How Do We Stop the Harvey Weinsteins, Bill Cosbys, Roger Aileses, and Bill O’Reillys of the World?

The news that another powerful man has a history of sexually harassing women, sexually assaulting women, or both, for years and even decades keeps coming down the pipeline.  We can’t take back the hurt those women have been subjected to, but we need to meaningfully address this scourge of sexual harassment and assault against women by men who wield their power over them.

The men named in the title of this post all offered hush money to the women they sexually harassed and/or sexually assaulted. Some of the women took the money and stayed quiet.  The New York Times reports that Ailes and O’Reilly paid their victims millions of dollars to keep the women’s stories quiet, while Weinstein and Cosby got off by paying between $80,000 to $150,000.  Eighty thousand dollars is a lot to most women.  Millions of dollars is a lot to all women.

Lauren Crosby, one of the victims who accepted Weinstein’s payoff, is now publicly speaking up.  I don’t know what prompted her to do so, but it took great courage and it finally exposed Weinstein for the animal he is.

Speaking up is the answer.  We must not be silent.  We must use our voices to out the offenders and make them accountable for their malefactions.  We must listen to victims who speak up, and we must believe them.  We must act on our moral convictions and our responsibilities as members of a society that is supposed to be civilized.

I’m not making judgments against the women who haven’t spoken out, whether they’ve taken money for keeping their silence or not.  There are multitudes of reasons women don’t tell, and most of the reasons have to do with self-preservation.  Women who have been victimized experienced great trauma from the assaults.  I acknowledge that asking them to speak up is asking a lot.

This issue isn’t specific to the movie industry; it’s an issue of a man wielding power against women.  I know women who have been sexually harassed and assaulted at work, and I’m not aware of one of them who spoke out publicly about it.  I sympathize with them.

This is absolutely not a judgment of women who have stayed quiet; it’s an exhortation to women to speak up and tell the world what the bastards have done to them.  The more women who speak up, the easier it is for others to follow.  Since Lauren Crosby spoke out, numerous others have followed her lead, including Ashley Judd.  (And as you’ve heard by now, Meryl Streep and Judy Dench have spoken out against Weinstein.)  Best of all? Weinstein was fired from his own company.

Not only is this an exhortation for victims to be brave and speak, it’s a call to action to those witnesses who are complicit because they stand by doing nothing, saying nothing.

I recognize that acting on our convictions is difficult.  People in Hollywood admit that Weinstein’s behavior was an open secret; everyone who knew what was going on is the hook, in my opinion.  They contributed to the culture that permits violence against women.  Even the ones who knew and thought the behavior unacceptable are on the hook, because they said nothing.  They unwillingly enabled the offenders because they did not have the conviction and courage to step up and say “What this man is doing is wrong.”  Like the victims, I’m sure they acted out of self-preservation—to keep their careers, among other reasons. But they are still enablers.

Doing the right thing is often harder than doing the wrong thing.  But if we don’t do the right thing, we’re continuing to foster a culture that objectifies, sexualizes, demeans, and diminishes women, a culture that accepts their victimhood along with the sins of the men who victimize.

What I’m saying isn’t new.  I know that.  But we need to hear this again and again.  We need to think about what we are doing or not doing.  The conviction and courage to act, I hope, will eventually take hold of all of us who watch from the sidelines, and we won’t go forth with our lives as though nothing happened.  And may there be significant consequences for those who are outed, like the ones that have been visited upon Weinstein.

When we fail to step up, we’re saying “It’s not my problem; it’s hers.”  And hers.  And hers.  And hers.  But it is our problem.  It’s everyone’s problem.

I have to admit here that I’m guilty of accepting  men who have attacked and victimized women.  I’ve continued to watch Woody Allen’s movies.  I’ve continued to watch movies Josh Brolin and Sean Connery are in.  I still listen to the Beatles despite John Lennon’s admission that when he was younger, he was physically cruel to the woman he was with and any woman, in fact, and that he hit the women he was with.  And then there’s David Bowie, who allegedly had sex with young teen girls, even threesomes with them, according to one of the women.

I like Woody Allen’s movies.  I like Brolin and Connery as actors.  I love the Beatles.  David Bowie couldn’t be ignored, though he wasn’t a favorite of mine.  I’m part of the problem by continuing to support these men. I believe what they did is wrong.  Even so, I haven’t changed my behavior accordingly.  So I’m a hypocrite.  I’m working on that.

It was easy for me to stop supporting Cosby, however.  I’d watched The Cosby Show from the time I was a teen through the time I was raising my children, and I looked up to him.  He was one of my greatest parenting role models.  It’s easy for me to dismiss him and hold his sins against me, because while he was making a huge personal impact on me, he was a devil behind his mask.  Bill Cosby betrayed me, and I’m hurt and angry.  Maybe that’s what makes it easy for me to say he is despicable and act accordingly.

Maybe that’s what it takes for all of us—for the offense to hit home with us. I’d like to believe we’re stronger and braver than that. I think we owe strangers a moral duty to look out for them, to say something when we see something, like the catch-phrase in our defense against terrorism.

Sexual predators are terrorists in their own way.  These men are quiet predators, hurting women and keeping them in fear, keeping their victims quiet, too, if they can.  And they will hold the threat of wielding their power over those who would dare think to speak out against them.  Allowing this scourge of abuse to continue to flourish in our society is unconscionable.

So if you see something, say something.  It will be a monumental step in stopping sexual predators like Weinstein, Cosby, Ailes, O’Reilly, and others like them.

 

 

 

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Why Should We Help Puerto Rico?

Because we acquired Puerto Rico as a spoil of war.  In 1898, during the Spanish-American war, the U.S. launched the Puerto Rican Campaign, attacking by land and sea.  After months of fighting, The Treaty of Paris was signed; Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the U.S., and the fighting stopped.  When we took Puerto Rico, we took on the responsibility of Puerto Rico as well.

Because we’ve been arrogant in our treatment of Puerto RicoWhen we gained control of Puerto Rico, we took away their currency, the Puerto Rican Peso, and replaced it with the U.S. Dollar.  We even dared change the spelling of Puerto Rico to “Porto Rico,” effectively changing the name of their home.  (We did change it back again in 1932.)

Because Puerto Ricans are AmericansWe made Puerto Ricans citizens of our country in 1917, making it their country, too.  The U.S. enacted The Jones-Shafroth Act, establishing U.S. Citizenship for those born in Puerto Rico on or after April 25, 1898.  Make no mistake: We imposed our government on Puerto Rico.

 

The Governor of Puerto Rico was to be appointed by the President of the United States, not elected. All cabinet officials had to be approved by the United States Senate, and the United States Congress had the power to veto any law passed by the Puerto Rican Legislature. Washington maintained control over fiscal and economic matters and exercised authority over mail services, immigration, defense and other basic governmental matters. Puerto Rico was not given electoral votes in the election of U.S. President, because the Constitution of the United States of America allows only full-fledged states to have electoral votes

(Taken directly from Wikipedia, “Jones-Shafroth Act.”) 

 

Because we were just plain mean to Puerto Rico.   After making Puerto Ricans American citizens in 1917, the U.S. Army created the Army of Puerto Rican Occupation Medal in 1919 to award to U.S. troops who had fought against Puerto Rico in the very war that made Puerto Rico a possession of the U.S.

Because then we made Puerto Ricans fight for the U.S. in WWI.  Also in 1919, the same year the medal was created, the U.S. passed the Selective Service Act, which provided for compulsory enlistment of U.S. citizens to serve in the military, including Puerto Rican men—which we could do, because we’d made them U.S. citizens two years before.  The U.S. government drafted about 20,000 Puerto Rican men to serve in WWI.  There’s no way to know how many of them died for our country, because the U.S. didn’t keep records of the deaths of the Puerto Ricans who fought.

Because Puerto Ricans pay U.S. taxesPuerto Rico contributed $3.742 billion dollars in taxes to the U.S. Treasury back in 2009. Puerto Ricans pay Social Security, Medicare, and Federal Unemployment taxes.

Because it’s a small world after all. The ocean may be “very big,” but it wasn’t too big for us to use when we invaded Puerto Rico in 1898.  That was 119 years ago!  With the limited capabilities our army and navy had then, we had the might to fight.  Isn’t it small-hearted and mean-spirited to claim that the same ocean ties the hands of our nation now and keeps us from giving swift, essential aid to our fellow citizens?

 

Because Puerto Ricans aren’t just Americans, they’re humans. Period. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Labor is Love

Women have been sharing childbirth stories with one other probably since the beginning of time.  We tell our stories to console one another and to console ourselves.  We tell our stories to encourage.  We tell our stories to say, Yes it was hard, but I did it and you can, too.  We tell our stories to say, This is what I did out of love.  

A woman can hear numerous stories (which all pregnant women do) yet not be able to imagine what childbirth will be like.  How could one imagine the unimaginable?  She has been told by other women that the traumas of pregnancy and childbirth are many, so why would a woman make the decision to have a baby after hearing those stories?  And why, oh why, do some of us choose to go through it again after imagination has given way to experience?

Out of love.

Because we’ll do what it takes, we’ll work as hard as we have to, to bring that person into our lives.  And it’s also because once we’ve decided to have a child, we have “Boarded the train there’s no getting off,” which is the last line of a Sylvia Plath poem about pregnancy.

Though I committed to work as hard as I had to, I wanted off that train in about the eighth month of my final pregnancy. I loved the baby as soon as I found out I was pregnant, yet for the first time I dreaded giving birth.  The longest of my three previous labors had been three and a half hours.  I felt like I’d escaped hell so many times that surely this time, I was going to get walloped.  I was going to get punished for giving birth so quickly when other women had been to hell and back– on very slow trains.  I’d been dilated to 8 cm for weeks, which was unusual and wonderful (10 cm is the magic number in labor when a woman can push), but I knew that transition, which is the stage of labor just before the actual birth, is the hardest and most painful part of labor.

The day before my due date, one of the midwives I was seeing talked to me about why my body had been ready so long, but I wasn’t.  She asked what I was afraid of.  I was afraid of a long labor.  I was afraid of the pain.  “What else?” she asked.  I was afraid of letting go, of yelling, of cursing– things I hadn’t done before.  I was afraid that if I screamed out in pain, I’d put myself into even more psychological pain.  And I was afraid that my family, who would be there for the birth, would think I wasn’t so tough after all.  “Do you really think they’ll lose respect for you, no matter what you do?” she asked.  “You’re going to have to give birth to this baby, and she’s already nine pounds.  Don’t hold her in.  Let her free.  Let yourself see that baby girl.”  My other three children were boys.

She persuaded me to resign myself in a most powerful way.  I made peace with myself and gave myself absolute ownership of my childbirth, an experience where only my baby and I mattered.

The next day, on her due date, my daughter was born.

How can I say labor is an act of love when I didn’t want to go through it?  I can say it because it’s true.  I can say it because no matter the pain, once a woman is in labor she gives her whole self over to it.  She puts her whole self into it.  And that’s love.  Giving your whole self for this purpose, to this person, is perhaps the greatest love of all.

 

 

An hour later: my last child’s first bath

 

 

 

 

 

you. know.

 

this. hurts.

still. no. sound. turns out, I wasn’t capable of doing anything more than bearing the pain.

 

An hour after giving birth: the face of a mother who doesn’t have to face labor again.

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3 Gifts Hurricane Irma Gave Me

  1. Irma Gave Me an Adventure. You can have an adventure, you can have a story to tell, so a story is something that belongs to you and something someone–or something–can give you. Up in the Tampa Bay Area, which is west-central Florida, however, we haven’t had a real hit within puny human memory, so we had no hurricane adventure tales, only tales of hyped-up letdown and near misses, like the time Charley was headed this way and hit Punta Gorda instead. As Irma devastated distant islands, I told myself the only threat I’d face was the murky, internal struggle to weather the survival guilt caused by getting lashed with footage of Hurricane Harvey and the threat of North Korea and the Chiapas Earthquake that killed 98 people and injured over 300 more.Basically, the week before Irma saw me busy boarding the windows to my soul and rolling my eyes at our adult children, who didn’t have the lifelong experience with hurricane hype that I did, and so were thrashing after last-minute plane tickets they couldn’t afford and trying to rent hotel rooms that were booked up even though each one lives in the safest possible structures and zones and have friends in even safer areas that would take them in. In fact, my daughter’s place never even lost power. As for me, it didn’t occur to me to leave my cement-block home well above evacuation zones. That’s why I’d chosen this place in the first place. Besides, it was just good civic manners to leave the shelters, highways, airline seats, and hotel rooms to those misfortunate enough to lack fiscal, physical, or emotional resources to brave the storm. Most of us can just stay put and be smart. When, one by one, our kids all independently texted us that they’d skipped town in the middle of the night, I finally woke up to my own hurricane adventure—just in time to miss the chance to buy water, plywood, and flashlights. Irma’s forecast had changed in the night, and we could now potentially get at least a category 2, if not a 4.One by one, I added tabs to my browser—Accuweather, WeatherUnderground, National Hurricane Center, Wikipedia’s page on the Saffir-Simpson Scale. One by one, I added apps to my cell phone: The Weather Channel, Hurricane Tracker, NOAA Weather, Tornado Time, FEMA. I was suddenly playing a real-life game: how to “win” at surviving Irma with nothing but limited, last-minute, half-assed resources and some pluck. I built alliances with neighbors and nearby friends, I inventoried our considerable battery supply and our pitiful flashlight supply. I filled every conceivable receptacle with water, including wine bottles and gallon zip bags, which I cleverly froze (and which tore and later leaked all over my kitchen—the only flooding we suffered). From hurricane perspective, my tiny patch of earth looked different. For example, the bird feeders were now potential rockets, so I packed them away and scattered extra feed for my avian friends, wondering what happens to them during hurricanes.The towering Norfolk pine I usually admired was now a monster that could stomp the west side of the house (it’s now permanently leaning our way, but heavy mansplaining has convinced me not to worry about it).

    The walk-in closet in the east side suddenly became the most precious room in the house, especially since we’d failed to get hurricane shutters or plywood.

    Mick and Maisie Hunker in the Bunker

    I emptied it and dragged a mattress in there and dubbed it “The Bunker”—Irma was planning to spend the night, and I wanted us in the safest possible place. Irma-intoxicated, I walked all day for several days, moving precious pets, plants, and items out from harm’s way and from under the Norfolk pine. I even double-bagged our fire safe in case, somehow, the house flooded. Although we’re well above flood zone, if the roof gave or enough rain rushed down the hill (yes, I live on a hill in Florida), we could take in water.

    Mick Jumps the Damn Dam

    My Makeshift Dam Worked Beautifully

    In fact, I spent one afternoon building—all by myself—a dam out of ten-gallon pots of dirt, paving blocks, and 50 feet of continuous landscaping plastic to direct water past the back of the house, which, I must say, worked beautifully. I made all my neighbors come admire it, and they agreed, it was brilliant. Thursday night I went to the gym, since I’ve been an endorphin junkie for about eight years now. The familiar faces in my spin class looked wild-eyed. The trainer made storm jokes, played storm-related tunes, and wore a shirt with lightning across it. “She needs a life,” my one friend muttered. “This is her life,” I said. As I pedaled and sweat, the faces I’ve watched huff and puff for years but never spoken to all looked different now, like vulnerable mortal creatures I might never see again, characters I never realized I loved. I gazed at them and wished them each well. Across the spin room, an older woman who’d lost her husband a year ago locked eyes with me. I raised two fingers in a peace sign. She smiled.

    Saturday, things came together. A friend offered us her extra plywood, enough to board the east side of the house and the great room, but had no fasteners. Another friend had extra fasteners. As the first outer bands of Irma brushed our skin, my husband boarded windows and I collected the last projectiles: outdoor furniture, potted plants and orchids, dog toys, and brought them indoors. Once, as I came through the side door to the garage, buffeted by mere fifteen-mile-per-hour winds, (according to my various apps and tabs) Irma slammed the door behind me. The little window in the door shattered, spraying me with more glass than it possibly could’ve contained. “Our first Irma-related damage,” I said, and wasn’t sure I’d made a joke.

    A friend had to evacuate his house and so came to ride out the storm in ours, which was much safer now that most of the house was boarded. We watched a Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, and then, as the wind and rain gusted harder, laughed at the newscasters all squinting into rain and shouting on television that they shouldn’t be standing where they’re standing. “The police just came by and told us to clear out!” One of woman was reporting live in my very town, sharing footage of a traffic light swinging maniacally over an intersection. There, too, was an electrical transformer in flames in the rain. I’d been comparing forecast sources all day, but none, I realized, matched the credibility of live reports. Things, apparently, were a little worse than we’d expected. So we donned raincoats and rain pants to try—and fail to—walk the dogs. Nothing could protect us from the 75-mile-per-hour gale of stupidity for going out in that wind. Who did we think we were? Newscasters?

    Later, with the cat and our guest tucked into the great room, my husband, the dogs, and I crawled into the cozy closet bunker. In there we had both electric light and battery back-ups. As we slept, the storm was muted by the cement block walls and the roar of our air conditioning and refrigerator, but not to worry. Noise from thee FEMA alerts woke me frequently; I got up-to-the-minute wind speeds, flash floods, rip tides, tornadoes. At 1:45 am, the power cut out and in the silence Irma’s volume seemed to escalate. I later found out at that hour a tiny tornado toddled through my neighbor’s back yards, twisting and toppling trees. At 4 am FEMA woke me to tell me that Irma’s eye was now passing through a neighboring county. It passed us just shy of a Category 2. I no longer believe I’d try to ride a Category 3 like cowboy.

    Our house guest—the one not named Irma—reported he’d slept surprisingly well on our couch with a near Category 2 banging on the plywood. The neighbors gathered in the street to share the gifts of their hurricane stories and to show-and-tell damage to fences and trees. The winner with the most dramatic story was the neighbor whose palm tree totaled his truck. That morning, despite a siren in the distance, life almost picked up where it left off for one little difference—we had no electricity.

  2. Irma Gave Me a Neighborhood. Everyone says communities pull together in a disaster, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I like to think of myself as a friendly, outgoing person, but apparently, I’m not. I moved into this so-called neighborhood over three years ago, and although I waved and jogged across the street to introduce myself, not one of my neighbors rang my doorbell with a pie or a plate of cookies. That first Memorial Day, I held a party and invited them all. Only one family came, ate heartily, monopolized the conversation, and never invited us to their place in return. At first I was hurt, but I’ve come to understand that not only are they too busy to get to know us, we actually live way too far apart. Nowadays, distance is greater than it was when I was a kid. “Next door” means “next galaxy.” For example, my informal studies suggest that three of the five houses on this cul-de-sac have children all about grade-school age, but I never see them ring each other’s doorbells, play in each others’ yards, or ride bikes together. One of them does hit us up frequently for fundraising candy bars,  dangerously addictive Girl Scout cookies, and a strange sheet of plastic punch-out gift cards we throw away, but I digress. The point is, after three and a half years, until Irma we didn’t know each other by name. My husband swears one of them goes to our gym, but I don’t recognize her face. As far as I’m concerned, what we have isn’t a neighborhood of five houses, but a grouping of five islands separated by digital and cable galaxies. I’d know them better if I friended them on Facebook.

    The only loss of life here was arboreal. And a few fence panels.

    The morning after Irma, however, we were cut off from Internet and cable and stranded on the same island of black top. We were all doing the same outdoor damage-assessment and clean-up chores. We still didn’t see any children, who apparently had back-up power for their smart phones, tablets, and gaming consoles and remained safely floating through cyberspace.

    One family had a generator, so we never saw them at all.

    Downed fences make delightful neighbors

    Suddenly they were grateful that I was willing to listen to their Irma adventure stories and take Irma tours around their properties, tsk sympathetically over in the downed fence panel, show sufficient awe by the felled row of trees, and shake my head in dismay over the sunken retaining wall. They had names and backstories. They seemed to find me likable.

    “How about you?” they’d say, and I said, “We lost one of our fifty papaya trees, but whenever that happens, our property value goes up.” And they laughed.

    The secret to my popularity, albeit glorious and brief.

    When someone exclaimed, “I’d kill for a cup of coffee,” I was thrilled to be able say, “Are you kidding? The first thing I did when I moved to Florida fifteen years ago was buy a camp stove and a cowboy coffee maker. Come on over!” That established our house as the place to score free coffee. Soon neighbors were walking right through my front door without knocking. They brought empty mugs, lounged on my lanai while the coffee brewed, and even hung around to drink it while we talked about ourselves, the other neighbors, and other gripping true-life dramas, just like people used to do in real neighborhoods.

    We were productive too. The coffee clutch planned to rake one disabled neighbor’s yard and carried it out, at least the front part, by the driveway. A few insisted that when the power came back, I must come for coffee at their houses, so we could talk some more, and I said of course, I’d love that, and tried not to doubt it would happen. When it came time for us all to empty our freezers, the man with the crushed truck promised to host a neighborhood barbecue party that very night, but he didn’t. Another said that after this, she was going to buy her own camp stove so she could make coffee just like me during the next storm, and I smiled, but it was the one thing I hoped wouldn’t happen.

  3. Irma Gave Me Nostalgia. While I still had power on my smartphone, I could see that people suffered more serious consequences than sweaty nights, missed television shows, and a garbage can full of wasted refrigerator contents. Eight people died in a nursing home. Several of my friends run their own businesses, and every day without power meant lost revenue. Irma was a monstrously disastrous storm, and she hit us hard, which is why I kept wondering, day after day, why I was so happy.

    Once tree removal show was over, there wasn’t much to do.

    Open windows reminded me of my childhood, padding downstairs in the morning barefoot on the cool linoleum, the feel of the wet morning air on my bare legs when I ran outside, the sudden heat of the low sun on my skin, the lazy afternoons swimming and lounging in a wet bathing suit, not bothering to dry off, sipping from a warm glass of water, the rise and fall of cicada song, nothing whatsoever to do except check my plants for new growth and watch the romances, alliances, and betrayals that went down soap-opera-style on my bird feeders. How brave the female cardinal was to chase off that squirrel! How convinced the young squirrel is that she’s going to be the one to solve the puzzle of my squirrel-proofing, although the older generations of squirrels couldn’t.

    It was Maisie’s birthday, and all we had to do was love her.

    I spent entire days and nights barefoot. I enjoyed sensations it seemed I hadn’t experienced for decades—the sound of a wet breeze through trees heavy with summer-green leaves, the scent of acorns warming in the sunlight, the way it felt to peel off a wet bathing suit in the dark shadows of a midday bedroom and let the damp ghost of it evaporate slowly while I puttered around the house, the friendly call of neighbors at my front door (while I ducked out of sight to grab a beach towel), the surprise that eighty-eight humid degrees is actually quite comfortable when you lie still in the shade, the chatter of the cat when a squirrel bounces across the screen of an open window, the morning breath of trees and dew-sparkling grass, the silky stroke of a midday breeze through a dark living room as I lie turning pages of a novel with my sundress hiked up shamefully high to expose as much skin as I can to the air without risking getting caught naked by a neighbor again. The summer air is exactly as it was when I was a child and my mother made us pack the car early for a day at the beach. The cat went slinking in and out of open windows exactly as cats had always done. I sat outside reading a book, my hair matted with chlorine and my face without a trace of concern over my appearance when all my great new neighborhood friends stopped by. There I sat in almost all my glory. And there I sat some more, reminding myself I couldn’t work if I wanted to. In fact, I actually had less to do than I do on vacation.

    The blank white side of this house showcases what’s left of its lovely magnolia tree.

    That first post-Irma day, after making shaggy, mastodon-sized piles of Irma debris, the neighbors from two adjacent houses, both with school-age children, and the guests who weathered the storm with them all gathered along the curb with folding chairs. They talked and laughed and drank beer. As night fell, someone produced a large grill, and candles and flashlights came out, and then even children came outside, the very same way they did when we the power went out long ago. I took my dogs out front and threw the Frisbee wistfully. No one, not even the children, showed interest in me or my super-cool Frisbee dogs. No one called the coffee lady with the cool dogs over. The scraps of conversation I overheard told me this group had grown up right here in town. They had actual ties to this place, they were lifelong friends, their lives were full, and I was tired. I took my dogs back indoors and read by candlelight next to the window where I could hear them. At the party the beverages were different from what they were in my 1970’s New Jersey memory—beers instead of cocktails—but the shouts of children playing in the dark long after bedtime was the same. A drizzle came down, and the neighbors laughed and scattered. Then someone pitched a small cloth roof on four poles, and there was just enough room for them to stand shoulder to shoulder and laugh even harder. I called my husband over to see it and share a vicarious smile with me. When the rain stopped, the group subsided to the chairs again.

    Before bed, my husband and I walked the dogs, and none of the mid-life partiers so much as waved at strange, tall, stooped, skinny, aging old foreign farts. Still, I was grateful, because there, overhead, was the Milky Way, right where I’d left it so many light years of light pollution ago.

    It was on my bucket list to go someplace where I could see it. I never thought it would come to me.

    When we went to bed, the neighbors still hadn’t run out of things to banter about, and the children were playing a game they invented. I lay awake, naked under my thin sheet, cooled only by the light breeze cutting across the room and real, live crickets, sparing me my dependency on a sound machine’s annoying loop of cricket song. I dozed, grateful that, at least for a few days, we weren’t boxed away from each other in climate-controlled rooms, weren’t keeping company with cable television characters that didn’t exist and sure as hell didn’t know us and didn’t care that a palm tree totaled Curtis’ truck or how the neighbor known as Crazy Dave got his name. Those nights without traffic or motor engines of any kind, I slept better than I had in years.

    My slice of temporary heaven

    So, for a few days, thanks to Irma, my neighbors came through my door without knocking. They brought empty coffee mugs and sleepy faces full of gratitude. They sat around my pool, sharing my fascination with my super-awesome dogs. For a little while, Irma returned to me the balmy breezes of childhood summers unspoiled by air conditioning. I had the company of birds and cicadas by day and the Milky Way light show and a cricket symphony at night. For a few days, I had relief from hard and chronic longing to connect to a patch of land and its beasts and people, and I knew again, exquisitely, what we once meant by “the good life.”

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Some Thoughts on the Weather

  1. Tornadoes were the weather danger where I grew up. Illinois’ flat country is like that perfectly made bed that your dog just has to mess up—irresistible to tornadoes. When the sky turned that weird greenish color and the pre-thunderstorm humidity crackled, we turned on the weather radio and more often than not, heard there was a tornado watch. We watched, in that case, continuing to go about our daily tasks, perhaps bringing in the horses and feeding them early so we didn’t have to do it in the lashing rain. If there was a warning for our county, we piled into the closet under the stairs, the only windowless room in our house. Contrary to popular belief, not all Midwest houses have basements; in some counties, the water level is so high that you’re just building a room for floods. Though I saw many funnel clouds over the years, that tornado never came, and I was grateful.
  2. Hurricane Irma just hit Florida and Georgia, and it was too soon after the terrible images from Houston’s post-Harvey flooding had chiseled themselves into my brain. I moved up to Memphis from Tampa two years ago, and I still have dozens of friends there. I went into ultra-worry mode. The storm was huge, it was historic, it was destructive, it would be a category 5 that covered the entire state of Florida! The news folks and the weather folks all spoke with exclamation points all the time! Everyone, whether in the path or not, posted preparation advice tips on social media! Sometimes those tips were false, debunked on national tv, but it didn’t matter! Everyone was supposed to be running around exhausting themselves and preparing because preparation was the only way to control the uncontrollable! And I couldn’t look away. Now, it’s not a transistor radio but an onslaught of electronics—tv, computers, cell phones—all shouting, unlike the calm, corn-accented voices of the local radio announcers I grew up hearing.
  3. The hurricane was more frightening to me, I finally realized as I told a Florida friend I would have left the state after the first forecast, my pets safely in tow, because there was so much lead-up time. It echoed the feeling I’ve had since Trump was elected: a national disaster was rolling in, putting millions in danger, and I was all but helpless. All that shouting only mirrored my inner voices, the ones that had been telling me to flee since the 2016 presidential election. Waking, as soon as I oriented myself, I felt the urge to leave in my bones and muscles. For the first few months, I looked at overseas jobs online, wishing I was qualified for any of them. I read up on European countries, pouring over the lists ranking countries by education, political liberalness, commitment to sustainability. When it became clear that it would not be practical to leave—no jobs beckoned, and even my husband’s native England required incoming non-English spouses to prove expected income—I got a prescription to Xanax and tried to redirect that urge to flee.
  4. So all I could do while Hurricane Irma inched closer to people I loved was offer to listen. I sure as hell couldn’t tell them what to do—join the awful traffic on the roads out or stay, board up the windows or go to a shelter, indulge in fear or flip the weather the bird. They had to actually face these decisions. I knew what I’d have done—but that didn’t matter at all. My job was to deal with my nightmares, or more accurately my daydreams of catastrophe. I’ve had them since I can remember, these vivid play-by-play visions of things going wrong, people getting hurt. I think most people get them, though hopefully not all. My job was to shut up, and keep shutting up. I checked in on people I cared about, told them I was glad to hear about their preparations and that I was thinking of them. I laughed when they made jokes (“We’re totally prepared: Cheetos and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups!” or “I may or may not have made a significant offering to Thor, God of Thunder, this morning”) and refrained from asking what they’d done specifically, or reassuring them that it would “all be ok.” I didn’t know whether it would, and neither did they, and that was the worst part of it. Not knowing.
  5. When the hurricane hit Florida, we were having the most beautiful days of early fall here in Memphis. 70s during the day, 50s at night, and clear skies. It was such a contrast to my obsession with the hurricane that I felt like the outdoors was slightly unreal, like I might actually still be sleeping. I only felt awake when I was watching CNN or looking at social media. It was so backwards it hurt.
  6. My friends made it through just fine. They were, for the most part, so exhausted from the build-up that they slept through much of the worst of it. They were brave and funny and thoughtful, even in the midst of their own fear, because they posted on social media when they could to let the rest of the us know that they were fine. I know my friends were lucky, and there were people who were not so lucky. The Florida Keys are devastated in ways that are only just now being reported. People lost cars, trees fell on houses, and in Florida, insurance policies carry very high deductibles for hurricane damage. My friends lost money, and they lost sleep, and some are joking that they gained weight through stress-eating, but they didn’t lose their lives.
  7. I miss my friends, my writing community. I miss the beach. I wish I could live in Tampa, and I hope to do so again someday. I know I was lucky not to be there for Irma, or for the hurricanes to come. I know the sea level is rising, and Florida is in particular danger. I don’t know how to resolve the ways my heart is pulled by love—my husband here in Memphis, most of my friends in Tampa, my family and roots in central Illinois. I suppose this is what it means to be human: to love and yearn, to connect and reconnect, to be torn in both time and place. To go through storms both literal and metaphorical with those you love, whether you’re physically with them or not.

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Announcing the publication of There’s No Wrong Way: 44 Meditations

The Gloria Sirens are happy to announce the first book from TGS Publications: There’s No Wrong Way: 44 Meditations, by yours truly, Katie (Katherine) Riegel.

Like most of my posts, the book is short and sweet, filled with suggestions for meditation aimed in particular at those of you who think you can’t meditate, who have tried and believe you’ve failed, and who haven’t even tried because you just know you “can’t sit still.” There’s No Wrong Way provides exercises that are far from the stereotype of the cross-legged guru seeking enlightenment and hoping for the ability to levitate (though hey, a gal can dream). These meditations range from the practical (cleaning meditation) to the imaginative (time travel meditation). They’re sometimes silly, always encouraging, and full of hope. The book is a guide to mindfulness in real life, recognizing that all of us weird, magnificent humans do things differently—including finding our own ways to be fully present.

You can get the book in print and for Kindle. Remember that you don’t need to own a Kindle to read a Kindle book: there are Kindle reading apps for your phone, tablet, and computer. Click here to buy it now—and be sure to review it, even with a word or two. And tell your friends!

 

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Experiencing the Black Hole Sun: 100% Totality in Columbia, SC

Experiencing a total solar eclipse has been the #1 item on my bucket list for over two decades. I wanted it so badly that the morning of August 21st, 2017, when I woke up in a hotel room within the path of totality in Columbia, SC, I vibrated with excitement. My stomach fluttered with the same anticipation you might expect from a child on Christmas morning or an adolescent on a first date. I knew what to expect–in theory. I’d done the research. Booked the hotel months in advance. My husband, my dad, and I were all prepared.

Between the three of us, we brought s telescope, two sets of binoculars, two cameras, and a whole bunch of filters. We took this viewing opportunity seriously.

We decided to stay at the hotel that day to avoid traffic, and as we walked to breakfast in the lobby (donning our matching Planetary Society eclipse t-shirts), we peeked out of a window to check the grassy knoll in the hotel’s backyard. There were already people setting up, their tripods mounted on the grass, telescopes and cameras pointing to the clouds. We hurried through breakfast to secure a spot.

I went down to the knoll first, said hello to some of the people people scattered about, and settled underneath a giant oak tree while I waited for my husband and my father to come back down with our folding chairs and snacks. The baby smiled at everyone, and we all made small-talk, asking who had traveled from where, what sort of equipment they were using, if this was their first eclipse or not.

My husband set up our little spotting scope and had a talking app on his phone which called out what to look for and when based on our GPS coordinates and the progress of the moon slipping in front of the sun. The phone called out C1–the first point of contact–and a tiny arc of the sun disappeared.

Taken with my phone through the viewing lens of the telescope: C1. The eclipse had begun.

As the sun slowly disappeared behind the moon, the grassy knoll became more crowded. The baby fell asleep in a carrier–having refused a morning nap–and I stayed in the shade of the the giant oak, bouncing the baby gently as the little crescent suns speckled our faces and shoulders.

Despite the knoll becoming increasingly crowded, we were cozy and comfortable in the shade.

 

Periodically I’d visit my husband at his perch next to the telescope. The moon made its faithful trek in front of the sun, and we all waited patiently for the moment of totality to come.

About 15 minutes before C2–the “diamond ring” moment when totality began–the air got noticeably cooler. We lost what felt like 10 or 15 degrees Fahrenheit, and the world took on a bit of an eerie greyish-blue tint. All the colors were wrong, like being stuck in an unnatural Instagram filter. The insects and birds in the woods behind the knoll chirped and called to each other with their nighttime songs, even though it was the middle of the afternoon. My child woke up and looked around, puzzled, clinging a bit more tightly to me than usual.

And then, the unthinkable happened. A cloud. A big, giant, fluffy raincloud floated in front of our view of the eclipsing sun.

I would normally say the sun’s rays peeking out from behind this fluffy cloud was beautiful. But I was pissed. Big giant open sky–and then this one cloud is in our way of viewing the sun.

“Go away, cloud,” I said, removing my safe viewing glasses to stare up at the offending water vapor. “Go away. Move.”

We’d enjoyed a brisk breeze all day on the knoll, and I willed the breeze to blow the cloud away. We were 20 minutes to totality, and this giant cloud was blocking our view. Several people on the knoll joined my chiding of the cloud, and we lamented about how devastating it would be if the cloud remained overhead during totality. “Go away. Go away.”

I was anxious. We traveled more than 400 miles for this moment. And a cloud was going to ruin it.

And then, perhaps 90 seconds before the beginning of totality, success. The sun peeked through the clouds. A teeny, tiny crescent. I put my glasses back on, knowing that not only could the crescent permanently blind me, but it would ruin my eyes’ acclimation to the darkness, making it harder to see the corona.

About 15 seconds before the moon eclipsed the sun, my husband’s phone spoke out loud, alerting us to watch for shadow bands. I looked for something light-colored, and found the white top of a cooler next to us. I saw the bands, faint warbly shadows, dancing across the cooler’s top and pointed them out to my husband. We watched them briefly, and when the phone counted down, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1–we peeled the filters off to watch the diamond ring slip into totality.

This was one of a handful of photos my dad captured of the corona before he set his camera down to enjoy the rest of the experience without worrying about trying to document it.

Totality itself was breathtaking. No photos or video do it justice.

We could clearly see Venus and Mars against the navy sky. (Jupiter and Mercury were also out to play, but I wasn’t able to spot them.) The horizon (all 360° of it) looked like the beginnings of sunrise or sunset. The animals continued their nighttime songs. The wind blew briskly; it felt like autumn.

“Leslie,” my husband said, glancing at me from the telescope. “You have to see this.”

My husband took the baby from my arms so I could lean over and watch through the viewfinder. The corona was enormous–its spiderweb silk stretching out several times the diameter of the sun itself and dancing slightly. Breathing, as if it were alive. Around the edges of the deep blackness that was the moon, I could see bright orange fire-laden bands–solar prominences arcing in real time.

I pulled my face away from the telescope and stared at my husband, my mouth agape. He was pointing toward the black hole sun, and our infant child followed his finger to gaze at totality.

“It’s stunning,” I told him. He smiled at me. We kissed.

He then turned to the knoll. “Does anyone want to look through the telescope?” he asked? A small line of older children from families on the knoll lined up, and he focused on getting as many of them to look through the viewfinder and I took the baby back and stood at his side, staring up, willing myself to burn this moment in my memory forever, willing myself not to cry over its beauty because I needed perfect, unblurred vision for the remainder of these 150 seconds.

 

The diamond ring reappeared, and I yelled “Glasses on; protect your eyes,” as my husband cut the line for the telescope, replacing the filter and saying, “I’m sorry, I can’t let you look anymore.”

And then it was over.

The shadow passed over us, the sky brightened, the insects and birds quieted.

Everything went in reverse, but no one paid it any mind. We were all still high off of the experience of totality. We showed each other photos, traded email addresses, waved goodbye to each other and wished everyone safe journeys home.

While we were packing up our stuff, my dad handed me his camera, a slight smile on his lips.

My dad got the money shot–and didn’t even use a tripod.

He’d gotten the shot of a lifetime. “Worth the trip?” I asked.

“Oh yeah,” he replied. “Definitely.”

We’re already planning our trip to see the 2024 total solar eclipse.

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Memphis, TN: Ninety-three Percent

My 2017 eclipse day had two breaks in the clouds, during which my husband and I watched the sun with a bite taken out of it through our eclipse glasses. The best viewing—most free of clouds—occurred while thunder rolled and drops of rain splattered haphazardly on our heads. We thought we would be underwhelmed, because we hadn’t been too upset when the clouds rolled in. We sat on the couch next to each other, answering emails and doing research on household improvements. It was companionable; the dog snored next to me, and the cat did a couple of laps through the living room to tell us she was hungry. We watched some of the NASA coverage on our computers and looked out the window, stepping outside to put on the glasses and look up when it looked like it might be bright enough.

Despite the quiet day and the uncertainty of the weather, it was stunning to see the sun partly obscured. It didn’t look real. All the photos we are now seeing on social media are utterly believable—even if they later turn out to be digitally altered—because the reality was so weird. First of all, how often do we actually see the sun? Just the act of looking at it—through special glasses—felt strange and dangerous. But then, so see it eaten away by some giant celestial cookie monster whose bite gets bigger and bigger—astonishing. Not part of real life. It made me think of Star Trek, which captured my imagination as a child far more than moon landings or even the Smithsonian’s Air and Space museum, which I saw more than once because my grandmother lived in D.C.

Perhaps the best moment, however, was when the hummingbird slipped past us while we were looking up and sipped, unconcerned, from the sugar water feeder. Just three feet away, it ignored us; we were nearly as removed from its concerns as the sun itself. None of the birds were affected by our partial eclipse, to my relief. Cardinals and finches snatched seeds, hummingbirds fought in huge, speeding arcs, and the light dimmed less than it would if the storm had been of a different type.

How powerful the sun is, to provide that kind of light even when 93 percent obscured! The metaphor is inescapable: how bright each one of us burns, even when we’re distracted by ill health or busyness or the scramble to make enough money to live. How much light we give the world, even when we feel so very far from our best. Each one of us, a little sun.

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A Dummy’s Orlando Eclipse Experience at 86%

Will my 3-D glasses work? #Eclipse2017 #PathOfTotality 👀 🌖🌗🌘🌑 😜

I thought it would be funny to post a photo of 3-D glasses on Instagram with the question “Will these work” to view the eclipse. So I posted it because it was so silly. My significant other laughed.  But people on Instagram thought I was serious.  Two of my friends and my science teacher son cautioned me that no, 3-D glasses won’t protect my eyes. My friend in Texas thought they were a plausible substitute and told me that she was going to view the eclipse through a welder’s mask– apt for someone whose husband jump started his helicopter with a pickup truck.

Though I think of myself as a smart person and was a bit shocked that anyone who knows me would think I was seriously considering my 3-D glasses, I proved to be a ditz after all. My only preparation for the eclipse was talking with people about it for weeks. We wondered when it would be. I made several guesses and finally got it right on the day before the eclipse (mostly because it was on the news). But I got everything else wrong.

Thirty minutes before the eclipse was to hit its peak above my house, I startled and jumped into action. I put on a little makeup in case my neighbors saw me in the front driveway, our best viewing point. I remembered that I have a great Nikon camera that I could use. Maybe I’d be safe watching the eclipse on the display screen of my camera, which I’d point skyward. But my camera battery was nearly dead. I plugged it in.

I got out my tripod and set it up, not without a little trouble. The clock was ticking. Would my battery charge in time? Another of my sons called me for help with his resumé. Every time he calls, I can’t talk. I wouldn’t blame him if he thinks I don’t really love him. Much later when I called him back and he said he’d used a welding mask to watch, I laughed at him. (He used to live in Texas, so maybe it’s a Texas thing.) I don’t even know where he got a welding mask. He reads EKGs for a living.

I had a bit of trouble connecting my still battery-less camera to the tripod. From my palmful of memory cards, I couldn’t determine which one had enough memory to record this once-every-99-years experience. Not surprising, since I videoed my daughter’s wedding in January, having bought a special external mic to catch every word– but forgot to turn the mic on. One day, we’re going to get together and make a silent film soundtrack. Tequila may be involved.

This whole time, my significant other was trying to detect odd animal behavior in our two cats. The reporters on TV recounted some of the weird things animals had done during prior eclipses. “They’re talking about during the eclipse,” I told him, “not on the day of the eclipse.” The channel we were watching wasn’t so brilliant, either. They had reports from each popular location in the path of totality. The one I watched before going outside was ridiculous. When the moon blocked the sun, that’s the picture they showed! I could see that image anywhere. They had two smaller images in the bottom corners of the big one, and they were both using night vision. It would have been nice to watch how the light actually changed during a total eclipse. We were only going to experience around 80-90% of it.

I headed out to the driveway, set up my camera (I remembered the battery), but couldn’t figure out how to turn on the viewing screen. I also couldn’t figure out how to switch it to video. There was no time to go back in and hunt for the user’s manual, much less search through it. While I was fiddling with the camera unsuccessfully, my significant other entreated me to go in the back yard with him and watch the slivered shadows cast by our oaks and palms. Seriously? And leave my camera and my viewing post? I appeased him by using my iPhone to take photos of the slivered shadows on the hood of my car.

In every video I took, he talked. He never wants to be on the Internet. Every time I take a picture of him, he says “Don’t put that on Facebook!” There was no point in worrying about that then, because my iPhone suddenly ran out of memory. I frantically deleted random videos. I wasn’t sure what I was deleting. It could have been something important, like our cats wrestling, and now I wouldn’t be able to post that on Facebook.

The air got cooler. The light was odd, which reminded me of words in a line of a poem I wrote years ago: “Odd, moon-flung light.” Those words made a world of sense under an eclipsing sky. Too bad my poem sucked.

I snapped photos with the Nikon, which weren’t very good. I got brave, looked up in the sky– not directly at the sun; I’m not the president, you know– and pointed my iPhone where I thought the sun was and snapped a photo. It was horrible.

Then I remembered I had filters in my camera bag. I didn’t know what any of them were for. I picked out a gray one. The photo wasn’t much better. The purple one worked well enough; after snapping an iPhoto with it, I put it on the lens of my Nikon. Even with the purple filter, I wasn’t sure exactly what I was seeing. I know, I probably could have bought a special eclipse filter on Amazon, where I also could have gotten my eclipse viewing glasses. I’d been too busy blowing my nose. I’d had a cold, which was getting better, but I blame my incompetence on the cold because what else can I blame it on? Snot gets in the way. Next time you screw up, blame it on snot.

It never got dark. The air warmed again. By degrees, the light became less odd, less moon-flung. I checked my watch: 3:10. Our peak had been at 2:51. I’d been so busy thinking up my snot excuse, I’d lost track of time. I packed it all up and went inside to see what I had. Here are my best photos, and yes, I put them on Instagram and Facebook. Turns out I didn’t delete the video of my cats wrestling. I’m posting that next.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Other Orlandos Anthology Released

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of celebrating the publication of an anthology I edited called Other Orlandos.

At the book release party, once book-lover called this “the perfect airplane book” because it is small enough to fit in your pocket, and the works inside are short enough to read on different legs of your journey.

This little book was championed by local independent literary publisher Burrow Press, and features some of the best writers and poets in Orlando, FL, writing about people, places, and things that also share the name Orlando. As indicated on the back cover:

Orlando is… a power plant in Johannesburg, an epic poem, a celebrity mask used as a marital aid. In this anthology of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry, Orlando is anything but the Florida city so often associated with theme parks. In Other Orlandos, the city’s writers twist a familiar word into new contexts and connotations.

I was asked a few questions about putting together this collection, and here are some excerpts from that interview.

Q: Why focus on “Orlando” as a subject for this anthology?

A: I’d been a fan of Burrow Press for several years and knew about their 15 Views series (and was lucky enough to contribute a comic to Volume II, which focused on both Orlando and Tampa). When my Orlando-based writing group used a photo of cooling towers at a power plant in South Africa as a writing prompt, I did more research about the towers. When found out they were a part of the Orlando Power Plant in Soweto, something clicked in my brain and I realized the Orlando connection could make for a really neat 15 Views-style anthology. The idea got me and my writing group excited. The next time I saw the publisher, I soft-pitched the idea to him and he loved the idea. We moved forward from there, and after almost four years, the book is finally a reality. So it was mostly coincidence, but also fit in well with the objective of Orlando’s literary and artistic community trying to change the stereotypes about our city.

Does this not have the coolest Table of Contents you’ve ever seen?

Q: Before editing this book, did you have any experience with editing other books?

A: At the time I pitched the anthology to Burrow Press, I had half a decade of experience editing with The Florida Review. First I served as a managing editor and then made my way up to assistant editor, so I was very familiar with navigating a slushpile, contacting authors, and sequencing, laying out, and proofreading works of multiple genres. Transitioning those skills to a stand-alone book, instead of volumes/issues of a sequence of books, was very easy and allowed me to use the knowledge and skills of the publishing industry that I picked up while studying at Denver’s Publishing Institute. I’m now also co-editing an anthology on Awkward Sex with Jennie Jarvis that will be published early next year with Beating Windward Press.

Q: What was the biggest challenge of working on this anthology?

A: The biggest challenge working on this project was making sure there were no duplicates in terms of subject matter—I wanted to make sure that each potential contributor was writing about a different “Orlando.” I kept a spreadsheet with each potential contributor and which “Orlando” they had called dibs on to keep everything straight. I also kept a list of “Orlandos” that were still available. There were several contributors who wanted to write about the same person, place, or thing (Virginia Woolf was in high demand). There were also several writers that had selected different Orlandos that I was very excited to include in the collection, but ultimately those authors weren’t able to meet the submission deadline for one reason or another. All of that being said, I’m happy with the scope of the collection as it exists, and I think there are still more than enough “Orlandos” out there for a second volume if our readers are interested.

Q: What was the most exciting part of working on this anthology?

All of the Other Orlandos Contributors who read at the Release Party. From Left to Right: Leslie C. Halpern, Sara Wynia, Danita Berg, Susan Lilley, Ashley Inguanta, Joshua Begley, Madison Strake Bernath, Bethany Duvall, Rachel Kolman, John King, Susan Wheeler Capozza, David James Poissant, Leslie Salas. Not pictured: Holly Elliot, Nicole Oquendo, Mike Shier.

A: I loved seeing what my contributors came up with! The prompt for the collection is deliberately vague, and that resulted in a wide variety of submissions. I’m so excited there are literary powerhouses like David James Poissant and Ashley Inguanta side-by-side with never-published-before writers like Sara Wynia. There’s some traditional literary work side-by-side with experimental/hybrid works and more mainstream pop culture works. I think the anthology represents a good cross-section of everything our Orlando has to offer.

Q: What advice do you have for writers looking to put together and edit an anthology?

A: Start with a solid unifying theme, talk with a few writers who might be interested in contributing, and then query a publisher who might be a good fit. Once you’ve got the green light for the publisher, put together an official call for submissions and start querying. The more organized you are, the better. I put this anthology together while also keeping up with a full-time teaching job and while juggling wedding-planning, getting married, and then getting ready for the birth of my first child—all while also working on several other manuscripts and projects. If I did not have a clearly organized system keeping track of who I solicited and when, who sent me work back and when, whether or not that work was accepted and when, and every other step of the publishing process, I’m not sure I would have been able to keep all of the details straight and the manuscript would have fallen apart. Stay on top of all the details, communicate frequently with your publisher and contributors, and keep track of all the major benchmarks so that you can go from concept to publication in as short a time as possible.

 

If you’d like to get your own copy of this fantastic collection, you can order it here.

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