Beyond the Obscenity of Hate

August 2016

Jesmyn Ward’s new anthology, The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race[1] offers an array of contemporary black writers on the topic of what it means to be living in the wake of such losses as Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and the Charleston Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church Nine. What does it mean to live in an era of bullets — the lynching ropes of the present? What does it mean to write history with the black point of view as Honorée Fanonne Jeffers does about Phillis Wheatley’s husband? What does fatherhood for black men mean, and how do black boys learn their masculinity, as Mitchell S. Jackson considers and Clint Smith (also in the anthology) has spoken?[2] These authors write about history and determination to turn the tide from victimized to the clear knowing that black lives belong, black lives do matter.

The rigorous power-filled writing in Ward’s anthology sent me back to James Baldwin’s original The Fire Next Time, which I first read 40 years ago. Therein are two essays, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” and “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind.”  “My Dungeon Shook” is ten lean, muscular pages; Baldwin was never a boxer or fighter, but his words take on all opponents. His clarion call to his nephew (and to all) is to live and thrive despite devastating odds. This 1962 epistle is as relevant today as it was then,

“…You were born where you faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. … You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.”[3]

Plenty have aspired to and reached excellence since. This month we’re reminded of that with every Olympic headline as we celebrate American women Olympian athletes of color: Ibthihaj Muhammad, Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Simone Manuel, Laurie Hernandez, and Michelle Carter.

Yet on the same newsfeed, right along with these striking achievements were listed the latest deaths by gun violence.  Jesse Romero, Mexican-American 14-year-old middle school student shot in Los Angeles running from police. Kouren-Rodney Bernard Thomas, 20-year-old African American shot by white Chad Copley, neighborhood vigilante in Raleigh, North Carolina, while walking home from a party. Then, Imam Alauddin Akonjee and his assistant, Thara Miah, were gunned down near their mosque in Queens, New York. Then, Sylville Smith was killed by police in Milwaukee. Transwomen, Rae’Lynn Thomas and Erykah Tijerina were murdered this August too.[4]  Women, boys and men of color are particularly in the lines of fire. At a popular gay bar in June of 2016 in Orlando, Florida, 49 people died, 53 seriously injured, mostly Puerto Rican or African American, ages from 18-50.

We live in this complexity, this society where so many things are true at once; where black women break barriers and win gold at the same moment black men, women and children are losing their lives to violence.

In her 2016 re-release of Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, Rebecca Solnit has this to say about these times,

…  ” ‘Revolutionary moments are carnivals in which the individual life celebrates its unification with a regenerated society,’ wrote Situationist Raoul Vaneigem. The question, then, is not so much how to create the world as how to keep alive the moment of creation, how to realize that Coyote world in which creation never ends and people participate in the power of being creators, a world whose hopefulness lies in its unfinishedness, its openness to improvisation and participation. The revolutionary days I have been outlining are days in which hope is no longer fixed on the future: it becomes an electrifying force in the present”.[5]

We live wanting results and a sense of completion; haven’t we ended racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia already? Solnit reminds us we will always be creating, participating, and we are the creators of change. This requires imagination and audacity, the kind Baldwin showed when he integrated a bar on the corner of MacDougal and Bleeker. He had been refused service on several occasions until he was escorted in with the president of Harper & Brothers publishing. He was never thrown out again. He writes, “They had fought me very hard to prevent this moment, but perhaps we were all much relieved to have got beyond the obscenity of color.”[6]

Just as Baldwin wrote to his nephew, and Daniel José Older writes to his wife, and Edwidge Danticat to her daughters in Ward’s The Fire This Time, I write to my own children in every bit of my work, teaching or writing. My work is my life, our lives, intertwined. What brought me to adopt an African American girl and then her brother? What has raising them meant every day of our lives? My children roll their eyes now at my concerns for their safety. They are tall enough to pat me on my shoulder, sigh and brush off my fears for their black lives in white America.

To my black children I say: We are in the world I dreamed of when I adopted you. I wanted to walk into the future, as the future would be: as diverse and complex as nature has made it. Brazilian Paulo Friere and American Myles Horton wrote We Make the Road By Walking[7] about their work as educators and social activists. If that is so, we’ve got a good path under our feet. We’ve laughed and talked, been to the beach, made S’mores at the fire pit, sledded on the hill behind the house. You’ve participated in dinner table conversations with all kinds of people and come to my college classes.  You volunteered to read to kids, guided small hands as they glued self-portraits in response to hearing It’s OK to Be Different by Todd Parr. Kindergarteners so happy to have your beaming smile flash their way. You are both off to college with as many skills as I could badger you into gaining, and you’ll always be learning more as you walk alone. But I did not imagine the dangers of 1962 would still be so prevalent in 2016.

The hardest thing as a mother is knowing I can’t protect you. Not really. Your adulthood slams you right into the societal tsunami of fears, disharmony, abuses of power and those all-pervasive obscenities of racism and sexism.  Dashiell and I used to read Bill Waterson’s Calvin & Hobbes endlessly. In one frame Hobbes asks, “How come we play war and not peace?” Calvin replies, “Too few role models.”[8]  Our family had no role models, we found our way each day. You both learned to respond to snide remarks about being gay (because I am) or about your brown hands being dirty. We learned to be educators to your white teachers who stammered at what language to use when talking about people of color.

Leaving the house one morning I called out, “I’m off to do Reading to End Racism with third graders. See you after school!”

“Ok Mom, why don’t you end homophobia and sexism while you’re at it? Hope it goes well,” Zora responded. Was she being sarcastic or wistful?

My work is unfinished.

In 2016, 587 people have been shot by police[9], and 401 have died in mass shooting events as of this writing, simply for being themselves[10]. Crossing the street, dancing while gay, driving while black, living while trans, walking while woman. Our history proves this non-stop legacy of hurt and grief and oceans of tears.

James Baldwin wrote to his nephew,

“The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them (white people). And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do no understand: and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. …”[11]

We, white people, people with power and privilege, must release ourselves. Our place in history is as immigrants, one and all. We stand upon the shoulders of others. Our history is filled with broken treaties, theft, and justices denied. Carelessly or not, we’ve stepped on the necks and hearts of Native Americans, Africans, and many immigrants since and still today. Our democracy will only thrive with our participation, and our understanding and compassion for one another: working together to build a nation free of gun violence, filled with economic and social justice, creating a place where happiness outwits shame and mental illness.[12]  Jesymn Ward only found three black authors writing about a hopeful future.  This could be the nation where she would find more. Solnit reminds us, “creation never ends and people participate in the power of being creators.” It’s a reality we have to embrace. Our work will never be “finished.”

Grief is relentless. Solnit says “…joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.[13]

Let’s start there, way beyond the obscenity of hate.

 

Footnotes

[1] The Fire Next Time. (1962/1991). New York: Vintage International, p. 7.

[2] “Queries of Unrest” is his essay in The Fire This Time.  Watch Smith’s TED talk: How to Raise a Black Son in America. March 2015:                    http://www.ted.com/talks/clint_smith_how_to_raise_a_black_son_in_america?

[3] The Fire Next Time, p. 7.

[4] http://www.advocate.com/transgender/2016/8/11/these-are-trans-people-killed-2016#slide-6

[5] After Ideology, or Alterations in Time in Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. (2004/2016). Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, p. 95.

[6] James Baldwin, Here Be Dragons in The Price of a Ticket: Collected Non-Fiction 1948-1985. (1985). New York, St. Martin’s Press, p. 687.

[7] We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change. (1990). Myles Horton and Paulo Freire, edited by Brenda Bell, John Gaventa and John Peters. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

[8] Google search. Calvin and Hobbes quotes. Bill Waterson, 1985.

[9] https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/police-shootings-2016/?tid=a_inl

[10] https://www.massshootingtracker.org/data

[11] The Fire Next Time, p8.

[12]  This is a complex ideal. People, who are happy and live fulfilled and meaningful lives, aren’t called to addiction and are eager to find help and services to stay healthy. Consumerism, commercialism, competition lead to dissatisfaction, shame, guilt and all the ingredients for violence and hate. Happiness is a radical concept for most Americans. All our efforts for social, economic, political, and educational justice could create more opportunity for more meaning, well-being, and happiness for all. This could change everything.

[13] Hope in the Dark, p.24.

Two Dogs and A Thousand Daffodils  

Spring stayed underground through all of April. This was a long Vermont record-breaking cold winter. Then the spring bulbs exploded in a sudden mid-May heat wave. They danced up the driveway and over to the neighbors and down the road. Our eight-month old puppy had never seen spring, was startled by the grass. He and our older dog raced each other through the flowers.  I left the dogs and the daffodils to go to town.

In town, we settled in at our favorite bookstore to listen to Abigail Thomas read from her latest memoir, What Comes Next and How to Like It. I had inhaled the book, as one does when the language is captivating, something quirky is being explained, the life of the author offers bits of your own, and you are pretty sure you better pay attention because other bits may be yours one day in the not so distant future. I’d pulled Thomas’ two other memoirs, Safekeeping: Some True Stories From a Life and A Three Dog Life: A Memoir from my bookcase. Thomas’ Thinking About Memoir, which is full of writing challenges — I mean, two-page writing exercises –was on my desk. Her sister Eliza Thomas’ memoir, The Road Home was also in the pile. I read that one to get a grip on being an adoptive parent when my  toddlers were napping.

I pull out Thomas’ Safekeeping every time I want to write but just can’t, or don’t. That’s about five times so far. Maybe I’ll start it again tonight.  I rarely stand in line for autographs, but I waited at the end of the line for Thomas to sign my copy of What Comes Next and How to Like it.

What is it?  What’s so darn compelling about this author’s writing?

Take these opening lines. They are the dresses Abigail wears as she makes her entrances:

“Before I met you I played my music on a child’s Victrola.”

                                                                                             Safekeeping

This is the one thing that stays the same: my husband got hurt.”

                                                                                            A Three Dog Life

“I have time to kill while waiting for the sun to dry, and I’m mulling over the story I spent years writing and failed to turn into anything, trying not to be depressed.”

                                                                                       What Comes Next and How to Like It.

 

These books are all about the messiness of living.  The children are caught up in spinach and scrambled eggs, a divorce, or the loss of a father. With each edition we glean the benefit of Thomas’ artful reflections, making sense of a life, rather than divvying tidbits up in the free form of fiction. We see life as complex and so often confounding with betrayals and cancer and grandchildren, and Oh, the dogs!  Thomas’ sisters offer  clarity. Doctors, nurses, and friends help her through.  She is that whole constellation of wife, sister, mother, grandmother, friend, and woman alone dealing with the stark skies of reality.

As we all are. Yet these are not linear texts. The dogs are loud, restless, and destructive—just as are the people and events of her life. Utterly unpredictable, too, which is why wondering What Comes Next is followed by and How to Like It. We must, we always must find the way to get through the day, the years, the consequences.

How does Thomas manage to leap in the essence and stay in the crucial details too?  Safekeeping and What Comes Next offer the reader a page or two at a time, a  scene or reflection that advances the history, the locations, the honest truth of the moment. Each page is a clue, a piece of the puzzle stripped down to the bones. This is Haiku prose. Layers of images start to build and the portrait appears. But it isn’t still life, there is so much living going on. As we learn in that first page of What Comes Next, the sun dries and only then can she add the paint for the clouds around it.

At Bear Pond Books, after Thomas’ reads, I wait patiently in the line, watching the audience thin, wonder what is taking so long with the guy at the podium with her. I have no idea what to say to her. Let him take his time. Finally I am face to face with the writer whose honesty thrills me, who is just a little older, so I know of but didn’t live her references, and her musical taste is before mine. Our lives have similarities: smoking, drinking, Woodstock, NY (I lived there some twenty years prior to her residence and missed all that 1969 sex), roasting chickens, baking cookies for kids, her painting, my photography, love of language, love of students finding voice through writing. I’ve only two dogs to her three. I write about the life and death issues too, just different ones.

It is my turn and my mind is blank.

“I love you!” I exclaim to my surprise.

She beamed as she autographed my book. “Come to Woodstock,” she wrote.

 

 

Abigail Thomas

Safekeeping: Some True Stories From A Life.  Anchor Books: NY. 2000.

A Three Dog Life: A Memoir. Harcourt, Inc.: NY. 2006.

Thinking About Memoir. AARP Sterling: NY. 2009.

What Comes Next and How to Like It: A Memoir. Scribner: NY. 2015

 

 

Eliza Thomas

The Road Home. Delta, New York, 1997.

 

 

  “…She recognized her danger. She was on the brink of total perversion.”*

* from back cover of Strange Sisters.

Dear blog readers:
I was asked to lead a book group and of course I said, YES!  (Vermont readers, please consider joining the discussion this coming Monday at the Kellog Hubbard Library in Montpelier at 6:30. details below!)

Little did I know the subject matter would be so perfect for Spring Fever! Lesbian pulp fiction is a genre from WWII train station and drug store book shelves. Lesbians wrote much of it but the script was determined by the publishers.

“What’re you standing there for?” Carol asked. “Get to bed, sleepyhead.”
         “Carol, I love you.”

Carol straightened up. Therese stared at her with intense, sleepy eyes.

Then Carol finished taking her pajamas from the suitcase and pulled the lid down. She came to Therese and put her hands on her shoulders. She squeezed her shoulders hard, as if she were exacting a promise from her, or perhaps searching her to see if what she had said were real. Then she kissed Therese on the lips, as if they had kissed a thousand times before.

“Don’t you know I love you?” Carol said.[1]

This Sapphic love scene appears, finally, after one hundred forty-five pages of leisurely literary foreplay in Patricia Highsmith’s[2] The Price of Salt. It was published in 1952 under the pseudonym, Claire Morgan, to cover her shame and her true authorial identity. It would be thirty-eight years before Highsmith would claim this fairly autobiographical novel as her own.

Carol wanted her with her, and whatever happened they would meet it without running. How was it possible to be afraid and in love, Therese thought. The two things did not go together. How was it possible to be afraid, when the two of them grew stronger together every day? And every night. Every night was different, and every morning. Together they possessed a miracle.[3]

In the world of lesbian pulp fiction, The Price of Salt stands out for defying the codes of the era. Neither Carol, the older woman with a five year old daughter at stake in a custody battle, or Therese, younger set designer, go insane; go back to husband or get married; or die a gruesome death by the end. The rationale of the times was that a realistic storyline of love and happiness had to be interrupted because the post office might seize the book as obscene. These were the Fifties. Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap had fought the post office in their attempt to get James Joyce’s Ulysses imported to the United States from 1918-1921 through serialization in their magazine, The Little Review. The obscenity laws then were based on the premise that the officials would know what obscenity looked like when they saw it. Thus, for society’s safety, the only good lesbian was rushed to the alter, locked in an insane asylum, or dead by her own hand or some tragic incident. Readers had to know the code and revitalize the endings for their own sanity.

 That night, talking over the road map about their route tomorrow, talking as matter of factly as a couple of strangers, Therese thought surely tonight would not be like last night. But when they kissed good night in bed, Theresa felt their sudden release, that leap of response in both of them, as if their bodies were of some materials, which put together inevitably created desire.[4]

What “materials” could create such a spark? Two women! The McCarthy Era dominated the political and social scene at the time of publication. Paranoia was rampant as blacklisting by McCarthy’s extremism ruined lives. Homophobia was as contagious and dangerous as Communism, despite Roy Cohen at McCarthy’s shoulder and Herbert Hoover at the FBI: both gay men at helms of authority. The House of Representatives appointed the Select Committee on Current Pornography Materials[5], just as Carol and Therese were on their escapade traveling across country.

Thelma and Louise find their fate in a canyon river as late as 1991 and they never even kissed! Carol and Therese deny the devastating end.

 

Vermont readers:  Come join the discussion —Monday, March 23th at 6:30. Bring your favorite tattered copies of The Twisted Ones, Strange Sisters, Beebo Brinker, The Well of Loneliness….

Dress for the Fifties if you like.

ALL WELCOME! It is not a prerequisite to be LGBTAQI to attend. Respect is required.

Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier, Vermont presents: LGBTQ Reading Series. THE PRICE OF SALT, by Patricia Highsmith

 

 

[1] Reprint The Price of Salt. Made in the USA Lexington, KY 15 November 2014. P. 145.

 

[2] American mystery writer, born 1921. Biographer, Joan Shenkar declares Highsmith would have been a serial killer if she hadn’t been a writer. Stunning beauty until her diet of alcohol and cigarettes caught up with her. Embarrassed about being a lesbian, published The Price of Salt in 1952 under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. The novel is surreptitiously autobiographical. Copyright has never been renewed but did disclose her authorship in 1990. Patricia Highsmith died alone in 1995.

 

[3] Reprint. Page 163.

 

[4] Reprint. Page 171.

 

[5] The year being 1952. Jaye Zimet, Strange Sisters: The Art of Lesbian Pulp Fiction 1949-1969. New York: Viking Studio, p. 19.

 

 

He’s Just Seventeen

He’s seventeen, handsome, graceful and smart, plays mid right wing for a very good soccer club. His shoulders are broad, so is his smile, and he is getting taller. He is African American and I am his white mother.

We live in Vermont, where hippies still thrive raising carrots and kids on small farms. This is a state with only 626,630 people, 95.2% of whom are white. There used to be more cows than people, but those days are gone — well, at least the cows are. Folks answering demographic surveys around here are predominantly well educated, and aren’t partial to organized religion, though we have a lot of Buddhists practicing in these hills. Despite such mindfulness, I hear comments like, “There is no racism here.” “Everyone knows everyone and everybody helps one another.” The state motto is Freedom and Unity; Kindness could rule if Vermont were a separate Republic.

Even so, the Southern Poverty Law Center gives Vermont a grade of ‘F’ for civil rights instruction in the public schools.[1] It seems like teachers want to do the right thing and, along with most white people, they don’t want to say the wrong thing about race (or class or LGBT or adoption or disabilities) so they just don’t bring it up. Most white folks I know here don’t see any evidence of racism unless someone points to specific incidents or talks through the issues, like Driving While Black or Shopping While Black. Even then, some of my white friends, and many of my students, get exasperated, “Racism is so old-school,” I’ve been told. They don’t want to believe that racism exists. This essay is for them, and for my kids.

None of the parents I know have had to teach their white kids the skills to be safe in stores, schools, highways and neighborhoods, as I have. I thought about this as I read a piece by self-described upper middle class Attorney Lawrence Otis Graham in The Washington Post.[2] Graham and his family are African-American. He offered a list of nine rules he and his wife have taught their children, among them, never leave a store without a receipt, keep your hands free and visible, and always be polite, even in the face of disrespect. Even with this careful preparation, Graham’s fifteen-year-old son called home terrified, having been harassed by white men in a car, shouting the N-word as he walked on the sidewalk of his elite prep school.

African American men and boys are incarcerated or killed by the weapons of racism in countless numbers. Most of us have learned about Emmett Till, brutally murdered for the possibility that he had whistled at a white woman in Money, Mississippi in1955. His mother braved threats and opened his casket for the world to see what happened to her 14-year-old-son. Seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, walking home with a fistful of Skittles in Sanford, Florida in 2012 is in our more recent memory. The summer of 2014 presented us with many more dead black young men and boys: in Ferguson, Missouri. Staten Island, New York. Los Angeles, California. Beavercreek, Ohio. Victorville, California. [3]

I recently discovered the stories of two boys (they called them Negro then) shot after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham. They are not remembered as are the four girls who died in the blast.[4] The New York Times, September 15, 1963 article describes the shooting of one of the boys, 13-year-old Virgil Wade, “The Jefferson County sheriff’s office said ‘there apparently was no reason at all’ for the killing, but indicated that it was related to the general racial disorders.”[5] No apparent reason. General racial disorders. Our nation has a long history of bullets flying into innocent black youth. I knew this history, but it became mine when I became a mother.

I also have a daughter who is a year older than her brother. On my first trip to the grocery store in 1996 with my eentsy weentsy baby girl, a white employee collecting carts in the parking lot asked, “Is that a Negro?” I immediately responded, “Yes! And isn’t she beautiful?” Despite my initial (and intuitive) reaction, I have learned to be ever wary of the inexperience and obliviousness of other white people when it comes to my children. Sometimes I get a pleasant surprise; when my daughter was only a few months old, I steeled myself for a diatribe when a guy came over to my table at a diner. I confess, he fit the stereotype of “redneck” that I hadn’t yet overcome. The baby was too small to sit up on her own, so she was in my lap. He extended his finger for her to grab as he pulled his wallet out of his back pocket. He was smiling ear to ear as he proudly showed off a picture of his biracial granddaughter.

On another occasion, my son came home from kindergarten to report he’d been washing his hands after art with other classmates and one told him his hands were still dirty. My son responded, “Mine are clean but yours are covered with paint!” Another time, an elementary teacher was adamant that “black” was the proper term for her to use when teaching civil rights. My daughter was uncomfortable, “But I’m not black, I’m brown,” she told me. I asked her what she’d prefer the teacher say. She thought for a moment and proudly said, “African American.” When I talked to the teacher, I suggested she talk to the kids in the future to find out what they liked to be called. I have had a lot to learn about negotiating the world crisscrossing color lines.

A pivotal moment in my awareness occurred one luscious summer night at the beach. The kids were two and three, we were walking along the shoreline as sunset approached. It had been a lovely day, just the three of us, strolling around town, playing tag with the waves, tossing stones in the water or watching construction on the wharf. We could while many hours away in these pursuits. Our after dinner stroll was the icing on the day. Big sister was leading little brother down the strand. As they wandered ahead, I followed along happy to be in the midst of their joy. The infant and toddler years were receding and I was thinking how big and independent they were becoming. A tall and very strikingly handsome African American man watched us approach. I waved and called, “ Hello.” He boomed from his doorway, “Are they yours?” When I nodded he continued, “They’re cute now but what are you going to do when people cross the street when they are bigger?”

I had no words. Was this one of the what- right-do-you-have-as-a-white-woman-to-adopt-black-children challenges I had heard before, or simply a bold forewarning? There was no way to have a conversation; his was not an invitation, and the kids were already far ahead. That man’s question has not haunted me with doubts about whether I was right to adopt my children. Their birth giver settled that for me when she decided their destination and made sure brother got to be with sister. No, his question has provoked all of my work as an educator, community member, and mother.

I don’t want women to fear, as Sandra Bullock’s character did in Crash (2004), the sight of my son on the sidewalk approaching her. I don’t want people to duck into a store when they see my kids coming. I’ve led ‘interrupting oppression’ workshops and classes to guide people to understand the amazingly complex intersections of all prejudices and to appreciate and honor the variety of perspectives and ideas a diverse group can inspire. The forewarning of the man on the beach, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s plea to have our children recognized for their character rather than their color—- are motivation to always be in conversation about understanding skin and gender and privilege and power. And fear.

The Color of Fear (1994), a documentary by Lee Mun Wah,[6] features eight men talking about race in North America. They are African American, Latino, Asian American and Caucasian. The clothing and eyewear is dated but the dialogue is still, (sad to say), relevant. One of the men, African American Victor Lewis, tries to find the words that will get White David Christensen, to understand the depths of the differences between them. David only wants to see America as just, full of people with the kinds of positive experiences he’d had. He resists believing that the lives of men of color have been traumatically different from his experience as a white man. My white students get very uncomfortable watching the scene where Victor declares that he is black man, not white, as it seems to him white people want him to be. He says he cannot trust David until David is willing to really listen to the stories of the men of color in the room. After the film someone always says, “He is so angry!”

When I first saw the film, I saw anger too. But having lived the years since, learning to see the world through my children’s eyes and paying attention to current events, I now say, “I see him as frustrated and extremely passionate. Wouldn’t you get impatient and heated while trying to talk to someone who so resisted the truth of what you were saying, the truth of your lived experience?” I have learned that passion is often misinterpreted as anger. I have been thus misinterpreted, as I get riled trying to be understood. Every time I watch this film I also think of my son. Will he be misconstrued?

Just as that man leaning in the doorway on the beach knew he would, my son has grown beyond cute. Will people cross the street when they see him coming now that he is no longer a small child but a tall, graceful young man?

My son wanted airsoft guns when he was 13. I told him then of an 8-year-old I had read about who would not hand over his toy and was shot by police. My son immediately dismissed my concerns, “But Mom, I’m playing in the woods with my friends. And really, come on, we’re in Vermont.”

Is that enough of a safety net?

It’s true; Vermont is not Ohio or Mississippi. Men We Reaped is Jesmyn Ward’s (2013) memoir remembering five men in her family circle who died young. These African American young men were whole, until they were thwarted by the economic and educational apartheid of their Mississippi. The young men she describes were hindered and emboldened by stereotypes of masculinity and African American. Drugs, guns, despair or white men driving while drunk murdered them.

Guns and guys. Economics. Rural landscapes. There are differences and similarities between rural Mississippi and Vermont. Our winters are for sledding, skiing, reading by the woodstove. Folks in Mississippi rebuild after hurricanes and slog through heat no Vermonter could abide. If it reaches 98 degrees folks practically faint around here. Many Vermonters want to do right, be good, be green, be advocates for every cause. They take pride in the history of the stalwart New Englander. There are many markers of Civil War veterans in Vermont cemeteries. Vermont is the first state to approve of civil unions for same-sex couples. They want their guns for hunting. They tend to leave one another alone but help out in a pinch without being asked.

But perfect we are not. Vermont has a statewide problem of prescription drug and alcohol abuse among teenagers and an economy that prompts our young, educated population to go out of state to find good jobs. Vermont gets an “F” while Mississippi gets a “C” on the Teaching Tolerance report card. Drugs, guns, and economics are all factors confronting youth in Vermont and Mississippi. I have faith that, with support, Vermont educators will rise to meet this challenge, teach beyond tolerance and tests, to deep understanding of stereotypes and prejudice. It is time to inspire students to desire and create a society, a new civil social paradigm, which will address school shootings by white children with high powered artillery and which does not accept the shooting of unarmed children, young adults, and citizens of color.

Vermonters are proud of the state’s dedication to justice and hold kindness as a rule. I’m grateful for that. But if we are too attached to an image of being kind and progressive, we miss the real racism that occurs to those who are darker skinned. We miss opportunities to understand our privilege as white people to walk down the street and not have someone cross the street or call the police because we are here. We miss the fact that our white children are not being shot for holding toys, as seventeen more brown children have since I had that conversation with my son four years ago. [7]

We don’t have to wait for this to change. History offers examples of non-violent activism that resulted in fast-moving changes. In the early days of AIDS activism we shouted, SILENCE=DEATH. No media, government agency, or pharmaceutical company seemed to care that so many gay men were suddenly dying. Men and women organized to work with doctors, lawyers, medical researchers, poets, and playwrights so political activism started to bring change and hope to people who were HIV positive. The primarily privileged white, male, educated provocateurs of this movement were determined to get their demands met, they assumed they had the right to health care and attention. That civil rights movement was organized with unprecedented immediacy and voice. We need that kind of momentum to gain justice for black boys and men dying by excessive police force and incarceration.

As I write this, there’s a huge crescent moon in the clear Vermont sky. That same moon shines over all of us. It shines in Ferguson, Missouri still smoldering after the riots over the grand jury’s decision in the case of Michael Brown’s death by Officer Wilson. It glows over Cleveland, Ohio where just last week twelve-year-old African American, Tamir Rice, died when white officers didn’t distinguish his pellet gun from a real one at a playground. Why are lethal shots fired? Not one shot, but many?

Thousands of lives – my son’s life — depend on our not being silent.

We have wonderful mentors and models for our crusade for justice —Suffrage for Women, Civil Rights for Native Americans and African Americans, Women, Gays, Lesbians, Transgender, and Disabled, Peace Movements and the AIDS movement. None of these efforts has lead to permanent success though. Constant vigilance is our responsibility.

At seventeen I was marching against the war in Vietnam. Now, I see that we were practicing hope. Hope for change, hope for humanity, hope for kindness. I adopted my African American daughter because I wanted to walk into the future as the future would be—multicultural, full of difference. I adopted my son knowing I had to guide a boy to becoming a man. I became a mother in the anticipation of joy and hope in a bright future for my kids. I am an educator because I believe knowing history and social constructions provokes understanding, especially of people who are different from us somehow.

Every young person killed is a son or daughter.

Every shooter is too.

[1] Teaching the Movement 2014: The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States. http://www.tolerance.org/TTM2014

[2] Lawrence Otis Graham

http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/11/06/i-taught-my-black-kids-that-their-elite-upbringing-would-protect-them-from-discrimination-i-was-wrong/

[3] Summer of 2014

Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri.

Eric Garner of Staten Island, New York smothered in a chokehold.

John Crawford of Beavercreek, Ohio shot in the chest in Walmart holding a .177 calibre BB rifle.

Ezell Ford of Los Angeles, California shot in the back after an “investigative stop.”

Dante Parker of Victorville, California Tased repeatedly and died in the hospital.

Trayvon Martin of Sanford, Florida in February 2012 and, always, Emmett Till on August 26, 1955 in Money, Mississippi.

[4]  http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/big/0915.html (accessed 10.17.14) 14-year-old Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson and 11-year-old Denise McNair) were found beneath the rubble in a basement restroom. Ten-year-old Sarah Collins, who was with the other girls, lost her right eye, and more than 20 other people were injured in the blast.

5 http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/birmingham-church-bombing

6 The Color of Fear. (1994).  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2nmhAJYxFT4

7 http://www.mydaytonailynews.com/data/news/17-shootings-that-involved-fake-guns/ (accessed 10.17.14)

Cute and Beauty

 

Cute and Beauty came about while attending a workshop at the Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill. Poet, essayist and memoir writer Michael Klein orchestrated The Original Idea: A Memoir Workshop. If you know Michael, music and poetry are what really surges through his heart, so conducting us in a symphony of creativity is an accurate description of the experience. We read essays, worked on assignments, and dazzled ourselves with ideas.

Although each member of the group had the same directives no two pieces were remotely alike. We all come to the writing from various life vantage points. What’s important to one person hasn’t crossed the mind of another. Perhaps that is why we all worked together so well.

It isn’t my usual nature to write this way but I opened the computer to begin and a playful, yet philosophical, sprite took over the keyboard.

Cute & Beauty

“Oh, isn’t that cute?”

“You look so cute today.”

“Did you see what they did? It was the cutest!”

I hate cute. It is so demeaning. It is so perky and wide-eyed, innocent and coy. Cute is soft. Cute is naïve.

Cute is dangerous for small beings in some situations.

Beauty, on the other hand, is laden with life, draped in knowing, saturated by light. Quiet beauty takes a seat while cute runs around in circles and wears out.

Beauty sits in the kitchen and peels potatoes while cute rushes to the store for parsley.

Beauty has time to listen.

Beauty knows disappointment, has the stitches to prove it.

Beauty loves cute, knowing the time will make the sharp edges smooth.

 * * *

 Mrs. Cardinal, the bird, is beautiful. Mister is flashy as all get out, while Mrs. is subtle in russet plumage, sassy crest and orange beak.

Cute is baby anything—except perhaps the sharp begging beaks of unfledged robins still in the nest.

Cute is an insult to an older woman, praise to the young gay boy testing his new tight pants.

***

Beauty is your profile when I see it out of the corner of my eye, when you don’t know I’m looking, and you are listening and thinking.

Cute is me in my wetsuit, showing off for the photographer. Maybe.

***

Two gay men walking down the street pass another guy by the telephone pole. “He has such a cute ass,” one says admiringly.

But isn’t that a throwaway line? What about a smart ass, a total ass, a firm and shapely ass? Would one use cute for any other body parts—a mind, an elbow, a foot? What a cute mind she has, just doesn’t work. Cute isn’t for everything. Some things are not clever.

How about a beautiful derriere? That might work. Handsome too.

Beauty is bolder, even if we are talking about the same cute thing.

 

 

 

 

 

Up Close: Photography by Shelley Vermilya — opens tonight in Burlington, Vermont

For those who are local, I hope you'll consider joining us tonight, or coming to se e the show while it's up.  This site will soon expand to include Shelley's photos and upcoming events.

For those who are local, We hope you’ll consider joining us tonight, or coming to see the show through June and the start of July.
This site will soon expand to include Shelley’s photos and upcoming events.

Take Back the Night – Again

I was invited to present the keynote speech for the April 17, 2014 Burlington Take Back The Night Rally, March & Speak Out Against Sexual Violence. I would like to thank the organizing committee, folks from the University of Vermont, HopeWorks, and Saint Michael’s College, for this opportunity. It really got me thinking.  Here’s the text of the speech:

39 years ago –Microbiologist Susan Alexander Speeth left her office on an April evening to walk home. She was alone, and she didn’t make it. She was stabbed to death by a stranger just a block from her house. Her murder in Philadelphia sparked the first Take Back the Night march.

39 Years ago and WE ARE STILL HERE—- what do you think about that?

What can I say that hasn’t been said over the past four decades—or is it the past few thousands of years?   Talk about patience…..perseverance….resilience.

When it comes to sexual violence against so many of our bodies: women, trans, gay, lesbian, sex workers, those incarcerated, or in the military—men and women—-we are all still up for grabs.  The elderly, the infirm, children too. We must continue this march and rally.

I am amazed at our patience –yeah—- I know change takes time……. THIS is a long, LONG time— and I want to say we need to start thinking differently about our approaches.

Talking about time —-Here is a little bit of my story—a little bit of why it is so important for me to be here tonight with you:

I attended my first march with other ten and twelve year olds in Woods Hole, Massachusetts one summer. It was against the war in Vietnam and we were kids and proud of our effort. It would be a few more years before that war was “over.”

It would be another few years before I understood how important our voices were for speaking out about women and gay liberation. Abortions were not legal and women died cloaked in silence. Gay bashing was a sport, also drenched in silence.

I walked down city streets in a boy’s cap and baggy pants. I counted on my androgyny and converse sneakers to protect me. I experienced date rape thinking it was my fault because I was drunk and I’ve been beat up by a girlfriend because I was leaving.  I quit drinking and to this day, I am still learning to speak up.

In my first teaching job an older student talked about her upbringing, the abuse she encountered as a child. I encouraged her to write about her childhood. She chided me, adamant that her experiences were not interesting— “Why should I write my story? Sexual abuse is an occupational hazard of being a girl.”

NOT ANY MORE!

It is important to me that we are together—telling our stories, realizing we are not alone—refusing to accept that date rape, sexual abuse, rape, domestic violence and murder is just the way it is and

living in constant fear is inevitable, to be expected. But too often it is still true.

We now know too well that sexual and physical abuse is equal opportunity-perpetrated upon all people. So this belongs to all of us! The Soccer moms I hung out with the other night *yes—totally— I am one! * were talking about being wary of running alone. One of them — a forty-something traditional woman, her hair getting just a little gray, talked about a van that slowed down next to her on a dirt road near her house, and she heard a voice from inside,  “Never mind—she’s got a dog.”  Yes—this is Vermont—and this story is so global.

We’ve accomplished so much through legislation, political awareness, and education— We wear our seat belts, don’t smoke so much, don’t pollute so much. We recycle, eat less salt, fat, sugar. Gays and lesbians can even marry—at least for the moment. We know legislation doesn’t always equal change—the real open mind and heart kind of change. That takes time, doesn’t it?

But when it comes to sexual violence, we are all vulnerable.

No mother raises a son to be a rapist, an abuser, or a violent criminal. A whole convergence creates the individual who harms another—and this convergence is where we have to incite our new revolution—we have to come together—queer, straight, trans, fundamentalist, fragile, male, female, macho—parents, neighbors, social workers, health care workers, government officials, bus drivers, educators—we have got to cross all barriers of thinking and believing to get to the root of this culture of violence, harm, and disregard.

Let’s gather the voices of the fathers of daughters and sons who have been raped. We need to hear the ER doctors and nurses who dress the wounds of violence. We need to inspire every teacher from preschool to college, the dentists, the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, grands and friends who know the violence exists, who know from their own experience or the experience of loved ones, that this violence, random and premeditated—happens—and give them the courage to fight against being held hostage—being so afraid.

EVERYONE is harmed and all of us hurt—

Sexual violence is older than these hills, and we won’t snap into a new era overnight–however—

This pandemic of power is impacting all of us. There are messages all over the place dedicated to the eroticization of violence—how sexy to carry an automatic weapon, how cool to play with guns, gaming with killing, singing along with lyrics about sex that is demeaning and objectifying our bodies. And there also seems to be a renewed insistence on gender codes from the fashion and toy industries. Have you been shopping lately for kids’ clothing or toys?  You know—all that PINK and camouflage……

Bully attitudes prevail -and paralyze- our democracy, our school hallways– and…. what do we call it????—this, this pandemic of power over –over— –over all of us—

How can we be creative and incite change?

How do we counter all of these messages—how do we be cool without the humiliation and violence?

Let me tell you a story—

My children, (teenagers now) at the ages of 3 and 4 were singing ‘Eric and Annie sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-I-n-g in a tree’….and I interrupted asking if they realized how heterosexual the song was, no baby had to come of kissing, protection is easy  (So you see I started my safe sex and awareness training very early) and my daughter –all of 4—listened and sighed, “MOM—it is just a song.”

Little did I know then what we’d be listening to now!  Like Blurred Lines

“But you’re an animal, baby, it’s in your nature”

You all know how it goes…..

“I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two.”

…..It is just a song…….

It’s just a song, it’s just a movie, it’s just a word….and it gets passed down generation to generation, it is ‘just the way it is’…..and it has been 40 years and it seems the violence has only spread.

So how do we think outside the boxes we are popped into at a very early age?

How do we learn to cross the divides that have kept us from working together, kept us from hearing and knowing one another’s story?

Good beat/ denigrating lyrics—do we buy it?  Literally and figuratively!

How do we claim our power, resist, create our own media messages?

How do we think carefully about our everyday assumptions –and even acceptance –of all this violence?

There is something happening that’s taking our nights and days. We are here on a college campus to learn. Okay, so let’s GO! Let’s learn. Let’s figure this out.

People in my generation have been working at this for at least 40 years, we need your fresh thinking.  So here’s my challenge to you – take this question back to your dorm rooms, your apartments, your classrooms, ask each other the question: what is going on?  How can we change it?   You can find the way—create the right conversation—figure out new approaches—

Here’s an idea to start you off  — You all know social media  — can we turn that sword into a new ploughshare?

OH…and by the way  I don’t want us to just take back the night—I want all day too—-we have work to do and —it will take all of us—-

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Babies

Babies don’t last. A blink of the eye and she’s asking for the car keys. Suddenly the little cutie with luscious long eyelashes towers over me as he opens the door with the utmost chivalry. My babies are sixteen and seventeen years old. I really have to pay attention.

Babies are the most intense mindfulness training I have ever experienced. I remember thinking I had the rhythm of the newborn down, the exact sequence of diaper, bottle, burping, humming a monotone calming tune, and Bingo-a new twist developed, another decibel of crying and bigger tears required a whole new approach. I could hardly keep up. I was forced to interpret non-verbal communication, without knowing that the vocabulary is so intricate and extensive. I learned to go with the flow, do whatever it took to attend to the needs of the Tiny One. Walk quietly around the bedroom one thousand times at three in the morning to achieve the newborn’s return to sleep. How can something so small be so exhausting?

A baby is the youngest in the family group, a baby mama the birth giver of your child but not the partner you are involved with.  Baby is a term of endearment, an involuntary exclamation during sexual acrobatics.

It all depends on the context and your inflection.

Oh, Baby!

And I determinedly wanted one.

Nine months after all the required appointments with the social worker, fingerprints for federal criminal background check, home study paperwork, and the required payments, the phone call came to announce that she had arrived. After a nerve-wracking day of canceled and rearranged flights to the Big Easy, my partner and I had just settled in and unpacked when the social worker knocked. I opened the hotel door to my adventure to motherhood.

I fell in love with her feet. They were sticking out of the hospital issue blanket in the crook of the social worker’s elbow as he stood in the doorway. He gave me his wife’s phone number in case I had any questions as he headed out the door. He was swiftly off into the rainy warm October night to deliver another infant over in Baton Rouge.

I never knew a baby could be so small. She weighed less than a five-pound bag of pure cane sugar but she was all complete.  I was unconditionally in love and instantly captive of her sleeping face. Her eyes fluttered open and our gazes met. ‘Hello, welcome to the world little one,’ I whispered. She slammed her eyes shut and continued her snooze.

Zora, after Neale Hurston of the Harlem Renaissance, was clearly strong and insightful, obviously a budding literary diva from the moment I first held her. She listened intently as I read a Cajun folktale to her on her third day out of the womb. As we strolled along Canal Street people black and white would smile and try to look into the carrying apparatus on my chest. They could see those wee feet sticking out but the rest of her was hidden, she was so deep inside the pouch. We wandered through the French Quarter, peered at a bayou, and I learned the secrets of what to expect in the first year, but this time of your African American baby, from the hotel staff. There was no such wisdom in the popular baby book. The manager said to check at the base of her fingernails to find the color her skin would become. The women who came with fresh towels warned that she would have a bad case of “arm-itis” if I didn’t put her down once in a while, but how could I? I eyed a vegetable scale in the grocery store to weigh her but decided it was too precarious. I didn’t want to risk her falling into the lettuce and peanuts below, so I’d have to wait for the pediatrician visit once we got home to see how much weight she had gained.

The funny thing about babies is that everyone who has one acts as if there had never been another one on the planet before.  Every new gurgle, every new physical accomplishment required a phone tree of announcements.   My sister was tireless, calmly listening to every amazing milestone. Other friends immediately glazed over and nodded, but I was oblivious to their ambivalence.

Babies require gob-smacking adoration and relentless patience. People think they don’t do much. Sleep, eat, coo, snooze, poop, and cry. That’s about it. In reality a lot is happening, undercover and below the surface. They gain a little weight and get a little longer when really their brain is developing at warp speeds, synapses are snapping at a rate Verizon and Google would pay billions to mimic.  Those neurotransmitters are the makers of memory and the sleeping Teeny One is preparing to receive a life of information.

Their bodies are a front for all the personality and temperamental development they are up to.  Their experiments in motion as they strive for physical agility are hardly a match for their verbal skills. Zora soon sang jazz riffs in her car seat and inadvertently played kitchen percussion as she crawled into the cupboards. The Border collie grew weary of the multigrain cereal — I called them the Multicultural Cheerios — Zora spilled on the floor until her fingers grew adept enough for her to toss them with purpose.

As inexplicable as their defining personality traits are their expressions. Where does the self come from?  The wonder of babies is also in their androgynous nature. Cooing, smiling and learning to sit up are all gender free. My baby girl was distinctive in her smile and her penetrating gaze.  She would gather every facial muscle into an expression we called her “what you talking about white woman?” look when too much was happening and everything around her was getting confusing.

In those late Nineties, our little state of Vermont was instantly diversified as many couples adopted children of color and adopted internationally. We were a spontaneous grassroots multicultural movement.  Ten years from now, the majority of children under the age of 18 will be currently so-called minorities. The USA will have a whole new way of thinking about who we are as Americans.  I wanted to adopt an African American infant because I knew there were many kids in our country in need of parents and I wanted to walk hand in hand into this diverse future with my child.

On our first Vermont outing we encountered a grocery store employee collecting carts in the parking lot. He stared at my swaddled infant and asked, “Is that a Negro?” I was startled,  yet as my heart beat loudly, instantly replied, “Yes, and isn’t she amazing?” as I put my bags in the car and popped her in her car seat.  Later that week a lady at the town hall exclaimed, “Oh, she’s colored!” and I quietly replied that ‘colored’ was an archaic term, that people usually used ‘African American’ now. I was learning swiftly that walking into the world as a transracial family required constant and very calm responses.

Babies inspire smiles and lots of ooohing and aahing. Zora got them all from the people at work who would hold her during meetings. She started going to classes with me, listening to the sound of students talking about civil rights, and women’s and gay people’s history.  She babbled along or slept contentedly in the fray of conversation. Pretty soon she could tell a whole story. Anne Lamott calls this early verbosity Latvian in her memoir about her son’s first year. As we were getting seated on a plane to visit my mother someone commented on her baby talk. I said, ‘Oh she speaks fluent Latvian,’ and heads popped up over the seats two rows ahead, ‘My mother is Latvian!’ I was busted. I confessed the whole story of Lamott’s Operating Instructions and my baby’s love of the rhythm of language she couldn’t yet speak. It was funny after the embarrassment wore off.

The answering machine was blinking when we came in after an autumn romp in the leaves. Zora had just had her first birthday. I was thinking she was such a big kid, so capable and toddling with a vengeance. I missed the essence of babyhood in the drooling head clunking onto my shoulder as she suddenly fell asleep, the baby powder smell after the bath, the inability of movement beyond the corner of the blanket, the safety of small beings. I reached for the ‘play’ button on the machine. The message demanded a quick response to the question, would I take the brother?

So I found myself on another plane to pick up another itty-bitty baby. He was just a little heavier than that bag of sugar, but not by much. He slept with his fingers touching over his head. When my sister saw the photograph she dubbed him the Buddha Baby.

Dashiell and I arrived at the airport where Zora just smiled and patted his head. All week she had refused to talk to me on the phone but she had gone on and on in her Latvian, speaking directly into the remote control for the television. She must have worked out the idea of a brother coming because she greeted him with that pat on his head as if she had been expecting him all along.

Adoption is a funny thing. There is not a drop of blood between mother and child. It is extra uncanny how many things we share: language acuity, insight into how things work, impatience with small talk, being especially outraged by unfairness, a sense of humor, fury at being misinterpreted, supreme gentleness with little kids, puppies or kittens, and intense intuition.

Then of course each child has skills and innate sensibilities so different: she singing, he soccer. She loved being with her plush lion in her crib, a tiny sachet of lavender for her to grasp and sooth her to sleep. I would rock him to sleep on my shoulder, ease him in to the crib as smoothly and meticulously as a bomb disposal technician defuses an explosive, and he would jolt awake and holler. He was my boomerang. As soon as he scooted (he never crawled) out of sight, he’d peek around the corner to be sure I was right there, along with the Border collie or his sister.  She loved being alone to read books, tell stories with her stuffed animals and his Tonka trucks. He, not so much. He’d find his way under my desk while I was working or into the story his sister was telling. He started making engine sounds to go along with her story lines as soon as he could follow along.

Babies make big people laugh. Puppies or two dogs playing in the yard can have the same affect. There is something about them (babies and puppies) that allow us to pause, gather hope, and revisit joy. A baby has the power to return big people to that deep peace place that they rarely remember to visit.  Breathing so sweet in sleep, so dazzled blinking in a beam of sunlight or happily staring at the ceiling fan, tiny fingers holding the breeze. Forget finding the moon, the fan is just astounding.

Blinking myself, I utter out loud, Baby, my dear one, the keys are right there in your hands.

 

 

 

 

Feminism’s Achilles’ Heel

Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection by Debora Spar (2013)

 

I picked up Spar’s book with trepidation: another white woman draped in pearls writing about women and power. What will she add, I wondered, to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean-In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead? In June 2013 I wrote about Sandberg, the COO at Facebook, who encourages young women to join the ranks of leadership and go for the great jobs. She says too many women hesitate, back off and don’t dive in. Sandberg assures us that there is a way to balance career, family, and joy. Some days (I’d say years) are exhausting, she says, but you have to get in there, take jobs and leadership roles.

In Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection, Barnard College President Debora Spar adds to Sandberg’s dialogue. Spar reevaluates the legacy of the Second Wave feminists so dismissed by the generation (including herself) of young women born to think they have everything. Today’s girls, says Spar, just assume access, are blithely entitled and clueless about the work it took to achieve such opportunities and about how vulnerable everything is.

I appreciate Spar debunking anti-feminism, and articulating the deeper values at the core of feminist efforts. She contributes to the reclamation of feminism as something not to fear and as important for men as for women. I’ve observed that feminism is the “F” word in multicultural social justice circles—at high school, undergraduate and graduate levels. It is one of Rush Limbaugh’s and other patriarchs’ favored taunts, severely misconstrued for their purposes. The burning bra myth is hard to dispel (it isn’t true– and can you image the toxins in the smoke?) because it is such a visual icon of the Seventies. Ironically, many girls and women have unwittingly assimilated this contempt and dismiss women’s issues as irrelevant.

Yet Spar blames the trouble women have today — as they try to be perfect in body, career and family — on those very feminist dreams of having access to sports, reproductive rights, careers, family, et al. Sadly, she says, too many women still want to be precisely Mattel’s Barbie even after seventy. An elder feminist activist says to Spar, “We weren’t fighting so that you could have Botox.”

Spar writes about the cost of weddings, procedures for women having difficulty getting pregnant, and plastic surgery. She examines these practices with some incredulousness: Americans spend 72 billion dollars a year on weddings, only 16 billion on books. She also writes about women hell-bent on spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on conceiving babies or achieving impossible body proportions.

She observes that women lawyers and corporate executives leave their coveted positions in droves, especially once a baby arrives. Spar admits this ‘opting out is limited to the elite of the elite.’ She notes with interest that the women who continue to work (after the kids arrive) are in fields that sustain their interest and sense of meaning. She says jobs and desire need to match, not mismatch. This is a really important point, I think —philosophically and economically. What does this suggest about women’s sensibilities and definitions of success? Women want balance, to have family and meaningful work. Spar asserts that they want work that will add value to others, often over enormous salaries and benefit packages. It appears that conflict and constant one-upmanship doesn’t sustain many women for the long haul.

But does this analysis really apply to all women? Spar clearly addresses a challenge with feminism. But perhaps unwittingly, she reveals what I think is in danger of becoming feminism’s Achilles’ heel. At least as evidenced by Spar and Sandberg, feminism is still white, rich, and heterosexual with access to everything. Spar seems to be saying, ‘I know you are out there—all you other women—but I’m telling my story. This is a feminism that is so squeaky clean and privileged, it’s inaccessible to many, many women. And why would they be interested anyway?

In this version of feminism, the sparkle of everyday heroines is silenced.  There is a lot of wisdom about power in the lives of women from all parts of our society. Spar only nods in this direction. Sprinkled through the book are statements which are meant to be acknowledging but sound dismissive, if not defensive, saying she knows there are poor women, women of color, and even some lesbians out there considering these issues of sex, power and perfection, but her generalizations don’t include them, she says, because she hasn’t lived those experiences.  There are absolutely no trans folks in her realm, and physical agility and economic abundance is assumed.

She certainly misses my experience when she describes menopause as the trauma of the end of childbearing. The women of menopause that I know are not feeling tragic; they’re giddy with the freedom from all that blood and worry. Sex is fun. They are hot- flashing-power-surging-open the car windows and sing women, determined to lead with their most interesting selves. Diana Nyad just proved that 64 is a fine time to break world records for long-distance swimming.

Feminism, not just Spar’s version, has a history of inclusion and exclusion. Education level, class, race, physical and mental ability, sexual orientation and fads of moral acceptance or intolerance play into this. I agree with Spar when she says the problem is really the system, not women per se. Can we create a more fully human and humane society? Let’s encourage all efforts, and I agree with Spar when she asks to give busy women a break, let the Ring Dings slip on to the table at the bake sale, support each other in the decisions we make about our lives, and work together. We know too well that plenty of “Mean Girls” lurk in Chanel suits in high places. We know wonderful women are ready to lead and work with power in new ways. They are all ages, from all communities, they look all kinds of ways and they are wearing fancy heels to mud boots.  They are working on promoting equanimity and non-violence, teaching, farming, and living diversity, writing, dancing, and singing democracy. Despite my frustration with the heterosexual and class assumptions, and abounding white privilege underlying Spar’s assertions, I am grateful for her fundamental point; it is important to note that women in positions of power sure struggle with issues of gender, authority, perfection and the conformity these require.

But those assumptions are more than frustrating. They could be dangerous to feminism itself. During the Trojan War, according to Greek myth, Achilles’ body was unassailable, except for his heel. He was slayed by such a small vulnerability.

Feminism is a crucial gateway philosophy to human rights for women, children, and men to lead safe and meaningful lives. Unless we really do the work of inclusivity, it will be impossible to create the harmony and well being across all the divides we are born to, all the divisiveness reinforced daily by nations and individuals. We’ve just got to do this work or we too will be slayed by our supercilious heel.

 

 

 

 

Where the truth lies: Ariel Levy, writer for The New Yorker

On Ariel Levy,  Writer for  The New Yorker

Where the truth lies is somewhere, and Ariel Levy wants to find it. She is always searching for what is holding up the façade of normal. She builds her essays on a foundation carefully construed of complex legal, economic, or social information. Her craft is in the synthesizing she does with her research and insight. I think her feminist, lesbian, no-nonsense aesthetic guides her perceptions, hones her awareness; much like a master carpenter has the ability to see the way the pieces of a blueprint need to shift for alignment. Everything Levy approaches is stripped of the usual assumptions to reveal a streamlined description. She’s got attitude and pluck, but she never slips into the abyss of rhetoric or political correctness. She likes facts, but doesn’t allow them to hold her hostage. There’s room to find humor, even when she is at her most incredulous, as she was as she strode right into Spring Break in Florida with raucous vacationing college kids (her book, Female Chauvinist Pigs).  Nor did the wreckage of the 2013 rape scenario in Steubenville, Ohio (‘Trial By Twitter,’ August 5, 2013) daunt her. In that essay she hammers through the impact of social networking on Steubenville’s criminal justice endeavors. There is a lot of evidence for investigators now on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook and Levy considers how bloggers can blow all kinds of things into and out of proportion. She suggests, “By the logic of vigilantism, the need for justice supersedes the rules of a creaky bureaucracy.” I immediately thought of one of Levy’s predecessors, The New Yorker’s Paris correspondent Janet Flanner, who wrote in 1936 of democracy moving at the pace of stagecoaches while fascism traveled at the speed of airplanes.

Flanner was writing about Adolf Hitler’s fascism vs. democracy, Levy about our legal system catching up with electronic communications. Both, it seems, consider social values and the speed of change. Flanner was a New Yorker foreign correspondent for fifty years. One of my favorite quotes for the prose and the perspective is, “History looks queer when you’re standing close to it, watching where it is coming from and how it’s being made.”

Levy is a writer with a similar astute sensibility. Her essay The ‘Perfect Wife’ (September 30, 2013) is about Edith Windsor and the fight for justice for same sex couples. Our Rosa Parks if you will. Windsor is 84. She was in relationship with Thea Spyer for over forty years. Their life together began in the era when dancing closely or not wearing three items of clothing that matched their sex were illegal and same sex couples stayed in the closet if they wanted to stay employed.

Levy describes Ms. Windsor as the three dimensional woman she is: a glamorous eighty-four year old, irreverent, and –luckily for lesbian and gay couples– irrepressible in her pursuit of equality. Levy acknowledges the difficulties Windsor presented for the lesbian and gay rights organizations. As much as Ms. Windsor is adorable, her estate tax claim represents the upper echelon issues of LGBT folks. Windsor was an ideal plaintiff due to her femme appeal, intelligence, long-term relationship and status as widow. Her legal team did, however, want to keep her eloquence about the joys of lesbian sex from the justices of the Supreme Court. Beyond the publicity and the incredible risk Ms. Windsor took to pursue this case, it is the depth of Windsor’s loving relationship with Ms. Spyer that reverberates through Levy’s essay.

If love and the courage to break down legal and social barriers is the theme of “The Perfect Wife” then ‘Thanksgiving In Mongolia’ (November 18, 2013) is about the absolute audacity required to get through pain and demolished dreams. The prose here defies gravity, taking the reader from the very heights of the Gobi Desert into the depths of miscarriage and despair. The intimacy of this piece reveals yet another aspect of Levy’s commitment to writing truths often left unspoken. Sometimes there are no words for grief and utter sadness, but Levy discovers and articulates it all.

Levy ventured to Mongolia to write about the impact of mineral riches flowing into a nation of nomadic herders.  She describes the night she spent with two Americans who took her out to a bar, “I liked sitting in a booth in a dark room full of smoking, gay Mongolians, but my body was feeling strange. I ended the night early.” The heartbreaking event at the core of her essay is underway, “I felt an unholy storm move through my body, and after that there is a brief lapse in my recollection; either I blacked out from the pain or I have blotted out the memory.” Her description of the placental abruption that caused the miscarriage is pounding, as intense as the little heartbeat that stopped.  The essay slaps overly sentimental visions of maternity right into the jarring reality of disappointment that many women experience. No cute cards or balloons, no flowers. Grief deserves this attention.

Levy’s craft opens a reader to witness new insight. She explains how her sorrow eased when other mothers (and one man) collapsed in tears hearing her story. Women have always had miscarriages and grief so deep, but this side of motherhood is silenced. Our society won’t have it. Such sadness is held alone. Levy’s grief unifies us all with her story of the lost dream, the lost marriage, and the resilience it takes to carry on. Nature, Levy notes, demands this of us.

On her fifth birthday Janet Flanner told her mother she wanted to be a writer.  Ariel Levy tells of being a little girl in her wooden fort, “…self-reliant, brave, ingeniously surviving, if lost.” Two bold and curious New Yorker writers. One retired as the other is born. Luckily for us, the art and legacy of lesbians writing marvelous essays that search out truths behind the façade of facts and normal endures.

Janet Flanner (b.1892- d.1978). New Yorker foreign correspondent 1925-1975, pen name Genet.

Ariel Levy (b.1974- ). New Yorker staff writer, author Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (2005).

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