Monday, March 5, 2012

Change of Address

Sarah's Juniper Tree has moved. Please visit me at:

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Best American Essays 2011 Book Club and Other Bookish Things

This semester's reading list is packed with good lit! I can't wait to read all these books. I'm having a hard time deciding what to read next.

Because I couldn't help myself, I bought every Best American anthology for 2011...Short Stories, Essays, Travel Essays. I also bought Best Spiritual Writing 2012, though I confess I still don't understand the whole dating process.

My good friend and classmate at Vermont College of Fine Arts, John Proctor, has started an online book club for the Best American series, and I am thrilled to be a part of it! I will be partnering with another VCFA grad to facilitate the discussion about The Best Spiritual Writing 2012 in March. You can join in on this month's discussion at Best American Reading Club online. Go and get Best American Essays 2011, editor Robert Atwan, and get reading!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

On Embodiment

(excerpt from an essay I'm currently writing)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about embodiment. By embodiment, I’m speaking about what’s tangible, like skin, bones, flesh, and blood. And there are also things like the trees, of course, and the paper products made from the trees, the lakes and the carp that scavenge the murky bottom for food. I’ve never been a fan of the tangibles. Taste, touch, hear, smell, sound. Mostly, I’ve seen them only as limitations or, at the very most, things that must be survived or tolerated.
            I like ideas, concepts, plans, fantasies, and expectations. I’m a big fan of love and and adventure and spirituality. Spirituality, it’s always seemed to me, is the place beyond the concrete. It’s the untouchable, inexplicable, the magic of life. In all probability, this love of the ineffability of things comes from my religious upbringing, where there was a clear distinction made between things of this world and the things of God.
            I certainly don’t want to make it sound like I’m all spiritual and serious. I’m quite the opposite, really. I’m irreverent and inappropriate, and my butt crack hangs out the back of my pants way too often. It’s a problem. The lowrise-pant cut helps my figure, since I’m high-waisted and look like a spider in pants that come up too high, but really it is disastrous when I bend over. But, that kind of makes my point: God, way up over there. Sadly, me and my butt crack, right here. To me, God and butt-cracks seem vastly incongruent. 

Monday, November 7, 2011

October Reading List a la Nick Hornby

Books bought: 

  1. Best American Short Stories 2011
  2. Best American Essays 2011
  3. Best American Spiritual Writing 2012 (which, to be honest, confuses me since how can it be possible that someone wrote the best spiritual essays in 2012 when no one has gotten the chance to actually write one since 2012 hasn't actually happened yet? it seems rigged or something. or metaphysical. like there's some tesser or something only spiritual essay writers know about.)
  4. How to read slowly
  5. Celeb cause by Helen Fielding 
  6. Friend of my youth by Alice Munro
  7. A son of the circus by John Irving
  8. The Mediator by Meg Cabot

Books read:

  1. Selected Short Stories by Flannery O'Connor (5 stars, of course)
  2. The Situation and the Story (4 stars...great resource for narrative nonfiction)
  3. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin (so far, so good!)
  4. The first three chapters of The Hunger Games because I couldn't find Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, which was hiding under the couch. 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

"There and Back Again" Published on Art House America Blog

There and Back Again

In 2003 my husband and I decided to move up north with our three-year-old so that Dave could attend seminary. We left our small Americana town committed to a new idea of living in an urban setting. We felt that we would die of boredom if we stayed in Franklin, Tennessee. How could our lives have any eternal significance in a place of such homogeny and affluence? Finally, we were on our way to living The Life we’d always fantasized about. The city, any city that was charmingly distressed, was the only appropriate setting to live a life worthy of Oprah, er, Christ — feeding the homeless, advocating for social justice, living out the Biblical call to love the poor. We had boundless energy, and a life in the city seemed just the place to expend it.
We hammered down our roots through the concrete and tried to make Philadelphia our home. We sold our second car, purchased bicycles, and applied for food stamps. I relished in the multiculturalism and the three thousand or more murals covering the city walls. Themes of courage, personal renaissance, and heritage emanated through the broken walls of this city that would one day be restored.    

Photo: Sarah Braud
But daily living in the city was harder than I expected. I was in a foreign culture with no one to translate for me. I eavesdropped on conversations at the park and tried to fit in. Women with names like Maureen and Kathleen stood on the sidelines — their arms crossed — while their daughters took turns batting. Their faces were weathered and their hair limp and I wondered why they hated me. My hellos were viewed with hostile skepticism. I finally learned to keep smiles to myself. After months of assimilation, I ascertained that imposing my cheery greetings on others was culturally inappropriate.
Read the rest of "There and Back Again" at Art House America Blog

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Southern Women's Response to The Help

After reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett, I declared it Book of The Year (of course, until I read The Hunger Games).  In my humble opinion, it had everything: an engaging plot filled with tension, a setting that breathed with authenticity, everything I love about Southern lit, and characters I wanted to befriend. The characters! They were so alive! I resonated with Skeeter’s battle with society’s expectations on her. I admired Minny’s fierce self-assurance and sassy tongue. My heart broke for Celia’s struggle with infertility and society’s rejection of her for being white trash. I wept over Johnny’s love for his wife in spite of it. I cheered when Hilly ate shit. I wanted approval from Aibileen, a woman who’s standard for character was something I could only aspire to. Most of all, after reading The Help, I wanted someone to press their thumb into my palm—like Constantine did for Skeeter—and remind me who I am.

However, and this is a big however, the further I got from reading the book, the more a tension inside me grew. I began to feel that embarrassing recognition that I had maybe recommended the book a little too loudly (You know, like the shame I felt after having told everyone that Titanic was the best movie I’d ever seen. — Don’t deny it. You said the same thing.) Maybe, I worried, that once others read it, they may have some critical things to say about it. Whatever others thought of it, I now had the metaphorical pebble in my shoe. Something was making me uncomfortable. The pebble turned quickly into a sizable rock, then crumbled into some sharp gravel and now, it just won’t stop grating on my brain: When will our society finally get over our White Savior Complex?

Okay, so I am the girl that named her son after a literary American hero— the ultimate white savior—Atticus Finch. But, we live in different times. What does the American hero look like NOW? Who is fighting injustice NOW? Who is standing up for those who can’t speak NOW? And what color is she? I don’t know about you, but I am worn down with the  “White lady saves the poor, helpless black person” story. Dangerous Minds, The Blind Side, and now The Help. It’s played. (Watch this!) Hear me: I liked the movies, but let’s grow. Let's recognize why this storyline is offensive to others, particularly when it is the only version told.  Let’s move past the paternalistic adolescence we have been stuck in. Please, will someone write a story with a black hero that doesn’t take place in the ghetto, a check-cashing store or a barbershop? And, if you do, can someone cast a lead other than Will Smith? At the very least for the sake of variety!  

That said, after having watched the movie, my thoughts and a conversation I had led me in a different direction. I went to see the movie with five other women. Three white women and three black women. Our conversation was so much less about critiquing the film/book and more about what thoughts the images and story provoked. To be entirely honest, I was very surprised by the black women's response

Harmonie, Jennetta, Alena, Katie, Kathy and Me (not pictured).
After the movie, we wanted to have drinks and discuss the film, but in Franklin there aren’t any places open after 11pm, so we copped a squat on a grassy patch in the parking lot under some cherry trees and talked until the hard ground under our butts pushed us to get into our cars and head home. As a police cruiser drove slowly by us through the empty parking lot, one of the black women, gesturing to us white girls said, “I’m so glad we are with y’all.”

Five of the women were Southern, born and bred, and one was raised up North, but has lived in the South for all of her adult life. The conversation that happened after the movie was one of the richest I have had in awhile. 

Allena is the biggest anglophile I know. She wears pearls everywhere she goes. She takes tea every afternoon. She wants to be British. Before children, she was a pharmaceutical sales rep and has high aspirations for a political career. She is the most with-it mother I know and puts me to shame. She's also black and kills any chance to be stereotyped. (And none of it is by accident.) Allena wears her business suit everywhere she goes so that she will not be discriminated against because of her color. Has she been discriminated against? Oh, she's got some stories! She loved The Help. She told us that this was one of the first times she's ever seen a full-character portrait depicted of black women from the Jim Crow era. She didn't care about the paternalism, the lack of more nitty gritty racial injustice that would make it more authentic, the colloquial speech that made Abileen seem simple. She was just so happy to see women from that time period as real people. The only book that she's read that has done it better is The Warmth of Other Suns. Maybe women up North may not think The Help is an authentic portrayal, but Allena thinks it was about as authentic as she's seen. The Great Migration took her family to DC. They were looking for an escape from the blatant racism of the South, but she said the North, for many black families, turned out to just be a kinder mistress. 

Kathy is a white woman who I met for the first time last night. She grew up during the civil rights movement. "I had Jerri," she said." I lived Jim Crow." Jerri cleaned house and made dinner everyday. When Kathy was sick, Jerri would pick her up from school and take her to the doctor. "My mama didn't. Jerri did." Kathy said that even to this day she knows that Jerri loved her and her sisters, but also knows and understands why Jerri's children did not. Kathy told us about the race riots that happened the first week of classes at the high school. They had just desegregated and the black and white schools merged, adopting the white school's name, mascot and colors. The first pep rally inaugurated the school with an all white cheerleading squad. The black students protested by standing up during the pep rally, fists pumped to the sky, and walked out.

Jenn is a thirty-something black mother from Kentucky. "That was my aunts," she said referring to the help. "My grandmother. They were all The Help." Her aunts and grandmother did not want Jenn's mother stifled in the small town.  So when the opportunity for her to go to cosmetology school and move to a more metropolitan city in the state, they encouraged her to leave her son with with them so that she would have a "chance".  During the summers Jenn would visit her grandmother (retired at the time) and her aunt who stilled cleaned houses and helped raise white children.  Jenn never knew what it was like for them; "They never shared the details of their days.  Of course, who would want to?  I was never allowed to go, even if I was sick.  My aunt would come home after working all day, cook us all dinner, and then she'd fall asleep over her plate of food.  I just remember her being so tired!!" She continued, "As I was watching the movie, something clicked in my head.  As Abileen was telling Mae Mobley, "You is kind. You is intelligent.  You is important", who is telling all the children of "the help" these things when they are so tired they can't see straight when they got home?  Could this be a factor in the breakdown of the African American family? It was very hard to hear how "the help" raised white children, and then their own children and then had to keep up with their own households, as well.  This meant there were generations of stable households in many white families.  What was going on in their homes?  Hmmm...makes you wonder.....

Katie is a thirty-something white woman raised in Pennsylvania. She has lived all her adult life in the South and seeks to right any injustices she sees, but generally focuses on those she sees in her local churches and schools. Katie is the most prolific reader I know. She reads it all. Chick-lit to historical nonfiction. The girl is a sponge with a sharp mind and even sharper tongue. She loved the book more than the movie, of course. There were too many complex issues the movie didn't even address that were portrayed in the book. The injustice done to Constantine needed to be in there, Katie thought. She brought up that while the racism against blacks in Franklin is still very much alive, the fear of immigrants in the public schools is the most blatant form of racism she witnesses on a daily basis. White families are rushing to get their kids out of the increasingly diverse public schools, taking with them funding and single-income families that can afford to have one parent volunteer at school. "We don't like what we don't know," Katie said. "Our nature is to always be ready to ostracize."

Harmonie is a new Franklin resident. She was born and raised in Memphis and told us that at 32, this is the first year of her life she's ever been in a white person's home.  Harmonie was quiet during most of our discussion, but  shared with us what was going through her mind. "What I was thinking about during the movie is something I have always struggled with. My grandmother picked cotton, but I don't know anything about my family previous to my grandmother's mother. Three generations back there were slaves in my family, but I don't know much else. I wish I knew more. I do remember my Grandma would call white people 'white folk,' like in the movie. I don't have history." Harmonie graduated with a high GPA from high school and was encouraged to attend college by the school counselor. Harmonie had no framework for why that was even a good option. So, instead of college, she went to hair school. But, at age 25, she finally enrolled. Her first semester on campus, at The University of Memphis, she returned to her car and found a note tucked underneath her windshield wiper. The note said, "I hate you people. Don't ever park next to my car again." Harmonie held her breath after sharing that story and it made me wonder if she'd ever told it to a white person before. 

 I felt so honored to have these women share their stories with me. If movies like The Help spur Southern women, white and black, to tell their stories, I will go see them. The women I saw the movie with weren't offended by the simplistic portrayal of Aibileen's character. "You is kind. You is good. You is intelligent," did not disturb my friends. They knew Aibileen's wisdom was coming from a deep place. Of course, I still think it is appropriate to think critically about what it says about our society that movies like The Help are being made or, probably more importantly, why there aren't more movies/books written by minorities about their experience.  Do I want to see more movies made that cast women and men of color as full-bodied, intelligent, complex, authentic leads and heros? Do I want to live in a world that gives everyone equal access to an audience that wants to hear their stories? I think movies like The Help remind us that the relationship between races still has a long way to go. Mostly, for me, it has made me question to whose stories and voices do I listen? 

To read more responses to The Help, check out this blog's collection of responses to The Help.  Pretty amazing how varying, and heavy hitting, the critiques are!

Monday, April 18, 2011

First BiMonthly "Diagnose Me" Contest

Hypochondriacs live a fulfilling and rich life. Fantasies are good for the creative mind. Fantasizing about disease and death create neural pathways that connect the left-brain (more analytic side) and the right-brain (the creative side). Hypochondriacs, by in large, have a higher intelligence quotient than non-hypochondriacs. Though this information is not researched, it is proven by the opinions and anecdotal evidence of my hypochondriac sister, mother and myself.

In light of this evidence, I thought we could all participate in a brain-stimulating activity that is good for all of our health. The Diagnose Me contest will begin with a few symptoms, and will add symptoms as they arise. Your job will be to guess the corresponding illness. The worse the diagnosis, the higher your points. The correct diagnosis, however, wins. (The rationale behind the scoring need not be explained and might only be understood by those of equal or greater intelligence than the judge.)

Caveat 1: Self-Diagnostics is a medical craft that can only be certified by an accredited foundation. However, lay practice can never hurt.

Here is your first challenge:

Patient: Dave
Profile: 38 year old, male. Married. Father of Two. Photographer. Technical Writer.
Symptoms: Numb foot for two days. Tingling hand. Both right side of body.
Potential causes: Tick bite, one week prior to onset of symptoms.

Diagnose Me!

Leave your diagnoses in the comment box. Winner will be declared after Dave consults a licensed physician. 

Friday, April 8, 2011

Confessions of a Failed Track Star

My mother, after I won a blue ribbon at Brockett Elementary's Field Day mile run event, decided to sign me up for the Atlanta Coca~Cola's Children's Road Race. The race was a month away and my mom began my training regimen. After school, I had to complete three laps around my block. Neither of us were sure of the distance, but she guesstimated it was close to a mile. She'd time me every day, sometimes standing on the front lawn with a stop watch, sometimes she'd glance at the stove clock and guesstimate that I was slower that time.

On race day, as she drove me down interstate 85 toward Peachtree Road, my mother had one piece of coaching advice: "Stay in third place. Then, in the last stretch, make a break for it." I stored her advice in a bubble in my chest. The bubble swelled under her tutelage. She believed in me. I believed in me. I just knew I was going to win.

We exited the freeway and followed signs to parking, driving slowly past crowds of pedestrians in running attire. We were flagged into a crammed parking lot by men in t-shirts and sandals, smocked in bright orange vests.  "You'll need to hurry," they shouted as we got out of the car. "They are about to start.

Mom and I scurried to the sign in table. I pulled on my Real Coke shirt and Mom quickly pinned on my race number.  We could see the starting line banner a few blocks up and began pushing through the crowd. About a block from the starting line, we heard a gun shot and the crowd around us jolted into a collective stampede. I was in the race. My mom was in the race. We were jostled around until we crossed the starting line and I, apparently was in third place. Third from last place, that is. All clad in red t-shirts, we swarmed down the street and I was simply one among thousands.

My dreams of breaking the finish-line tape floated away. The bubble inside my chest didn't pop, but simply deflated to a soapy film. Oh well, I thought, at least I got this cool t-shirt. My life as a track star was over. My mother retired her position as coach as well. We never mentioned the race again and when I went to high school, I tried out for drill team. Mom didn't attempt to give me any pointers. I was on my own. And I was okay with that.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Unnecessary Quotations

I just can't handle unnecessary quotations. Few things peeve me more than this heinous grammatical crime. This sign actually caused a bowel movement. But, my view of humanity was restored when I saw that one costumer mocked the sign with her own mandate: Please clean bathroom! -customer.  Unfortunately, she leaves me with an itchy brain by not completely the mocking by adding unnecessary quotes around "clean." Please, if you plan on mocking a sign with unnecessary quotations, please, "FINISH" the job! - Management.

For those of you willing to admit that you, like the sad sack who wrote this sign, have the same offensive problem with grammar, please take advantage of this pocket-sized resource available at your local