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.
*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.
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.
“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.
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.”
Many 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.
Although 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.
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.
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.
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.
In 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.
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.
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).
As 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.
On this last day of October, I’m aware we’re just six days from the midterm elections. As always, there’s a great deal at stake, and this election feels even more urgent; health care, immigration, the environment, choice, and many other issues will be impacted by its outcome. In these divided and divisive times, there likely won’t be any landslides. Every. Single. Vote. Counts.
Washington State, where I live, does all voting by mail. Thanks to Washington Governor Jay Inslee, this year the state is picking up the tab for ballot postage. I’ve already inked in the circles on my ballot, put it in its protective sleeve and envelope, and slid it in the mail slot at the post office.
This election, though, casting my vote doesn’t seem like enough.
A couple of weeks ago, I joined about ten friends who signed up with Vote Forward to “adopt voters” to urge them to go to the polls. Vote Forward provided names, addresses, and a template for letters that we personalized with our reasons for pledging to vote in every election. My reasons: It’s my right, my responsibility, and it’s a way I can make a difference. The letters I wrote, along with about 300 more from our group, went in the mail yesterday to Democrats who haven’t voted in recent elections. I hope my note will encourage them to vote this time.
On Saturday, I’ll join Swing Left to participate in a virtual phone bank in support of Kim Schrier for Congress. From the comfort of my own home, I’ll be able to call voters in the 8th district to urge them to vote for her. Schrier’s in a very close race there, and I believe we need her voice in the House.
Tuesday night, I’ll gather with friends to watch election returns. Hopefully, these midterms will result in the election of people and issues I voted for. Regardless of the outcome, though, I hope we’ll be celebrating a record-breaking voter turnout. That’s what democracy is about.
*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.