Writing inspired by the places, people, culture and history of the Midwest.
I’ve never thought of myself as a fearful person. Sure, butterflies are normal before I speak, and alone on a dark street at night, adrenaline races and I’m particularly watchful. But I’m not afraid as a general rule. Yet, when I joined an estimated 25,000 women and men at the Des Moines Women’s March, I found myself face-to-face with my own fear.
One of the speakers – a 65-year-old lesbian – recalled life for gays and lesbians in the early 70s. “There was a time,” she said. Then she shared the reality of life for homosexuals at that time. A time when homosexuality was classified as a mental illness. A time when gays could be forced to undergo shock or conversion therapy to “cure” them. A time when you could lose your job, or be kicked out – possibly even killed – for being who you were.
The description of the reality of that time hit me like a wrecking ball to the chest. Because I knew it personally.
Facing my own fear
I married for the first time in 1968. Four years later, I learned that my husband was gay. For a variety of reasons, we elected to remain married. To remain married and to present ourselves as a “normal” couple. At least part of my personal decision was influenced by my upbringing when I learned that how things looked to others was a most important consideration.
In choosing to keep quiet, we also chose to don the cloak of secrecy and fear. At any time someone might discover our secret. The ramifications could be many, and none of them looked good. Would he lose his job? Would I lose mine? What would happen to our families? Would we and they be shamed in public, ostracized in church, lose our friends?
Meanwhile, others – mostly on the coasts – were coming out of the closet and out of the shadows. They were marching. Demonstrating. Speaking up and out. They were brave. Maybe they felt fear, but they didn’t let it stop them. Because they stood up, they effected change. Not right away. Not all at once. Not even yet. But bit by bit.
Divorce did not remove the fear
When my husband and I divorced – almost 36 years ago – I thought I’d left that time and that fear behind. Listening to the Women’s March speaker, I realized how grateful I am for the people who marched for change. We’re all better off for people who march.
We’re better because of the suffragettes. We’re better because of the Freedom Riders. We’re better because of LGBTQ activists. We’re better because of activists who believe women should have control of their own bodies. We’re better because of people who will not accept being demeaned, downtrodden, or beaten any more. We’re better for those who put their fear aside and act.
Another woman faces down fear – Mesothelioma
Coincidentally, shortly before I faced down my own fear at the Women’s March, I received an email from Heather Von St. James. Heather is a 10-year survivor of mesothelioma, a cancer that took one of her lungs. Talk about fear. Instead of being ruled by the fear, Heather started “Lung Leavin’ Day.” Every February 2, Lung Leavin’ Day not only marks another year of survival for Heather, but also an opportunity to educate people on mesothelioma – and the value of overcoming fear. Follow any of the marked lengths to read more about Heather’s story.
At the March, I realized I still hold some fear in my core. The March helped solidify my sense that I was done with hiding. It’s time to face fear rather than let fear own me. Everyone had their own reasons for marching. I didn’t realize moving beyond fear was one of mine. Now I know.
To get past fear? Get up and get marching.
So, dear readers, how has fear been a factor in your life? What fears to have? How do you set fear aside?
Marching to support a cause is one of the hallmarks of our democracy. The suffragettes marched more than 100 years ago to secure the vote for women. Civil rights activists marched in the 1960s to raise awareness of the inequities suffered by African Americans. The LGBT community rose up in the 1970s.
Achieving human rights is not a one-and-done deal. Each right is fought for. And once achieved, there’s no guarantee you’ll keep those rights. If it were not so, we would not be here in 2017 still marching for those same rights.
On Saturday, I joined more than 20,000 women, men, and children for the Women’s March in Des Moines. We united in spirit with the millions who marched worldwide in support of a full range of human rights.
The reasons why people marched varied. The messages they carried, equally so.
I’ve been on the political sidelines my whole life. I’ve let others carry the load. This past year, though, I’ve seen how easily rights can be trampled on. How people are marginalized and dismissed. I’ve seen us going back – and not in a good way.
I elected to get up off the couch and engage. I didn’t realize what an empowering experience the march would be. Speakers roared into microphones, got us chanting, shared their stories, inspired.
When we finally marched around the Capitol grounds, I was reminded of being the slowest person in a marathon, the one who waits a half hour to even start running. In our case, there were so many people, the first people were back at the starting point before the last people began.
Participating in one of the fundamental rights of our democracy – the first amendment rights to assembly and free speech – was a powerful rush. Where will this all lead? Time will tell.
When I woke up a couple of days after the march with the words of the State of Iowa motto running through my brain, I knew I was in the right place, doing the right thing.
“Our liberties we prize. Our rights we must maintain.”
Ah, democracy. Did you march? What was your experience? If you didn’t march, what was your reaction?
Choosing a word of the year is popular. The Oxford Dictionaries chose ‘post-truth’ as their word in 2016, while Merriam-Webster settled on ‘surreal,’ and Dictionary.com tapped ‘xenophobia.’ All good choices given the year’s events.
A number of my friends choose a word that focuses them for the coming year. Serenity and Mindfulness are some examples. As friends shared their words for the 2017, I wondered how they do it. There are so many words that might apply.
Immediately, I recognized ‘wonder’ as a good word of the year for me. Wonder has many meanings so I am not trapped in one idea for the entire year. And my life circumstances already tell me this year will be full of moments that will cause me to pause.
Wonder encompasses curiosity, amazement, awe.
- I am in wonder at our granddaughters who bring such joy to our lives.
- I wonder if our neighbors who raise Percheron horses will let us ride them sometime?
- I wonder what it will be like to tour the ancient Greek monasteries, to stand in the middle of the 2500-year-old Parthenon, to ask the Oracle at Delphi my own questions?
- When I travel to Greece, I imagine I’ll be in wonder at finally fulfilling the very first travel desire I ever articulated, in eighth grade when we studied the Greek gods and goddesses, and again in college when I studied Greek theatre.
Wonder leaves room for doubt and uncertainty.
- I wonder what our country will be like under President Donald Trump?
- I wonder if any of the agents I pitch my novel to will like it enough to represent me?
- I wonder what I’ll do if they don’t?
- Now that I’ve finished the manuscript that occupied my time for two years, I wonder what will rise up as my next project? A question for the Oracle, no?
Wonder encourages emotion excited by what is strange and surprising.
- Standing in the midst of my prairie, I feel wonder that pioneers could actually cross through miles of tall grass.
- It is a wonder that I like ouzo. (If I actually said this, it truly would be a wonder. But who knows? I’m open to the possibility.)
Having latched onto Wonder, I imagine I’ll find even more reasons to experience all facets of the word. Having chosen the word, I’ll be reminded to appreciate more deeply each of these moments. An added value to choosing a word.
Do you chose a word of the year? If you have, please share. If you don’t have one but find that Wonder resonates for you, be my guest. I’m sure there’s plenty of wonder around for all of us.
My mother had a tradition. Whenever we visited, when it came time to leave, Mom put together food for us to take along for the drive. It didn’t matter if we’d just eaten and the trip only a couple of hours long, she sent food along for the drive.
As a result, I was charmed – and not a little homesick – when I heard that Nan Johnson’s family named this common tradition. As we enjoy this holiday season and associated travels, I invite you to take a little “Perkins Corner” love along.
Perkins Corner – love and comfort in a package “to go”
by Nan Johnson
Recently, as our daughter packed her car to leave after a visit home, my husband stepped out of our pantry holding a package of Mint Milano cookies. “These will be good for Perkins Corner – Kathryn likes these.” My husband caught me by surprise, because in that simple, off-hand comment, he connected generations of my family, paid a loving tribute to my late mother, and demonstrated that he pays more attention than he lets on.
A “Perkins Corner,” in my family, is a bag of treats assembled for the person leaving. It is an assortment of fruit and snacks, and may include a coupon for an oil change or a free smoothie. Practically speaking, of course, they are road trip provisions. Symbolically, they are a loving gesture to the family member who is leaving that says “we are reluctant to let you go; here’s a small part of us to take with you.”
While the practice is undoubtedly common among families, the name for it is not. It comes from my great-grandparents, Dutch immigrants who arrived two years before Ellis Island opened and settled in a community of fellow Frisians in northwest Iowa farm country.
Pakka was a stone mason and Beppa supplemented their income by making and selling cheese. Every summer in their childhood, my mother and her sister took the train from Rochester, Minnesota, to Rock Valley, Iowa, to visit their grandparents. These days, it is a three and a half hour trip by car; back then, the trip by rail probably took the better part of a day.
My mom and aunt spent the long summer days fishing with their grandpa, weeding the garden with grandma, and playing in the hayloft with cousins – children of their father’s siblings who had married other first generation Dutch Americans.
When it was time to leave the idyllic life of loving attention only grandparents can give, the tears began. To soften the sting of good-bye, Beppa handed her granddaughters a brown paper sack as they boarded the train with instructions not to open it until they reached Perkins Corner, the first train stop down the track. During that eight-mile journey, as Mom would tell the story, the sniffling subsided, cheeks wiped dry, and curiosity peaked as to the contents of that mysterious brown bag. When the conductor announced the Perkins stop, the sisters peeked inside and pulled out apples and cookies – one last figurative hug from their loving grandparents.
I grew up hearing the story, but never experienced my own Perkins Corner since my own grandparents lived in town. But after I married, had children and we visited my parents, who now lived in faraway Tucson, the tradition began again.
“Just a little Perkins Corner,” Mom would say tearfully as she thrust a brown paper lunch bag into my hands as we pulled up to curbside check-in at the airport. I wasn’t always as appreciative as I should have been; flying with three young children, our hands were already full of toddlers, strollers, diaper bags and luggage. What do I do with this extra sack? But I accepted the gift anyway, dutifully nodding at the updated instructions to not open until the airplane’s wheels retracted after lift-off.
Moments after we left the ground and felt the rumble of the wheel doors close underneath us, our kids would turn in unison toward me, and I would pull the slightly squashed bag from my carry-on. Mom got pretty creative over the years. She included candy made from prickly pear cactus, chocolates shaped like cowboy boots, decks of playing cards with colorful photos of Arizona. Whatever minor irritation I felt from being forced to hold on to an additional package faded at the sight of our kids’ smiles. After all, it was one last hug from loving grandparents.
So, when our grown-up daughter, with car packed and ready to go, came back inside to grab her travel coffee mug, she saw a brown paper sack waiting for her on the kitchen counter. Her eyes lit up and she said with delight, “Perkins Corner!” I felt three generations smiling with me.
Do you have quirky names for common traditions? Take a moment to share. And Happy Holidays.
Nan Johnson is a former reference and rare-book librarian. She lives in Missouri where she writes and where she and her husband maintain a tallgrass prairie. Her first book “The Open Road” will be available in April 2017.