“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.

Kamala Harris for President! (Oprah for Vice Prez)

A Foggy Morning in NOLA, January, 2017

A joke my Lynchburg, Virginia high school classmates used to tell; maybe they still do:

Didja hear about the guy who died on the operating table but the doctors brought him back to life? [No!] Yeah. he saw God. [Pause] She’s black. [Sometimes, they added “And is she pissed!”]

Sixty years after my classmates snickered at such a deity, women of color now sit in the front of the bus. They drive that bus. And fly planes. They sit in boardrooms; they sit in the Senate and the House. They’re the mothers of movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. They got us to the moon.

So, no, while I no more believe in that pissed, black Goddess sitting on her golden throne in the clouds than I do some bearded, white guy, when I consider women like Kamala Harris or Erica Garner or women of color I know and love, the God-as-a-verb way I perceive Spirit deepens. Yes.

“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

 

 

 

“I Praise”

“Sam,” a ceramic created by Shelly Ann Moore.

“Despairing for the world,” I spotted her just as she about to get off the 85 bus. In a white, lacy, off-the-shoulder blouse and no-nonsense dark skirt, a black, canvas bag touting the name of whatever tech/Kendall Square conference she was about to attend slung over her bared, coffee-brown shoulder, she exuded confidence. Anticipation. Smarts. “Young, gifted, and black,” indeed. ( Need I add STEM-strong, too?) And, suddenly, because women like her lived in this broken world, too, my grief lifted.

A few weeks later, having just bought “Sam” at a craft fair in Ventura, California, I told my husband and brother-in-law that story. Falteringly I tried to put into words why this figurine so powerfully spoke to me.

“You suddenly saw another version of the future and a world you wanted to live in,” my brother-in-law offered.

Close.

Yes, mysteriously, Sam does somehow invoke that lifting, hope-filled moment on the 85 bus.

She does more, though. Weighted, burdened, as all Women Of Color are, nevertheless Sam persists, she stands, bending but unbowed. Because she’s “under the Power” as Shelly Ann Moore, her creator, put it. And, thus, ironically, her clasped hands remind me of a favorite poem by, yes, an Austro-Hungarian man:

O tell us, poet, what you do. –I praise.
Yes, but the deadly and the monstrous phase,
how do you take it, how resist? –I praise.
But the anonymous, the nameless maze,
how summon it, how call it, poet? –I praise.
What right is yours, in all these varied ways,
under a thousand masks yet true? –I praise.
And why do stillnesss and the roaring blaze,
both star and storm acknowledge you? –because I praise.

 

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.

“Pray you, love, remember.”

[Abandoned-Hotel Trash, Sharon Springs, N.Y. 2016]

The more I read Robert Rossner’s The Year Without an Autumn: Portrait of a School in Crisis, the more I realize I’ve forgotten way more than I remember about the 1968 crisis Rossner chronicles. Which is startling! For not only was I was an elementary school teacher at P.S. 120 when the Ocean Hill/Brownsville strike happened, I was a scab. Yes. Until our school’s custodians locked us out, P.S.120’s teachers of color crossed the United Federation of Teachers’ picket line (i.e. an irate group of P.S. 120’s white teachers) for a couple of weeks in the fall of 1968. Two white teachers chose to join those black teachers. I was one of them. You’d think I’d remember more!

So I’m struck by how much trauma and time (and, okay, maybe the druggy haze of the sixties) wreak havoc on remembrance.*

Here’s probably the worst thing I got dead-wrong: I’d remembered that less than ten NYC public-school teachers had been fired by the decentralized, parent-and-community-based (read People of Color) Ocean Hill/Brownsville board. Or so I’ve always thought. But, no, nineteen teachers had been fired by the “local control” folks. A significant number. (So: Forty-nine years later, I almost get why the UFT got so high and mighty about so many of its teachers getting canned. Almost.)

I knew one of those nineteen. He was a total incompetent at P.S. 120 and had been let go. His incompetence made my decision to support the Ocean Hill/Brownsville board’s right to fire him pretty straight-forward: Would I strike to protest his being fired? Hell, no. And so I crossed a picket line.

But here’s what I must say: All these years later, while I am glad (relieved?) I’d made the right decision, I am humbled by how next-to-nothing I really understood about systemic racism in 1968! I now know how blindly I made that decision! So when I say trauma is a factor to my swiss-cheese memory of this experience, I mean both the scary, nasty bits I have sublimated, paved over but also my present-day realization/horror that, actually, I’d stumbled into doing the right thing!

And, finally, to honor Shakespeare’s injunction to love and to remember: an incongruously-lovely memory; a (self) love story: Somehow, in the midst of being called horrible names as I crossed the picket line or, once inside, tried to teach a few scared children while fire alarms keep going off or, on the subway, getting punched by a young man of color because, why not? Racial tensions were tearing the whole city apart. Yet somehow, in the midst of all of that—and all that I have forgotten—I suddenly stopped smoking. Just like that. I’d learned that the minute you quit smoking your lungs begin to heal. What I had been doing to myself since I was fifteen could be fixed. Hope, possibility, redemption were possible. So I quit.

*There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.” Shakespeare.

 

“The Stranger Among You”

[Landscaping, Somerville, MA Style, 2016 ]

I live in Somerville, a sanctuary city, and my faith community is located in Cambridge, another sanctuary city. As the xenophobia in this country becomes ever more vicious, I’ve been been examining what this dual citizenship means. Not in terms of my sense of public safety* or, god forbid, to feel smug or politically correct or content; heck, no. But day to day, standing in line at the post office or hearing voices outside my window speak languages I can’t even name, what does it feel like to live into “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”? (Leviticus 19:33-34 ESV**)

It’s a spiritual practice. It’s a moment by moment interaction with The Stranger(s) and to pay attention to what that interaction calls up for me. (Lately? Mostly? Incredible sadness.) To daily encounter brown-skinned people, ever more stressed and scared—living in a sanctuary city isn’t a stress-free guarantee—is to perpetually pray: what am I called to do? (Write this for starters!)

It’s to connect with that “For you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” bit. To know with certainty, with deep and abiding understanding, that The Stranger’s backstory is, in some fundamental way, my own backstory. And that if the folks walking past my house and I were to share our stories, we would find the same themes, the same plot lines, the same unifying beliefs.

But also, these daily encounters are moment-by-moment reminders that my experiences and how I see the world aren’t the whole. Aren’t reality. Aren’t The One and Only. Or, to paraphrase another biblical bit, they’re daily reminders to walk humbly—and lovingly—as I, as we seek to do justice.

*Lots of conflicting studies, lots of rhetoric, but the crime rate in sanctuary cities seems to be lower!

**Slightly amazed I’m quoting Leviticus, one book of the Bible I’ve never connected with!