.

In Sexuality for All Abilities, Katie Thune and I argue that there is an individual and a collective need for comprehensive sex education for young people in the special education classroom. While writing this book will not determine a better civilization, arguing for recognition of a collectively solvable problem may help hasten its arrival.

Way back in January of 2018, on my negligible commute, I tuned in to Minneapolis Public Radio for the local angle on NPR’s special series, “Abused and Betrayed.

The conversation was guided by Marianne Combs and focused on the silent epidemic of sexual abuse among people with intellectual disabilities. Combs was joined by NPR correspondent and special-series investigator Joseph Shapiro, sexuality educator Katie Thune, and attorney Patrick Noaker to discuss the Minnesotan context of this national problem and respond to listeners’ phone calls.

The guests’ words were incredibly powerful, but my driveway moment was attributable to the anguish expressed by the parents and caregivers who called in to discuss the abuse sustained by their loved ones with disabilities.

Particularly memorable–and devastating–was the voice of an elderly woman who talked about the exploitation of her adult son. She recounted a situation that occurred years ago, when a powerful man in the community approached her young adult son with a sexual proposition. Her son has a traumatic brain injury: He lives independently, but he has limited cognition and social awareness and can be easy to confuse. The powerful man preyed on this vulnerability, framing his proposition as an arrangement that would help powerful man “relieve stress” and “do his job better.” Her son ultimately agreed, believing his actions were necessary and that he would be paid for them.

A few years later, the man died. When her son learned of the man’s death, he explained to his mom that he would be inheriting money, and why. She was of course shocked and furious, but what followed was even worse: When her son didn’t receive his money, he couldn’t understand why and accused his mother and siblings of stealing it.

The mom’s voice, broken in suffering, compelled me to reach out to Katie Thune to ask about turning her educational curriculum, Sexuality for All Abilities, into a book. The result of our efforts, I am proud to say, is Sexuality for All Abilities: Teaching and Discussing Sexual Health in Special Education, released this week by Routledge, as part of its Eye on Education series.

We created this book to give educators and others the tools and confidence required to teach topics in comprehensive sex education in the context of special education. In it, we draw on the expertise of educators, the experience of teachers, the stories of parents and caregivers, and the words of people with disabilities to inform lessons on healthy relationships, public and private spaces and behaviors, consent, hygiene, and other important topics necessary to living an informed life.

The book is a useful resource in and out of the classroom, but it’s also a contribution to the better civilization we strive to build—a civilization in which we acknowledge a wide range of individuals with varying abilities, and in which we seek to supply the education necessary to live as fully, safely, and with as much autonomy and pleasure as possible.

It’s Earth Day, which means Transform Yourself with Climate Truth, my book with Margaret Klein Salamon, is now available from New Society! But because we’re quarantined in a pandemic while radical pro-gun extremists bully nurses, doctors, and state governments to sacrifice the weak—as if that’s a meaningful solution to the precarious futures of important industries (like publishing)—it’s a muted celebration.

Earth Day was established in 1970 on the presumption that Americans deeply cared about the environmental damage wreaked by industrial development. Bipartisan, cross-generational, and cross-class supporters verified this belief, publicly recognizing our fundamental human reliance on a healthy environment for sustenance.

Although the recognition is often collapsed into a niche interest in  “environmentalism,” it’s an extension of fact: We can’t bear children, raise children, be children, grow into adults, or function as adults without the benefit of clean air, good food, and drinkable water. This is the requirement of every member of our species, whether or not we care about sustaining the planet beyond our mere survival.

Today, care—such a crucial requirement for change—feels like a scarce resource. Callous examples of leadership reinforce the sense of finitude: Trump’s pride in his antipathy seems to inspire those who enjoy participating in a rigid Darwinian contest where every resource is limited. In this game, sacrificing the weak is the only available strategy for defining the strong.

Then, of course, there are those who must attend to so many pressures from so many sides that care can only be parceled out on an as-needed basis. COVID-19 has simply made manifest this pressure: Who can care about anything else when a minimum of 45,000 Americans are dead and 22 million Americans are unemployed?

When care is considered finite—whether because it serves “the strong” or preserves “the weak”—it can be utilized only as an aid to survival.

Yet care is not essentially limited. In Transform Yourself with Climate Truth, Margaret argues that our environment is essential to our practical and spiritual lives, and we must care enough about it to prioritize its preservation. It’s not just a practical decision; it’s also an emotional one. The book guides readers to welcome the pain contingent on caring, because, by welcoming the pain, we can expand our capacity to care.

Margaret is a psychologist, and she knows from personal and professional experience that caring can hurt. In fact, to care is rooted in Germanic Old English to sorrow or to grieve. While our desire to avoid pain is natural, it is not possible. And because it limits our ability to feel and thus to empathize, it should not be desirable. Pain is a part of life, sometimes a very big part of life: When we learn not just to withstand that pain but to welcome it, we become truly strong because we become capable of infinite care. 

Spring is not a comfortable season in Minnesota. Yes, the snow melts, the wind gusts, and the rain pelts. But then, the snow rudely returns. The wind persists in gusting. The rain insists on pelting. While some days reach, gloriously, into the 50s, many others stall in the 30s, threatening the goodwill of exhausted citizens.

But if spring isn’t comfortable, it is comforting. When songbirds birds return to the shrubbery, loons to the city lakes, and sunshine to the horizon, it reminds us that coldness will warm, darkness will lighten, and green things will grow.

In my house, spring also signals the return of the most comforting of all childhood tales, The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes. The story, written by Du Bose Heyward and illustrated by Marjorie Flack’s delicate, saturated pictures, wears its generational coziness on its title page. There, the “as told to Jenifer” invokes a beloved family tale handed down from father to daughter (and, according to Heyward’s biography, from mother to son).

Although Heyward may be better known for his 1925 novel Porgy, upon which the Gershwin opera, Porgy and Bess, is based, he published The Country Bunny in 1939. It’s a story about Cottontail, a clever bunny “with a brown skin and a little cotton ball of a tail,” who wanted to be one of the five Easter Bunnies who brought eggs to children on Easter. 

But “the big white bunnies who lived in fine houses and the Jack Rabbits with long legs who can run so fast” laughed at her ambition. They laughed even harder when Cottontail, “much to her surprise,” found herself with a husband and 21 babies to take care of: “Only a country rabbit would go and have all those babies,” they said.

Alone, Cottontail put aside her Easter-Bunny dream and tended to her babies. As time passed, and her bunnies grew, she taught them to sweep, clean, cook, wash, sew, mend, sing, dance, garden, and create. When she heard that one of the Easter Bunnies had become too slow and that Old Grandfather would pick a new Easter Bunny to take his place, Cottontail decided to bring her children to the Palace of Easter Eggs to watch the festivities.

Now, Cottontail’s story is not only about the softly feminist fulfillment of a dream. It’s also, if I may, a story about letting go of a dream so as to return to it with a more experienced, more nuanced perspective. Cottontail becomes an Easter Bunny, but not because of a steadfast, single-minded commitment. She becomes an Easter Bunny because her experiences fostered the requisite Easter-Bunny qualities of wisdom, kindness, swiftness, cleverness, and heart.

Indeed, The Country Bunny extends hope toward a future that valorizes not just heart but a “loving heart for children.” Cottontail’s bravery comes from her experience attending-to, making her a hero and thus temporary keeper of the little gold shoes.

The book, it must be said, is a bedtime investment—a concise Mo Willems it is not—but its story about a timely triumph of kindness and heart is a tonic amidst the cruelty of These Times, making every moment spent with it a true comfort.

Golden Shoes

This week, poet Dorianne Laux’s poem “For the Sake of Strangers” has repeatedly found its way to my inbox. And for good reason: It reminds us that we are tethered to one another, even when (especially when) we are isolated and alone:

No matter what the grief, its weight,

we are obliged to carry it.

We rise and gather momentum, the dull strength

that pushes us through crowds.

And then the young boy gives me directions

so avidly. A woman holds the glass door open,

waiting patiently for my empty body to pass through.

All day it continues, each kindness

reaching toward another—a stranger

singing to no one as I pass on the path, trees

offering their blossoms, a child

who lifts his almond eyes and smiles.

Somehow they always find me, seem even to be waiting,

determined to keep me

from myself, from the thing that calls to me

as it must have once called to them—

this temptation to step off the edge

and fall weightless, away from the world.

In the context of a pandemic, the poem takes on the weight of melancholic nostalgia. Crowds are a distant memory. And who is this kind woman, blithely touching the handle of a communal door?

While we wait for the thronging masses with their careless touches to return, we find other ways to keep ourselves from ourselves, to stop ourselves from falling away from the world. Prestige (also trash) TV can help, as can Instagram baking tutorials, at-home yoga apps, and home-streaming movies.

But, of course, books offer the most direct route to sustained-but-restrained escape. Poetry like Andrea Cohen’s Nightshade or Steve Healey’s Safe Houses I Have Known dislocate language, asking us to attend to distilled moments in ways we can’t with Twitter. Short story collections, like Lauren Holmes’s Barbara the Slut or Bryan Washington’s Lot, expand Facebook’s promise to offer us an evocative peek inside discrete but connected lives. Easy-reading YA, like Amy Spalding’s We Used to Be Friends, extend us comfort through the familiar intensity of first loves and losses. And, of course, the classics and big books, like Middlemarch or Infinite Jest (god help us), open up an escape hatch onto worlds so comprehensive they can feel like a trap.

I have a two-foot stack of to-be-read books on my bedside table, but pandemic reading seems to call for something special. I’ve ordered Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s lauded first book in her recently completed Thomas-Cromwell trilogy, and My Brilliant Friend, the first book of Elena Ferrante’s beloved Neapolitan quartet.

Starting a series can be as intimidating as starting a heralded classic or a formidably big book. In regular life, I don’t like feeling obligated to read on (and on) to find out what happens. But from my more narrow pandemic perspective, the promise of a future unfolding feels more like a (reading) exercise in hope.

Everyone’s talking about bookshop. Errr, now that everyone is almost done talking about American Dirt, the limits of representation, the perils of mis-marketing, and the lost opportunities of seven-figure advances, everyone is talking about Bookshop.

What’s Bookshop?

It’s the Amazon alternative founded by Andy Hunter (of Electric Literature, LitHub, and Catapult fame) to sustain and foster independent bookstores and their dedicated reader communities.

The Bookshop model offers readers Amazon-like convenience, but it disburses proceeds to independent booksellers and gives a 10-percent share of book sales to affiliate linkers—whether they’re independent bookstores, magazines, bloggers, or other members of the book-loving public.

Of course, Amazon is cheaper. It’s cheaper because it only offers affiliate linkers a 4.5-percent share of book sales and because, compared to Bookshop’s on-average 8-percent discount, Amazon book discounts are much, much deeper. In fact, its unsustainable discounts are a major reason Amazon drives competitors like local and independent bookstores out of business.

So, in this as in so many other cases, “cheaper” comes at a price. Committed to books? To weird and wonderful bookstores? Help them (and readers!) thrive by buying from and linking to Bookshop. Its transparent effort to support local independent bookstores may be a more expensive alternative, but anyone interested in and committed to fostering a lively and long-lived cultural conversation will benefit from its marketplace.

As has been documented (here and…everywhere else), I welcome the opportunity forced by the new year to reflect on the old, contemplate the present, and imagine a better, slightly more accomplished future. 

But reflecting on the old means reflecting on very many resolutions I’ve failed to uphold. So, when I make resolutions, I make one or two, in areas of life I actually want to spend time in, and small enough so I have a chance of fulfillment.

In this respect, the #2020bookchallenge is a hazard and an opportunity.

My 2020 book challenge is much less ambitious: I want continue tracking the books I read (a prior, miraculously successfully met resolution) and also track why I read the book in the first place.

The Newsletter Age has resulted in many excellent book recommendations, but they are hard to track. When I finish a book, whether I loved or hated it, I want to (mentally, at least) discuss it with its recommender. Yet, by the time I receive and then read the book, its provenance has vaporized with the mists of memory. 

The Library Extension tool and my trusty Excel spreadsheet are going to help me keep this resolution. The former (for Chrome or Firefox) will find the book at my local library the moment it’s recommended, and Excel will track its provenance. 

It’s too late for Trust Exercise–I reserved it in 2019 but no longer remember who recommended it–but I trust I’ll be able to engage in many more mental dialogues in 2020.

 

If you’re a reader of the MWS newsletter, you already know that I used Independent Bookstore Day to restock my supply of birthday books. You also know that at the very top of the heap is Normal People, Sally Rooney’s follow-up to Conversations with Friends (an emo-elder-YA hybrid), and that it’s for me!

But there are lots of other titles in my stack, and they’re mostly for young readers. My favorites include the endearingly odd Dory in Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon, the clever environmentalist Noah in Flush by Carl Hiaasen, the delightfully different Penderwick sisters in The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall, and the hilariously unlikely nanny in Nanny Piggins by R.A. Spratt.

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I love giving books because it lets me imaginatively repeat the first-time reading experience with the anticipation inspired by the knowledge of what’s to come—the book is great! When I give Life After Life by Kate Atkinson or Enchanted by Rene Denfeld or Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell or Skippy Dies by Paul Murray, I feel like I’m giving someone a ticket to a fantastic land I’ve just discovered.

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But of course, because it’s a one-way, single-use ticket, I can’t take that journey again. Sure, I can reread the book (and that, too, is a source of great pleasure), but I can’t ever discover an already-visited land. In this way reading is like stepping into Heraclitus’s river: It’s never exactly the same book (because it’s never exactly the same reader) twice.

Giving books, then, is a gift you give yourself. In giving, you get to relive a bit the magic of discovery, and once your recipient has returned from their journey, you get to talk about your discoveries together.