Isolating in a time of nonstop isolation

Today I’m starting an adventure that looked so different earlier this year.

I’m at an isolated retreat at Write On, Door County, a non-profit that offers retreats not just for writers but for leaders of literary arts programs, in my case the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators-Wisconsin. It turns out I’m the first one to retreat here in the admin category! How cool is that?

I have a whole quiet house to myself on 40 acres. It’s interesting that people come here for isolation, and I’m coming here during a time of nonstop isolation. I’ve been seriously social distancing since March, so being here doesn’t feel quite like the getaway it might have been. However, I’m grateful for the change of scenery, the true quiet outside the city (no sirens!), and the immense darkness found in northern Wisconsin (no light pollution from neighbors’ garage lights or broadly arching street lamps!). Honestly, stepping outside at night I cannot see my hand in front of my face. It’s beautiful… and a bit unnerving. Yeah, I’m a city girl.

I’ll be really digging in to SCBWI-Wisconsin planning this week. We have one virtual event planned for early 2021, and we’re hoping the fall events can be in person. Optimism, folks. Meantime, enjoy some pix. 🙂

 

A giant gnome on the way to Door County because … just because.

 

Side view of The Coop from the trail behind the house

 

The Coop, the famed former writing studio of the late, great author Norbert Blei

 

Interior of The Coop with a well used writing desk

 

Interior of The Coop with a painting of Norb Blei

 

All This (*gestures wildly at everything*)

If you’re a person living outside the United States reading this, I wonder how you’re reacting to all that’s happened in American politics this year (and the previous three). Of course, we Americans can go online and dip into your newspapers/newscasts to see reaction. It is, obviously, as varied as all human interaction is. But I know that deep down, some of you know all too well the emotions swirling within us.

The undisputed majority of the American public is waking up to a new workweek this morning after collectively spending the weekend celebrating. Many Americans were literally dancing in the streets. Our expulsion of joy comes after days of fraud claims, months of lockdown, and years of political exhaustion. Did we need a release of tension/anxiety/fear/mourning? You bet your life we did. Didn’t the whole human family?

Importantly, we should all celebrate that one of America’s most enduring glass ceilings is finally broken. It’s hard to believe, honestly, that we will at long last have a woman in the executive branch. Other countries have been emotionally mature enough to handle this for aaaaages. Madam Vice President Kamala Harris’s mere presence in the room where decisions are made will undoubtedly change the narrative — because you can’t have fair representation when more than half the population isn’t even at the table. I feared this situation wouldn’t change in my lifetime. I am overcome with joy that it did.

And there’s work to do before the world gets close to a semblance of normalcy. I do hope this time that we go beyond what’s been normal because “normal” has been pretty terrible for too many people. I hope we overcome the opposition and lethargy that’s allowed systemic racism to flourish. I hope we examine our hearts and souls to see why so many not only allowed hatred to grow but actively watered the weed. And we should study our failed government responses because they should, always, illicit more than a shoulder shrug.

And it’s not all up to a new administration. The world can see we’re divided by more than political ideology. Those from countries whose governments are older than the U.S. republic have some history to draw upon and learn from. I picture some shaking their head at us in recent years. I picture some finally relaxing their tense shoulders. So, yes, I know some know all too well what we’re feeling.

Both history and current discourse prove it.

Reading, finishing, starting another. Repeat.

One of my 2020 new year’s resolutions was to read daily – from an actual book, not just news headlines. Authors should of course read voraciously, but we all know how it goes. Life can interfere with even the best laid plans.

Then came the actual 2020, featuring a badly managed public health crisis, its subsequent economic collapse, long-simmering civil and social unrest, and the beginnings of a thinly veiled fascist coup. All has converged, grinding under heel our collective well-being.

So, yes, I’ve been reading, not just to keep my resolution but to stave off constant unease. Also, like many other creators, I’ve found it terribly difficult to get into the headspace to write cheerful fiction.

Thankfully, reading is part of the writing process. So what have I been enjoying lately?

 

Image shows book entitled "Roll with it" by Jamie Sumner

Roll with It by Jamie Sumner is about middle-schooler Ellie, who isn’t letting her wheelchair interfere with her big dreams to be a professional baker. But when she and her mom move to care for her ailing grandpa, Ellie has to start anew in a new town and school. Ellie is fun, straight-forward, and has you rooting for her from the very first page. I’m looking forward to reading Ms. Sumner’s newest book, Tune It Out, about a girl with a sensory processing disorder who has to find her own voice.

 

Image shows book entitled "The Assignment" by Liza Wiemer

The Assignment by Liza Wiemer is about standing up and speaking out. High school seniors Logan and Cade are horrified when a favorite teacher instructs students to argue in favor of the Final Solution, a euphemism for the Nazi plan of genocide of the Jewish people. This book is written by a dear friend and fellow SCBWI-Wisconsin member. Her works are deeply moving and heartfelt. Highly recommended.

It’s a great time to read. Those of us still respecting safer-at-home orders and employing social distancing are spending more time at home. Colder weather’s on the way. And we can all stand to occasionally see the world from someone else’s viewpoint.

Hope you’re enjoying some good reads, too. Share your recommendations in the comments!

 

 

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Hispanic Heritage Month

Hispanic Heritage Month starts Tuesday.

It’s always been a special time to acknowledge the history and contributions of the many people who make up the Hispanic/Latinx  community. With this year’s racial reckoning and social upheaval, I thought I’d share some data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Hispanics make up nearly 19% of the U.S. population. That’s almost 1 in 5. The demographics for children are already “majority minority,” meaning minorities make up the majority of people under the age of 18. To be tolerant of other groups now is to be tolerant toward America’s future leaders.

Especially in 2020, I feel it’s best to face facts.

Source: https://www.census.gov/newsroom/facts-for-features/2020/hispanic-heritage-month.html

A tribute to the UW-Madison’s Writers Institute

 

It is with a heavy heart that I share news of the end of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Writers’ Institute. The 30-year-long literary conference is shutting down due to financial loss from the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s hard to express how much of a loss this is for the Wisconsin writing community. The Writers’ Institute was part of the university’s Division of Continuing Studies and provided more than a conference. It offered courses, certifications, workshops, retreats, and a welcoming, thoughtful community to writers of all genres. People from all walks of life, writing in all forms, came together for decades to improve their craft and find like-minded folks.

I’ve twice had the honor of presenting as faculty at the Writers’ Institute, and I posted some pix from those times below. I’ll miss being there again. But I know the UWM-WI community will carry on. Let’s make sure it does.

Thank you, Laurie Scheer, Laura Kahl, and Christine DeSmit, for creating this event and profoundly affecting so many lives.

If you have a Writers’ Institute story, I’d love to hear it! Send it to me in a comment, and, once approved, it’ll show up here. Write on.

Reflections on our times

Six months. It’s taken me six months to get back to my blog, this News section. My last post was about being awarded two literary residencies and the weight of expectations, yet it was hopeful. *I* was hopeful. But even as I wrote that entry, the coronavirus pandemic was spreading around the world. Here in Wisconsin, we were two weeks past a truly hellacious news week, the week I marked in my personal calendar as “Coronavirus hell week” because I knew the virus was going to be a much bigger thing than many of my non-news friends were thinking. The journalist in me wanted to keep track of the timeline of events.

Because I organize and run conferences and retreats for both SCBWI-Wisconsin and Fantasy Art Workshop, I paid extremely close attention to governmental reports, even more so than a newshound typically does. I watched as a few in-person conferences organized by others were held when they shouldn’t have been, and I watched as others were canceled.

My co-advisor for SCBWI and I decided to cancel our September 2020 conference as the contractual drop-out date was approaching. We knew that holding the event wasn’t worth the risk to either our members’ health nor the region’s finances should we have to cancel after the deadline. We made the right choice.

The tougher decision for me personally was to cancel the Fantasy Art Workshop Illustration Intensive, an annual week-long art retreat at a local college which my husband and I run. The decision wasn’t harder because I lacked the same concerns of health and finances. No. Our attendees’ health will always come first. What was tough about the decision was that I saw how the whole pandemic would pan out.

Oh, it’s easy *in hindsight* to say that I predicted its path. Even experts weren’t willing to conjecture during the throes of the crisis. The year 2020 changed our lives so profoundly. But I’m not talking about the nuances of the spread. I’m talking about the human nature side of it.

See, you can’t be a journalist for nearly 30 years and not learn something about human nature. You can’t be interviewing people all the time and not recognize the vastly different worldviews of people within different demographics. You can’t talk to people all the time as part of your job and not have seen growing economic and political polarization. You can’t be busting your butt to be fair in your coverage without noticing that other news organizations are doing the exact opposite and being handsomely rewarded by a viewership/readership that is sick of hearing the other side’s view.

So I predicted way back in February that there would be some sort of shutdown of movement, that it would be fairly effective in lowering the curve, and then society would reopen. I told my husband that by the time of our event in late June, the economy would have opened up a bit, and we would be *allowed* by the authorities to hold our event, whether it was morally right or not, but he rightly read that the mood of people in the creative industries would be against holding in-person events.

I couldn’t help but agree because I knew, once the shutdowns eased, that many, many people would rush back into the world, and why wouldn’t they? Some have no financial choice. Others would feel that enough was enough, they’d done their part, and anyone asking more of them was asking to sacrifice the economy. I knew this instinctively from all my years of reporting.

There is a segment of our population that is so fiercely individualistic, privileged, and nationalistic that they would never bow to the collective, especially if doing so went against their “don’t tread on me” attitude. And I knew there was a segment of our population that would be quite the opposite and would plead that everyone follow science as a moral imperative to stop the pandemic’s slaughter. They would hardly be applauded for it. In fact, they’d be jeered for their softness and blamed for fear-mongering hysteria. Such has been the history of millennia. It’s the hawks versus the doves. The suits versus the hippies. Choose your opposites for this exercise. You’ll find many parallels.

My predictions were no great revelation on my part. It was simply years of study and observation. I predicted a second wave in late summer, which would hinder the return to school. And I further predict how damaging virtual learning will be to the women’s movement, as it will be mostly women who will forgo their careers this year to stay home to teach. They’re incentivized to do so as they already make less on the dollar than men (assuming they have such a life partner), and women have already lost standing and the forward trajectory of their careers by being out of the workforce for months or years at a time having and rearing said children. I know of what I speak. I homeschooled (by choice, which means I had the luxury of preparation) for a decade. For all the talk corporate America does about supporting women, reality reveals a stark contrast.

Of course, we know how the virus has turned out. But what we didn’t know would happen is the racial reckoning spurred by the murder of George Floyd and the further brutality against other people of color, including Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Joel Acevedo (no relation), and Dontre Hamilton.

If you think police aren’t given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to overreaching use of force, then you haven’t had to cover the police as a journalist. The account given by law enforcement is always given greater weight, most especially by the authorities charged with investigating those accusations. Oftentimes the media follows suit. In my decades of news, I’ve covered countless claims of abuse of force and seen far too few reports in which the authorities were caught and justice brought to bear — not because the force may not have existed, but because the brotherhood of protectionism often obstructs investigations. The authorities call their units a “force” for a reason and encourage citizen loyalty with supportive-looking slogans like “We back the badge.” But to back either side’s version as the default truth — or to swallow either side’s story without question or investigation — well, that’s not what ethical journalists do.

So with the pandemic raging, thousands marching worldwide against systemic racism, and an inept response to both, I did something wholly uncharacteristic of a writer. I stopped writing. So did many others. Working journalists kept on, as their paychecks and the world’s historical record depends on their great work. But my freelance journalism dried up. My will to write fiction did too. Few creatives — heck, few people overall — in those first months of the pandemic could hold it together.

We sewed masks, myself included, to give to nurses and other friends facing a deficit during an appalling lack of urgency by our national leadership to provide such items. Or we worked jigsaw puzzles to try to calm our racing hearts and slow the flashes of video-horror looping in our minds. Or we read books or watched TV to sink into any entertainment that could even temporarily numb our troubled souls. Or we leaned into that which brings us meaning. There was just so much anxiety. There continues to be.

But there is a new national conversation underway, one that is long overdue and vitally important. And that is another reason for hope. Caring people must always hope.

This summer, SCBWI hired an equity and inclusion officer to train its regional leaders (yours truly and many others) to be more inclusive among our ranks and have intent in our leadership. The demographics of children in the U.S. is now majority “minority.” In other words, most kids are nonwhite. Writers for U.S. children who purposely exclude people of color are not presenting the world as it exists today. As writers for children, we should strive to allow children who have been underrepresented in literature to see and read characters that are like themselves. And as writers for children, we have a special responsibility to not perpetuate stereotypes that do harm, especially when that literature is targeted to readers during their formative years. I’m grateful to be part of an organization that cares so much about its members and future generations.

This year has shaken the world. It is not hyperbole to say 2020 has brought us disease, death, financial calamity, worldwide street protests, racial violence, class wars, conflicts of conscience, and moral crises.

The coming autumn chill will drive us indoors. Its typical cold-weather illnesses threaten to join the virus. We will get through this crisis just as we have through other crises. But this whole essay begs the question: if we get through this crisis *just* as we have others, won’t the outcome be the same? Isn’t now the time to examine how we got here? Isn’t now the time to fix the systemic flaws that allowed both social injustice and the pandemic to flourish?

I beg you to look around you and see what you can do to alleviate injustice in your workplace, at your school, at your bank. And I beg you to care for yourself and others. We absolutely have it within our power to make the world a better place.

Copyright © Silvia Acevedo. All rights reserved.