What's That Word?

There were too many moment I didn't want to recount from last night's debate and so I was staring at the sky on the drive to an early morning dental appointment. The sky grounds me and fills me with joy, something I am struggling at holding onto in this election cycle. My concentration floated upwards into what felt like a very hopeful October blue sky. My son was slumped slightly to the right, over his backpack, looking exactly the way a Monday feels. NPR was humming in the background and it seemed we were both a little a little lost until he bolted up. 

"Mom," he asked, "what's the p-word?"


I found my bearings through Kerri Miller's voice. She was listing the language used by one of our presidential candidates and because she said "p-word" and nothing more, he was left needing some clarification.

I listened for a bit and then offered, "Well, it's a derogatory word for a women't private parts."

Lame, right?

I know! In my defense, I was only one cup of coffee in and not in the parenting zone. After 13 years, you'd think I'd learned that I never really get to be out of the zone BUT. this is all to say that I let my guard down. 

Oh Mondays, you can be so cruel.

He looked at me with great expectation and then said, "There's a p- word? Are there others? Like a b-word, or a c- word? And a presidential candidate said them? Trump? Why would he do that? What are they?"

"Yes, there is a b-word and a c-word. Maybe you've heard them."

Suddenly it's the fall of '88 and I am sitting in my first women't studies class in Mankato, MN going through the exercise of filling up the chalkboard (yes, it was LONG ago) with every derogatory word that references a woman. We fill up the the board and start on a second board. Then we do the same for men. It is a single column and we are working hard. It took us twice as long to get that single column as it it did to fire off the seven columns about women. Having lived with sheltered white bread degradation, I had so much to learn from these women with diverse backgrounds and I broadened my knowledge in more ways than one. 

But back to my son. He's waiting. Will I say the words out loud? I know how much power these words have, especially when shrouded in mystery. But to use them in front of my newly crowned hormonal teenage boy? Ugh.

Instead I say, "Well, yes, Trump was caught on tape saying the p-word and I am not sure he said the c-word but he said some pretty lewd things all suggesting he doesn't think highly of women. I am sure you will hear these words somewhere. They shame and degrade women and I hope you just opt out of adding them to your vocabulary. They are vile and not meant for the kind of boy you are and the man you will be. You are much better than this."

He turns this over, reaching for comparisons. "So....bad like the n-word is to black people?" 

"Yes," I say, "Bad and degrading like that."

I am not sure this is a great comparison. It's not even 8:00 a.m. on a Monday morning  and we are on the way to the dentist! Can this day be worse already? I have one month to go....how in the heck am I going to do this?

I am reminded of the kinds of conversations black moms must have with their sons just to keep them alive. This is my work. It is my civic duty in creating a safe world for the men and women I live with, This talk and my willingness to get into it is my offering.

I look at my son and I see his curiosity. Words, especially language we are not supposed to use, are intriguing. And the words he is wondering about are damaging and lewd and not used by the men in my world and he most certainly is one of my men. He will go out into this world, a product of all I have tried to teach him.

And so I dig a bit deeper and say the very things I don't want to say and he listens. This will not be our last talk because how do you pack in how the world came to be through these words in seven minutes? How do I share that what I know about him and these words do not match in the space of a radio commercial?

I don't.

Instead I offer crumbs here and there, take the openings when they appear, and pause every chance I get. The blue sky above me offers just what I need, grounding and hope to begin again. 


One of the best things I did for myself in the last year was to sign up to work in an online writing group with Jena Schwartz. Because of this experience I've met and worked with a wide variety of writers and gained the confidence to apply for a grant. I am encouraged by what I read from others and by Jena, which is that writing directly through difficulty can lead you towards the truest thing. Always, though, you have to travel through muck.

I've learned to take my crazy and put it into something constructive. This piece is part of a series she curates called The Roar Sessions. People can sound off about what they will...and so I did. It was a needed release for me as I set about trying to carve a new sort of writing path this fall. I'm still working on it but so it goes. This, I'm learning, will always be the case. I will always be working on it. 

Dedication of My No-Trump Vote

My nephew, Colton Gray, will be voting in his first election this November. I dedicate my No-Trump Vote to him.

I remember feeling like a true American citizen with the first national vote I cast. It felt important because it was. And so it will go for Colton. I want Colton to know in the turbulent, fraught and divisive election cycle, his vote is important and it matters and that he has nothing in common with Trump.

As a young white man raised in rural Northwest Iowa, Colton has learned more about what it means to be a man in his short life than Trump ever has, and as it seems, ever will.

Colton loves the women in his life. He treats his mother, girlfriend, grandmother, aunts, female cousins, teachers and coaches with kindness, reverence, respect, and goodwill. Through the varied roles each of these women has played in his life, he has seen strength, intelligence, and tenacity play out in real time. Their voice and presence has always been welcome and valued. Shape and size have never been a part of the conversation with or about women for Colton because….why? I am quite certain he doesn’t even understand how this is a factor, which is just another reason I love him. But I do want him to understand it’s significance. Too many women have spent their lives defining themselves by the size our culture thinks we should be. Colton, by his very actions, plays a role in changing the narrative of how woman are perceived and valued.

Colton loves guns. As a hunter, war history buff, and a competitive skeet shooter at his community college, his interest in the gun debate is sincere. He doesn’t want them taken away and yet he knows there is a problem. I have encouraged him to be a part of the solution, especially when he doesn’t agree. That is how we move forward, through rigorous debate, through speaking up, through the belief that it matters to be involved..

Colton loves his country and he loves the country, particularly the corner of rural Northwest Iowa where he lives. Rural Iowa feels forgotten after the primaries. It feels left out of the economic conversations where elite liberals rarely spend time. I have watched him cycle through news clips, listen to those he loves and respects discuss the election, and I hear him wondering, “Well, what about us?” When he reaches out to me I try to answer him as honestly as I can, but he is learning that taking this stuff apart is hard and complicated and can’t be assessed with an errant quip or a statement of truth simply because he wants it to be true….yet another quality he has that Trump does not.

Colton loves being a helper. He lives to serve and do good where he is whether that be on his grandfather’s farm, as the oldest brother of four, in his 4-H club, or as a volunteer with a rural fire department or inside elementary classrooms. Through his investment of time with people, he has shown that he cares more for others than himself in way Trump has yet to demonstrate.

I dedicate this to Colton and all young white men trying to determine what their role is in this election. They are certainly seeing what it is not;  to perpetuate anger and hostility and fear and bigotry; to make fun of the poor, the disadvantaged, the other (anyone but a white man); to succumb to “It’s only business.” On his journey from boy to man, from child to adult first-time voter, I applaud his willingness to dig in and investigate how his vote will count.

I want Colton Gray to know I’mWithHer in this election primarily because I’m with him. He shows more promise, compassion, humility, and leadership than Trump ever will. Trump does not care about the Colton’s of this world. Trump has nothing to offer those he cannot find the audacity to listen to and learn from-- young men like my nephew who will shape our country through their honest hard work, compassion, and love of ALL the people in their lives.

My No-Trump Vote is a vote for Colton’s future, one made brighter by the faith I have in him. May his actions always be led by his good heart and give him the courage to speak up through his vote so the place we both call home is not forgotten.