Author Archives: Shelley Vermilya
The Urgency of Now: An Imani Perry Trilogy
Breath: A Letter to my Sons (2019) Beacon Press
South to America: A Journey Below the Mason Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation (2022) Harper Collins
Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry (2018) Beacon Press
-Click on these titles to purchase through Bear Pond Books or find them at your local bookseller.
“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”(1)Excerpt from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Speech delivered at Riverside Church in New York City. April 4, 1967.
Access the full speech here.
Memoir offers intimate introduction to people we want to know and may never meet. Imani Perry’s Breathe: A Letter to My Sons caught my attention. I’m the white mother of African American siblings, daughter and son. Hearing Dr. Perry’s longing to send her boys off with this maternal paradox: “I want to hold you safe. I also want you to fly,” resonated profoundly.
I notice now how this next line is prescient, “The routes have always been rough. West Africa to Barbados to South Carolina Maryland to Alabama. To Chicago from Mississippi…. Claim your earth as you see fit and ride above it.” (2)
Raising Black children in the landscape of racial and gender violence takes courage
and the fiercest love. Breathe: A Letter to My Sons is a long letter, a short book, of warning and tenderness.
The routes Perry mentions in Breathe come into acute focus in South to America: A Journey Below the Mason Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation. She travels below the Mason-Dixon
line through historic events, literary landscapes, with piercing contemporary longings.
“I was just trying to see how the back-then is inside the now.” (3)
History and now. She asks, “Can [the United States] ever be remade in the image of the Declaration of Independence? Or will the founders’ racist sins taunt us always?” (4)
Each chapter is a world of wonder with historic figures, racism’s worst consequences, beautiful lands, complex cityscapes, and everyday people she meets along the way.
Of New Orleans she says, “But if we are to tell the truth about that history, we have to tell the tragedies as well as its miracles.” (5) She ends with George Floyd, Houston, Texas hurricanes, pondering her writing as a “moral instrument,” and wonders if we will do more than read, if we will “allow curiosity and integrity to tip over into urgency.” (6)
Urgency was the heartbeat of Lorraine Hansberry. Dr. Perry’s biography of the playwright offers the intricacy of art of the past’s relevance to now. A Raisin in the Sun is Lorraine Hansberry’s best-known creation, but her light shines so bright despite her short life. Perry introduces us to her remarkable friendships with James Baldwin and Nina Simone. They gave each other solace and creative inspiration during the era of civil rights activists raging and bargaining for justice. Perry makes clear how Hansberry was fearless, unyielding in timeless matters of injustice.
In a meeting of Black artists and activists with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in May of 1963, she ended the meeting with a comment that is hauntingly immediate, “…But I am very worried about the state of the civilization which produced that photograph of the white cop standing on that Negro woman’s neck in Birmingham.” (7)
Lorraine Hansberry died on January 12, 1965, of cancer at the age of 34. Malcolm X was assassinated three weeks later. James Baldwin died of cancer in December of 1987 at 63. Nina Simone wrote the song “Young, Gifted, and Black” for Lorraine Hansberry, and inspired a generation of Black pride and determination. She died in April of 2003 at the age of 70.
Their art, created in the not-so-distant past, illuminates much too much of now. Dr. Perry writes in these three books of the tragedies, the miracles, the wonder of whether it is possible to ride above the heartbreaks and fly.
(1) Excerpt from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Speech delivered at Riverside Church in New York City. April 4, 1967. Access the full speech here.
(2) Perry, Imani. (2019). Breathe: A Letter to My Sons. Boston: Beacon Press. P. 66.
(3) —-(2022). South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, p.67.
(4) Ibid. p. 267.
(5) Ibid. p. 323.
(6) Ibid. p. 382.
(7) Perry, Imani. (2018). Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry. Boston: Beacon Press. p.164.
I’m introducing an idea here and I hope you’ll pass the link along to folks who might enjoy Vermilya Notes.
I am a science fiction project. Say what?!?! My work as the Equity Scholar in Residence in the Washington Central Unified Union School District in Central Vermont is a constant conversation – pop up questions to and from educators about racism, sexism, gender expression, ideas for units of study, symbols and words. I am in the schools to offer access to ideas and justice content. I like this description rather than “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” I want to be available for questions about how to be confident in teaching and learning. You see how I’ll be science fiction until we manifest the dreams of equity, access, and justice for all.
Spring semester I also teach a course called Men and Masculinities at Saint Michael’s College. Being in the college classroom keeps me honest. We talk about historic and real, live-action, personal and political, content.
As I skim newspapers and various blogs for the latest publications, our magical local bookstore, Bear Pond Books is just a link away. Here are a few of my recent acquisitions:
My daily world includes K-12 students and staff, college undergraduates, and teachers working on graduate credits. If You Give a Moose A Muffin and others in the amusing series by Laura Numeroff guides my teaching and learning. One idea leads to another, and another as circumstances evolve.
This job as the embedded ESR requires reading and listening to what journalists, authors, and videographers are saying. I’m always searching for materials to offer, for example, concise film clips about microaggressions, CRT, biases, How Racist Are You? What is age appropriate (third grade to 12th) for a conversation on say, the N-word?
Reflection offers an opportunity to articulate new insights and knowledges. With that in mind, I’d like to begin this series of notes guided by these questions:
– Why this book, film, essay?
– What is the essence?
– How does it connect us to these times?
I’ll send out the first edition tomorrow. As always—let me know what you think
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.”
“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.
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
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.
This Sapphic love scene appears, finally, after one hundred forty-five pages of leisurely literary foreplay in Patricia Highsmith’s 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.
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.
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, 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
 Reprint The Price of Salt. Made in the USA Lexington, KY 15 November 2014. P. 145.
 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.
 Reprint. Page 163.
 Reprint. Page 171.
 The year being 1952. Jaye Zimet, Strange Sisters: The Art of Lesbian Pulp Fiction 1949-1969. New York: Viking Studio, p. 19.
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.
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—-
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.
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.