James Baldwin was born on this day, August 2, 1924. Nearly one hundred years later, we are of course still dealing with racial injustice in America. (The mural above was created this summer, on a boarded-up window of a store front after the protests, where I live in Madison, Wisconsin.)  I first read Baldwin as a teenager, when I checked out NOTES OF A NATIVE SON from the library; the book was an excellent lesson in empathy, and Baldwin was an excellent teacher. Today, in honor of his birthday, I'm posting some of my favorite quotes from the great American author, many of which seem more relevant today than they have ever before in my lifetime:

"We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exit."

"You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read."

"There are so many ways of being despicable it quite makes one's head spin. But the way to be really despicable it so be contemptuous of other people's pain."

"Ignorance allied with power is the most ferocious enemy justice can have."

Happy birthday, James Baldwin.
#BlackLivesMatter


Iowa Summer Writing Festival

I've been teaching at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival for so long that I can't remember when I started. When I asked my friend Kelly who runs the Human Resources part of the Festival what year I started, she said, "I don't know, our records don't go back that far." (...which did not exactly make me feel young...) I've only missed two summers since I began: in 2012 and 2016, when I taught in Scotland, at the Wisconsin in Scotland summer program for college students in the University of Wisconsin system. Yep, I only gave up Iowa to live in a palace for the summer.

I was slated to teach two weekend workshops and two weeklong workshops this summer, but of course, the Festival, like so much else, was cancelled  for everyone's health and safety. I know that a cancelled festival is not among the worst things that has happened in the world since any of us first heard the words Covid-19, but I still miss my colleagues, my friends, the teaching and learning environment, and the writers/students I would have seen again and/or gotten to know in my classes very much. Iowa City is an inspiring town, and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival is such an inspiring environment for writers, that I think any of us involved with this magical summer phenomenon are feeling its absence this year.

But I am trying to make good use of my time by finishing my novel and working with other writers on their manuscripts. And the manuscripts I'm reading and editing are terrific. Many of these writers I in fact met in Iowa, and I can't wait for you to "meet" them one day: through their books that will undoubtedly one day be published.

The cover of the 2020 catalogue of the ISWF asks: "Will the words make it across the water? Will anyone on the other side even care if they do?" As the Festival director replies: "Yes and Yes." And I would only add: "Yes and Yes... and now more than ever."

Photo by Kelly McComb from Spirit Lake Review Magazine, 2020



    I know today and this week are very difficult for many. Easter is today. Passover has already begun. Ramadan begins this week. If you celebrate any of these holidays, then (unless you've had a recent birthday, in which case, happy birthday!) this will be the first holiday you’ve celebrated under Covid-19. There might be a silver lining to celebrating a holiday under sheltering in place, but, more likely, for many of us, there will be a sense of loss. I believe we should keep this loss in perspective and also grieve it. That is: yes, we should be mindful that not being able to go to a place of worship, not being able to go out to brunch, not being able to visit your grandparents is not nearly as bad as losing someone to the virus. We should keep our loss in perspective. And yet—we shouldn't be afraid to recognize it as a loss. We should recognize it, name it, and allow ourselves to feel it. Allow ourselves to grieve. Because if we don’t, it’s my experience that unnamed, buried feelings often don’t go away—they simply turn up as eating disorders, or drinking problems, or anger issues, or too much time spent on the Internet, or other ways we have of numbing ourselves so that we don’t feel what we’re afraid of or ashamed of feeling. We need to feel our loss, name it, keep it in perspective, and then—let it go, and enjoy this new way of celebrating as well as we can! We truly are all in this together. 

And as my sidewalk chalk neighbor artist says, Even the darkest night will end, and the sun will rise, which seems as appropriate a saying to stumble upon on my Easter walk as any.

Happy holidays to you, if you celebrate any of the above, and whether or not you're celebrating, here's to the rising sun!

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