“We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership.” —Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, June 2020
I actually don’t think that’s all we’re witnessing. I think our problems run much deeper. Four hundred years deep, dating back to the day the first slave stepped off the ship onto the soil that would one day be the soil of the United States.
Oh where were our visionaries then?
I suppose we could look to our founding fathers. Well, not all of them. But Benjamin Franklin allowed himself to be educated on the slave situation, though he remained pessimistic about integrating Black people into society. However, a thoughtful, intelligent man could not help but be troubled by what he himself saw as “an atrocious debasement of human nature”.
Yet he owned two slaves himself. And Benjamin Franklin was the best white man we had to offer at the time.
Jump ahead a few centuries. On June 16, 2015, Donald J. Trump announced he was running for president. Less than a year later, it was obvious he had the support to win. To the befuddlement and consternation of thoughtful, intelligent people everywhere, Donald J. Trump went on to become president of what was once the greatest nation in the world.
Life went on, but from that moment, the rights of the marginalized were under attack and in danger. As Mattis says, we haven’t had mature leadership. We have had evil leadership. Ignorant leadership. Leadership with the rights and privileges of the rich and powerful and white (and mainly male) prioritized. And our institutions have suffered because so much of them is controlled by that very demographic. It’s hard to stand up for what’s right when your stock portfolio is soaring. It’s hard to be concerned about “the others” when your race/religion/party is on top.
“The founding fathers, in their genius, created a system of three co-equal branches of government and a built-in system of checks and balances. I feel as though that is under assault and is eroding.” —Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, May 2017
Turns out Clapper was right. Our institutions have crumbled. Our checks and balances are nearly gone. And now we have a choice to make. The economy is on the verge of recovering after the blow it was dealt by Trump’s mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis. We haven’t seen the last of COVID-19, but people are learning how to live with the danger. That’s not even the wrong thing to do. We had to adapt. We are strong that way. Where we are weak is remembering the bad times.
Black Lives Matter has a chance for the first time in our history to make a difference. As a Southern White Woman—which I put in capitals because I worry constantly that it defines me to others, but, worse, to myself—I know this is important. It is important to every marginalized human being in our country including women, but it is most important to the Black community, which may finally throw off four hundred years of oppression.
Can we as a nation find the strength to resist a government which would oppress all of us—all but the powerful, white, and rich? Can the powerful, white, and rich find it in themselves to resist the call of more power and more money? Some have. James Mattis was one of them. There have been others.
“We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don’t. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent.” —Senator John McCain, October 2017
“Without fear of the consequences and without consideration of the rules of what is politically safe or palatable, we must stop pretending that the degradation of our politics and the conduct of some in our executive branch are normal. They are not normal. Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified.” Senator Jeff Flake, October 2017
Can others follow? Can we all come to realize what is wrong is wrong even when it is not in our own interests? I don’t know. In November 2020 I hope I will find out. I pray what has been normalized—whether that has happened over four years or four centuries—will be rejected. Only then will the symbols of freedom we treasure mean anything at all.
Oprah Winfrey is quoted as saying, “Reading is a way for me to expand my mind, open my eyes and fill up my heart.” That is indeed what reading is for many today. But it’s also a privilege and a right that human beings of all races had to fight for.
Before the invention of the printing press, only the upper classes had books to read. They were just too expensive for the common folk. Too busy surviving plague and poverty, many of these people never learned to read. Bibles, especially, were kept to the clergy and the church, mainly because they were the only ones who could read it in its original Latin. God forbid that the lower classes read it for themselves and start thinking and interpreting religion for themselves.
But then came the English translation of the Bible—which was banned for that very reason. It was smuggled into English hands by determined bibliophiles, but William Tyndale, the translator who lived in exile in Europe in order to complete his life’s work, was executed.
Of course slaves were not allowed to learn to read. Not only were there no schools for them, it was against the law to teach them in most slave states. But learning finds a way. Some slave owners allowed their slaves to learn to read as part of Christian education, and some educators found interesting ways around the laws, including a floating school on the Mississippi River.
My point here is that all cultures and races have fought at some point for the right to read and write, and in an era such as the one Americans are going through right now, we need to preserve every last bit of that right. Our president threatens social media and the press, bookstores in Minnesota are battered by protestors and looters, and all of this is happening against a backdrop where independent bookstores and small presses are struggling for survival anyway.
So my plea is this: Don’t be part of the forces that would oppress you and take the light of knowledge away. Don’t burn the bookstore your ancestors fought for.
Today’s anti-information, non-factual age is a dangerous one for local bookstores, the media and science. In the end, it is up to us to make certain our heritage and ways of life are preserved. Protect what generations of every culture have fought for. Keep our bookstores open.
Today is, in a very real way, a very big day for me. It’s my 25th wedding anniversary and the day I officially release my 18th book.
It’s hard to celebrate right now, as I have good reason to know. My 50th birthday fell right at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis. My son and my daughter also have celebrated birthdays. Today I have no actual plans to celebrate. I once envisioned a busy day full of well wishing friends for both my book and my marriage. I mean, not as many people make it to their silver wedding anniversary as used to, right? And quite a few authors never see 18 books with their name on the front.
But celebrating is hard right now. People are still sick, still dying. I’m working hard to make sure I’m not one of them. I have nightmares that my family is. And life goes on.
And still, I am happy to announce the publication of my 18th book, Magic at Sea, the seventh book of my Sleight of Hand series (and still a standalone, so you can read it even if you haven’t kept up with the series!). And I am happier still to be married to the same wonderful man for twenty-five years. Rain or shine, we’ve had them both.
I do live in a fantasy world a lot of the time, so I know what I’m talking about here. Writers mostly do. You may see us grocery shopping or taking our cars for service or dropping the kids off for school, but that reality doesn’t mean we’re not living in our fantasy world, figuring out plotlines, talking to our characters, considering story arcs…
Until reality impinges on fantasy and we have to face it.
Recently I’ve felt more and more that it’s the opposite in my corner of the world, at least. Fantasy is impinging on reality. Because we don’t want to deal with reality, we create fantasy. Covid-19 doesn’t exist. It was made up. It’s not going to kill anyone we love because so many people survive it, it’s just like the flu. There are only 40 or 60 or 100 or 200 cases in my community, and nobody I know has it, so I won’t get it. Masks don’t protect you. It was 5G that caused it.
Reality is scary right now, yes, but not facing it is scarier because you know what I’ve found from living in a fantasy land a lot of the time? Reality will force you to face it eventually. You do have to come out of the clouds and pay the bills or your power gets turned off. You gotta scoop the cat litter or it gets stinky. Right now I’m wearing scratched glasses because going to the eye doctor is too much reality.
And if we don’t face the frightening reality of covid-19 as a community, we’re going to regret it. All of us.
My bookstore has been a lot of things for me from the time I took it over in January. The realization of a lifelong dream. A haven. A happy place for me, and I hoped, the art community and book lovers in my town. One thing I didn’t want it to become was a place of negativity, and I refused from the beginning to allow politics in the door.
COVID-19 has changed a lot of things, but the worst for me so far is that it has taken that from me. In order to preserve a healthy workspace for myself and avoid the potential of taking home something horrible to my family, I asked that my customers wear masks in the store. When it became obvious just the asking wouldn’t work, I began requiring them. If a customer arrived without one, I provided a simple handmade one to them. My customers were very agreeable about this. I began to relax. I began to believe that the people in my town, regardless of personal beliefs, were well bred enough to honor my rule.
Yesterday, that belief was shattered. A customer turned away when I told them masks were required in the store. Another argued with me that masks did no good, using talking points I’ve heard on conservative news outlets. The CDC has an agenda. Cloth masks are useless and will only hold germs against your own face, not protect you. I didn’t tell him that was the point, that I wanted him to keep his germs to himself. I asked him to leave.
And that’s when my store stopped being a refuge. I went home and cried because I’d never intended for this to happen there. I hate that it has happened. I hate that potential customers who might enjoy the otherwise welcoming atmosphere in my little store may now just go to Amazon or Books a Million. I hate it, but I can’t help it.
And so today I mourn the loss of the chance to share my refuge. I will continue to require masks until the danger of COVID-19 is gone. I realize many won’t come into the store if I do. I will miss them.
I know how lucky I am. I get to go into a bookstore every single day. In these coronavirus days, that’s something special. Admittedly, I know this time is a setback. I certainly never imagined I would end up closing down for weeks and possibly months this soon after becoming the owner of a bookstore. But life’s lemons make sweet lemonade if you know the recipe, and for me, that recipe includes a lot of books and time.
Today, I will go back to the bookstore. I will sit behind my desk and do paperwork and hope the phone will ring. I will spend some time dusting and rearranging shelves. And I will spend some time just sitting silently. But I won’t be alone.
I took this picture this morning. Dogwoods are blooming in North Carolina. I’ve been photographing them ever since they started peeking out a week or so ago. But this particular bloom intrigued me. Why?
Because it’s blooming on a broken branch.
The branch was half severed during a storm in the late summer/early fall. It never died, though. The leaves stayed green until they reddened to brown in the fall. I’ve been watching this branch since then, waiting for spring and wondering if it would bloom like the rest of the tree.
It is. Blooming. A little stunted, a little slower, but blooming nonetheless. Partially severed from the rest of the tree, this little blossom is still struggling for survival. It has a message of beauty and purpose to spread to us. No doubt this flower would prefer to still be on a limb that is fully attached to the tree it comes from, but it’s taking what’s been given and going with it.
It occurred to me that this flower is much like us right now. Do we wish we weren’t stuck in isolation? Would we prefer to be able to go to dinner and movies and parties like normal? (Okay, the parties thing is not me, but I understand I’m less social than the normal human being.) It would definitely be nice to go out shopping without wondering if this is the time we pick up the COVID-19 virus and bring it home to our families.
Yeah, we’re all blooming on our own broken branches right now. But we’re blooming, nonetheless. We’re helping each other and spending time with family members that maybe had been a little neglected, tending to gardens and cleaning our homes. Our children are still learning from teachers who are overcoming what would once have been insurmountable obstacles to teaching.
Life is going on. To quote Jeff Goldblum (and either Michael Crichton or Steven Spielberg?), “Life finds a way.” We are alive. We are finding a way to live.
I won’t lie, it’s difficult celebrating today. But it’s also sort of necessary, isn’t it? I mean, every year on this day, I look at the flowers blooming and think, I hope I’m here one more year to see this. So, no matter what the next year brings, I celebrate last year and say goodbye to it. It’s time to turn to what’s coming with gratitude for what came before.
By Michelle Garren Flye
It’s not so important, this birthday of mine.
I’ll toast and forget it with a little red wine.
What’s fifty, after all, but a number of sorts?
It’s not like it comes with big lumpy warts.
I’m not really any older than I was yesterday—
I’ll still skip and holler in the midst of the fray.
If you think about it, each day leaves us a bit worn,
And it starts from the very hour we are born.
What’s fifty after all, but the next logical step?
Each year, just a memory, so carefully kept.
We build our remembrances up until the end,
And hope time’s passage brings us another friend.
What’s fifty? I yell to the rest of the world.
I’m nothing without age…let the years unfurl!
It’s not like it’s something we’d want to avoid.
If we try to, our hopes will just be destroyed.
What’s fifty? A point on a timeline, if you would.
Just you wait, this year I’ll make fifty look good.