There’s no greater fan of Charles Dickens than I – and these words introducing A Tale of Two Cities, one of my favorite books, are most appropriate to describe 2009:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way.”–Charles Dickens

Because Lou and I traveled to England in the spring, and one of the highlights was visiting the Dickens Museum in London, this 2009 letter has a “Dickens theme.” The year had its ups and its downs. I described 2008 as the best year of my life. Although I can’t say 2009 was the worst year of my life, it had its challenges. Suffice it to say that I learned early on to block worries as much as possible, to live for the moment, and not to let “what hasn’t happened” worry me too much. I said last year that the two happiest days of my life were the day Louis was born and, secondly, Barack Obama’s election.

The third happiest day was Inauguration Day, 2009. I made that bus trip to Washington, traveling with my friend, Robin, on an extremely cold day packed into the crowded streets like sardines, but everyone ecstatic!

We treasured every moment. We never got near a “Jumbotron TV,” but we heard the speeches, and it really didn’t matter where we were – which was, finally, near the Washington Monument. No one appeared to mind the cold or the crowds – people jammed breast-to-breast were unfailingly polite (“Excuse me” constantly), loving, happy.

February brought worries about my job. Suffice it to say, I’m hanging in there – and I learned daily how not to worry constantly. I also started thinking about what new life I could create if necessary, so I discovered a lot about myself, about how I could make it, how I could reinvent myself. I have no plans to retire, so I made up my mind that age must be irrelevant; it’s not part of my vocabulary. No making excuses for age, no worrying about it. I also learned to fight hard for whatever I need/want/deserve, which makes me extremely happy. We formed a wonderful group of “Progressives Coping Together,” mostly former Obama volunteers coping with layoffs, forced retirements, financial issues.

Through this process, I grew in ways I never expected. Last spring Lou and I went to England for the first time. He gave a paper on suicide bomber psychology at the Oxford Roundtable on terrorism. It will be published soon, and he’s working on a book on the subject. We loved London and Oxford; and we’re returning next summer. I spent a day in the Cotswolds, at Warwick Castle, and at Stratford-on-Avon with a woman whose grandmother was attending the Roundtable, a great international group of great thinkers.

While we were in Oxford, Louis was in St. Petersburg, Russia, all semester, taking classes in Russian with Russian students and professors (so his language skills obviously are very good). Louis graduates from Oberlin next spring, is applying for a grant to work with a Quaker enclave in Moscow next fall. and then start studying for a Ph.D. in history (focus: Russia/Eastern Europe). If he goes to Russia in the fall, we are definitely going over for a visit to Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Although I said I don’t focus on age, I call my mission to teach myself Russian my “Alzheimer’s Prevention Program.” Speaking of prevention programs, a loved one recently had a broken bone as a result of osteoporosis; and I cannot emphasize strongly enough to everyone the absolute necessity of daily weight-bearing exercise, muscle-building, and consuming enough calcium and Vitamin D. It’s hard sometimes because I have so many other things I’d much rather do – but it’s essential. I just keep emphasizing to myself how long I want to be totally self-sufficient as I do my dailies.

“Cheerfulness and contentment are great beautifiers and are famous preservers of youthful looks.”–Charles Dickens

We in The Chester County Peace Movement just finished seven years (that’s right, approaching 400 days!) of weekly peace vigils at the courthouse. We may hold the record in that category, as someone told me recently! The only Saturday we “took off” in seven years was the Saturday after President Obama was elected (we proudly put a sign out saying “WE DID IT!!” that Saturday). We gave ourselves that gift….then got right back on that corner the next Saturday. I can’t tell you how wonderful these past seven years have been, even though the cause is often too tragic. We have met so many wonderful people –thousands at this point. I hold my “Honk for Peace” sign every Saturday, and the honks can be deafening on some Saturdays! People sometimes walk or bike by saying, “Honk, honk” – adults and children, too.

Aside from our vigils this year, we have sent over 100 boxes of clothing to Afghanistan refugees who live in utter despair and poverty, often in mud huts. We send the boxes via the U.S. Army, and their chaplain and volunteer soldiers at Camp Eggers distribute the clothing every Friday to people who are often walking around in harsh winters without even shoes. In the spring, we send sandals and summer clothes for the equally harsh, hot summers. I have never participated in anything more important than this project.

I have also officially joined Birmingham Friends (Quaker) Meeting recently, as a “convinced Quaker.” Friends are truly friends to all people. Their values are such that one is always aspiring for more kindness to others, for more serenity in life. I’ve heard that some call Quakerism “the Zen of Christianity.” I have never known a more loving, kind group of people – they give me inspiration and ideals to which I can only aspire.

“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.”–Charles Dickens

Next year looks to be better than 2009 in many ways. I learned so much about coping with various challenges this year. One thing I had no idea I could ever cope with was pain. I have always admired people who are in pain but who lived their lives as though they weren’t. I learned about that in the past five months with undiagnosed, sporadic, unpredictable gum/dental area pain, which I am learning to “manage” by observing the triggers and how to stop the pain. I’ve learned a lot about what I can endure and how I can cope with pain – and with life – from this experience. I end this letter with a final quotation from Dickens, and this is my hope for all of you for 2010:

“Reflect upon your present blessings, of which every man has plenty; not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.”–Charles Dickens


Mari Carmen Aponte: Lifelong Service to Country, Lifelong Good-Will Ambassador

Why Mari Aponte would be an ideal ambassador to El Salvador  

I am writing about one of my dearest friends, Mari Carmen Aponte, because I have learned that President Barack Obama has nominated her to be Ambassador to El Salvador. I am thrilled. As Team Leader for the Barack Obama Presidential campaign here in Chester County, Pennsylvania, where we brought in a Republican county for Barack Obama in his Presidential race, I can only say how happy I am to have helped elect a President who would nominate my friend, Mari. He is truly the wise man I knew him to be.  

 Mari Aponte has had a long career of service to her country, and she has been a good-will ambassador her entire life. No person would represent our country any more perfectly than Mari.  

 Mari has been my friend for over 30 years – since the 1970s when we were both young adults, fresh out of law school (Mari from Temple University School of Law, me from Northeastern in Boston). I had to hire two lawyers in the corporate legal department of the Philadelphia Blue Cross plan where I had just been promoted to manager, and one of the first people I interviewed was Mari. She had an amazing power to connect with people – with all kinds of people – now that she has been nominated for this ambassadorship, it seems so right at this point in her stellar career of public service. Hiring Mari then was a no-brainer – she was not only the most qualified applicant, but she also was the most engaging applicant I interviewed.

 Working with Mari was delightful. She was very positive, while at the same time undertaking her responsibilities seriously. She reminded everyone in the office of the positive aspects of life every day. That’s Mari. Connecting with and understanding people is Mari’s greatest qualification for any position involving dealing with people. Not everyone can be an ambassador, but Mari has been an ambassador on a daily basis all her life.

 However, a sunny personality does not always get the job done. Doing great work requires a high level of intelligence and a strong sense of good judgment,which Mari always has exhibited in every situation.  

 Over the years, Mari has worked in so many positions for nonprofits (such as the organization where she and I worked), as well as government-related positions. Whether working for Blue Cross or representing a religious institution, whether working as a White House Fellow or for Puerto Rican interests in our capital, Mari has worked tirelessly for nonprofit organizations and for government.  

 An ambassador’s main function is to advance the interests of the United States, such as promoting trade and security, facilitating cultural ties, and protecting the lives of American citizens. To perform this main function, an ambassador must have the United States’ interest as one’s greatest concern. Throughout Mari’s career, she has always had her country’s interest at heart as her greatest concern. She has broad business acumen and knowledge of “how the world works” that is necessary to promote trade and security. Additionally, she can facilitate cultural ties in El Salvador.  A native Spanish speaker and a longtime world traveler, Mari also has lived and enjoyed a multicultural life in every way. Characteristically, I have photos of Mari on my refrigerator riding a camel in Egypt in 1965, then again in 2007! She has trekked the far reaches of the globe, studied and befriended people all over this planet – she is the ideal ambassador.  

 An ambassador must convey a President’s goals to representatives of the host nation’s government. No one can perform this function better than Mari Aponte. She has the gift of communication – honed not only in her native Spanish in Puerto Rico, but also in English in college, law school, and a lifetime of work in the United States. She understands President Obama’s goals, will communicate them clearly, and will foster the kind of interchange that few people can facilitate.  

 An ambassador sometimes negotiates agreements on the President’s behalf. Mari’s long legal career and direct experience as a professional negotiator will make her a good agreement negotiator for the country.   Ambassadors assess the political climate in their host country and analyze important events, exercising judgment and discretion every day. Mari’s language and cultural skills and understanding will make her a good person to perform this ambassadorial function. She is perceptive about human beliefs and feelings and can “read” others with amazing accuracy. I have never known a person with greater “people” skills than Mari.

 Ambassadors are frequently in the public eye and represent their countries in a very public way. Mari has the graciousness, the kindness, the wisdom to be a great public representative in El Salvador for our country. Mari, it must be mentioned, has socialized and worked with the “movers and shakers” of the world at all levels. Few of us have had the kind of experiences that give them ambassadorial social graces – Mari is perfect for this post.

“Most Americans will never know how many things Ted Kennedy did to make their lives better, how many things he prevented that would have hurt them, and how tenaciously he fought on their behalf.”–Robert Reich (this morning)

I awoke to the news of Ted Kennedy’s passing a few minutes ago and just broke into tears – tears that keep flowing as I write this. I’ll always remember this morning and where I am and how I feel. I knew it was coming, but we never know exactly when. In the past few weeks, I knew it would be soon.

I’m not sure most people realize what a hero Ted Kennedy was. For most of my adult life, he’s been my greatest hero. I can’t explain it exactly. Many others surely deserve my adoration, my admiration; but he’s the one who got it. Maybe it was because he just didn’t have to do what he did. Maybe it was because he came from such privilege that I always just found it fascinating that he really understood the rest of us and cared for us so deeply. I knew in my heart he always did. I’ve always known that he cared about the hard-scrabble Appalachian life I came from – he always cared, and he always understood. He transcended his own background with his humanity.

I only saw him once in person. I was in the DC Airport (then called National Airport) when I was in my 20s. All I remember was how very tan and how very “polished” he looked, perfect clothes, bearing, grooming – the look of wealth and health. And he had a smile that was magnetic. Smiling eyes, very white and perfect teeth, that mane of lionine hair. Just a brief passing – I couldn’t take my eyes off him for those 2 or 3 minutes.

As I went through my life after that, I read everything about his Senate career. I read about his unflinching, his heroic, his never-tiring devotion to the have-nots of this world. He lived and breathed dedication to improving the lives of people, whether they needed cleaner air to breathe or water to drink, medical care, food, shelter…whatever people’s needs are, Ted Kennedy worked tirelessly for those less fortunate than he. Someone on TV just noted his 1965 immigration bill – there are countless other pieces of legislation that bear his imprint, bear his sweat and hard work.

I believe that Ted Kennedy paid penance every day for everything he felt he needed to pay penance for. I believe that he cared more deeply for us all than most other people ever could. I believe he worked harder than anyone else could to push through legislation that will affect us all in the most important, significant, and best ways – pieces of legislation that we now often forget were his products.

As I’ve watched his career these past over-40 years, I have never ceased to be absolutely amazed at the amount of legislation, the policies he pushed through, often in the face of extreme adversity – but never flinching, never backing down.

I will mourn now, as I have long known I would. I have long dreaded this day. I will cry many tears, I will read and hear and watch all the tributes. I will take it all in. I will conduct my own memorial for him. But, more important, I will try to live by his model. I will today renew my vows to not let anything ever keep me from fighting the good fight, from waging the most difficult battles (reluctantly using war symbolism here, but it fits). He never backed down; and those of us similarly dedicated to the causes of peace and justice cannot, either.

He is my inspiration, and I today renew my vows of dedication to the cause in his steps.

Karen Porter, Esq., Director The Chester County Peace Movement, P.O. Box 1502, West Chester, PA 19380-1502; ccpeacemovement@aol.com, (610) 344-0228; check http://www.ccpeace.org (calendar) for upcoming events So meday, when my great-grandchildren ask, “Why didn’t someone try to stop the madness?” I hope my son and my grandchildren can answer, “Your great-grandmother tried, with all her hea rt.” See Progressive Network of Southeast PA http://www.progressivenetworksepa.org/ Your Key to the Progressive Community! CALL (800) 828-0498 for Senators/Congressional Rep. The woods are lovely, dark, and deep; but I have promises to keep , and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep. -Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”

This Saturday morning (May 9), many of us prepare sadly, once again, for our Nick Berg Memorial Vigil at the courthouse, which The Chester County Peace Movement has held every year since Nick’s death in Iraq. His father, as usual, will join us, as will some of Nick’s and his father’s friends in the community. Just a few hours later, another group –  classmates, parents, and teachers – will gather at Westtown School to remember Johanna Justin-Jinich, slain just as brutally and senselessly as Nick was, but at her college in Connecticut.

We gather simply and quietly at the vigil this morning just to say, “We will never forget Nick.” And our message is this:  Stop the hatred and violence that permeate this world and this country and that take the lives, daily, of too many Nicks and Johannas, whether in the streets of Baghdad or of Philadelphia or of Middletown, Connecticut.

And we will gather simply and quietly this afternoon just to say,”We will never forget Johanna.” And the message again will be this:  Stop the hatred and violence that permeate this world and this country and that take the lives, daily, of too many Nicks and Johannas, whether in the streets of Baghdad or of Philadelphia or of Middletown, Connecticut.

When some mock and deride “peace-niks,” often brutally and with extreme hatred, for standing out on that street corner for almost seven years now, we can only keep on standing there and trying to send a message that might save another Nick or Johanna someday – or a Tariq, a Maria, a Tyrone, a Brandon, a Tina, or a Matthew. We can only try.  

That’s the least we can do in their memory.

The words to the song below have been going through my mind relentlessly since the news of Johanna ‘s death this past week. She was a classmate of my son’s in the Westtown School class of 2006. I have listened to the youtube play (below) while reading the lyrics – I felt some very strong connections between this song, written long before Johanna’s birth, and her life and death.  My son, when a student at that beautiful place, with Johanna and the rest of their wonderful 2006 class, introduced me to this song; and it’s still one of my own favorites (realizing that, of course, every Dylan song is a “favorite”).  I think we all this morning are preparing for one of the saddest hours of our lives this morning, then again this afternoon.

May God bring some form of peace to both Nick’s and Johanna’s families.


Visions of Johanna
By Bob Dylan

Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off
Just Louise and her lover so entwined
And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind

In the empty lot where the ladies play blindman’s bluff with the key chain
And the all-night girls they whisper of escapades out on the “D” train
We can hear the night watchman click his flashlight
Ask himself if it’s him or them that’s really insane
Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near
She’s delicate and seems like veneer
But she just makes it all too concise and too clear
That Johanna’s not here
The ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place

Now, little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously
He brags of his misery, he likes to live dangerously
And when bringing her name up
He speaks of a farewell kiss to me
He’s sure got a lotta gall to be so useless and all
Muttering small talk at the wall while I’m in the hall
How can I explain?
Oh, it’s so hard to get on
And these visions of Johanna, they kept me up past the dawn

Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles
See the primitive wallflower freeze
When the jelly-faced women all sneeze
Hear the one with the mustache say, “Jeeze
I can’t find my knees”
Oh, jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule
But these visions of Johanna, they make it all seem so cruel

The peddler now speaks to the countess who’s pretending to care for him
Sayin’, “Name me someone that’s not a parasite and I’ll go out and say a prayer for him”
But like Louise always says
“Ya can’t look at much, can ya man?”
As she, herself, prepares for him
And Madonna, she still has not showed
We see this empty cage now corrode
Where her cape of the stage once had flowed
The fiddler, he now steps to the road
He writes ev’rything’s been returned which was owed
On the back of the fish truck that loads
While my conscience explodes
The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain
And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain.

I haven’t published much on this blog the past week, although I’ve been writing quite a bit offline to publish here at a future date  when appropriate (not now).  Suffice it to say, I went through a personal “crisis” a week ago (which is what I’m writing about offline) and have been wallowing in the grief such a crisis can bring on. No, it wasn’t an illness or a death (all  my loved ones are fine), but a huge change – the kind the self-help books group with life’s  many “transitions” that can throw you off-course totally. I’ve been e-mailing and talking with friends, reading self-help books, generally worrying and stressing out.

Because this whole blog is for one person – my beloved son – I hope somehow my words this morning will someday be of value to him. Louis, I don’t wallow very long. Ever. When I’m “down” about anything, I go through a period of feeling very, very low, including anxiety and my own peculiar set of physical symptoms that accompany that anxiety, searching and seeking, planning (prematurely because “planning” in a state of anxiety isn’t real “planning” at all – it’s worrying). However, in my life, I’ve been fortunate to never stay down very long. I also sense that you, Louis, have inherited this resilience (from both your Dad and me – he’s great at this) because I think you are one brave and resilient soul. Thank God for that! I so admire you, as a youth, for  having such resilience. You are one positive and resilient person, and I’m so proud of you for that!

At the outset of  my crisis, I ruled out one remedy:  Pills. I don’t take pills, ever. Dear friends recommended sleep aids, tranquilizers, all that. None of that for me. I don’t even “do caffeine” or any other kind of mind-altering thing. So I knew I had to deal on my own. I had to take control of my bodily reactions to change. Mindfulness is the big remedy for me – it doesn’t always work when I wake up in the morning worrying – but I just have to make it work. I have to make those negative thoughts go away. My mantra is this: “I’m OK NOW.  And NOW is all I have. Don’t worry about what hasn’t happened yet.” I hope this helps you someday, Louis – but I take such comfort in knowing you already have this quality in-born. I’ve seen it in you many times, and I so admire you for already having, in your youth, an attitude it has taken me years to achieve, to learn.

Something happened yesterday (Friday, April 24) that pulled me out of the wallowing.  I reached the summit of my wallowing. Can’t do it any more. I don’t like wallowing and self-pity and all that histrionic stuff. Don’t like that “victim” stuff. Never been a victim, never wanted to be one.

Even the word, “wallowing,” makes me feel low, guttery low. It’s one of those “W” words – weasly, weak, wimpy, woeful, worried….wallowing. I don’t like myself when I’m a wallowing, weasly, weak, wimpy, woeful, worried person. It makes me feel yucky….I need to get out of this….what’s wrong with me?….pull yourself together…this isn’t YOU….get up, dust off, wake up, stop it, silly…….

One thing that contributed to the end of my wallowing was mowing my grass for the first time this year. It all of a sudden got spring-y, it’s getting summer-y this weekend – and my grass was ready for its first “haircut.” As I donned my ugly denim “capris” and ugliest white t-shirt (both chosen summers ago for their sheer ugliness and practicality), my beloved Muck-Boot yard-work-dog-walking shoes, insecticide to fight off the Lyme ticks,  old green socks, my hairband – my grass-mowing “uniform” – and then the mower actually started up (a huge suspense every year when I pull that wretched cord multiple times with all my might, throwing my body into the shock of that violent effort) – and then I cut the grass (which really takes only about 45 minutes although I obsess in advance)…..I too often pray, as I push and lug that despised machine over the very hilly, uneven, rocky, difficult yard that must be mowed (have about 2 acres of woods and weeds that never get mowed) “Please, God, I don’t want to die mowing the grass” because it does take a lot of effort for my physical strength and because I really would be embarrassed to die while mowing my grass…….anyway, I got it done.

But the point is that working outside in the yard or anywhere else outside, or just walking in woods, brings out the “pioneer” in me. Just as donning an old plaid flannel shirt and jeans and hiking shoes and walking around Westtown Lake or in French Creek State Park brings out my Walter-Mitty-I’m-an-adventurer-at-heart fantasy, mowing the grass brings out the pioneer in me. And makes me HAPPY. I use the word, “pioneer,” because about 14 years ago, when all of a sudden I was “in charge” and responsible for these two acres and house (“40 acres and a mule,” it felt like), all by myself (only adult), at about age 48, I realized that I had to have a “pioneer” attitude. I had to become a “pioneer,”  and I loved it. I was all those women out on the prairie facing the winds and rains and storms and heat and all that….I was my grandmother in West Virginia when her coal-miner husband went off to work in the coalfields, leaving her at home with 11 kids in a log house “up on the creek” for months on end (she once told me ruefully that every time he came home, she got pregnant again)…..I was Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman….little house on the prairie…Kristin Lavransdatter…Scarlet herself…..I was in charge and had to do it, in spite of all my misgivings and insecurities and anxieties about “can I really do this?”  And I did it. Yes, I did. And yes, I can – now.

I got that grass mowed with a sense of defiance yesterday, then raked leaves, then just kept on…..it was the most therapeutic thing I could do. I had gone to the family doctor that afternoon for consultation on dealing with stress, and she emphasized exercise and meditation and tea and good books and good thoughts (a non-pill-believer herself, thank goodness)…not playing “the victim” and also not thinking that fighting the situation (which rarely brings justice) would do the trick. “Don’t fight it thinking you’ll win because you may not, and then you’ll feel worse.” I needed to hear what she had to say, and I needed to mow the grass.

I left the wallowing in misery and became, once again, the pioneer.

A very dear friend (who will probably read this) had sent me two books – Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist and Squire Rushnell’s (When God Winks on)New Beginnings. She had also wisely reminded me of a book I’d read a few years ago when I was facing the realization that I was “getting old,” William Bridges’ Transitions, which www.amazon.com had delivered to me a few days ago. After mowing my grass, I sat there and wondered, which of these books will I read first?  I picked up New Beginnings simply because I’d never heard of it, and it’s such a pretty book. So that’s the one I’m reading.

That book emphasizes “Godwinks” that come to us when we least expect them. It also emphasizes prayer. As a result of choosing that book to read first, instead of waking up worrying this morning, I woke up praying. And with Patti LaBelle’s help, I’ve got a “new attitude.”

And I’m a pioneer today – and for the rest of my life. I’m sure I’ll wallow again when the next crisis attacks, but never for long. It’s just not my nature. Wallowing is a temporary and necessary bridge, I think, between denial and acceptance of one’s reality. Yesterday I managed to cross over to the “acceptance” side  of that bridge.

And I’m a pioneer again.

And a few minutes ago I made an appointment to get my hair cut short this morning – real  short. Pioneer women need short hair (or hair long enough to tie back, which mine isn’t and wouldn’t be any time soon). And I’m paying more than I can afford for this cut – because I’m a pioneer.

Funny how it seems that each age becomes more and more focused on school – I don’t even remember summers with any specificity at about this age and on. They are just blurs for the most part.

Age 10 and fifth grade were spent with another memorable teacher, Mrs. Edith Hofer.

I can see her now. She was tall. She had a large shock of frizzy white hair. Wire-rimmed glasses. Modest print dresses with long sleeves and high necks with white Peter-Pan collars, no floral full skirts like Miss Beamer’s.  Mrs. Hofer was a widow. And she had one arm – one arm. That stands out the most. One arm that was cut off just below the elbow. When she paddled us for misbehavior, she’d hold us steady with the “partial arm” and paddle us with the complete arm. At first, it was probably a little bit scary, given her overall kind of witchy appearance and strict approach to teaching – but we got used to it. She came off as stern, strict, not so friendly. But I think Mrs. Hofer was, underneath that threatening exterior, probably one of the sweetest people you’d ever know. I learned this because of one event – I told her something sad that happened in my family, something I was too young to fully comprehend. I must have been confused because Mrs. Hofer was not a person I’d usually confide in – but I remember her taking me aside and being so very, very sweet talking with me about this problem. That day, I saw who she truly was – a wonderful, sweet person whose “story” I wish I knew. I never knew anything about how she was widowed or how she lost her arm. I don’t think she had children, but I’m not sure. And I figure she wasn’t really as old as she seemed to us then.

I have to say that West Virginia schools have always been much maligned as backward, underfunded, inferior, not even having kindergarten. But you couldn’t prove it by me because I have always believed I had the best education anyone could have in those schools. We had wonderful teachers, I  learned all the “basics” that you could learn  without glitzy resources, and I loved and appreciate my schools so much. I’m sure other places had “better” schools in many ways,  but I never felt deprived of anything in our schools. Maybe it was the times, too. Schools weren’t faced with the same socioeconomic problems we have today. And I wasn’t in urban schools, nor in rural schools, but in small-town schools divorced from the extremes of urban and rural poverty. We were working-class, but we had moderately funded schools with dedicated teachers. And Mrs.  Hofer was wonderful.

We 4th, 5th, and 6th graders were still in the white frame portables, however; and I think it was in fifth grade (or maybe  fourth) that a girl named Emma was burned horribly one morning before my bus got to school. We heard about it when we got there, and it happened in our room. We had open-flame gas heaters in those portables, and poor Emma’s dress caught fire as she stood too near the heater before school. Eventually, she was OK, and her scars weren’t disfiguring or apparent (as far as we could see), but I won’t forget how sad we all felt for Emma.

I became mouthy in fifth grade – noisy. I had the confidence I had gained from my competitive successes in fourth grade by then, so I was chatty and  noisy, always with my hand up answering or asking questions, always talking out-of-turn with the other kids, rarely quiet. That was the year that the number of “paddlings” one got became kind of a badge of honor. I’d go home and brag about “I got paddled again today for talking in class!” until Mom told me, “Next time I hear that, you’ll get a worse spankin’ at home!” So I just never told her again – and kept on earning my paddlings like  merit badges. (They did hurt, though, I must interject. Mrs. Hofer hit hard with that long wooden paddle with holes in it to make it hurt more.)

The paddlings didn’t make me a “bad girl” because I was still a good student – I was still making straight A’s and 100%’s on most papers, so the teacher was good-natured as she told me to line up with other miscreants every day for the paddlings. I redeemed myself by being “smart,” a “teacher’s pet” who also happened to get paddled almost every day for talking too much.

That year, too, I had a real “boyfriend.” For a few days. A boy named “Earl” brought in a chocolate cupcake – only for me – one day. It was love. I can’t visualize him at all because he was there only a few days (or maybe weeks) and I never saw him again, but I remember his name.  When one day Earl all of a sudden wasn’t there, never to return, Mrs. Hofer showed me her sweetness again:  She told me sympathetically that Earl was a “migrant,” that his family had to move from place to place to work on farms, and she indicated that that was a sad thing. I afterward had a soft place and empathy in my heart for migrant workers – every time I hear about migrants, I think of Earl – and I’ll always wonder what happened to him and his family.

I don’t know exactly when this occurred, but I did spend a lot of time as a child with my maternal grandparents. They lived in a little rented yellow block house “on Davis Creek” outside South Charleston. Last time I was there, about seven years ago, that little house was still there by the creek, but empty. But their real home was the “old home place” upon the creek, up on Middle Fork. You had to drive up a dirt road, then through creeks that meandered over the road in spots, to deep woods and vertical hills. The old log, two-storey house my great-grandfather built is still there. My grandmother, born in 1885, and my mother (youngest of 11 kids), born in 1925, both grew up there. I’ll probably write more about that separately.  For now, though, I’ll just say that some of the happiest days of my life were spent on weekends and in summers  in that old house with my grandparents – or in that little yellow block house.

Staying with my Mommaw and Poppaw was full of church and walks to the little store up the road and prayers and religious radio programs and Bible reading – and ice cream and  attention only for me. I must have loved all that attention and have never quite known why it was lavished on me. My only theory was that I was the first child of their youngest child….something like that. I mention all this here because sometime, around age 10 (or 8, 9, or 11), I read John Foxe’s Christian Martyrs of the World at Mommaw’s and Poppaw’s house. It’s the only book I recall in their house except the Bible, but I spent hours reading that book. I guess it held a kind of a prurient fascination for me because all it was (as I recall) was tales of horrible torture and death inflicted upon Protestants by Roman Catholics (of whom I knew none till about age 17, so Catholics were a somewhat “romantic” group to me, mysterious, intriguing).  Anyway, back to the book: The wrack. The stake. Burning. Beheading. Beating.  Pulling people’s limbs off. All manner of horrible stuff. And my Poppaw told me that the Pope was the devil himself (something I really never believed but never challenged to his face). What Foxe’s book did for me, though, was show me how cruel people could be to other people. I didn’t know then that Protestants did some equally cruel things – but I still, for whatever reason, did not develop any anti-Catholic bias, thankfully. I was just fascinated by how cruel people could be  – so I read this book over and over. Perhaps that helps explain why I am so appalled today about torture and my own country’s descent into that horrid practice during the Bush years. It became an issue of increasing, passionate concern for me these past eight years.

At age 10, I developed physically and rapidly in every way,  even needing my first bra that year. Plus, I got very tall. Either the summer before or after fifth grade, another “female” development came. I was at 4-H camp for a week, and the thing I loved most about 4-H camp was swimming, something we rarely got to do. There were no public pools in St. Albans, and we got to go to either Holiday Park in Hurricane or Rock Lake Park in South Charleston pretty rarely in the summer, so I loved 4-H camp because not only could I be in the pool, but I also learned to swim there by taking lessons. One day, however, I had a spot of blood on my underwear. I immediately went to the camp nurse – “Is this….? Could this be….? Is this what I think it is?” Yes, she told me, I had my first period. And I hated it because I had to stay out of the pool the rest of the week.  For the next 35 years I hated periods with a passion – they were messy and crampy and made me feel yucky and bloated and miserable. One quarter of a girl’s (and woman’s) life is spent having periods, and I never got over my resentment about that. I was so happy when I had a hysterectomy at age 45 – no more periods!!!! Yessssssssss!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Even periods, though, didn’t keep me from still loving running, biking, playing tag and cowboys-and-Indians, all the usual kid stuff. Even though I was becoming more and more “bookish,” and even though I was officially in “puberty,” I was still a pretty normal kid. The next year, age 11, I think I grew up a lot……

I posted this essay on the “This I Believe” website that now has about 65,000 essays from people all over the world, some of which have been featured on National Public Radio – most very moving, very memorable. Here’s mine (written sometime in the past year or so):

Contributor: Karen Porter

Location: West Chester, PA

Country: United States of America

Series: Contemporary


When I was a teenager in the 1960s, one of the most profound influences on my developing Cold War world view was stories about how the “evil communists” tortured people – a practice, which in our Cold War time, was the very definition of evil. Notably, I read books by Dr. Tom Dooley about the horrible torture tactics of the communists in Southeast Asia – in Laos and Vietnam – as the Vietnam war was starting, then escalating through my youth. I also read the shocking recounts of the torture-and-death machine of the Nazi Holocaust, coming to public awareness via the Adolf Eichmann trials at that time. As a fundamentalist Appalachian-mountain Christian, I took my religion very seriously – and these torture practices offended every moral precept I had garnered from my upbringing. For the rest of my life, I have defined other countries’ morality by how those countries treat their people – and I believe that torture is the ultimate evil a country can perpetrate.


Today, I believe that torture is still the defining moral mark of any culture or country. I believe that a culture or country that practices torture practices the utmost evil. “Torture” is a word people do not wish to discuss, to acknowledge, to even think about – but it exists. Torture is transformative – it transforms people from good to evil. Torture hurts and kills it victims and its perpetrators. If defines a culture.


For many years, I have wondered “Where were the good Germans?” I knew they were there – but where were they during the Holocaust? How could they stand by and let it happen? When I see a country torturing people today, I know that that country has its good people. I know they are there. Yet they stand by. Any country can be a Germany. We are all “good Germans” if we stand by and allow torture to happen.


In addition to torture killing both its victims and its perpetrators, it brings back to an otherwise moral people the perpetrators – their torture practices just might not stop when they return to their normal surroundings. They will live in neighborhoods, have spouses and children, live in communities. But their torture practices do not die. They are forever twisted by their experiences – and we will have them living amongst us.


Torture changes society, and it is changing our own society in this country. The torturers live amongst us. If we do not stop torture, we are the torturers.


This I believe.