An actual family dinner conversation:
SON: [to MOM] “So, why’d you move all that stuff and mess up the big room?”
MOM: “I need more space for my art and sewing and things. Maybe I’ll have people over, teach a class; who knows? I might even teach you to sew, so you can sew a button on your pants.”
SON: “Why would I need to know how to do that, when I’ll have a wife to do it for me?”
MOM: (shrieking) “WHAT!!!?????”
SON: “Oh, I forgot; you’ll all, like, feminist and stuff.”
DAUGHTER: [to SON] “Seriously, just stop. You’ll never win this argument against Mom.”
DAUGHTER: [to MOM] “Though, for the record, Mom, I agree with my brother. Sewing buttons is totally a wife thing.”
DAD: “Well, excuse my French, but you need to know how to fix your own shit. Change a tire. Sew a button on your pants. Whatever. Everybody ought to know how to fix their own shit.”
DAUGHTER: “Why’d you say ‘excuse my French’ when you didn’t say anything in French?”
I would tell you how my mother taught me to sew, only I don’t remember. I have simply always known how to sew, the same way I’ve always known how to cook; and that’s that.
The techniques I learned from my mother, for both cooking and sewing, differ from proper French instruction. But I’d put my cheese soufflé up against any other. In truth, it’s damned hard to make a bad cheese soufflé. Also, it’s the best dish to make when entertaining a small crowd (2 or 3 people), because there’s built-in time to drink wine and visit for just long enough, while the oven does its work. And then, if you’ve invited the right kind of people, they’ll say some happy but restrained “oohs” and “ahhs” when the puffy dish emerges, and worry not one bit when it promptly falls into itself, because worrying is silly, and you (and they, and we) are too old for that.
Anyway, I’ve always known how to cook, and I’ve always known how to sew. And both of these things are things I enjoy doing, and I enjoy them for pure enjoyment because I’ve never been under obligation to do either.
Bernard learned to cook and sew from his Dutch grandmother, who lived with him and his brothers in New Mexico when the boys were little. Then he learned more sewing in high school home economics class. All of this he told me one day, a very long time ago, when we were in Wyoming, and he was repairing a tear in his ski jacket. “You sew?” I asked. And he said yes, and then explained how he’d learned first from Omi and then more in school. It’s something I’ve always admired about him, his ability (and willingness) to stitch up his own damned jacket.
But I’m better at sewing than he is; and that’s simply the truth. And I enjoy it more than he does, which is also simply the truth. So, in fact, I, his wife, do usually sew on his buttons. But he knows how, and our children will, too, because we’re going to teach them. Dammit. The same way we’ve taught them to cook eggs, etc.
[For the record, Bernard is a much better cook than I am – though he is totally overwhelmed by the mere idea of figuring out family dinner on short notice on a weeknight, which is why I do most of our family cooking.]
All of this to say: Life has been busy, and complicated in the particular way that life can be complicated when married and working and raising teenagers and figuring things out. So, life generally, and parenting, cooking and sewing (and my work-work) specifically, continue to occupy more of my time, recently, than writing. Which is why I’m ending November, as October, with only this short little snippet of a family life story, followed by a rambling round-up of other little snippets, instead of one, continuous, ordinary essay-type post. You might expect this to become a monthly routine, because it’s actually kind of fun to put together. I hope it will also be fun to read.
Sew, Sew, Sew Your Clothes.
Several years ago I bought The Alabama Stitch Book. And I then I put it on a high shelf and forgot about it, until a few weeks ago when an artist friend made the trek to Florence, Alabama, inspiring me to get that book down and try something. And now an old j.jill dress and pair of leggings, both discarded to the thrift store pile, have new life as a skirt.
I so enjoyed making that skirt, and reading all of Natalie Chanin’s books, that I jumped right into making another skirt, so excited about making it that I laid out the fabric sideways, cut the wrong way on the grain and had to start over (after I had carefully stenciled a pattern I’d drawn. Oy.). I’m undaunted by this mistake (because, seriously, move on) and am now working on a coat, because sewing is relaxing in a way that nothing else is, at least for me. Plus, I have all the supplies at-the-ready for teaching my son how to repair … something… someday.
Want to know more about the techniques? Visit The School of Making (fair warning: if you like to sew, you’ll find it hard to resist temptation on the site).
A Shocking Shade of Pink.
After years, and years, and years of hearing Susan Stamberg talk about “Mama Stamberg’s Cranberry Relish,” I finally made it. It is delicious. I kid you not. And it takes all of about 5 minutes to make (followed by an overnight stay in the freezer). For the record, it looks to me like cherry ice cream, not Pepto Bismol (which is how Stamberg describes it). I’m going to make it again, and I’m not waiting until next Thanksgiving; it was that tasty.
At dinner one night (not the “fix your own shit” night), my daughter listed her favorite things to eat, hoping I’d take heed and stop making weird food (meaning butternut squash). “What’s your very favorite thing these days?” I asked. “Meatballs. From Aldo’s. Don’t even try, Mom. You’ll never be able to make them that good.” I rubbed my hands together with delight. I so love a challenge….
I started with Mario Batali, because of course I did. Then, on to The Kitchn, which is usually a reliable place for straightforward recipes. Then to New York Times Cooking app, on which I too often rely (which is why I didn’t go there first). There were many options on NYT, but the one that caught my eye was from Stanley Tucci (how could I resist?). In the end, I took a bit from each recipe, using a mix of pork and beef, only parsley (no basil), and breadcrumbs instead of bread pieces. And I didn’t brown them but instead cooked them straight in the sauce, because Aldo’s meatballs aren’t browned at all, it seems.
The result? “Pretty good. Almost as good as Aldo’s.” I’ll keep trying.
This summer I heard Dan Pallotta speak at a fundraising conference (Cause Camp; it’s great – and the remote participation option is so well done that I didn’t miss not being there in person). His book, Uncharitable, was (like The Alabama Stitch book…) sitting on a shelf, untouched. So I pulled it down and read (skimmed) it after hearing his speech and then watching his TED Talk.
That was a few months ago, but I was thinking about it last week, as the memes started going around on social media: “DO NOT give money to this charity! Look at what the CEO makes! Disgraceful!!”
As we draw closer to #GivingTuesday and other year-end charity appeals, please take a minute to think about what it takes to run an organization, and to run it well, making good use of the dollars you give. The “overhead” is fundamentally important to doing the work that you care about, whether that work is animal rescue, saving the environment, providing shelter, or stopping violence. As Pallotta suggests, you don’t invest one dollar in a for-profit company and expect one dollar’s work of direct service; you expect the company to multiply your money, to everyone’s benefit. Charities are the same. Every dollar you invest in a charity ought to have a multiplier effect and ought be evaluated on its impact, not on its CEO’s salary. And the CEO making big change in the world ought to be a badass, no-holds-barred kind of organizational leader, with compensation appropriate to attract and retain him or her.
If you are a charitable donor, you’re investing in making our world better (thank you!). And you owe it to yourself to think consciously about the best way to support charities doing the best work, with the highest impact, to make our world better. Pallotta’s (very entertaining) TED Talk will help you think about all of this in a new way, I promise.
A Little Reading
Even with the cooking and the sewing and the parenting and the work-work, I still read, every day, because – as my children would be quick to tell you – I’m a nerd. Here are some of the most interesting things this nerd read in the past month:
If you have only a few minutes and want to read something that will leave you saying, “wow…” then I suggest either this lovely piece from Modern Love or Annie Proulx’s speech from the National Book Award ceremony.
[That Proulx didn’t start writing until she was 58 delights me.]
If you’ve got more time and really want to think deeply about either the gun debate or debates in general, I suggest Brene Brown’s “Speaking Truth to Bullshit“ or Dying Art of Disagreement (which ran in September, but I’ve read it twice again since then).
Need an anthology to fill a rainy, slow Saturday afternoon? How about The Bitter Southerner’s Best Stories of 2016 (if you haven’t read them, they’re still new – and the 2017 list will be out soon, so get busy).
For something deadly serious (an important), read What’s Killing America’s New Mothers?Seriously; it’s 2017. We must do better.
And last, but not least (especially for my fellow photography nerds), don’t miss this story about a revival of high school darkrooms (and if you don’t know what darkroom is, then you really should read this piece).
The terrible dogs, whom I love, are doing just fine, thank you. Despite having torn up an entire bag of hand warmer packets. The kind made of icky chemicals not meant to be ingested by humans or dogs. Terrible dogs, whom I love. Who sleep on the sofa when they think I’m not paying attention.
Want to know more about the work-work I do? Scroll down, past the dinner ideas, to read a transcript from a speech I gave several times in November, as part of our local United Way campaign. And if you haven’t yet made your United Way pledge at work, please do it. It matters.
I still have 2018 wall calendars for sale; they make terrific holiday hostess gifts!
Food | late November – early December, 2017
Dutch Baby (it’s our go-to weeknight dish)
(transcript from United Way campaign speech for member agency The Exchange Club Family Center, by Jennifer Balink, executive director since July 2016)
(Note: The United Way of the Mid-South is on a mission to reduce poverty in Memphis, and all United Way member agencies are part of that poverty-focused mission and were asked to address poverty specifically in their speeches.)
It’s funny how you learn things about a place once you work there that you couldn’t have known beforehand – things that have to do with feelings and perceptions; things you couldn’t possibly have seen on a website or written history, particularly when these “things” are ideas, or questions, that live in the subconscious.
One of the “things” I’ve learn over the past year and a half is that very few people know what we do, or how we got started. So, I’ll begin with a short history – it may be something you already know, but I didn’t know it, so maybe it will be news for you, too.
35 years ago a group of local Exchange Club members (Exchange Clubs, like Rotary and Kiwanis, are service clubs – which I didn’t know before I started this job, either) raised funds to bring a program called Parent Aide to Memphis. Parent Aide, co-developed by a pediatrician (and Exchange Club member), trained volunteers to work with parents in home marked by violence and abuse, teaching parents new, non‐violent ways of interacting with their children and each other.
Over the years, the Family Center‘s name has changed twice, and the programs have expanded. But the agency’s commitment to its original, essential mission has never wavered. Through counseling, group therapy, classroom instruction and specialized interventions, the Family Center addresses abusive behavior at its root, providing services for both victims and perpetrators, all with a single goal in sight: to end family violence, for everyone involved.
That’s all, mostly, stuff I read, “things” I learned intellectually as I got started. My real understanding of our work came from another source: my husband.
I had been at the Family Center for a couple of weeks, getting settled in my new office, arranging my pens and organizing my notebooks – all the stuff you do in getting yourself situated. And my husband, who is a carpenter, was helping me build a table, a long meeting table to replace a sofa and seating area that looked, as one colleague described it, “like 1990s funeral parlor decor.”
We were working on the weekend so we wouldn’t be too disruptive, and I left home early Sunday morning to get some work done in the office, telling him to call me when he was on his way so I could meet him at the front door of our building and help carry in the materials.
He said, “I’m not doing that. I’m not walking in that front door with you.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because everyone we know is going to be driving home from church down Union Avenue, thinking, ‘what’d Jennifer and Bernard do that they have to go to the Exchange Club Family Center?’”
“Bernard, no one is going to say that,” I replied.
“Everyone is going to say that. Don’t you know where you work?”
Of course I knew where I worked, I told him. I worked in a place that helped people – a safe place where we had counselors and good programs, and – HELP. “We’re the good guys, Bernard. Everyone knows that.”
“You ought to ask around,” was all he said.
And so I did.
I asked a friend of ours, who said to me: yes, I had to come to your place once. It was the worst time in my life. You can’t imagine how embarrassing and shameful it felt to hear a judge say that you can’t be alone with your kids. With your own children. I had to come to your place so someone could watch me with my own kids, because a judge said so. It was awful, and I was angry. But I’m really glad you were there, because you helped us get us get to a new place as a family you helped me regain custody of my children and build a healthy relationship.
I talked to another friend, who said: You know, a few years ago my sister got into some trouble. She was with this guy who was really bad news; they had a baby; it was awful, and we were afraid for her. If you all hadn’t been there, I don’t know what would have happened to my sister, or to her child. It was a pretty terrible time for our family, and we were embarrassed to talk about it. I’m really grateful you all were there.
There were more stories, just like these. More than I could count.
So, one of the things I’ve learned in 14 months at the Family Center, that I didn’t really understand before, is that people come to our building at 2180 Union Avenue at perhaps the darkest time in their lives. They’re embarrassed, ashamed, fearful, angry and hurt. And they don’t want to have to walk in our front door. Or to have anyone see them walk in.
Family violence is often an invisible problem, even though its effects are wide‐ranging and long lasting. Children who witness violence are more likely to struggle in school. They’re more likely to be victimized as adults, or to become abusive themselves. The trauma lasts a lifetime.
A lifetime of invisible suffering.
Until, one day, something – often something unspeakably horrible – forces that invisible, hidden, private tragedy out into the open.
Most of the adults who come, unwillingly – angry and upset – to our front doors have never told their deep, dark secrets to anyone, ever. And they don’t really want to.
But what they find once they walk across the threshold – what I’ve seen happen, over and over again, every day since I started in this work last July – is something counselors call “unconditional positive regard.” In overly simple terms, it’s the belief that shame doesn’t help anyone get better. So that’s our basic philosophy, the essence of how we do what we do: “unconditional positive regard.”
We’ve spent some time, this past year, putting words to this philosophy, thinking consciously about how we create this environment. We sum it up this way: we abide by a BRAID of essential values that guide the way we treat one another, the way we treat our clients, and the way we approach the complex challenge of family violence:
Belief – in change, because no family is perfect.
Respect – for self and for others
Autonomy – accepting responsibility for one’s own behavior
Interdependence – because healthy relationships with others are what it’s all about
Dignity – because seeking help is a sign of strength
So what does all that have to do with poverty, you might wonder.
50% of domestic violence or sexual assault victims lose their jobs.
If you’re wondering, “how can that be true?” remember that family violence is often an invisible problem. So the situation might look something like this:
“You know, we really liked her; she was a great member of the team. But she had trouble getting to work on time, and sometimes she didn’t come at all. And even when she did, there were days when she was just distracted. We tried talking to her about it, but in the end, we had to let her go.”
Women with household incomes of less than $7,500 are 7 times as likely as women with household incomes over $75,000 to experience domestic violence.
It’s not as simple as “poverty breeds violence.”
Individuals from all economic circumstances experience violence. But poverty makes it worse. Poverty doesn’t cause physical violence or abuse, and violence doesn’t cause poverty. But each one accelerates the other, and the two, together, make for a terrible, twisted, downward spiral.
It is difficult to escape poverty while being abused. Those trapped in it are already at a disadvantage.
Poverty reduces options and, when coupled with violence, it destabilizes basic security not just for those in the violent relationship, but for everyone connected to them and in the larger community.
It’s all big, and scary, and messy.
Maybe we can start thinking of it though, in a new way.
Once upon a time, a long time ago, we used to think of cancer as one big, overwhelming, scary disease. “He has CANCER,” we’d whisper, as if all hope were lost.
But we know now, from years of scientific research and study, that cancer isn’t one disease; it isn’t one, big, scary, intractable thing. We know, for example, that viruses can cause cancer or influence the way cancer spreads in a body. We know that environmental and genetic factors matter. We know it’s a complicated, complex puzzle, one we have to solve a piece at a time, without ever losing sight of the whole picture.
Likewise, poverty isn’t just one thing – it isn’t one, big, scary, intractable problem. Poverty isn’t just a lack of money; it’s complex, with many different, interrelated factors.
We can’t solve poverty all at once, with a single magic wand, any more than we can cure cancer in one fell swoop. So we each have to do our part, work on our piece of the puzzle, while the whole picture is taking shape.
As a United Way agency, the Exchange Club Family Center is part of a multi‐faceted approach to help lift fragile families out of the tangled web of poverty. Although the trauma of violence is only one of many barriers these families face, resolving it is an important step toward a better future.
Working with other agencies in a united effort, we dare to dream that families can change and that our community can thrive, if we all work together.
Like you all, we’re starting our employee United Way campaign, too. We’re a small organization – about 35 employees – and our counselors and therapists don’t come into this work for the money. But for many years, small nonprofit that we are, we’ve had 100% employee participation in our own United Way campaign. Every one of our employees contributes to the campaign. And we expect to do it again this year, because we believe not only in our own work, but in the larger, more complex – more daring – dream that the United Way is driving.
We live united and we hope you will too. Thank you.