It took a long time (3 years) with several false starts, but folks, I've FINALLY got a proper author website: melwestemeier.com. The designer yanked eased me out of my comfort zone and did some pretty creative things--go on over and check it out. I'll be posting on the new site as well, and shutting this one down next summer when I have some free time to sort out the details.
And here's an added incentive to check it out: the cover for Through the Channel is revealed on it!
The world learned yesterday about Toni Morrison's death. Tayari Jones shared her thoughts about Toni Morrison's contributions on NPR, and one particular line in the interview really got me thinking about the power of stories and the voices that tell those stories. "So this wasn't the first time I had encountered myself in literature. I
think that's very important to say - that this wasn't just a triumph of
representation. I do think it was the first time I had ever seen black
girls taken so seriously, and I understood myself to be a subject of
literature in a very specific way."
We tell the stories that matter to us: the stories about how we grew, realized, learned, lost, failed, loved, succeeded, laughed and cried. As students we get exposed to voices through the curated experience of a classroom. A teacher suggested whose voices mattered by what stories they assigned us to read. We grow up with an understanding of whose voices matter, and those of us who become teachers copy our elders by teaching those same voices. It's too easy to remain insulated as an educator and repeat the curriculum. "I learned to love Shakespeare in 1985 and studied Romeo and Juliet,. when I became a high school teacher in 1995, I worked hard to pass that love on to my students ..." Well, of course we do that. And as a result an entire generation of students leave school believing certain voices and stories matter. And the voices and stories students never hear? Well, the implicit lesson is that they must not matter as much, right?
Not all teachers are so lazy. Many of my colleagues are avid, voracious and curious readers. Like me, they read all kinds of voices and curate a curriculum that includes the best voices, sharing a wealth of experiences with students. This brings me to Toni Morrison. I wasn't exposed to her voice as a high school student or a college student. My teachers reinforced the importance of white, aged (mostly dead), male voices through the assigned reading. I studied Shakespeare, Milton, Walden, Hawthorne, Emerson, Twain, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Miller, Williams, Dickens and Poe. These were important writers, their stories worthy because they got included in the English canon--Important Stories All People Should Know.
But here's the thing about reading stories: stories allow us to experience other people's lives and develop empathy for their existence. And through stories you get to discover other people experience what you yourself have experienced and you feel acknowledged and empowered by knowing you're not alone. This is powerful stuff. I knew I wasn't alone in my confusion about girlhood and friendships and first crushes and getting my period because Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, Maud Hart Lovelace, and L.M. Montgomery wrote about my experiences. And I read other books by other writers about other people's experiences--Sandra Cisneros, SE Hinton, and Scott O'Dell fostered more curiosity and a belief that these voices mattered, too.
After college I picked up The Bluest Eye and Beloved. Reading Toni Morrison (and Jesmyn Ward, Terry McMillan, Richard Wright, Tommy Orange, Jhumpa Lahiri, Yaa Gyasi, Walter Dean Myers ...) gave me a chance to hear voices and stories very different from my own personal experience. These writers helped me develop more empathy for people, understand their lives, and appreciate the value of their voices.
Toni Morrison's work is important. Her voice is important. Her stories are important.
Her legacy is inclusion--she worked hard in publishing and writing to elevate the voices of African Americans. She gave people the opportunity to listen to another voice, hear another story, and develop a stronger appreciation for whose voices matter.
As a teacher I get a sweet opportunity to share her voice--and lots of other voices with my students. I get a chance to say this voice matters. This story matters. Read it. Listen to it. Learn something from it.
Years ago I had a wonderful strawberry patch in a raised bed in our front yard. The berries were dependably sweet and abundant and for years I harvested them every summer. I made jam, I froze them, I baked them into pies. Because I am a person who struggles with leaving things alone (hey! there's always room for improvement, right?), I got it in my head to haul a few loads of that nice rich dirt from the creek bed behind our house up to the patch as a way of enriching the soil. I figured all of those layers of composted leaves breaking down every summer would make a fantastic additive.
I dug and trudged four wheelbarrows full of "good dirt." My wonderful berry patch would be even better thanks to my help. A few weeks later an unusual amount of weeds began popping up. I got in there and almost immediately yelped when my ankles and hands got stung. Growing close to the ground, the same height as the berry leaves, was a prolific amount of stinging nettle. Yes, in my enthusiasm to bring up nutritious soil, I introduced a whole bunch of dormant weed seeds to the patch. I also introduced my skin to a burning, blistering rash.
Valiantly I attempted to get the upper hand on the situation, but there was no winning the battle. If anything, stinging nettle was encouraged by the shady, low growth of the berry patch and no amount of weeding by hand or mulching around the plants could fix the problem. I ended up throwing in the trowel and smothering the whole raised bed for the rest of the growing season. Meanwhile, I ordered new berry plants and attempted to grow a new patch in a new raised bed. The old raised bed lay dormant, a barren symbol of my failed efforts to improve nature. Meanwhile, the new berry patch never quite took. It did fine, but not great. The plants spread but three seasons later I would only pick a gallon's worth of fruit. I battled a constant invasion of grass. The berries didn't grow very big or proliferate.
Two years ago I decided to give the old location another try. I ordered a new batch of strawberry plants. Adhering to all sage gardening advice, I layered fabric cloth and mulch over the original raised bed and carefully inserted the new plants. A year went by and three of twenty new plants survived. They never blossomed, but they also didn't wither into crumbly brown stems. Another season and the three spread into a passable start. A few blooms appeared and the birds snacked on the fruit.
This year I'm beginning to taste success. Check it out:
Can you see those red berries? They're good sized and enough to eat our fill while sharing with the birds and mice. And next year I'm feeling confident that I'll have a big enough patch to make a batch or two of jam.
Gardening involves a lot of trial and error. My failure in this area definitely makes this success taste sweeter.
Spill it, reader. What's your biggest gardening mistake?