In Plain Sight

“Dead End.” Street sign seen through my window during Nor’easter # 2 (of 3, so far.) March 8, 2018

New England weather such as it right now, I’m reading more. Needing to replenish my books-to-read queue, between storms I stopped by The Book Rack, a funky, used-bookstore in Arlington, MA. Perusing its chock-a-block “Classics” section, I spotted a paperback edition of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and, vaguely remembering something about its feminist pedigree, gladly paid a whopping $3.00 for Chopin’s “masterpiece”—as declared by its faded, blue, time-worn cover.

The Awakening was first published in 1899, shocking Victorian readers with its frank acknowledgement of female sexuality. So there’s that. Kate Chopin, born in 1851, is a stunningly beautiful writer. So there’s that. The Awakening details how wealthy, New Orleans-based Creole families vacation pre-air conditioning. So there’s that.

There this, too:

Madame Lebrun was busily engaged at the sewing machine. A little black girl sat on the floor, and with her hands worked the treadle of the machine. [Madame Lebrun] does not take any chances which may be avoided of imperiling her health . . . The sewing machine made a resounding clatter in the room; it was a ponderous, bygone make. In the lulls, Robert and his mother exchanged bits of desultory conversation.  (p. 38, AVON BOOKS, 1972.)

What are we to make of this? Is that sarcastic remark regarding Madame Lebrun’s delicate health meant to elicit sympathy for the little black girl producing such resounding clatter? Maybe. A child performing a function most contemporaries of Madame Lebrun—who owns the resort where these Creole families vacation—would have performed themselves? Perhaps. So is Chapin slyly asking us to consider that child?

I wish I knew. Definitively. Because I so long to believe that this ground-breaking novelist saw her sewing room scene with woke eyes. But that Chopin supplies that little, black girl with the plainest of adjectives—I mean, c’mon! The sewing machine got fancier labels—but no name tells us something, I think. And that one family’s nanny is simply the quadroon says the same thing, too, I’m afraid.

But here’s the thing. Once I understood that a (probably very hot and thirsty and exhausted) little girl was in that sewing room, too, she participated in every paragraph I read. That nameless child started when, suddenly, Robert, a young man in his twenties, loudly whistled out the opened window to his brother, three stories below. Silently she took in Robert’s and his mother’s conversation—and, perhaps, gauged whatever they discussed in terms of more hardship for herself? She may have even noticed what Robert’s mother did not: that at the mention of Mrs. Pontellier—whose sexual awakening is what this book’s all about—the besotted young man blushed, maybe. Got flustered, maybe. (Chopin merely had him suddenly leave.)

I see you, little black girl. I see you, quadroon.

 

 

 

 

(Almost)-Spring Cleaning

A Rainy Day at Castle in the Clouds, Moutonborough, N.H.

Sunday, chilled, rainy, very windy, I’d almost wished there’d been a fireplace fire in the meetinghouse fireplace. Surely a hearty blaze would brighten my spirits?  But, no, I realized. If there were to be any cheering up going on that gloomy morning, it would have to come from within!

And I remembered something someone in my yoga class had said on Thursday. (Actually, this was at our pre-yoga class, when we discuss a poem someone has brought in, or the Sutras, or a piece of writing our gifted teacher wishes to share.) One woman talked about sadness, hard times, grief and loss; how we’re sometimes too eager to be happy. “There’s good reasons to feel sad,” she said.

So I let myself sink into despair. Not to “wallow in it,” as my father always cautioned when anyone in our family dared to be sad. (You were allowed to be sad in my family for about five minutes. Then you had to get over it.)  But to be honest! To honor the countless reasons we all have to feel sad.

And, mysteriously, after way more than five minutes of sitting in silence and letting myself “feel the feels,” as my daughter, Hope (!) says, Something happened. As if something inside me had been decluttered, de-cobwebbed, dusted or lemon-oiled or rearranged. As if I’d cleared a space within me to hold this sadness. And it was okay. More than okay. It was exactly what I was supposed to do.

What Joy when we do what we’re supposed to do!

“Excellent For The Times”

Radcliffe College Alumnae Questionnaire; filled out by my grandmother on November 9, 1939

Yesterday, spurred on my my oldest daughter’s curiosity about my beloved “Grandma,” I spent a couple of hours in the Schlesinger Library perusing Florence Moulton Mirick Wild’s alum folder. (Some people go to spas for self-care; I go to the Schlesinger!) A “Special Student” at Radcliffe College from 1897 until 1899, Florence never graduated but, apparently, felt warmly enough about her college experience to at least continue filling out alumnae forms.

[Before taking a brief look at two ah-hahs from yesterday, a warm, hearty Shout-Out to the Schlesinger! Thank you, insightful and wealthy people, for realizing that the lives of women are important. And that women’s letters and ephemera and papers et al. should be preserved. Yes.]

Number of servants.” Not sure what surprised me more; that Radcliffe College wanted to know—or that my grandmother reported in 1931, at a time of great financial struggle for millions of people, that the Wild family employed one servant. I am guessing that servant was female, young, Irish, “right off the boat,” as her son, my father, would say. And I wonder: where is this nameless “One”‘s story preserved? (Sadly, I think I know the answer.)

Excellent for the times“: In my grandmother’s breezy response to a question about how much she earned as “Supervisor for Public School Music” (for the Webster and then the Worcester, MA school systems, 1907 -1912) I detect both her WASPy squeamishness to talk about money and her justifiable pride. How horrified my grandmother would be that in 2018—her first grandchild now a Grandma, too—when it comes to women’s incomes, there still is no parity.

(What would Grandma make of today’s #MeToo movement?)

 

 

It Just Wells Up, Right?

Pre-Dawn Snow Sorm; Nashville International Airport, January, 2018

Sometimes it just hits me: my easeful life is made possible by the labor of thousands, millions of men and women working under conditions I cannot even imagine. Sometimes it just hits me: life is grotesquely unfair. (Yet I will almost always win.) And for hours, days, maybe even as long as a week, that piercing realization informs everything I experience.

But over time, this in-my-bones realization of the enormous disparity between my blessed and privileged life and those “less fortunate” —such a cold and lofty and dishonest phrase! — well, it fades. Lessens. Deadens.

How do I order my life so that this once-piercing realization informs everything I do? A citizen of a deeply connected/ interconnected Beloved Community, how am I to be truly mindful of all its residents?

I wonder.

Kamala Harris for President! (Oprah for Vice Prez)

A Foggy Morning in NOLA, January, 2017

A joke my Lynchburg, Virginia high school classmates used to tell; maybe they still do:

Didja hear about the guy who died on the operating table but the doctors brought him back to life? [No!] Yeah. he saw God. [Pause] She’s black. [Sometimes, they added “And is she pissed!”]

Sixty years after my classmates snickered at such a deity, women of color now sit in the front of the bus. They drive that bus. And fly planes. They sit in boardrooms; they sit in the Senate and the House. They’re the mothers of movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. They got us to the moon.

So, no, while I no more believe in that pissed, black Goddess sitting on her golden throne in the clouds than I do some bearded, white guy, when I consider women like Kamala Harris or Erica Garner or women of color I know and love, the God-as-a-verb way I perceive Spirit deepens. Yes.

“I’m Sorry”

 

My first day at my new, Lynchburg, Virginia high school, a classmate confronted me: “You’re a Yankee, aren’t you?”

In a baby-blue shirtwaist, a white cardigan with pearl buttons draped across my shoulders, fourteen-year-old me nodded.

“I hate Yankees,” she snarled—and recited horrific facts and figures regarding Sherman’s march to the sea.

“But I wasn’t even alive, then,” I sputtered indignantly. “That was the Civil War!”

Civil?” she pounced. “There was nothing civil about it!”

Nearly sixty years later, what might I now say to that woman?

“I’m sorry, ” I’d begin, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book underpinning my careful words. “What Sherman did was unspeakable—well, no, that’s the wrong word. Because you and I, we need to talk about that bloody, horrible war. You and I need to talk about how that war was about maintaining a “peculiar institution.” Let’s talk about slavery, you and I. And I need to talk about the unspeakable injustice my Pilgrim ancestors did to the people whose land they stole. We both need to acknowledge our shared history of oppression. We need to own that our forefathers were the oppressors! So, to begin, Carole Fielder*, let me say this: I am truly sorry for what Sherman did.”

And I would mean every word.

*Voted Most Likely to Succeed by the Class of 1962