A Cosmology for March 2020
My mother used to buy me a doll when I was small and ill. She always named her Miss Virus. The last one I recall had a handcrafted cherry rocking cradle and wore a long lace dress. Her eyes conked shut or blinked wide.
As you may know by now, or suspect, I was never the doll kind of kid. Being really sick was such a shock and betrayal, the doll just added insult to injury. I guess it made my mother feel better.
Here we are, facing an all transforming global virus. Time to change everything we have assumed in our past and prevail into the unknowable. Time to take care of one another as best we can. We have a house with an introvert (you got it; that would be me), extrovert, and a self-proclaimed ambivert. The ambivert is off wandering in the woods and meadows around the house with one extremely delighted dog. The extrovert is talking with as many people she cares about as humanly possible.
These times are for hunkering down. For me, hunkering means reading. Groping around my overwhelmed bedside table, I couldn’t find any bookmarks from Bear Pond Books of Montpelier, Vermont,1 where I do almost all of my book buying. I realized a lot of markers were making it very clear that I was mid-way through quite a few books. There are lists posted on many media sites today about 100 things to do to stay sane right now. None of them mention finishing all the books you started. Here are a few of the writers with whom I’ve kept company so far.
One that I’ve finished is Rebecca Solnit’s Recollections of My Non-Existence: A Memoir. It is just out! As I have followed Solnit these past few years, I am so delighted to hear her ideas and the way she writes takes my breath away. Her descriptions make San Francisco of the last three decades vivid, alive, alluring, sobering, and lost. (Everything has changed for the streets of San Francisco since the Seventies, #MeToo, the technology giants, and now we must wait and see what’s evolving as California is under a stay at home order.) The violence against women, Solnit included, and the deep changes in consciousness about such brutality resonate throughout.
As the title suggests, Solnit is writing about navigating growing up in the most invisible way possible so that she might literally survive. Women have been so thoroughly silenced by patriarchal traditions and violence, that to claim voice is a radical act of courage, to thrive is an outright revolution. The memoir is about fully existing when a whole systemic effort is working to keep women down, always on the defensive, always hyper vigilant. Hard to be focused and creative and stay alive.
My favorite quote is Solnit remembering an older man she was dating saying, “Baby, you’re driven.” Her immediate, abrupt reply, “And you’re parked.”
Solnit cites poet Diane di Prima, “You cannot write a single line w/out a cosmology.” Writing requires knowing all you have read and heard and seen and being most true to you. She goes on to explain “… the task of writing a particular piece is the general one of making a self who can make the work you are meant to make” (p. 122).
She’s reading fairy tales at 5 pm (California time) each night to all of us on Facebook since she can’t do the book tour as planned, and she adores a cast of children she is reading to as well as a story with fairies and fabulousness.
Melba Pattilo Beal
Seventh graders at the U-32 Middle/High School, where I’m part of a pilot project as an Equity Scholar in Residence, read Melba Pattillo Beale’s Warriors Don’t Cry (1994). Their teachers invited me to read it along with them. Beale was one of the Little Rock Nine, the cohort of Black teenagers who were the first to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. You may recall the Supreme Court declared that public schools had to integrate in 1954 with Brown vs Board of Education. Arkansas opposed. The Nine braved a year of horrifying harassment and daily danger to their lives. Beale’s descriptions are harrowing. The book starts out with a near escape from an enraged white man chasing teenaged Melba to kidnap and or rape her the day word came out Central High was going to be integrated.
I am reminded of the horrible conflicts in Boston in 1974 when bussing to integrate occurred. (See Episode 13 of Eyes on the Prize: The Keys to the Kingdom 1974-1980 https://vimeo.com/65530064). The United States public schools are considered even more segregated now since our social fabric is still shredded by racism and injustices regarding real estate and economic opportunities.
Melba Pattilo Beale continues to lecture at her resilient 78 years of age.
I am mid-way through teaching Men & Masculinities at Saint Michael’s College. I assigned Peggy Orenstein’s Boys and Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity (2020) and just finished it. The stories Orenstein collects often shock her. After decades researching and writing about girls, girls and women convinced her to find out what’s going on with boys. This is an interesting evolution for many women sociologists, psychologists and journalists. While in the Seventies we were focused on liberating understandings of women (my big three reads, then were Women’s Ways of Knowing, In a Different Voice, Toward a New Psychology of Women 2.). Now women are seeking insight into boys and men. Personally, as I came into understanding what feminism (as in the theory that equality is imperative for ALL – globally women, girls, boys and men) could do, I’ve been dreaming of liberation for boys and men.
Men have been trying to find out about boys and men in these same three decades (my big three writers for this period are Michael Kimmel, Jackson Katz and Tony Porter with books and TED Talks. There are many new voices via TED). James Gilligan, Carol Gilligan’s husband, worked with men incarcerated in San Quentin for decades. The men in San Quentin 3 who have worked in Restorative Practice say, “Hurt people, hurt people. Healed people, heal people.” James Gilligan reflects on the harm being beyond anything he could possibly understand in comments captured in Jennifer Siebel Newsom’ documentary, The Mask You Live In (2015).
What does Orenstein say? What a trap: Man Up, Be A Man, Boys Don’t Cry, Don’t Be a Pussy—you may add more here. (also see the work of C.J. Pascoe, R.W. Connell, Rosalind Wiseman, William Pollack, Paul Kivel, Michael Thompson, memoir by Charles M. Blow)
The damage is for men and boys and the people they harm: other men and boys, themselves, women and girls and people they love.
Kimmel says that he found that women fear being raped or murdered and men say they most fear being laughed at.
Women fear death. Men fear shame.
Orenstein interviews young men who are harmed by sexual assault by girls or older women or other men, expecting that men ALWAYS want it. Young men are in the vortex of pornography and almost believe what porn portrays. Hookup culture may be total freedom for young men and women, and it can also turn into blackouts and denigration and stories we all have heard. Brock Turner made this hook up behavior infamous. Malcolm Gladwell addresses these extremes in alcohol consumption in Case Study: The Fraternity Party in Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know (2019), another book I finished this week.
At night, as you might imagine, I sometimes have to stop reading content such as this (thus all the disappearing bookmarks) and I pick up a book on nature. I’m halfway through The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate | Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben (2015). Beech trees are particularly zealous in keeping their territory. They will snuggle up and lean on and then underground drain all the nutrients from another type of tree until it declines. Note that this will take several decades to achieve, but hey. There is a whole “wood-wide-web” right under our feet.
Beverly Little Thunder
The most recent mid-way book I completed is Beverly Little Thunder’s memoir, One Bead at a Time (2016 with Sharron Proulx-Turner). I met Beverly on the trip to Montgomery 4 and we’ve co-facilitated workshops for the Peace & Justice Center in Burlington, VT. I especially appreciate hearing her story about growing up in Lakota traditions, defying sexism, homophobia, and racism along with constant economic stresses, to become a leader and teacher in Two Spirit ways. She made it out of abusive relationships (men and women) with five kids in tow, to learn and teach and hold land sacred for Womyn’s Sundance in Huntington, Vermont. She has her dedication and gifts challenged over and over and defies all those as she listens to wise counsel that guides her.
All of these authors, except of course the tree expert, chronicle the dangers of being strong, defiant, white, Black, Native women. White, Black, Native men are harming one another and themselves (White males accounted for 69.67% of suicide deaths in 2018, https://afsp.org/about-suicide/suicide-statistics/). Firearms, alcohol and drugs fuel the shame, and stir the cauldron of homophobia, racism, and sexism that perpetuate the anger in power and entitlement.
But there are other stories that offer hope. There are cultures around the globe with such a sense of equality that the men have birthing pains. The men and the women rely on one another throughout the community to work together for the survival of the whole. There is no concept or word for rape. Every time I assign an article on this community my students are adamant that this is impossible. I plead with them to try to imagine.
And we do raise wonderful, loving, caring, nurturing, and ever tender men. This week I also watched the six-part Netflix documentary series Babies (February 2020), and professional journals, acknowledge that the oxytocin levels in new heterosexual parents are the same when the mother and father share equally in the caring of the newborn. Gay dads too.
My students participate in a mask exercise where we write the things we show gladly on the outside. 5 On the other side what we feel on the inside. We exchange these so each student reads the comments written by another in the class. The outside is competent, organized, funny, pretty cheerful. The inside is anxious, homesick, depressed, scared, angry. As we go around on what everyone is feeling on the inside, my heart breaks. The wonder years of youth. I observe that we can’t tell the difference between the women and men in the class. We can’t tell sexual orientation or pronoun preference, or any other identity markers.
The exquisite differences in human plumbing, the pleasures available to us all, the partners we chose with whom to share intimacy, of course there are differences and distinctions. The poetry of human sex and sensuality is too often ruined by predation and abuse that shatters souls. Our responsibility to one another is to listen, unearth the despair, the harm and find our ways to healing. I sat in a circle with the men incarcerated at San Quentin prison, many of whom I’d also heard speak in The Mask You Live In. They assume radical responsibility and learn radical love.
In this time of unknowable change, I offer this. The virus is not discriminatory. We are all vulnerable. We are all together in this.
In kindness, radical love, and willingness to transform.
2.Belenky, Mary Field, Nancy Rule Goldberger (Editor), Jill Mattuck Tarule (Editor), Blythe McVicker Clinchy. (First edition 1986).New York: Basic Books.
Gilligan, Carol. (1982). In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Miller, Jean Baker. (1987). Toward a New Psychology of Women. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
3. See Vermilyanotes.net: https://vermilyanotes.net/2016/12/ Week One: Victim/Offender Education Program
4. Ibid. https://vermilyanotes.net/2019/02/05/ Mercy & Diary of Montgomery, Alabama Trip February 5, 2019
5. Watch Ashanti Branch TED Talk https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M34wU5kXajI. He is also interviewed in The Mask You Live In.