Work-Wife: A Chance to Re-Write HERstory

This piece was originally penned in February 2021. Today, I am privileged to share it with this community. I do this as a reminder. A reminder to stop, look, and listen to what’s going on under all our bloated politics. If we did that, we’d understand what it truly means that throngs of people still experience how inequitably “essential” home-based work continues to be. We’ve ignored these individuals and their stories for far too long. It’s time we started listening.

I should start by saying that I’m one of the lucky ones. The ones whose husbands aren’t afraid of a little — okay, a lot of — work around the house. By this I mean not only fixing things that break, as is the customary reference, but also proactively taking up work that is so often, needlessly, and unceremoniously relegated to women. Or at least, relegated to the more domestically-included human in any housing-based partnership, and then mistakenly gendered along the way.

Phew.

If that sounds like a lot to process, that’s because it is. It’s also why I’ve chosen to frame this essay with a deeply personal story. In my experience, personal stories give much-needed context to broad-sweeping social narratives. And historically speaking, that kind of context helps support long-lasting change.

Change is why I got into this business, so I’ll just lay it all out right here.

I am a woman, and while I enjoy some aspects of keeping a home, I also enjoy having the freedom to pursue tasks that full-time home-making simply does not allow, whether or not one ultimately couples or raises children.

Luckily, I married a man who gets that on all levels.

He understands that each person’s worth is inherent to their personhood, and that this concept is completely separate and distinct from the monetary value of their earnings or the social value of their time — whether inside or outside the home.

Like I said, I’m one of the lucky ones.

Of course, there are still chores to be done and bills to be paid. There is no out-valuing that reality. But it was for precisely this reason that, early on in our marriage, we developed a clear understanding of how our house should run.

It’s this simple.

Never will he assume or suggest that I complete a task on the basis of my sex or gender, and in return, never will I assume the same of him.

Sound like a fairytale?

Let us assure you that it’s not. But it’s also a far cry from more restrictive arrangements of the past — and in some instances, also of the present. As a matter of fact, we’ve found that our marriage functions in a substantively different way than most other couples around us.

For example, the breadwinner? Could be either or both of us. Okay, maybe that part’s not so radical. But dishes-doer? Bed-maker? Laundry-folder? Ironer? Meal-planner? Grocery-shopper? Yard-maintainer? Wall-fixer? I could go further. However, my sense is that you get the point. And besides, the answer to all of these questions is the same: either or both of us.

“How very egalitarian,” some of you are thinking.

“Thanks,” we offer in reply, “but don’t you dare romanticize it.”

See, despite our best efforts, the division of labor in our home is very rarely “equal.” And yes, we knew this would be the case, because no amount of understanding could be expected to undo millennia of antiquated social rules. Especially not during a pandemic and historic social uprising.

By the way, how are we all feeling about the absolutely relentless world-pummeling we’ve survived to-date? You know, the one that began late in 2019, lasted all the way through 2020, and will likely be with us for the foreseeable future?

The disaster that we’ve come to call COVID-19 — and I suspect, many other less dignified names — has been one hell of a wake-up call for American households. I’d like to assume that the vast, ruinous landscape we’re trudging through will continue to reform and refine us, but history will be the arbiter of that decision.

Reformed and refined by what, you ask? By our response (or lack thereof) to the many injustices that ravaged American society long before the pandemic, but which are certainly brought into sharper relief by it. And my lord, do opportunities for reform and refinement abound.

In particular, the United States of America must still face and complete its reckonings with racial injustice and related points of access like a living wage, fair housing, nutritious food, quality medical care, and dignity-affirming education.

In each of these arenas, it’s critical to note that when we speak about injustices, we are actually speaking about individuals who have been wronged, communities who have been transgressed, and not just about broad academic or political buzzwords.

What this means is that when we speak about gender inequality, whether at-home or in the workplace, we are actually speaking about the ways in which women and people who don’t identify as male are denied opportunities, restricted in their movement or growth within the limited opportunities they’re given, or are made to disproportionately suffer the consequences of decisions they did not — or perhaps were not allowed to — make.

Let’s remember, none of those struggles are exactly new. The list of offending behaviors women endure daily — and have for generations — is the topic of another essay. Still, given that we have been handed the uncomfortable microscope that is COVID-19, it would be irresponsible not to evaluate long-standing social struggles in light of our more recent crisis.

Historically speaking, women’s roles in American society have actually expanded around periods of national and international strain. For example, women won the right to vote in 1920 — just two short years after the 1918 flu pandemic. And within two decades, women weren’t only allowed to work outside the home, they were explicitly asked to.

History buffs might recognize “Rosie the Riveter” as the World War II era campaign I’m referencing here — and take similar issue with its hasty copy-pasting on everything from coffee mugs to “Health Care Heroes” campaigns in this century’s pandemic. Rosie’s so ubiquitous that I’m not sure we even appreciate what she stands for anymore. How very symbolic.

Since then, women’s presence in the paid workforce has been anything but short and limited. It took only one additional generation for women in padded-shouldered pantsuits to enter corporate America in droves. And thanks to those trailblazers, women in my generation think nothing of reaching for jobs at the highest levels their education, experience, and social standing can buy.

But wait!

This doesn’t excuse America from making further efforts to achieve greater parity or justice. To be clear, for as much progress as we’ve made, many American households still assume home-based work is “women’s work.” And as long as that’s true, the most immediate threat to equality isn’t the board room — it’s the ironing board (and a bunch of other places).

I’m no social scientist, but I’d be willing to bet that many readers have said, “Yep, old news,” several times in this essay. And I’m with them — I hear them, I stand with them, I am one of them. That’s not the issue. I’d argue that, perhaps with exception to COVID-19’s forced re-domiciling, the bigger problem is America’s quiet acceptance of this reality in the first place.

What happens when we assume that the home is exclusively — or even primarily — the woman’s domain? The exact opposite of what should: women are un- or under-paid, our work is devalued, and we become invisible despite our many efforts to distinguish ourselves. Ear-bleeding double-speak about how “invaluable” we are doesn’t help, either.

So where does that leave us?

Exhausted already, women take to the streets and the polls, as we have for generations, to protest our treatment and demand better. But we have limits. And those limits get reached a lot faster when we realize that maintaining jobs outside the home will not save us; that voting for progressive, feminist candidates will not save us; and that perhaps no one really wants things to change for us at all.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only made this uncomfortable truth more apparent. In a time when we’re collectively called to “stay at home,” women’s lives should be central to nearly, if not all, conversations America has, bending the arc of justice towards appropriately protecting, recognizing, and compensating us for our time, effort, and energies.

That hasn’t happened — at least, not until recently.

What did we experience instead?

Even when women have managed to secure employment outside our homes, our tasks within them haven’t faded, they’ve only grown more demanding. And unlike our male counterparts, we can’t simply demand crisis pay to help us swallow these “new” responsibilities — because we’ve never been paid for work we do in our homes at all.

By now, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that women report feeling exhausted. No one asked to fragment themselves in this way could be expected to feel otherwise. But here’s the deal: for all our exhaustion, women see what’s going on, and just like the generations of women who came before us, we refuse to be held down by it.

We know better than anyone that our plight is a result of society not having a reliable system by which to understand — much less, assess — us. And so, as we’ve always been capable of doing, we wholesale reject its definitions and expectations. What serves us matters, too. So get ready for the reckoning.

But first, we have some questions:

How is it that women are so “invaluable” that our assigned work breaks us apart? How is it that our male partners — both business and domestic — see this and do nothing to change it? How is it that so many people live in peace with the knowledge that women’s “invaluable” nature renders us broken and exhausted to the point of invisibility?

The answer is that there’s gross injustice at work.

That’s right, we have some answers, too.

But if the devil’s in the details, so too does evil hide within the criminally obvious. That means we have to talk about gender inequality in great depth, starting right now. Yes, today. Not tomorrow. Not next election cycle. Right now.

And that brings us back to our current context. We’re living through a global pandemic that, at least for women, has changed very little — except to bring into even sharper relief how maddeningly the same our lives actually are, whether relative to how they were two years ago, or relative to the many “onerous” changes our male counterparts bemoan by comparison.

Don’t you dare make the mistake of believing this injustice is just a past or present concern, either. Unless we do something to change it, women will continue to feel the effects of COVID-19 faster, closer, and longer than our male or male-identifying counterparts. This means that our rapidly evolving situation might also breed an unjust future.

Neither should this be a difficult concept to grasp, though let’s not render it ineffectual. It just means that women need as many people as possible, across as many channels as possible, to make our reality plainer than plain — for as long as we possibly can.

On that note, I’d like to propose a slight “rebrand” of this conversation. The reason is two-fold: (1) we need to be on the same page before we aim to make change in our unique corners of the world, and (2) whether or not we succeed will depend in large part on how well we equip ourselves with language that the vast majority of people can understand.

So bear with me.

Rather than leaning exclusively on the language of injustice, I’m going to start calling gender inequality a problem. In my experience, that word has a higher success rate when it comes to driving action. That is probably because people are hard-wired to fix “problems” — and that is thanks to the perception that problems are quotidian in nature, and thus solvable by anyone, whereas “injustices” often seem so large that no one could possibly help. This is an important distinction.

With me so far?

Now, since we need every willing person to help us, I’m going to call gender inequality a problem — and hope it makes a difference.

Remember the beginning of this essay, where I told you that personal stories also have the capacity to make change? I’m going to attempt to weave the larger social and historical context we’ve been discussing back together with my own — and hope that makes a difference, too.

Even as a woman with a fully-committed husband, the pandemic has brought about one principal change for me — and it’s not one I’m happy about. Over the past year-and-a-half, I’ve gone from being a wife who works, to a stay-at-home “work-wife.” I’ll explain what that means in a minute, though let me assure you that it’s neither sexy nor exciting.

First, you need to understand our family’s previous home context.

Even before the virus, my husband worked in a career that barely afforded him time to eat or sleep. Back then, he labored in days-long shifts at the office, surviving on nothing but adrenaline, cheap take-out, and willpower. Maybe there’s some caffeine in there too, but that’s beside the point. What matters — as he would also tell you — is that my husband was almost never home. And as we were — and still are — two people in this marriage, of course his reality affected me.

The first major impact? A forced, false singlehood. And the second? Learning very quickly to make good use of my free time. In the beginning, this freedom encompassed only a few short hours a week. But eventually, my spirited pursuits outside of work became my work, and at that point, I furnished myself with a home-based office.

This accomplishment will always make my “top five” list of favorite moments. I’d finally liberated myself from toxic notions of success and, in their wake, started the journey I’d been called to take since I was a little girl. Even then, I knew to cherish these moments because I’d never get them back. I just had no idea how right I’d be.

Fast-forward to March 2020.

When it became clear that COVID-19 would be staying stateside, my husband joined me in working from home. And we welcomed this adjustment with open arms. First because it greatly reduced our risk of viral exposure, and second because, for the first time in our marriage, we actually got to live with each other.

This is not an exaggeration.

It’s also a fact I proudly shared with our family, our friends, the neighbors, or really anyone who would listen. I was just that excited.

Another problem, though.

Excitement can be blinding. Blinding to the point where important clues get missed. And let me tell you, from the other side of this transition, I never saw our current reality coming.

Today, instead of my once-neat work schedule:

Wake at 8

Eat breakfast by 9

Workout by 10

Work until 1

Eat lunch and relax until 2

Work until 6

Eat dinner and relax until 8

Work until 10

Go to bed by 11 … okay, maybe midnight but who’s counting?

I have another work-worn human to take care of all the time, in addition to the home-based responsibilities he no longer has time for, given that his field understands “work from home” to mean “Great! you are now working 24/7/365 — and you better be immediately reachable, too.”

Enter my new role: “work-wife,” which includes a collection of duties just numerous enough to completely decimate my pre-pandemic career. And I’m exhausted. Completely and utterly exhausted.

I say all this from a position of clear privilege. That our biggest complaint involves unequal division of labor is absolutely a first-world problem. One that is softened even further by my husband’s commitment to being an equal partner who does his level best to correct the imbalance daily.

And to be clear, I know that our struggles could be so much worse. Either or both of us could be dead, either or both of us could be sick, either or both of us could be losing our home, out of work, lacking enough nutritious food, or have want of reliable access to medical care.

Thankfully, neither of us are these things. And in that context, it’s obtuse to assume that America should care about my new home-based duties, or even how they restrict the work I need to do in support of my chosen career.

But what if this problem wasn’t just about me?

What if my privileged complaint actually underscored the story of countless other people, partners, and parents who — whether through good will, coercion, or some terrible combination of them both — necessarily sloughed off or de-prioritized their own endeavors, citing medical, economic, or other family demands they’ve been asked shoulder simply because they are women?

What if these first-world problems were actually global problems of gargantuan weight and endless, tessellated variety, morphing and evolving as quickly as the virus itself? What if we were entirely unprepared for the decades- and possibly centuries-long ramifications of these changes? And I shudder, what if we didn’t want to admit that precisely because it was happening in the home, which is also the office — instead of the office, which was never meant to be at home?

“OH, CRAP,” some of you are thinking.

“She’s right,” others of you are saying.

“Can you stay a little longer, work-wife, and let me pick your brain?”

“Can you help us connect the dots, stop this collision course, and set the world right once again?”

It pains me, but no.

Unfortunately I can’t.

Why?

Because — as should be self-evident by now — I must get back to my other, non-paid (thankfully not thankless) job: making sure my family is fed, clean, and healthy in a time when we are literally just trying to survive.

Let’s be serious: someone has to do it. And at least for now, society values my husband’s profession much more than mine. Hence, my newly assigned role as “work-wife,” the advent of many supportive conversations, and eventually, this essay.

I’m a writer, by the way. When I’m not playing the role of “work-wife” to the best damn husband in the world, I can be found putting pen to paper, fingers to keys, and voice to air.

“Wow,” some of you are saying, “What have you written?” — as if my finished manuscript should somehow lessen the blows I’ve been dealt.

And others of you are joining them, pleading with me, “Why didn’t you say so?!” — as if somehow, you knowing this information any sooner might have changed things in any material way.

I roll my eyes, because my answers to these questions feel increasingly silly.

“Still,” my husband assures me, “someone has to answer them. And if not work-wife-previously-known-as-writer, then who?”

He’s got a point.

So, where is my work? At home. Both jobs.

What have I written? I’ve got a novel and a few blogs under my belt.

And why didn’t I say so earlier? Because I work on these things in stolen moments, which means I have even less time to explain the struggle to you. Because “work-wife” duties now come first. And because I worry that unless something seriously changes, this short-term arrangement might become much, much more permanent.

But again, this isn’t only about me.

This essay and my story are a warning, a call-to-FIGURATIVE-arms, a rally cry for every soul who gives a damn about women in America. If we’re smart, we’ll start re-writing HERstory today, right now, in this critical moment in time (read: they’re all critical moments).

The alternative?

If we’re not careful, society won’t remember the work that women lost or had to give up in this challenging season of life. And I don’t just mean their job titles upon furlough, firing, or resignation. I’m also speaking about their lost forward trajectories.

Just ask any woman who’s spent time away from the paid workforce and she’ll tell you what you need to know. For everyone else, it doesn’t take much to envision how COVID-19 makes life both inside and outside the home even harder for women.

For example, who is expected to revise their work schedules when childcare centers close down? Who is expected to complete home-based tasks between Zoom calls, spreadsheets, or class periods? Who gets to use “better” workspaces to begin with? The answers to these questions tell an interesting story. And that’s assuming that women have managed to keep their outside jobs in the first place.

Of course, for many women, this has not been the case. In addition to being forced back into their homes, they’ve also lost jobs — and with them, not only their physical paychecks, but also the freedom that comes with being compensated for their work, however well or badly. Absent this escape route, their only choice is to continue working at home and for free. And where that is true, we’re not talking about a “reduction in responsibilities” — we’re talking about a railroading.

This brings us to our second, scary alternative.

If we’re not careful, an entire generation of women will also be forgotten for the work they did when they “weren’t working,” for all the essential jobs they performed without pay, without breaks, without promise of promotion or recognition or anything else of male-assessed value. (That is, unless we count seeing big names with big platforms get paid to publicly lament “how terrible it was to watch this happen” — and then do nothing to change it).

So, where is change possible in this dire set of circumstances? Everywhere. And as a matter of fact, what happens next is entirely up to us. That said, I’d like to propose an alternate ending to the HERstory of COVID-19. This story can still end the way that women and other home-based workers truly deserve.

If you’re wondering what that looks like, then for starters we could:

(1) Stop silencing women’s voices;

(2) Start respecting women for the tireless work we’ve completed since the beginning of time and;

(3) Start compensating women as the essential workers we’ve always been, AND/OR accept our delegation of the duties we no longer have time for, starting right now.

In short, I’m proposing that we choose to abate the inequitable strain placed on women at every moment of our lives — and make the world a better, stronger, more livable place for everyone as a result.

Why?

Because women hold society together. We help you process, keep you warm, keep you fed, keep you clothed, keep you schooled, keep you living and breathing and safe from harm — and when that is not possible (God help us), we keep you morally awake.

What’s more, we do this with grace and pride and minimal but thoroughly justified complaints. Because that’s just what women do: we make sure you live. No one better ask us what we do for a living ever again.

“Because that’s just what women do: we make sure you live. No one better ask us what we do for a living ever again.” — Ryan Vale McGonigle | “Work Wife” on North by North Carolinian

Instead, if you claim to value women, you can learn to actually value us. And no, despite your many protestations, you don’t. At least not yet.

How do I know that?

Because if America truly valued women — inherently and otherwise — we wouldn’t still be here.

If America truly valued women, I wouldn’t be writing this essay, we wouldn’t need to challenge gender norms on everything from the kitchen table to the White House and back, and we wouldn’t need to print Rosie the Riveter on everything imaginable, mindlessly proliferating World War II era propaganda that — remember — celebrated women for their sacrificial work in another period of national crisis.

In fact, women’s work would cease to be sacrificial at all.

We aren’t there yet. There’s still a lot of work to d–

Oh, I’m sorry, what’s that you’re saying? You know? Then good, we’re on the same page. Women won’t be working from home for free anymore. And as a matter of fact, we aren’t sure home-based work should be ours alone to begin with.

So go ahead.

Tell the others.

We’re waiting.

Swyler’s “The Book of Speculation”

“It’s very easy for someone like you or me to get lost in an object, to accept certain ideas as fact without proper exploration.”

Mr. Churchwarry to Simon, p. 180

The Book of Speculation

Have you ever noticed how humans tend to seek the simplest, swiftest explanations for the situations we face? Look around — you’ll see that we all end up falling into this trap at one point or another (and probably repeatedly).

You may also notice that we have a strong urge to resist simple definition. Humans are funny creatures. We crave simplicity as we try to understand the world around us, but we go berserk the minute someone provides a simple explanation for something close or important to us.

Yeah, I fall into that trap too, and I try very hard to remain aware of it. One of the ways I do this is by finding opportunities to get out in the world. I go places, I meet people, I read books, I eat food, I work, I volunteer. In everything I do, I am here to listen, to learn, to fight against the trap. My hope is that, in the process, I expand my brain, elevate my understanding, and grow in my capacity for solidarity rather than fear. But it can be hard. Really hard. And sometimes isolating, because loads of people don’t share this view of the world.

I’d been looking for something that would help bridge the gap when I stumbled across Erika Swyler’s The Book of Speculation. Perhaps fittingly, the book was not what I expected. For those of you with interests in the circus, coastal life, book culture, or intergenerational stories, Swyler’s novel could be for you. Her storytelling — and her capacity to weave a story, within a story, within a story — is notable. But I’d like to pull back from that, and resist the urge to give you a standard book review.

What most impressed me about this particular novel was its sense of place. Swyler’s command of culture on Long Island dances off each page. She makes place a character worthy of discussion, something I see rarely in modern writing. We’ve become so introspective it hurts. Not the case here. Not by a longshot. Not if you know where to look.

At once a fine critic and a fierce advocate, Swyler shows all who are willing to see about a Long Island most will never choose to encounter — a Long Island that is at once beautiful and brutal, homey and alienating, historic and changing, rooted and disappearing. It’s the “and” in those phrases that matters. It’s the idea that a culture, a place, a person, or a thing can be more than the simple characterizations we create when we stop at speculation.

I have written here and elsewhere about those dangers. I speak from experience. As a North Carolinian living on Long Island, it makes my heart hurt when I hear individuals rail against what they think my home is, only to later hear these individuals’ plans for capitalizing on it. And, as a Long Islander by marriage and address, I’m becoming equally bothered by the reductivist views people have about this culture. Why? Because it’s one of my homes, it’s part of me, and no place is that simple, dammit. I feel obligated to love and protect it, for its own sake, as it is. It’s a force that cannot be stopped.

This story of home and obligation, of protection and love, is written all over Swyler’s pages. So if you missed it, go read her book again. It’s the undercurrent, the heart from which her novel beats. And, as with most things in life, if we resist the urge to over-simplify, to read only at the surface level, we might just see it, we might just find that it’s worth keeping. But certainly, don’t forget to enjoy the magic Swyler prepared along the way!

***

P.S. Curious about speculation, or Swyler, or both? Start here, then find another circus 😉

(1) This interview Erika did for Newsday back in 2015. I was already a fan before I read this, and now I see why. She gets it. If you’re wondering what “it” is … read the interview, or better yet, read her book.

(2) This interview she did for New In Books. Wait ’til you get to the part about whac-a-mole. Then tell me you can’t conjure a great childhood memory or two afterwards.

Thomas’ “The Hate U Give”

“What’s the point of having a voice if you’re gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn’t be?”

Starr Carter, p. 252

The Hate U Give

If your skin is white like mine, for most of the hours of most of the days of your life, you probably won’t think about your whiteness. Why? Because the culture white America created over centuries makes it really easy not to on the daily. And, in fact, it makes it that way precisely so you don’t think about it … ideally at all. If you did, things might be very, very different.

If that makes you feel uncomfortable, good. It should. It means you’re thinking. It means you’re on the journey to awareness. And from that point, you have the potential to make a serious difference — not just make things different. Yes, that subtlety matters. A lot.

I came to this uncomfortable realization for the first time in middle school, when I was given a chance to study the life and works of two incredible Americans — the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dr. Maya Angelou. The realization I had from these studies bothered me. Not so much because the reality itself was hard to acknowledge (though it was), but because I knew, without having the vocabulary to properly vocalize this yet, that I’d have few — if any — other white people to talk about it with. So I kept my feelings and opinions close to my heart. That’s about as far as they went back then, and since then I’ve learned lesson after lesson about the importance of speaking truth to power.

I could cite countless other examples of uncomfortable realizations like this. Between school and work, across three states and six cities, and yes, also in my personal life, confronting race in a post-racial America has been challenging. This means it’s worthwhile — and ultimately, of importance. But I’m not here to give you a run-down of these moments. The point is that I have them, and yes, white America, you have them too, whether or not you’re aware of it yet.

What I am here to do — in this post, but more globally on the blog — is to remind us that life is about understanding and compassion, rather than hatred or fear. Life is about striving for justice and equity, rather than perpetuating systemic oppression (in all forms!). Put more simply, life is about learning to love, choosing to love, and then, critically, actually doing it.  And sometimes love means we must do difficult things, uncomfortable things, things we aren’t sure we’re brave enough, ready enough, smart enough, strong enough, anything enough to do. That is usually when we need to try the most.

In the spirit of that message, I’d encourage you to read Angie Thomas’s masterful work, The Hate U Give. It’s been nominated for a National Book Award. It’s a best-seller. And, if you’ve been following the news, you may have heard that it’s becoming a major motion picture. It stands on its own.

But much more importantly, and I don’t say this lightly, it’s the essence of life itself. It’s a call-to-action we all must learn to answer. Not just for one person, or one movement, or one pivotal moment in history, but all the time, everywhere, for everyone. It’s that important. Please read this book. And when you’re ready, go in peace to speak, write, act, and generally L-O-V-E. Just remember that peace doesn’t have to mean silence.

***

P.S. Interested in other voices who’ve joined this conversation?

Here’s a few. I encourage you to find more — or even better, contribute alongside them:

(1) The Atlantic’s review of T.H.U.G., available here.

(2) An interview with Angie Thomas and Balzer+ Bray/Harper Collins, her publisher. Heads-up, their chat is about 20 minutes long, but you’ll want to listen all the way through over here.

(3) A Huffington Post review, available here.

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle

Coe Hall

I love a good history & literature connection. I love gardens and old houses. I love guided tours. And I love a good excuse to get out of the house. So, when I saw that the Planting Fields Foundation was hosting a Great Gatsby-themed event, I called to reserve my spot without skipping a beat.

Friends, in what will probably be a rarity in this space, I’d like to brag on the event organizer for a minute. Then I promise we can talk about the tour. But I would be remiss not to mention how stellar this experience was from the very beginning.

It started with a phone call. Yes, I had to call a person to reserve my spot on this tour. Do you know how refreshing it was to use the phone feature of my phone? And, in the digital age, to hear a human’s voice on the other end? It changed the whole tenor of my day. Here’s the simple but critical reason why: the staffer actually talked (and listened) to me.

She did more than reserve my spot and take my payment. She did more than talk at me about what the organization has to offer. This staffer invested her time in learning about my interest, provided prime parking information (which was, by the way, spot on!), and offered me her direct line so I could call her again. Not her email. Not an automated answering machine maze of death. Her actual telephone number.

She did all of this without making me feel like I was on a sales or fundraising call. It was like I, you know, actually mattered. If you’re scoffing at this, thinking “yeah ok, that’s not a revolutionary thought,” then please, pick up the phone and make a cold call. Pay attention to how you’re treated. Even when you’re a pleasant and potentially-paying customer, the person on the other end of the line may not be helpful — or even pleasant.

I know this because I have worked in many customer service roles. I know excellent service. Planting Fields Foundation provides it. If I wanted to make this blog ratings-centric (hard pass), I’d give them five gold stars. They’re incredible. So much so that when I showed up for my tour, I was a little worried their “shiny finish” would wear off, simply because the bar had been set so high from the outset. I was proven wrong — and gladly so.

Over the course of a 1.5-hour tour, our friendly docent took us:

(1) Across four wings — Spanning cloisters, entertaining spaces, working quarters, and reception areas, meticulously curated rooms transported us back in time to the early 1900s. My favorite find? Somewhere along the tour (take it to find out where!), an owl and a rooster are carved into banisters as directional markers. Think about it for a minute and you’ll know why.

(2) Up and down four floors — From the basement’s coal burners (rare tour inclusion!) to the fourth floor servant’s quarters (surprisingly nice!), we climbed more stairs than I normally climb in … well, a long time. Tour AND workout session? Yes please. I didn’t even miss the gym a little bit by the time we were done.

(3) On a fascinating journeyComparing the wealth and lifestyle of the Coes to that of Fitzgerald’s fictional Gatsby, the docent let the house’s grandeur shine, while also clearing up common misconceptions about life on the Gold Coast. One of the starkest contrasts? While Gatsby lived in his mansion, families like the Coes would have vacationed to Long Island mostly on weekends in the fall and spring. How much did it cost to furnish this “quaint country house?” A cool $200 million. In 1918 dollars. Who wants to adjust that for inflation?

There were so many impressive things about this tour. Besides the cool facts you can learn — did you know the Coes had a three-room walk-in refrigerator? and that it took 7,800 pounds of ice to keep it cool? — the space itself is breathtaking. Its balance of utility and beauty, masterful.

My pictures hardly do it justice, but here are a few favorites, mostly of things people tend to forget about when they’re staring at period artwork the size of Everest. I’ve had lifelong love affairs with texture, pattern, and light, so this house was like my own personal heaven. Was I fan-girling? Absolutely and unapologetically. Don’t laugh too hard. You might be joining me in that camp sooner than you think.

The Windows:

The Ceilings & Floors:

The Woodwork: 

Tempted by what you see? Go check it out for yourself!

My ticket for this heavenly experience was only $7. Parking was $8 for the day. Yeah, I shelled out $15, but I’d rather spend my time walking here than sitting down at the movies or sitting at home staring at my own windows and ceilings (yes, I do this. yes, it’s embarrassing. no, I’m not here to be fake and hide embarrassing things from you).

With everything there is to do on-site, you can totally make a full day of this trip. Bring a small picnic and sit on the lawn — or don’t, and eat at the new restaurant at the Hay Barn. Walk around the beautiful gardens. Visit one of the museum’s other exhibits (they have Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s sculptures right now!). Get your “Music in the Garden” on or find another event that’s more your style.

Whatever you do, just go. And prepare to be impressed by the grounds, the people, the whole experience. At 100 years young, Coe Hall  and the Planting Fields Foundation will make you feel like time stands still. And if you’re anything like me, that’s a good thing, because you won’t want the experience to end.

***

P.S. Want to know where you can find this Long Island gem? Here’s their address:

Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park
1395 Planting Fields Road
Oyster Bay, NY 11771

Want more information before you go? Check out their website!

Or read/watch CBS Sunday Morning’s feature, A Gilded Age Treasurehere.

Walt Whitman’s Birthplace

Yesterday, we hit a beautiful 80 degrees on Long Island.

Unfortunately, days like this won’t last long. As we round the corner from spring to summer, time outside will be limited to beach-faring and BBQing, when it’s too hot to even think about doing much else. With that in mind, I decided to get out and do something fun.

I’ve known about The Walt Whitman Birthplace and Interpretive Center for about a decade. A college professor shared news of this under-the-radar gem in a literature course, but until now I haven’t lived close enough to easily go visit.

Looking back on my short trip, I’m so glad I finally went! The grounds boast a museum, charming outdoor space, oodles of period details (like a desk from Whitman’s time as a teacher), and a first edition of Leaves of Grass (poetry fans out there, you’ve gotta see this!).

The only catch? It’s definitely well-nestled in its surroundings. So well-nestled, in fact, that I almost missed the turn into the small parking lot, which accommodates about a dozen cars at once.

Historic site signs help guide your journey from major highways, but local street signs are small and hard to read. Add that to the fact that the address says Huntington Station, but locals call it West Hills, and woof. But never fret, if you get lost, the site is minutes away from the Walt Whitman Mall. (Un)fortunately, you can’t miss that landmark. And remember, finding a new place is half the fun of going!

Once you’ve arrived, I’d recommend investing in the guided tour, as that is what allows you to go in the house. Tickets are only $6, and the docents are highly knowledgeable and great with kids. That alone is worth the ticket price. Of course there were also fun things to see, try and learn along the way.

For instance, did you know that the Whitmans had a private water well a couple dozen yards from their front door? This would have been a luxury in their time. It was actually operational until the mid-20th century, when rapid development in the area shifted the water table so dramatically that it completely dried up. I won’t go on the environmental rant I’m super tempted to start right now, but suffice it to say that there are opportunities to reexamine our footprints on this earth all the time. And they’re closer to home (wherever you live) than you might expect.

Another added bonus? Because my tour group was small, we had more time to ask fun (annoying?) questions of our docent. Ask about the Prussian Blue paint or why the closets on either side of the fireplace are such a big deal, if and when you go. They both get interesting answers!

Guided tours not your thing? Check out their additional programming, which ranges from the artistic to the academic. Did you know they have poetry readings and research-quality libraries? Yeah, you might have guessed that. Ok, what about art shows? Or writers-in-residence? Or meeting spaces? Pretty cool, huh? More than a few reasons to make the drive! Here’s the address in case you’re ready to ask Google, Siri, Cortana or Alexa for directions:

The Walt Whitman Birthplace and Interpretive Center

246 Old Walt Whitman Road

Huntington Station, NY 11746

Still on the fence? Check out their website!

Want some additional reading? Try this article from the Long Island Press (2013), or this one from the New York Times (1992), about Whitman’s Long Island roots. Needless to say, there’s room for more voices in this conversation. Who’s up for the challenge?

Ready …. go.

P.S. Extra credit for anyone who knows what Paumanok means!

Weiss’ “if the creek don’t rise”

“If I got a special life to plan, then I’m in a pickle cause nobody told me and I don’t know the first thing bout how.”

Sadie Blue,  p.212

if the creek don’t rise

I don’t know Leah Weiss, but we’re both originally from North Carolina — something I learned when I picked up her book. It was sitting there on the shelf next to a handful of other “new releases,” and I was fresh off a deep-dive into Appalachian everything, so the title grabbed my eye.

During my first read of Weiss’ novel, I had difficulty. It took me about 50 pages to get the voice of her characters properly situated. Some of the language they used, I was familiar with. Some of it, I was not. Truth be told, I was wholly unprepared for this book, which is an interesting place to be. It leaves you ready to learn.

Over the course of some heartbreakingly human events, Weiss shares important lessons that we’d all do well to ponder more — or at least differently:

(1) We’ve got to do better about ensuring that all people have access to opportunity, but we can’t lose sight of the importance of basic needs — food, water, safety, shelter and love — in the process.

(2) We’ve got to do better about being aware of our motivations. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a stronger lens on this more of the time? This isn’t to say that we’d necessarily make different decisions, but maybe we would, if we knew what we were really after in life, and how that affects others around us.

(3) We’ve got to do better about NOT believing that cultures can or should civilize other cultures. There’s much we can learn from each other — we are all students, we are all teachers, and we’d all do well to listen at least as much as we speak.

and finally

(4) We’ve got to do better about remembering that there’s more than one side to every story. This includes being aware of power dynamics that enable one narrative or a series of narratives to dominate over others.

On that note, I’d encourage y’all to spend some time with the residents of Baines Creek. They may not have all the answers, but they ask questions that matter. And you don’t find that everywhere.

***

P.S. For those interested in a deeper dive, I’d recommend starting with:

This book review from NPR/Book Reviews.

This interview with The News & Advance.

Edge’s “The Potlikker Papers”

“[A]sk questions about who we are and how we got here, about who cooks, who cleans, and who earns a seat at the welcome table.”

– John T. Edge, The Potlikker Papers, p.5

A few months ago, I wandered into my local bookstore looking for something medicinally Southern. After I paced a few uninspiring aisles, I found a hardcover someone had clearly misplaced.

I used to work in retail, and I get how maddening it can be for associates to constantly find and replace items that people scatter across the floor in the moments where they find something “better” than what they’ve got in-hand.

Unable to resist, I picked up the book and resolved to put it back where it belonged. That book was The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, and as it turns out, its proper place was with me.

Since that day, I’ve seriously savored Potlikker. And while I’m not a professional book reviewer, I do want more people to hear about this text, so I’m thrilled to feature it as my first Reading Words entry on the blog. Here we go!

As a Southerner, history major, food lover and woman, I was given so many reasons to fall “in like” with Potlikker Papers. Among them:

(1) There’s a cohesive narrative about how the famed “New South” came to be, and it does justice to both the opportunities and consequences of this cultural shift. In the process, Edge helped me realize that I wasn’t totally out of my mind to worry about the idea of home — both up North and in North Carolina.

(2) The book treats women as the serious contributors that we are — and indeed, always have been. To see this done, and to see it done in a way that doesn’t just start with Julia Child and end with Ina Garten, was refreshing. Not all women make the history books, but our stories are part of something that matters. It is never a bad day when someone else realizes this.

(3) It’s near-impossible to strike a true balance between hyper-local foodie writing and something that most people would label as “capital H” history. Edge’s people’s history has come pretty darned close. Many cultures contribute to the beautifully complex tapestry that is the American South. Edge has a knack for making sure we know about more of them, without presuming to have “found” or “discovered” them himself. Bravo, sir.

More broadly, my reaction to Edge’s book would not be complete without addressing how the South gets viewed. In many respects, Edge and I are in agreement. The South is not perfect — far from, as a matter of fact. But this does not excuse or explain America’s long, bizarre tradition of “yo-yo-like” changes in our cultural acceptance threshold.

Up and down, our perceptions of the South go up and down on the tiniest of threads, controlled by what feels like one user at a time, many of whom are ignorant to how the South has changed, is changing, or will continue to change.

In times of professed love, I’ve seen a range of reactions, from cultural appropriation, to patronization, to relocation, and everything in between. And I’ve only been on this earth since the ’80s, which is to say, not that long.

In times of disdain, reactions are more sinister, and usually kick off with a piece from someone who feels they “know better” in their chosen medium of record. Even if you don’t recognize their names, you’d recognize their voices, because the attitudes and beliefs they communicate invariably trickle down to everyday people like you and me.

The tragedy is that, in both of these times, Southern culture as it really exists — in all of its complex people, places, looks, sounds, feels, smells, and tastes — gets completely lost. And to be perfectly clear, this is dangerous for more than the American South.

So, what can we do in the face of this challenge? We can keep the conversation going, keep sharing stories of what life is really like, keep asking important questions, keep welcoming others into the fold as things grow and change. And we’ve got to start, like many foods we should probably eat more of, from the ground, up. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to pick up a copy of Edge’s book in the process. Let’s get cooking.

****

P.S. For those with further interest, I’d recommend starting with:

This interview with NPR/The Salt.

This interview with Saveur.

This interview with the Southern Register / Center for the Study of Southern Culture.

See what nags at you from these pieces, then keep digging, keep reading, keep listening. This region, its people, their voices have been ready to be heard for a long time.

How ready are we to hear them?

We’re All a Little North by North Carolinian

Born into a family who worked really hard to put down stable roots in North Carolina, I suppose I should have stayed there. Instead, I went to college far from home, met the New Yorker who would become my husband, and now live in a small, suburban community on Long Island.

Husband and I are very lucky. In addition to each other, we each gained a new home (and friends and family) through our union. I gained New York, he gained North Carolina, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. But this doesn’t mean life is perfect. I have to acknowledge that, from time to time, it can be hard to live as a Southerner in the elite club of generations-long Long Islanders. I miss the voices of the South, the foods, the sounds, the smells, the entire way of life — one which, through the process of assimilation, I must often hide if not outright deny in order to be taken seriously.

I have an incredibly supportive spouse. And his family and friends have been welcoming since the earliest days of our courtship, but unfortunately I cannot be around these loving souls all the time. Outside of this support system, the process of assimilation can be lonely and terrifying. In this environment, it’s hard to find other people like me, or at least other people who’re open to knowing people like me.

I started to grapple honestly with this predicament about a year ago — with trusted friends, with family, in church, at work, in other writing projects, basically everywhere the topic nagged at me. Since we carry our identities with us everywhere, and since the world around me isn’t always welcoming, that nagging happened a lot. And then it started to happen even more, and grew even stronger, to the point where I knew I had to do something about it. I knew that I could no longer hide in silence. Especially because, through earlier work and conversations, I knew I wasn’t the only person out there experiencing this struggle — and it wasn’t just happening in New York. Stories like ours are about the struggle to build a loving home, a way of life, in any place that, quite frankly, would rather we weren’t there at all.

There are several ways to build a life in these scenarios:

(1) Deny everything about yourself, and learn very quickly how to do life in a completely different way, in completely different words and meals and jobs and goals and expectations, and then prepare to find out that sometimes, even when you play by every rule, those around you won’t see past the person they want you to be.

(2) Build community with others like you, if you can find them, to celebrate and protect your heritage. Society may rail against everything about you, but you can build collective agency, and at least have others to cry or laugh with about the social experiment your lives have become.

(3) Grow an insanely thick skin and resist the actors that seek to silence you, but do this because of and through love. Love takes a helluva lot more strength than hate. But it also has the greatest capacity to affect change, so it’s worthwhile if you can master it.

Spoiler alert: I’ve tried 1 and 2 before. Both helped, but were more reactive than I’d prefer. I’m onto the third attempt now, and that attempt is this space, North by North Carolinian. Rather than deny or simply expose the factors that have the potential for harm (and many do), this space will take up the yoke of building more open-mindedness, trust and love for others who aren’t always like us. This space is dedicated to celebrating the good in different, if not altogether divergent, cultures.

At a time when I desperately miss home, I feel compelled to collect the stories, recipes, music, art, and culture that speak to who I am, rather than being made to forget what they mean to me, a North Carolinian up North.

At the same time, I feel compelled to lift up and celebrate what makes life up North lovely and full. There are so many stories, recipes, and pieces of culture that matter and help me create meaning here, as I make my life and my home in the great state of New York.

Each of these places, each of these cultures, are wildly beautiful. Each of them matter. And so do their people. With this in mind, I hope North by North Carolinian accomplishes something positive, however simple it may seem on the surface. I hope it opens minds and hearts. I hope it elevates conversations. I hope it highlights and preserves heritages rather than destroying or minimizing them over fear of difference. And as one, small act of love and resistance, I hope it amplifies the light from many people, places and things who seek to remind us that we all matter, all of the time.

Join me in the process of building a life between and as part of two cultures. May we all be brave enough to honestly examine and own ourselves, and in the process may we come to see that we are all needed, exactly as we are, exactly where we are, for as long as we choose to be there.