Your Cup of Tea?

English novelist Barbara Pym is not everyone’s cup of tea. Slyly hilarious, her emphasis on cosy (British spelling) and the seemingly dull, drab, poetry-reciting, aging women who people her novels are not to everyone’s taste. But when “the world is too much with us, late and soon,” I will grab one of her books—and get cozy.

Long-accustomed, I think, to close-third writing, Pym’s revelation of multiple characters’ interiority is so skillfully done that for years I never noticed. (Her liberal use of adverbs never registered either. Until it did. And was forgiven.) Nor did I adequately appreciate how she’d created female characters like “Jane” in her Jane and Prudence who, I finally realized after multiple readings, deserve my compassion and not the scorn their creator ruthlessly heaps upon her badly-dressed and wretched-cook women! Professionally-thwarted women like Jane—whose thin volume of essays written before she’d married could have been the beginnings of a successful writing career! Discounted women.  Lonely women. Women seared by their war experiences and the privations that followed. Like I said: Barbara Pym is sly.

Best of all, while exploring those women’s interiority, she’ll write something like this (The context is World War II in an air raid shelter, at night, as Nazi planes fly overhead on their way to Liverpool):

“It’s so terrible,” said Laura helplessly, wishing there were something adequate one could say. But there was nothing. It was of no consolation to the bombed that the eyes of women in safe places should fill with tears when they spoke of them. Tears, idle tears were of no use to anyone, not even to oneself. This oppressive sorrow could not be washed away in the selfish indulgence of a good cry.

As I grieve for Gaza, as I grieve for the dear ones I’ve recently lost, as I grieve for the pain and suffering surrounding safe-place me, I, too, know my tears are of no use. I, too, know oppressive sorrow. Yet how elegantly Pym captures this enormous, endlessly confusing and confounding dilemma of consciousness! (I would quibble with that still-upper-lip “selfish,” though.)

One lump or two?

 

 

“Wait! What?”

Tom Jones, who wrote “The Fantasticks” book and lyrics, died this week. This news means something to me: In 1966 after  graduating from college, I’d lived in Greenwich Village and a block from the Sullivan Street Theater where “The Fantasticks,” the world’s longest-running musical, played for forty years. So I saw it of course. And throughout my twenties I’d probably listened to its 1960, Jerry Orbach-as-El Gallo (the “Our Town”esque Stage Manager) soundtrack at least once a week. “Try to remember“*? Vividly.

Or so I’ve always thought. But this week, learning of Jones’ death, I listened to that original-cast album for the first time in years. And was gifted with a sixty-year old “Wait! What?” memory, aka a cognitive dissonance moment. (Are more of us thinking about this phenomenon after seeing “Barbie”? I know I am.)

My brain-scrambling, illogical moment happened when El Gallo sings “It Depends On What You Pay.” Which is a song about rape. (El Gallo argues that while “attempted abduction” is a more fitting description to what is about to happen, rape is “short and business-like.”) Wait! What? Up to that moment I’d loved everything about this charming, cardboard-moon-hung-on-a-tattered-curtain production. So why was I suddenly so disgusted?! And confused? Yet still in love?

At twenty-two, twenty-three, I had no language to explain my swirled, internal processing to myself. Any more than at that age I could have explained why I, whose grandmother had died of lung cancer, still smoked! Nor did I know enough to ask that all-important and all-clarifying question: Would a woman have written such a paean to sexual assault? Sixty years ago I had little to no understanding of another polysyllabic word: patriarchy. Nor know that I would continue to feel vaguely uneasy each subsequent time I listened to the LP. And that my uneasiness would eventually feel normal.

“Deep in December,” I know a little more about myself and my species. I now have two fancy words to explain my all-too-human self to myself—no, three. Because the patriarchy hasn’t exactly disappeared, has it.

Could I extend that same generous spirit to, say, someone who, despite all the compelling evidence/multiple indictments, still plans to vote for TFG?

Yikes.

               *Try To Remember
Try to remember the kind of SeptemberWhen life was slow and oh, so mellowTry to remember the kind of SeptemberWhen grass was green and grain was yellowTry to remember the kind of SeptemberWhen you were a tender and callow fellowTry to remember and if you rememberThen follow, follow
Try to remember when life was so tenderThat no one wept except the willowTry to remember the kind of SeptemberWhen love was an ember about to billowTry to remember and if you rememberThen follow, follow
Deep in December, it’s nice to rememberAlthough you know the snow will followDeep in December, it’s nice to rememberThe fire of September that made us mellowDeep in December, our hearts should rememberAnd follow, follow, follow

One Small Step for Sisterhood

[“My” Walgreen’s; February 3, 2020]

My husband and I have lost a step or two; we joke that soon we’ll “take all day” to walk to the bank, the post office, the library, the Market Basket right down the street.  Until a week or so ago, we would have added “and our drug store” to this fortuitous list of convenient neighborhood services but: no. Because Walgreens will now only sell the FDS-approved drug Mifepristone in states where abortion is legal, we’ll be shlepping to the CVS in Porter Square from now on.

Which, frankly, is a pain in the ass. Or, rather, the knees, the back, the quads, etc. Strolling a couple of blocks for more extra-strength, 10 mg. melatonin? No big deal. Hiking a mile to fetch this now-a-staple in my post-pandemic, anxious life? Not a walk in the park.

But when I consider my outrage at the overturning of Roe, when I read articles like this?  I’ll manage just fine, thank you very much! My anger—no, rage—will put a kick in my step. And with every step I’ll hold my sisters in the 24 states that have banned abortion or are likely to do so  in the Light.

 

Grounded

Urged to do so, I dutifully watched the first two episodes of the Ken Burns’ documentary on Ernest Hemingway—and, much to my surprise, look forward to the third. (Thank you, PBS, for making such wonderful programs accessible to luddites like me who do not own a television.)

Why surprised? Because although I define myself as a writer and am proud of my very modest body of work, it is a very modest body of work! So I’d anticipated that spending hours learning more about one of the most successful writers of all time would reinforce my own sense of inadequacy—which waxes and wanes but is undeniable. Delving deeper and deeper into Hemingway’s story, however, I felt solidified.  Confirmed. Grounded. “My oeuvre may be skimpy as hell—but I am glad I’m me.” Another way to put this might be: “Thank you, God, for making me a woman!”

I began to work on my craft after my first daughter was born; in those earliest days I’d copied out passages I found particularly well-written. I’d study these bits, word by word, coma by semi-colon, partly to learn from such close reading and partly, I think, in the childish hope that the genius of that particular writer might magically become my own. So, in Episode 2, when I heard the excerpt from A Farewell to Arms I’d copied long ago read aloud, it was a wonderful moment, like suddenly remembering a beloved teacher but also remembering myself as the yearning, open-hearted, grateful student. And to be reminded that every time I begin a sentence with And I know whom to credit!

Here’s the thing: leafing through the battered notebook containing that A Farewell to Arms excerpt, I found so much more to remember. For I’d copied out bits from Alice Munro, Virginia Woolf, Paula Gunn Allen, Shirley Hazzard, too. I’d written poetry; many poems had been about being a mother. A harried mother. An anxious mother. A mother in solidarity with mothers in my neighborhood. I’d written journal-like entries about my struggles to find time to write. I’d written outlines for possible stories, novels, a screenplay. (I have actually completed some of those projects, too. Some.) And pep talks, lots of pep talks/coaching!

I’ll end with this one:

Hold the image in your mind

Make it clear and true

Then all you do

Follows naturally.

 

 

 

 

This is Me, This is Us

Today, here’s how I’m remembering a moment at the end of the documentary, “Knock Down the House.” It’s election night and Alexandria  Ocasio-Cortez arrives at a Bronx or Queens function hall—or maybe it was a restaurant?—to join hundreds of her supporters and campaign workers as they all await the election results. But the security guy at the front door won’t let her in.

“No, no, I’m—” she argues. And the way I remember that filmed moment, the future congresswoman points to her shoulders, to herself; to her body. Because that’s who she is. She’s not an ID. She’s not her driver’s license or her signature on the rental agreement to book that space. She is not her own face on a campaign poster. She’s The Incomparable AOC; she identifies as a woman.

Today, reading her painful account of what happened when an angry mob occupied the Capitol on January 6th, I learned that like millions of others, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez is a survivor of sexual abuse. How she cinematically describes her horrifying, triggering experience that afternoon; how, although she’s received multiple death threats and misogynist slurs and knowing she’ll receive ugly blowback she nevertheless bravely declares: #Metoo; how she speaks her vulnerable truth to power in the halls of Congress? How she connects the forceful voices in Congress urging, “Let’s get over that Capitol attack. Let’s move on”  to what survivors of sexual abuse are told over and over? I am so moved. And so grateful.

Another she-ro of mine, Joanna Macy, the great eco-philosopher and visionary, speaks of “The Great Turning”: a shift from the Industrial Growth Society to a life-sustaining civilization. May AOC’s illuminating account contribute to that great, paradigm-shifting turning!

 

 

 

The Marmee Dilemma

Much is being written or vlogged about Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women.” May I join in?

Seated in perfect seats in the Somerville Theater on a rainy Saturday afternoon, a beloved, grown daughter by my side, I was already prepared to adore this latest iteration of a beloved novel-turned-film classic, released on Christmas Day of 2019. (Remember back then?) And I wasn’t disappointed.

Geraldine Brooks’ 2005 Pulizer-prize winning novel, March much on my mind, which features a  hot-tempered Marmee, I was eager, over dinner, to discuss this latest film version of that fictional mother, played by Laura Dern, with my insightful daughter. Who is painfully aware of both my own struggles with anger —and my mother’s. And so my daughter was moved, as was I, when Dern’s Marmee admits to her daughter Jo, “I’m angry nearly every day of my life.”

My mother used to tell me that one of the things I did that infuriated her was that I gave my father a free pass but was highly critical of her. Her anger. “Double standard,” she’d hiss when she perceived yet another transgression. For years I’d dismiss her hissings as indicative of a far more hurtful truth: my dad was so much more lovable. He deserved a free pass. (Ouch.)

Older now, I see much truth in my mother’s accusation; a Truth inexorably bound up in powerful and cultural expectations of the Good Mother, aka “The Angel of the House.”  (Another highly successful nineteenth-century writer, Charles Dickens, deserves lots of blame here.) An avid reader of Dickens and Louisa May Alcott, as a child and adolescent I both expected my mother to be another Marmee and gave little thought as to why she wasn’t. Marlee’s saintly and unselfish actions? Like when Dern’s character, exhausted, destitute, nevertheless wraps her own scarf into a bundle she hands over to a struggling father who’d lost two sons in the Civil War? That’s what a Good Mother looks like. Yikes.

So, right here, right now, a shout-out to another novelist, Sue Miller, for her 2002 The Good Mother, to Donald Winnicott, who’d coined the phrase, “the good enough mother,” and to feminists everywhere.

Good enough mothers like mine, like me, often confuse anger* with sadness. (Which is a whole other subject.) More to the point: Like Marmee, whose idealistic husband gives away all the family’s money before abandoning his wife and four daughters to go off to war, we, too, are plagued by present-day outrages and injustices and cruelties. So, yeah, we’re endlessly pissed, too. Of course we are! There’s plenty to be angry about. So we lose it. All the time.

And then many us are then overcome by shame. Because we can’t be like Marmee.

Sigh.

*Not talking about rage, although God knows my daughters know and I know what that looks like on the face of a furious mother. That’s terrifying! Rage should be squashed. Controlled. Redirected. Might Marmee’s scarf-giving have been a symbolic handing-over of her rage at War? Might she have been, in that instant, creating her own ritual?

 

 

 

 

Yes, Ma’am

[Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind.]

Take it from me, someone who’d stumbled around post-cataract surgery until I got my new glasses, I am now exquisitely aware of how we’re inundated with written stuff! It’s everywhere. It’s a given. (And when you can’t actually read it, it’s a pain in the neck!)

But when I saw this fancy-font sign in my health plan’s Mammography Department—well, like you, perhaps, I had one of those instant understandings of where the woman—someone working in that a department, right?—who’d posted that sign was coming from. Because she’s witnessed those battles. From the other side of that department’s reception desk window.  She knew. Knows.

And she’s watched us, too, the Lucky Ones. Who blithely stroll in and out once a year. Who may be more sensitive, more patient with, more compassionate about the trials and tribulations of others while we wait to be given the All Clear. But once we’ve received the good news —Phew!—we immediately forget our There But For The Grace of God moment. We forget how inordinately beautiful life seemed while we waited.

We move on. We forget to be kind.

Sign Poster’s knows all about that, too.

Maybe we should pay attention to what she has to say?

 

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.”

 

 

 

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!