Like Water for Fish

Soundsuits, Nick Cave; Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, TN, January, 2018

Circling, circling Nick Cave’s soundsuits, I marveled how this African-American artist had transformed his rage, his fears, his searing pain into fabric and sequins, into cast-asides made sculpture, into crocheted body suits; into beauty. Horrified by Rodney King’s brutal assault by Los Angeles police in 1991, Cave created armor, costumes, disguises, performance pieces, each wearable sculpture inviting us to try on what it means for a man of color to walk down an American sidewalk. Back home, still awed by what I’d seen in Nashville, I considered Cave’s pain-to-transcendence process. How does such breathtaking transformation happen? On meditative walks on the icy, snowy sidewalks of Somerville and Cambridge (MA), at meeting for worship, and noodling in my journal, I’ve wondered what I, a Quaker writer, might learn about my own process by reflecting on Cave’s astonishing work?

His rage as impetus? This genesis I understand. Often my writing projects have originated from the white-hot anger felt during meeting for worship! Held, sustained in deep, collective silence, I have dared to truly examine what lies heavy on my heart. When, for example, my homeless students, women I’d taught in greater Boston family shelters, shared with me their stories of childhood sexual abuse, I brought my horror and fury into worship. What am I asked to do? I prayed. Over many months, my novel, Swimming In It, was born. Yes, I know how negative emotions can inspire!

But those soundsuits’ not-to-be-ignored sequins, their thousands of hand-sewn buttons, those bolts of gaudy fabric and tin instruments! Surely such voluminous, undeniable stuff could teach me something about transformation? Cave, himself, answered my question during an April, 2013, interview with Artspace.com’s editor-in-chief, Andrew Goldstein:

“So the first soundsuit was constructed entirely out of twigs. I was making a sculpture first—I didn’t even think I could physically put this on—but once it was developed I physically put it on and moved around in it, and it made sound. And when I made that sound, it moved me into a role of protest. In order to be heard you have to speak louder. So that was something that was of interest to me, and it kept unfolding and really becoming much more versatile in that sense, and it made me think more, again, about my role and civic responsibility as an artist.”

In my ears, Cave’s ownership of his artistic agency is a variation of What am I asked to do? But that serendipitous moment when those twigs asserted their twigginess and Cave’s process shifted? This unfolding intrigues me— and invites me to look at my own “twigs.”

What are my twigs? Not words or my thumb-worn thesaurus, certainly, not pen to paper nor a blank computer screen; these are implements, tools like Cave’s needle and thread. What asserts its essence, its Truth, its possibility to me? Against what do my inchoate thoughts interact with, bump up against? What shapes my ideas? What is mutable—yet instructive?

It’s November 23, 1960; Opening Night of my first high school play: For three months the (all-white) cast of that musty favorite, “Seventeen,” has rehearsed in our Lynchburg, Virginia high school’s chilly, cavernous auditorium, its fifteen-hundred seats empty save Miss Virginia Wiley, doyenne of E.C. Glass’s English Department and our fierce director, seated in the middle seat of the third row. Now, nervously waiting backstage, I hear muffled—and welcomed—laughter from many rows, I hear rustling, coughing; crossing stage right, the auditorium’s warmth so startles me I almost trip. So balmy, so charged, so pulsing, so expectant has the auditorium air become, I long to stare past the footlights to catch a glimpse of that multi-headed, breathing organism out there. Instead I say my first line.

It’s September, 1966: After we graduated in June, my college roommate joined the Peace Corps; I’m teaching fourth grade in Brooklyn. I send her a letter complaining about the city’s pollution, a major topic among my new, Big Apple friends, Park Slope neighbors, P. S. 120 colleagues. “Air?” she writes back from El Salvador. “You’re writing about air?”

It’s 2005: I’m writing a book about the two African-American students who desegregated E.C. Glass High School in 1962 and, today, every word is a struggle. You’re getting cobwebs!” I inwardly hear my mother shout from the kitchen, just like she did when I was eight and made the same stupid mistake over and over while practicing the piano. “Go outside and get some fresh air!” I’ve spent so long inhabiting Lynchburg’s civil rights history today that, walking along Somerville Avenue, when a gritty March wind stings my face, I need to remind myself of where I am. What year this is. And why I was led to write this book. Exposed to traffic-fetid air, my inchoate ideas shift. And way opens.

It’s January 21, 2017 and everyone I know is at a Women’s March somewhere. Not me. I’m in a recording studio in Union Square’s Somerville Media Center, headphones on, podcasts’ script in hand. My script. I wrote these words. I honed them for years, since 1999, draft after draft. And now, sometimes tentatively, with a southern accent, as if a thirty-five-year old Lynchburg-born woman only just now figuring it out, sometimes rasping and growling and dropping my Rs as if a working-class old man from Somerville, sometimes myself, the author, I speak my words into a microphone, Stuart, my sound engineer, at my side. And although I can imagine Miss Virginia Wiley’s multiple charm bracelets jangling as she furiously scribbles a note lambasting my performance, nevertheless, I persist. I love emergent Jewell, I love crippled Rocco, I love their love story, an agape love story. I love this self-made opportunity to praise Unconditional Love—on a website! I’m loving these in-the-moment openings as I revise, improve my script as I say my lines. My love comes through in my voice; I hear it in my headphones. When, three years before, I’d first conceived of creating WellingUp.net to share my Quaker-based novel, Welling Up online, podcasts had seemed another techie bell or whistle at my disposal. Now, surrounded by recording equipment, hearing what’s coming through my voice, I acknowledge and celebrate my airtime. For I remember, pre-television, the four, five-year-old me, alone, transported, legs-crossed seated on the rug in front of my family’s radio console as I listened—and trusted—Don McNeill’s gentle, flat, Midwestern voice. Which, at the speed of light, beamed from downtown Chicago to our fusty, upstate New York living room every morning from nine to ten. “Each in his own words, each in his own way, for a world united in peace, bow your heads and pray,” he’d suggest every morning. And I did.

It’s First Day. Perhaps there’s a fireplace fire; a heavy log shifts, thuds. Perhaps a restless branch pops. Perhaps there’s been another school massacre; another horror each of us carried with us into Friends Meeting at Cambridge’s spacious meetinghouse this morning. Whatever has happened, it is here. It is present. We hundred or so worshippers swim in it. Our shoulders droop under its collective weight. I listen to my breathing. My heart races. What am I asked to do? Should I stand to name our shared outrage? For I have experienced—and written about—how such naming can sometimes be a balm. What am I asked to do? Should I break the silence? As if wetting my index finger and lifting it into the wind, I test the air. It is agitated, hornets-nest stirred up. You can’t fix this, always-responsible-oldest-sister, I counsel myself. And remain seated.

It’s First Day. Slowly, an older woman rises to speak: “It seems to me,” she begins, “that meeting for worship is like a radio? When we come into worship, when we sit quietly and wait, it’s like we’re turning the radio on. We’re saying we’re ready to listen. To what is all around us.” In us, too, I silently amend.

Inspired, literally, by this exploration of Cave’s pain-to-transformation process, an important question still remains: what of Beauty? Nick Cave’s glorious process began in sorrow and ends in glorious, wondrous, transcendent beauty. What is my writerly final destination? And am reminded of a poem quoted at meeting for worship years ago and, apparently, still guiding me: The Poet Speaks of Praising by Rainer Maria Rilke

Oh speak, poet, what do you do? I praise.

But the monstrosities and the murderous days, how do you endure them, how do you take them? I praise.

But the anonymous, the nameless grays, how, poet, do you still invoke them? I praise.

What right have you, in all displays, in very mask, to be genuine? I praise.

And that the stillness and the turbulent sprays know you like star and storm? because I praise.

(from Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties, ed. and trans. by John J. L. Mood, Norton, 1975)

Hallelujah!

“CONTEXT!”

Front page of the local section, The News & Advance, Lynchburg, VA, October 12, 2008

Dr. Lynda Woodruff, my mentor and friend, died last week. Hearing this awful news, I registered both gut-punched grief and that my first question—Did she die because she’d received inadequate healthcare?—came to me only because I’d been schooled by Lynda.

A woman of “grit and salt” (her words), Lynda schooled so many! My first tutorial with this fierce, brilliant woman happened after I’d mailed her a draft of a book manuscript which, eventually, with her guidance, became Way Opens. “Context!” she’d written in bold letters on that first, pathetic draft. Meaning: You neither know the backstory nor understand its implications. Meaning: You’re a clueless white woman. Meaning: Do your homework.

So I began. And, with Spirit’s guidance, keep on keeping’ on. (Although I already know I’ll earn a C+ at best. )

Something else I note with deep sorrow. “The burden of the race” resting on her shoulders since she was thirteen, over the years Lynda “just got tired.” (Her words.)  Can you imagine how exhausting, how debilitating our current political nightmare must have been for her?

Rest in peace, dear Lynda.

 

 

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?

 

 

“Progress Is Our Most Important Product”*

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[Russian submarine from the Cold War era, Maritime Museum, San Diego, CA]

Saturday I spent some time at FirstBuild, a state-of-the-art machine shop cum high-tech appliance incubator in Louisville, KY run by GE. Talk about a layered experience!

A little background: My beloved father, who died in 2010, worked for GE for many years in war time and peace time, inventing both the butter conditioner (the little box in your refrigerator that keeps butter at its optimum temperature) and the computer used as a machine-gun defense system for the B-29; “the plane that won World War II.” He also sold GE television equipment in the earliest days of TV and as a “Cold War warrior” (and self-labeled “merchant of death”) negotiated contacts between GE and the military. So wandering through GE factories or TV studios some random Saturday to stare, stupefied, at work benches and machinery and dials and gauges and fancy, mysterious equipment, carefully stepping over jumbles of wires as my father excitedly explained The Latest Thing/GE’s newest project was something I did as a kid.

More context: A couple of weeks before, I’d given a talk re Way Opens and my own experiences during the Civil Rights Era to a group of bright, tender middle-school students at Cambridge Friends School. Who were “heavy,” as their teacher put it, Freddie Gray’s death much on their minds. Their collective heaviness stays with me.

So there I was, gobstruck by the cool, nifty appliances in FirstBuild’s showroom and my first look at a 3-D printer and, knowing how much my dad would have loved every single moment, desperately missing him. And aware that despite all this progress, just blocks away people of color were living under pretty much the same conditions as they had during the Jim Crow era.

See what I mean by layered?

* GE’s slogan during the 50s and 60s, i.e. the Civil Rights and Cold War era.

 

Branded # 7: Amity*

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Last night I attended a reading at Porter Square Books by Debby Irving, an attractive, personable, and righteous Cambridge resident, re her brand-new book, Waking Up White And Finding Myself in the Story of Race.

Reader, I was upset. And jealous. Especially when Irving flatly stated that after taking a course at Wheelock College—where I went, for heaven’s sake!—and awakening to race matters, she couldn’t find any memoirs by white people on the subject! So decided to write one, herself.

Still stewing, I came home to find an e-mail from my dear friend, Delia, with this link. “Apparently I’m not the only one who’s been thinking about this poem first thing in the morning lately!” she wrote. As Delia knows,  Robert Hayden’s incredible “Those Winter Sundays” introduces Chapter 2 of my memoir re awakening to race in this country. How grateful I was to be gifted with such loving—though inadvertent—support of a dear friend when I needed it! How lovely to again contemplate, “What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?” !

My memoir’s entitled Way Opens: A Spiritual Journey. That journey continues. So when, ahem, I woke up this morning, I realized I’d heard something else last night: How there’s another, little-known narrative in this country about people of color and white allies. (And, yes, although although our record has been definitely checkered, Quakers have historically been counted among those allies.)

Post Way Opens, here’s where Spirit had led me: To be, as best as I am able, a criminal justice ally. And here’s what I believe I am led to explore: how best I can support Jobs Not Jail. (Not completely clear; need more discernment for sure.)

Reader: care to join me?

PS: Upon reflection, I realized that the above was clumsily written. Let me be clear: I commend Debby Irving and the wonderful and important work she’s done. There can’t be too many books on this incredibly important and difficult subject!

* “Friendship, peaceful harmony; mutual understanding and peaceful relationship.” My alma mater runs a National Center for Race Amity; who knew?!

 

 

 

 

 

 

March 17, 2011: “There are no coincidences.”

My friend KT says that a lot.

And, after tonight, I’m giving that more consideration.

Here’s what happened:

I was in Central Square, I was pooped after a vigorous yoga class and lots of walking, I was early to meet a friend for dinner. So I gratefully sat down on a park bench near the restaurant where we’d agreed to meet on a glorious spring afternoon. An obviously drunk guy—heh, it’s St. Patrick’s Day; greater-Boston is full of drunks today—sat on a bench facing me, then abruptly jumped up and drunkenly lurched across the street, narrowly missing being hit by an approaching bus on Massachusetts Avenue. I continued sitting there and, lo, he returned, and again sat across from me.

My city survival meter now on HIGH ALERT, I decided to go into the restaurant early rather than to deal with him. As I got up, he said to me (by now the sun had gone down behind the Square’s buildings), as clearly and as lucidly and as kindly as he could be, “Don’t get pneumonia, now.” Then he pulled out a cheap, plastic flute and began to play. Badly.

My, God, I realized, approaching the restaurant. He’s the same guy I had that whole, challenging interaction with at Park Street Station a couple of weeks ago! [see my February 27th blog: “Let Go, Let Surveillance.”]

At the restaurant, I immediately got caught up with spending time with my friend, eating, etc., so hadn’t really had time to process that coincidence. But after she and I had parted, I was walking down Mass. Ave. and wondering what there had been about that man—and me—that made him not obviously the same guy and me not able to recognize him.

Well, I thought, he was drunk. So I didn’t want to make eye contact; look at him too carefully. He’s black. He’s a street person. Does this mean I simply don’t see black, homeless people?

OK, now it gets weird: JUST as I’m mulling this over, I spot another black homeless person sitting on the sidewalk. She’s hunched over and holding out a cup for spare change. She’s wearing huge sunglasses and a big-brimmed hat and even though I can’t see her face I know who she is! It’s “Crystal” (that’s the name I gave her in Way Opens. Pages 178, 179 for all you folks dying to read about her.)

I go right up to her: “Crystal?” I say.

“Yeah.”

It’s Patricia,” I tell her opening my change purse.

“Patricia Wild.”

“Right.” I notice a huge bag of books beside her. “I see you’re still reading,” I observe as I drop all my change except the pennies into her cup.

“Thank you.”

Then she starts spewing forth a huge, writhing mess of words, most of them having to do with sexual organs, male and female, and a white cop who. . .but why bother to report what she said. Crystal’s not doing well. And not making a whole lot o’ sense.

But neither does my absolute confidence that I knew who she was.

Hmmm.