I’m really pleased to welcome author Carolyn Walker to SunnyRoomStudio. Sometimes life calls us to cope with the unexpected. Nearly always, in fact. And when the unexpected involves the people we love, we usually feel uncertain, unprepared, and overwhelmed. So Carolyn, like many of us, decided to write about her experience in a memoir (Garn Press, January 2017) called Every Least Sparrow.

“No one is without troubles, without personal hardships and genuine challenges.
That fact may not be obvious because most people don’t advertise their woes and heartaches.
But nobody, not even the purest heart, escapes life without suffering battle scars.”
― Richelle E. Goodrich, Smile Anyway

by Carolyn Walker

I remember vividly the day I announced to my mother, while the two of us stood in our living room, “I am going to be a writer.” I was ten years old. I had no idea, of course, how to generate, or recognize, good ideas, push through rewrites, or use imagery and grammar. Having not yet discovered Nancy Drew, I wasn’t even much of a reader. Nevertheless, in my innocence, I somehow foresaw that writing would be my calling. At that age, I couldn’t know that it would become my platform.

I began writing by producing silly poems, and my mother, a secretary given to organization, became my biggest supporter. During my teenage years, when I was especially prolific, she surprised me with a green and white filing box to hold my writings, and during my adulthood, clipped my weekly columns from our small town newspaper and slipped them beneath the cellophane sleeves of a scrapbook. My mother’s actions empowered me, and helped me to believe my words had value.

During my childhood and adolescent years, we lived in an idyllic, small village that included among its residents a round, wide-eyed mentally handicapped woman who liked to float on an inner tube in the local lake, and a woman who probably had cerebral palsy, who rode about the village on a three-wheeled bicycle. If there were any disabled children in the neighborhood, I didn’t know them, although I did attend junior high with a few who had mental handicaps and who were sequestered most days in a private classroom.

Sometimes I would sit at the kitchen table and talk about these folks, their differences, the teasing I saw them endure, their obvious loneliness, while my mother did the dishes. She’d listen and then say, “There but for the grace of God go you.” This was her way of telling me that disability could have been mine, and I should be grateful that it wasn’t.

But then it was.

In 1977 I gave birth to a daughter who has Rubinstein-Taybi syndrome, which affects her IQ, various body functions, and her appearance. She was followed ten years later by my son, who is on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, and who coincidentally is gay. Those dual challenges have rendered him a true eccentric who has been devastated by bullying.

Whatever I imagined for my career as a ten-year-old, writing about disability and equality was not it. Even early in my marriage I couldn’t have guessed that children with these kinds of complications would come my way.

It didn’t take me long to fall in love with my children, and raising them has made me reevaluate any preconceptions I harbored as to what is beautiful, what is normal, and what is acceptable.

I often wrote about my children in my column, and later personal essays and memoir. I found that the page gave me a place to think deeply about what it means to be human.

My daughter and son are adults now, but when they were little I would sometimes stand at their bedroom doors and consider them as they slept, as I know my mother did with me. I’d look at their peaceful faces and think about the difficult world they would have to live in. This made me wish I could change the world, help it to become a more understanding and compassionate place. After half a century of writing, I believe I can, word after word. ~

Fire tests gold, suffering tests brave men.

Carolyn Walker is the author of the memoir Every Least Sparrow, a book about raising her daughter Jennifer, who has Rubinstein-Taybi syndrome. In May, 2017, the book was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize by Garn Press. Walker, memoirist, essayist, poet, and creative writing instructor, worked for twenty-five years as a journalist, before returning to graduate school. She earned her MFA in Writing degree from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2004. In 2013, she was made a Kresge Fellow in the Literary Arts by the Kresge Foundation. Walker’s work has appeared in The Southern Review, Hunger Mountain, The Writer’s Chronicle, Gravity Pulls You In: Parenting Children on the Autism Spectrum, HOUR Detroit, The Detroit News, and many other publications. Her essay “Christian Become a Blur,” published in the literary journal Crazyhorse, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Walker is a creative writing instructor for Writer’s Digest University, Springfed Arts, and All Writers Workplace & Workshop. She has been a writing resident at Vermont Studio Center, and Noepe Center for Literary Arts on Martha’s Vineyard. She is a lifelong Michigan resident, and the married mother of three adult children.
Thanks so much, Carolyn, for being my 48th studio guest here in SunnyRoomStudio!
Wishing you all good things in the years to come. Keep me posted on your literary endeavors.

Thanks so much for stopping by this sunny space for kindred spirits. See you again soon!

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  1. Thanks, Carolyn, for your thoughtful guest post in this sunny space for kindred spirits. I look forward to reading your memoir!

    Here, also, are a few of my favorite quotes about the genre, the fascinating art form called memoir.

    “In order to write a memoir, I’ve sat still inside the swirling vortex of my own complicated history like a piece of old driftwood, battered by the sea. I’ve waited—sometimes patiently, sometimes in despair—for the story under pressure of concealment to reveal itself to me. I’ve been doing this work long enough to know that our feelings—that vast range of fear, joy, grief, sorrow, rage, you name it—are incoherent in the immediacy of the moment. It is only with distance that we are able to turn our powers of observation on ourselves, thus fashioning stories in which we are characters.” ― Dani Shapiro

    “I think many people need, even require, a narrative version of their life. I seem to be one of them. Writing memoir is, in some ways, a work of wholeness.” –Sue Monk Kidd

    “The failures of other genres to provide an emotional connection with some of their characters and narratives gives memoir a toehold.” –Mary Karr

    “It is our hope that writing releases us. Instead maybe it deepens the echo. We call out to our past and the call comes back. We are alone–and not alone.” ― Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir

  2. Daisy — Thank you so much for introducing your readers to Carolyn Walker.

    Carolyn — I have added EVERY LEAST SPARROW to my must-read list and am looking forward to it.

    • Thank you very much, Laurie! I hope you enjoy the book. I’d love to know what you think after you’ve read it. Thanks for leaving a comment. Carolyn

  3. Martha Walker Bunn

    At age 89 I have had time to reflect on the wisdom of my mother. She never allowed my brother or me to criticize those less fortunate then ourselves and often reminded us that “unto whom much is given; much is expected.” Thanks for today’s post. A wealth of information to ponder and even more for which to give thanks.

    • Thank you very much Martha. I appreciate your words so much. Carolyn

  4. Audrey Denecke

    Thanks Daisy for your introduction to Carolyn Walker.
    Carolyn, first, I find the title of your book so touching and endearing. The introduction to your story so compelling. I’ll be adding your book to my next purchases list.
    I, too, heard the old adage growing up, “There but for the grace of God go I.” When I was in college (as an older student), I took a psychology of disability course. One of our experiential learning assignments was to identify a disability we most feared and then in addition to intellectually learning about it, go deeper. I chose spinal cord injury. One of the experiences I won’t forget was going to, with permission, a support group meeting. The one I went to was a small group meeting. It was at a person’s home. Most of the participants were young men. I gained knowledge, insight, appreciation for their perseverance, and great empathy. There were other such explorations, i.e. spending a class session exploring campus in a wheel chair.
    Of course, it was never like living with a disability every day. And, it may be we all need to step into other’s shoes, again and again, until our capacity to connect expands.
    I look forward to reading your book.

    • Thank you so very much, Audrey. Your response moved me deeply. When you read my book you’ll see that mental retardation (as it used to be called) was my great fear before Jennifer. Now it is my great teacher. Thanks so much.

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