Happy 10th!

boxes (1)Rain fell sideways on a November night ten years ago as half a dozen friends formed a chain between a U-Haul and a storage unit. The light from headlamps danced as bodies swung, passing twenty-pound cartons hand-to-hand. Photographer Summer Moon Scriver and I had barely made it onto the last ferry of the night, me behind the wheel of a truck packed with 300 boxes of books. book box (1)

That night was the culmination of four years of collaboration for Summer, book designer Bob Lanphear, and me to produce Hands at Work: Portraits and Profiles of People Who Work With Their Hands.

32

The project arose from an exhibit of black-and-white photographs of people’s hands by Summer. The images of the hands of a baker, a knitter, a spinner, and a gardener spoke to me of a passion for work that I had once had and lost and that I know is missing for many other people. I wanted to give voice to those stories of satisfaction with work.

In The Reinvention of Work, Matthew Fox writes, “When work moved from farm to city, from land to concrete, from hands to machine—in short, when the industrial revolution redefined the meaning of work for us—much was lost. Perhaps the greatest loss was the sense of cosmic wonder, of interrelationship with the universe, with nature, with the stars and breezes and plants and animals that was integral to workers on the land. No paycheck can make up for that loss.” 45The people featured in Hands at Work have found a way to make up for this loss: they use their hands to shape, slice, birth, repair, heal, communicate, and harvest.

10They talk of living in their hands and needing to get their hands dirty, cold, or wet.

For them, the materials they use are alive and responsive; their hands teach them things they didn’t know and connect them to different times, places, and people. 21

We had no difficulty creating a list of people who rely on their hands for their work in our small, rural community on Lopez Island in northwest Washington, though we did venture beyond our home for a few profiles.   Whenever we made the first call to ask people to participate, most were humble, doubting that their work, their stories, and their hands could be of any interest or importance. We followed up by sending a written description of the process, and when people agreed (and everyone we asked ultimately did), we scheduled an interview and photo session at their places of work.

Summer and I arrived with lights, cameras, black backdrops, notebooks, pens, and the gift of a jar of locally-made, soothing hand salve. As Summer set up equipment, I explained that our goal was to engage in this process of documenting their work like ballroom dancers, leading and following as gracefully as possible. At times, I helped Summer with photographing by moving lights or suggesting shots to illustrate the subjects’ words about their work. Often, Summer added her own questions to the interview as she viewed the work through her camera lens.

Most of the time, it was graceful; every time, it was fun. Like the day we met with Irene Skyriver in her garden.

“What comes to mind with the title?” I asked.

36“I’ve always thought of my hands as rototillers in the dirt,” Irene said, scooping out a shallow hole for the corn seedling she was planting. Summer squatted beside Irene, focusing her camera lens on Irene’s calloused hands. Click. Click.

“How would you describe yourself and the kind of work you do with your hands?” I asked, crouching in the dirt and balancing my notepad on my knee.

Irene stayed focused on the task before her. “I’m not a studied gardener,” she said. “There are so many things I don’t know about gardening. I’ve never read one gardening book – it’s just not my style. Trial and error is.”   My left hand slid across the page, scrawling as many of Irene’s words as possible.

17As we talked with and photographed people at work, their fervor for painting, weaving, fishing, cooking, quilting, sculpting, boat-building, puppeteering, and even car repair was palpable and exhilarating. All expressed gratitude for being watched and listened to as they went about the work that feeds their souls. We recognized how rare it is for any of us to spend that much time talking about our work.

The sessions typically lasted two hours. Then Summer and I each went to our home offices, Summer downloading photographs to her computer for editing, and me transcribing my hand-written notes to my computer. What followed were hours and hours of mostly solitary work shaping pictures into portraits and words into stories. Sometimes one or both of us needed to do some follow-up – more photographs, more questions. Then we repeated the process with the next person on the list.

Four years later, Summer and I saw the results of our work transferred by fork lift from a warehouse into a rental truck. For the next few hours, the rhythm of windshield wipers accompanied our conversation on the drive to the ferry terminal. A few days later, we launched the words and images into the world at a celebration at our local community center.

I’m celebrating again as I think back over the decade since the book’s release. It was a joy to talk with people about their work, and I still feel a thrill when people tell me Hands at Work moves and inspires them. I continue to believe it remains timeless.

So. Here’s a math equation for you to consider:

4 years to write X 10 years since publication = 40% off

That means Hands at Work, originally $34, is available for $20 (tax and shipping included) until December 16 if you order online here. Hands at Work just might be a perfect gift for someone in this holiday season.

27

*All black-and-white photographs by Summer Moon Scriver©

*Afterthought #82 – Souvenirs

This month’s afterthought has me still reflecting on my latest visit to Chicago’s American Writers Museum (read more at “Insider Information”). Since I live a couple thousand miles away from this treasure, I brought a bit of it home. I’ll share a few of these souvenirs with friends and will keep a couple for myself until I return to the museum again. There’s much more for me to discover there.

bookmarks (1)

 

magnets (1)

*Afterthoughts are my blog version of a practice followed in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, people continue in silence for a few more minutes during which they’re invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning’s worship. I’ve adopted the form here for last-day-of-the-month brief reflections on headlines, quotes, books, previous posts, maybe even bumper stickers and refrigerator magnets.

Insider Information

It’s not every day you’re able to read Jack Kerouac’s 120-foot scroll manuscript of his On the Road. But there it was (or rather, a copy of it) protected under glass at the American Writers Museum in Chicago. “We had the original on display here,” a woman to my right said, “and before we sent it back to its permanent home, we made a copy so we could keep it here outside the Writer’s Room.”

I’d heard the woman speak knowledgeably to her companions about historic pieces as I’d made my way through rooms in the museum. She’d urged them to lift headphones in the Bob Dylan exhibit for recordings of him singing in the 1970s and reading his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 2017. She encouraged one of the teens with her to write something on the manual typewriters on display in another room. And now, before entering the Writer’s Room new display about Frederick Douglass, she shared what struck me as museum insider’s information.

Roberta Rubin“Are you involved with the museum?” I asked. She smiled and pointed to the sign above the doorway – The Roberta Rubin Writer’s Room.

“Is that you?” She smiled again, and nodded, explaining she’s been on the museum’s board (in fact, she’s the co-chair) since 2014.

She asked if I’d been to the museum before. “Yes,” I said, “and I’m an American writer!” We embraced, and I felt tears prickle my eyelids. “I’m so grateful you all created this museum,” I said. Ever the advocate for AWM, Roberta asked, “Are you a member?” (I am).

It’s not as though Chicago needed another museum. The city is well known for its Museum of Science and Industry, Field Museum of Natural History, Art Institute of Chicago, Adler Planetarium, Chicago History Museum, Museum of Contemporary Photography, and Children’s Museum. It also hosts museums devoted to African American, Swedish American, Chinese American, Polish, and Ukrainian history. Perhaps lesser known are Chicago’s museums dedicated to sports, veterans, broadcast communications, and pizza. But AWM’s visionary founder, Malcolm O’Hagan, was convinced that American writers deserved a home of their own and incorporated the tax-exempt AWM Foundation for that purpose in 2009.

American-Writers-Museum_2018_BLB28588_Barry-Brecheisen
Barry Brecheisen – CN Traveler

Located in Chicago’s downtown heart on Michigan Avenue, AWM opened its doors to the public in May 2017. I made my first visit two months later. That day, I spent much of my time in the museum’s entry, studying long banners of portraits and bios recognizing “Chicago Writers: Visionaries and Troublemakers.” chicago writers

Gwendolyn BrooksMany of the names were familiar to me: Saul Bellow, Mike Royko, Studs Terkel, Gwendolyn Brooks, Carl Sandburg, Willa Cather. The museum claims them as among “the poets, novelists, journalists, and other writers [who found] inspiration in everyday people, telling their stories and transforming the way they talk into art. Chicago writers are also troublemakers…with a humanist bent,” the display explains. “They have shone the light on injustice, questioned authority, and articulated bold new visions for a better world. Chicago writers are agents of change.” These words make me proud of my Chicago roots.

Octavia ButlerAlthough today’s Americans speak more than 350 languages, another section of the museum focuses on 100 authors who “represent the evolution and flourishing of American writing… Taken together, this rich literary heritage reflects America in all of its complexity: its energy, hope, conflict, disillusionment, and creativity.”

One of the most creative (and mesmerizing) rooms in the museum tackles the question of what it means to be an American.

word waterfall
Courtesy AWM website

JamesB quote

A “word waterfall” offers quotes from American writers about what they love abut America and how the country has failed or succeeded at ensuring equality for all.

The museum’s mission “to celebrate the enduring influence of American writers on our history, our identity, our culture, and our daily lives,” is clearly exemplified in the current temporary exhibit about American writer, Frederick Douglass. That’s where I spent most of my time during my latest visit to AWM.

FD bio

 

Douglass speech 2

In the small space of the Writer’s Room, images of this former slave, and excerpts from his writings, convey his wisdom and revolutionary and prophetic writing.FD amendments

I’m delighted I eavesdropped on Roberta Rubin’s conversations that day; turns out she was sharing her insider information with family visiting for the first time. It was no surprise to learn she joined the AWM board soon after retiring as the owner of The Book Stall at Chestnut Court in Winnetka, IL. “As a bookstore owner, I had a lot of books, of course,” she explained, and many from her collection are now shelved in the museum’s Reading Room, complete with comfy chairs to encourage visitors to settle in with a good book. When I told Roberta I’m from Washington, she mentioned some of the “fantastic bookstores you have there.” Among them was Village Books in Bellingham (and now Lynden, too). “Chuck and Dee Robinson [Village Books founders] have visited the museum,” she explained. Small world, eh?

Before we parted, Roberta dug in her purse to give me her business card. I hope to get to know her better—and to thank her again for her efforts to give visitors an inside look at American writers.

 

 

 

 

 

Look Who Ran for Something

alexandriaIn the week after the 2018 midterm elections, I celebrated victories by women (including 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman to serve in Congress in the U.S.), people of color, and LGBTQ candidates. What I didn’t know was that at least some of those candidates, and many more in state and local elections, likely were inspired to run during last year’s National Run for Office Day (NROD). The first-ever NROD took place in 2017, with a plan for it to be celebrated annually on the second Tuesday after the second Monday in November (the week after election day); this year, that was November 13.

nrod+clean

After the 2016 election, progressives created the political action committee, Run for Something (RFS) with this purpose:

“Run for Something will help recruit and support diverse progressives under the age of 35 to run for down-ballot races in order to build a bench for the future — the folks we support now could be possible members of the House, Senate, and maybe even President one day.”

The organization, now with 41 partners, posted significant success in that first year. They endorsed 72 candidates across 14 states. Nearly half of those candidates won, with 51% of the winners identifying as women and 40% identifying as people of color. They included school board members, city and county council members, and members of state legislatures.

How did RFS do this year? This image sums up well the organization’s effectiveness at recruiting candidates.

2018 results

women politico
Politico

While RFS focuses on down-ballot races (positions at state and local levels), its efforts likely had something to do with the record-breaking number of women elected to the U.S. House and Senate: 102 women won in the House and 3 won in the Senate (joining 10 others already there). This brings the number of women in Congress to 115, the most to serve at the same time in history (the previous record was 107 in 1992).

LIHD_COLORlogoAs I wrote a year-and-a-half ago, I never imagined I’d run for something. But there I was in a down-ballot race in April 2017. Having recently retired from a forty-year nursing career, I threw my nurse’s cap into the ring to serve as one of five commissioners of the newly-formed Lopez Island Hospital District. Since my election, I’ve been learning a lot as the commission works to ensure collaborative, high quality, island-appropriate health care in our community.

Except for being a woman and a progressive, I don’t fit the demographic that RFS is focused on. However, I do subscribe to its belief that “anyone and everyone should consider running for office—especially local office.” Between now and the next National Run for Office Day on November 12, 2019, you might want to consider it, too.