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The Making of a Political Mama: A Profile of Shari MacDonald Strong

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Shari MacDonald Strong is the editor of the recently released anthology The Maternal is Political: Women Writers at the Intersection of Motherhood and Social Change, a collection of 43 personal essays that explore the connection between motherhood and social change. In the introduction to her book, the long-time Literary Mama columnist writes: "If my life as a mother of three children has taught me one thing, it's that there is no more powerful political act than mothering. There is no greater reason than my children for me to become politically involved, and there is no more important work to put my efforts to than those things that will make this world a better, safer place for my kids."

Shari, who lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and three children, didn't always view herself as politically empowered. Her journey to find her voice and trust her power as a woman, a mother, and writer was a long and challenging one. It began in her childhood when Shari began attending conservative evangelical Christian churches. While her parents avoided the overtly religious life, both Shari and her brother craved a sense of spiritual community. Shari fell in love with Jesus after watching a dozen local performances of Godspell. "I'd grown up on fantasy books like The Chronicles of Narnia," says Shari, "so the idea of good versus evil really resonated with me, and I wanted to be on the side of 'good.'"

Soon, Shari had embraced the ideas espoused by evangelical Christianity -- including the belief that everyone who didn't accept Jesus Christ into their hearts would go to hell. "We were encouraged to create and seize opportunities to tell people how they could ask Jesus into their hearts," she says. But Shari felt uncomfortable trying to convert people. "It felt like sales to me. I never once 'converted' anybody," she says. "In high school, I had a good friend who was a Mormon, and I gave her the hard-sell about Jesus, just as I'd been taught. After I was done, she said, 'I'm more convinced than ever that your way isn't right.'" Shari felt like a failure and now realizes that much of what she did was driven by the fear that she couldn't live up to the ideology of the church. "I was always afraid of disappointing God. Afraid of not being enough."

Not measuring up to a conservative religious ideology was not the only thing that weighed on Shari as a young person. When she was five years old, a cardiologist told her that at some point in her life, she would need to have her chest cracked open and have the defective aortic valve with which she was born repaired. These were scary words and Shari began to see herself as fragile, breakable.

But there was one place Shari found solace: in books. Her favorite authors were C.S. Lewis and Madeline L'Engle, and she could lose herself for hours in their novels. "I returned to the same books again and again," says Shari. "I loved the beauty in the words, and I also found a lot of meaning in them. When I read A Wrinkle in Time, I remember thinking, this is what's important. At the time, I couldn't articulate why the novel was so important; it just spoke to me."

Shari wrote her own stories as a child, as well. When she was in grade school, Walt Morey, author of numerous works of children's fiction including Gentle Ben, visited her school, and she asked him to read pages from a Star Wars sequel she was writing. "He wrote a very sweet note," recalls Shari, "something to the effect of 'good job, keep going,' which was very generous and kind of him, considering it was terrible."

Shari identified with writers, with the way they made sense of the world, and found hope and meaning through words. Because of this, she desperately wanted to be a writer herself, but this dream would be a long time coming. When she was young, she wrote fantasy stories, and later she journaled and wrote for the school newspaper.

But in the town where she grew up, Sandy, Oregon, it was unusual for kids to go to college and Shari's family couldn't afford the cost. Shari recalls her father saying, "No child of mine is going to college," which seemed oppressive and mean to her at the time. "Years later," Shari says, "I realized he was devaluing college because he knew it was something he couldn't give us." She tried to attend college, anyway, so she could write and teach, but it was too expensive. Instead, she worked low-paying jobs to support herself. "It was during this time that I really lost faith in myself as a writer and as a thinking person," she says.

Shari found her way back to writing when she took a job with an evangelical Christian publishing house where she ended up writing the Christian romance novels Sierra, Forget-Me-Not, Diamonds, Stardust, A Match Made in Heaven, Love on the Run, and The Perfect Wife (an intentionally ironic title). But this job wasn't without its ideological conflicts. Though Shari was still a member of the evangelical church, her values were becoming more and more left-leaning. "I am very much a liberal person at my core, and while I worked at that publishing house, I was immersed in a culture that was very conservative. So this was a challenging time for me even though I was writing again."

Then Shari met and fell in love with photojournalist Craig Strong. They married and began trying, unsuccessfully, to have children. When Shari's heart condition worsened with the development of an aortic aneurysm (in which the wall of an artery balloons outward and can rupture, the same thing that caused actor John Ritter's death), Shari's doctors said it would be too dangerous for her to ever become pregnant.

"This was very difficult for me to hear," says Shari, who had always wanted children. She and Craig began to pursue adoption and gestational surrogacy, a process in which Shari's eggs would be fertilized with Craig's sperm and implanted in another woman's womb. When a long-time friend of Shari's offered to be the surrogate, Shari and Craig were elated, and in 2002, their twin boys, Will and Mac, were born.

Shari fell madly in love with her sons, but had always imagined herself with a daughter as well. In her essay "On Wanting a Girl" from Andrea Buchanan's anthology, It's a Girl: Women Writers on Raising Daughters, Shari writes, "The emotion I feel for my boys makes the most generous love I had envisioned seem pale and worthless. But even as my maternal affection swells, so does my stubborn desire for a daughter. There is no part of me that wants a girl instead of the boys; suddenly this is about in addition to." Within a year, Shari and Craig expanded their family to include then-3-year-old Eugenia, who was adopted from Russia.

Shari went from having no children to having three within one year, and to say that she had her hands full would be an understatement. But it was a fullness that Shari relished. "I became really focused on being a mother," says Shari. It was motherhood that made Shari take a careful look at her life and her beliefs. She realized that the conservative religion of her childhood had made her believe that she could never be her full self and that her voice didn't matter. "The evangelical churches I'd attended had taught me that women weren't valued as much as men, that people were essentially sinful at their core, and that all our mistakes and shortcomings were shameful disappointments that made us unacceptable to God, short of some kind of dramatic intervention by Jesus." Shari knew this wasn't the kind of belief system in which she wanted to raise her children. "I wanted my children to have a different kind of life and also a different kind of religious life." So in 2004, Shari left the evangelical church.

In the fall of that same year, when Shari was 37 years old, two other life-changing events occurred. The first was that Shari was told it was time -- finally -- for open heart surgery. In the previous months, Shari had been growing more and more tired, which she assumed was the result of having three children under the age of five. But the surgeon suggested her fatigue could be a result of her aortic valve becoming more calcified.

The second thing that happened was that George W. Bush was re-elected as President of the United States. Shari was devastated. "I felt utterly hopeless," she says. "Partly, because I felt I couldn't do anything to change the political climate. I was only one person and I was home with three kids." Raised as a Republican, Shari consistently had been moving left in her political views until she became, as she says in the introduction to The Maternal is Political, a "card-carrying Democrat with Green-leaning tendencies." Motherhood just underscored the importance of progressive policies in making the world a place that's "worth living in."

One week after the election, she was wheeled into the operating room, and her sternum was cut and pulled back from her chest. It was a complicated surgery that happened just in time. "It turns out," says Shari, "that I had been very close to death without realizing it." The aneurysm that had developed several years earlier could have burst at any moment, the walls of her artery tissue-paper thin. In order to fix the aneurysm, a section of her aorta had to be removed, and in order to do that, Shari had to be removed from the heart-lung machine that was keeping her alive. "I was on essentially 'ice,'" she says, "and not breathing--flatlined--for 29 minutes."

After nearly a half hour, the doctors restarted Shari's heart, and miraculously, it worked. In her essay 29 Minutes, Shari writes, "I do speculate about the whereabouts of my soul during the surgery, wonder if it flitted away from my body and came back again...I don't remember anything about the 29 minutes when I was dead. But I'm convinced that something important happened." Shari came away from the surgery feeling empowered, with a vision of what she wanted the rest of her life to look like, and for the first time, her determination wasn't fear-based. "I thought, this is the chapter of my life in which I'm a mother and a writer. This is what I care about."

Shari began to read motherhood literature and discovered Literary Mama, with which she fell in love. "I was struck by the beautiful writing in Literary Mama, but I was also struck by the universal nature of the stories, which fed me at a time when I was home with three small kids and feeling really isolated."

When Shari heard that Andrea Buchanan, founding co-editor of Literary Mama, was going to be in Portland, Oregon, for a literary salon, she went. "I talked to Andi about my writing, and she mentioned that she was compiling essays for her anthology It's a Girl. I went home and wrote a piece about my daughter Eugenia. I sent it to Andi, and she e-mailed me right back and said she loved it and that it was the first piece she was choosing for the anthology. That enthusiastic vote of confidence was a life-changing gift to me."

A number of doors opened for Shari after that. She began to write the column Zen and the Art of Child Maintenance for Literary Mama and to submit her writing to other journals. "I felt my confidence as a writer returning," says Shari. "And for me, my confidence as a writer and mother went hand in hand with my growing confidence as a political being."

In the spring of 2005, at a friend's suggestion, Shari went to a Quaker meeting. Though she was hesitant to become involved again with organized religion, the meeting was a pleasant surprise, and she and her family have been going ever since. "Quaker meetings are very open. And I realized I liked being in a place where people are on a spiritual journey-- a journey that each person gets to define for him or herself. There is an emphasis on God and love and social responsibility and using one's gifts in the world, but no one there prescribes what that has to look like for anyone else." The Quaker philosophy also mirrors what kind of parent Shari wants to be. "I want to let my children define who they are, choose their religious paths, their careers, and with whom they spend their lives," she says. "I think that's one of the biggest challenges of parenthood--to let your children be who they are and not extensions of you. So part of my journey and one of my challenges as a parent is to learn to guide them while trusting in their choices and their paths."

By this point, many of the pieces of Shari's life had fallen into place: she had a wonderful, supportive husband and three amazing children; she had left a church that made her feel inadequate and found one that empowered her; and finally, she was writing again. But still, she felt she needed to do more to make a difference in the world, to raise her voice and speak out about concerns such as the U.S. military presence in the Middle East -- particularly worrisome to her as the mother of young sons, who would one day grow up to a 'draftable' age, something that troubled Shari deeply.

"There are so many voices telling us what we should believe and how we should act. And as mothers our lives are so full already, that to contemplate standing up to those ideas, which takes time and energy, is exhausting," says Shari. But Shari knew thousands of women were doing just that. She began searching the internet for stories of mothers who were politically active. But she didn't find much. Where were these women's stories? Certainly, they existed.

As she asked herself these questions, it was clear that the Shari who had doubted her own voice and her ability to make a difference in the world had vanished. The new Shari saw a need for a book that would examine the intersections of motherhood and politics, and she decided to make it happen. She put out a call for submissions, and after she received a number of pieces, she found an agent who placed the book The Maternal is Political with Seal Press.

"I really entered this process expecting the book to focus on more overtly political acts. I thought I would find stories about how women weave activism into their lives, about mothers working for change in the public political sphere." When a much higher percentage of submissions than Shari expected discussed the ways motherhood and politics intersect in women's daily lives, she realized that the book's focus was much broader than she had expected.

"I love that The Maternal is Political includes essays like Susie Bright's 'First-Grade Values' about power games on the playground," says Shari. "In what family is that not applicable? Children will come up against power, and this story is an example of that."

The stories in The Maternal is Political exemplify the varied ways in which mothers can be involved in politics and describe how mothers live out their politics in their everyday lives. "We have so much power as mothers," says Shari. "But sometimes when we're in our homes, and we're isolated from other mothers, our view can be very myopic. We judge ourselves harshly. I don't have a lot of time to go out and do; much of what I'm doing politically involves being at home talking to my kids about world events, hunger, and war in a way that my kids can understand. And this book has helped me realize that this is no less of a job than being out canvassing; it's just different."

Shari is currently at work on a screenplay about Sofia Perovskaya, the woman who coordinated the assassination of Russian Tsar Alexander II. "It's really her story, an epic about how people get sucked into believing they must turn to violence as a political solution and about how ultimately futile and tragic political violence is."

Shari's journey to become a writer, mother, and political being may have been a long one, but it was this journey that helped her clarify her ideals, find her voice, and be able to articulate why writing and reading are such important parts of her life. "Stories have the power to connect us with other peoples' lives," says Shari, "people like us and people not like us."

Kate Hopper teaches creative writing online and at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Her writing has appeared in a number of journals and magazines, including Brevity, Literary Mama, Mamazine, and The New York Times online. She is the author of two books: Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers (2012) and Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood, forthcoming fall 2013 from University of Minnesota Press. She writes about reading, writing, teaching and motherhood on her blog, Motherhood & Words. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two daughters.

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