Category Archives: Nuclear weapons

gone to the printers

I think this might be like arriving at base camp at the foot of Everest

I know its an awful lot like being 37 weeks pregnant.

maybe you dreamed of it

surely you worked for it

but as the time nears

you realize, increasingly

that you have absolutely no idea

what you’ve gotten yourself into

 

and the dark clouds form and disperse

as you reckon the size of the leap

you have made

peering at the place you think you’re going to land

readying the things you think you’ll need

asking for mentors, safety nets

realizing that when you need financial security more than ever you are sloughing it off

to pit yourself against the challenge

of doing this thing

and doing it well

aprons and layers falling

revealing the dream vulnerable to the raw air:

 

I,

Writer

terrified, quaking, tired and certain

there is no perfect draft, there is no truly ready time

the story is past due

 

and gone to the printers.

finally finished, and only just begun.

Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West.  November 2014

 

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bigger than a blog post, smaller than a breadbox

I haven’t been doing much creative writing lately,

because this:

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is coming out in the fall and contrary to what I’d somehow fooled myself into thinking,

my work is only just begun.

More to come lovelies, I promise. all sorts of things are moving and shaking.. a website, a video, events, travel. opportunities for folks to support getting the stories in my book out into the world. For now… disjointed waitress poetry will make an attempt to return, because learning how to market a book gives me a headache, and I need to write creatively again.

 

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Seance

I have lists of the dead in my file cabinet. Mothers, sisters, fathers, sons. Children and old women, veterans and sheep ranchers, baby boomers and gen-xers. Granddaughters and neighbors, teachers and tribal leaders.

Casualties of the Cold War, all of them. Radiological warfare is the gift that keeps on giving, implicating the rest of us in a conflict that ended before our children were born. We do not get a choice. We get rhetoric instead, about National Security. About terrorists, and staying vigilant. About the bombs that brought peace.

Its just been nonstop peace since 1945. Hasn’t it.

Nine years ago I went out hunting for these names, for people who remembered the dead, who had the energy left to tell these hard, ugly stories. Now they come to me unbidden, flowing into my inbox like disquieted ghosts.

Unbidden is the wrong word. I asked for their names, because I wanted to bear witness, because I’m not convinced that their stories ended with their deaths. Irma Thomas’s daughter believes her mother is still hanging around in the ether because she died with her work undone. She’s told me that I use phrases she only heard her mother use, like “damn it all to hell,”

I don’t know if I believe in ghosts,
but I do believe in Irma.

After the clouds passed over from the nuclear tests to the west she put on her husband’s coveralls and tied a dishcloth over her face and pulled her laundry off the line to rewash it. Her neighbors thought she was crazy. She asked them “do you want your kids sleeping on these sheets?” Despite her mother’s vigilance, her daughter lost the use of her legs as a teenager. She wanted to be a dancer. She’s survived cancer more times than I can count. She is the same age as my dad.

Sometimes I light candles on my writing desk, because we need ritual to face death. Sometimes I avoid working on my book and do laundry instead. How the hell could I possibly get it right?

I can get it right by letting them speak for themselves. From the grave, sometimes. I play back the tapes to myself when the house is quiet. I listen to the silences where they stopped to compose themselves when the tears came. I listen to the places we laughed together.

Whenever I visit a town to do an interview, I go to the cemetery. My mother taught me to go to the cemetery. Her dad died in a plane crash in 1962, and she spent my whole childhood looking for stories that would knit her past together. So in Hurricane, Utah, and Emmett, Idaho, and Mesquite, Nevada, I have gone to the cemetery. In Logan, in Cedar City, in St. George. In Red Valley, in Orem. In Salt Lake. I wander the headstones and I look at the dates.

There is no monument for the casualties of the uranium industry. Most local museums in the region do not mention the downwinders. The atomic museum in Vegas pretends they do not exist. We have been led to believe that American “supremacy” in the Cold War (and on the globe, by extension) was purchased without civilian casualties. Its a big, ugly lie. But while there are no placards about the uranium widows in the museums at Los Alamos and Las Vegas, there are cemeteries. And I stand alone in those cemeteries, the air thick with stories I cannot read, and I listen to the quiet. I visit the graves of the activists who fought until they could no longer draw breath and I let them remind me I do not have the privilege of growing weary of all this.

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15 august

They do not stop, the stories.
Just when you’ve had time to return to your ordinary life, finish the dishes, get caught up on the laundry, have a glass of wine with a friend, feel selfish,
they come cascading down on your shoulders,
rending your heart,
teaching your lungs and your pumping muscles
things they may have always known
loss is coming
death is imminent
the ones you love will perish too.
And you bend over the sink,
sobbing into the dish water,
tasting the truth of love
you cannot keep bad things from happening
even if you
curl around your core
keep the world from your heart,
or smother the ones you love under your wings,
you cannot hold pain at bay.
and your heart becomes a weaker organ
your skin loses its thickness
becomes brittle
and so you open
again
and again
and again
making yourself stronger through surviving
bearing witness doesn’t have to break you down.

it feels that way at first, sure.
and you think about your Jewish ancestors
who tore their clothes in grief,
and you lean in to the power of ritual.
learn that if you allow the grief to tear you open
it will teach you things

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Revolutionary Mother’s Day.

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(me, in bonnet, and my Mama, c. 1982)

Arise then, women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts! Whether your baptism be of water or of tears! Say firmly:

“We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,

Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.

Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.

We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

From the bosom of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with Our own. It says: “Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.” Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.  As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home, for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.

Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means Whereby the great human family can live in peace…

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality, may be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient and the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.

—Julia Ward Howe, 1870

Mother’s Day wasn’t founded for mothers. It was founded by them—and with revolution in mind.  Acutely aware of the costs of war, industry, and greed, Julia Ward Howe and like-minded women initiated the first Mother’s Day as a day of activism, a day in which women would stand upon the basic principles of motherhood to demand a more peaceful, just world.  It wasn’t the first time women made such demands, and it would not be the last. Having gone through the pain and joy and struggle and exhilaration and labor of bringing children into the world and raising them to be caring, responsible, creative, moral members of society, many women have historically found it difficult to stomach the wars and social forces which then twisted the bodies and minds of their children—and the “enemy” children of other mothers—in the interests of ideology and profit.

m_a8df780893a0da8711f0f5299a27bc44 (Meeting a goat at the Evergreen State Fair, c. 1987)

https://i2.wp.com/www.jofreeman.com/photos/codepink/WSP.jpgThere are as many examples of mother-activism as there are cheesy Hallmark Mother’s Day cards.   One of my personal favorites: On 1 November 1961, incensed to learn that radioactive istotopes from domestic nuclear testing had contaminated their breastmilk and the cows’ milk they fed their children, some fifty thousand mothers walked out of their kitchens in a nationwide “Strike for Peace.”  The walkout had been organized via women’s networks, like PTA and Christmas card lists, knitting circles, and childcare groups.  Well-aware that any seeming “radicalism” would lose them public sympathy, these women utilized their roles as mothers to protest, couching their opposition to testing in terms of their children’s safety, rather than any larger political formulation.  Brought before the Anti-Communist McCarthy hearings, the members of the new movement, Women Strike For Peace, made a mockery out of the hearings by wheeling in strollers and breastfeeding their children as they were interrogated for Communist ties.  They made the contamination of milk by nuclear testing a national issue, and the effectiveness of their message helped drive testing underground in 1962.

Another one of my favorite mother-activism stories, as told by the mothers themselves:

My mother raised me to stand for peace.  She taught me as a child that change is not brought about by grand pronouncements or flashy leaders, but by the steady, daily work of ordinary people, women and mothers in particular.

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She taught me to grow my own food in a backyard garden, and taught me how to spin wool into yarn, which she taught me to knit into hats.  She taught me how to return to the stories and documents of the past to illuminate the work of living and the injustices of colonialism and patriarchy.  She is a brilliant writer, and the keeper of many stories.  She gives selflessly, loves fiercely, and works, tirelessly, to realize her hope for a more peaceful and sustainable human path.

One of my earliest memories:  we are in the livingroom of our old house in Snohomish.  The air is cool, and the overhead lights are off.  I think it must have been summertime, and I remember the glowing radio display on the old silver stereo.  Maybe she was holding me, or I was standing next to her looking up, or I was standing on a chair to turn up the volume myself… ??

The group vocals of “We Are the World” flooded the livingroom, and I remember her explaining to me what the song meant.  That we are all connected.  That this was an important song, because all of these people had come together to sing about peace, for children.   And we danced around the livingroom together, as we often did.

Today is my mother’s twenty-eighth Mother’s Day.

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And so, for this mother’s day…

I want her to know that I’ve been listening, for all these years.  I love her so much, and I couldn’t have asked for a more loving, powerful mother.  In honor of my mother Theresa, my grandmothers Marian and Frances, and their mothers before them, I have made a donation to Code Pink, to support the revolutionary work of Mother’s Day.

Here’s a little nostalgia to dance around to…

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Filed under Americana, Civil Disobedience, goat, History, Mothers, Nuclear weapons, Peace

Nuclear Homeland (Or; My First Arrest)


The image that occupies the header of this blog is of particular significance. Snapped in the Spring of 2008, facing northwest in the Nevada desert, it captures a moment in which the sun was rising behind me, and the moon was setting in front of me. The lights on the highway in the bottom left are the cars of workers, heading for this gate:


Welcome to our Nuclear Homeland. Exhibit A: The Nevada Test Site, where nearly 1000 nuclear weapons have been detonated since 1951, many of them two, three, and four times as large as the nuclear bombs we dropped on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


This photograph was snapped the day before the others, in roughly the same location. Its me, and friends Jon, Steve, and Jerry, moments before my first arrest, for what I’m proud to say was my first major act of Civil Disobedience: trespassing on the Nevada Test Site, which is technically the property of the Western Shoshone, not the United States military. (That’s me in the middle, holding my sandals and an envelope full of photographs. Going barefoot into the highly toxic Nevada Nuclear Test Site was kind of a dumb move. But I’d been walking for six days and sixty-five miles, and my feet hurt.)

There’s more to this story.

So much more that I wrote a book about the place. I finished it in October, and called it As it Turned Out, There Were People In All Those Little Communities: A Folk History of the Nuclear West. Still waiting to hear back from the first publisher I sent it to.

Stay tuned for more stories of our Nuclear Homeland and my first arrest. (Yes, I’m planning a second one).

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