Sitting This One Out

Summer Rain, July, 2018

Sometimes I just want to sit on my front porch. Sometimes I don’t want to read my emails or The New York Times. Sometimes I don’t care what Jennifer Rubin has to say. Or Bill McKibben. Or Naomi Klein. Sometimes, especially after a grueling heat wave, I just want to sit on my front porch and gratefully bless every precious drop of rain as a heat-wave-ending thunder storm begins. I don’t even need a glass of lemonade; I just need to be drowsy-grateful. Quiet. Alone. Did I mention grateful?

Ah, but as those “Could Do Better Work”* voices in my head constantly remind me, opting out, sitting this one out, there’s your White Privilege is action, lady. (Okay. Inaction, if you want to get technical about it.) “You’re not going to be deported or sent to jail, are you, Patricia? You are not targeted by this administration’s racist, Nazi-Germany nightmare.** And hey! What about climate change and the terrifying future your grandchildren will inherit? Huh? Sure, gratitude is nice and all but TIME’S A-WASTIN’ AND THERE’S WORK TO DO!”

Here is what I am learning to whisper to those nagging voices: Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” – From The Talmud, 303.

And, dare I add, taking time out just to be grateful and to recharge your batteries is A Good Thing, right?

(Just don’t make a habit of it, okay?)

 

 

 

*What my teachers invariably wrote on my reports cards

** Not yet, anyway. But, to paraphrase, those who don’t read history are doomed to be horribly surprised when they discover they’re next on the Target List.

 

. . . Not A Sprint.

Today, apparently, because of relentless, vociferous, worldwide protest, 45 announced that his pernicious policy of separating children from their parents at our nation’s borders will discontinue.

But don’t get too excited. He has also, in the past 24 hours, used the word “infest” when tweeting about immigration issues. A word to use when talking about rats, bed bugs, cockroaches.

I suggest we allow ourselves to take a brief moment to celebrate the power of collective action/ Love in Action. Praise God! Eat chocolate! Ceremoniously sip a delicious glass of pinot noir! Listen to music that brings you to tears.

And then let’s get back to work. Let’s keep showing up*. (Fascism is relentless, too.)

*Boston-area folks: let’s flood the Moakley Courthouse on July 12th at 2:00!

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

(Almost)-Spring Cleaning

A Rainy Day at Castle in the Clouds, Moutonborough, N.H.

Sunday, chilled, rainy, very windy, I’d almost wished there’d been a fireplace fire in the meetinghouse fireplace. Surely a hearty blaze would brighten my spirits?  But, no, I realized. If there were to be any cheering up going on that gloomy morning, it would have to come from within!

And I remembered something someone in my yoga class had said on Thursday. (Actually, this was at our pre-yoga class, when we discuss a poem someone has brought in, or the Sutras, or a piece of writing our gifted teacher wishes to share.) One woman talked about sadness, hard times, grief and loss; how we’re sometimes too eager to be happy. “There’s good reasons to feel sad,” she said.

So I let myself sink into despair. Not to “wallow in it,” as my father always cautioned when anyone in our family dared to be sad. (You were allowed to be sad in my family for about five minutes. Then you had to get over it.)  But to be honest! To honor the countless reasons we all have to feel sad.

And, mysteriously, after way more than five minutes of sitting in silence and letting myself “feel the feels,” as my daughter, Hope (!) says, Something happened. As if something inside me had been decluttered, de-cobwebbed, dusted or lemon-oiled or rearranged. As if I’d cleared a space within me to hold this sadness. And it was okay. More than okay. It was exactly what I was supposed to do.

What Joy when we do what we’re supposed to do!

“Excellent For The Times”

Radcliffe College Alumnae Questionnaire; filled out by my grandmother on November 9, 1939

Yesterday, spurred on my my oldest daughter’s curiosity about my beloved “Grandma,” I spent a couple of hours in the Schlesinger Library perusing Florence Moulton Mirick Wild’s alum folder. (Some people go to spas for self-care; I go to the Schlesinger!) A “Special Student” at Radcliffe College from 1897 until 1899, Florence never graduated but, apparently, felt warmly enough about her college experience to at least continue filling out alumnae forms.

[Before taking a brief look at two ah-hahs from yesterday, a warm, hearty Shout-Out to the Schlesinger! Thank you, insightful and wealthy people, for realizing that the lives of women are important. And that women’s letters and ephemera and papers et al. should be preserved. Yes.]

Number of servants.” Not sure what surprised me more; that Radcliffe College wanted to know—or that my grandmother reported in 1931, at a time of great financial struggle for millions of people, that the Wild family employed one servant. I am guessing that servant was female, young, Irish, “right off the boat,” as her son, my father, would say. And I wonder: where is this nameless “One”‘s story preserved? (Sadly, I think I know the answer.)

Excellent for the times“: In my grandmother’s breezy response to a question about how much she earned as “Supervisor for Public School Music” (for the Webster and then the Worcester, MA school systems, 1907 -1912) I detect both her WASPy squeamishness to talk about money and her justifiable pride. How horrified my grandmother would be that in 2018—her first grandchild now a Grandma, too—when it comes to women’s incomes, there still is no parity.

(What would Grandma make of today’s #MeToo movement?)

 

 

It Just Wells Up, Right?

Pre-Dawn Snow Sorm; Nashville International Airport, January, 2018

Sometimes it just hits me: my easeful life is made possible by the labor of thousands, millions of men and women working under conditions I cannot even imagine. Sometimes it just hits me: life is grotesquely unfair. (Yet I will almost always win.) And for hours, days, maybe even as long as a week, that piercing realization informs everything I experience.

But over time, this in-my-bones realization of the enormous disparity between my blessed and privileged life and those “less fortunate” —such a cold and lofty and dishonest phrase! — well, it fades. Lessens. Deadens.

How do I order my life so that this once-piercing realization informs everything I do? A citizen of a deeply connected/ interconnected Beloved Community, how am I to be truly mindful of all its residents?

I wonder.

“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

 

 

 

Me 2 (Duh)

While seated in a waiting area at LAX Monday morning, two women of a certain age and class and race arrived at Gate 23. Loudly.  Grandly. As if making an entrance at a cocktail party. As if they were the only people traveling to Boston that morning. As if Alice Harvey characters in a New Yorker cartoon. As if the waiting area were their own, personal space. Operating on that assumption, one of them, the redhead, threw her jacket over a waiting area chair—connected, of course, to another, back-to-back chair—so that her insouciantly-thrown jacket obstructed the empty chair on the other side vacated by my husband. (Who sat on it when he returned.)

There was something so egregiously la-di-da about that redhead and her blonde BFF! So infuriating. So annoying that the middle-aged man whose family, I am guessing, originated from the Indian subcontinent, seated at the end of the row, caught my eye and raised his eyebrows. So I got up and whispered to him, “I hate white people!”

Oh, my, Reader, how he laughed! “You know,” he told me. “I will remember this for weeks and will still laugh!”

But here’s the thing, Dear Reader. When it was time to board I realized that I, too, had insouciantly thrown my jacket on the chair beside my husband, thereby forcing people to sit somewhere else.

So, yeah: Me, too.

Uncontainable

 

Naked Peach. September, 2017

Every morning I begin my day with a cup of coffee, my glasses, my journal, and a pen. Whenever possible, I sit on my deck— even when, as it has been this past week, so cold I need to bundle up under a quilt. (I’ll come inside when the temperature gets below 50 degrees.) Every morning, in the peace of my tiny backyard, accompanied by birdsong and tag-playing squirrels, I make meaning of the day before.

I italicize make meaning to give those words the power they deserve because, yes, over the years, through this daily practice of reflection and prayer I have often found my way. (Or, at least, shined a flashlight in the direction of where I am being asked to go.) But what I am moved to write about this morning is this: given the unfathomable breadth of disaster and pain and horror of this past week, perhaps I should have written “make meaning.” Because how the hell do you “make meaning” of multiple, never-like-this-in-our-lifetime hurricanes and multiple, wide-spreading wildfires and millions of people displaced from their homes, both here and throughout the world, and the obscene cruelty of DACA being repealed and. . .

You don’t. We don’t. I don’t. This is what has come to me. (That realization feels like grace.) It is hubris to expect any human being to take in all of it. We were not made to hold all of it. We can’t. It’s uncontainable.

I surrender to the Uncontainable. Which doesn’t mean, I quickly add, to accept or to dismiss or to minimize or to deny—or to cease asking “What am I asked to do in this broken world?” It merely means I cease believing I can make meaning of today’s headlines. It means I bow my head. it means I recognize that I when I recall Brother West’s “I don’t know what will happen but I do know that If this is The End we will go down swinging,” (something like that)  I silently add together. 

 

 

Who’s Looking?

[Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky, June, 2017]

Easily overwhelmed, I’ve learned the best way for me to experience an art exhibit is to slowly and reverently—yet randomly—stroll through a gallery and let everything on display silently surround my senses until That One Work hits me between the eyes. And on Sunday, at the Speed Art Museum’s “Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art,” that’s exactly what happened. When I saw this one. This Carrie Mae Weems photograph that so slyly references Wyeth’s “Christina’s World.” And yet, oh dear lord, declares so much more!

For here, literally in black and white, is witness! Showing up. Using one’s body to powerfully speak Truth. Here is a woman of color owning everything in that photograph. Everything. Those plantation columns; how those overhanging trees frame her body, every blade of grass, the soft, hot breeze, the curve made by her antebellum dress, how her hair is dressed, what aperture to use, the light; The Light. Hers. Carrie Mae Weems. All of it. Hers.

Yes.

 

 

What I’d Do Different Now

[Woolworth’s Sit In, Jackson, Mississippi, May, 1963]

Some years ago I began to wonder: Whatever happened to those two African-Americans who desegregated E.C. Glass High School in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1962? So I found Dr. Lynda Woodruff and Reverend Owen Cardwell, Jr.—and wrote a book about what unfolded because I’d wondered.

These days? Now I am moved to wonder: What would happen if I found one of those despicable young men abusing the Jackson, MS sit-inners? (Surely some are still alive?) Could I possibly sit down with one of them; could I ever listen with an open heart? Face to face with a white supremacist, could I remember to seek “that of God” in the old man seated across from me? Not try to “fix” what I’d hear; offer neither advice nor comments but merely ask questions? (Why do you suppose X happened? How do you make meaning of that? Why do you think Y said that? How did you feel when Z happened? Tell me about how you learned about X? etc. ) And then write a book about what I heard? And learned? Could I?

Not lacking in (compelling, passionately engaged-in) writing projects, I am nevertheless tugged at, nudged to wonder: Where does hate come from? What, in all my studies, all my close attention to race and class and gender and education and all the other variables that make each of us who we are; what have I missed, what have I never understood? What do I need to know?

 

 

Lawn Ornament

[Pineapple Fence, New Orleans, January, 2017]

“It’s come to this,” I thought, putting up a “In this house we believe . . . ” sign in my front yard Saturday. “I’m living at a time and a place where I must declare that ‘Kindness is Everything’!” But then I remembered how Bathtub Madonnas once adorned the tiny front yards of this neighborhood. And thought, well, didn’t my former neighbors* feel moved to declare the same thing?

And then a way-more disturbing recollection came to mind: how slave-dealing New England ship captains would display a fresh pineapple on their front fence to signal that they were open for business—or that recent sales in the West Indies had gone well; Party Time! C’mon over! (Which is why we’ve come to believe that Pineapple = “Welcome!” Not quite.)

So, maybe affirming that Black Lives Matter or that Love is Love, as precious or as smug or self-righteous as that might seem, is a good idea!

* Italian or Portuguese, now deceased or condo-zed, i.e. forced to move because their building had been converted to condos—or, possibly, because they no longer could afford their rent.