One Year of Self-Publishing

Update: My friend Greg Bales reminds me that you don’t need an agent to get a good editor. NB: He’s a great editor!

graph of sales of night sweats

One year ago today, my self-published memoir went out into the world. Since then, it’s been purchased by 515 people or entities (60+ of those are libraries). Since I published it really just so that family and friends could get copies, I’m rather stunned and flattered.

I have done very little to promote the book but have been fortunate to have several strokes of very good luck, as you can see from the graph above. There was an initial rush when I first put the book out and my friends and family and the first few libraries bought it, and then, as you would expect, there was a rapid downward trend. The next two spikes on the graph are the result of Will Manley’s column in Booklist and my piece in the New York Times. I still have no idea how Manley heard about the book (although I know many of the people who have written reviews of it, he is not one of them), nor do I have any insight into how to get one’s writing accepted for publication, other than the usual chestnuts of reading the publications you submit to and then submitting writing to them.

Those 515 sales represent 312 print books and 203 ebooks. The only piece of advice I can offer about selling books, at least based on my numbers, is that it’s useful to have your book available through Amazon, in whatever format.

pie chart of ebook sales pie chart of print salesIt is ridiculously easy to buy things through Amazon, and it’s apparently (or so I am told; I’ve only ever purchased one) especially ridiculously easy to purchase Kindle books. My sales numbers would seem to bear that out. A few people purchased the epub through Lulu, and an even smaller number apparently bought it through the Nook store, but Amazon’s Kindle store is by far the big winner.

In print, the book was initially only available through Lulu. It took a few months for it to get to Amazon, and Lulu only began offering distribution to Ingram a few months ago. It’s possible that the Ingram sales might be larger had that option been available earlier, but, again, I’m guessing Amazon would still take the cake.

I would not recommend self-publishing if you want to get rich. Then again, I’m pretty sure no one really recommends traditional publishing as a way to get rich, either. Very few people, relatively speaking, make a living from writing books. I was all on fire about self-publishing (or perhaps I was all defensive about self-publishing) when I started out on this adventure. I look at my book now and realize it could have benefited from further editing. But I lacked both the patience and the courage to pursue an agent — if I hadn’t hit Publish the day I did, I’m pretty sure it would not have happened at all.

I enjoyed the process of putting it together. I like learning things, and, as it turns out, I enjoy typesetting and copyfitting. I have Walt Crawford’s excellent book The Librarian’s Guide to Micropublishing to thank for everything I know about doing that. I’ve enjoyed being able to send some money to Our Bodies, Ourselves, and of course I have not been opposed to earning some money myself. Money is not everything, but it is very, very helpful. And I remain proud of the little book I produced, despite its flaws, or maybe even because of them. It is, as it was always intended to be, a document of a very particular time in my life, a time that was, as Euripides once wrote of the powers of the gods, most terrible and most wonderful. Thank you to everyone who has shared it with me.

An Open Letter to W. Bradford Wilcox, Robin Fretwell Wilson, and the Editors of the Washington Post

Dear Mr. Wilcox, Mrs. Fretwell, and Editors:

I am writing to ask for your advice on how I might go about getting married. I’ve just learned that, as an unmarried woman, I’m at increased–one might say terrible–risk for sexual assault. Since I’m also the mother of a small child, I’d like to make sure I minimize the risks to myself, and to my child, as quickly as possible, and according to your op-ed of June 10, the best way for me to do that would be to get married. The subheadline even proclaims that “#yesallwomen would be safer with fewer boyfriends around their kids.” [Note: the original subheadline actually read “the data show that #yesallwomen would be safer hitched to their baby daddies.”]

Clearly you have the data on your side. Indeed, you’ve convinced me with your links that not only am I unsafe as an unmarried woman; my child is at risk, too. I’d like to end that situation for both of us as soon as possible, but I have one problem: how do I go about getting married?

Let us set the stage here a bit. I’m a 38-year-old heterosexual* white female with two masters degrees. I live in a community with excellent schools and a low crime rate. People tend to assume I’m married. Just this morning the dental hygienist asked what my husband did. A medical assistant once asked me if she could just put husband on her form, because my situation sounded “too complicated.” (I assume “baby daddy” was not in her drop-down menu.) My child’s father and I are friends but we do not live together and we never have, and we have never married.

I suppose the obvious answer might be that I should marry him, since we have a child and we get along, but, you see, I’ve asked him if he wants to get married, and he said no, so that’s out. As a WASP (well, mostly–there’s Native American blood on my father’s side and Jewish blood on my mother’s), I wasn’t raised in a culture that does arranged marriages, so I’m not in a position to ask my parents to find a husband for me. (Actually, my mother would also like your advice on how to get married in order to protect herself. She was widowed 33 years ago and thus also raised me mostly as a single mother.)

The obvious answer to my problem would seem to be that I should date, but I’m concerned about that, because it sounds as though having a boyfriend would create enormous risk for both my child and me. The report you quote notes that “only 0.7 per 1,000 children living with two married biological parents were sexually abused, compared to 12.1 per 1,000 children living with a single parent who had an unmarried partner.”

So I’m stymied, and I’m asking for your advice. How do I find a husband without first finding a boyfriend? Should I have accepted the one proposal of marriage that I did once receive, from a man outside the Omaha, Nebraska Greyhound station when I was nineteen? He approached and asked me if I was married, if I spoke English, and if I would like to get married. I said no and yes and no. Was that the wrong thing to say?

I would very much appreciate any assistance you might give. With a toddler and a full-time job, I don’t have a lot of time to date anyway, and clearly if I could just skip that step and go right to getting married, we’d all be better off. (At least I think so–your studies don’t seem to indicate what the risk factors are for a child living in a home with a nonbiological parent that their biological parent is married to, only those for when the parent in question is living with someone they aren’t married to.) Or, of course, I could just go on being single. It seems to have worked for us so far, but I hadn’t been aware before of the terrible dangers I was facing.

I understand that you have busy jobs and lives yourselves, but if you could help me out here, I would be be forever in your debt.

Sincerely,
Laura Crossett
*For the sake of brevity, I’m not even addressing here what the situation might be for unmarried homosexual, bisexual, or transgender women, many of whom do not have the option of getting married even if they have a partner and would like to do so.

Welcome, NYT Readers!

If you’re here today it’s possible you came via this piece I wrote about mourning pregnancy. Now that you’re here, you might like to look around. Here are a few of my past favorite posts:

Thanks so much for stopping by!

Night Sweats on March 8 at New Bo Books

Laura poses with a copy of her book Night Sweats and the Library of Congress Subject HeadingsI took this series of selfies with my book and the Library of Congress Subject Headings by way of self-indulgence (and to show off my white hair) and to promote my reading tomorrow at the fabulous New Bo Books in Cedar Rapids.

That’s Saturday, March 8 at 2 pm! Be there to hear me read from Night Sweats, to buy some books, and to check out the artsy-fartsy section of Cedar Rapids, Iowa (really, there is one).

They’re doing a whole March is for Memoirs series with a lot of great events, so you should check those out, too.

I’d Rather Be Smart: A Review of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In

book cover of How to Work for a Woman Boss
Possibly the worst awful library book out there, happily now gone from our collection.
Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is a book written by a privileged white lady for other privileged white ladies, and most of the criticism of it — much of which I agree with — is based on that limitation. I needn’t rehash it here. It did dawn on me, though, while listening to her book (as read by Elisa Donavan), that if I were going to dismiss books by privileged white ladies written for other privileged white ladies, I would also really have to dismiss A Room of One’s Own, which was, after all, based on talks Virginia Woolf gave to the early 20th century British equivalent to the graduating class at Barnard (which Sandberg addressed in 2011). Thinking about that leads to all kinds of places I don’t really want to go, along the lines of I should just shut the hell up because I am just another goddamned privileged white lady talking. That’s a worthwhile pursuit, to an extent, in that it’ s important to consider what one might do (or not do) to increase the diversity of the voices that we hear. Unfortunately for me it usually ends not with me coming up with radical new plans for myself and society but rather with me thinking I should probably either kill myself or quit my job to do something more demeaning or ennobling, or both.

So instead I’ll say that I decided to approach the book both as a laugh (because really, it is kind of funny to hear a near-billionaire discuss her difficulties with having it all) and with at least the possibility of an open mind. And I was down with that for quite awhile. I was grooving on all the statistics she and her research team dug up on all the ways that women are dismissed and overlooked professionally, a few of which were even new to me. I was even kind of digging her attempts at humor (doubtless aided by her cowriter, Nell Scovell). Then I got to the part of the book where she’s discussing high school and how she was known as the smartest girl in the class, and “who wants to go to the prom with the smartest girl in the class?” And then I knew for certain that Sheryl Sandberg and I are and always have been engaged in fundamentally different projects.

I didn’t want to be the smartest girl in the class. I wanted to be the smartest person in the class. I still have and treasure a geometry test on which I got the highest score and, if I recall correctly, the only A. I beat my friend Aaron (who now works at Microsoft). I was pleased as all get out that my thrown-together the night before term paper for German class got an A+ when the smartest guy in the class, who had actually worked on his paper, only got an A. I was properly miffed when an English teacher commented that my paper was good but probably too out of reach for the seminar audience of high school students for whom it was intended.

So yeah, I wanted to be smart. And I didn’t aspire to go to prom. I wanted to end the war (the “first” Gulf War took place my freshman year of college). I wanted to keep Operation Rescue out of my town (they visited my sophomore year) and out of everyone’s town. I wanted to learn more and do more and go more places, on the Greyhound, if that’s what it took.

Sheryl Sandberg wanted — and wants — to change the world, too, and it’s undoubtedly true that her work with the US Treasury, Google, and Facebook has changed the world far more than I ever have or will — for better and for worse.

I suppose ultimately my objections to the book aren’t that it offers bad advice (it doesn’t) or that its facts aren’t good (they are). It’s that it’s shallow. A world that she envisions — one where half of companies and governments are run by women and half of households are run by men — will still be one with rampant poverty, disease, and homelessness. I don’t think that having women in charge of governments will change the unemployment rate or make transgender youth feel safer in their homes and their communities. It could do a lot of good. I would love to see better maternity care, from pregnancy parking for everyone (not just senior executives) to affordable prenatal care for all, and I do think those things are more likely to be enacted by women.

Susan Brownmiller’s In Our Time includes, as I recall, several passages describing the main ongoing argument in her corner of the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s and 70s — is the problem men or capitalism? — and I suppose as I read what I’ve written here that I am coming down on the side of capitalism. That’s not surprising. It was also in high school that I began to think it was the worst economic system out there (aside, of course, from all the other ones that have been tried). I still think that, and I’d like to see something better come along, though I’m not sure what that is yet.

As I was listening to the book, I kept thinking, “Oh, that, I have to write about that,” where that was yet another example of privileging the prom over, I don’t know, authenticity and revolution. I’ve forgotten what all those instances were now, of course, because I listened to the book in bits and snatches in my car only at times when I wasn’t driving my toddler around, since then we have to listen to the Beatles. They sing about how you ain’t gonna make it with anyone carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, and I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with that song. I’m not in favor of destruction, but I’m not at all sure it’s going to be all right. Sheryl Sandberg has a lot to say about how you are and aren’t going to make it, too. She probably is right, but I don’t want her to be.

The Beatles, 24 Years Later

I didn’t hear the Beatles until I was fourteen. This seems unbelievable, since I grew up in the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century, but, barring singing “Octopus’s Garden” in elementary school, it is true.

I heard them for the first time on a tape that a girl I was staying with was playing over and over again. I no longer remember who she was, only that I was staying with her and her mother for a few days because my mother was traveling for work. The girl was my age and got all her clothes from a store at the mall that sold all sorts of basic (for the late 1980s) garments in cotton knit mix-and-match colors, so you could get leggings and miniskirts and unisex tshirts and so on and just throw any of them together and they’d look good. I thought it was odd and appalling at the time, although I now wish I had access to such a store. Anyway. Her wardrobe is irrelevant: the point was she had this tape, and it had “Love Me Do” and “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “All My Loving” and all the other songs expressly written for teenaged girls, even the ones who would never be described as teenyboppers. She played it a lot, though not enough for my taste, and then I had to go home. I didn’t hear the Beatles again till a year later, when we moved back to Iowa City and I could go to the Iowa City Public Library and grab a stack of records (real LPs back then, still) and sit for hours at a turntable with a pair of old plastic headphones and listen and listen and listen.

Before the Beatles I had two tapes. One was a copy of Paul Simon’s Graceland that I borrowed or stole from my grandmother. The other was a tape I had made of songs from LPs of my mother’s — songs from A Prairie Home Companion record, and Woody Guthrie songs, and songs from Judy Collins’s third album, where she has short hair and is wearing very blue eyeshadow and singing “Masters of War.” I listened to those tapes every night. I didn’t know about college radio, which I would have loved. I had heard only NPR and snatches of whatever top 40 stations my classmates listened to, stations that played “Red Red Wine” and “Groovy Kind of Love” every morning for weeks in a row. I hated that crap. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but when I heard the Beatles, I thought I’d found it.

It was not easy in the early 1990s to listen to any music you wanted. You had to buy it, or get someone to dub it for you, and in order to do that, of course, you had to know what it was. By then I had discovered college radio, and I still have mix tapes that include things like “Some Song I Recorded Off the Radio in ‘92.” I didn’t have much money, and I didn’t know anyone who owned Beatles albums, and so I listened to them by going to the public library. I started with the early stuff, as you do, and then I moved on, as you do. But it felt subversive and dangerous and secret, sitting there in that carrel and copying out all the lyrics to “A Day in the Life” or “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” thinking about the Fool on the hill and wondering if I’d ever have an apartment where I could tell a guy to go sleep in the bath.

I never stopped listening to the Beatles, even after I stopped spending all my spare time in that library carrel. Eventually I had money and friends, and I bought and dubbed albums. I saw A Hard Day’s Night for the first time in college, and from then on every time that group of us ran across a field, we’d sing “Can’t Buy Me Love.” I drove around suburban New Jersey late at night with a friend listening to The White Album, “Happiness is a Warm Gun” playing at full blast and both of us just anticipating those chords that mark the chorus and just living them, speeding down a dark road and then waiting in the driveway because it was too good to turn off.

But I never listened as much, or as frequently, or as often as I did those first few years until now. And now I listen, oddly enough, because of a two-year-old and a five-year-old. The two-year-old is my son; the five-year-old is his half brother, and the Beatles are their favorite band. My son wakes up the in the morning, walks to the stereo, points, and says, “Beebles!” until I turn on Help! On Sundays when we’re all together, we watch A Hard Day’s Night and look for live performances on YouTube. There are a stunning number. When “Tomorrow Never Knows” starts playing and John starts singing “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream / Turn off all thoughts, surrender to the void,” the five-year-old says, “This is a song about chilling out and relaxing,” and we, the grown ups look at each other in a freaked out way and then say, “Yes, this is a song about chilling out and relaxing.”

It’s stunning to watch them. Like me at fourteen, they have no concept of the Beatles as THE BEATLES. They aren’t a cultural signifier or a famous band to my son: they are just a thing that he loves, unreservedly. They sing and he dances and I sing and I think how strangely my life has turned out, how I live in the same town and even go to the same library, though it’s been rebuilt and isn’t the same any more, and how I had so many of the experiences I dreamed of back when I was a teenager sitting in that carrel, and how now I’m having experiences I never would have dreamed of then, backed by the same sound track. Let me take you down. I’d love to turn you on. All you need is love. Love is all you need.

Thanks, Birth Control?

Like, I suspect, many women (and I hope a few men), I have a complicated relationship with birth control. Specifically mine is complicated because I spent $500 out of pocket on an extremely reliable method (0.2 percent failure rate, according to the CDC) that failed. I chose to have that baby, and now I have a wonderful toddler. But I still give money to the National Network for Abortion Funds when I have the chance. And I still wish, more than anything, that I could redistribute fertility, and grant some of mine — if not all of it — to those who struggle.

Today I learned from Bitch that it’s National Thank Birth Control Day, and my feelings were, as usual, mixed. A friend said I ought to post, just to be on the record, so I made this tweet:

I have a great toddler. #thxBirthControl Of course, I also had a great run before my birth control failure.

— Laura Crossett (@newrambler) November 12, 2013

Then I mentioned it to my mother, who wondered if Big Pharma was behind the whole thing. I’m a librarian, and, after smacking my forehead for not checking into this first thing, I did a little digging. The answer? No, Big Pharma is not behind this. But the organization that is gives me a little pause. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy states in their mission that they hope, “in particular, to help ensure that children are born into stable, two-parent families.”

Almost half of pregnancies are unplanned. 10 million American women — 12 percent of all households (not just those with children) are single mothers to children under 18. [Table 4] It may be admirable to want to change those statistics. But it does nothing for the real lives of the women already living in them. It does not feed, shelter, or clothe them. It does not (though thankfully the Affordable Care Act does) provide them with affordable contraception. It does not make them feel less ashamed, guilty, or afraid.

Ironically, it was also today that I came across an article about the closing of the Florence Crittenton home in Lexington, Kentucky shutting its doors. That home, and the many others like it, were where girls were “sent away” in the days before readily available birth control and before Roe v. Wade — the days when being pregnant and unmarried was shameful, something hidden, sometimes even from your own siblings. (The comments on my post about the home on MetaFilter have yet more stories.)

I was 35 years old when I got pregnant unexpectedly. I had a good job and enough money to buy a house, which I did. I had the support of my family and friends and the baby’s father. And that pregnancy was still the hardest and most horrible time I have ever been through. I support easy access to birth control and to abortion, and I work for both those things. But what I wish, more than anything, is that we could stop with slogans and start with conversations, conversations about how frightening, and difficult, and sometimes unstoppable, our lives really are.

Discussion Questions for Night Sweats: An Unexpected Pregnancy

A group recently decided to read my book Night Sweats together and asked me to send along some questions for their discussion. It’s a bit awkward to write discussion questions for your own book, so I put my clever (and occasionally obnoxious) friends on the internet up to the task. Here’s what they came up with. Use at your pleasure and/or peril.

  • What anxieties did you have/do you have about becoming a parent (or choosing not to)?
  • How might this book be relevant to all women, not just ones who are pregnant?
  • Talk about the narrator’s relationships with other people in the book. Why do you think she chose to make the baby’s father mostly absent from the narrative?
  • How has ready access to contraception changed women’s lives, family dynamics, and societal expectations? How has it not changed them?
  • How do we, presuming we are contraception users, balance the assurance of not conceiving against the known failure of all contraceptives sometimes?
  • What would you have done in the narrator’s position? What makes your choices different or the same?
  • Did it surprise you to learn that almost half of pregnancies are unintended?
  • Did this book change your mind about anything? If so, what, and why?
  • People expect pregnancy to be all joyful anticipation. What feelings do you have about pregnancy and parenthood that you feel aren’t acceptable to express?
  • The narrator structures her book around the church year. What role does religion play in her life and in the book? Did her faith add to or detract from your reading of the book?
  • What are your thoughts on pregnancy as it intersects with mental health and mental health care?
  • Does this book have anything to say to men?
  • What subject headings would you assign to this book?
  • How do you feel about “Pregnancy, Unwanted” as the Library of Congress’s description of unplanned pregnancy?
  • What should the IUD company have brought to Laura’s baby shower?
  • What kind of birth control are you using and how much do you trust it after reading this book?

Working on a Dream

Peanut butter sandwiches on raisin bread, and grapes. That’s what Hilda packed for me for lunch on August 28, 1993, after feeding me a breakfast of eggs and toast and scrapple. “This is what I packed for them back in ’63,” she said, “because it would spoil on the bus, and they couldn’t stop at restaurants.”

Hilda was the mother of my mother’s best friend from high school, Rachel, who had ridden a bus from Chicago with an integrated group to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. That’s why they couldn’t stop at restaurants, of course: few if any would have seated a mixed-race group in 1963. Their high school had its prom at a fancy hotel downtown that year, because no place in the suburbs would accept interracial couples.

I was staying overnight with Hilda, who by then lived in Washington, DC, near the National Zoo, the night before the 30th anniversary of that march, whose 50th anniversary was today. The next day I’d meet up with my best friend and then ride home on a bus that was half International Socialist Organization, half NAACP. A few days later we started our senior year of high school, wearing our tshirts from the march, as Rachel had gone back to start her senior year of high school from the original one (where, I must admit, I doubt they sold tshirts). I had been out east with my mother visiting colleges, the very sorts of colleges that many of the white civil rights volunteers in the South in the 1960s attended, the sort that I myself attended a year later. We ended our trip at Swarthmore, and then my mother put me on a train from Philadelphia to DC, where Hilda met me at the station. That night I started reading a copy of A Prayer for Owen Meany that was in her guest room, though I still haven’t finished it. The next morning I took the subway to the Mall and met up with my friend near the Washington Monument.

I remember very little about that day because it was very, very hot. It was the kind of heat we had today in the Midwest, only multiplied by tens of thousands of bodies surrounding the Reflecting Pool and the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where so many people got  up to speak that day and where so many of my heroes had spoken before. I know that Rosa Parks spoke, but I do not remember what she said. Mostly I remember an endless search for people selling water, in tiny six-ounce bottles for $2 each, highway robbery for water in 1993, but it seemed I could never get enough to drink. And I remember the seas of people in colored tshirts, like slices of a pie chart. There was the NAACP in one color, then the AFL-CIO in another, then some smaller union or state delegation in a third and a fourth and a fifth. I remember the tshirt vendors and wish to this day I’d bought the better looking $10 tshirt, which was white on black, instead of the cheaper $5 one, which was white with yellow and blue lettering. And I remember that on the bus ride home, our first stop was at a strip mall pizza joint outside district, a place where we were so rambunctious from exhaustion and dehydration that we left a tip for nearly fifty percent of the cost of our meal by way of apology.

It was, in short, the sort of experience you go to not so much because of the experience itself but so that you can say that you were there. I wore my tshirt back to school with pride, though no one seemed much impressed. But I was impressed. I had been there. I had been there with my best friend, who had been to the 20th anniversary with her mother when she was seven. I had stayed the night with the mother of my mother’s best friend, who was there for the big deal, the real thing, in living memory. I was there.

Later I would read about the problems with the March — how a lot of the SNCC kids hadn’t even wanted to go, how John Lewis’s speech had been censored (or toned down, depending on your point of view) so it was less critical of Kennedy, how a lot of the real activists thought it was just a big show. I got a bit cynical myself. I’d been to a few other marches on Washington, and after awhile they all start to seem the same. Take the bus (or drive, in my later, more decadent years) for twenty-four hours, get out and protest for eight hours, get back on the bus. Listen to a lot of people speak for three minutes each. See the event get no news coverage whatsoever, except perhaps for a picture of a guy on stilts (“why do they always take a picture of the guy on stilts?” my late friend Meg would say) or a giant puppet.

Later still I’d be in Wyoming watching the inauguration of Barack Obama in a school cafeteria, where it was being shown under duress. I stood in the back and cried, knowing that no matter what a disappointment Obama already was, or what a disappointment he would prove to be, that there was something miraculous about this, something to take note of. My friend Tim said some years previously that he assumed we’d have a black man as president before we had a woman, but that he’d probably be a Republican. I thought that was probably true but that it wouldn’t happen in our lifetime, and yet there was a black man being inaugurated. There was Aretha Franklin singing. There it all was, streaming through on a TV in a room full of tense white people, and me, crying.

Today I had the 50th anniversary of that great March on Washington streaming on the second monitor in my office, though I only got to watch bits and pieces of it. The other day in the car I broke down in tears listening to bits from John Lewis’s speech there on Saturday, and I went in to my son’s daycare and attempted to explain to them all what it meant. I was there twenty years ago, I said. I was there. “Oh, you must have been a child!” someone said in response, I assume in an attempt at flattery.

I’ve seen at least three stories lamenting the lack of a Republican presence at the event — amusingly enough, from the Washington Times, the Wall Street Journal, and MSNBC — bipartisanship exists in the media, people! Mark the day! I get the lament, but in a way I am glad. Dr. King was not bipartisan, although he was no great fan of any party. But he was explicitly political. His was not the politics of flags or commemorative postage stamps of inventors and entertainers. He was not, in his lifetime, someone everyone got behind because he had a dream. He was a leader in a movement that wanted to cash a check, that wanted jobs and votes and admittance as full-fledged members of society, not just drinking fountains and abstract ideas about character and freedom.

It’s pretty common in my circle of friends for people to post links every MLK Day to “A Time to Break Silence,” King’s speech opposing the Vietnam War, or to mention that he was speaking to striking sanitation workers when he died, or to talk about how yes, he did associate with Communists. But all of that is rare in official King celebrations. Making his birthday a national holiday was a triumph in many ways but also a disservice in some ways to the causes for which he fought.

Eradicating racism isn’t just about loving your neighbor and joining hands (although perhaps a little more loving your neighbor would have saved Trayvon Martin, and Amadou Diallou, and countless others before them). It’s about figuring out how to end the discrepancy between the black population of Iowa as a whole and the black population its prisons. It’s about ending the (sadly) quite reasonable fears that people of color have about being stopped by the police or even about being doubted in customer service transactions. It’s about people like me — people who think of ourselves as enlightened and with it white people — reading about how it’s actually not really helpful or cool to describe times we’ve witnessed racist behavior to people of color, because it just reinforces to them that such behavior exists rather than making us look cool for recognizing it.

So Republican leaders were invited to today’s commemoration and they didn’t show up? Well. Perhaps that should tell you something. Perhaps that should tell us that Dr. King isn’t just a faded memory, the sort of person you dig out when you want to think harmonious thoughts and sing “Kumbayah” off key, but with feeling.

Today I ordered a poster of the famous photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X standing side by side, smiling. I’ll feel like a little bit of a white girl poser when I hang it up in my office, but it will also remind me of something important: that both men are people my mother told me were important. Both were people she let me stay up late or go out at night to learn more about. Both had dreams, and both worked on those dreams through any means they found necessary.

The pie chart of colors I saw at the 30th anniversary march in 1993 was beautiful and inspiring but also depressing, as if each slice of the pie were only there for a part of the dream. I didn’t see that color coding on the Mall today, though perhaps that was due to the rain. I don’t have a solution to it. But I want to try. And I want to believe.

What a Mess

This is a picture of my kitchen This used to be a picture of my kitchen, until it was lost in a camera phone update snafu, in more or less its usual state. Well, except on Fridays. On Fridays someone comes and cleans my house, and when I get home, the surfaces are empty and clear and clean. The rest of the time it looks like this. Or worse.

I post this here because perhaps your kitchen looks like this, too. (Or perhaps your kitchen does not. Perhaps you are recoiling in horror and considering whether to call DHS, or at least wondering how I can let my world slide into such slovenliness when I am so privileged as to have a cleaning person once a week, or perhaps you think no good Christian woman would ever let the world see her house in such a state — actually, if you think that, please let me know — I would be stunned to have such a reader.)

But let us suppose instead that you are like most of the people I know, and your kitchen does look sort of like this. I am betting that when people come to your house, you apologize.

“Oh, the house is such a wreck; I’m so sorry!”

“God, I have been meaning to clean, but this week has just been crazy!”

“I have to apologize — it really isn’t usually like this.”

I know you’ve probably said these things, because I’ve said them, too. And before I said them myself, I heard my mother and grandmother say them. I’ve said this before, and failed, but I’m resolving anew: I’m going to stop.

My great-grandmother, my mother’s mother’s mother was a woman I never met, but by all accounts, she kept an immaculate house. It was the sort of house, according to my mother, in which you did not dare to misbehave, and yet there was a great deal to do: chores, yes, but also games, and pictures of puppies and kittens glued to the interior of the cabinets when the children were small, so that they’d have something to look at. Her house could have been on Pinterest, had it existed in the first half of the twentieth century.

It was beautiful, from what I hear, and I’m sure that was true. My grandmother and my mother lamented constantly their inability to live up to Hazel’s standards.

But here’s the thing: Hazel did not work outside the home. And Hazel had help.

Yes, I am kind of a lazy slob, but I am not going to apologize for not striving to keep my house up to the standard of a time when one was expected to keep a house and raise children, not keep a house and raise children and have a job. And I don’t think you should, either.

A long time ago, when I wanted to be a writer, I spent a lot of time reading about writers (this is not a particularly good way to become a writer, but, see above, I am a lazy slob). In one collection of essays I read, I remember a woman who was asked about how she managed to write and raise a family. Her answer was, “I say no a lot.” But she also admitted that she didn’t write as much, that sometimes writing time went to children and to household, and that some days, an organized linen closet felt as satisfying as an orderly paragraph.

For someone who has little choice in the matter (well, I suppose I could stay home with my child, if I wanted to be homeless), I spend an inordinate amount of time reading “mommy war” (how I loathe that term) articles about that subset of enormously educated and priviliged women who choose to stay home with their children and populate the pages of Pinterest and bring their adorable children to programs at the library where I work, causing me, whenever they show up, to want to hide in my office or deep in the adult stacks because I miss my own child so much at those moments. Some of this is the never-ending fascination with the lives of the rich, or relatively rich. Some of it is pure schadenfreude — whenever I read about a stay-at-home mom who got divorced and finds herself broke and desperate, a not small part of me has small, mean serves you right kinds of thoughts, because of course I am a single mother and I do it all. But mostly I think all those of us who read these articles do so because we are fascinated and baffled by this business of life, of working and mothering, and because we keep hoping against hope that someday, someone will say something about it that is true.