Monday, December 16, 2013

Public Notice


I address now my readers rather than my muse. You will have noticed I rarely post now. For various reasons, my old habit of writing to my muse through this site no longer works well for me, but I still like this project. So, I have decided to rework the existing material, as well as some notes that never made it in to the blog, and make a book of it. I'll keep you posted about that, and in the meantime I'll probably add new posts here occasionally as I work through my notes.

-best, C.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Day of the Dead

Hi, there,

A few days ago, I got an email from, or, rather, about, a ghost.

I'd gotten a Facebook friend request from someone with an unfamiliar name. I often ignore such requests, but I accepted this one, thinking it might be someone I went to school with but forgot about. I was sort-of right. It was, indeed, someone I'd gone to school with, but I was five or six at the time. We went to the same Montessori school together for a year, but I haven't been back there since I was six and I lost touch with the people I knew there soon after I left. I haven't even been back to see the physical campus, and I don't know exactly where it was, so thoroughly is it locked away in my past.

And, as memories locked away are wont to do, it haunts me. Not horribly--I don't think of the place often, and it doesn't get in the way of my life. I wasn't traumatized there, and though I was upset at having to change schools, I don't think I was traumatized by leaving. It's just that I had some real emotional connections there, connections to things and people that have not been real for me since.

I remember the school was in a large house, or perhaps a small mansion, with a red roof and a partial wrap around porch that stood at the top of a hill. From that hill you could look out on a vast and mostly rural valley of twisted trees and occasional industrial smoke stacks, probably from mills that owed their location to having once depended on water-power. I remember looking at those smoke-stacks and telling my teacher I wished I could turn the stacked upside down, so the pollution would all be sucked back in. She agreed with me.

The driveway ran up that hill to the house, and along the fence beside the driveway, on our side of the fence,was a long row of forcythia bushes, their stems arching into a long tube. At the top of the hill, at the entrance to the tube, the stems were thick enough for a child to climb and I could walk under the arch almost without ducking. From there, room after leafy room succeeded each other running down the hill until at the bottom you could only crawl out the narrow opening. The hill itself was mostly lawn, but fell away maybe two or three hundred feet across a horizontal distance of little more than twice that, before flattening out again just above the road. It was a heaven to sled down in the winter, especially as I lived an hour's drive away, where there were no good sledding hills, none that I knew of at the time, anyway. When I was five we spent our recess in a playground with a chain link fence around it that was off to the side of the house, to the left, as you looked down the hill, whereas the fence and the forcythia were to the right. It was a fairly large playground, as I recall, with a sandbox and see saws and various structures to climb on, plus what I now know to have been a good-sized ash-leafed maple, which we could climb by using the fence to get up to the lowest branches. I liked that playground, but on the day we went out to play on the hill instead I liked that better and I never looked back. I don't think any of us did.

The second rabbit I ever saw was up beyond that playground, near the woods, back when I hardly ever saw rabbits. Maybe there weren't as many at the time, and maybe I, being a child, made a good deal more noise that I normally do now. A stray dog wandered in once, and was captured and put on a leash, and a woman came and spoke of the dog and I thought it was hers, but other people, animal control people, I think, came also, and put the dog on a different leash and took it away. I don't know why, and I felt sad for the dog. A horse came once, in company with a human who was using the horse for some educational purpose, but I remember nothing at all about what the human said, other than that if the horse stepped on your feet they would break. From the road you could see the face of an embankment, raw red dirt perhaps the height of a room, edging the base of the bottom of the great hill. And on that raw red embankment was an old, faded, green wooden door. I knew that the house had once been a stop on the Underground Railroad, and I was sure that the door opened onto a secret tunnel that led into the basement of the house, for the transport of fugitive slaves. I'd been in the basement and seen no such door, but obviously it could have been remodeled when the place was converted into a school. It didn't occur to me that a door in the side of a hill by a road wouldn't be the best way to access a secret tunnel, and it didn't occur to me until many years later that the door was probably just a door, leaning against a hill, and it probably didn't lead anywhere at all.

While I was there, I made several friendships with other students and I was also bullied mercilessly, although not, I'm happy to tell you, by my friends. Because of the bullies I made a fairly deliberate decision to put most of my energy thereafter into solitary play, a somewhat sad conclusion but one that may have ultimately resulted in me becoming a writer. I also directed a lot of my social energy towards my teachers, particularly one of them, called Pat, whom I adored. It was she who agreed with me that smoke stacks should be turned upside down. I was never a teacher's pet in that I never expected to receive special treatment because of my alliance with the teachers. I never expected them to protect me from the bullies either, and indeed they did not. Instead, I understood that my being a good student, and particularly being an obedient student, was the price of admission to the only social connection I made any serious effort to cultivate there, my relationship with my teacher, Pat. Years later, at another school, I was shocked to hear that Pat had stopped in and asked about me, but I was elsewhere at the time and she left no contact information. I do not even know her last name.

After two years my parents pulled me out and sent me to a new school, one closer to our house with a better social climate, but the die, in certain respects, was already cast, either by the Montessori school or by something else that my school simply revealed. I have been enamored of trees and bushes and hills ever since and I have been angry at pollution and interested in doing something about it. And I've been a fundamentally easy-going student who automatically assumes that the person in the front of the class, not my fellow students, is the person I should look to for a good conversation. Some of the results of these ancient tendencies you now know as well as I do.

But all these people, these places, are like dreams in my mind, intense in my memory but real to no one else still in my life. The other children called the samaras of the ash-leafed maple "helicopters," because they spun on their way down if you dropped them, and I have no way of knowing if anybody remembers that except me. For this, this utter isolation from any subsequent part of my life, that Montessori school might as well be dead and buried inside of me.

And now--this stranger on the internet who remembers me eating onion grass when I was six. Apparently, the school made at least as serious an impression on him as on me, for he credits in, in part, with his subsequent "obsession with forests and mountains." Perhaps he also remembers what we called the samaras? Perhaps he, also, remembers Pat? He remembers the house and the playground,the hill and the forest, and he asked about the school, and the place where it stood. I had to tell him it stands there no longer. I've heard that lovely hill has been eaten by houses, that creeping neoplasm of the modern economy, the sprawl of development. If a place is an entity one can love, and indeed he appears to have loved it more thoroughly and enduringly than I, it is also an entity that can die.

And he therefore bears greeting from two different kinds of ghost.

I was thinking about all of this as I drafted emails to him, trying to get a sense of who this stranger on the internet is. Can at least one of those ghosts be liberated, resurrected, the memories it is made of made relevant once again? And while I was writing my husband put on a DVD he'd ordered on Netflix of a Fleetwood Mac reunion concert and cranked up the volume.

Don't stop thinkin' about tomorrow.
Don't stop, it'll soon be here.
It'll be here, better than before,
Yesterday's gone, yesterday's gone!

It was Halloween, Samhain Night, the eve of the Day of the Dead. I logged off my computer. It was time to get up and dance.

-best, C.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Tough Times

Hi, there!

I saw you today, at the copy store. I don’t think you saw me—you appeared busy, and then you were on the phone, and then you were gone, so I didn’t get to say hi. I like seeing you around, though. It’s a friendly thing. If you’d come over to say hi I would have shown you what I was working on, a series of botanical illustrations for a variety of projects. I’m not sure if I’ve shown you my botanical drawings before.

Anyway, after I finished at the copy place I went shopping and headed home, but even so I ended up running late, and it got dark as I biked along. I had a good view of the sunset and a sliver of new moon. I run late a lot, in part because “late” keeps getting earlier as the year ebbs. In part because I just run late a lot.

I may have been running late more often than usual recently, I’m not sure. It’s been a hard summer, for whatever reason, and the inside of my head has been messy and disorganized and I think the rest of me may be following suit. Are you surprised to hear me say this? We don’t normally discuss such things, and usually when you see me I’m cheerful, if a bit squirrely, but I do sometimes have bad days. Lately, I’ve been having a lot of those. I’m never quite sure what will set me off. On Saturday I got all bent out of shape because I was running late and I knew Chris was expecting me and I just felt awful, really all out of proportion to my “crime.”

That day I did see something interesting on the way home, at least. I was biking past the skate park next to where they hold the farmer’s market when I heard an odd sound, a child screaming.

“I can’t feel my arm! I can’t feel my arm!”

The child had apparently fallen while skating. He had two adults attending him, but after a moment’s consideration I walked over and offered my services as a bystander with a little training and a cell phone. They more or less ignored me. The adults did not seem to have any training or medical know-how, but the boy quickly calmed down. He kept complaining of pain, but he could move his arm and hand and had no visible deformation, apart from an abrasion near his elbow. I decided there was no reason to insist on helping where I wasn’t wanted and I left.

But the thing is, the woman with the boy was almost as panicked as he was. She wasn’t really tending him, leaving that to a man who seemed to be a levelheaded bystander. Instead, she wandered around wailing.
“See? This is why I told you to be careful,” she said, ostensibly addressing the children in her care but actually speaking to the sky, loudly.  She seemed to want everyone around her to know she’d done her part. “I begged! I pleaded! I told them to be careful!”

She was worried about herself, more than about the child. As she explained, again not clearly addressing anyone specific, she was not a relative of the boy. Instead, she was the grandmother of a friend of his. She’d taken the two boys to the park to skate, and I imagine she was now terrified that other people would think she’d behaved negligently with someone else’s child. Maybe she was worried the boy’s mother would sue her, or at least be very angry. So here she was, wailing, instead of doing anything practical to help the injured boy.

My immediate thought was that this boy and his friend might shortly find their freedom badly curtailed. We can’t have children getting hurt, after all. Humph. I mean, I get it; the idea of a kid getting hurt is seriously scary. But if a kid never tests his or her body and mind against real difficulty and danger, how is that kid supposed to grow up properly? But clearly this grandmother hasn’t gotten the memo, and if the mothers of both boys haven’t gotten the memo either the kids may find themselves parked safely in front of TV and computer screens from here on out, where they will not run any risk of broken bones or dislocated shoulders and can slowly develop diabetes and depression instead.

So, I was thinking that evening about how children develop physical courage, or don’t. I suspect physical courage is easier to learn if you get injured a lot when you’re young and feel immortal. I had no really serious injuries when I was a child, so when I finally did land in a hospital just before I turned twenty, I was old enough to learn I was vulnerable and I had no memory of surviving close shaves to fall back on. So I got really scared and to this day I’m super-conservative when I ride my bike. So that’s physical courage, or lack thereof.

But since then I’ve been thinking about moral courage, too. I mean, for one thing that woman clearly needed to get a grip. The boy needed her. What right did she have to get distracted with worry for herself? So what if somebody thought she’d done something wrong? For that matter, so what if the kid’s parents decided to retaliate afterwards? Someone had to take care of the kid, and somebody has to stick up for kids’ right to be human beings even in the face of risk. Somebody needs to pay more attention to the real needs of kids and less attention to the possibility of adults being blamed or sued. So that is what I mean by moral courage—the willingness to do the right thing, even though someone else might get upset or aggressive as a result.
More and more, I am aware that the whole idea that ordinary people should be courageous has been lost somehow. Collectively we lionize firefighters and soldiers and so forth, but in so doing we set them apart as heroes rather than identify with them as men and women. When someone shows real physical or moral courage our admiration carries a distinct whiff of surprise. And at other times we say oh, of course So-and-so made other people’s lives difficult and unpleasant for no good reason; he or she could have been sued otherwise, and we can’t have that.

Oh, come on, world—put on your big-kid undies and quit excusing cowardice.

I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing on and off for months. I think you know why. The news isn’t quite public knowledge, but even if you don’t have all the pieces of the story yet you might be able to infer the main points of the tale based on what’s missing. Either way, I’m not going to go into detail here.

It’s been a hard summer. The inside of my head is squirrely and I’m not entirely sure what to do about it. But today, at least, was a good day. A friend of mine and I met in the park, ostensibly for lunch, although neither of us actually brought any food. The sky was this gorgeous clear blue, streaked with clouds in places, and at least four different species of maple tree flamed up red and orange and yellow and what looked like a whole class of art students painted in the open air against tall wooden easels. 

Having no lunch to eat, we decided to walk around a bit, one of my favorite activities in the world being to walk around outdoors with a friend and talk, and so we crossed the swinging bridge and looked out over the roil of water at the foot of the dam. And we saw a bird, standing there in the water on the other side of the river, a small oval of animal almost invisible in the alternating glare and shadow by the base of the dam.

We crossed back over to get a better look at it. It was brown with white spots and streaks, about the size of a chicken, and clearly some sort of heron or bittern. My friend looked it up using some sort of smart-phone app and decided it was a juvenile night heron. I’d heard of night herons, but I hadn’t been entirely sure they were real, since my primary association with them is a one-line reference in the fantasy novel, Willow. But this one was quite real. It stood still, for the most part, looking morose, and then scratched its neck with one foot for a moment. We watched it for about half an hour, until my friend had to get back to work. Anyway, it made me think of you.

-best, C

Friday, August 9, 2013

When the Saints Go Marching In


Today is Nagasaki Day and here in the Northeast of the United States it is raining gently. I can hear the drops sursurrate upon the leaves of the trees and I can see the raindrops, white and distant, across the pond.

Nagasaki Day is, of course, the anniversary of the day the atom bomb was dropped on the city of that name. For whatever reason, it gets much less attention than Hiroshima Day. I suppose that is an insult added to injury, to be not just bombed but to have your bombing forgotten about in favor of another.

I've been thinking about these two anniversaries a lot lately, because I decided to do an entry on it for my other blog--one of the characters there (that blog is fiction) is a Japanese-American interested in history, so I figured he would have something interesting to say about it. I, for the most part, had nothing interesting to say about it, so I did a little research. I was trying to find essays about it written by Japanese-American writers, but was surprised to find none in my Google searches. I would have thought that perspective would be an important part of the national processing that has gone on for the past sixty-eight years, but all the writings I could find on the American experience were on the white American experience. I imagine there is not a dramatic difference, overall, since most Japanese-Americans would have been, like everybody else, glad to end the war. But there was such a racial subtext to the situation--German and Italian immigrants were also interned, but generally on admittedly spurious suspicion of individual wrong-doing. Only for people of Japanese descent was there a forcible relocation of American citizens purely because of their ancestry. I've just looked up the matter online,but the real reason I know that there was no such internment of Europeans is that if there had been it would surely have caught my family; my father wasn't born yet, but his parents and older sister were living in New York City and his parents were the children of immigrants. Surely if the American children of Japanese immigrants were relocated away from the west coast, the Italian-American of New York would have been taken by any equivalent program? They weren't. My family has its secrets, I suppose, but internment is not one of them. So anyone of Japanese descent in America at the time, no matter how thoroughly assimilated, would have known that to merely look Japanese was to be identified with the enemy. We all become, to some extent, what we are treated as. What we see in the mirror becomes our faces as we know them. How could Japanese-Americans not have taken their government's genocidal ambitions personally?

And I mean genocide. American policy was to kill as many Japanese civilians as possible, in order to lose as few American soldiers as possible. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not the only cities deliberately destroyed; Tokyo was fire-bombed in much the same way Dresden was, and--I just found this out--had the Manhattan Project failed, plan B was to use chemical weapons across Japan. The chemicals had actually gone into production, churned out and readied by a factory in New York. I don't particularly care about whether any of this was justified either morally or strategically--I'm not going to start re-inventing American foreign policy sixty-eight years after the fact. What would be the point? But the pain, the human toll of all of this. It just makes me more than a little sad.

But the reason I know about Hiroshima Day and Nagasaki Day to begin with, the reason I know that these anniversaries are, to some extent, commemorated, is that I remember, as a teenager, being involved in commemorating them one year. And that memory has nothing to do with Japan, or politics, because while I was well aware of both I was kind of distracted at the time by the inside of my own head. I suppose most teenagers are, to one degree or another.

And the inside of my head was not pretty that year. I felt horrible that summer, because I couldn't seem to do anything right. I didn't do anything dramatically wrong, either, though a lot of people around me were angry with me most of the time--and I still can't figure out if they had any reason to be. I made small mistakes. I was easily distracted. I was desperate to redeem myself, from what I did not know, but I assumed at the time it was real and quite justified. I expect that desperation may have been the very thing that ticked the others off so seriously. At the very least my company would have been a bit boring and stressful. But my life became like one of those nightmares--do you get them? I do, and I suppose everybody must--where nothing goes right, like you show up for class and realize it's finals day and you haven't been studying.

And into all this mess came the holiday of Hiroshima Day, a holiday from my self-involved suffering, because I was allowed to join a small dance-performance one of the faculty at my boarding school had created.

He was oddly uninterested in dancing in the normal sense of the word--skilled movement of the body to music. Instead, he was all about choreography, using movement to make a point, to tell a story. One didn't have to be particularly coordinated in order to do it. I had two roles: I got to be part of a river, carrying paper lanterns to the sea, in memorium; and I got to be a spinning planet. As a part of a river I laid upon my back and kind of swam or scooted across the floor with the rest of the river. A child placed a lantern upon my belly and I scooted across the stage with it. As a planet I spun around to an Indigo Girls song, in company with other planets, or maybe we were atoms, while another girl assembled a model of the solar system on the floor using variously sized balls. And then, with the whole thing assembled, she used a croquet mallet to knock the whole line of balls to pieces in one chain reaction.

And the Indigo Girls song, the first of theirs I'd heard, was "Galileo." I think they used it because it includes the phrase "nuclear annihilation," though I'm not sure that the song is really about the bomb...I'm not sure what it's about at all, actually. But the repeating line "how long till my soul gets it right" was perfect for me at the time, and it calmed me.

How long till my soul gets it right?
Can any human being ever reach that highest height?
Call upon the resting soul
of Galileo
King of night vision
King of insight.

I still don't feel like I've gotten it right. I have moments where the feeling that I might not ever get it right threatens to overwhelm me in blind panic. I live on faith, but I'm well aware of its limits--the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had faith, too, I suppose. You never know when your life will turn the corner and get better, but you never know when a sad ending might drop out of a clear blue sky, either. The difference is that now, as a grown-up, I no longer care all that much about whether I ever get it right. I expect I'll always feel like this, at least sometimes, no matter what success or failure I may reach--I've heard that a lot of people do, even the most admirable and successful among us. And in the meantime I will live until I die. The desperation is gone, at least.

But I like that song. And I like the idea of calling upon Galileo, a saint of insight and the willingness to see the truth.

It sounds funny, of course, to speak of him in such terms, as he is, perhaps, the archetypal scientist, and scientists are, by definition, mostly the oil to religion's water. How could there then be a saint of science? But of course science has both moral and spiritual implications, which is why the Catholic Church tried to silence Galileo. The Church has not been categorically anti-science; the Vatican owns a very powerful telescope, so I've heard, and many trail-blazing scientists were also priests.And if priests have occasionally impeded the march of knowledge, the knowledge of scientists has occasionally had morally questionable results--I'm thinking here of Oppenheimer, even Einstein.

I think, as well, of the scientists I know--not whether any of you might be quietly inventing monstrous weapons, but whether any of you might also count as saints. You'll laugh, I know. You'll role your eyes. You'll protest that you are an ordinary person, but of course Galileo was an ordinary person as well. He made wine, he liked candy, and he had three children, two girls and a boy. Curiously, he never married their mother, though he was an active and involved father, a detail that seems to have been a complete non-issue at the time. The girls both grew up to be nuns, a common and well-respected role for women of the day. The older one, Virginia, took the name Maria Celeste when she became a nun. She was devoted to her father and wrote him letters, some of which, from the period of his trial, survive. She admired his intellect and read his books, and the fact that he was forced to recant by the church seems to have bothered her not at all. I've read translations of many of those letters, and her only concern appears to have been for his happiness. She never expressed any worry that her father might have done something wrong, to be so accused, or that the Church, to which she had dedicated her life, might be doing something wrong to so accuse him. I imagine that in a wholly Catholic society she swam in her religion, and in her admiration of her father, the way a fish swims in the sea, and she questioned neither.

I can't quite relate to that.

-best, C.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Oh, say can you see?

Hi! Guess what?

The phoebes fledged--obviously that was a few weeks ago now, it's taken me a while to write you again. I'm proud of myself though, because I totally called the fledging day. The previous evening I’d seen the chicks getting much more active, even standing on the edge of the nest and flapping, and their flight feathers looked long enough to hold them. So, while I was not certain, I parked myself and my computer right there with a good view of the nest…and they flew while I was looking at my computer. Poo.
Not all the birds had flown away, though. One fledgeling remained, perched on a loop of wire about two feet from the nest, looking confused and bedraggled. It cheeped, almost forlornly, from time to time, and fluttered its wings, the way songbirds do when they beg for food, but the sound wasn’t the dry, rasping begging but rather a whistled cheep, a single note, calling, I think, for its parents. They did not come.

After a few minutes it flew to another perch, staying in the shelter of the porch, and flew again. It seemed to be trying to escape the porch, but couldn’t get around the lip of the roof. It kept trying to go up to get out, but up was the wrong direction. Poor bird. It’s only sixteen days old, and doesn’t know very much. Eventually an adult did return, but it flew to the nest and looked in, then flew away. Parent and chick were just feet from each other, but did not interact or even look at each other. The fledgeling did not go to the nest, nor did the adult go anywhere else but the nest. They repeated this several times. The fledgeling continued its mournful cheeping. Its tail was so short as to be stumpy, its body feathers rumpled, and after its short, confused flights I could see its sides heaving. It must not be in good shape yet. If it was really in trouble, what could I do? Probably nothing. But I’d want to do something. 

At last the fledgeling stepped off its perch, dropped down a couple of feet, and flew unerringly out from under the roof and away. I don’t suppose I’ll ever see it again, and wouldn’t know it if I did. It won’t be back. So far as I know, songbirds are not sentimental about their nesting sites, though they may retain a fondness for the general area. One imagines a yearling migrant approaching its second spring, starting to feel a longing for home, a nostalgia that brings them back to the same kind of habitat later. But the nest itself is just somewhere the young one used to be. Chick and parent may stay in touch—at least initially they need to, as the chick as no idea what it’s doing—but they don’t look for each other at the nest anymore.

It’s been a while since I watched birds grow up, and never before have I watched a single bird family so closely. I was very struck by how itchy the chicks in the nest seemed towards the end. They spent a lot of time scratching their wings and the bases of their tails with their bills. Did they have bugs? Or maybe, do growing feathers itch? I bet they do. I bet you know. If anybody does know, you would.

Last time I watched baby birds was, as I said, years ago and far away. We did not have eastern phoebes there. We did have another phoebe species, similar in shape but darker in aspect, I forget the name, but I never found any of its nests. I am not a birder, since I am not fascinated by the act of seeing and identifying birds. What interests me is their lives, their stories. I like watching them grow up and interact--more than I like watching plants grow, actually. I do not automatically look at plants with an eye toward time, though I've learned how to do so from other naturalists. I see a tree and it is, for me, present tense, attractive to my eye for its tree-ness, not its story. With birds, and animals generally, it's the reverse.

I'm this way with human animals, too, actually. When I meet someone I might forget their  name, and I will probably forget their face, but I'll remember their story, what of it they choose to tell me. I remember yours, what you have chosen to tell. I do not learn stories in order to tell them, though I love to tell stories, and I think I do so well. But not all stories should be told. The birds I watched grow up, for example, in the Sonoran Desert--I did not betray the locations of their nests. Yes, my fellow researchers knew, but we did not tell the ravens. We even searched imaginary nests, occasionally, just so our activities could not be used as evidence against the chicks. The ravens got some of them anyway, though. And now those nests, fledged or failed, are long forgotten, lost in the anonymity of getting through the day--except by me. The nests are gone, the birds are scattered or likewise gone, but I remember where they were. I could find the places, if I needed to, if I had reason to. I remember the stories because I think somebody should.

Speaking of stories--and this is also old news, for I'm writing this letter well after the fact--Chris and I finally went to see "The Old Homestead,"a bizarrely popular play that most of Swanzey is named after,one way or another. The play was written by an actor named Denman Thompson in the late 1800's. He also starred in it, and while I'm not sure if he really did anything else of note, he performed the play hundreds and hundreds of times across at least two countries and became very wealthy. Both he and the play are set in Swanzey, and it is still performed a few times every year. My personal opinion is that as a play it is nothing special,but as a community event and an item of local history it is worth seeing.

They performed it outdoors in a kind of natural grassy theater with a large, weather-beaten stage at the bottom. A local band played before the show and during the intermissions, the conductor dancing a bit as she worked, real, live oxen paraded through one of the scenes, and the yellowish spotlight looked like the rays of the setting sun upon the backdrop painted with recognizable white pines. The scene in the backdrop did indeed look just like the real Swanzey around us. Music was important to the play; in addition to the band, there was a men's chorus of extras who performed periodically during lulls in the action, underscoring the sentimental fondness for rural life that was the theme of the entire play. 

But what really blew me away was not actually part of the play at all, but something that happened immediately before it. 

Just before the play started, the band played the National Anthem, so everybody in the audience stood and faced the flag, probably erected there just so people could face it. I stood likewise, but with vague irritation. I've never gotten into flag-worship, nor any other kind of symbolic patriotism. I know some people, even friends of mine, might be put off by that, might ask, aghast, "but don't you love your country?" But the truth is I neither love nor fail to love it. The United States as such does not register emotionally with me, and never has. I do not know why. It's not as simple as my awareness of its many crimes over the years, slavery, institutional sexism, genocide, etc., for I am equally aware of all that has been done right here. I am aware, too, that sometimes harm and right are done at the same time or by the same people. My hero, John Adams, not only made the defining argument in favor of American political independence, he also, years later, signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were frankly unconstitutional. But no--it's not that I'm having a problem of ethics with the American flag; I'm having a problem of scale. I feel little to nothing about our country for the same reason that fish probably feel little to nothing about water. If I am sentimental, it is to whatever nest I have most recently flown out of. I'm like that bird, who persisted, cheeping there, for a while, before flying off.

But all that being said, I like the song. I like the National Anthem. It's a great story, for one. Imagine being Francis Scott Key, standing on the deck of a ship, unable to do while the fate of his country hangs in the balance--not that he hadn't been involved, not that he hadn't done any good, but at that moment he was sidelined, waiting, in the dark, as the terrible battle roared around him. And then--just for a few seconds--the same battle that is threatening the flag momentarily illuminates it. The same bomb that could force the flag down by morning proves that the flag is still there. And then--dawn. Dawn and silence. The battle is over, one way or another. I don't know if this is exactly what happened, but this is the image the song clearly conjured. It's dawn and the battle is over, and its outcome is now clearly visible in the early morning light, still grey, perhaps, pearly, before sun-up itself. But Key can barely stand to look. Fear mixes with hope too strongly. So he asked someone else to look for him. He says does the flag still wave? Oh, say you can see the flag still waving!

And that's the other reason I really like the song. Because while I may not be emotionally patriotic, I understand America the Idea, and that idea matters to me. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. complained that our National Anthem is "nonsense sprinkled with question marks," but I love the fact that our theme song takes the form of a question--or, at least the first verse does, and most people probably aren't even aware that there are other verses. Because while the fact that the flag is waving is no longer in doubt, the question has a second interpretation, one that must be continually asked, asked without ceasing.

I remember song lyrics easily, and so I know that words to the first verse of the National Anthem. So, that green evening in Swanzey, before the play, although there was no one appointed to sing, the words were clearly in my head. Oh, say can you see....

But they were so clearly in my head. It was like the music was shaping the words, like I could hear the words in the music the way ripples can be perceived upon the surface of the sea. Could the instruments themselves be singing?

Only a few seconds more and I worked out the answer; the audience members around me, some of them, anyway, were singing, but singing under their breath, each one quieter than the next, like they didn't want anyone to notice, they didn't want to stand out, yet they were singing anyway, almost like they could not help themselves. And so the sound, the words, swelled with the evening, the song singing the people, as natural as breathing.

The flag waves undeniably, but the question is--what sort of country is it waving over? Does the flag still wave over the land and the free and the home of the brave?

The answer remains yes, despite whatever this country has and continues to do wrong, only to the extent to which people continue to ask the question.

-best, C.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Of Mockingbirds and Phoebes


I suppose you’ve heard the news? What’s his name, the man who killed Trayvon Martin, has been acquitted. Predictably, certain people are calling foul. Maybe it’s just that I haven’t been following the courtroom drama minutia, but I suspect their outrage has less to do with Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence individually, and more to do with the fact that, had he been found guilty, it would have proven that a white man could be convicted of killing a black boy for racist reasons. Since he has been acquitted, the jury must remain out on society at large.

Obviously, I’m white. I’m also politically naïve; I was raised by white liberals, among the children of other white liberals, and we were educated by white liberals (I was about to specify my childhood education, because I’m talking about my formative experiences, but I just realized I’ve only ever had two non-white teachers, a black woman and a Chinese-American woman, both in high school. At both levels, all my college professors were white). I was taught to abhor racism, but I was not taught to notice it. I knew very few black people. About the only think I know about racial politics and the American black experience of it is that I know nothing. Therefore, while I don’t tend to seek the subject out, when something written by a black person on race passes my gaze I stop and pay attention.

For this reason, I read an article in The Sun this past week, written by a man named Ross Gay who is apparently a college professor, a hobbyist bee keeper and gardener, and a black man. He writes movingly about being stopped by police for some debatably legitimate and thoroughly minor reason (his license plate light was out) and treated like a suspected criminal. He was asked whether he had drugs or guns in the car, whether he had been drinking, etc. Later, his friends told him he was lucky the cop hadn’t searched the car, “tossed” it and left him to clean up the mess. He writes of being embarrassed by how minor the intrusion really was, in comparison to what happens regularly to other black men, embarrassed by the fear that took hold of his body and later spasmed his muscles, physically immobilizing him as he bent to harvest garlic in his garden the following day.

This man is a teacher. I have a bit of a thing about teachers, as you may have noticed; I have always believed them to be people inherently worthy of a great deal of respect. They were my allies when I was small, when I was a little geek of a girl who didn’t fit in anywhere. If a teacher is to be treated as a criminal, there’d better be a damn good reason, and turning up with a license plate out does not qualify. I think that’s what angers me the most about Ross Gay’s story—not simply that the cop ignored Gay’s humanity in favor of his race but that even the elevated social status the man had earned did not prevent him from being treated like a second-class citizen, like no citizen at all.

But, of course, as Gay points out in his article, there is no way to prove that the intimidation attempt, for that’s what it was (just asking “do you have drugs?” is a nonsensical way to screen for criminal activity) was racially motivated.

Just as the cop didn’t say, “Since you appear to be of some African extraction,
I would like to ask if you have any drugs or weapons in the car.” He just asked
I had any drugs or weapons in the car.

Gay was writing about his experiences as a black man in order to write about mercy, in order to expose some societal hurt, to lay hands upon it, to be honest and brave and kind. I really like his article, and I suggest you read it—there is an awesome passage about bees near the end, too. The magazine is for sale at the Co-Op, if you want to check it out. It’s the July issue. But however much I really like that article, today I’m not interested in writing about mercy. I’m interested in writing about guilt.

Because there was no way to prove that Trayvon Martin’s death was racially motivated, either. Zimmerman apparently used no racial epithets in describing Trayvon, either when speaking to the dispatcher that night or in his subsequent testimony. He never said “I’m scared of this boy because he is black, so I’m going to shoot him.” He just shot him. Whether the bar on the definition of self-defense might be too low, whether Florida has somehow reached a point where people can be legally shot because other people are simply frightened, is another, equally worthy, topic, but the debate apparently centered, not on whether Trayvon was shot because he was dangerous, but whether he was shot for being black. And there is no way to know, unless someone has a legally admissible recording of Zimmerman saying so, which apparently nobody does.

And it is true that sometimes white people find other white people unaccountably scary. It is even true that sometimes teenagers, of any race, are in fact genuinely threatening. Maybe Trayvon would have died even if he had been white. Maybe Zimmerman actually did shoot in legitimate self-defense. It’s worth pointing out that it’s hard to imagine that shooting an unarmed teenager could have prevented a crime worse than the actual tragedy that took place. But there is no way to prove, in isolation, whether Zimmerman did anything unfair.

Because this sort of thing only really shows up in the aggregate. As Gay points out, eighty percent of the people stopped in New York’s stop-and-frisk program are black or Latino. New York’s population as a whole is only fifty percent black or Latino. Is this disparity more than what we would expect by chance? Can we reject the null hypothesis that New York’s finest are fair? I don’t know, you tell me. But I do remember that’s the right question to ask. And I have a definite hunch as to the answer.

But statistics can’t say whether any individual police or vigilante action is unfair. Flip a coin nineteen times and get nineteen heads and you might begin to suspect the coin is rigged, but flip it a twentieth time and you can’t say the resulting head couldn’t have happened anyway because the chance of any individual coin toss coming up heads is still always fifty-fifty.

And what if statistics aren’t even available? What if Gay had been white, and part of no other definable, disenfranchised group, and had still been treated like a criminal? Would that have meant the situation was fair? No, because sometimes even white guys are treated badly. Maybe he’d had an argument with the cop earlier that day. Maybe he’d gotten involved in some kind of unrelated political issue.  Maybe someone he’d inadvertently pissed off along the way had bad-mouthed him and the cop had heard, believed it, and acted legitimately based on an accusation that was itself illegitimate? All these things are possible. And yet, you confront the cop with your questions and the cop would say “I don’t know what you’re talking about. The man had a busted license-plate light. I ask everybody I stop about possible illegal activity. What’s your problem?”

Claiming the rhetorical high ground, defining the situation before the other guy can, may be the only recourse. If there is no way to prove what you know, that the boy in the hoody with the Skiddles, that the college professor heading home to tend his bees, is innocent and got a rather bad deal, then maybe the only recourse is to act on what you know and cannot prove. This is, in fact, what Trayvon’s supporters have been doing. It is how they got Zimmerman to trial in the first place, whether or not the trial itself was fair. A generation or two ago, even that would not have happened.

This tactic carries a risk, the risk of its own kind of unfairness. As some people have pointed out, Zimmerman might not have been tried at all had he, too, been black. That may be true, I don’t know. I am, as I said, naïve. I’m hesitant to speak up even this far, for fear I’ll say something accidentally stupid or offensive. As regards the politics of this topic, I really don’t know what I’m doing. But I do understand fairness as a general principle, and I say that as a general principle the burden of proof should always be laid at the feet of whoever it is had the gun.

Because Trayvon Martin is dead. His friends and family will never see him again, and any good that he could have spent his time doing while he was here will not now be done. Rightly or wrongly, that is what  Zimmerman did. He should have to account for himself. If there were a way to somehow make Trayvon not dead, that would be ideal, but, failing that, there should be a way to make sure this doesn’t happen again—even if there is no way to be sure that “this” happened this time to begin with. And maybe the best way to do that is to make sure that any time anyone with power acts against someone of lesser power, even when the other had his own resources and might possibly have offered some kind of genuine threat, that other people ask “why.”

And do not stop asking “why.”

The phoebes on the porch have hatched; three or four little fuzzy heads, three or four raspy little voices. They don’t know or care about any of this.

-best, C.