Month: August 2015

One very special school in Blackfoot, Idaho

The Lillian Vallely School, a fully accredited, Episcopal elementary day school, serves Native American children who live on the Fort Hall Reservation in eastern Idaho. The school was begun, in 1997, by then Episcopal Bishop John Thornton and his wife, Jan, at the request of a group of elders led by Lillian Vallely, a Shoshone woman and Episcopal Deacon. During many coffee hours at the Church of the Good Shepherd on the reservation, these elders dreamed of a special school where their grandchildren and great grandchildren might be given the tools to do better scholastically by having their own culture honored and academic excellence expected of them.

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John and Jan Thornton

In the spring of 1999, with a large grant from the Laura Moore Cunningham Foundation, Inc. of Boise and several other gifts, the founders were able to purchase a sixty-acre farm just off the reservation and move the school. They were blessed with eight different volunteer groups that summer. The first was a mission team from St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas. Sixteen energetic people tore down six old unusable farm buildings, made of heavy logs and timber slash. Seven other groups helped refurbish the old house to convert it to offices and dining room. They leveled the land, brought in rented portable classrooms, built a deck to join them and opened school on schedule in late August. Thirty children were accepted and a fifth grade was added.

LVS has since added a library wing onto the old house, built a beautiful playground, replaced the rented portable classrooms with two new classroom buildings, added new concrete parking spaces, driveways and walkways, built a fire suppressant system and constructed a new barn for the vehicles. Thanks to gifts from the Gladys E. Langroise Advised Fund in the Idaho Community Foundation, the Rev. Robert and Dr. Gina Parker, and others in 2011, LVS replaced the old farm house with a new administration building that includes offices, a dining room and a kitchen.

From the beginning, LVS has had small classes with lots of individual attention. In 2009, the school became a fully accredited private school. Students are taught their native culture including Shoshone language, dance, crafts and Indian flute. A principal, a business manager, two classroom teachers with Idaho teaching credentials, two grant writers, a director of Shoshone language and culture, a teacher of the Godly Play curriculum, two aides, a custodian, and two van drivers comprise the staff at the school. Visiting chaplains—episcopal priests and deacons—from the Episcopal Diocese of Idaho come to the school each month.

The students receive frequent invitations to dance and play their flutes in various venues including performances for their peers in other schools. They have performed for the College of Southern Idaho, for a Smithsonian History of Music event and for a large convention in Denver. All of this is confidence building—and creates prideful moments—for the students.

LVS teaches the Christian faith in the Episcopal tradition, another request of the elders. It is believed that if they know they are God’s beloved, are proud of their heritage and are given lots of individual attention, they will do well in all subjects. Students are taken to events in the majority culture. Science professors from Idaho State University in Pocatello come regularly to the school to teach classes with experiments in physics and chemistry. They also take field trips that include regular art classes at the art museum in Idaho Falls. It is important that they be comfortable in both cultures, to excel academically and to have the skills to attend any college or university in America if they wish.

LVS does not charge tuition, because most families would not be able to afford it. The families help with time and talent as they are able. Except for an eGrant, the Government School Lunch Program, and some Title 1 funds, the school does not receive government help. All of the funding for the school is raised from the private sector through foundation and corporation grants, fund-raising events and tax-deductible gifts from many generous individuals. It costs more than $20,000 each month to operate the school, so LVS is very thankful for all of this support.

This Sunday, August 30, the Thorntons are offering bushels of apples and pears from their farm in Scio, Oregon, to worshipers at Saint Michael’s Episcopal Cathedral in Boise, Idaho. It’s an annual event, a way to share the continued bounty of their orchards. Julie Thompson, a Cathedral member, flew to Portand and drove to the farm to pick fruit. Tim Loge, also from St. Michael’s, drove 500 miles each way to help pick and then transport the harvest to Boise and unload it at SunRay Cafe in the city’s North End. Dave Martin, the cafe owner and fellow parishioner, is providing cold storage of the fruit until Sunday.

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Sunday’s “point of sale” poster

Those receiving these gifts from the Thorntons will give something back, a donation to the school. There’s no price on the fruit, because it is indeed priceless. But every year, it’s been a beautiful “taketh and giveth” event, with everyone exceedingly generous and completely satisfied. This year, like past year, I expect that every piece of fruit will find a home. Just the way that thirty young students living on the Fort Hall Reservation have found academic, cultural and faithful comfort at the Lillian Vallely School.

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My recent connection with @sharrisLaughter

By her own candid account, and laughing as she tells it, bonafide writer Shirley Harris-Slaughter did not consider herself such. Not initially. Her first book, “Our Lady of Victory: The Saga Of An African-American Catholic Community,” was published in 2007 and did launch well. In fact, Shirley told me the book was “coming off the shelves” of her diocese’s Catholic Book Store. Then sales quickly petered out.

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Shirley Harris-Slaughter

Shirley was patient. After all, she’d thought of the book as a narrative history project, a way to document and honor the work done by some pioneering citizens in Detroit, Michigan, where she grew up. Yes, she did all of the social media stuff, blogging initially on a GoDaddy platform and Tweeting with the handle, @Motorcitywriter. She had garnered some 100 followers—not a large number—but, as she is quick to point out, they were real, not purchased!

Things had gotten stale, so to speak, and she was about to close her Twitter account. Then, out of nowhere, Shirley received a tweet from a stranger by the name of Nonnie Jules, a fellow writer.

“Nonnie thought my website was beautiful,” beamed Shirley in a recent conversation with me. “She hadn’t read the book at that point in time, but she gave me a lot of encouragement.” After meeting Nonnie, Shirley became revitalized—and part of a movement. She was now equal parts consumed with promoting her own book AND becoming an influencer to help fellow authors as well. Just like that, she became a Board Member of Nonnie’s Rave Reviews Book Club and her ticket as a writer got punched!

Credit Nonnie for a lot of that success. She bought and read Shirley’s book. She reviewed the book and called it a “homerun.” She took on Shirley as a client, helped republish the book under her own 4WillsPublishing imprint, relaunched it on Facebook and did a blog tour. Shirley adds, “She also did my wonderful book trailer. The more I hear it, the more I like it. I never got that much publicity and attention.”

The truth behind Shirley’s first book moved me to tears. I AM NOT CATHOLIC, but I know they have behaved badly for decades. She uncovered a lot of things the higher-ups and the powers-that-be in her church wanted kept out of the public eye. I’m sure it was hard for Shirley to expose the truth about a place that had provided many people like her with such transformative life experiences.

Shirley is an American with black skin whose parents saw an opportunity to help their eight children have a better life. Shirley recounts the catalytic story of a little boy walking each day from her neighborhood, Royal Oak Township—just north of Detroit—to Eight Mile Road, just inside the city limits. He was always adorned in a smart uniform on his way to Our Lady of Victory, a combination Catholic parish church and school.

“My parents sacrificed us,” Shirley told me. At first, I thought she meant something quite sinister, like Abraham and Isaac. I probed further and discovered that for Shirley and her siblings to enroll at Our Lady of Victory, they jumped through hoops I simply can’t comprehend. Trust me when I tell you it was complicated. While technically affiliated with OLV as a second grader, Shirley was bused to inner city schools and didn’t make her official debut at OLV until the fourth grade.

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Young Shirley in 4th Grade

Such a sacrifice proved worthwhile introduced Shirley to some wonderful adult role models, a gift she both treasures and knows she’d never have gotten on the north side. The work done by the pioneers of Shirley’s new community was not everyone’s cup of tea, either. In compiling this narrative history, the author knew releasing it would be controversial.

Shirley chose her words carefully to reflect on some of the challenges she faced. “I had no idea a lot of people wouldn’t want to read it. The Archdiocese of Detroit specifically got their pre-order copy just to find out what I was writing. They did not go all out to support me, but neither did they hinder me because they couldn’t. Our Lady of Victory was merged and out of their jurisdiction. I found things out as the book was in various stages of being released. You find out who your true friends and enemies are. My story told truths that some were not prepared to face, let alone believe. Others were happy that I did this project. They were glad to see themselves immortalized.”

Shirley didn’t know it as a girl, but she later learned that she’d had a benefactor, a person who made it possible, financially, for her and six siblings to attend Our Lady of Victory. This “rich lady” was Martha Palms Williams, who owned what is now The Fillmore Detroit, a multi-use entertainment venue operated by Live Nation. Built in 1925, the Fillmore was known for most of its history as the State Theatre, and prior to that as the Palms Theatre.

Perhaps this is why Shirley considers herself today a community activist. “I like to work with children,” she says. “You can shape them when they’re young.” Shirley is part of a mentoring program and has made a positive impact on those she serves. Perhaps one day, one of those grateful mentees will send her a dozen roses as a “thank you,” just like Shirley did for Mrs. Willliams right before the good lady’s death.

I’m not writing a book review for Shirley’s first book, or even her second one, “Crazy! Hot! And Living On The Edge!!” published earlier this year and recounted her struggles with PTSD after an abusive first marriage. I encourage you to buy and read them yourselves. Witness the powerful stories about black and white co-existence and crippling illnesses within her family, that this powerful writer has been brave enough to tell.

Shirley Harris-Slaughter is an emotional person. She still chokes up talking about her severely retarded brother, how he knew he was being sent away from home to be be cared for, how he clung to his mother’s hand because he didn’t want to leave his family. How her family made this decision for the good of the whole family, to reduce the stress of caring for this brother that permeated their lives.

Yes, Shirley, it’s OK to be a “big baby.” For as often as you cry, you laugh. It’s your positive release. “Crazy! Hot! And Living On The Edge!!” is just a part of who you are. If it’s good enough for Langston, your husband for the past thirty years, it’s good enough for us.

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Shirley and Langston

As the title of this blog suggests, you may connect with Shirley on Twitter with just the slightest twist in her name: @sharrisLaughter. Become one of her now 3,000+ followers!

Return to Sender

For those of you who have read my memoir, Southern Fried Fiction, you already know that my third wife, Linda, had reached a point in our marriage where she had to drop me from her payroll, cut me loose. Given the mess I’d become, I can understand her reasoning more clearly now. And accept responsibility for my actions. ‘For better or worse’ was interfering with her life and ambitions. I’ll leave it at that.

In draft after draft of the manuscript, I kept taking blame out of her hands and putting it into mine. I thought my story was fair and balanced, and I was especially careful to avoid discussion of her midlife shenanigans in order to protect her stellar career. By the way, her real name isn’t Linda Murphy.

When my book was published in May, I thought about sending her a copy, but I didn’t. I’d be getting married again in July and wanted a smooth engagement. I thought I’d wait until my marriage to Lisa was behind me.

With nothing but good intentions, I put two copies of my memoir in the mail last week: one to Linda and one to my estranged son, Sam. He’d never heard my side of the story before and I thought it was about time. He’s twenty-nine years old, has a good job and is financially secure. This would be the prefect time to share my story with him. I couldn’t get through to him otherwise, so what did I have to lose?

Apparently, everything.

Linda immediately returned my book, which I received today along with the following handwritten note:

Stuart —

Thanks for the gesture but I couldn’t be less interested. I’m sure people in your life have a very different perspective about what happened. Your story telling is a such a gross invasion of privacy. I fear if you ever hoped to have a relationship with Sam (or others), writing this book insured it will never happen.

Linda

The book looked sterile and unopened. But her words sprung off the page in an unmistakably ominous fashion. Whether or not Sam reaches such a conclusion on his own is moot. She will try and insure that I never have a relationship with my son. Her stepson.

Still, as a father, it is a blessing to be able to continue loving my son, unconditionally. No one can take that away from me. Except me.

I welcome reader comments.

Stuart Hotchkiss
August 14, 2015

Moving Week

Keep it or throw it?

I’ll ask myself that question a hundred times or more this week, and if I’m right at least half the time, I’m a winner!

Yes, moves are stressful. This will be my eighth move in six years. No, I’m not a gypsy; I’m not being pursued by creditors; I love my neighbors as myself.

Each move has been circumstantial. Divorce. Fresh start. Better accommodations. Lower rent. Playing house. And every relocation has resulted in at least one positive: downsizing.

Most of us have way too many possessions. Better yet, most of us own a horde of crap. Most of us can’t let go. Most of us, and I am a common offender, empty and reload. I don’t know why I can’t reduce and stay that way. Kind of like my body weight. Actually just like my body weight, now that I think about it.

My wife, Lisa, and I started in earnest yesterday—Saturday—to pack. We are to be out of our apartment in four days—that’s Wednesday. We are moving into the Boise residence of a lovely couple from Oregon, to become their house sitters, for let’s say five months or less. We’ll have our own bedroom and bathroom and share the rest of the relatively small house one week a month with our Lord and Lady of the Land. I can’t share details of the arrangement, but trust me when I say it’s a “win-win” for both parties.

So, our goal is to take what we need to the house; put “valuable” and sentimental stuff into an existing 10-foot-wide by 15-foot-deep storage unit; and give the rest of our belongings away. It’s great to see the look on a friend’s face when you say, “I don’t want anything for it; you enjoy it for a while and then pay it forward.” We’ll make our goal, even if it turns out that we should have sold some of the items, even if we do save a bit too much because we’re not quite prepared to let go. Not yet.

As many have told me, when in doubt, take a picture of an item “on the bubble.” If it’s given away, you’ll still have a reminder and can keep those memories fresh in the present.

What has to happen in any joint move is the offer of decency and respect towards one another. No insults, tacit or implicit, about each others belongings or reasons for keeping them. No second guessing, unless asked. No eye rolling. Allow each other to wax nostalgic over a piece of formed clay, a crayon drawing, or a cheap piece of furniture. It’s just stuff and if it can all fit into the storage bin, just concede. Don’t argue over material goods. Fight over infidelity or reckless gambling—something big—if such a life-sucking monster ever tests your marital mettle.

We only have one lifetime to cherish something. You can’t take it with you. Oh, it’s sentimental, precious, or otherwise valuable? Worth too much to just give away to someone other than a family member? Then let your children have it now if you don’t use it. Let them enjoy it while you can see them do so.

Once this concept is grasped, a person is truly set free: less is more.

Stuart Hotchkiss
August 9, 2015

Update: While we did move into our new home on schedule, we just moved the last item—a black, portable Oreck vacuum cleaner—out of our apartment at 10:14PM MDT on Sunday, August 16, 2015. It was just one more offering left at the makeshift altar, also known as the dumpster.

An excerpt from my memoir, “Southern Fried Fiction”

Try to imagine a promising, forty-five-year-old executive suing a Fortune 100 company with a flimsy-at-best claim of fraudulent inducement. You’ll have to read my memoir, Southern Fried Fiction, to get the full back story, but this excerpt should provide some insight into my state of mind at the time.

“The journey from filing suit in November 2000 to jury selection on a Monday in May 2002 was exceedingly nerve-racking. Over this year-and-a-half-long period, I suffered mood swings like never before. The night after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, I walked down from my apartment to the West Side Highway and along the unprotected footpath that paralleled this always-busy six-lane thoroughfare. I stared into oncoming traffic, trying to imagine if I’d experience any pain by taking two steps to my right. The slightest imbalance on my part could have ended the lawsuit.

I must have made that same five-minute walk at least a half dozen times during the pretrial period. Each outing occurred during the evening, when it was either twilight or dark and nearly impossible to judge the speed of oncoming traffic. I was setting myself up for tragedy. Sometimes I ran across the full six lanes—as well as the raised median barrier— just to see if I was faster than a speeding bullet. It wasn’t exactly Russian roulette, but it was both certifiably manic and potentially lethal.

What had happened to me? Why couldn’t I hack the role of plaintiff? If this game—and it was a game, I now realize—was too hard to play, then why didn’t I pick up the phone and call Julian to suggest we stop? Why couldn’t I confess my suicidal ideations to Linda. She was my wife, for Pete’s sake! Of course I know why, at least now. I was sick in the head—depressed, mentally ill, emotionally unstable, whatever you want to call it—and, as such, I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t tell right from wrong, and I most certainly couldn’t share my feelings of utter despair with anyone. Honestly, how could I talk about something I couldn’t label? I was truly stuck in my own world, my own universe. I was thoroughly obsessed listening to my own alternative station called “Radio Stuart.” That sole stream of information was no more fair and balanced than what Fox News disseminates today.”

Stuart Hotchkiss
August 5, 2015

The Wedding Homily

Lisa Crandlemire and I received the blessing of Holy Matrimony on July 11, 2015 at St. Michael’s Cathedral in Boise, Idaho. That’s right, we got hitched. The service followed the liturgy found in the Book of Common Prayer according to the use of The Episcopal Church.

There were two readings, one from the Book of Colossians and another—a bonus reading—from Khalil Gibran (The Prophet). The Holy Gospel was from Matthew and The Great Thanksgiving (Communion) included Eucharistic Prayer B.

I think that’s more than enough proof that we had a church wedding.

The homily was delivered by a very holy man, John Stuart Thornton, former Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Idaho and now retired in name only. Bishop Thornton has been very active in the life of St. Michael’s Cathedral, preaching, administering pastoral care, creating new ministries such as “Poetry as Theology” and “The One Buck Seminary.” He and his wife Jan have hosted movie nights, Sunday morning brunch, and a variety of other social events around the Cathedral. Mind you, he’s done all of this in his eighties and in his spare time. Most days he’s not even in Boise, but tending to his beloved Taucross Farm in Scio, Oregon, where he and Jan reside permanently.

The Thorntons had planned to be in Oregon for the entire summer, away from the Cathedral and tending to the farm, fingers in the soil and all that. Earlier this spring, I asked John if he would consider delivering the homily for our wedding. Selfishly, I needed him to do that for me and, thankfully, Lisa understood those reasons. John immediately agreed to do so and, after clearing it with our celebrant, The Very Rev. Rich Demarest, he began to prepare his remarks.

John knows me quite well. We’ve worked on a number of projects together. He read the entire manuscript of my memoir, Southern Fried Fiction, before it went to press. He agreed to be the first of my friends to meet Lisa after I fell in love with her. He took to her instantly and confirmed that I had made the right decision. I confessed that as a financially poor man, I might be an unworthy suitor.

“Lisa’s father is a very rich man and may not approve of me,” I confided.

John thought for a moment and reminded me that in the years since arriving at St. Michael’s, I had become a wealthy person, a true believer. Then he proffered this thought, “What makes you so sure that Lisa’s father deserves you?”

Wow! He’s right, I realized. John had emboldened me right into the proverbial driver’s seat.

Indeed, John’s homily captured a lot that has wrapped this holy man and me together for most of the years I’ve lived in Boise, Idaho. Let me share a few excerpts with you:

“Stuart, I remember your excitement, your giddiness and glee, when you told me that you had found the woman you had looked for all your life. It was with the intermediacy of the Internet. Old Luddite that I am, I asked myself, Can any good come out of that Nazareth? Was this marriage made in heaven or was it made in cyberspace? But, when you took me to meet her, over breakfast at Café de Paris, I took one look at Lisa and said, Wow! This darned thing works! I knew right away that, not only had you found the woman you had been looking for all your life, you had found yourself in her. A few bites later, I knew that she had found herself in you too. I can’t remember what we had for breakfast, but everything had the taste of all that’s right and all that’s good, with all the sweetness of them.”

This ‘darned thing’ was Match.com, and it took two separate tries to get Lisa’s attention. The day of our first date, she had lunch with me and then drinks at Happy Hour with another fellow. Two dates, one outfit.

“I said that you two had found yourselves in each other. It’s the work—no, it’s the play—of the unconscious, which always takes your side. (Your unconscious knows when you can give yourself away.) Though you’re both smart, it’s the sense of Someone—that’s “Someone” with a capital “S”—who’s a whole lot smarter than either of you or both of you together. I’m talking about the Spirit of God. The Church is right to call it “the mystery of love.” And it’s not only a mystery, it’s a miracle. Every act of love is miraculous. Though some scientists might like to, it can’t be reduced to something neurobiological, as if we were only the human animal. It’s God acting in us, exceeding the limits we’ve set for ourselves—or our societies and cultures have set for us—and revealing our capacity for everything from empathy to sacrifice.”

The miracle and mystery of love had touched Lisa and me in a way that made it impossible for us to not marry.

“Speaking of mysteries, Lisa, in the beginning Stuart was a mystery, though you felt safe in it. (That unconscious again.) As the days and weeks went by, he became less and less so, until, now, he’s literally an open book. You’ve read it, Southern Fried Fiction. This is the man I’m going to marry! This is the man I’m going to play house with! This is the man I’m going to grow old with! I’ve read the book too, from manuscript stage on. Two-thirds of the people in this congregation have read the book. (If you are in the one-third who haven’t read it, Google Amazon immediately following the reception.) He’s not hiding anything. Few among the people I know are so willing to risk that much transparency—and other people’s judgments, not to mention other people’s envy. You know what you’re getting, Lisa, and what you’re getting is an unusually brave man.”

As is the case after a Thornton sermon, eyes teared, hearts pounded, souls lifted. This was classic John Thornton—every word, inflection and gesture—only this time at a wedding, not a Sunday service, or an installation, or a school graduation, or some other celebration. For Lisa and me, it happened with the usual pleasure of first hearing John’s words and then reading them later. And rereading. But it was more than usual, it was über-special, because, that day, we were the center of John’s universe for twelve and a half minutes. Some people, if they are so fortunate, have to wait until they are dead to have “fame” like that!

I don’t want to reprint the whole homily. That’s a decision John needs to make shortly as he compiles his third and final book of sermons. The first two are in print, but not commercially available. Once he adds the third edition, I will urge and help him market them, perhaps on Amazon or the St. Michael’s Cathedral website. They are too precious and profound to remain in the hands of a few hundred people in Boise, Idaho.

Stuart Hotchkiss
August 4, 2015