Muscle Memory

[Patsy Cline’s salt and pepper collection, Patsy Cline Museum, Nashville, Tennessee]

A wonderful surprise happened in 2018: I made two new, wonderful friends, both in their seventies, too. Over tea last week with one, a fellow peace activist and feminist, we discovered that although we’d grown up in very different parts of the country, our families’ respective religions differed, and she’d grown up with more siblings than I, in one respect, her parents and mine were exactly the same. She and I, who’d both grown up in the fifties and early sixties, had both taken piano lessons. And ballroom dancing!

We snickered. And agreed that learning how to waltz or foxtrot was not something young people ascribed to anymore. She quoted that famous line: “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did—only backwards and in high heels.” And I shared a story from my thirties, when my then-husband and I—probably chemically enhanced, shall we say?—had crashed a big, fancy, neighborhood party one summer night, a party held in a tent and with a live band. Boldly I’d invited a neighbor I really, really admired to dance with me. Kind of shy, not a dancer, he’d hesitated: “Don’t worry, darlin’,” I’d assured him. “I’ll make you look good.” And I did. Because from my ballroom-dance classes, I knew how to balance my weight on the balls of my feet; how to lightly rest my left hand on my partner’s shoulder in order to sense whatever direction he would go, and in a split-second, feet poised to respond, to accommodate that movement—wherever!

What a dated, horrifying story! But it begs me to wonder: Do I still do that? Do I still, in ways I don’t even realize because it’s just what I was trained to do, do I still wait, poised to move in response to someone else? Do I accommodate? Dedicate myself to making someone else look good?

Hmmm.

 

 

My Public Charge Letter (First Draft)

[Information re Public Charge]

To: Samantha Deshommes, Office of Policy and Strategy, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Department of Homeland Security, 20 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, D C 20529-29140

[Link to submit comments online]

Re: DHS Docket No. USCIS-2010-0012

I am writing to express my opposition to this proposed rule change.

[Okay, fine. That’s the standard stuff. But what should I say? “Write from your place of strength,” an immigration advocate coached a group of us letter-writers recently.

What’s mine? Do I note that because of the fear these proposed changes are causing, providers of greater-Boston health care services note a 5 to 10% drop in people coming to their clinics? So, for example, people aren’t getting flu shots? And how that makes me very nervous to get on public transportation or shop at my neighborhood supermarket? Or how I am fearful how these changes, designed to instill fear and insecurity,  will adversely effect the wonderful, upbeat people, most of them from other countries, who work at my mother’s long-term care facility?

Absolutely not! Public Charge isn’t about white, privileged me or my white, privileged family! It’s about the Trump Administration rewriting Emma Lazarus‘s poem to read, “We only want you if you’re young, healthy, wealthy, and speak English.”

No, my place of strength is the same place as so many of those who these proposed changes would exclude: I am a grandmother. I know how my family needs me. I know how my family relies on me. I know how the stories I tell my grandchildren, my “These are some of the men and women who came before you; here’s what they thought was important” narratives anchor my family. I know how grandparents’ (free) childcare makes it possible for both parents to work. Grandparents cast a long shadow in ways I can speak to. Grandparents make this country work in ways few understand or acknowledge.

But I better get to work. These letters, which can be as short as 250 words, are due by December 10, 2018.]

Be Peace

Saturday afternoon, I’d gone to the 70th birthday party for a dear, dear F/friend, hosted by her dear, dear husband. Reluctantly. Jet-lagged after a wonderful trip to LA, overwhelmed by my ever-growing To Do List, and, most critically, horrified by the news from Pittsburgh, I wasn’t sure I was up to spending a rainy and chilly afternoon chitchatting.

But there are some friends who are so wonderful, so amazing, you just have to show up for them, right? So I did. And was immediately glad. Her two adult children, who’d gone to First Day School (Quaker-style Sunday School) with mine had come; it was wonderful to see them, again, and to hear about their intriguing, fulfilled lives. The food was plentiful and delicious. I caught up with other good friends. It was a wonderful party. Until . . .

I’d gone into the kitchen to get something to drink and there I met—let’s call him “Bob,” a grey-haired, older man and, like the rest of us, in New England fall weather garb. A neighbor of my F/friends, I’m guessing. And, I’m also guessing, had either been drinking or, sadly, as is the case with some of us over seventy, might have had “cognitive issues”?

Because here’s our conversation went: “You a Quaker?” I nodded. “You look like a Quaker.” And without pausing: “You know what I like about Quakers? I can beat the shit out of [our host] and he wouldn’t fight back.”

“Why would you want to beat the shit out of him?”

“Don’t analyze it!” he scolded.

“Why not?” I retorted. Sharply. “You tell me you want to beat the shit out of someone, I want to know why!”

But apparently Bob, besotted by his presumed freedom to beat the shit out of someone without resistance, wasn’t interested in engaging in meaningful dialogue! At least not with a woman he’d just met and who’d just challenged him. (And, yes, Dear Reader, it did briefly occur to me that Bob may very well be another aging, cis, white male perpetually bewildered and threatened by women like me who, you know, want to smash the patriarchy!) Shrugging, I filled my glass and left.

Here’s the thing: I may look like a Quaker, Dear Reader, but that doesn’t mean that in the moment I’m automatically able to do or say The Right Thing. I may want to “Be Peace” as my license plate holder enjoins. But, sometimes I don’t know how.

What might I have said, instead? A couple of ideas came to me the next day, during silent worship, as we collectively mourned the eleven elderly Jews murdered while they had been in worship.

How about “[Your host] is your friend, yes? What else do you like about him?”

How about: “There is so much violence and hatred in the world. Like what just happened this morning in Pittsburgh. I think lots of people, not just Quakers, are looking for ways to not keep adding to it. Don’t you?”

How about “Been drinking, Bob? Off your meds, maybe?” (Okay, so sometimes snarky things come to me, too.)

Here’s the other thing: While I am chagrined I couldn’t be peace, I couldn’t find a way to move the conversation into something enlightened and transformative and nice, I’m not going to feel bad about what I said, either. Because this patriarchy isn’t going to smash itself!

 

 

Extraction

 

Coal Barge, Ohio River, June, 2018

“If you are a hammer everything looks like a nail,” right?  Or, since I recently had a molar pulled, I’ve been thinking—ahem—deeply about extraction. About trauma and pain. About “Keep it in the ground.” About The Extraction Economy. About rape. About women.

Let me be clear: Keeping the remaining reserves of coal, natural gas, and oil in the ground is imperative. Absolutely. Keeping a cracked and festering tooth in my head? Probably not a good idea. So, last week, reluctantly, very reluctantly, I agreed to undergo—well, I’ll spare you the details.

Out of this past week’s trauma and pain has come such tenderness! First for myself, formerly known as Ms. Got-It-Going-On, who now humbly answers to Sort-of-Glued-Together.  (What the hell was I thinking when I gave myself one day to recover? Jeez.)

Oh, such newfound tenderness for our raped Mother Earth! Such abundant tenderness for all who have been used, plundered, abused, invaded. Most, most importantly, such tenderness for my sisters. Who can speak with such authority about—and against—the Extraction Economy. Who can connect dots the patriarchy doesn’t even see. Who can bring our collective tenderness and wisdom to the table, to the board room, to the voting booth.

Because, yes. We got it going on!

 

 

Cognitive Dissonance

Shoes on a bowling alley rug, Malden, MA, 2017

Lots of blather, post the Cosby verdict, re “cognitive dissonance.” Male blather. So, guys, let me spell this out for you, okay?

Short answer: Those of us who identify as female know all about cognitive dissonance. Indeed, most of us have grappled with this profound and confusing and dizzying disconnect our entire lives. (We know about gaslighting, too. But that’s another story.)

I’ll elucidate: When you’re female, i.e. perceived as prey, it’s open season. No matter how old you are. Because hunters hunt. Hunters prey. Stealthily. With winks and whispers and sly smiles. Tragically, horrifyingly, these unwanted advances can be sexual; bewilderingly, they can also be simply a form of male muscle-flexing. But, nevertheless, still unwanted, still creepy. Believe me when I tell you, guys—believing women: talk about muscle-flexing!—that most females on earth have, in a private and secret and secluded moment, witnessed a well-respected member of our family or community being creepy. To us. Alone.(“Wink, wink.”)

So maybe now’s the time to roll out that useful F. Scott Fitzgerald quote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Yup. So here’s a Fun Fact: most females possess first-rate intellects since we’ve grappled with This Crap since childhood. Makes you think about Zelda’s mental health issues in a whole, new light, am I right?!

My own story? To my knowledge, I was never sexually abused as a child. Thank God I’ve never been raped. (My novel’s Jewell was, though.) Since childhood, however, I have had countless creepy, bewildering experiences with men. Overly-attentive men. Family members, neighbors, members of our church community. Often, alcohol was involved. (Child of the fifties, I passed around lots of canapés at my parents’ cocktail parties.) Pretty sure that one incident, alone in our rec room with a “Visiting Fireman,” who’d come to our house for drinks and dinner, was egregious enough that my mother and father asked the next day if “something happened.” No, they didn’t elucidate. They didn’t provide useful language, offer guidance about boundaries, touch. But by simply asking that (too-broad) question they tacitly expressed disquiet. Which matched my own. Confirmed my own sense of creepiness when a grown man with Scotch on his breath ardently whispered how pretty I was, how I’d break a few hearts, some day, while my parents were out of the room. (I don’t think he touched me.) My parents’ bumbling question allowed me to begin to trust my own disquiet, my own, wordless Ewww!  (As the mother of four daughters, I’ve schooled them to trust their intuition and if something felt creepy, get the hell out of there!)

To drive home my point re perceived prey, I want to end this with another useful quote, this one from Margaret Atwood: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Show not Tell:

Enemies Should Know That Syria Will Never Fall—Assad/Syria Will Never Fall—Assad” by Nazgol Ansarinia, 2012.

A newsprint collage currently on exhibit at the Katonah (NY) Museum of Art’s current exhibit: “Long, Winding Journeys: Contemporary Art and the Islamic Tradition. (I took these pictures on Friday.)

A closer look at Ansarinia’s collage, created from two different newspaper articles cut into tiny, geometric shapes. (The geometric pattern she has used was inspired by the Shah Cheragh mosque’s mosaics, Shiraz, Iran.)

About those articles: Both newspapers had written about the same event from differing perspectives; the Iranian artist has interspersed her mosaic pieces so as to make the newsprint unintelligible.

Easily found in Ansarinia’s profound reflection on truth, however, is a head shot of Syrian President Bashar-al-Assad—presently being accused of gassing his own people. Again. (He denies this.)

Thank you, Nazgol Ansarinia.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

“There You Have It!”

Pies, Arnold’s Country Kitchen, Nashville, Tennessee.

For decades I’ve been following a “kamish broit” recipe I got from an ex-husband’s step-mother, Sarah Lohman. (Got that?) These walnut biscotti are delicious and ridiculously easy to make. So, Friday, company expected and running late, I automatically pulled out Sarah’s recipe.

Sarah, I suddenly thought, grinding a half a cup of walnuts in my mini-cuisinart. (Which, with a couple of taps of my index finger, reduces the nuts almost to a paste—although her recipe merely calls for “chopped walnuts.”) Who was she?  When I was married to her stepson, I never once asked her anything about herself; in my self-involved twenties, I wasn’t interested.

I am, now. A Google search produced a skimpy outline. Her maiden name: Axelrod. Her birthplace: Odessa, Ukraine.  The whiff of a story: At age nine months, she and her mother, Ida, arrived in Quebec on June 2, 1907, and moved on to Toronto. (I’d actually remembered she’d grown up in “Canada.” Period. Canada.)   And a picture:


So many questions I’d love to ask her. Did your father, Abraham, join you and your mother? (Well, she had two sisters so maybe he did?) Did you experience anti-semitism in Toronto? Tell me about that hat you’re wearing in this picture; what you’re wearing around your neck! What brought you to New York City and The New York Times? (Where she met and married Sidney, my ex father-in-law.)

But here’s another discovery unearthed by keywords and links: The words kamish broit tell another story. After the Diaspora, after years of migration, Jews who found themselves in Italy learned about twice-baked/biscotti. Subsequently, Jews in Eastern Europe made mandel broit or “almond bread”; Jews in the Ukraine made kamish broit or “rushed bread”—but it’s the same recipe! (Well, okay, as you can probably guess, mandel broit is usually made from almonds. Which I will certainly try the next time I’m rushing and company’s coming!)

So when Sarah served kamish broit every time my ex and I visited, she replicated a regional recipe from a country she never knew. I find that strangely touching. And other Jews now in the New World are making basically the same, well-traveled mandel/kamish recipe. (There are many such recipes on the Internet: word for word, Sarah’s follows.)

So when I next dip a kamish broit into milk or coffee, I will both thank Sarah Axelrod Lohman—whose parents’ names I now know—and consider the long journey that biscotti has taken!

Kamish Broit

1/2 cup oil

3/4 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 tsp. vanilla

1/2 cup chopped walnuts

1/4 tsp. salt

1 1/2 tsp. baking powder

2 cups sifted flour

Combine ingredients in order given—flour last. Divide into two loaves [meaning two round, patted-down mounds about a quarter-inch thick each] and bake on cookie sheet in 350 degree over for about 25-30 minutes. Light brown color. Remove, slice while hot [meaning quarter-inch slices, top to bottom. You could make an equator slice, too, but my family likes their kamish broit long.] Put back into hot oven (turned off at this point.) for about 15 minutes. There you have it!

 

 

(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?)

 

 

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!

Let’s Talk About Optics

Enough with the pussy hats! Okay? If we’re really going to smash the patriarchy, my sisters, if all who identify as women are truly going to stand, side by side, we have to do what that patriarchy rarely does. We have to listen. Listen to the voices who said last year—and, told us again this year—this pink pussy thing doesn’t work for me. So. Just. Stop. (Related: And, c’mon! Let’s show some sensitivity, huh? Some R-E-S-P-E-C-T? Jeez!) So many powerful and insightful symbols out there. Let’s find a symbol that women of color and transgender women will applaud.

And let’s get to work. As a sign at Saturday’s Cambridge Common Women March nagged: “The patriarchy isn’t going to smash itself!”