Tag: children

Little Servants

Little Servants

Children at Work in the 20th Century


The little servants were everywhere . . . until 1938, when President Roosevelt’s Fair Labor Standards Act included some of their concerns, American children were subjected to all manner of exploitation, service and labor, unprotected by any national laws. It’s sometimes said that, had the Great Depression not made adults willing to work for a child’s wage, reform may not have happened even then. Before Roosevelt’s Act, a 1916 national child labor law went into effect to block interstate transport of goods if underage laborers were involved in production, but it was struck down in 1918. In 1924, Congress attempted to pass a constitutional amendment to protect children, but it was blocked and eventually dropped. Children were fair game in America in the early 1900s, both in their families and in society.


“Frequently beginning their working lives before their tenth birthday, children worked in hazardous jobs at mines, mills, factories, sweatshops, and on farms, with little or no wages. Labor laws did not exist, and the common perception of the ease with which children were manipulated made them targets for a variety of rights violations.”1

While laws protect most children today, their labor remains unregulated in American agriculture. The 1938 federal laws still allow children as young as 12 years old to work unlimited hours before and after school in the ag sector. As a result, as many as 500,000 children pick almost a quarter of America’s harvested food, and they’re sorely underpaid. Some may assume this is an immigration issue, or describes children who work on prosperous family farms, but most of these working children are American citizens who suffer from poverty so intense, they can’t afford to buy the food they harvest.2

My grandmother, Laura, was born in 1906, into a world where children were often seen by many as little servants, small adults expected to work to survive, often in fields or factories. Readers may have seen Laura’s handwriting and read her ledger notes in my first novel, The Darkwater Liar’s Account. Before she was the young housewife recording how to make her own soap from lard and lye, she was the abandoned child left at a Lutheran orphanage in Fremont, Nebraska.

For some orphans in 1911, adoption offered a chance to be part of a family, but this didn’t happen for my grandmother. When she was five years old, she and her sister were placed with different families, and Laura’s didn’t choose to adopt her. They wanted a worker, so in the official census in 1920, she’s recorded as a “boarder” at that family’s address. In truth, she was a hard-worked child servant in a household that looked down on her, even as they provided the bare essentials. A typical Christmas gift was a few yards of cloth for that year’s dress. Her responsibilities included taking care of children not much younger than herself, and she was whipped for their misbehavior. There were no laws to protect children during her childhood, and no loving parents, in her case.

My grandmother’s story, like many stories of the little servants who worked in America, remains a mystery. We’ve never located either of her parents, and we don’t know why her father left her behind, promising to return, and yet, never did so. Family mysteries inspire stories, and my grandmother is the inspiration for Margaret Rose and the little servants, the unwanted children in my new novel, Seven Kinds of Rain, to be released this summer. My grandmother was quieter than Margaret, but surely had as much grit, to survive as she did.


I think readers will like Margaret Rose, who earns the nickname Magpie in the story. She’s smart and takes on all comers. Here’s a little of Maggie’s voice, as she considers the woman she works for, in Seven Kinds of Rain:

“In one carton of books up here, I found Fowles’ New Easy Latin Primer. It teaches a funny language nobody speaks, but it’s a mother to other languages. It has no letter W. Latin is confusing, so I asked my teacher about declensions. She said it’s not a usual question for an eight-year-old girl, but she explained well.

“Trying to forget about Florence, I sit on my mattress to look at the Latin book. My teacher says I’m lucky to have a special talent to remember everything I read and with Latin, I have my own secret language. Maybe for a diary, or if I have a friend someday, we can use it for secrets. To help me feel better, I also found some little swears nobody will understand, but nothing bad enough to send me to hell. Like puter anus, which means rotten old woman but sounds worse. And verres and clunis, hog and buttock.

“Remembering Florence’s red, crying face distracts me from the Latin on the pages. I’m sorry for her and want to forgive the whippings and missed school. The Latin swears help a little, like letting steam out of my hot kettle, but I can only say them in the closet or up here. It doesn’t help that Florence’s little pointy teeth and long nose remind me of a fox, vulpes. If she looked softer, more like a rabbit, lepus, I’d feel more like petting her, and less like trapping her and pelting her out.”

Watch for more information about the world of Seven Kinds of Rain in upcoming posts, with Maggie and her friends, Jack and Kuruk. Then the book comes, in summer, 2016, for you to find yourself in the story.

Be sure to subscribe for updates, and follow K. Lyn Wurth on Facebook, to stay up-to-date. And thanks for reading. I appreciate every one of you!


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child_labor_laws_in_the_United_States
  1. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/03/do-children-harvest-your-food/254853/
  1. Child photo from Wikipedia, “Addie Card, 12 years. Spinner in North Pormal [i.e., Pownal] Cotton Mill. Vt.” by Lewis Hine, 1912 – 1913. E. F. Brown – Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-nclc-01830 This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID nclc.05282.

Magpie and Ancestral Voices

Mr. Magpie photo by Keith Williams to be used on Seven Kinds of Rain book cover

In my upcoming novel, the title of which I will soon announce, Magpie and ancestral voices are inseparable. Magpie is a figure of myth and a real bird, but also the nickname for one of my central characters. In the story, Margaret Rose doesn’t choose that nickname for herself, but it is apt. She’s both dark and light, smart, vivacious and a bit of a thief. Like the bird, she’s smart, sensitive, loyal and eager to make use of what others leave behind.

I harbored some reservations about including magpies in my Nebraska stories. I wondered if they truly inhabited the Republican River valley, as I couldn’t remember seeing one when I was a child. I try to mind regional details, as well as historical ones, in my writing. As if to answer my concerns, when I drove along the Republican River last year for my research trip, a magpie flew low along the roadside where I traveled, showing me his white belly and glossy blue-black plumage. It seemed more than a random wildlife sighting, perhaps even a blessing on how I’m weaving the birds, the characters and the myths of Magpie into my novels.

Magpies, mystery, meaning and myths run through my writing, alongside what history would retell and science would prove. Margaret, my novel’s Magpie, loves both stories and science, as do her friends. In upcoming posts, I’ll discuss about other folktales, rhymes and mythical threads I’m weaving into the early 1900s characters, along with scientific theories and historical events.

The epigraph I’ve chosen for the book is a verse from Psalm 78. I claim no Biblical authority with these words, nor do I announce any religious theme or agenda for my little book. Rather, the quote expresses my belief that we should hold on to all the stories we receive from ancestors, and bring them to light for generations.

I will open my mouth in a parable, things we have known from of old, things our ancestors have told us.         Psalm 78

When we braid the old stories with our own, our lives become an extension of those who stood in this place before us. Even if the storytellers are not related to us by blood, their stories are one with this place, and their voices can deepen and amplify our own accounts.

No longer wandering alone in the midst of our facts, may we find ourselves illuminated by the multitude of ancestors, their presence, whimsy and wisdom. May our children and grandchildren, well-educated in science, consider also the light of history and myth.

(I’d like to give special thanks to Keith Williams, the photographer who captured this brilliant photo of Mr. Magpie, which I use as the featured image for this post. He kindly gave permission for me to use the image on the book cover of my upcoming novel…what a great guy, and an amazing photographer!)

Sacred Bundles Our Children Carry

With permission, I drew this sketch of a sacred bundle on display at the Pawnee Indian Museum State Historic Site near Republic, Kansas. Because of the bundle’s ongoing sanctity to the Pawnee people, on-site photographs are prohibited. The bundle appears to be made of some sort of hide, and tied with ribbon-like bands. A long smoking pipe, fragments of arrows, a fork tipped with bone and small American flags adorn the outside. The pipe appears to be carved of stone, with a stem of wood. A Kansas Historical web site reports that this particular bundle was once x-rayed, and contains stuffed bird bundles, hawk bells, counting sticks and a leather strip decorated with glass beads.

Sacred bundles like this were integral to Pawnee medicine ceremonies. Only a woman could possess a bundle, which usually hung on the west wall of a home or above an altar, while only men could utilize it in ceremonies.

A sign near this bundle reports that it originated near Loup, Nebraska. A young Pawnee girl named Sadie carried it away on horseback from the famous battle at Massacre Canyon near Trenton, Nebraska, in 1873. On that day, a thousand Sioux surprised 350 Pawnee men, women and children on their summer buffalo hunt, and approximately seventy Pawnee were killed. This is recorded as the last major battle between two Indian tribes in U.S. history. Sadie’s father entrusted the bundle to her at the battle, binding it to her back. He died that day, without having an opportunity to explain its ritual use. Sadie kept it safe as her family’s spiritual legacy, and her daughter entrusted it to the Kansas State Historical Society.

As I consider this object, I think about the manual labor and arts of preparing the skins and the pipe. I consider the meaning, now obscure, assigned to the arrows, the fork and the pipe. Who decorated that leather strip with beads? What are its colors and designs? How did the men handle the counting sticks in their rituals? The bones in those bird bundles once bore feathers high above the earth, with bright eyes looking down on prairie grasses, earth lodges and the twisting Republican River.

Time and memory. Meaning and mystery. Tragedy and hope. So much human experience, rolled up in leather and tied with ribbons and flags. The hope of a family, a legacy caught up in a crisis. A sign of enduring faith for a struggling people, suspended behind glass for this writer to sketch and ponder. Among all of my questions, one endures.

If I had to send my child running for survival today, with only seconds to decide, what bundle of meaning would I thrust into those young hands, to inspire my future generations?

Learning Happened Here

Nine years ago this winter, newlyweds Dave and I stood in the middle of a relative’s field and decided to build a sort of nest here, a home on some land outside of town. Farmers in this area generally alternate between soybean and corn crops, and 2005 was a corn year on this particular Wurth property, so we stood in the softening brown rows of recently-harvested stubble and imagined a home. I still have an ear of corn that the combine missed that season. It’s propped in a corner of a downstairs windowsill, to remind me of what was here before me.

We weren’t the first builders on this site. A local historian, also a Wurth relative, told us that in the early Twentieth Century,  a one-room country school stood on this very corner. Constructed on every southeast square-mile corner down this main road, Amherst Township country schools, like most, had to be accessible for walking children.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and I’m thankful for many things. One of them is that education has always been one of the first priorities for settlers on the Great Plains and the West, a legacy of which I am a happy beneficiary. In most homesteading communities, once shelter was erected for people and animals and crops were planted, even far-flung neighbors gathered to discuss their children’s education. Even before it was compulsory, education was a dream American settlers claimed for their children.

So, learning happened here, long before we built our dreams. Down in this ground, there may be chips of slate, rusting nails or broken toys. Maybe crumbling bits of a schoolhouse foundation and broken glass. Around where I sit at my desk, children gathered when a school bell rang, for study and play, reciting lessons, expanding their thoughts and becoming citizens of the wider world. A coal stove belched smoke and glowed to keep out the winter chill. Chalk dust hovered in the air and a water bucket with a dipper probably stood in the corner.  Books fell on the floor. Inkwells spilled. Feet scraped on hardwood floors. I wonder where the outhouse stood? There’s a thought. No wonder this soil is so fertile, and my flowers so bright every summer!

Considering the old school that stood on these corner acres, I’m even more grateful to live in this place. Thank you, children, for being an invisible but real part of my history. Thank you, teachers, for all you gave. You still provide joy, as I remember.

For those of us who take comfortable, well-equipped schools, computers and information for granted in this digital age, let’s put our energies into teaching our children what’s most important. Let’s teach them to be grateful for the people who were first in their places, and the richness of history that surrounds them.

Let’s teach them how to think and how to learn, before they leave our nest.

That Girl Who Hated Me

Have you ever driven past a middle school and gotten a sinking feeling in your stomach, followed by a tingle of relief to be the age you are now? If you’re a woman, probably so. Surely I’m not the only one for whom adolescence among girls was like roller derby, with thrown elbows, whipping and goatherding, but no penalty box in sight.

I didn’t drive past a school today, but I felt the online equivalent, a jolt that set me sweating, then musing. As you probably realize, Facebook uses various algorithms, your personal info and vague forms of dark magic to conjure what products you might purchase, books you might read, celebrities you might adore or people from your past with whom you might wish to reconnect.

Boy, did they get it wrong today. One of the people they suggested for a sentimental reunion is a woman, long ago a girl, who truly, inexplicably hated me.

thorns by peter suneson

thorns by peter suneson

Now, I’m old enough to have been hated repeatedly and soundly, and sometimes deservedly so. You can’t achieve a semi-fulsome age without saying mean or careless things and alienating some very nice people, even relatives, along with other unmentionable types. I’d like to think I committed most of my hate-inducing offenses without malice aforethought, but I won’t kid myself or you. I’ve made enemies. We all have. And sometimes, no matter how profusely or sincerely we apologize, people decide we just aren’t worth the trouble of forgiving. That’s uncomfortable, even painful to live with, maybe on both sides. You learn to live with it, though, even when it’s sad. You figure out what went wrong and resolve not to let history repeat itself.

This wasn’t one of those figure-it-out-and-learn-from-it cases. Or, maybe it was…

question by rose ann

question by rose ann

This girl surely had a reason for hating me, but I never, over the course of six years, figured out what it was. At first, it stunned and puzzled me, that she’d mutter threats and insults at me in the hall as we passed, or ridicule me in front of others. No, I didn’t steal her boyfriend, spread a rumor or call her a name. I had an overly tender conscience, and every time we had an encounter, I did a dutiful self-examination to uncover my part in whatever it was had gone wrong. Repeatedly, I drew a blank.

I’m not insisting I was innocent, but I was profoundly confused. Gradually, I realized that girl who hated me enjoyed seeing shock on my face, or tears in my eyes. She carried an air that reeked of power. When, at about fifteen years old, I made the mistake of asking her why she disliked me, she only laughed.

dancing girls by cécile graat

dancing girls by cécile graat

Girls are complex creatures, prone to hugging one minute and unsheathing claws the next. This was different, not a flash of emotion but a steady burn. Back then, I didn’t know what to call it, and honestly, I still don’t.

Like most young girls, I believed that if I was nice to people, they wouldn’t mind me so much and would at least leave me alone, while some might even like me. She helped me surpass my naiveté, demonstrating that life is messier than that. So at one of our high school class reunions, when that same girl “cut” me in front of a table of my classmates, I was only mildly surprised. I was the one who laughed, that time. The awkward moment was just one more drumbeat in a long-established, crazy rhythm, driving a song only she could dance to.

static by jeff hire

static by jeff hire

So I’m older and wiser, but apparently, the mystery still carries a “zing.” Today, seeing that woman’s face on the computer monitor, with the traces of her girlish jawline and her younger eyes leaking through the colors of her Facebook photo, I shivered. My stomach tightened up, even as I told myself the past is decades behind me, and she’s probably matured into a perfectly nice woman. I lingered, wondering what her middle-age problems might be, and what she’s lost in the years since we were in school together. We girls have all lost so much. Children. Men. Marriages. Dreams. Illusions. And happily for some of us, even our grudges.

Yes, decades have passed, but the prickle of dread was like yesterday. It reminded me there’s a part of each of us that stays thirteen, fourteen, eighteen years old. Raw, afraid and vulnerable. Defensive and ready to hurt back, if someone draws blood. Ready to throw up a hand or a wall.

ice cream by diego baseggic

ice cream by diego baseggic

My point isn’t about trauma or being a victim, but about what it is to be human, to own visceral feelings, often too complex to understand, about others. We need to teach our little ones that civility and kindness are always the best strategy, even if they don’t seem to change anything. Tell them, too, that it’s okay to walk away from people who would do them no end of harm, instead of locking themselves into a fruitless pursuit of reconciliation. In a world where being “liked” has become an obsession, tell them it’s okay not to be everyone’s favorite flavor.

So what about this woman today? The once-a-girl who said and did things that made my palms sweat, thickening my microcosmic teenage atmosphere with dread? Well, I didn’t message her on Facebook, and I didn’t “Friend” her!

I did pause to hope that if I ever hurt her, that she’d by now let it go and stopped feeling the pain I, or someone else, had inflicted. The people who harm us may be in even worse pain than we are, and their behavior is often primarily about them, and very little about us. Yes, I worked myself around to a very grown-up response, after the “zing” passed through my gut and into the carpet like so much static electricity.

photo by nick benjaminsz

photo by nick benjaminsz

I still see that girl-woman’s face in my mind’s eye, and in this writing, I wish her well and banish the hurts that were between us. I have that power. We all do, if we learn and claim it.

But for my granddaughter, especially, who still has a young and tender heart and who will have her share of lessons with not-so-kind girls, I’ll finish here with lyrics from one of her favorite songs.


Let it go, let it go
And I’ll rise like the break of dawn
Let it go, let it go
That perfect girl is gone
Here I stand in the light of day
Let the storm rage on!
The cold never bothered me anyway



Oh, and Facebook? Enough already with the algorithms! Honestly…

Worth the Wait

hungry dog waiting

hungry dog waiting

Gilda the WunderSchnauzer is sitting at my side as I type, not in adoration, but trembling with anticipation. In her mind, the clock holds no meaning and it’s always time for food in her dish. Her hunger makes it worth the wait. She’s vigilant, hoping I’ll look at her and say, “It’s time.” Time for another meal.

Wurth harvest 2013

Wurth harvest 2013

All summer, we in rural Iowa have been waiting for harvest. The soybeans and corn tell us what time it is, so to speak, as sprouts crack through brown soil, leaf, spread and canopy the ground. We watch breadth, height and fanning of leaves that wave like water under the summer winds, until the colors peak and begin to fade. The seeds drain the life from the stalks and leaves, while all ripen and dry. It’s both good and sad to see the colors change back to beiges and browns. When that last combine pulls out of the field, headed for the machine shed, it means another cycle is complete and it’s time for the earth, and farmers, to get a little rest. Just a little, here at one ending, and before another beginning.

waiting to touch you

waiting to touch you

Life keeps us waiting, longing, ever anticipating. Right now my daughter, along with our whole family, is growing impatient for the birth of her third child and even all these years later, I remember what that feels like, that sense of fullness, holding that squirming, beautiful life who’s just on the verge of visibility. Arms ache for what will fill them. Minds and bodies overflow with affection, aching to stroke little fingers and kiss a downy head, to breathe in those “new baby smells,” even the not-so-fresh ones!  To hear that voice for the first time. To memorize an eye color and a smile. It’s hard to wait for anything, but it may be hardest of all to wait for beginnings. A new season. A new child. A new chapter in a family’s novel of love.

So we write on, generations like pages turning, to fulfill and extend our story. This is how we are blessed, breath by breath, but we must be patient for what matters most. We must wait, sometimes painfully, to touch what we cherish and believe.


Imagining All Summer in a Day

rainy day by jenny rolo

rainy day by jenny rollo

‘Do the scientists really know? Will it happen today, will it?’
‘Look, look; see for yourself!’
The children pressed to each other like so many roses, so many weeds, intermixed, peering out for a look at the hidden sun.”

— Ray Bradbury, “All Summer in a Day”

After last year’s threatened drought, it’s rained heavily this spring, seemingly everywhere in the U.S. Thunderstorms, floods and tornadoes rattle, wash and shatter us with their scope and power. Weather changes can be dramatic and deadly. Sometimes they bring on physiological reactions to humidity, temperature atmospheric pressure changes. More rain? Drip. Ouch. Sigh. Bleh.

Seeing our potential ten-day forecast for another eight days of consecutive rain, I almost let my head thump down on my keyboard in despair. I caught myself in time, though. It sure would be nice to look forward to more than two days in a row with sunshine…I was going to whine and complain, when I remembered something better. Better than whining and complaining, you ask? Why, yes.

A story.

1975 ray bradbury photo by alan light

1975 ray bradbury photo by alan light

Decades ago, I first read Ray Bradbury’s short story, “All Summer in a Day.” What I could remember of it haunted me, so I reread it today, to find it even better than I’d remembered. Bradbury tells of a human-inhabited, colorless, perpetually stormy and jungle-like Venus, where sunlight breaks through to warm children’s skin for only two hours, every seven years…that is, if human frailty doesn’t corrupt even that irreplaceable pleasure. Can you imagine experiencing all summer in a day?

Rereading “All Summer in a Day” made me think about childhood and weather, how rare and lovely and terrible they can be, sometimes all in one classroom or one moment. I’ve written and read many short stories since I first read this one. Few have made such an impression or felt so pure, complete, balanced and starkly perfect in their storytelling. I aspire to write this well.

venus in transit, june 5, 2012, nasa photo

venus in transit, june 5, 2012 by nasa

From Ray Bradbury’s online biography, here’s what he had to say on his 80th birthday: “The great fun in my life has been getting up every morning and rushing to the typewriter because some new idea has hit me.” Something tells me this is a man who found heat and light, words and meaning in almost any sort of weather.

On June 5, 2012, just a little over a year ago, Ray Bradbury died during the Transit of Venus. During that event, from our limited, but well-lit vantage point in space, cold Venus appears to cross the flaring, disc-like surface of our sun. Nice ending, sir, to a well-told life. Thanks, too, for the story. I’ll ponder it and it will warm me during the next several hours, days, or years, of rain.

Fraidy Holes, Tornadoes and Other Heroic Traditions

August 2009

our storm, 2009

This is prime season for thunderstorms and tornadoes, for most of the central and southern, and parts of the eastern, United States. We go through it every spring. It’s unnerving to see nature unleashed, bearing down on fragile humans and our spindly architecture, whether it happens states away or just down the road. We usually take precautions, noting weather alerts and securing some form of what people used to (and some, at least in Oklahoma, still do) call, the “fraidy hole.” This YouTube video of Hosty Duo performing “Fraidy Hole” says it all, as the vintage video clips illustrate a timeless cautionary tale.

[embedplusvideo height=”312″ width=”380″ standard=”http://www.youtube.com/v/a5axIQAy0UA?fs=1&hd=1″ vars=”ytid=a5axIQAy0UA&width=380&height=312&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=1&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=¬es=” id=”ep6285″ /]

It’s a fitting song for a stormy subject, with an appropriately dark edge that defies levity while defying danger. Yesterday, on Sunday, May 19, at least twenty six tornadoes moved in a sort of herd across the central plains states. As I understand it, at least two people died during those extreme events and many more families lost every physical object they owned. Today, on May 20, as I write, I learn that one of the worst tornadoes in American history may have just hit Moore, Oklahoma. I can’t imagine the shock and devastation the storm survivors feel. After two days like these, for too many people the dangers of weather are real, and the losses, palpable.

may 20 radar image

may 20 radar image

In the midst of yesterday’s storms, we clicked onto The Weather Channel and stayed, riveted by the live, aerial coverage of tornadoes tearing through Oklahoma. The collision of natural forces was magnificent and terrifying. It doesn’t matter that I’m not acquainted with the people of Oklahoma City or Carney or Shawnee. I saw their familiar buildings blown to pieces, to swirl up and around dark, multiplying funnels like trailing ribbon and bits of cardboard, as mine would. I saw flashes of what appeared to be power lines or propane tanks exploding, followed by lights in windows, extinguished. It was eerie, gazing down on all of it. It should have made me feel safe, from an elevated distance. It didn’t.

dark but peaceful skies

dark but peaceful skies, today

Of course, we’ve all seen video of similar events and their aftermath on weather station programs, news channels and stormchaser documentaries. As an informed, viewing public, we can tune in worldwide, to view, from a safe distance, the international disaster of the day. We may even become desensitized to much of what we see and tweet. Processing the magnitude of other peoples’ losses with a little emotional distance–this helps to keep us sane. Ignoring it can evacuate our essential empathy.

On the next, more immediate degree of experience, many of us have been sufferers or survivors of thunderstorms, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, tsunamis or earthquakes. Others have found themselves devastated by human-on-human violence. The pain isn’t borrowed, but so near we can’t shed it. Our losses indelibly mark us. They also provide the essential storytelling material for our personal, family and community myths, the stories of how we surely have fallen, lost and suffered, yet somehow survived as the heroes of our own odysseys. At the core of the stories, we learn that to be human is not only to be scattered, to live on the edge of disaster. It is also to gather and to prevail. These are lessons we teach to our children.

fast in my wagon

fast in my wagon   photo by megan johnson

Our children need these lessons. Fragile as we are, from birth we generally display an almost hilarious level of bravado. We can only learn from experience that we’re breakable, as we are born with few self-protective instincts. Often we’re impulsive or careless. Sometimes our illusions of control get us in trouble. Imagining ourselves invulnerable, we may stand outdoors too long, to record that wall cloud. Curiosity and adrenaline can urge us too near the edge of some other cracking, rumbling, rushing or flaming precipice.

Despite being fragile, fallible creatures, many of us don’t embrace our apparent role as victims of the world’s destructive energies. Professional researchers, meteorologists and seismologists, amateur scientists and hobbyists gather data that may not prevent disasters, but may inform us early. If common sense prevails and time permits, that data may give us time enough to flee destruction’s path. Information and technology allow us to encourage people we haven’t met, by telephoning, posting, tweeting and traveling around the world, before and after terrible things happen. The heroic work of rescue, recovery and cleanup usually begins in a moving, but profoundly matter-of-fact way, a testimony to our resilience and faith in one another. Maybe we’re not as fragile as we appear.

stormchasers cover

jenna blum’s The Stormchasers

This reminds me of an engaging novel, The Stormchasers, by Jenna Blum. Jenna uses the backdrop of stormchasing to explore the troubled relationship between estranged twins, a brother and sister. They, like all of us, look for meaning in the storms that tear us apart and for family myths, the image of ominous weather fits well. Not only do severe storms devastate families, but family members  generate emotional storms that devastate the others. Yet, even after structures and hearts appear blown and leveled beyond repair, bonds of family and community re-form, strengthen and multiply. It’s true in this novel, just as it began in these current disaster areas, moments after the storms did their worst. People are talking, hugging, stretching tarps and picking through debris. They are devoted, holding together and proving their strength.

Even as I write this, I turn to The Weather Channel to find that even more severe  tornadoes, at least one an EF4, are barreling through Oklahoma, flattening homes, farms, schools and public buildings. Best wishes to and heartfelt prayers for all people (and other creatures) there, for survival. For them and for all who have suffered and will suffer severe storms…may you always find fair warning, hope, open arms and not last or least of all, a fraidy hole.

Beyond these things, there are no more fitting words.


*Find more information on Jenna Blum’s novel, The Stormchasers, here.

Inside and Outside the Box



Despite rumors to the contrary, this writer has not been captured in or sealed in a box. Rather, I’m recuperating after a beneficial surgery. Before I raise further alarm (or indifference, which I fear more) by my unwritten silence, I’d like to open today’s consideration of…boxes.

Boxes seal, fold and stack around us. They may be plain or ornate, durable or flimsy. Regardless of their material, they suggest secrecy, changes and hope. Velvet-covered boxes conceal and reveal jewelry, as well as their implied promises. Colorful cardboard boxes advertise, inform and transport toys, medication, electronics and food. We grow up being startled (or terrified) by Jack-in-the-Boxes and scooping with shovels in sandboxes. It’s difficult to think of anything that’s human-made and yet smaller than a garage, that hasn’t spent part of its useful life in a box. As a graphic designer, I had an opportunity to design boxes; they’re not as simple as they appear.

When I was nine, my parents bought a new refrigerator, delivered to our door in a large carton. I recognized an introvert’s opportunity for solitude, claimed the box and decorated the inside of it as a playhouse. No psychoanalysis, please. Let this remain a charming tale of how a young girl’s imagination bloomed, until a summer shower proved corrugated cardboard to be an unsuitable building material.

a girl's treasure box

a girl’s treasure box

Sometimes a box is its own gift. An Oriental enameled music box given to me when I was four years old still winds up and plays its tune, although the ballerina that twirled at its center has long since disappeared. Inside, I keep tiny things that only I value; Girl Scout pins, a pecan from a playground tree, little-girl jewelry and trinkets.

jelly beans by erik araujo

jelly beans by erik araujo

My mother, a very creative woman, recently fashioned for me a Jelly Belly Box–a monogrammed, silk-covered security system  with colorful, winding ribbons–designed to frustrate my family, should they conspire to pilfer from my Jelly Belly stash. I would post a photo, but to identify it would undermine its serious, covert purpose.

This suggests another favorite…the annual, red satin, oversized box of chocolates that Goodhusband buys for Valentine’s Day. These, we share; he likes milk chocolate, while I prefer dark. It’s a perfect romance…as long as he stays out of my Jelly Belly beans.


pandora by john william waterhouse

Although humans don’t enter the world in boxes, we usually exit so contained. A few years ago, I attended the wake of a distant relative and as is our local custom, memorial gifts lined the room; photos, frames, garden statues, plaques, flowers, plants and other keepsakes. As I stood in the mourners’ line, reaching to trace my finger over the intricate detail of a lovely gold box, someone whispered a warning—that was the cremation urn. Loving music boxes the way I do, I’d almost opened it to hear its tune. Only Pandora would have pitied me then, had I committed that curious, public indiscretion.

Boxes can also signify limitations, as in “feeling boxed-in,” “thinking outside the box,” and my perennial favorite, the internally-rhyming insult, “dumber than a box of rocks.” (This may have been invoked over me at the funeral home, had things gone any further with that cremation urn.)


the resurrection of henry box brown at philadelphia, by samuel rowesby, 1850

Other boxes transport us beyond where we might otherwise go. I love the story of Henry “Box” Brown, who, in 1849, escaped his Virginia slaveholder by enclosing himself in a box bound for the northern, free state of Pennsylvania. The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown at Philadelphia, an 1850 lithograph by Samuel Rowseby, celebrates his courage, ingenuity and freedom. Along these lines, a wooden box in my novel-in-process becomes a means of escape for an endangered infant, much as the Biblical basket ferried Moses out of danger. In recent years, numerous felons have attempted to escape penitentiaries by sealed carton and courier, but this is not to be encouraged, here or elsewhere.

Although they seem transparent, because of our fascination with their contents, boxes may always be necessary to stash, transport and showcase our lives and possessions. Although ordinary, they merit occasional consideration, meditation and recycling. So, for a moment, stop and think…how many boxes have you opened or closed today? And, did you hear music?

On Bravery, by Nichole Bernier

Malala Yousufzai, photo World News NBC / NHS via EPA

Malala Yousufzai, photo World News NBC / NHS via EPA

Nichole Bernier, author of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D, is one of my favorite contemporary writers. She’s also a regular contributor on Beyond the Margins.

Today I recommend her moving look at people who quietly go about changing the world, here. I hope you enjoy. And thanks, Nichole, for an inspiring post.