Winter Reads Bringing the Heat

Over the winter break, I was privileged with an abundance of reading time. I finished whole books! Each in turn provided so much joy, sustenance or entertainment or any combination of the three that by the end of the break my literary appetite was temporarily sated.

What did I read, you ask?

Going into the break I was finishing up, Dr. Joy Degruy’s Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, which after having heard her speak at the NAIS People of Color Conference offered a welcome and necessary recap of her arguments. Reading allowed me to deepen my understanding of the lingering impacts of  slavery over generations. I had never invested in making those direct connections previously between slavery and my own family’s (behavior) history.

After that, I was ready to read Ocean Vuong’s novel, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous. Written as a letter from an American born son to his Vietnamese mother who cannot read, as readers we are drawn into personal spaces at once intimate and charged. I don’t know what I expected but I found poetic passages page after page which blew me away.

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But the books I really want to tell you about turn out to be a rather unusual pairing: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty and Burn It Down: Women Writing About Anger, edited by Lilly Dancyger. Death and Anger, Anger and Death! What a combination for the holidays!

Caitlin Doughty has made a name for herself on social media with her youtube series, Ask A Mortician and goes by the handle @TheGoodDeath on Twitter and Instagram. Smoke describes her initiation into the undertaking industry at age 23 when she got her first job at a crematory. Besides being a gifted storyteller, Doughty shares her wonderings about the way death is done in modern Western societies, particularly in the US. In the tradition of excellent non-fiction, she provides tricks of the trade alongside a bit of historical background mixed in with squishy messy details of preparing the dead. Author Doughty had me interested in all of it. Smoke emerged as an unexpected page-turner.

Before arriving at the conclusion that humans are “glorified animals” and that “We are all just future corpses,” Doughty describes how she came to this point early in her career as a mortician:

Less than a year after donning my corpse colored glasses, I went from thinking it was strange that we don’t see dead bodies anymore to believing their absence was a root cause of major problems in the modern world. p.168

She reminds us through stories and wit that “death is the engine that keeps us running, giving us the motivation to achieve, learn, love, and create.” (p. 228) And this makes so much sense to me. Considering what my own “death values” are and where they come from is certainly a mental-emotional exercise in my future. Smoke provided me with an basis for reframing death and burial as processes that complete my humanity rather than erase it. That’s pretty significant.

If Smoke was the beer, Burn It Down was an extraordinary chaser. Behold, 22 essays by women from a variety of backgrounds all illuminating ways of thinking about, experiencing, managing, and expressing anger. So many spoke of the taboo surrounding feminine expressions of anger – about the shame and also manipulative capacity of tears, of being labeled hysterical, emotional, bitter, deranged… That rang entirely true and at the same time, I could also see parts of myself in the stories of those women who flew off the handle, who got loud and vocal when necessary.

While reading I thought of my many girlfriends and how seldom we have chances to be this frank with each other. Which is the beauty of having this collection of women’s voices which validate our right and need to feel and express our rage, particularly when we open our eyes to the underlying patterns in society which place all manner of hurdles in our paths. Especially striking for me were two essays, each penned by trans women, which made me think again about what it means to identify as woman.

Sheryl Ring caught me with this:

“…the reality is, I am a woman, and therefore, I am what a woman looks like. Every trans woman is what a woman looks like. It’s not that we all pass – it’s that whether or not we “pass” is a question we shouldn’t have to ask. (From “Crimes Against The Soul,” p. 191)

And in her essay, “On Transfeminine Anger,” Samantha Riedel proposes a vision of what could be:

Imagine radically inclusive spaces where inquisitive minds explore both cis and trans femininities, where we can each open ourselves to new possibilities of the self and take the next steps toward our collective liberation.

That is a form of vision that I don’t find everywhere. Until I read that passage, I hadn’t really recognized my own deep appetite for  pictures of what we could create, what alternatives to abrasive and harshly competitive existences might look like.

A different perspective that resonated profoundly came from Lisa Factora-Borchers, a daughter of Philippine immigrants who writes about living in middle Ohio and why she stays. She describes conversations with her kids and I am reminded that my friends, colleagues and I are navigating similar talks with our own kids and with students.

When we drive on Highway 62 and pass the Confederate flags and the billboards declaring “one man, one woman = real marriage,” I see it now as an opportunity to give my kids what I wish I always had: an example of how to embrace anger; how to use it as a natural resource, whether facing injustice of critically interpreting political and religious propaganda. “You see these big signs?” I ask my kids when we pass religious billboards. “There’s a lot of people out there who are afraid of anything different from themselves. People who are afraid will try to tell you who to love, how to love, or who to be friends with, but we’re not afraid of other people just because they may be different from us. That’s just not who we are.” (From “Homegrown Anger,” p. 189)

The struggle to convince our children that we have agency when there are whole industries dedicated to demonstrating the opposite can weigh heavily. In Factora-Borcher’s essay, I am reminded that I am far from alone; that as I teach my children, I can teach myself.

I’m sure it’s no accident that I raced through these essays and Doughty’s account of the undertaking industry in the matter of a few days. I clearly was in the market for some #RealTalk. Doughty takes time to meditate on what it means to handle the dead and death in a society that would prefer to pretend they don’t really exist. Throughout the book she makes a strong case for reclaiming death and its subsequent ceremonies as a natural part of life. Meanwhile, Lily Dancyger’s curated essays assure me that acknowledging  and expressing my anger will not kill me. Either way, I’m better prepared on at least two counts.

 

 

Get Ready For PET

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I loved a story – its texture and colors, the surprise and its depth. It caught me unawares; didn’t know what I was in for but once I started, the story would not let go. Pet by Akwaeke Emezi is young adult novel I would recommend for grades 7 and up.

Set in the city of Lucille which prides itself on having eliminated monsters, the novel is   populated with caring adults, curious young people and familiar structures – family, school, home. There are secrets plus a frightening history that should be remote but is not. The characters are black folks, people I can imagine in my family: big bold talkers, well-intentioned aunties and uncles, slick cousins. There are knowns and unknowns; patterns and assumptions, multiple lives unfolding at once.

And there’s a creature who arrives to enact a justice that it claims may not go unpunished. To accomplish its mission, it needs a human accomplice. The creature is Pet, teenager Jam is its accomplice. To be sure there are fantasy elements here but they interact reasonably with the rest of the story. Akwaeke Emezi is not offering us another planet, but a wider variety of ways of being for every single character. The names alone point to an almost poetic approach to building a cast: Jam, Bitter, Aloe, Redemption, Moss, Whisper, Beloved, Pet and Glass.

What struck me while reading was the way wisdom was dropped throughout the book, almost casually.  Like in this exchange between Pet and Jam:

If you do not know there are things you do not see, it said, then you will not see them because you do not expect them to be there. You think you see everything, so you think everything you see is all there is to be seen…

…There is more. There is the unseen, waiting to be seen, existing only in the spaces we admit we do not see yet.  p. 71

or when Jam’s mother, Bitter, explains how angels eventually rooted out the monsters of Lucille.

“It not easy to get rid of monsters,” she said. “The angels, they had to do things underhand, dark things”…”Hard things,” her mother continued. “You can’t sweet talk a monster into anything else when all it does want is monsterness. Good and innocent, they not the same thing; they don’t wear the same face.” p. 13

I have read and re-read these passages baffled by their profundity and charmed by their perfection. It’s the way these insights are woven into dialogue and emerge both authentic and extraordinary.  This happens not just once or twice but literally every few pages. There’s a nugget, a gem – a trail of the author’s craft that pulls the reader in to join the hunt.

And the hunt – a mystery wrapped up in questions of morality and ethics. To whom are we responsible? Whom are we required to protect? Which of our mental-emotional weaknesses will lead us astray, away from the truth we must pursue?

As Pet, Redemption and Jam inch closer and closer to an unraveled mystery, there are exchanges that as a reader, nearly stopped me in my tracks. (Pet and Jam can speak telepathically.)

All knowledge is good knowledge, Pet said.

I don’t know if that’s true, Jam thought back.  It doesn’t feel true right now.

Truth does not care if it feels true or not. It is true nonetheless.  p. 140

Pet is a sumptuous read that might easily go unnoticed especially by adults. Dig into this book with kids or on your own, it will not disappoint. Author Akwaeke Emezi has given the world a gift of mystery that calls forth understanding in the space of about 200 pages. Imagining that the book is crafted for young audiences makes me so much more hopeful about the power resting in our future generations.

I also tweeted about it here. This thread by Sarah Waites also sings its praises.

Reading “Same As It Never Was” by Gregory Michie

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Dear Gregory,

I had been on the lookout for your book to land in my mailbox and when it finally arrived on Halloween it felt like a real gift! I, of course, dug in immediately.

I started yesterday evening and finished this morning. I read with pencil in hand, underlining as I went, nodding in so many spots, feeling your pain while at the same time acknowledging my distance from the conditions and circumstances you describe. Like you, I read a lot, and teacher narratives that grab me the way yours did are few and far between in my experience. You are fully real on every single page and I didn’t know how much I needed that.

Early on you talk about offering your students mirrors and windows in their reading diet and also how you encouraged them to begin using this frame by first analyzing images. Perhaps it was the way you walked me, as a reader and teacher of a very different subject, through your process, but something in your presentation got me closer to thinking about mirrors and windows for myself. So once I finished and began looking at my notes in the margins I drew up this list:

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Of course there are several points where you provide me a mirror, yet the most captivating aspects in reading Same As It Never Was lay in the windows you provided: the many exchanges with students and colleagues, the truth telling about systems, the careful sharing of your students’ perspectives – for these I feel deeply grateful. I’ve never taught in (or attended) a public school, my teaching career has been spent primarily in a well appointed international school among a largely European and white North American faculty and student body. That said, I am the daughter of a public school educator and a Black woman. I live in the distance and my history is bound up in the inequities of a racialized American society.

You tell one story of an 8th grader who poses a remarkable question: “How does hope unfold?” Like you I am struck by the power and depth of the query itself, the way it turns hope into a process rather than a mythical object we can hope to attain. It made me think of how often authors of color are asked to reveal where they find or seek hope, only to find themselves in that familiar trap of appeasing a mostly white audience with a kind of balm or actually telling the truth. The notion of hope as something in which we as individuals and communities have agency, can build and sustain, emerges as a welcome perspective shift. In several instances you allow the brilliance and generosity of your students to take center stage, to shine and warm. As a reader and fellow educator, I dream of adding to that unfolding of hope, even when; especially when it seems a very hard endeavor.

There are several instances when you voice disappointments and faults in things you did or said. You are deeply critical of yourself and do not shy away from naming your mistakes. Even if we as educators can usually afford to grant ourselves a little more grace, I benefited from your mistakes mainly because you showed us your work. You put on paper what you learned and did (or will do) differently. We see that despite the years of experience, doubt still exists, reservations are never entirely absent. That seems important in a stirring teacher narrative. We encounter you as entirely human, as someone capable of misjudgment, reflection and who also corrects himself. Publicly, in front of students.

I really want teachers to read your story and see how much potential there is for change, growth, recovery and also joy in this field we’ve chosen. Our kids deserve so much better than what we are delivering. The “OK, boomer” sentiment makes perfect sense to me. Our young people are not wrong. They are getting the short end of every stick we extend to them. Being with them and for them in these years of crumbling democratic institutions is among the most important work we can do.

I am humbled by your example and believe we all have so much to learn from you, your students and colleagues. Thank you for putting your community’s stories in my path. I am changed for having read them.

In gratitude,

Sherri

 

Gregory Michie, Same As It Never Was: Notes on a Teacher’s Return to the Classroom, New York, Teachers College Press 2019.

 

 

Reading “Inequality In The Promised Land”

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R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy writes about how Black and White children and families experience school and the attendant opportunities in a Midwest suburban district. The title of his book, Inequality In The Promised Land (2014), describes the unfulfilled dreams of Black families who sought better education outcomes for their children enrolled in a suburban school district and the actions of white families that inadvertently or otherwise frustrate Blacks and other minorities in securing the same level of resources, opportunities and influence. Lewis-McCoy spent 4 years conducting one hundred in depth interviews with families, school officials, and teachers along with studying the local demographic and political history of the district referred to as Rolling Acres Public Schools.

It is an academic book and I am all in my feelings. Lewis-McCoy talks about “concerted cultivation” of children that commonly happens in White middle class families. He describes the ways in which those same families throw their political weight around by being particularly vocal in making demands on school officials to insure the best resources and opportunities for their own children by resisting efforts that specifically seek to address racial disparities in both opportunities and outcomes. As I was reading about policy initiatives aimed at ‘closing the achievement gap’ and hearing white residents espouse how much they value the diversity in the community while also locating the reasons for achievement gap disparities firmly within Black families and not in the systems of school, I felt so weary.

My mother was fighting these battles when we were young. She pursued concerted cultivation with a vengeance and perhaps because my brother and I arrived at a time in her life when she was more at liberty to take advantage of certain opportunities, we were able to engage in all manner of extra curricular activities. My older brother certainly had his share of scouting then school sports that filled his schedule. Our home was filled with books, we were used to traveling all over the city, shopping at suburban malls as if we lived there. We knew lots about life beyond our neighborhood. And now as adults, my brother and I are firmly anchored in the middle class.

With my own children I have had the means to similarly pursue “concerted cultivation.” Supporting their varied interests in everything from electronics to club sports, summer camps and theater pursuits. They have gotten the message: “try everything.” Because they may. They enjoy the benefit of an “abstract approach” to their further education, rather than an “utitlity-focused” approach which would suggest seeking a field of study or training likely to yield the best return on investment.

My parents, who grew up during the depression, came of age during the second World War and became race barrier-crossing homeowners in the late 50’s, seemed to be fixated on the inherent value of education. As kids we understood that college was a non-negotiable. My mother completed her BA and my father finished an associate degree. My older sister who was an adult when I was born was the first child of theirs to finish college. The path was set, we only needed to travel it. And we all did.

I see now how painfully aware they were of the fact that our education was not only about the schools we visited but everything else we did as well. We were involved in our conservative Lutheran church, we participated in boy and girls scouts, respectively. We grew up familiar with museums, libraries, theaters, concerts and events in far-flung corners of our Northern section of the state. My parents understood the value of acquiring these middle class understandings. And to some of their Black friends and family members, these efforts seemed misplaced or unnecessary or simply beyond my parents’ means. My mother mentioned this kind of commentary fairly often and used it to reiterate her fundamental aim of “exposure, exposure, exposure.”

I grew up being exposed and now that’s a large part of what I do online. Expose myself to new knowledge, old knowledge, relevant knowledge, recycled knowledge. I share widely and aim to expose others to what I’ve found and am trying to grasp. As I’m working through Lewis-McCoy’s careful study, I am exposing myself (again) to hard realities about White American forms of racism denial that hold us all captive. I have to wrestle with the capacity of schools as systems to perpetuate deficit thinking steeped in classism and racism. At the same time I have to expose myself to my own complicity in school systems that privilege white middle class values over more inclusive, anti-racist curricula and instruction.

That may be why this read has got me more in my feelings than I anticipated.

 

 

 

Dear Julie – Thoughts on ‘real american’ by Julie Lythcott-Haims

Dear Julie,

I heard you speak. And then I went to buy your book. The line to have it signed was very long, so I decided I’d be okay without that part.

I read some before going to bed, a little more after waking up. I read during a good portion of my long haul flight back to Central Europe. After I got back to my apartment and caught up with my husband on the phone, I sat in my big chair in the living room and read until I finished the book.

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This is not my normal MO. I read a lot and I often read a couple of books at a time. real american made me change. real american compelled me to take it all in in the most concentrated form I could manage. And yes, you had me at the talk. “Killing me softly”.

I suppose because there are some parallels. We’re about the same age. I also have a couple of degrees from elite institutions. I know all about that OREO dynamic. I lived it throughout my school life and maybe even now, but no one calls it that among adults. Instead I’ve referred to myself as Sister Assimilation which captures my lived Blackness in predominately white spaces. I’m not biracial but my two sons are. I have experienced and enjoy quite a bit of privilege. I’m Black. I’m a heterosexual woman. I have a husband and an ex husband, both of whom are white. I work in education and no surprises here, I write.

I feel you.

When you describe getting ready for and attending the cotillion ball with your older brother –

“In the mirror I see that I’m playing a part in a play and am not sure I know my lines.”

I’m not used to feeling ugly but that night I feel not only ugly but downright homely… It’s like my hair is getting drunk and making a scene and I can’t do a damn thing about it.” p. 73

Of course I am reminded of all the ways I struggled with feminized beauty ideals that were not meant for me to fit anyway, where my hair was just the tip of the iceberg.

You talk about your work as Dean of Students at Stanford Law School and dealing with the parents of a student who committed suicide. You are very pregnant and sitting with 2 or 3 other administrators meeting with this grieving family. When your boss encourages you to consider going home as it is getting late, you tell us this:

“I learned that night that bearing witness to the suffering of another human being is the most sacred work we can do.” p.150

I can’t remember ever having set out this idea of bearing witness and what I want to do with my life. On the other hand, my online handle is edifiedlistener and listening is my calling. Even if I know I don’t do it well or generously all the time, I am aware of its power to heal, to offer respite, to harbor others. I try. again and again and again. In listening to your story, I dare to touch some of the rough parts of my own. Bearing witness can be catching.

Oh and these children – a brown boy and very light skinned girl – both yours. Who will they become? Who will they be allowed to be and in which contexts? Your questions, concerns and guilt speak to me in ways no other author or friend has done so far. My two brown boys and their distinct white daddies populate and punctuate my life with a host of thoughts and emotions. One son is of age and doing his thing in the world. The other is still at home, young and ambitious and athletic. They are 13 years apart these brothers who further identify as Austrians, as Bilinguals.

My blackness is clear to me and them. They see themselves as brown and grasp that there are disparities in experience based on skin color, not as obviously in Austria to our eyes so far, but certainly in the US. But as a parent we have to ask, how much knowledge is enough?

You describe giving our Black sons “The Talk” – listing all the details they need to keep straight when confronted by police.

How not to defend themselves even when they have done nothing wrong. How not to reach into their pockets for anything, not even to turn off their music. Please, baby, remember: do not reach into your pocket to turn off your music.

We teach them this while trying to also teach them to love themselves and not be ashamed of their beautiful black bodies. Of their selves.  p.210

I have so many questions.

Julie, I’m writing this and it feels so easy. Like, I’m fine, let me tell you how wonderful your book is. I am so happy to do it. And yet, there’s a whole other layer to our conversation that was palpable when you spoke to so many of us who were in our own hearts having our “killing me softly” moments because we felt so seen, so crisply articulated. I, as the Black girl who struggled to be Black enough and girl enough at the same time. I, as that fiercely intelligent and well spoken child who was a source of astonishment and dismay when I outpaced my white classmates – particularly in writing. I, as that perfect integrator, friend to all, so as not to be caught fully alone which felt like a constant unspoken social risk. I, as the convenient comfortable black colleague who is so affable, flexible I could never be identified as the Angry Black Woman.

I heard all of that in your voice – all the emotions you carried and laid bare for us. And in that large assembly of school folks of color, I was allowed to feel whole and understood and that I belonged.

There’s a manuscript that’s waiting to be finished. Your talk and your book will help me get it across the finish line. I hear you rooting for me. It’s time for me to share more of my stories. It is time.

Thank you for everything.

Sherri

 

 

Julie Lythcott-Haims, real american: a Memoir, St. Martin’s Griffin. NY, NY. 2017.

 

Thoughts on *Instruments Of The True Measure*

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My relationship with poems is not as fraught as my relationship with Poetry.

Each poem offers itself, independent of all its potential brethren and I read what I can,

Understand as much as I can and let it be.

Laura Da’ writes poetry which challenges me. In Instruments Of The True Measure I run up against my only rudimentary grasp of US History of the 19th century. It’s a painful encounter – my ignorance colliding with Da’s haunting portraits of specific human suffering and survival of that period.

I read and feel out of my depth. There are so many words I would need to look up: calico, lariat, forelock, sorrel, bandolier, slake, vellum.

As I persist, I begin to make out figures – babies who become boys then young men who find work and traverse the landscape.

I hesitate to tell you what I believe I read because I fear I could be wrong. But there are moments where we see with our own eyes the greedy claims of Manifest Destiny.

From “Greenwood Smoke”

To the south, a surveyor

crosses the river

once called simply

after the shape of its bend,

soon to be baptized anew

with an Irish assessor’s surname.  (p.36)

From “The Coming Men”:

Dig out

the granite corner markers

capped in numbered brass,

 

blaze random

marks in the haggard

stands of hardwoods.

 

Public auction and preemption

scatters two million

Delaware and Shawnee acres.   (p. 56-57)

Da’ who is Eastern Shawnee refers us again and again to the role of measurement in the process of conquest. We consider the tools of the surveyor, the authority of the map maker. She shows us a list of 18 treaties between the US government and the Shawnee between 1786 and 1867 and reminds us:

The gore of the battlefield seeps into the ground and is lost; ink on vellum is its approximation. …

Any treaty is an artifact of unimaginable suffering.  (“Pain Scale Treaties” p.58)

As I read I learn. I am humbled by the weight of history I have been able to shrug off until now. Because it is no longer ‘someone else’s history’. No, my own history is absolutely bound up in those countless transactions designed to benefit only one kind of people. This is where Laura Da leads me – back to my own responsibility and forces me to consider the extent and limitations of my humanity. Alas, I am back to measurement, not with meridians but the low gray lines of my mental horizon.

 

 

15 titles and not nearly enough time

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline arrived in the mail today. I already read the library copy and decided I needed to have my own copy to underline and reread at will. It was that spectacular.

In the same shipment, my second copy of White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo also arrived. This will be my loaner, the one I allow friends to borrow and receive enlightenment. That perhaps they will finally see what I see. But first I have to get my original underlined copy back.

On my nightstand I have a ridiculous stack of books from which I just returned Dear Martin by Nic Stone to the library, while Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Ayedemi rests on top, bookmark about a third of the way through. I’ve been reading more and more young adult fiction – to mix things up but also to rekindle a connection to fiction I thought was lost. Reading young characters who are brave, resilient, hopeful and a strange kind of wise helps me. I sleep better after surviving their travails and recovering their losses.

That pile has been accumulating for a while where a thick sturdy volume of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning patiently awaits my return. But it’s certainly not alone. Cathy Davidsons, The New Education is waiting its turn to be continued and as is Paying the Price by Sara Goldrick-Rab. Robin Kimmerer holds two spots in the pile with Gathering Moss and Braiding Sweetgrass, both of which offer me green space in the form of words and sentences. And balanced and open near the top is some theory and practical wisdom for my teaching: What If All the Kids Are White? by Derman-Sparks and Ramsey. Anti-Bias teaching with young students. I used to think my presence was enough – as that one, quite possibly the only black teacher a child may have in their school career to have a crucial impact. And it may be the case but it seems unlikely. I need to help teach anti-bias along with the rest of my colleagues. So I have more reading to do. Sandwiched somewhere in that pile is also my own skinny volume of poems in German that I published in February this year, Die Sprachbürgerschaft.

Meanwhile I have a stash of books I have read and reshelved but have not yet had a chance to really share or discuss; among them, Automating Inequality by Virginia Eubanks. This was a book that astonished and saddened me. Eubanks is a gifted reporter who conveys both the human tragedy at hand but also the faulty logic of those who would have us believe that more tech rather than less will benefit the greater good, when actually profit the greedier investor appears the more likely scenario. As the poor and vulnerable are subject to greater surveillance, scrutiny and deeper inequalities through algorithmic sorting, programming and predictions, the already weakened safety nets are at risk of being phased out or becoming downright inaccessible. I need to re-read and finally put more thoughts together on it.

Of course, I’ve also read a bunch of articles and blog posts that have also helped me want to do and be better. Jess L. wrote this blog post “Someone, Somewhere,” about LGBTQ safety for students in schools and I immediately shared it with counselors and administrators in my school. While I read Troublemakers with the #ClearTheAir group on Twitter, this podcast interview with author Carla Shalaby felt helpful in the aftermath of putting thoughts into practice.

Of course there are so many more good and necessary things to read. These are my snapshots today.img_20180806_122616