Essay in Yellow Arrow Journal

Pleased to announce I have a new essay published in the latest issue of Yellow Arrow Journal. You can visit Yellow Arrow Press’s website to order a beautiful hard copy of the journal, purchase the Kindle version, or learn more about this fabulous mag and other projects from the publisher.

The essay, “Susquehanna,” deals with a period of time when I lived on the Susquehanna River. It begins with the memory of a neighbor apologizing for hating me, something her rehab program was encouraging her to do, yet I had never spoken to her until that moment. It comes in at just under 1,000 words and is accompanied by some outstanding works from fellow prose and poetry writers. Grab your own copy today!

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“Bullets Into Bells” event in PGH

I had the honor of participating in The Bridge Series’ event at City of Asylum in Alphabet City for the book “Bullets Into Bells,” an anthology of poetry and essays addressing gun violence in America. The book was edited by Connecticut poet Brian Clements, husband to a teacher who survived the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. We were joined by my friend & survivor Gina Lodato Pelusi, a leader for Pittsburgh’s Moms Demand Action teams who captivates a crowd with her story of love, loss and hope. I joined Brian & Gina on a post-reading panel as both the co-lead for the local Moms Demand Action and as an contributor to the online conversation happening on “Bullets Into Bells” website. A collection was taken at the door, and $260 was donated to Moms Demand Action.

I am continually humbled to be involved in this work. I feel inspired by everyone who shows up and asks how they too can get active, because we can end gun violence.

Photo Credit: City of Asylum

Welcome to the Movement to End Gun Violence

“If Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were alive today, they’d be my age,” is what I say because using terms like “gun violence prevention” and “activist” just elicit drawn out ohhhhhs and wows from people stumbling through some awkward variation of “thank you for working on that really important issue.” But wow isn’t in reference to importance; it’s in recognition of danger. Then there’s a turn, a distinct switch to gossipy whispers as they ask why I became an activist for gun violence prevention. What happened to me? I see a series of images in mind, each a reason why, each either too private to tell or not mine to tell. So I pick a story that makes me seem like the vapid white suburban lady who knows nothing of gun violence aside from what she sees on the news. I pick a story that belongs to us all.  

A year before Columbine, there was Jonesboro. Two boys attacked their middle school, one pulling the fire alarm, the other a sniper on the perimeter picking off kids as they filed outside. I was in 10th grade. The next time the fire alarm was pulled at my school, I walked outside with two friends. One led us to the center of the crowd. “Better get in the middle in case one of us turned psycho overnight and is across the street with a deer rifle,” my friend said. We laughed. I added, “It’s funny ‘cause it’s true,” and we laughed even harder.

The day after Columbine, things changed. The mood, most of all, changed in our school. Our spring-time tradition of Color Week, filled with pranks and intra-class water gun warfare, was suddenly not so innocent. We lost freedoms we didn’t even know we enjoyed. We were locked up, but in no less danger. 

Have I mentioned I went to high school in Amish country, where a man would massacre a school full of girls a few short years later? Or that I was on the college campus where I worked, listening to the eerie tests of a new emergency

broadcast system blaring from campus-wide speakers, when news of Virginia Tech broke? Or that I was 8 months pregnant with my first child when Sandy Hook happened? Or that my son came home from daycare the Monday after the Pulse nightclub shooting, told me how safe his school was, and I couldn’t agree with him? 

It wasn’t any one of those that made me finally join the movement. It was all of them, and more. 

Can I tell you about the unfathomable shame I felt the first time I attended a memorial for gun violence victims in a black neighborhood? The first speaker looked at my friends and I and said, “Oh good, white people care. Maybe now something will happen.” It was a punch in the gut, and I deserved it. 

Communities of color have long endured an epidemic fueled by illegal guns, obtained through shitty laws and loopholes kept in place because there’s profit in their death. I feel the awesome weight of responsibilities white people have shirked for so long, in so many ways, on this subject and others. But we also applied this violent indifference to our own communities, endangering  ourselves too. In our wake, no one is immune. 

I am not solely responsible for this, but neither am I innocent. I have long felt an internal rage for being so foolish for so long. I feel this rage for others too, for the people desperate to get involved after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. I welcome them, joyously, at meetings and rallies and online forums, because we need them. But I’m still pissed. Do they think Parkland’s teens are the first ones to feel this way? I hear that the outspokenness of high schoolers has woken people up, headlines read “now there’s no more excuses.” I wonder what were the excuses when I was afraid of being shot in my high school? These aren’t the first students to live with this fear. If I give voice to this resentment, will it turn people’s anger inward when it should stay focused on the gun lobby?

If Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were alive today they would be 36.

When my son enters kindergarten in the fall he’ll practice ALICE drills, hide in the closet of his classroom and be scolded silent because everyone’s pretending an active shooter is on campus. He’s sure to come home and talk about it. He’s sure to notice that once again his mother can’t assure him he’s safe. He’ll be the second generation of his family to live with this fear. The second generation to go to school with the understanding that evil can walk in, armed with military-style weaponry, and massacre him along with his friends. The second generation to know that the leaders of his country can’t be bothered to value his life. 

Is this the time to tell you I’m a gun owner? That’s really why I joined the movement. As a white, suburban mom I know the gun lobby pretends they speak for me, and most people assume they do. But the gun lobby speaks for gun manufacturers, so I bear the responsibility to make it known otherwise. 

When I tell people I work on gun violence prevention because I’m a gun owner, they are always surprised. I want to look at them and say, “I grew up in rural Pennsylvania. My family hunted to fill our freezer each winter. Of course I own guns.” So many Americans do own guns. Pretending this is a “gun owner vs. anti-gun” argument is to prolong it, to play into the hands of those who profit from our fear and our deaths. We are part of the problem when we are unable to imagine anything other than this typical “us vs. them” debate that turns Americans into extremists. So sometimes I short-hand it and say, “I’m a gun owner, not a monster.” 

My activism is comfortably occupying all my conflicting identities while educating and organizing people to lobby their elected officials for effective and sustainable legislation. I wield the privileges my race, income, and zip code afford me. I recognize I’m armed with this power by an oppressive and unjust system, so I must use it for the good of those in more danger than I am.     

There is evil in this world. While we’re squabbling among ourselves, unable to imagine a society with more than a dichotomy of parameters, that evil has access to high-powered firearms. When I want to know about evil, I turn to my church. When I want to keep evil from obtaining lethal weapons, I turn to my government. I hound my government. I badger my government. I nag, pester, and bother. It’s not glamorous or sexy. It’s often tedious. It never feels like enough, but it works. Slowly than it needs to, but it does work.

Let this be our call to action. All of us. Disarm our rhetoric, our keyboards, our agreements to disagree. Disarm our violent resentment towards communities that look different from our own. Demand our government, our elected officials, our leaders protect us from evil. Show up, again and again. Evil will always be among us, but our government can keep it from waging war so efficiently, so effortlessly, for so long. Believe it. Commit to it. Now. 

 

No one’s coming to save us.

No one’s coming to save us. Not a heroic politician. Not a celebrity activist. Not a nation-wide march. Not the outrage caused by a string of increasingly gruesome mass shootings of historic proportions. Not even the fact that we’re averaging a school shooting every 60 hours this year will be enough to spur our leaders to make change. We are all there is.

But we are enough. We, each and every one of us, must make the decision that we’re going to change this. And then we have to commit ourselves to the tedious work of lobbying our elected officials. Not just flailing our arms in despair and yelling “do something,” but the unglamorous work of showing up, calling up, and consistently confronting our officials on the votes they cast for specific legislation to make our communities safer.

It’s not quick, easy, or sexy, but it’s successful. In the past 5 years, NRA-backed bills have been defeated in 30 states. It takes a coalition of different groups and approaches to do this work, so go find one and let’s share the load.

Bullets Into Bells

Beacon Press’s beautiful collection of poetry & responses from authors & activists addressing gun violence, Bullets Into Bells, came out this December 2017. They have chosen to publish my essay, This is What Happens Where You Live, on the website supporting the book. Check it out and then buy this amazing book! I received my pre-ordered copy on the book’s release date and devoured it. It helped that I was prepping for my Moms Demand Action chapter’s memorial to gun violence victims on the 5th anniversary of Sandy Hook, but I bet I would have read it just as quickly. So often I simply forget to read poetry, and then when I stumble upon it I act like it’s the carbs of literature!

I’ve understood for a while now that the world of guns would be the next subject I’d write about. Makes sense since I’ve spent that last few years writing about race, a natural lead in to America’s gun obsession. To have this first piece scooped up so quickly is really unexpected and lucky. It so happens that the web editor lives in my city and posted the call for submission on a local Facebook group to which I belong. I had the first few paragraphs of this piece sketched out when I saw the call. Aiming at a target publication with word count limitations really forced me to hone the argument. I’m grateful for all the right things that happened at the right time.

 

When the piece was sent to me for a few revisions, they were mostly style concerns (I just can’t break that AP habit). But the editor had one other note; could I please end on an uplifting note? Just a few sentences? I had originally ended the piece without the last paragraph, so Bill O’Reilly had the last word. It was a real downer, but seemed appropriate to me. I can forget to stay positive in the face of this gigantic problem. It was a good reminder to keep going, in every way.

b to b

finding a home for WHITE AND WORKING ON IT

Today Waxwing published my essay “White and Working On It.” The essay comes from my manuscript of the same name, a project that seems more and more timely with each passing news cycle. So to have this first published part of the whole in a magazine dedicated to “promoting the tremendous cultural diversity of contemporary American literature, alongside international voices in translation” is a perfect fit.

I tend to shy away from using the word “woke” because I’m not sure if it’s my word to use, and also because I believe I’ll work for the rest of my life on waking up. But I know that I was once asleep, filled with good intentions and love and a desire to “help people,” but fast asleep. Faulting people who have to yet learned what I’ve learned is unproductive and will never wake other up. So every time I see that “white women elected Trump,” I see no purpose in #notallwhitewomen. I know I’m part of the 40% who didn’t, but so what?

If we as a country truly wish to  confront our systemic racism, then we in the majority race need to reckon with our own identity. White people need to talk to each other about being white. And I’m trying to reach the biggest audience I can.

So what do you do with a large project that has defined purpose but no defined delivery method? Which to say, what do you do with a literary work that could be any number of things–a book, a serial web column, a workbook, etc…? Especially when said project challenges the identity of the largest book buying demographic? Which is also to say that agents and editors send me the most complimentary rejections.

So “White and Working On It” the manuscript is looking for a home, and I don’t know what kind of home it needs. But it is wonderful to know that at least this first seed of it, the essay that starts the whole project, has found at a place where it fits and can thrive.

Remarks from Lucy McBath’s visit to Moms Demand Action – Pittsburgh

On Sunday, August 27, the Pittsburgh chapter of Moms Demand Action welcomed a Mother of the Movement and national spokeswoman for Everytown for Gun Safety, Lucy McBath. Lucy lost her teenage son, Jordan Davis, in 2012. The case made national headlines as it was reminiscent of Trayvon Martin’s, but in the end Jordan’s killer, unlike Trayvon’s, was brought to justice. 

Lucy McBath, Pittsburgh 2017

I spent a portion of my summer organizing Lucy’s visit, which included a screening of the documentary, The Armor of Light. We secured space by partnering with the Univ. of Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health, specifically Dr. Steven Albert. The following are remarks I delivered to the crowd to start the event and introduce Dr. Albert.

“Welcome. I’m Jenny Ruth, the events lead for Pittsburgh’s chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gunsense in America. Moms Demand Action started less than six years ago, and our local group is even younger than that. And as we work our way around the city, meeting survivors and community leaders and other people who just wake up in the morning and decide they’ve had enough, it’s clear that others have been hard at work addressing the public health problem of gun violence for a long time. We’re new to the fight but we’re bringing our own political power and weight to bear on the legislators and officials who make policies and craft the laws that govern our lives.

Right now we’re advocating for SB 501 that would require known domestic abuser to turn in their guns. In 2016 over half the people killed in PA were shot by domestic abusers. I encourage you to take a moment and sign a postcard for SB501 that’s in the lobby if you haven’t done so already. We’ll deliver them to legislators soon. We also want to stop the Guns in Schools bill that passed in the state senate earlier this summer, so when it rears its head in the House, we’ll tell yinz and mobilize to stop it.

In the year I’ve been involved in this fight, it’s become clear to me that when our communities look different, our gun violence problems can look different, but none of us are immune.

You may have come here today because you lost a loved one who took their own life with a gun; or because the young people of your neighborhood are taking each others’ lives with guns; or because you know a woman whose boyfriend or husband took her life with his gun; or maybe because you watch the news and have just had enough already. While all these reasons are important because they brought you here, the differences between them don’t really matter. Because as a member of our chapter, a pediatrician, says – when she sees a patient with a gun shot wound, it doesn’t matter if it was self-inflicted or accidental or from some fight on the street; they all look the same laying on her table.

There is not just one silver bullet that’ll take down our gun violence problems. It’s gonna take all of us, fighting on many fronts, to secure our safety. But there are more of us who care then there are gun lobbyists. There are more of us than their are politicians in the pocket of gun manufacturers. There are more of us than we even know, if we just find that one group or program that we can connect with and get to work.

With that being said, I’d like you to hear more about the work being done here by inviting to the stage our host, the Professor and Philip B. Hallen Chair of Community Health and Social Justice in Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health, Dr. Steven Albert. Lets give a round of applause.”

white responsibility on a day like today.

My dear fellow white Americans,

There’s some ugliness happening in our names today, and no matter how far you are from Charlottesville, VA, you cannot see yourself as removed from the situation. You’ve probably spent your whole life turning away from this kind of viciousness, but to what? So many of us feel we must make the false choice of either white pride or white guilt, and since neither is an attractive option we disengage, pretend we’re above the fray.

But we’re not. Embrace your responsibility.

Declare that these white supremacists in Charlottesville do not speak for you. Condemn them to your family, your friends, your colleagues, your classmates, your neighbors, and your elected officials. Don’t assume people will think today’s ugliness represents a minority of white people. White supremacists assume your silence is agreement. People of color will assume this too, and who will tell them otherwise if not you?

There are, of course, so many others things you need to do. The idea of all the work we must do together to heal this country is overwhelming, so let’s start small with this today. Share this as your social media, and then text RESIST to 504-09 and let your representatives in government know you condemn the hate masquerading as legitimate protest in Charlottesville today, and demand they publicly condemn it too. And if even this feel scary, like posting on your page will start some kind of argument with a family member or a friend you’d prefer not to initiate, understand that’s why you must do it. You can no longer sit in your sports chair and spectate. Justice is marching on.

When I Tried to Sell a Toy

Tonight a man, a stranger to me, began aggressively messaging me about an item I posted “for sale” on a Facebook group reserved for people in my town interested in buying and selling children’s items. It was 5:30 pm. I was attempting a dinner that would be ready when my husband arrived. I was on the phone with him, hearing about his day while he commuted home. My toddler and preschooler were trying very hard to “help” me. All the while this man was messaging me.

I saw his intial message and took a moment to respond “yes” the item was still for sale. He offered me much less than I asked for, and I continued chopping peppers while I considered it. But that was not good enough. He messaged me two more times, in less than a minute, upset I wasn’t responding. I waited a few moments and then told him I was cooking dinner.

He invited himself to my house. Again, I did not respond. 

As I took a rare moment to breath, sit, and eat, I received two more messages. He was trying to force an answer. My husband suggested a response and I made it. 

Then this stranger told me to choke on my food.



I am not afraid of trolls.

I posted these pics of our conversation in that FB group where I advertised a toy for sale. 8 women have commented. 4 support me. 3 say he was in the wrong but so was I; they suggest alternate ways I should have cooked/parented/eaten so I could have met his desire for quicker answers, different ways I could have responded so I would not have invited his rudeness. 1 is his wife.

I wrote to his wife that I pray he does not address her the way he addressed me when I displeased him.

I want to write to those other 3 and say “fuck off.” Or I want to write to them and say “I hope you know you are loved and never deserve a man’s wanton rudeness.” But I will do neither. 

I tried very diligently to ignore this. I put my phone in another room and concentrated on my children, focused on their joy and delight as I played and read to them. But this bullshit was behind my eyes, clouding my focus. I watched my kids through fogged glass. 

I am so tired of this bullshit, of random men ignoring my boundaries, the borders of humanity. But fighting it is less exhausting than surrender. I demand better.

where the white people are

Remember all those white faux-hippies from college who smoked tons of pot and really got into the nuances of it? Glass-blown vs. wood vs. metal bowls. Stinky orange buds vs. bright green with bluish crystals. Saying reefer vs. ganga vs. weed. Some of them grew older and landed good jobs that won’t be forgiving if they get arrested. They’re the craft brew nerds shifting America’s beer scene.

Tasting 3 Floyd’s Dark Lord 2017! No idea who that guy behind me is.

I spent the past weekend attending 3 Floyd’s Brewing Company’s Dark Lord Day, an annual release of their Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout. 10,000 tickets are sold to the event that’s part bottle share, part heavy metal concert, half waiting in lines for food/beer/port-a-johns, and all fun. It was my second time attending, hubby’s sixth, and we love it.

At some point early in the day, while I’m letting the sheer force of crowd volume wash over me, I settle with the idea that I’ll be in very close quarters all day. I’m not used to it, and it can feel claustrophobic, so I need to down a good 15% ABV milk stout to make peace with it. And there was a unique flavor this year; I understood that acceptance including being okay with the all-white crowd.

I’m all good with white people, but a decade working in higher education–a world hyper-sensitive to cultivating visibly diverse environments–triggers a natural anxiety born of guilt when I’m in an all-white crowd. You have to also understand that I worked in recruitment communications, meaning I was not only part of the crew tasked with bringing diverse bodies to campus, but I had a hand in crafting the marketing material that showed how the college looked to those prospective audiences. Are there enough brown kids in this brochure’s pictures? Are they brown enough that the casual viewer will notice? Are there too many brown kids in this brochure? We don’t want to mislead people, but we do have enrollment goals to meet.

I kept feeling this guilt long after I left the world of higher education, feeling annoyed when it cropped up to remind me of the neuroses I inherited from the job. I asked myself a lot of questions, processing why I felt it was “bad” for an environment to be all white. If an environment was all black, I would respect that. My academic studies taught me that people in the minority need to spend time with people like themselves, that’s why any kind of successful integration is done in cohorts. So if I’m in an environment that’s all white, is that not my own kind of cohort? Is it okay for white people to have cohorts?

Our educational culture’s obsession with “diversity” initiatives is a noble pursuit, well intentioned but disingenuous. After all, “diversity” is usually a code word for “race,” and the results are measured by a simple accounting of colors in the crowd. Adding some people of minority races doesn’t make a place diverse any more than a rabbi attending church makes Sunday mass an interfaith service.

The trick to overcoming my anxiety is asking myself why the crowd is all white. Is it because people of color would not feel welcomed here? Or is it because this day, this event, this pursuit are just not something of interest to others? To find yourself at Dark Lord Day means you are 1) into microbrews 2) have hundreds of dollars to spend 3) have a desire to spend hundreds of dollars on said microbrews 4) have leisure time 5) want to spend that leisure time on pursuing obscure beer 6) enjoy being drunk, outside, around thousands of awkward strangers. The criteria whittles down to a very specific group of people. Most people of any color wouldn’t like this.

It took 43 minutes after the race started to reach the starting line. Good times.


The weekend before Dark Lord Day, I ran my 3rd half-marathon. The running world, specifically big city races, is also a white space. The world-class level of competition in  long-distance running its dominated by dark-skinned Africans. At the leisure level in America, the sport is mostly white. And as I run through our beautiful cities, I enjoy the spectators who cheer us on, the homemade signs along the way that say things like you’ve been training longer than Kim Kardashian’s been married or run like the cops found your stash or even you run better than the government. But then you run past signs that say hurry up, the Kenyans are winning and it’s not hard to understand why people of color are few and far between.

The whiteness of the running world has bothered me because I think us white people don’t make it a place people of color would want to be. That’s a shame, because running is awesome. You learn a lot about yourself several miles into a long run. Why would we want to keep people from accessing that?

There are some pretty cool initiatives dedicated to diversifying the running world. Black Girls Run is one. The after-school program, Girls on the Run, is another that values diversity and has councils serving young girls across the country in many different neighborhoods.

At this year’s Pittsburgh Half, I noticed an uptick in the diversity of participants. In my starting corral I looked around and thought “Wow, there are a lot of black people here, and that’s awesome!” It surprised me and made me happy, not because the crowd met some imagined quota, but because I don’t want people to feel shut out from things I love.

I was on my own, and I struck up a conversation with a woman of color standing next to me. It was her first half. She was nervous, and running partly because of a health challenge at work but also as a tribute to her mother who passed away the year before. I shared my own reasons for running, also related to my mother, and we wished each other luck. I also explained some of the starts and stops we were experiencing because the race starts in waves, and I know that’s confusing to first-timers. You hear a start gun, move a block, and then have to stop and wait for another 10 minutes. Your adrenaline gets the best of your.

I know that I would have chatted with whoever ended up near me, but I felt a responsibility in this case. I can’t control a whole crowd and ensure everyone feels welcome or has a good time. But I can have an impact in my own little sphere, and that’s what I tried to do. For everyone’s sake.