Identity Politics

I’m old enough to remember when clothing first became a major form of advertisement, self or Calvin Klein et al. Loathe to become a walking billboard, I’d tried resisting—buying vintage proved an excellent strategy—but over time I reluctantly had to accept that resistance was futile; this branding phenomenon was here to stay. (And that I would continue to buy vintage; Goodwill.)

So I’m not exactly sure what led me to buy, retail/online, a KAMALA baseball cap. But am so glad I did.

Because although I am now, indeed, a walking billboard for a presidential candidate, what’s happening is that my cap, an anti-MAGA statement, is inviting total strangers, many of them People of Color, to chat.

What I’m hearing in these conversations is both excitement that a brilliant, strong Woman of Color just might have a shot at the presidency and the steely, reasoned, cold, hard pragmatism of Let’s Go With Whoever’s Going To Win. So maybe, sigh, one of those Old White Guys and Kamala for Veep?

None of this much matters yet. But then, I’m a Quaker, so I’m comfortable with lots of different ideas, different possibilities, different What Ifs tossed round—and trusting that something worthwhile will eventually emerge. That the Democratic Party will do The Right Thing. Whatever that will look like. Which, admittedly, given the horrors of America’s political reality like special interests and racism and sexism, is probably crazy. Although “Knock Down the House,” which I just saw, certainly gives me hope.

Meanwhile, about Kamala Harris. And me. And why I’m rocking her merch. Because, no, she’s far from my ideal candidate. My understanding, for example, is that she has not signed the pledge to refuse fossil fuel campaign contributions. (Note to KH: “C’mon!”)

No, Dear Reader, as crazy as what I am about to say is, here’s why I hope she wins: Remember during one of the debates, when Hillary was talking and Trump was pacing back in forth behind her? (And as a former TV star, he knew he was in camera view.)

Here’s what I’m pretty sure Kamala would have done. She would have stopped. She would have turned around. She would have said something like, “Donald? You are losing votes right now. Every woman who has ever been bullied or imposed upon or threatened by a man—and that’s all of us—is watching you right now. And deciding not to vote for you. And every Person of Color who has ever experienced a white man claim a space to be his property, his turf—and that’s all of us—is thinking the same thing. Sit Down.”

 

 

 

“She’s Everywhere!”

Sunset, Puerto Rico; March 14, 2019

Like crocuses, a conversation about the perils of perfectionism keeps popping up among my disparate friends these days. Which means that I, too, am looking at the Shoulds and the Oughts and the Am I Doing This Rights? in my own life. (and who, exactly, wrote this Should, Ought, Right Rule Book anyway?)

So noticed that among all the insidious ways I hold myself up to a standard that I should perhaps be rethinking, I was feeling inadequate/unworthy/doing it all wrong about how I was mourning my mother, who’d died in October of 2018. Shouldn’t I be actively missing her? Shouldn’t I be feeling enormous loss? Shouldn’t I—well, you get the idea, I’m afraid. And that, no, I wasn’t.

What has happened is that since she died I’ve taken on, incorporated my mother’s acuity, her ever-present sensibility about, as she called it, “the quality of light.” Which, I’m guessing, had been tied in to her seasonal affected disorder and began, as I recall, when she and my father moved to Cape Cod twenty-five years ago. (And may have been further inspired by this stunning, best-selling photography book.) I notice the light. I stop; I bask in it. I’m particularly moved by southern light. But moonlight will do. Saturday night I drank a glass of water lit by the almost-full moon shining into my kitchen. And when I did, I felt such gratitude for my mother’s hand-off to me.

But still . . . (Ought! Should! Wrong, wrong wrong!)

Flying home from Puerto Rico last week, I’d begun a book a friend had recommended, The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully by Frank Ostasecki.What a perfect post-vacation book to read! When I was already examining my busy, anxious life and how, when I returned, I might avoid getting sucked up into all that craziness again.

And read this touching story the author shares about Samantha and Jeff—who was dying.

Jeff exhaled a few more times and didn’t breathe in again. A stillness and ease embraced us. I felt it as warmth and sensed a luminosity, a sort of brilliance. After sometime, Samantha spoke out loud, as if talking to the space more than to me. “I thought I was losing him, but he is everywhere.”

My mother is everywhere.

 

 

 

Room With A View

Rockwood Hall State Park, Sleepy Hollow, NY. (The Tappan Zee Bridge in the background.)

Thursday, a warm and sunny post-snowstorm day, while visiting my daughter and her family in Tarrytown, New York, I’d asked her if we could maybe take a walk along the Hudson. Her  eyes lit up: “Oh, yes,” she said, clearly excited to share yet another feature of her still-newish community (She and her family had moved to Tarrytown about a year and a half ago), “we can definitely arrange that.”

Ever since the UN report re climate change and how little time we have left, I am devouring books like The Overstory and Braiding Sweetgrass. My prayer life has expanded to include prayers, gratitude for all living things—especially trees. As much as I can, given winter weather and my urban surroundings, I’m walking through this precious, natural world as if both loving all I see and already mourning its loss. So I was psyched!

Land along the Hudson being prime real estate, I’d imagined our riverside walk would be maybe a mile or so long, on a wood-chip path through some overgrown vegetation, and end at some high-end development. So was astonished to find myself on the sculpted grounds of the Rockwood Hall State Park, perched above the Hudson, with magnificent views and wonderful, paved paths to explore but also, the beautifully designed landscape of a Frederick Law Olmsted-designed park. (It was my daughter’s father who’d first taught me how to recognize Olmsted’s eye-catching tree placement. On the campus of Vassar College. “See how your attention moves from this tree to that one and then to over there?” he’d coached. Yes. I did. Still do.)

But, wait! What’s the story behind all this magnificence? Who’d preserved these eighty-eight acres? Who’d made possible all this room with a view? Who’d hired Olmsted? The answer is: William Rockefeller. The brother of John D. Rockefeller and co-owner of Standard Oil Company. (I can still remember how brilliant I’d considered myself at eight or ten when I’d figured out that Esso, as in the name of the gas station—now known as Exxon, of course—was actually  S. O. As in Standard Oil.) He’d built Rockwood Hall; its foundations still stand although the mansion is gone. And, eventually, his vast estate—less than half of it anyway—became a state park.

Oh the irony. That our magnificent view, those perfectly-placed oaks and firs and sugar maples and sycamores, our excitement to watch soaring red-tailed hawks and a bald eagle, that glorious walk could have only happened because of the enormous wealth derived from a fossil fuel! A commodity which, like coal and natural gas, will make this planet unlivable for many, many species unless something truly miraculous happens.

Egad.

 

 

Thank you, Blanche

“Blanche on the Lam” by Barbara Neely.

If you, like many of my friends, believe that summer reading = murder mysteries, please add Barbara Neely’s amazing Blanche White series to your queue. (You may have already discovered these wonderful books and I’m late to the party!) What a premise: that an ignored, heavy-set servant in a grey uniform and small, white apron sees, hears, reasons, and, ultimately, brilliantly solves mysteries/saves the day—all the while inwardly noting how racism plays out in her dealings with her white employers.

Propitiously, this has been the perfect week to consider the role of servant as I, having finished Blanche on the Lam,  have also been preparing to give a talk at my Quaker meeting on George Fox’s Christology. (Here’s another form of summer escapism: Get all wonky and in-the-weeds-obsessed by something you know nothing about and are therefore required to look up every other word!) The founder of Quakerism, in 1647 Fox declared:  Oh then, I heard a voice which said, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,” and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.

What did the word Christ mean for George Fox? I’ve spent this week asking this question. And have learned that, apparently, in one of many ways he differed from his contemporaries, Fox believed, as did both Peter and Stephen, that Christ  meant “servant.” *  ( When Fox used the word Christ he also meant “Prophet.” And “Light.” And “The Word”/Logos— as in the Preface to the gospel of John; what a stunning piece of writing! And . . . )

Not sure how this bit o’pedantry will land on my (mostly white) listeners this Sunday. (Not matter what our race or class, “servant” is a loaded word to twenty-first-century ears, isn’t it? But surely this version of Christ—another loaded word—meant something quite different for Fox’s seventeeth-century listeners.) Thanks to Blanche/Barbara Neely, however, I’ve been gifted with much to think about and consider!

*Benson, Lewis, (1974) George Fox’s Teaching About Christ, Quaker Religious Thought, Vol. 39, Article, 3, p. 34.

 

 

In Plain Sight

“Dead End.” Street sign seen through my window during Nor’easter # 2 (of 3, so far.) March 8, 2018

New England weather such as it right now, I’m reading more. Needing to replenish my books-to-read queue, between storms I stopped by The Book Rack, a funky, used-bookstore in Arlington, MA. Perusing its chock-a-block “Classics” section, I spotted a paperback edition of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and, vaguely remembering something about its feminist pedigree, gladly paid a whopping $3.00 for Chopin’s “masterpiece”—as declared by its faded, blue, time-worn cover.

The Awakening was first published in 1899, shocking Victorian readers with its frank acknowledgement of female sexuality. So there’s that. Kate Chopin, born in 1851, is a stunningly beautiful writer. So there’s that. The Awakening details how wealthy, New Orleans-based Creole families vacation pre-air conditioning. So there’s that.

There this, too:

Madame Lebrun was busily engaged at the sewing machine. A little black girl sat on the floor, and with her hands worked the treadle of the machine. [Madame Lebrun] does not take any chances which may be avoided of imperiling her health . . . The sewing machine made a resounding clatter in the room; it was a ponderous, bygone make. In the lulls, Robert and his mother exchanged bits of desultory conversation.  (p. 38, AVON BOOKS, 1972.)

What are we to make of this? Is that sarcastic remark regarding Madame Lebrun’s delicate health meant to elicit sympathy for the little black girl producing such resounding clatter? Maybe. A child performing a function most contemporaries of Madame Lebrun—who owns the resort where these Creole families vacation—would have performed themselves? Perhaps. So is Chapin slyly asking us to consider that child?

I wish I knew. Definitively. Because I so long to believe that this ground-breaking novelist saw her sewing room scene with woke eyes. But that Chopin supplies that little, black girl with the plainest of adjectives—I mean, c’mon! The sewing machine got fancier labels—but no name tells us something, I think. And that one family’s nanny is simply the quadroon says the same thing, too, I’m afraid.

But here’s the thing. Once I understood that a (probably very hot and thirsty and exhausted) little girl was in that sewing room, too, she participated in every paragraph I read. That nameless child started when, suddenly, Robert, a young man in his twenties, loudly whistled out the opened window to his brother, three stories below. Silently she took in Robert’s and his mother’s conversation—and, perhaps, gauged whatever they discussed in terms of more hardship for herself? She may have even noticed what Robert’s mother did not: that at the mention of Mrs. Pontellier—whose sexual awakening is what this book’s all about—the besotted young man blushed, maybe. Got flustered, maybe. (Chopin merely had him suddenly leave.)

I see you, little black girl. I see you, quadroon.

 

 

 

 

Let’s Talk About Optics 2

Women’s March, Cambridge (MA) Common, January, 2018

Not a visual person and all too willing to lose myself in whatever movie I’m watching, at one point in my life having a daughter-as-set-designer changed how I see a film. Sitting in a movie theater I remind myself: “Someone’s daughter made a zillion decisions about what I see right now.” (Yes. I always think daughter. That’s what I do.) “So I better pay attention.” And I do.

So, recently, finding myself completely swept up in “The Post,” I coached myself again. And, oh my! Because what I saw was “The Female Gaze.” Written by Liz Hannah, this movie has women’s fingerprints all over it! Watch the trailer; pay attention to where the camera is, where Meryl Streep is positioned, what colors she wears, the pictures of her family in the background as she argues with Tom Hanks. The camera LOVES her!  But, more important, wants us to walk in her pointed-toe pumps as she enters smoke-filled rooms filled with men. Did I love, love, love that the movie’s climax is announced by a women reporter? You betcha!

Sure, it’s a Hollywood movie; sure it’s cornball Capra-esque. Isn’t that why we go to movies? To experience multi-sense entertainment that will provide what we crave: romance, shoot-em-up, fantasy, or in the case of “The Post,” a period piece—oh, to hear Walter Cronkite’s voice again!—celebrating what’s best about this currently bedraggled and riven country.

That’s what I needed. That’s what I got—and, thank you, Liz Hannah—the unexpected joy to see what can happen when a gifted, young woman writes a screenplay!

“I’m Sorry”

 

My first day at my new, Lynchburg, Virginia high school, a classmate confronted me: “You’re a Yankee, aren’t you?”

In a baby-blue shirtwaist, a white cardigan with pearl buttons draped across my shoulders, fourteen-year-old me nodded.

“I hate Yankees,” she snarled—and recited horrific facts and figures regarding Sherman’s march to the sea.

“But I wasn’t even alive, then,” I sputtered indignantly. “That was the Civil War!”

Civil?” she pounced. “There was nothing civil about it!”

Nearly sixty years later, what might I now say to that woman?

“I’m sorry, ” I’d begin, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book underpinning my careful words. “What Sherman did was unspeakable—well, no, that’s the wrong word. Because you and I, we need to talk about that bloody, horrible war. You and I need to talk about how that war was about maintaining a “peculiar institution.” Let’s talk about slavery, you and I. And I need to talk about the unspeakable injustice my Pilgrim ancestors did to the people whose land they stole. We both need to acknowledge our shared history of oppression. We need to own that our forefathers were the oppressors! So, to begin, Carole Fielder*, let me say this: I am truly sorry for what Sherman did.”

And I would mean every word.

*Voted Most Likely to Succeed by the Class of 1962

 

 

 

Upstream

“Umbro” (Shadow), Union Square, Somerville, MA, August, 2017

There was a time in my life when I told myself,”If I/we can just through this [insert Crisis of The Week here], I/we will be just fine.” This went on for years. Slowly it came to me: there’s always a crisis. Stop saying “If I can just . . . ” and start looking at why this keeps happening. Figure out how to protect yourself from constant fear and anxiety. Figure out what’s going on, upstream, to keep this constant flow coming, coming, coming? (And so, Dear Reader, I did.)

Nevertheless, it took Naomi Klein’s amazing No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics And Winning the World We Need to recognize that the scenario I once knew so painfully is everyone’s, now.

Here’s the bit that did it for me:

Experiencing Trump’s tsunami of Oval Office decrees—seven executive orders in his first eleven full days, plus eleven presidential memoranda issued in that same period—has felt a little like standing in front of one of those tennis ball machines. Opponents might swat back a ball or two, but we’re all still getting hit in the face over and over again. Even the widespread belief among many (or is it hope) that Trump will not last his full term contributes to the collective vertigo: nothing about the current situation is stable or static, which is a very difficult position from which to strategize or organize. (p. 135)

Precisely.

So how do we find our collective footing when we’re all getting hit in the face? (As I write this we are, again, on the edge of nuclear war with North Korea. Dear God! And I marvel that my computer allows me to write those terrifying words without shuddering—and turning itself off.) Naomi Klein offers us a handbook.

Let’s get started.

 

Thank you, Brother West

Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY; June, 2017

“I am here because somebody loved me,” Cornel West declared at last week’s Harvard Divinity School convocation. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only person hearing his words who didn’t immediately conjure up sopping-wet, helping hands reaching out to someone in need in Houston. Many of us, I’m guessing, silently acknowledged life’s ever-present disasters*—and yet here we all were, safe and dry and ALIVE because, despite their inadequacies, the someones in our own lives had gotten us through.

Talk about inadequate! My words to describe how Brother West‘s declaration moved me will only hint at what I want to say! But here goes:

I felt not just the love of West’s parents and the congregants of Sacramento’s Shiloh Baptist Church and all the loving people in his life—like his teachers; he spoke their names with reverence— that brought him to that (fancy) HDS podium last week, I felt eons of Love. I felt its enormous, glorious Power. I felt every single compassionate and loving act that every single member of our species had ever bestowed, shared, offered to another! Talk about welling up!

In the coming days and weeks, may you, may we find whatever ways available to us to connect with that Power. (We’re going to need it.)

 

*Some of them, like Hurricane Harvey, man-made. (Which makes them that much more devastating, right?)

Whatever Works

 

When I learned that Nelson Mandela had found great strength in Invictus, I made copies of that William Ernest Henley poem and mailed them to two men I correspond with, currently behind bars.

Nice gesture, right?  But pointless. I see that now. Somehow, mysteriously,  a Victorian, “stiff upper lip,” Brit poem (i.e. language of his oppressors) spoke to Mandela. He discovered that rereading “I am the master of my fate” every day reminded him that his strength was with him. He chose that particular poem; he let it speak to him. Through him. And it worked.

Each of us has to chose our own Invictus. One poem can’t fit all. But whatever works for you, oh Lordy, I hope you’ve found it, find it!

Here’s what’s working for me these days: a cheesy* version of “How Can I Keep from Singing?” It sounds an echo in my soul, indeed!

*A word about cheesy: From an interview with Patty Jenkins, director of “Wonder Woman” (New York Times, June 1, 2017):

This may be a cheesy question, but what do you want people to take away from this movie?

Did you say cheesy? Cheesy is one of the words banned in my world. I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing. It’s been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied away from sincerity, real sincerity, because they feel they have to wink at the audience because that’s what the kids like. We have to do the real stories now. The world is in crisis.

I wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind. I believe in it. It’s terrible when it makes so many artists afraid to be sincere and truthful and emotional, and relegates them to the too-cool-for-school department. Art is supposed to bring beauty to the world.

Numbered

[Shipyard, Gloucester, MA; 2016]

On the thirty-first anniversary of the Challenger tragedy and the same, infamous day Muslims were being refused entry into this country, I saw “Hidden Figures.” That such an unlikely competitor to “Rogue One” has been such a surprising, box office hit for much of January; well, I just had to see it. Especially after hearing what Leslie Jones had to say!

It’s not a great movie. And yet it’s a great movie. “Based on a true story,” there are moments when I thought, “Yeah! Right! Never happened like that. No way.” (The Kevin Costner and a crowbar scene, for example. C’mon!) But hyper-aware of the Trump-era world outside that movie theater, it was easy to forgive Hollywood silliness. Because, dear God, do we need good fables right now! We desperately need stories that applaud, that celebrate grit and brilliance and math and science and sisterhood and the idea that when one of us succeeds, we all do. (Both Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer say this at different times in the movie.) Because, as many brilliant people like Joanna Macy believe, what’s happening right now, as terrifying as it is, is actually the death throes of an Old Order. A new era is coming; I truly believe this (if Orange Fingers doesn’t nuke us all, first!).  And we’ll need uplifting (pardon the pun) stories to guide us as we move into that Brave New World.

Who Gets to Say What’s True?

[Friends Meeting at Cambridge, January 1, 2017]

Saturday I saw “Fences.” And one line from the Denzel Washington (Troy) and Olivia Davis (Rose) movie, set in Pittsburgh in 1957, hit me just as hard in 2016 as had the same line in the staged version—which I’d seen in 2009. Troy and Rose are arguing about their teenaged son Cory’s future. Troy wants Cory to get a trade; Rose believes if he goes to college on a football scholarship he’ll be able to make his way. So she says something to the effect of, “You’re just being stubborn, Troy. Things are different (for people of color), now. There are more opportunities.” But as the story unspools, and we’ve spent some time within Troy and Rose’s shut-off-from-opportunity world, even the most clueless white person has to admit: Nope. Troy’s not being stubborn. Oppression was real in 1957. And, sadly, in 2017.

Which makes the Pew Research Center’s Study on Race and Inequality required reading. For my white brothers and sisters.