Women Who Don’t Burn

Not that long ago a friend pulled me aside and said, “You know, if you lived a few centuries ago, I think you’d have been burned at the stake.”

It was meant as a compliment, and I took it as one.

Because what he meant was that outspoken women, loud women, women who didn’t sit still, who pushed boundaries or dreamt or loved or worked outside the tight confines of the lives assumed for them, those women were often rounded up and burned as witches. Because there was no room for them outside a witch pyre.

Fast forward two centuries. Those same women were labeled hysterics and chained inside concrete institutions instead. As we evolved the punishments for women who refused to sit down and shut up when told to became less physical. We simply shunned them, banishing them to the bottom tier of society.

Nowadays witch burning is metaphorical rather than literal. We don’t tie women to a wooden stake anymore. No, today women get shamed, harassed, and threatened in the media.

Same shit, different century.

Four centuries removed from barbecuing women and we still don’t know what to do with women who don’t STFU.

Oh sure, we may be far from the madding crowd taking pleasure in watching a woman sizzle and fry, but we’ve moved to a place where the madding crowd takes pleasure in metaphorically burning women in public discourse.

The pyres are now cable news shows, the logs op-eds, and the match is social media.

Same shit, different burn.

It’s not easy to be burn resistant, not when society whispers in your girlish ear that you’ll be admired more for your bust line than your by-line, when from the first doll you’re given to the last child you birth you’re told women must be compliant and nurturing. We are still very much a society in which the most revered thing a woman can do is produce children, a society which applauds you for your achievements but with footnotes and codicils and a thousand pages of fine print.

We use women up until they’re no longer useful–usually around the time they hit their sexual sell-by date–and then we throw them out like so many old newspapers. Women who have failed, or lost, the train wrecks of society. We put them on the recycling pile where they’re expected to go gently into that good night.

But every now and again a woman comes along who picks herself up and refuses to go away. A woman who is resistant to the flames which were supposed to engulf her.


Hillary Clinton is only the most recent in a long line of women who will not burn. And boy, have they tried.

I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life, she said way back in 1992. And boy oh BOY, that one line managed to set off  a catastrophic string of witch fires that have burned with near consistency for thirty years. She may not have the dragons, but this woman has walked out of more fires than Daenerys Targaryen.

And that drives people nuts.

We generally don’t know what to do with women who refuse to succumb to the flames we place them in, women like Hilary Clinton or Michelle Obama, journalists like Lauren Duca and Anita Sarkeesian, even entertainers like Madonna and Beyoncé. Women who have learned to walk through the flames rather succumbing to them.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Hillary Clinton recently wrote a book. Like countless others before her, she wrote a book. Last time I checked, no one was forcing anyone to buy it, or read it. I highly doubt it’s on any high school required reading lists. Yet the book is selling well, and her supporters are lining up to hear her what she has to say.

And people are going ape-shit.

Ultimately this isn’t about whether or not you like or support Hillary Clinton. In fact, ultimately it’s not even about Hillary Clinton, the woman. It’s about not knowing how to cope with women who refuse to go when some tell her to go, to shut up when some tell her to shut up, to stay down when they tell her to. In the case of What Happened, it’s caused so much frothing outrage that entire news cycles have interrupted natural disaster coverage and policy unveilings just to opine on whether or not she has the right to continue to exist in the public sphere.

But of course it’s not just about a book. It’s not even about what’s in the book. If, and only if the book was a four-hundred page opus of self-flagellation perhaps it would have been about the book. Because generally it’s only when a woman lays herself bare at the altar of self-sacrifice we begin to feel the stirrings of sympathy. Only when a witch’s skin begins to pucker and burn are we able to dredge up a modicum of empathy.

But when a woman doesn’t do that?

Whoeee, mama. Pitchforks and hunting parties and more women rounded up and burned.

This is not about what is in the book. There is ample room to discuss the merits of Clinton’s writing style. There is room for disagreement.

What there is no room for is the insistence that she sit down and STFU. That she no longer gets to have a place in the public sphere because someone else is telling her not to. Plenty of politicians write books. I can’t think of another one who was told, before the book had even come out, that he had no business writing it.

Like her or hate her, Hillary Clinton has every right in the world to tell her story. She has a right to exist, to write, to stay standing, to stay speaking. She has every right to still be there, walking away from that smoking pyre and marching into that good night on her own terms.

In case it wasn’t crystal clear from the great cookie quote of 1992, Hillary Clinton is not going gently into that good night.

And this is at the crux of it. This refusal, the audacity of some women to continue to exist, to be relevant to those around them, to simply not die. It outrages people.

Women, after all, are supposed to burn when we tell them to.

There have always been women who don’t burn. Maybe someday soon we’ll stop trying to fan the flames even higher and acknowledge that sometimes the ones we try the hardest to quieten are the ones we should be listening to the most.



I’m With the Banned

kidreadingSomewhere out there right now is a child or a teenager or young adult about to pick up a book which will change their lives.

Maybe it will be the book which cements a love of reading. Maybe it will be the book which opens new worlds, or sheds light on something they’re struggling with. Maybe within those covers, within sentence and story, they will find a character who seems familiar; one in whom they can recognize part of themselves. Maybe they will read a scene which will strike a familiar chord, dissonant or not. And maybe–just maybe–because of a book (a book!) that child or teenager or young adult will open a window to a new way of viewing the world.

A book.

Somewhere out there right now is an adult or a school board or a group of parents who want to remove certain books from libraries and book stores and class rooms. Who want certain books banned because they feel the stories they contain are sexually explicit or contain scenes of alcohol use or masturbation or nudity or racism. Sometimes they want them banned because they feel those books promote ideologies different to their own. They feel they are anti-family or promoting an agenda of homosexuality, politically offensive or culturally insensitive.

A book.

Yet…every time you challenge a book because you don’t like the brutality of its truths you are invalidating the experience of someone who has or is experiencing those truths. Every time you challenge a book for inappropriate values you are implying the thousands who are living knee deep in that value system are not worthy. You are insinuating their lives are somehow reduced because they are not “appropriate”. Every time you challenge a book you are telling kids and teens and young adults their stories are not valid or valued. You are telling them they should be silenced and shelved because they don’t fit into some manufactured, imaginary mold.

Yet books continue to be the one place those marginal voices can still be heard, loud and clear.

Thank goodness for books.

We cannot shy away from the bad and the ugly and only focus on the good. We can’t do it in the present and we certainly cannot erase it from the past. Our literary past is just as important as any history book. It’s why Huckleberry Finn is still a meaningful teaching tool more than a century later. It’s why Gone with the Wind, that love song to the Confederacy, is a cultural spring board for conversation. It’s why Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Americannah is relevant today. Is it uncomfortable to see the word ‘nigger’ in print? I hope so. It should be. Is it uncomfortable reading about the way we enslaved a population? I hope so. Is it uncomfortable reading about how skin color is just as marginalizing as an identifier in today’s US? I hope so.

Trying to ban those books from classrooms and shelves is not going to make the past disappear. It’s not going to change the experiences of those who are going through it every day now. Banning books about teens who are molested, who grow up in dysfunction or poverty or amid drugs and alcohol, sex and violence is not going to erase the very fact that all of those things exist. Painful or not, they exist and there are lives which are defined by them. Lives that just maybe find a modicum of solace in reading they are not alone.

Two boys reading outdoors

Thank goodness for books.

How dare we try to dictate the experiences of others. How dare we force all the squidge and squash into a cookie cutter mold and cry foul when it overflows. We cannot change our pasts, but we can learn from them, we can better ourselves from them. We cannot take all the bad things that happen in the world out of it, but we can shine a light on them. We can let those who recognize themselves in there know they are not alone.

How dare we try to silence them.

Reading a picture book about two male penguins who adopt an egg is not going to make your child gay. Reading a young adult novel about a high school kid who views his life through a filter of alcoholism and poverty is not glorifying alcohol. No, instead those books are saying ‘hey you out there–you who hasn’t led a life of black and white, but of gray–you who doesn’t have typical, Redbook approved family or a perfect life–hey you! Your life counts too!”

Thank goodness for books.

Imagine how the landscape of your own literary history would be different without having read books that have been challenged over the years. The Handmaid’s Tale and The Outsiders, Blubber and Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret. In Cold Blood. A Wrinkle in Time, Harry Potter, The Kite Runner, Brave New World. The Catcher in the Rye, Lolita, The Color Purple. Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen.

The point is, if people had succeeded, the map of my literature would be completely changed. GWTW, which led to Rebecca which led to Jane Eyre which led to the rest of the library, which opened up the world to me. It never would have happened if a challenge to ban had been successful.

bbw2012-2013_imageThank goodness for books. For the power they contain between their covers. The power to inform, to educate, to include and expand and illustrate and incite; to light a fire under our passions and ultimately to connect us to one another. Sometimes slowly, sometimes painfully, one page at a time.

Thank goodness for books.


September 27 through October 3 is Banned Book Week. Use your Freedom to READ.

American Library Association’s list of the top 100 challenged books from 2000-2009
ALA’s list of the top 100 challenged books from 1990-1999
ALA’s list of the top 10 challenged books from 2014

I shamelessly stole this post’s title from the Robert E. Kennedy Library (and very possibly others.)

And finally….this is W&C(D)’s 300th post! Fitting it should be about books as I’m just about to embark on the 3rd and hopefully final draft of my own before starting to shop it around. Happy reading to all!


Dear Reader…

Jane EyreIf I were Ms. Austen or a Bronte sister, this is the point at which I would say:

Dear Reader…

After two decades of procrastination, fifteen months of on and off again writing, one month of manic non-stop writing, sixty index cards, and several weeks of juggling scenes until I thought my brain was going to spontaneously combust, I currently hold in front of me….a solid first draft. There are edits to make and language to prettify. There are scenes to be fleshed out and others to scale back, but it is a solid draft. Printed, bound, page numbered and well, that’s pretty much all she wrote.

Dear Reader…now what?

Just simply Googling ‘what to do now you’ve written a novel?‘  is exhausting. Parsing through the squillion pages of advice of what to do and what not to do is excruciating.

Confession: I am still sort of, kind of waiting for a fairy publishing Godmother to wave her wand and grant me happily ever after in the form of a book deal. But at my advancing age, I’m not sure I have time to wait around on magic and wands. At my age Bibbity-Bobbity-Boo starts to sound pretty damn silly. I’m willing to put in the next round of work, but I don’t even know where to begin.

I’m not a strategy player. I routinely get trounced by my six-year-old playing checkers. Looking ahead to the next move, whittling down the information, I am clueless. You could tell me to meet Miss Scarlet in the conservatory with a wrench and I’d go. That’s how clueless I am at the moment.

I need your stories. I need your advice, your inspiration, your experiences. I need whatever candlesticks, pistols, ropes and lead pipes you can throw at me.

Reader, I didn’t marry him, but damn if I don’t feel like I’ve given birth. Like any new mom, I could use some help.

Dear Reader…



Goodnight Nobody, Goodnight Mush

nobody1 If you asked people in the know to describe me, the list would be over represented with synonyms of “efficient”. I like to think there would be a ‘clever’ or a ‘witty’ thrown in here and there, maybe a ‘thoughtful’ or ‘insightful’, but you would almost certainly not find the word ‘sentimental’. Yet though my husband sometimes describes me as ‘without a beating heart’ when it comes to sentimentality, even I get sappy every now and again, especially when it comes to my kids.

It’s not always the expected schmaltz that triggers my maudlin mom moments–the loss of a front tooth and the gap toothed Jack-o-Lantern grin that follows, or the first time someone ‘forgets’ to hug me at the school gate. Those things squeeze my heart muscles, but I would expect them to. It’s the small moments that tap into some pool of nostalgic residue that catch me off guard.

Which is what happened the other day when I was dusting. More specifically, when I was dusting a bookcase in the bedroom my boys share. Now, it is true that in and out of weeks I have slowly weaned out the baby stuff and the board books. Sailing almost over a year (or five) I have donated or gifted the many, many books my children showed no interest in. What is left, however, is our core collection: the books we have read over and over and over again, the ones with pages that are patched together with scotch tape, the ones with cracked and broken spines and missing staples. The books we’ve loved and loved well.

Standing there, I realized those white, Ikea shelves hold the history of a decade of bedtimes. They contain a treasure map of my boys’ childhood in stories and words. Flitting my feather duster over the rows of books I acknowledged, with a sudden pang of loss, that it has been a long time since we’ve read most of them.


There are a lot of memories of snuggles and cuddles on that shelf. There are nights and nights of drowsy eyes fluttering closed before I could reach the ending tucked in between book covers. That bookcase houses more than just books, it holds shared experiences bound together in page and word, in ink and illustration. How can I think of picking and choosing which of them to save and which of them to pack in boxes and pass along for someone else to enjoy?

In the great green room, the was a telephone, and a red balloon. And there were three little bears sitting on chairs. We would stop to count them each night 1-2-3, a finger pointing at the page. How many nights did I sit with a chubby boy-child snuggled into my lap, a soft, downy head tucked into curve of my chin, and read those lines?

There were two little kittens and a pair of mittens. Those little bodies would squirm and wriggle, cuddling impossibly close. All the books about cars and trucks and things that go, little engines and tank engines, brave engines and more. How many journeys did the Great, Big Little Red Train make, delivering my boys into sweet toddler sleep?

And a little toy house, and a young mouse. Sometimes we would read together on the sofa, or sometimes together in the ‘big bed’. Wrapped up in duvets and buffeted by pillows we marveled over the bravery of the tiny snail on the tail of the great big, gray-blue humpback whale and squealed “no, no NO! That’s my Dad!” at the end of Monkey Puzzle.  We took dozens and dozens of trips through the center of the Earth with Ms. Frizzle, and chased a constellation full of shooting stars with Thomas and Percy.

And a comb and a brush and a bowl full of mush. We giggled over Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Oack, Pack and Quack waddling into Boston Common and Officer Mike waving them through. We got lost in Charlie Cook’s favorite book and made room on our brooms. We roared our terrible roars and rolled our terrible eyes and gnashed our terrible teeth tucked into blankets by the dim shine of bedside lamps.

Leo3Goodnight socks and goodnight clocks. If I trip my fingers over well-loved spines I can trace back to see where your young tastes begin to diverge. There are the books about flags and tornadoes and volcanoes that my older son favored, and the Bearenstain Bears and Magic Tree House for the younger. To my eternal disappointment, neither of my boys were fans of Dr. Suess. “Try them and you may!” I’d say, but they did not like those rhyming stories in a box or on a train or in the rain. But oh how we loved the exploits of that cheeky gray pigeon and laughed when Leonardo scared the tuna salad out of Sam. “Aggle, Flaggle, Klabble!” became part of our family lexicon.

And goodnight to the old lady, whispering hush. The feather duster passes over Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Harry Potter, books that still await my younger son, books for him to get lost in, though he will likely chose to read them on his own, as his brother did. There are Percy Jackson stories and the Wimpy Kid series. Those books have their own importance of course, but it’s not the same. The words will be read to themselves, the voices they hear will be their own, not mine.

Goodnight stars, goodnight air, goodnight noises everywhere. These books. They make me long, just a little, for those yummy, chunky bodies, those soft hands and silky hair. Milk breath and soapy skin. They make me yearn for those still little toddler tummies, full and rounded, and the sweet sweat of baby dreams.

You’ll excuse me then just a moment to mourn the end of those nights, all those nights we sailed in and out of days and across a year (or ten); those nights when eyelids would drift slowly, slowly, slowly, before fluttering down to sleep. When I would finally whisper, like Father Rabbit, “I love you all the way to the moon. And back.”

I’ll tell you a secret if you promise not to tell. I still whisper that sometimes to their sleeping bodies, lost in their loose tooth, tweenage dreams. But don’t tell my kids. Or my husband. I have a reputation to maintain.