By Mary Ann Gonzales, Tyson Greer, Wanda Herndon, Laura Celise Lippman, Jane Spalding, Suzanne Tedesko, and Beth Weir, Published by Washington State University Imprint Basalt Books, 2022
Description from the publisher’s website:
Once a week, seven writers—all retired from professional careers—spend two hours together. The purpose of their gathering is to discuss what they wrote the previous week. For a number of years prior to 2020, the group met in their homes over coffee. The pandemic changed that. Members could not hug at Zoom meetings. Then on May 25th, a white policeman pressed his knee to a Black man’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Other officers looked on with chilling nonchalance as he pleaded, “I can’t breathe.” A seventeen-year-old girl captured it all on her cell phone, and the world exploded.
The process of putting down their thoughts about the cascading events of the year helped the group weather the challenges of 2020 and beyond. Inside Writing While Masked are personal pieces—writings of the moment, essays that reflect, and poems that express raw emotion. They include thoughts about what the authors experienced and learned, and what they want for the future. Most of all, they are words of hope.
Co-author Laura Celise Lippman tells the story of the book’s journey:
We didn’t mean to write a book together. “We” are a group of seven writers who have been meeting once a week to critique each other’s work for more than ten years. The group started with four women, then as these things happen, it evolved.
By January 2020, there were seven of us—one poet, one memoirist, one personal essayist, and four of us writing novels—some of us published, some of us not yet. We had become trusted friends and all of us were aghast at the unparalleled divisiveness that was infecting America. And then came COVID-19.
As January slid into February, and February stumbled into March, the rancorous politics of an election year that focused on personalities rather than principles, the proliferation of mis- and dis-information, the public health fiasco of the newly identified virus, and the long overdue racial reckoning escalated in lockstep with the spread of COVID across the world. 2020 was a year like no other.
Living in the shadow of COVID, we stopped meeting at each other’s homes and figured out how to meet weekly on Zoom and kept on writing. We looked forward to signs of spring when, if we bundled up and it wasn’t raining, we could at least meet in each other’s gardens. Six feet apart, of course. We kept on writing.
But the work we brought to our weekly meetings wasn’t always the novel, essay, poem, or memoir, we’d been working on; it was an essay or poem about what was happening in our country. One of us, Jane, reported advice she’d heard at a workshop: writers should be recording their stories of this tumultuous year. Write them down, or you’ll forget the details. We thought of nephews, nieces, grandsons, granddaughters—those who would follow us. We shouldn’t let the details of this historic year fade and be forgotten.
At one meeting, Beth announced that she had decided to pull her essays together and self-publish them using Blurb.com, a software platform she was familiar with, and was anyone else interested? Each of us said yes. We didn’t want to take the time from writing to involve an agent or write queries to publishing houses. “Let’s just do this.” We’d create a little book that we could give to family and friends, then focus completely on our “real” writing projects.
On May 25th, when a 17-year-old-year-old girl with a cell phone captured video of police officer Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd, the world erupted. When we read Wanda’s poem “I Cry,” we urged her to send it to the Seattle Times, and they published it to great acclaim. Not long after, one of Beth’s essays was also published by the Seattle Times. And we kept writing. And began planning.
Beth offered to be the point person for compiling the content for the book. Working together we sketched out timelines, format, and cover art. We were sure it wouldn’t take long.
Because the book would be about 2020, we decided on a cutoff date for the content of December 15th, then Beth would pop the content into the software program, and poof—we’d have a book… maybe not in time for Christmas, but pretty soon after.
After we realized we were each sending content to Beth with different fonts and line spacing, we developed formatting standards for the pages we sent her—font, margins, placement of title, date, and author’s name. One of us suggested we give the book structure by creating a “news” page for each month. We divvied up the months and wrote one or two-sentence highlights of what was happening around the world in January, February, and so on. The items were as varied as the monthly COVID death tolls, hurricanes, more Black murders, demonstrations, Supreme Court rulings, wildfires, and vaccine uptake … and these milestones gave context to our writings.
We needed a title and began brainstorming. Mary Ann had responded to the pandemic by sewing cloth masks (ultimately giving away over 1500 of them); hence our title, Writing While Masked: Observations on 2020. Our “photo session” produced a shot for the cover featuring seven beautiful masks.
To add to the challenge of publishing the book, Beth’s date for leaving on December 29th for a three-month stint to her New Zealand homeland came up surprisingly quickly, but she was able to hand it off to Tyson, who readied it for printing.
Self-publishing, as many authors know, is not a casual endeavor—the details of formatting with rigid software, hiring a copy editor, proofreading, and ordering the books cannot be underestimated. Plus, we needed an index. And a copyright designation. And a Library of Congress imprint.
When it was done, we had a book full of poems, anecdotes, and essays that reflected the rage and sadness, hope and tenderness, and even the humor we had experienced in that year like no other.
We didn’t have to wait long before UPS delivered four hefty boxes of books. Besides giving copies to friends and family, what were we going to do with them? Wanda drafted a marketing plan and we spread the word. Jane made the initial contact with a Seattle bookstore—Third Place Books in Ravenna—and Suzie secured another one. Soon our anthology appeared in eight Indie bookstores from West Seattle to Lopez Island. We ordered more books.
We had no intention of making a profit from such a horrific year, so we funded the publication of the book ourselves and donated the proceeds (over $3500) to Literary Source, a local nonprofit that works to improve literacy, particularly in marginalized and immigrant populations. We were pleased with our modest success and sponsorship from local bookstores and had some good reviews and local radio coverage. Not surprisingly, we found that bookselling and bookkeeping weren’t something we wanted to do with our time. To be honest, we would rather be writing.
Jean Godden, the local Seattle journalist and radio personality, suggested to Laura that she contact the Washington State University Press to see if they would republish our work and help with marketing and distribution.
One phone call elicited an enthusiastic response from WSU Press’s managing editor, and after reviewing our book, they agreed to publish it under their brand-new non-academic imprint, Basalt Books. All we had to do was provide a little additional content: an update from each of us covering January — July 2021, plus a forward, and blurbs for the back cover. We signed the contract and celebrated!
Excerpts from the writings in the book:
April 28, 2020
by Jane Spalding
The need to know what happens next. My choice on the last Sunday of December when our minister invited us to select one thing we wanted to leave in the old year, infuse it in a rock, and drop the rock into a bowl of water. This act symbolized my desire to live in the moment in 2020.
What a forewarning!
In mid-March, when our governor declared a lockdown, Nick, who I’ve been dating for a year, invited me to isolate with him at his farm on Whidbey Island, an hour from Seattle where I live. It wasn’t a “come up for a day or two” invitation. No, this invitation had conditions. “Move in until the lockdown order is relaxed. No going back and forth to Seattle. Bring some things you’d like to do while you’re here,” he said.
Nick is 74; I’m 72. We met on match.com one year earlier. He made it clear in our first conversation that he wasn’t ready for a monogamous relationship. He was still grieving his deceased wife of eighteen years. We agreed to meet for lunch anyway. And here he was inviting me to move in?
“Pack like you’re going away to college,” my brother advised. Except going away to college, you know how long you’re going to be there and have a shorter lifetime of baggage to sort through. This felt more like running away from home. Leaving my own home, my daughter, my friends, and community to settle into a beautiful island home for an undesignated amount of time?
Now after being here for 2 months, I know it was the right decision. An early conversation about “this is not forever, is not a commitment,” diminishes the need to know what’s going to happen at the end of the lockdown. An unknown number of tomorrows takes the urgency out of our lovemaking. We create an elegant choreography in the kitchen.
And I’m learning to live in the shadow of Nick’s wife, who died nearly three years ago. Can you develop a relationship with one who has passed on? I know I would have liked her. A people magnet, the brains behind the masterful gardens they created, a loving grandmother, writer, knitter, cook, pretty much an excellent fill-in-the-blank person. She and I even shared the same profession. We raised funds for hospitals and educational institutions.
Now, using her hair dryer, cooking in her well-equipped kitchen, sleeping in her bed, seeing her photo first thing in the morning all seems a strange kind of intimacy with someone I’ll never meet. I’ve yet to find a how-to-book on moving into the home of a beloved late wife. As far as I can tell, it takes acceptance, appreciation, and a rooted sense of self. Of course, I know I can’t be her. I can only add my spirit to their home and let it roll off when he occasionally calls me by her name.
What happens next? I don’t know. But every day I’m grateful for a wonderful shelter-in-place companion as we grieve and wait out this global tragedy. And I’m grateful I can still button my jeans.
Birthday Party: Short, Outside, Distanced
August 27, 2020
by Laura Celise Lippman
Stay Home Stay Safe
alarm call of the 3-year-old
birthday boy to his slightly
older encroaching cousins.
A megaphone voice of fear
from a tiny guy echoing
the mantra of his days.
The 5-year-old replies
with his standard line;
the coronavirus you mean
followed by the 4-year-old;
yeah COVID-19. Back to play––
further apart as long as it sustains
maybe five short minutes
‘til the line gets breached again.
The party was short––outside, distanced,
ventilated by a soft ocean breeze.
Now, days later, I sit under the shadow
of the Liars Convention where the cloud
that hangs over us is glibly
ignored in favor of the soaring
stocks of the one percent.
The silence, with the boys gone,
is profound, lonely, and hollow.
The lapping waves remind me
that water finds its level
and lets me hope
for a new tomorrow.
At the end of each chapter, a chart offers a review of events that month. Here is one of the charts:
|SEP 1:||President Trump visits the city of Kenosha, Wisconsin, where Jacob Blake was shot, to offer support for law enforcement
|SEP 2:||Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service reports the Arctic Circle has worst fire season on record
|SEP 3:||MacKenzie Scott, philanthropist and ex-wife of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, becomes the world’s richest woman, worth $68 billion
|SEP 4:||Record 52% of American 18-29-year-olds are living with their parents because of the pandemic (Pew Research Center Study)
|SEP 5:||More than 50 arrested as Portland, Oregon, marks 100 days of protests against racism and police brutality
|SEP 6:||Strain of bacteria nicknamed Conan the Bacterium survives three years attached to the International Space Station in open space
|SEP 6:||Los Angeles County reported its highest-ever temperature of 121 F
|SEP 7:||India overtakes Brazil to record the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases with 4.2 million
|SEP 7:||Wildfires have burned a record 2 million acres in California 2020 fire season
|SEP 8:||Moria refugee camp, Europe’s biggest migrant camp, burns down on the Greek Island of Lesbos, leaving 13,000 without shelter
|SEP 9:||Global death toll from COVID-19 passes 900,000; US has the most deaths at 190,589
|SEP 10:||Wildfires in Oregon cause 500,000 people to evacuate—more than 10% of the population—with an unprecedented 900,000 acres burned
|SEP 10:||California’s August Complex wildfire becomes largest recorded in state history at 736 square miles
|SEP 14:||WHO reports largest-ever one-day COVID-19 case rise of 307,930; daily death toll of 5,500 and overall death total of 917,417
|SEP 15:||Scientific American issues its first ever presidential endorsement in 175 years by backing Joe Biden
|SEP 19:||President Trump vows to swear in a new Supreme Court judge, despite the election being only 45 days away
|SEP 22:||US COVID-19 death toll passes 200,000, more than any other country
|SEP 23:||Kentucky grand jury indicts one of three officers for wanton engagement for shooting unarmed Breonna Taylor in Louisville
|SEP 23:||President Trump refuses to commit to a peaceful transfer of power after the US November election at a White House conference
|SEP 24:||President Trump nominates Judge Amy Coney Barrett for the US Supreme Court to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg
|SEP 25:||Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg becomes the first woman to lie in state in the US Capitol in Washington D.C.
|SEP 28:||COVID-19 recorded global death toll passes one million with over 33 million known cases
|SEP 30:||California becomes the first US state to pass a law allowing reparations for Black residents and descendants of slaves
Author Contributor Bios:
Mary Ann Gonzales established the Ballard Community School, was Director of this effort for five years, and eventually helped establish a Community Development Program at Antioch University, Seattle, and went on to organize what was known as the first “public” AIDS informational event in Seattle. With the American Red Cross, she helped in the production of an AIDS film eventually shown on PBS. After helping create support groups for AIDS caregivers, she was contacted by the Multiple Sclerosis Society to manage and support their extensive Support Group Program. Besides Writing While Masked, Mary Ann has an epistolary book on the boil about the Japanese Internment Camps during WW II through the experiences of both the interned and those who managed their stay.
Tyson Greer is completing her second novel set in Idaho. It will make a cowgirl out of the slickest of city slickers. After hopscotching across the country, living in New Mexico, New York, Nevada—running out of states that started with “N”—and a year rambling around Europe on the back of a Triumph motorcycle with the kids (then five and eight) in a sidecar; Seattle seemed like a nice place to stay. Mountains, water, arts community. In addition to living in a lot of places, she, she has lived in different art forms: painting, sculpture, video, and interactive media. She wrote and directed corporate television and documentaries, taught screenwriting, freelanced magazine articles, authored a non-fiction book on technology (sold in eight languages), and ghosted a couple of others. And got to travel a lot. Then, co-founding a company to write learning technologies market analysis research reports with another Microsoft ex-pats, she traveled more.
Wanda Herndon’s foray into writing began in 8th Grade at Whittier Junior High School when she was asked to read her first poem, “Discontent,” in a children’s radio program. She nurtured her love of the written word with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism from Michigan State University. She later received an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree from her alma mater. Never fitting the stereotype of corporate executive, she nonetheless successfully transitioned her writing skills to corporate public relations and ascended to executive positions at Dow Chemical, DuPont, and Starbucks. “Stepping out on faith” when facing challenges is a constant battle cry in the African American community. This explains, she says, how she became a producer of Tony Award-winning Broadway plays, Memphis: The Musical and Come from Away. In retirement, she is writing her memoir, Dreadlocks in the Boardroom, and penning poetry that reflects her cultural observations, such as “I Cry,” which was featured in the Seattle Times. She remains actively engaged with the business and philanthropic communities.
Laura Celise Lippman attended Bryn Mawr College when the women’s movement was blossoming. She studied classes taught by the famous Kate Millet, and it seemed almost reactionary not to devote one’s life to women learning about their bodies and achieving equal recognition and treatment in the healthcare world. She attended the Medical College of Pennsylvania, formerly the Women’s Medical College, but was forced to become coed to receive funds from the feds. She came to Seattle for a residency in family practice, then went into private practice in the North Seattle area for 35 years, retiring relatively early and moving on to her life adventure as her children married and has kids and her physician husband worked part-time. She dabbled in medical practice for low-income folks and for the Navajo and Zuni tribes in Arizona, was a doctor for staff and students on the world voyage of the Semester at Sea, got her native plant steward certification, became a forest steward, and a citizen scientist studying fish eggs and seastar epidemics. She took writing classes and found her way into two groups of stellar writers. Her poems have appeared in Crosswinds, Pontoon Poetry, Mobius, and The Journal of Social Change among other journals. I contributed a chapter to On The Cable, a 1972 report by the Sloan Foundation and various medical publications. You can visit her at https://www.laura-celise-lippman-poetry.com
Jane Spalding grew up in Kentucky, worked her way to the Pacific Northwest, and became one of those people who can’t live without water nearby. After earning a master’s degree in the Teacher Corps and seven years of teaching, she discovered nonprofit organizations. After working for the Evansville Arts and Education Council as Executive Director, she spent twenty rewarding years raising money for hospitals, the most exciting as Harborview Medical Center’s Director of Development. In 2015, she retired from Seattle University, where for ten years she served as director of Corporate and Foundation Relations. The most important thing she’s done in her life, she says, was to adopt a baby from China in 1995. Katherine Mei Xia Spalding became my spirit guide. Wanting to write the story of her trip to China inspired her to seek out a writing group. And, she exclaims, what a wonderful group she found!
Suzanne Tedesko is a meticulous researcher. The novel she is about to finish reflects that. Raised in a New York suburb and graduated from a women’s college in Massachusetts, the summer after college, she sat on the lip of a Kentucky strip mine wondering what to do with a Philosophy degree. Education was the answer and film the medium. She spent the next five years in New York City as a documentary film researcher and associate producer on subjects that included the Puerto Rican community, a history of the Jews and refugees from Eastern Europe. Offered a job as Program Director of a six-month-long Folklife Festival in Spokane, WA for Expo ’74, she transferred her research skills to programming 26 ethnic mini-festivals on a three-acre site. After Expo, she moved to Seattle and returned to film and video work at KCTS/9, producing two documentaries that aired nationally over PBS stations. The venues for her work ranged from documentary film, video, and radio production to ethnographic research and writing, refugee work, and citizen diplomacy. Because the theme of cultural identity suffused much of her work, she completed a post-graduate degree in Cross-Cultural Communication from the Center for World Indigenous Studies in Olympia, WA. She’s completed three editions of a Seattle guidebook for Fodor’s and a screenplay, “Swimming Upstream,” and is completing a first novel while enjoying her four adorable grandchildren who live within striking distance.
Beth Weir recently completed a novel about retirement, which is currently in the hands of an enthusiastic agent. She is a New Zealander by birth who moved to the States with her husband in 1976 with two babies in tow, expecting to stay five years. Those initial years have grown into almost five decades. The first thirty years we spent in Raleigh, North Carolina, exploring the riches, humor, warts, and eccentricities of the South. There she worked as a professor of education at Meredith College, an institution that has served women for over one hundred years. She explored an interest in literacy acquisition. She moved to Seattle in 2005 and appreciates the close proximity to water and mountains as she had growing up in New Zealand. For five years, she served as the Executive Director of the Dunn Gardens north of Seattle. Mindful of sayings about writing, a favorite for the year of 2020 is, “Write what should not be forgotten.” – Isabel Allende
2020, the authors write, was certainly a unique Leap Year. They came to the conclusion that Maya Angelou’s observation that “Every storm runs out of rain” remains a fitting one.