Tuesday, August 18, 2020

When Empathy is Not Enough

At least once a week, maybe twice I cycle or walk Beach Drive in West Seattle. Every time I pass this memorial at Seacrest Park it gives me pause, brings tears to my eyes. I am often pulled to a stop by an invisible thread, to see, to read, to honor the dead. 

I do not know who created this memorial or even when. I do not know who periodically adds photos or changes the flowers. It does not matter. What I do know is that I photographed it on July 20. A month ago I took dozens of photos I never posted. So why now?

I was inspired by Michelle Obama’s words last night at the Democratic National Convention, by her challenge to move our empathy to action, action that will move our country toward a racially just home for all:

... it is up to us to add our voices and our votes to the course of history, echoing heroes like John Lewis who said, “When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something.” That is the truest form of empathy: not just feeling, but doing; not just for ourselves or our kids, but for everyone, for all our kids.

These photos in my phone have been a painful personal reminder of injustice, of violence, of hatred. But I have used my empathy for nothing. I have done nothing. Now, I share a few of them with a plea to vote, to request your ballot now and to vote early. 

I do not know if a new president can alone change the direction our country has taken for the past four years, but I do know that we cannot survive another four years on the same crash course we are on now. A course of racist and sexist violence and a denial of science that has led to over a 160,000 COVID deaths, a number that continues to grow.

As I stare into the eyes of my tiny White grandson, I want a better country, a more just world for him and for all the babies – Brown, Black and White – born during this time of COVID-19, of economic insecurity, of racial injustice.

These 186 people, young and old, were murdered. Some for their political voice. Most for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. All for the color of their skin. 

This is not the country I want my grandson to inherit, a country with a long history of systematic racism. We must do better, be better. We must elect representatives who will listen, who will acknowledge and change the racist policies continuing to shape our country. Four hundred years of racist policies.

I believe my vote matters. I believe your vote matters.

I believe we can change if we listen beyond the headlines, if we read our history from all voices, if we question the beliefs held by the dominate White culture.

I believe we must change, if not for ourselves, for our children. For our grandchildren.

Friday, July 31, 2020

So Very Much to Learn

The Pacific Northwest summer soothes with days of rain and sun, of gray and brilliance. Yet this summer is unlike any other of my long teaching career. I am not basking in a period of rejuvenation, of cycling, of writing. Of simply enjoying my first grandchild. Instead it is a summer of COVID isolation and social unrest. 

It is a summer of change, and for me a time of intense study. I cannot totally disconnect from work because there is too much happening. So, I attend a few remote meetings each week, and I struggle to educate myself in order to understand the violence that fills our streets and the discord that questions the lack of social justice in the lives of my students, in the workings of my college, and in the structure my country.

I continue to work through my summer reading list, adding more titles as I go along. Earlier this spring, during my months of vision problems, I learned the joy of listening to audio books. Even though I can read again, I have continued the practice of listening, so I’m working through that list more quickly than I expected. So far, I’ve read: 

The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander
Heavy, Kiese Laymon
They Can’t Kill Us All, Wesley Lowery  
Me and White Supremacy, Layla F. Saad
Disgruntled, Asali Solomon
The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin

Currently I’m reading How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and Race, Empire,and English Language Teaching by Suhanthie Motha while listening to White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo (despite, or perhaps because of, John McWhorter’s critic “The Dehumanizing Condescension of White Fragility” in The Atlantic, July 15, 2020).
What have I garnered from all this reading? I’ll own that my understanding of the racial justice movement in America faded after Civil Rights. More recent events have made me aware of my ignorance of systematic racism. I decided to try to understand what has gone wrong, or rather what has always been wrong, for so many people in this country. I have found all of these books interesting in one way or another, but the most helpful of those I have dipped into so far is probably Michelle Alexander’s 2010 study of the War on Drugs and mass incarceration in America since the early 1970s. 

Digging a bit deeper online, I learned that during a 1994 interview, Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman was quoted as saying “the Nixon campaign had two enemies: ‘the antiwar left and black people.’” He then went on to explain “We couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.’” 

A few days ago, I came across the same quote on page 25 of Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist. It warrants repetition: “President Richard Nixon announced his war on drugs in 1971 to devastate his harshest critics--Black and anti-war activists. ‘We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news,’ Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, told a Harper’s reporter years later. ‘Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.’”

So began the war on drugs, the results of which are still being felt almost fifty years later. According to the Pew Research Center, while overall imprisonment rates have declined since 2007, “In 2017, there were 1,549 black prisoners for every 100,000 black adults – nearly six times the imprisonment rate for whites (272 per 100,000) and nearly double the rate for Hispanics (823 per 100,000).

According to Prison Legal News, “In 2010, the percentage of all Americans with a felony record was 8.11 percent (including three percent who have served time in prison), but for black males the rate was 33 percent (including 15 percent who have been to prison). Additionally, while the absolute number of people with felony convictions increased threefold between 1980 and 2010, it increased fivefold for blacks during that time.

On June 11, 2020 ABC News posted an article titled “ABC News analysis of police arrests nationwide reveals stark racial disparity” stating “In an analysis of arrest data thousands of police departments voluntarily reported to the FBI, in 800 jurisdictions, black people were arrested at a rate five times higher than white people in 2018.

Mass incarceration – America’s latest form of legal segregation – is the new Jim Crow of Michelle Alexander’s book title, but how can this be legal? What about Constitutional rights? 

A few days ago, when my husband shared a HuffPost article titled “The Supreme Court Built America’s Broken Policing System And It’s Working Just As Intended,” more pieces of the confusing puzzle of systematic racism began to fall into place for me. It is a long, detailed article, by Paul Blumenthal which begins:

“Police and the politicians who protect them get most of the attention in the movement to defund or reform law enforcement. But there’s another, more powerful force that’s allowed law enforcement to use force on citizens, stop them without a warrant, lock them up for minor crimes and even raid their homes without a knock.

The Supreme Court has spent the last 50 years affirming the power of police to legally take such actions. The system built by officials and sanctioned by the court isn’t broken; it’s working just as intended.”

I feel my rosy colored glasses shattering. I have lived a life of guilt and empathy, aware that my white skin gives me privilege and security others do not have. Still, I have been blind to the depth of systematic racism, inequity, and violence surrounding me every day. The fact that I got through eighteen years of American education having never been introduced to James Baldwin speaks volumes. I still have so very much to learn.

Friday, July 17, 2020

A Reading Event in the Time of COVID

Since February 2010 a small neighborhood coffee house in West Seattle called C&P Coffee has hosted monthly readings by poets and other storytellers under the stewardship of Leopoldo Sequel. On the fourth Wednesday of every month these events have showcased two featured readers followed by community mic - an opportunity for any and all to share their work.

This community event, dubbed PoetryBridge, flourished for ten wonderful years, and I was honored to have participated a number of times both as featured reader and as an open mic-er testing out new material. With time, came structure and a new website. The 10th Anniversary celebration was scheduled earlier this year, and I was looking forward to reading in March.

Then COVID-19 hit.

I've since learned that Leopoldo is not a man easily stopped. In April, he took PoetryBridge online with weekly Zoom readings, monthly gatherings feeling insufficient during these stressful times. Curating a weekly reading event is no easy task, and I am grateful to him for all his hard work.

I am very pleased to invite you to the next PoetryBridge Zoom event on Wednesday, July 22 at 7:00 pm. I'm excited to be sharing the featured reading slots with the talented writer and teacher, Priscilla Long.

If you are interested in becoming a regular PoetryBridge community member and receiving weekly updates and invitations, just go the website and follow the instructions.

If you'd rather try it out first, I will have the Zoom link on Wednesday and am happy to share it with you. Just email me soon at aw@arleenwilliams.com, so I can best facilitate a mailing.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Isolation is the New Norm

The sun is rising, the rugosas are in full bloom and the raspberries need picking. So begins this beautiful summer day. 
The Ex-Mexican Wives Club is a memoir exploring my years working as an undocumented teacher in Mexico City in the early 1980s and reconnecting with the women I knew during that turbulent time It was released late last year. The holidays passed, and I did two wonderful readings in February, one at Third Place Books Ravenna and other at the Issaquah Library. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic caused the cancellation of all other planned events.

My events calendar is now empty but for two memoir writing workshops scheduled for September and October. Will those events meet the same end? Some libraries are beginning to reopen for limited loans and returns. If they move forward with events, will I feel ready to teach face-to-face, to be in public?

Seattle, like other cities around the country, is beginning to reopen, but I have yet to get a haircut since winter break. I find wearing a mask annoying, even in the grocery store, so I limit contact with others as much as possible. After all, I have a new grandson to protect.

I stare at my flowers, think about picking raspberries, and sip my morning coffee. I scratch items from my summer calendar, plug in earbuds to listen to The New Jim Crow, and embrace my isolation.

How are you filling your summer hours? If you’re looking for a unique read, you might enjoy The Ex-Mexican Wives Club. If you like it, please tell your friends, and as always,  I'm grateful for your reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. 

Monday, June 22, 2020

Does She Know What She’s Saying?

Two blond pre-teens cycle up the long incline of my West Seattle street. Doors and windows open to the late spring sun, I hear their laughter and chatter from the dining table where I work. I see them through my large front window.

“I can’t breathe” one hollers to the other. Laughter cascades down the street.

Does she know what she is saying? Do they understand the agony of those words, the pain they cause others as they waft through open windows?

I want to scream at them. I want to race after them, stop them, sit them down for a 400-year history lesson on systematic racism. But they are gone before I wipe my tears.

I have not been writing. The past four months have been a time of stress and struggle and surreal joy. I am a grandmother; my baby is a mother.

My daughter and her husband adhere to strict COVID-19 protocols and remain closed into their hospital room on Capitol Hill for the two-night hospital stay. They watch as protesters march to the East Precinct and chants of “Black Lives Matter” float from the street five floors below.

During the worst world-wide pandemic since the Spanish Flu and the most significant social upheaval in our nation since the Civil War, my grandson is born. This tiny innocent enters the world as a privileged white boy by no choice of his own.
I begin adding antiracist children’s books to my summer reading list. The list grows as I collect titles to educate myself in a struggle to convert a lifetime of white guilt and empathy into antiracist understanding and action.

Perhaps I could find antiracist books for pre-teens, books to put in the Free Neighborhood Libraries that seem to dot every other block of my middle-class neighborhood. Would the girls on the bicycles read them? Would their parents?

As the academic year closes, as my first quarter of online teaching comes to an end, I embrace the freedom to read and think. I look forward to long walks, long bike rides, and long hours watching my grandson grow. And yes, maybe I’ll squeeze in some writing, too.

This is a long summer reading list, and it's likely I won't get through all of it, but I intend to do my best. In no particular order, here goes:

So You Want to Talk About Race – Ijeoma Oluo
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness – Michelle Alexander
Heavy – Kiese Laymon
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America
 - Ibram X. Kendi
How to be an Anti-Racist – Ibram X. Kendi
They Can’t Kill Us All – Wesley Lowery
The Fire Next Time – James Baldwin
My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies – Resimaa Menakem
Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates
We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood – Dani McClain
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism – Robin Deangelo
Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America – Jennifer Harvey
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration – Isabel Wilkerson
Me & White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor - Layla F. Saad
The Truth About White People - Lola E. Peters

Just Mercy: A True Story of the Fight for Justice (adapted for young adults) - Bryan Stevenson
Not My Idea: A Book about Whiteness – Anastasia Higginbotham
Let’s Talk About Race – Julius Lester
A is for Activist – Innosanto Nagara

For help compiling this list, my thanks to PegasusBook Exchange, “13 Books You Should Read About Black Lives” as well as the recommendations of colleagues and friends.

If you have other titles to suggest, please share either in the comment box or email me at aw@arleenwilliams.com. Thank you!

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Poetry & the Pandemic

We all have our crap to deal with during this dreadful pandemic, don’t we?

But despite the pandemic, despite my blurred vision, eye infection, and still tentative surgery appointment, despite the challenges of learning to teach online, despite the distance from my daughter during the final trimester of her first pregnancy and the fear of COVID exposure every shift she works at Harborview ER, the sun continues to shine, birds flutter in the front yard and bunnies hop in the back, and I’m very pleased to celebrate the close of National Poetry Month with my first poetry publications.
First came the publication of two poems, “Tree-Crook Nest” and “My Father’s Daughter,” in Chrysanthemum 2020 Literary Anthology, edited and published by Koon Woon and Goldfish Press with support from the Washington State Arts Commission.

Then, on April 5th, Celaine Charles included my poem “Public Pool” in her salute to National Poetry Month on her beautiful poetry blog, Steps in Between.

Today, I received this lovely email, the kind every writer longs to open, from Michael Broder, editor at Indolent Books:

Hi Arleen,
Thank you for submitting "Wild Rabbit" to What Rough Beast Covid-19 Edition. I posted the poem for April 29, 2020—Here's the link: https://www.indolentbooks.com/what-rough-beast-covid-19-edition-04-29-20-arleen-williams/

What better way to end a less-than-perfect month and get this writer back to her desk?!

Friday, March 20, 2020

Cataracts & COVID-19

I had cataract surgery on the eve of COVID-19.

Born cross-eyed and extremely farsighted, I’ve worn glasses since age two. After hiding them once too often in the sandbox, my mother assigned the task of keeping my heavy specs on my pudgy nose to an older sister.

Later, during my vain years, I tried contact lenses. The first time, a young co-ed at Seattle U, I fell asleep without removing my new contacts and couldn’t open my eyes the next morning. My roommate called my mother, who rushed to Seattle and drove me to the eye doctor. Problem solved and contacts abandoned.

A half dozen years passed. A new boyfriend preferred me without glasses, so I gave contacts a second try. Again, the discomfort, the eye irritation, the inability to read in comfort led to my return to specs. The relationship went the way of the contacts.

A decade or so later, I was back in Seattle. Now in my early thirties, I was curious to see if medical developments had made contacts more comfortable. They hadn’t. I decided once and for all, I was perfectly content with glasses and would no longer stash them in the sandbox.

Fast forward three decades. When a second specialist confirmed cataracts in both eyes, I laid careful plans. I took medical leave for the last week of the academic term to allow for the mandatory two-week gap between surgeries. The first surgery was successful.

Now I’m a tad near-sighted in the right eye and extremely farsighted in the left. Now I’m wearing a contact again. Now, my vision is still blurred and the eye gets irritated. I can handle this for two weeks, I tell myself.

To limit this scratchy irritation, I delay popping the thing in my eye. As I write these words in the morning light, I see with the right eye and hold my hand over the left. My husband’s taken to calling me the “one-eyed poet.”

All this was expected. What was unexpected was the rapid spread of COVID-19. What was unexpected was the cancellation of all elective surgeries. What was unexpected was the self-quarantine to help stop the spread of this pandemic.

My second surgery has been cancelled. No one knows when it will be possible to reschedule, when I will see clearly again. 

As frustrating and unnerving as this is, and despite my fears for my pregnant daughter working in Harborview ER and my worries for my husband struggling to save his small business, I know I’m lucky. My loved ones and I are all (still) healthy. We are (still) financially secure. We have a small house with a yard to putter in, we are creatives who enjoy a solitary life. We’ll manage. 

My hope is that we all adhere to public health recommendations. We stay at home for the next two weeks and do our part to stop the spread of this deadly virus as quickly as possible. 

Sunday, March 1, 2020

A Full Heart

Many thanks to the readers, old and new, who attended my author event featuring The Ex-Mexican Wives Club last Friday night at the Issaquah Library. The roses are lovely, Keri. The photos are wonderful, Darcey. There is little that warms this writer's heart more than a room full interested, articulate readers.

If you enjoy my work, I'm hope you'll consider starring and/or posting a brief review or comment on Amazon or Goodreads.

Why do reviews matter? Simply put, reviews are important because they increase a writer's visibility through online search engine support, because people lean toward books they perceive as popular, and because indie bookstores may pay attention to review numbers when stocking shelves or scheduling author events.

Again, thank you for reading, sharing and reviewing my work.

Friday, February 28, 2020


Many thanks to Zlatina Encheva of the King County Library!

Sunday, February 16, 2020

All That Was Once Home

A friend shares that her husband is brain-tired after a trip to South America, finding the struggle to understand and speak in Spanish exhausting. That they both did their best to master the language and put it to use during their vacation was admirable.

Though I didn't have the words, never called it brain-tired, I remember that feeling, a memory from a time long ago. A time when I was an undocumented teacher in Mexico City, building my understanding of both language and culture while also trying to survive economically on an irregular income paid in pesos.

The comment and the memory serve as reminders each day I walk into the classroom. My students – immigrants and refugees from around the globe – are tired. Tired from low-paid, menial labor and overburdened with family responsibilities. Tired from living on the edge, unsure where their next meal will come from or if they’ll be able to pay the rent and keep the heat on. Tired from fear of current immigration policy and the constant threat of violence, family separation, or deportation. Tired of wondering what the future may bring for them and their families, here as well as back in their home countries. And yes, brain-tired from using a language and coping in a culture foreign from all they once knew and loved. From all that was once home.

Monday, January 20, 2020

February Author Events

With the holidays another fond memory and gray Seattle winter here for the next few months - 59 days, to be precise - I'm ready to settle in for some quiet reading time. If you're like me, winter is perfect for getting caught up on new releases and for checking out local author events.
If you're in the Seattle area, I hope you'll consider coming to Third Place Books for my first reading of The Ex-Mexican Wives Club. I love this bookshop and look forward to reading there once again.

6504 20th Ave NE
Seattle, WA
Thursday, February 6, 2020
7:00 - 8:30 p.m.

Or perhaps the Eastside is more convenient for you. If so, consider marking your calendar for February 28 when I have the pleasure of returning to my hometown library in Issaquah.

10 West Sunset Way
Issaquah, WA
Friday, February 28, 2020
4:30 - 6:00 p.m.

I look forward to seeing you soon!