Looking Forward, Looking Back

The second anniversary of my salon for memoir writers, “First Monday, First Person” is coming up on October 5th. The fifth anniversary of True Stories Well Told is coming up at the end of 2015. This has put me in a reflective mood!

At the end of the first year of publishing this blog, I wrote, “I kept the promise I made myself: I shared stories from my own life and those of my writing students/colleagues. I published occasional writing instruction tips.  I wrote some book reviews. I’ve lived with this little sticky-note on my computer monitor for a year, reminding me to post often and what content to prepare. (It was inspired by those vintage “ice cards”–older readers will know what I mean.)”

Now four years after I wrote that, I look back. Have I kept that promise? More or less. In recent years I veered into special “Seasons of…” when I would publish guest posts on specific writing prompts. I’ve published fewer book reviews–simply because I’ve had less time to read.  I’ve stayed true, I hope, to the core purpose of this blog: to create a virtual place for people who read and write about real life.

Personally, I never feel quite as alive or true to my own core purpose as when I am in that place. I find out who I am when I am there, finding out who you are.

Right now, I’m teaching in a wider variety of ways than ever before. If you peeked at my calendar for this week you would see:

  • Grading final papers for Module 3 the UW-Superior’s Certificate in Life Story Work, the first program to offer CEUs for personal history training. We’ve spent six weeks going through the Developing a Personal History Practice curriculum I wrote.
  • Leading “Write Your ‘Selfie’ Obit” Session 2, offered through the APH Online Education program. As interest in conversations about death and dying grows, this 2-part workshop just gets more and more interesting. Boomers have reinvented every institution we’ve encountered since kindergarten, and we’re now taking on the funeral industry.
  • Wrapping up a special version of  “Write Your Travel Memoirs” for APH members in New Zealand, again through the APH online education program. At the request of Christine Norton, founder of Forget-Me-Not Life Stories, I am training her writing partners (business licensees) to make their clients’ writing tighter and brighter by applying story craft, learned through practice on their own travel memoirs.
  • Preparing for my upcoming workshops on writing family history at Sequoya Library and Wheelhouse Studios. (More info here.)
  • Oh, and look at that–I have appointments for 1:1 coaching coming up, too.

With my upcoming workshops I’m keeping things fresh for myself and my students by shifting from “I” to “We” to “Family Tree”–applying those techniques of story craft that help us craft our own memoirs to telling the stories of people who came before us. This will be an interesting experiment. So let’s think about that “Family History vs. Personal History” dilemma for a moment. Personally, if I had to choose, I’d say it is more important to write our OWN personal histories before we write our family’s history. Not that both aren’t needed–it’s that “put on your own air mask before helping others” rule. Our first person stories can only be written while we’re breathing, after all.

air mask

Reflecting on all this makes me realize–to continue publishing True Stories Well Told, I need your help. Send me your personal essays, book reviews, and writing prompts! See guidelines here.

Let’s keep this a lively place for people who read and write about real life.

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Book Review: Walking with Abel: Journeys with the Nomads of the African Savannah

There should be more “eye” than “I” in memoir, the saying goes. Walking with Abel by Anna Badkhen pleased me deeply, precisely because she is so good at getting this balance right.

Walking with Abel is her memoir of  a year with nomadic cowboys in West Africa. She narrates her hosts’ journeys, only gradually letting her own come to light. She rarely alludes to the heartbreak that has brought her here, and when she does it is always in context of empathy for the often heartbreaking life of the Fulani people.

walking with abel

This is great travel writing. She doesn’t romanticize or sugarcoat a hard way of life, with its rigid expectations by gender and genealogy. She doesn’t flinch at the superstition that constrains them to neolithic medical practices. She doesn’t judge, doesn’t expect, just watches, helps, joins in. A favorite scene of mine:

The Fulani are telling stories before they fall asleep, scattered on their mats under the immense desert sky. Her turn for a story–she tells of the origin of the cosmos, informs them about the universe, galaxies, stars, the Earth’s place in it all. “Good story,” they agree. They like the Milky Way. Their own origin myth begins with a calabash of milk spilled across the sky.

I quote Goodreads reviewer “Anja” because I can’t say this better: “Her use of language is fresh, unusual and heart stopping. I often read phrases over and over again, not wanting to let go of the pictures she conjures of this unique area of the world.”

Here are a couple of examples that stopped me in my tracks–I saved them for use in future writing classes. To me, this is a perfect evocation of character.


And I love this poetic discussion…

Badkhen iron pot

Anna Badkhen was born in the Soviet Union but is now a United States citizen.
She has been a war reporter since 2001 and has covered conflicts all over the world. I can only imagine how she came by a vocabulary so immense she sent me to the dictionary with practically every turn of the page.

I am glad she took time out for a year of simple living with the Fulani. I am grateful she took us with her, via this stunning travel memoir.

-Sarah White

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Weather or Not (Part 2)

By Sarah White

Read Part 1 here…

Rising wind. Pelting rain.

I remember vividly the sequence of my thoughts at that point. I looked at the delicate wine glass, poised on a little tray-table. I said to myself, “If that glass falls over I’m going to the car.” Then I thought, “It’s kind of stupid to have glass in a tent. If it breaks, I’ll be on my knees in a puddle of shards.”

Just then, with a whipping, ripping sound, a gust of wind peeled my tent’s rain-fly back. Atomized rain blasted through the tent’s side, visible like ocean spray in my flashlight’s beam. The wind roared. “A train,” I thought. “That’s funny, I can’t think of a track near here. As soon as it passes, I’m going to tell Jane I think we should go to the car.” I called to mind the map from the Gazeteer: no trains.

Unbelievably, the wind grew even stronger. Tree branches popped like gunfire. The windward side of my tent suddenly reversed like a beach ball kicked in by a bully. I huddled in the soaking spray with the nylon plastered around me, my body wrapped around Fred, who was struggling to get to the door.

“Jane!” I yelled. “The car! Let’s go to the car!” I didn’t hear any response.

“Jane! The car!” I heard something muffled from her direction. “THE CAR!” I yelled as loud as I could. We were no more than a few yards from each other, yelling at the top of our lungs, yet could not hear each other.

Then the beep of the van door unlocking pierced the wind’s roar. I let go of Fred, unzipped my tent door, and discovered the rain-fly tangled there, blocking our exit. I clawed through it, pushed Fred out, and struggled after—stopping to grab my clothes bag, realizing everything I had would be soaked if left behind.

Jane was waiting in the van with the side door open. She fished Fred inside. I tumbled in after. “I’ve been yelling, the van! THE VAN!” she said. I had been yelling “the CAR.” While the woods came down around us, we had been arguing over terminology.

We checked the clock in the dash—just 10:00 p.m. Through the van’s windows  flashes of lightning showed trees like ghastly x-rays of human bones, arms waving. Fred wedged himself under the rear bench seat and gave up for the night.

I discovered my little emergency bottle of brandy hidden in my clothes bag, and Jane and I exchanged gulps until our racing heartbeats subsided. She reclined the front seat and I stretched out across the back bench. We fell quiet, but falling asleep was harder. At one point Jane whispered, “Are you awake?”


“Do you want to try to leave?”

“Where would we go? I doubt there’s a motel anywhere around here with a vacant room at this point.” I replied.

In the silence that followed I imagine we both considered what leaving would mean: nosing the van down off the ridge, roaming the flood-prone countryside in wind and rain. Was it worth exchanging this passive fear for active terror? We stayed put. The storm never abated until around 4:00 that morning.


At 5:00 light returned to the sky, and we exited the van to see what God hath wrought. Limbs as thick as thighs tangled on the ground all around us. Whole trees lay toppled, their root balls exposed. Perhaps a third of the old woodlot’s canopy had come down.

Two other groups of campers wandered about, dazed survivors. A young couple approached us. “A tree came down on our tent,” the woman said. Luckily they had just retreated to their station wagon. Together we approached a group of motorcyclists. How had they passed the night, without a vehicle for shelter?

“Nothing to it,” they said, tough as nails. But one broke rank and said, “See where my tent is?” I saw a collapsed sack, caught against trees at the edge of their site. “It rolled me about 20 feet when the wind picked it up.”

Why I don’t know, but Jane and I set about preparing breakfast, pretending this was no different from any camping morning. Ordinarily we would be discussing where to hike next, but instead, after breakfast, without a word to each other, we began packing up the gear.

The owner of the campground passed on his riding tractor, a chainsaw on the passenger’s seat. He avoided eye contact with us. As we drove down off the ridge, we found a huge tree had blocked the way—the owner had just rolled the center cut aside. If we had tried to leave the night before, we would have found our way blocked.

On our way back to Madison Jane and I stopped for lunch. We had little to say to each other. Neither of us had slept for two nights. The air was STILL heavy with humidity and heat, the weather as oppressive as the reality we weren’t discussing—that we had been stupidly, needlessly stubborn, to our own peril.

Later, as the news reports came in, we learned that there had been escapes narrower than ours in the woods that weekend. A group of boy scouts were stranded when their riverside campsite became an island surrounded by the rising Kickapoo. A woman’s back was broken when a tree fell on her tent—her husband and four-year-old son had to wait for dawn to get help. The winds, while never cyclonic, had peaked at a straight-line velocity of over 90 miles per hour. Sixty will topple a tree. Seventy will drop a semi on its side.

Over time Jane and I processed the event, adding it to the mythology of our camping history, grumbling about the badly-maintained woodlot on that ridge—so much dead wood just waiting to come down!—and the evil property owner, who did nothing to warn us about the severe weather forecast.

We began checking the weather forecast more carefully before setting out. We bought a weather radio. We continue to camp in rain—always rain—but now we take shelter without waiting for the sound of a nonexistent train. We have developed ALMOST as much sense as a three-year-old fox terrier.

Fred, the Wise Fox Terrier

Fred, the Wise Fox Terrier, circa 1998

Because this is a longish story, I have posted it in two parts. First is here…

I submitted this to a recent Creative Nonfiction contest, without success. Lucky I have my own publishing platform. ;-) 

© 2015 Sarah White

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Weather or Not (Part 1)

By Sarah White

There was no reason to consult the weather forecast, because it wouldn’t change anything. When my friend Jane plans to camp, she will not be deterred. As her camping buddy, I’ve accepted that once we say we’re going, we go.

The Friday afternoon we left was unseasonably hot. It had been hot for days, and the forecast was for continued heat and humidity with potential for thunderstorms to boot. Might have been a good time to cancel plans for living outdoors and sleeping in tents, but even so, Jane and I drove west, hoping we’d left Madison early enough to find a campsite at Wildcat Mountain State Park. It was the last weekend in June, 1998, and we had yet to learn about Wisconsin’s arcane campsite reservation system. As we left town in Jane’s van, with our usual gear plus my three-year-old fox terrier, Fred, windows down to catch the breeze, our conversation skirted possible sore points like the weather.

We were two forty-something nature-lovers who’d met through business networking; our friendship had expanded to day hikes and in the last year, overnight camping. Fred was an avid camper too, and our shared enjoyment across species delighted me. But today, Fred seemed out of sorts. Instead of sniffing the wind he hung his head over the bench seat, eyes clouded.

Wisconsin State Park System Wildcat Mountain State Park. Vista from the top of the park. Source: DNR.gov

Wisconsin State Park System Wildcat Mountain State Park. Vista from the top of the park. Source: DNR.gov

When we arrived at Wildcat Mountain, no campsites were left. “There’s a private campground on the other side of Ontario,” the park ranger said. Riding shotgun, I held the Gazeteer open in my lap as we crossed the Kickapoo River floodplain and located Brush Creek Campground. The low open valley was full of trailer campers, whom we scorned, but up on the ridge was “primitive” camping, and there we found a site under the canopy of an old woodlot. It wasn’t much—the picnic tables half-rotten, the outhouses likewise, and not so much as a hand pump for water—yet we were glad for it.

Jane started a fire to get coals going for grilling the salmon we had brought along. Then we set up our little dome tents and the camp kitchen. While Jane tended the fish I boiled new potatoes and steamed asparagus on the Coleman stove. Fred usually paid close attention to any cooking activity, but this evening, he sat near the campsite’s entrance, gazing in the direction from which we’d come.

Sweaty and crabby from the work of set-up in the humid evening, I couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for my role as sous-chef. Even so, the meal was good, accompanied by an excellent Sauvignon Blanc. Afterward we talked around the campfire a bit, and went to bed early when rain began to spatter on the leaves overhead.

That night winds and rain ruled the sky. Lightning kept my dome tent flashing like a strobe light all night long, and I rolled in troubled dreams until dawn came.

“Boy, never saw a night like that one!” I greeted Jane as Fred and I emerged from our tent in the soggy morning.

She replied, “A river formed right under my tent. Everything in it is wet.”

I made breakfast while Jane strung a clothesline and hung her wet things to dry. After breakfast we drove over to Wildcat Mountain to hike its nature trails. We saw dozens of campers at the picnic ground there, spreading their bedding in the sun, stretching out to catch some sleep. With gear and sleepers everywhere, it looked like a rock festival. Clearly we weren’t the only ones to pass the night uncomfortably.

“Maybe some campers will give up after last night. Do you want to check if a campsite has opened up here at Wildcat?” Jane asked.

I thought about the work of packing up our damp stuff, hauling it over to Wildcat, and setting up camp all over again. I was already sweating from the sticky morning, and we hadn’t even started hiking yet. “Not worth it,” I replied, and Jane let the suggestion drop.

Tired from the restless night, neither of us could find our usual peace and pleasure in nature that day. The sky remained white. The hiking trail we chose was muggy, buggy and new growth of invasive species testified to flooding the previous season.

The afternoon was a repeat of the previous day’s heat and humidity, but we never turned on the car radio to check the forecast. We assumed last night’s spectacular storm was a once-a-summer doozy. Besides, if we did learn more rain was on the way, what difference would it make?

That night I prepared supper, bustling from cooler to stove to make chili. Jane was restless. She went to the food cooler for something, then turned to me and barked— “You left the lid up. In this heat! Do you want to spoil all our food?”

I had only left the lid unlatched because I was still moving food in and out.

“It’s not going to go bad in a few minutes,” I said. “Don’t have a cow.” It came out more snappish than I intended.

She replied snappishly too. I didn’t like it, and said so. We retreated to silence as we ate the chili, then sat around a fire again—so unnecessary in the heat, but part of our ritual. Fred stayed well back from the flames, panting. Jane pulled a bottle of Chardonnay from the drinks cooler and poured it into glass goblets for each of us, a nod to quality over convenience in our camp dishware. There was not much conversation around that fire as we drank and nursed our grudges.

When rain began spitting down again around 9:00, we surrendered without a fight and headed for our tents. But not Fred—he ran to Jane’s van, and stood at the side door as if asking to be let inside.

“No Fred, we’re sleeping in the tent,” I said. The stubborn terrier remained begging at the van’s door. But I dragged him to my tent and thrust him inside. “Good night Jane,” I said, and took my wine glass and went to join the dog. I lit my flashlight-lantern to read a bit. I heard the “beep” as Jane put something in the van and locked it, then heard the zipper of her tent, perhaps 15 feet from mine.

That’s when the wind picked up. And the rain too. At first I tried to read, ignoring the increasing sounds outside the tent, the groaning branches overhead, the machine-gun fire of raindrops on the tent’s fly. Fred huddled against me, eyes trained on the tent door.

to be continued….

Because this is a longish story, I am posting it in two parts.

I submitted this to a recent Creative Nonfiction contest, without success. Lucky I have my own publishing platform. ;-) 

© 2015 Sarah White


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A Prayer for New Orleans

I’ve visited New Orleans like a poor person, like a rich person, and after Hurricane Katrina, like a person for whom money had no meaning. The devastation was not equally distributed, but it impacted us all—even people like me with only the most tenuous connection to that great city.

Life is weird. Its moments loop and overlap like beads on Mardi Gras necklaces left in the streets. On that day in August, 2005 when Katrina hit New Orleans dead-on, my poor–New Orleans episode spilled into my rich–New Orleans episode on the shore of a Wisconsin lake.

new orleans from international space station

My date with poverty in New Orleans came in 1977 when I visited a friend who had moved to the Big Easy, broke but optimistic. When the ride I’d found for a Spring Break visit dropped me at his doorstep and he drew me into his arms, I fell in love—with my friend, with the French Quarter, with the whole mad whirl of a place where you could stop for a flimsy plastic go-cup of beer on the way from a shotgun flat in Faubourg Marigny to Bourbon Street. In that New Orleans you didn’t need money because the show was in the streets. If you had the price of a quart of beer you could find a stoop or window well, make yourself comfortable and be entertained all night. After a week I had to leave Dale and go back to school, but I looped that crescent of muddy river around my heart like a hitching post and swore I’d be back.

My date with luxury in New Orleans came some twenty years later when I had achieved enough economic security to believe I could jet off for fun extended weekends on a whim. Some gal-pals invited me to make a fourth on their trip to the French Quarter Festival, a celebration of Dixieland that brought bands from around the world. The go-cups of beer were still ubiquitous but now the street-side booze kiosks sold frozen daiquiris poured into tall plastic tubs shaped like busty naked ladies or goggle-eyed alien heads. Both celebrated Big Easy culture that by that time seemed more legend than lived, both the lust and the voodoo sanitized and packaged for tourists. I chose the alien head, and strolled Bourbon Street remembering the seedy “Wash your own girl” booths and voodoo trinket stores of two decades past. Like me, New Orleans was a bit more secure, but money hadn’t changed the nightlife. The jazz still rolled out of the joints like blue fog until the shopkeepers hosed the drunkards’ puke into the gutters at dawn. In that New Orleans you needed money. The show was still free in the streets, but the hotels, the restaurants, the river cruises and haunted cemetery tours all demanded a steep price. My friend Jane and I were uneasy guests in luxury town. We downgraded from getaway weekends to camping.

We were tenting in the north woods when Katrina smashed into New Orleans, creating a world where money couldn’t buy anything—not safety, not potable water, not a prayer. That weekend we were off the grid, only catching snippets of NPR on runs into town for ice. With every foray the radio reported worse details from the Big Easy.

Then, the necklace of time twisted and the past splayed over the present. Guests arrived at our campsite: Dale, from that spring break in New Orleans 1977, with a lady friend he was teaching to whitewater-canoe. They had promised to join us once they came off the water.

They showed up shaken. They had stopped in a bar for a hamburger, seen television news footage of a flooded New Orleans. Levees breached. Brown water over the roofs of houses. People being pulled by helicopter off the roofs of those houses. Around the campfire we shared sorrow, fear, astonishment at the Great U S of A, allowing that to happen because that was how it was, in the Dubya years, that’s how things were in New Orleans for the poor and the old and the sick.

New Orleans’ problem was, essentially, that the city was a shallow bowl. Thus it is strangely fitting that one more vessel joins the go-cup and alien-head tub in my looping story of love for New Orleans. It is a Tibetan singing bowl, used by a master facilitator at a visioning retreat seven months after Katrina, conducted for residents of Gentilly. This was the first middle-class suburb developed for Blacks, just a short ways north of the French Quarter. Its blocks of mid-century ranch houses had been washed completely off their foundations, as had its residents.

Life threw me one more beaded string when I was invited to be part of the facilitator’s unlikely Wisconsin entourage, brought along to help transmit the visions of these people to architecture students from Tulane. Bert knew he needed a timer for the visioning event; he chose a Tibetan bell with a voice beautiful and deep enough to honor the anger, the pain, and the beauty of these deeply wounded people.

I never touched money on that trip; a silent investor funded our expedition with designs on real estate development. Every hotel bill and restaurant tab magically wafted away, like a grim joke about the homes, cars and businesses that Katrina had picked up for New Orleans.


New Orleans may be 1000 miles away geographically, but she is never far from my heart. On this tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I think of the people and the place there in the last loop of the Mississippi. The New York Times reported recently that “Nearly four out of five white residents believe the city has mostly recovered, while nearly three out of five blacks say it has not.” If you do New Orleans today, best do it like a rich person.

I may not be a religious person, but when I think of New Orleans, those Mardi Gras beads turn into rosaries, and what I feel, feels like a prayer.





Two of my previous essays on True Stories Well Told are about events mentioned in this post:

The Pink and the Muddy 
Go small!

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Mother Odilia, Jimmy the Baker, and Me

Bread is the staff of life, they say. Bread is where my husband Jim got his start as a baker, before progressing to pastry chef. Bread turned up repeatedly on a recent day, in that way that says, “pay attention.”

On Monday August 3, 2015, Jim returned to St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison for revision of hip replacement surgery performed seven weeks prior. At his follow-up visit the previous Wednesday his surgeon saw something out of place in the x-ray and commanded him back into surgery ASAP. So on that Monday morning bright and early, I drove Jim to the hospital again, left him in a pre-op room with a cadre of scrubs-wearing professionals again, and returned to the now-familiar Day Surgery Waiting Room again. After a few moments I remembered I had better options—the cafeteria, the beautiful garden—and took my leave. Before long I was ensconced in the garden with coffee and my laptop, feeling productive to a fault.

After a bit I remembered the chapel that I had checked out on my previous visit. There was a service starting at 11:30. Why not attend? If the surgery hadn’t “taken” the first time, maybe this was something I was supposed to do, part of my role as the supportive caretaker.

I can’t remember the last time I attended a church service. I was raised in the Episcopal faith, and it was very important to my family growing up, but it is not a part of my life today. But this is a Catholic hospital, after all. Why not, while in Rome, do as the Romans? Plus, I’m so in love with the St. Mary’s hospital experience that I wanted the full immersion. And so I packed up my laptop and headed for the service.

I was the first person to sit down in that bland circular concrete nondenominational chapel. A half dozen more people trickled in. The chaplain came along. An assistant prepared the altar, a round focal point at the center of a round womb of a space.

The chaplain began the service with a reading from the Old Testament, Exodus 16:31. We heard how the Israelites found manna in the desert to sustain them. The second reading was the Gospel according to Luke, 9:16, about Jesus feeding the multitude with a few loaves and fishes.

And I thought, how interesting; this is about bread, and my husband in the operating theater right now is a baker.

Next, the congregants were offered a few moments to speak their prayers; for safe travel, for a cure, for release from pain. Then we got to the part where the congregation is offered communion. I debated whether I should take part, being such an unfaithful non-Catholic anyway, but I did want the full experience. I filed up along with the other worshippers to stand before the round altar. The chaplain pressed a wafer into my hand. Putting it to my mouth, I felt its fish-food-like texture, tasted its staleness, still familiar after all these years. And then I waited for the chalice of wine—but it didn’t come! The assistant had blended wine and water in the chalice, but it wasn’t offered to us, nor did I see the chaplain put it to his lips. I felt strangely unfinished, the deed of communion with the Holy Spirit incomplete. We passed the Peace and the service concluded. On my way out of the chapel I thought of stopping the chaplain for an explanation, but he was busy with others more faithful than I, and I let it go.* I headed for lunch in the cafeteria.

And as I went, I thought—how interesting; bread again, and my husband the baker a few rooms away, under the surgeon’s knife.

On the way to the cafeteria I noticed something I hadn’t seen on my previous visits to St. Mary’s: a display about bread.

This hospital, over 100 years old, underwent a vast renovation and expansion in 2012. Artifacts of its history were preserved here and there in the new building, religious statuary and stained glass in niches, the occasional museum-quality diorama or display. Outside the cafeteria was a one of these, telling the story of the origins of the order of St. Mary’s. It said:

Mother Mary Odilia Berger and five nuns came to St. Louis with a mission to nurse the sick and aid the poor. These women, who became the “Sisters of St. Mary,” were deeply committed to serving the needs of others before their own.

Sister Odilia was a familiar sight, carrying a wicker basket of food, clean linens, and medicine. She gratefully accepted donations for her patients and those in need.

One day, man came to the convent asking for food. “We only have enough bread for us,” said the sisters. Upon hearing the request, Mother Odilia said, “Give him what he asks. The Lord will provide for us.” The Sisters gave him their bread. A few of hours later, a little girl came to the door with a basket full of rolls she had made for the nuns.

St. Mary’s Hospital [in Madison] was founded in 1912 by the Sisters of St. Mary.

Mother Odilia’s basket has become a symbol of care, compassion and generosity.

2015 st marys display

And there in the display, between the photos of the nuns and this story printed in large type, was a glass case containing Sister Mary’s wicker basket, full of rolls of bread. They were probably plastic, but still.

And I thought, what is it about the bread today, and my husband, who once baked every day, until pain brought him to a stop.

And so it came to pass, that three times in the space of an hour, as I sat waiting for my Jim to come through his surgery, bread appeared, just as it had for the Israelites and Jesus’ multitudes, just as it had for the congregants in fish-food form, just as it had for the poor man and the nuns.

As I write this, Jim is recovering much more quickly from this surgery. This week, he baked bread again.

I’m savoring every bite. And thinking that maybe care, compassion, and generosity have something to do with what bread is trying to tell me.

 © 2015 Sarah White


*Writing this, I called the chaplain’s office to ask why no communion wine was served. Turns out that in 2011, the Bishop Morlino decided priests should not serve it. “The change would be a significant departure from current U.S. Catholic custom, although bread-only is the norm in many other parts of the world. Madison would become only the second diocese in the country known to limit wine as a general policy.”


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Leaving Alabama, 1965

By Jeremiah Cahill


For the first time, I was scared. Really scared.

Hitchhiking solo into Selma, Alabama in March 1965 had been youthfully naïve. Six weeks later, departing that civil-rights hotbed by sticking a thumb out was not only foolish—it was dangerous.

On an early May afternoon, my buddy Paul and I were standing alongside Highway 80 on the outskirts of Selma, hitching west. We had been working and residing in Selma during the weeks following “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, and the later successful march to Montgomery, the state capital.

I was 18; Paul was a bright, energetic 16 year-old dropout activist, and we were eager tag-alongs to a movement in full sway across the southern U.S. We were inexperienced, so not of any skilled help. Our role was simply to add a couple new faces on the picket line or two energetic bodies in a march or at a sit-in.

We gained a well-rounded exposure to “the Movement.” Mine included a voter-registration march that put me face to face with perspiring state troopers eagerly employing tear gas and electric shock batons—cattle prods—to break our line.

In April, Paul and I had been arrested at a sit-in at a university in Montgomery, protesting segregated conditions. At one point, while in the county jail, I had the dubious distinction of being sent to “the hole,” a dark, dank, cramped isolation cell where I spent a day or two. But, being young and healthy, I don’t recall any of those experiences caused me real distress.


After a week or so in jail, we were released on signature and discovered we could leave the state if we wished. With many court cases pending, the likelihood of our being called back to stand trial was low. We were both eager to get back to California.

We had been warned about the danger of leaving the area on foot. As teenage males—no surprise—we didn’t heed that advice. Reluctantly, our fellow activists dropped us off mid-afternoon a ways from town, wishing us luck. But traffic was light, prospects for rides were low, and after a couple hours the sun was sinking.

Suddenly we needed more than luck—we needed an escape.

A dark-colored pickup truck pulled over and stopped about 100 yards away, facing us. Two burly white men got out, revealing shotguns or rifles hanging on rear-window gun racks.

The “rednecks” had a two-way radio in the truck, which they used soon after they pulled up. Standing there, they were close enough that I could see the pistols on their hips. They lounged on their front fenders, spoke a few words between them, snickered and smirked, and mostly just watched and waited.

At least fifteen minutes must have passed in this uncomfortable standoff.

On the shoulder of the road we both realized how vulnerable we were. There were few farms or homes nearby, just open fields then woods.

We tried to keep cool, but–whew! We knew we had no recourse, no way to return to safety. It was getting late.

Suddenly, a big car pulls over. We sprint to it; there’s a rumpled middle-aged white man behind the wheel: “Can one of you boys drive—someone have a license?”

I grab my wallet: “Here you go, mister—Hawaii license—OK?”

“Yup. I’ve had a too much to drink. If you boys can take us to Tulsa, I’ll nap in the back seat. Wake me up if you need gas money.”

Tulsa? Tulsa!! That’s f*ck*ng OKLAHOMA! How many states is that?

“OK, mister. Let’s go!”

He shuffled into the back seat and in no time we grabbed our bags and jumped in.

Behind the wheel, I adjusted the rearview mirror, dropped that Chevy into gear, stepped on the gas, and glanced back. As we hit the highway, all I saw was dust, the truck, and the two guys we assumed were Klansmen who could easily have taken our lives that evening.

For hundreds of miles, Paul and I exulted in our good fortune—and reflected on what could have been our fate.

© 2015. Jeremiah Cahill spent 30 years working with cooperative credit unions. On retirement in 2014, he wondered what he’d do with all his new-found time. Aside from doting on granddaughters, he discovered a penchant for writing memoir and current-events essays. Originally from Honolulu, Hawaii, he now resides in Madison, Wisconsin.


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