New poem up at Sweet Lit

A herd of nine deer beside a house in my neighborhood

I start every day (after coffee) by walking my dogs in a woodsy park near my house. The park is wedged between two well-traveled roads, and the noise of traffic can overwhelm the quieter sounds of small birds. Still, it’s a refuge for wildlife in the area, and I often see deer on my walks.

A poet friend who was also a pig farmer used to call deer “rats with hooves.” He was at war with them over certain crops he grew to supplement the pig income.

Deer have acclimated quite well to living in proximity to humans, well enough to be deemed a nuisance or worse by farmers, gardeners, and motorists. And, the deer have acclimated well enough to see us humans as harmless, or even as food dispensers. A mistake on both sides of the relationship, in my view.

This poem, originally published in Sweet Lit, was prompted by one of my morning walks. Click the play icon for an audio version.

Ones & ZeROES

The doe’s belly ripples, then a placental hoof or knee
pokes her skin from inside out. She watches me watch her,

 
browsing for a hand held out with treats, whatever’s tender
or nearby. Re-programmed for curiosity toward humans,

 
she’s unremembered fear. A new machine can write a terabyte
of data every day on five hundred trillion molecules

 
of DNA. That memory will last ten thousand years.
Soon, the deer may see my dog, who never catches them,

 
as one more harmless thing. Is that the sort of bit she passes
down to offspring? Her new fawn rests, wet and dazed, between

 
deep shade and sun. Such tender prey. Let the dogs run.

New Poem: “More Rains in Store for Florida”

Cover of 2020 PASSAGER journal: “Meditation on Figs” by Hal Boyd. Image description: a cardinal surrounded by multi-colored leaves.

For the past 10+ years, I’ve sent work to Passager, a journal for art and writing by people over 50. They always have a beautiful cover!

I’m a slow writer. The poem I have in the current issue began as a response to the 2016 Pulse Nightclub murders in Florida. Then the summer rains began, and it seemed the storms would never end.

I submitted the poem at the beginning of 2020. Little did I know how Florida and her people would continue to suffer.

Here’s the poem:

More Rains in Store for Florida

Thunderstorms train west to east

across our fucked-up spit of land

and drag the gorgeous Gulf of Mexico

behind them through our seaside towns

and mangrove swamps as if The Gulf’s

a girl who oughta meet the warming,

rich Atlantic. As if the storms can

end our blood-soaked story with

a wedding. It’s not a romcom. Rains

like these have never washed away

the lynching trees, the prison cells,

the children bleeding in their schools,

the nightclub’s bullet holes. But maybe they

can level us. Flat as the face

of a lake, as the skim of water on a just-

rinsed plate. A flood, a dove, an even start.

Why I Love Florida — Especially in 2020

Wet prairie with partly cloudy sky reflected in the water.
Payne’s Prairie in North Central Florida. Photo credit: Michele Sharpe

I love Florida because it knows how to take the heat. People from Florida can handle criticism, trash-talking, jokes made at our expense, and the outright contempt of others. Florida-bashing is a legacy sport, played for decades by folks who want to believe they come from a much better place. At least here in Florida, we have no illusions; we know we’re flawed.

In the Summer of 2020, while Covid-19 cases surged all over Florida and our governor played stupid, Florida-bashing in the rest of the country only got more mean-spirited and petty than usual.

Cartoon drawing of Florida as a mullet haircut over face of man with moustache and glasses

Well, y’all can keep on with this meanness if you feel called to do so, but it won’t make you any safer in these End Times. You’d be better off taking a few lessons in survival from the Sunshine State, where disaster is a way of life.

Disaster looms daily in Florida. There’s the natural disasters, like alligator attacks, nineteen-foot exotic snakes, hurricanes, collapsing sinkholes, sea-level rise, fire ants, algae blooms bigger than most states, and a loose kangaroo hopping around Fort Lauderdale. And don’t forget, Florida is #1 in the world in unprovoked shark attacks.

There’s the human-made disasters, too: the European genocides of Native people, the enslaving of Black people, the lynchings, the Jim Crow laws, the mass incarceration, and voter suppression and Republicans. Those last two are connected. Somehow, many Floridian families have survived all of these atrocities.

Many of us still vote Republican, even though we know the Republican politicians are more corrupt and incompetent than the Democrat ones. But once those Republicans get elected in Florida, we hate them. The current governor, Ron DeSantis, is rivaling Donald Trump for who has killed the most people via government incompetence. He’s following in the footsteps of his predecessor Rick Scott, who spawned a cottage industry making popular “Rick Scott is an asshole” bumper stickers and t-shirts.

Tweet from 9–11–20 showing billboard with message “Killing Florida with his stupidity, Ron DeathSantis
Tweet from 9–11–20 showing billboard with message “Killing Florida with his stupidity, Ron DeathSantis

But we have trouble with long term memory. Thankfully, in an emergency, our muscle memory kicks in. When news of the pandemic reached Florida, everyone ran out to the supermarket and bought beer, BBQ supplies, bottled water, and toilet paper. We filled up the gas tanks of our vehicles. Like it was a hurricane.

Like a lot of traumatized people, many of us Floridians have trouble practicing self-care. Out of habit, some of us keep trying to punish ourselves the way some alcoholics keep drinking even though it’s not in their interest to do so. Some of us dismissed the idea of wearing masks to protect our communities from Covid-19 (even camo masks!) because it’s our habit to punish ourselves as well as those around us. Well forgive us for being human. We’re not the only ones.

While we have our share of jerks, most Floridians are friendly, open, and polite. We can’t help it; it’s sunny here. We don’t spend much time with our heads squished down into our necks as we endure biting winds, cold rain, blizzards, or ice storms like you poor folks up North. Instead, we open our arms and faces to the sky and to other people.

We tend to be less judgmental than our neighbors to the North, since there but for the grace of God we all go in some embarrassing “Florida Man” or “Florida Woman” headline, like “Florida Woman Dances Naked with Alligator.” Could be us; could be our grandma.

Sure, it gets hot. But guess what? Global warming means the heat is coming for everyone. We’re prepared. We know how to take the heat because we live in the kitchen.

Florida cypress swamp with gnarled roots and red cardinal flower
Florida cypress swamp with cardinal flower. Photo credit: Michele Sharpe

Florida is beautiful, complicated, and surprising. Some days, I’m so thankful to be here, I kiss everything I see. Except the reptiles.

Deep in the lizard brain of every Floridian lies our collective memory of palm trees swaying in warm breezes. There’s also our memories of the most recent Republican atrocities, like how Republicans have pillaged our statedisenfranchised hundreds of thousands of voters, and denied working people the unemployment benefits they needed in this pandemic.

I’m hoping all our suffering isn’t for nothing, that we’ll reject the ways we’ve been used and abused by the GOP, and we’ll rise up like Adrienne Barbeau and The Swamp Thing to spread love, science, and good will across our state.

And if Florida flips blue in the next election, I’ll be kissing every reptile I see.

[Originally published on Medium.]

Stop the Police

group of heavily armed police officers
Police in riot gear. Photo by ev on Unsplash

#PoliceAbolitio#DefundThe Police

Police officers have had racism’s back in the United States since the beginning. In colonial times, law enforcement was sometimes made up of volunteer police officers or private individuals who were hired by a community to keep order. It wasn’t until the 1850’s that the first municipal police departments were organized, but all these types of police have one thing in common:

From the first time an officer of the peace arrested a black person who’d escaped slavery or looked the other way when an overseer or plantation owner murdered a black person, to all the unprosecuted lynchings of the Jim Crow era, to Emmett Till, to the mass incarceration of black bodies that began in the late twentieth century, right up to the police murders of unarmed black people captured on cell phone videos in our current era, law enforcement has enforced racist terrorism.

Today, with the increasing militarization of police departments across the country, law enforcement is, more than ever, literally dressed to kill. Military grade weapons and equipment get to local law enforcement through the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program, which facilitates transfers of surplus. A series of studies found “a positive and statistically significant relationship between 1033 transfers and fatalities from officer-involved shootings across all models.” In other words, departments with access to military grade weapons are more likely to kill civilians than departments without access.

When someone shows you who they are, believe them. When an institution shows us who they are, we must believe them. The institution of policing is a deadly source of racist violence. No matter how many community policing trainings take place, no matter how many people of color are hired and promoted by police departments, law enforcement continues to kill innocent citizens. It continues to act out its racist policies. As an institution, it is not going to change. It must be abolished.

Let me say that again. Law enforcement has proven it supports racism for the last four hundred years. Law enforcement is not going to change, so it must be abolished.

It is the nature of law enforcement to support the status quo, and the status quo in the United States is racism. That status quo needs to go, and law enforcement needs to be swept out with it.

Who am I to say that? Just an informed citizen, an old, middle class, 97% white lady, the sort of person law enforcement is often depicted as protecting, and I would not call the police to my home or my neighborhood because there is no telling who they might kill or hurt, or what trouble they might cause.

Disempowering law enforcement won’t happen instantly, but many strategies exist to help make policing, and especially racist policing, a thing of the past. Like most big changes, the work can start at home. Locally, we can support and vote in candidates who have a more constructive vision of what community safety looks like. At local city, town, and county meetings, we can speak out on police budgets, and police hiring, and policing alternatives.

Following the police killing of George Floyd, which came hot on the heels of the police killing of 26-year old Brionna Taylor, members of Congress from both parties have proposed legislation to limit police powers including a ban on choke-holds and limitations on military grade weapons. It’s too soon to tell whether these proposals are mere pandering to voters during an election year, or whether these representatives mean business. Letting candidates know which pieces of legislation you support is crucial, as is telling them when their proposals don’t go far enough.

Or, as Dr. Ibram Kendi recently suggested, we can join with other citizens to amplify our individual voices, to “ask the question, ‘Well, who here is challenging the policy that is leading to these racial disparities?’ . . . Every single individual has the power to do that.”

Defunding police budgets might be another way to do abolish the violent, racist policing that’s tearing the U.S. apart. As Philip V. McHarris and Thenjiwe McHarris pointed out in an opinion piece recently, if police departments are defunded, more targeted services can be expanded:

· We don’t need cops to intervene in disputes. We need unarmed mediators.

· We don’t need cops to sweep people who are homeless off the streets. We need affordable homes.

· We don’t need cops to bust low-level dope dealers, or drug users, or alcoholics. We need substance abuse counselors who’ve been there who can share their experience, strength, and hope.

An important step in the abolition process is to bring police departments to an accounting. It’s clear that police forces in the U.S. are dangerous sources of anti-citizen violence, but data about those deaths is notoriously unreliable — because there is no national database keeping track.

According to one source, Mapping Police Violencepolice killed 1,099 people in the U.S. in 2019, and a disproportionate number of those victims were Black people.

Keep that fact in mind, and what it implies: Work toward disarming and abolishing police forces must be based in anti-racist policies.

Blood-fed, engorged female lone star tick, Amblyomma americanum (Linnaeus). Photograph by Lyle Buss.

Blood-fed, engorged female lone star tick, Amblyomma americanum (Linnaeus). Photograph by Lyle Buss.

This work is not, by any means, the sole responsibility of Black people. American racism has benefited white people for centuries, and white people must step up now to make amends. A good first step in anti-racist work is to examine one’s own underlying assumptions and implied biases about race and the systems of racism.

In American society, racist ideas attach themselves to people like ticks. The ticks embed under our skin and suck our blood, and unless we see them, we can’t shed them. Reading Black authors, watching Black films, and listening to Black people sharing their experiences can help anyone see those racist ideas, analyze them, and rip them out of our lives. For good.

For the good of all, work to abolish the racist institution of policing.

When a Child Offends

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Cover of Spring, 2020 issue of Witness Magazine, where this essay first appeared

“How can you defend someone you know is guilty?” That question was leveled at me too many times when I was a public defender. My answer was usually that I was helping to even up the odds, since all the criminal justice system’s machinery was arrayed against defendants. But sometimes I countered the question with one of my own: What do you mean by “defend”? What do you mean by “guilty”? What do you mean by “someone”?

Rayanne was someone, the eldest child of four, a good girl who liked helping at home. She wore her hair in tight braids when I first met her, but by the time she killed her seven-year-old neighbor, she was thirteen and had gone over to a medium-length Afro. Her mother, Donut, was my friend. A white woman of size, Donut moved as if weighed down by more than her girth. What she lost in physical speed, though, was more than made up for by the swiftness of her thought and speech. She could use language like a flower or a flamethrower to keep her children and her husband Everett in line, to navigate labyrinths of medical services, to get her car fixed almost for free.

Donut drove a 1970 Buick sedan, a metal beast big enough for her and Everett and the four kids. Something was always wrong with it. The day she showed up at my shotgun apartment with the four kids in tow, the muffler was dragging on the ground, setting off sparks. She and Everett had argued, and she was looking for a place to crash with the kids until he came to his senses. I had room for them.

The kids were all little then; Rayanne couldn’t have been more than ten, her hair still braided tightly. I fixed them all peanut butter sandwiches and sent them out into the living room at the front of the apartment while Donut and I sat at my Formica kitchen table, drinking burnt coffee and smoking Marlboros. We talked about how men sucked for a while, and then about her future.

It was the early 1980’s, and I was a childless woman in law school. Donut never tired of asking me what law school was like. We both knew she had an analytical mind that was made for legal reasoning. Education was much cheaper than now, but in her late twenties, with four kids and no college degree, law school seemed out of reach for her. Maybe when the kids were grown, we said, and fell silent.

When I picked up the phone to call my upstairs neighbor to borrow some pillows and blankets, I heard a commotion in the living room. Everett had knocked on my door, Rayanne had let him in, and the children were swarming him.

He walked through to the kitchen, a handsome black man wearing worn jeans and a light gray t-shirt that pulled tight across his chest, making him look strong and reliable. Donut twisted around to look at him and flipped her long, honey-colored hair over one shoulder. She pushed up out of her chair and he was beside her in an instant, lifting and wrapping his arms around her. The kids stood in the doorway and when she lay her head on his chest and hugged him back, they all cuddled around their parents. I was glad, for them and for me. I’d not looked forward to waking up to four kids.

The city we lived in curled around a harbor that stank at low tide. A has-been place, leftover from the Industrial Revolution, it was stocked with empty brick factory buildings and enough poverty and drugs to keep most everyone subdued most of the time. Once I graduated and passed the bar, I started taking public defender assignments in our city’s District Court.

I sometimes saw Donut in court when she was helping friends who were either mystified by the court’s legalese or intimidated by its Brutalist architecture. Soon, she started volunteering for a nonprofit mental health organization that would later hire her as a program director. Meanwhile, I was building a reputation for myself as what one judge called “a fierce little lawyer.”

When Donut called me the day Rayanne killed the neighbor boy, she was sobbing but still coherent. She and Everett had been out, and Rayanne had taken Donut’s keys to the Buick, gone outside to where the car was parked at the curb, started it up, and put it in gear. She was thirteen years old. She didn’t know how to drive, and the car had bucked, jumped the curb, caught the bike-riding seven-year-old neighbor boy under its wheels, and crushed him to death. Rayanne hadn’t got more than forty feet from her front door before killing him.

The next day, Rayanne appeared in court with her parents, charged with unauthorized use of a motor vehicle and manslaughter. I got the clerk to appoint me to her case. Rayanne cried during the entire ten-minute arraignment hearing, whispering “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry” like a mantra. What everyone wanted to know was why she’d tried to drive the car. She said she wanted to move it to a spot directly in front of her house, which sat on street of small, older homes wedged closely together without driveways. Arguments erupted in the neighborhood over parking spot territories. Her story didn’t make sense to me, but it was true that Rayanne was a girl who liked to smooth conflicts.

The boy’s parents were not present at the arraignment. The prosecutor wanted Rayanne held on bail; I countered that throwing Rayanne in a holding pen wouldn’t cure this tragic accident. She had no criminal record and neither did her parents. She posed no threat to anyone and should be allowed to go home pending resolution of the case. It didn’t hurt that the judge liked me and that I was able to vouch for Rayanne’s character personally. I’d known her and her family since she was in first grade. Rayanne was released to her parents. Donut had already set her daughter up with a counselor and would home-school her for the time being.

There was no point in arguing the facts of the case. Donut and I agreed that scheduling a plea hearing as soon as possible was best. Once the court case was over, Rayanne’s focus could shift to working through the trauma of having killed a little boy. But, because she’d killed a little boy, the prosecutor wanted her imprisoned. I wanted her put on probation.

Before our next court date arrived, I gossiped about the case with the clerks and court officers, playing up the doubly cruel nature of the tragedy, how the boy’s young, innocent life had been snuffed out, and how Rayanne’s young, innocent life had been forever changed. “The poor girl is inconsolable,” I’d say. “She’ll have to live with the weight of her guilt for the rest of her life.” It was true.

By the time Rayanne appeared in court again, a protective community of sympathy surrounded her. The court personnel – bailiffs, clerks, probation officers – all treated her and her family with respect. The clerk sent the case to the judge of my choosing first thing that morning, a judge who understood moral ambiguity and complexity. Though nothing was certain, I felt confident in arguing for probation while acknowledging Rayanne’s guilt. A seven-year-old boy had died, and the city mourned him. There would be no question about that.

My brief statement to the judge went like this: Rayanne was a good girl who helped out at home and did well in school. She’d made a terrible, irrevocable mistake in trying to move her parents’ car. She was already being punished by the guilt and remorse she felt, and she’d carry those feelings with her for the rest of her life. She came from a solid family that was supporting her through this nightmare. She was seeing a psychologist who’d prepared a report for the court, and I passed the report up to the judge. She was not a risk for future delinquency. Probation with significant community service hours, I said, was the most appropriate sentence for Rayanne given all the circumstances of this horrific accident. We couldn’t bring the seven-year-old child back, but we could give Rayanne, another child, a second chance. The judge nodded at the end of every sentence I uttered. If asked to predict the outcome, I would have said we’d prevail.

What I couldn’t have predicted though, was the testimony of the dead boy’s mother. The prosecutor put her on the stand, asked her to speak about her son’s death, and then stepped back, giving her a free rein. He must have expected her to be a sympathetic witness.

The boy’s mother was short and slight, with feathered-back blond hair. She wore snug jeans and a fitted vest over a button-down shirt. “My son is gone forever. That girl should be locked up for the rest of her life,” she said, pointing at Rayanne. Then she gripped the railing of the witness box with reddened knuckles, looking as if she was holding back tears, and turned on Donut and Everett.

“Just look at them,” she said. “You can see what kind of people they are by just looking at them. They’re not a good family at all.” I wondered if she was race-baiting, trying to attack them for being a biracial family. She took a deep breath.

“And they’re slobs. Car parts all over their back yard, trash cans overflowing every week.” She took a deep breath. “Just look at her!” she said, raising her voice and pointing at Donut. “She goes out of the house in her nightgown.”

Was this a jab at Donut’s fatness? I knew Donut usually wore big, blowsy muumuu dresses that straddled the line between nightclothes and daywear. Finding clothes that fit was next to impossible for her, and she’d done her best that day to tame her flesh in stretch pants and a stretched-out cardigan.

“And their dog,” the woman went on, “barking from morning ‘til night. All the neighbors complain, but they don’t lift a goddamned finger to keep that dog in line.”

I glanced back at Donut and Everett, who sat behind me in the first row of the courtroom with their heads bowed as if in prayer or in deep shame. Rayanne, sitting beside me at the defense table, also had her head bowed. The woman’s voice continued to rise. The prosecutor shifted in his seat as if about to stand up, but he slumped back. He must have figured the woman couldn’t be stopped at that point.

The judge kept a slight, sympathetic smile plastered to his face, even as the woman’s rage continued to stab at Donut and Everett, but I could see his gaze hardening, and then glassing over. I was torn between the glee I usually felt when an opponent’s witness went out of control, and the urgency of wanting the bereaved mother to stop shaming herself with all that hate. When she finally ran out of vitriol, the judge told her he understood her sorrow and her anger. Then he sentenced Rayanne to probation until her seventeenth birthday.

Rayanne could go home. It was a victory, but there was no celebration. How could there be, when another child had died?

I’d never asked Rayanne how she thought she should be punished for killing the little boy. Our first conversation centered on why she’d started the car in the first place. She’d always been a quiet kid, but the shock of killing the little boy rendered her nearly silent. I couldn’t get her to talk to me, so whenever we met, I’d outline the process of pleading guilty and give her my assurances that I’d do everything in my power to keep her out of the juvenile detention system, without bothering to tell her why.

Horror stories about those places were common. Guards abused the kids, and the kids abused each other. Juvenile convictions were supposed to be sealed, as if they could be forgotten by everyone, but any kid who did time was stamped with that experience and stigmatized.

Donut and I knew that staying out of the juvenile lockups, staying with her family, and staying on track with school would give Rayanne a chance to grow into a woman who could pay the debt she owed her community. Neither of us asked for Rayanne’s thoughts on that strategy. We were convinced we knew what was best.

But as Rayanne stumbled through her teenage years, her life took a turn no one had foreseen, although it came to make perfect sense to me. She’d not been punished for the little boy’s death, and so she punished herself through the self-destruction of bad men and alcohol and drugs. I second-guessed my belief then that kids, no matter what they’d done, shouldn’t be incarcerated. Maybe if Rayanne had been punished, I thought, she’d not feel compelled to punish herself.

Ten years after Rayanne’s case, I quit practicing law, turned to the happier work of teaching, and moved away. Donut and I lost touch, but every so often I wondered if we should have asked Rayanne how she thought she should be punished, instead of relying on our own instincts to do whatever it took to keep her from being locked up. She was, after all, guilty. Like all of us.

It’s been a hard lesson, but the children in my own family taught me Donut and I were right. I’ve never been a mother, and my nieces and nephews are a generation older than Rayanne. They became teenagers and young adults at the beginning of the twenty-first century, when mass incarceration and the war on drugs gave law enforcement unspeakable power over people, mostly people of color, but also poor whites.

Even before that, though, addiction had spread through our family like knotweed, rising up generation after generation, fed by alcohol, crack cocaine, meth, and opioids. Two of my nephews are in state prison now; both were first locked up as teenagers in 2009, when the U.S. prison population hit its historic high. Neither of them re-integrated into society when they were last released.

Not long ago, I looked Rayanne up online. The first thing I found was Donut’s obituary page, where Rayanne had written a tribute to her mother’s care and concern for her. From there, I found Rayanne’s professional profile. She’d earned an associate degree at a community college, and she’d gone on from that to a decent job. Because she had a decent job, she could afford to earn a bachelor’s degree, and then a master’s degree. Because of those college degrees, she got a very good job. She had kids of her own, maybe because she had a mother who’d loved her and defended her.

What does it mean to defend someone who is guilty? Nearly thirty years have passed since I tried a case, but my old answer to that question still rings true for me. It means trying to even up the odds. I try to do that in my work and in my family life. I usually fail, and that’s my guilty not-so-secret. In spite of my experience as a public defender, I’ve never been able to keep my family members free, or even out of court.

I write to my nephews in prison. I send them books when they ask for them. They write back, sometimes daring to hope. “My lifestyle isn’t an avenue to virtue, but my mentality isn’t a fortress of pessimism either,” one says. He hangs on to his delight in making words sing with each other. Soon, he’ll be released, but what will he do? His face and neck swarm with prison tattoos. He doesn’t want to work or go to school or get into a program. Locked up almost continuously from fourteen to twenty-four, most of what he knows is prison life. His sisters fear he is institutionalized. They pray for him. When despair smothers me, I push it away by writing and volunteering.

In 2018, I spent an afternoon defending the guilty by knocking on doors for Second Chances Florida, which ran a successful campaign to restore voting rights to most Florida citizens convicted of felonies. Some of those doors were opened by people who thought anyone with a criminal record didn’t deserve to vote. After decades in the happy profession of teaching, I was surprised at how vehement they were, how much they favored harsh and permanent punishment, and how much they sounded like the angry mother of that seven-year-old boy Rayanne killed. Their voices came from a hollow place echoing with lies about how heaping blame on others makes one more worthy. They sounded like children picking a fight.

Perhaps the impulse to punish is a childish one. Perhaps our legislative, justice, and law enforcement systems are made up of a mob of flailing toddlers, enraged at their impotence and ashamed of their own guilty secrets. Often, those systems seem irrational, doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results. Too often, those systems make cataclysmic mistakes. Too often, they lash out and scar a whole life.

I also have a niece who served time in prison. As a child, she was nothing like Rayanne, who was easy to defend. No one ever described my niece as a good girl who helped at home and did well in school; her trouble began in kindergarten, when she became someone who was permanently banned from the school bus for being out of control. Then she became someone on school-ordered medication, in psychiatric hospitals, in foster care, in juvenile prisons, then someone in state prison. Now she’s thirty years old, and she’s been out of prison and unmedicated – by doctors or herself — for six years. She’s someone working as a mentor for troubled kids.

What does it mean to defend someone who’s guilty? My niece is not a different person now. She’s the same soul she was as a kid. Like Rayanne, like anyone, she’s always been someone worthy of defending. My love and my letters might have soothed her pain at times, but they didn’t save her. She found some faith in herself, and she found a community, a whole group of people who defended her, even though she was guilty. Like Rayanne, someone gave her another chance.

 

Famous Adopted People — the book!

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Cover of the novel FAMOUS ADOPTED PEOPLE by Alice Stephens

FAMOUS ADOPTED PEOPLE by Alice Stephens (@AliceKSStephens) kept my attention riveted from start to finish, like a roller coaster ride through a kaleidoscope. It’s a book that switches gears a lot, and the author manages the transitions very well, partly because the novel is told through the perspective of a single protagonist who has a distinct voice. Lisa, a multiracial international adoptee from Korea who grew up with white adoptive parents in America, is a hard-drinking, work-shirking young woman whose close friendship with Mindy, another international adoptee, blows up when the two young women are traveling in Asia. What starts out as a story about friendship and identity becomes a crime mystery/political thriller/cultural criticism story with a little magic realism and a good bit of humor thrown in.

This was a very satisfying read for me. It kept me up at night and it kept me thinking. The whiplash ways of this novel seemed to me to be a meta-metaphor for the situation of transracial and international adoptees whose lives, like all adoptees’ lives, begin with the emotional whiplash of family separation and are further complicated by the cultural whiplash of being raised by a family that is obviously not their family of origin.

I love reading stories about adoption — fiction or nonfiction — because I was separated from my family by adoption as an infant, and I need stories that represent my experience. As a domestic adoptee, there are significant differences between my experiences and those of Lisa, the novel’s main character, but I still identified strongly with her questions about her own identity and her sense of alienation.

If you’re looking for a riveting read to take your mind off of COVID-19, I highly recommend this novel. And if you’re looking for insight on the adoptee experience, I highly recommend it for that reason, too. More great reads by adoptees or recommended by adoptees can be found at Karen Pickell’s wonderful Adoptee Reading website.

Marriage Fragments

Two purple plums hanging from a tree limb.                                Image by andreas N from Pixabay

My brain, like everyone’s, has its ruts. One of the mostly deeply ingrained of these is iambic pentameter: da-DUM da-DUM da- DUM da-DUM da-DUM.  Free verse (poetry without meter or a given form) doesn’t come very naturally to me.

Habits aren’t bad, but experimenting with new patterns is, IMHO, good for the brain. To break out of my habitual poetry patterns, I sometimes mimic other poems to start one of these experiments.

When I read the very fine “Portrait of Reality in Fragments” by George Alexander, I was entranced with the pattern he used and also with the conversation in his poem between the self and a younger version of the self.  I was eager to try writing a fragment poem with bits of memory juxtaposed, and the result is “Marriage Fragments.”

Originally published by the remarkable journal The Sunlight Press. The editors publish poetry, fiction, essays, and visual art. If you’re an artist or writer looking for a place to publish your work, I recommend them.

The Sunlight Press

Marriage Fragments

I wanted to love him
like my fifteen-year-old self:
lips unsplit, nose unbroken,
face without a mark
on it, my tongue tasting
of plums.

*

Seneca thought luck happened
when preparation met opportunity.
I’d like to think it was the plums’ sweetness
that prepared me
to taste the bitterness,
the differences.

*

In this marriage, my mother’s skin was,
assuredly, my own:
craving, drenched with knowing
touch and never enough touch
and never enough.

*

Rivers froze where I grew up,
and spring shattered them.
He liked to say
he un-bitched me.
Maybe so, or maybe fish
leapt from the river as sleet.

*

His father took him fishing
on Ozark rivers under
yellow honeysuckle. I wouldn’t
recognize those rivers, only
his hands, circling
a canoe paddle and his sex.

*

He asked me to marry him
the first time we had sex,
asked so easily, as if it was
his habit. I waited
him out. My river, his spring,
my differences.

***

 

Writing About Our Dead

Fireplace-hand with shell fragments
An open palm holding tiny shells and shards

It’s an honor to hold the ashes of our dead.

Some of my brother James’ ashes are in a box on the top of a bookcase in my house. The ashes of a full-grown human being are heavy, enough to fill a half-gallon jug.

His daughters and I released some of his ashes on the beach at Tybee Island two months after his death, on a cold day when the wind was sweeping up sand. His ashes mingled with the sand and the salt wind.

We have vague plans for the ashes in the box, maybe to take them to the mountains he loved and scatter some there. I’ve already scattered some in my garden. James, like me, had an affinity for the plant world.

This poem was originally published in Atticus Review , along with the image above.

Atticus Review
Fireplace

Bananas love ashes in summer.
Time to spread some in the yard.
The fireplace grate is empty.                                                                                          

It’s easy to put things off. Even fire.
No one was diligent like my brother,
who sifted broken shells for hours

looking for shark’s teeth. Once, he held
his hand out with a shattered sand dollar
to show me little bones inside.

His other hand flew up and fluttered—
he said the bones were white doves, the peace
that passes understanding. He believed

in omens and Jesus and that one thing
could also be another. Time to feed
plants? At the first thunderclap.

The grate is empty, the urn is full.
His ashes scatter under the banana trees.
Rain dissolves fine particles, but not
the shards that passed on through.

Writing About Worry

worried

I’m not prone to anxiety. Maybe it was all that LSD I took in middle school. I’ve heard it’s helpful for similar issues.

But I do worry about the young people in my family.  I love them so much, and so many of them face obstacles that seem insurmountable.

Here are two poems about those worries that were originally published in the Winter/Spring 2020 edition of Wordpeace

For audio versions of the two poems, click below.

Michele Sharpe

Michelle Sharpe poem for WP word-page-0

 

Michelle sharpe poem 2 for WP