We hear a good deal about spirituality these days. The writings from gurus of the spirit like Simone Weil and Thomas Merton teach us to be compassionate, aware, and peaceful as we seek God. However, I got my spiritual lesson by way of raising a teenaged daughter — in Berkeley.
Back then I dreamed of leaving teaching and going to Berkeley to study in the school of religion, where I’d learn from the teachings of spiritual masters. Imagine my surprise when, one September morning, a loud voice interrupted my mystical musings —
“I hate your motherfucking car.”
My daughter Maggie stood in my bedroom doorway glaring at me. She looked formidable in her nightshirt and mammoth high-top sneakers. “What are you talking about?” I asked, surprised by her outburst so early in the day. “My car? You’re going to school. It’ll be okay. ”I finished making my bed, knowing Maggie wasn’t finished.
“That car sucks. I wish I lived with Daddy,” she declared, her dark hair an uncombed mass around her face. “He’s got a good car. I hate living here.” She turned and stomped away.
We weren’t talking about cars. My13-year-old daughter had voiced — in her characteristic language — our misgivings about starting the school year, middle school for her and a new semester of teaching at San Diego High School for me.
I bent over to put on my teaching shoes —black leather flats that seemed like the boots of a mountain hiker. Could I face another year of high-school students, theatre productions, the irritable man in the supply room? I wanted to leave teaching and go to graduate school and seek a spiritual center, perhaps even find God.
I headed for the kitchen, where I made tea. Daisy, my golden spaniel, gazed up at me, wishing for a walk. She looked sad, reflecting my disquiet. “Cheer up, old girl,” I said, speaking to both of us. Maggie’s fury emanated from her bedroom. Was she shoving furniture?
Teaching shoes, the dog’s face, and my spiritual longings — telling signs. Within months I walked away from high-school teaching, took my daughter and my dog, and went to the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.
When I arrived, I found a place with pleasant surroundings and a rich variety of people: gay activists committed to social justice, Asian students talking of “buffalo theology,” a professor interested in religious humor, and one who taught ethics.
My daughter adapted to Berkeley in an instant and moved about the city like a shadow. She wouldn’t attend school and turned to smoking God-knows-what and hanging out at La Val’s Pizza. She was arrested, found driving a stolen pickup, and had drug paraphernalia in her bedroom.
I was never left to myself, it seemed, never could get far from the dark streets where I’d search for my daughter. If I’d had a hair shirt, I’d have worn it.
Then this: “We have to go on Friday, ”Maggie said. “You see, it’s this great thing. We’re going to dress up and everything.”
“What are you talking about?” I muttered and looked outside the apartment window at a gray cat. “You have to explain. Costumes?” A breeze lifted the cat’s thick fur as it walked across the top of a wall.
“We have this movie we go to. It’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show. We go every weekend at midnight. ”As she explained, she looked like an Aztec princess, I thought.
“You want to go to a midnight movie? Wearing a Halloween costume?”
“No! We go at nine to get ready! We sit in the front and we wear the clothes they wear in the movie, and we go over it until we know it.”
“Until you know what?”
“Until we know every word of Rocky Horror! We talk it with them.”
“I see,” I said. “Do you want dinner?”
“I want you to come with us.”
“Go with you? I’ve got this paper to do, and I can’t possibly stay awake that long. Wouldn’t your friends think it funny to have your mother there?”
“I want you to see me in my Rocky clothes. You’d really like it.”
Outside, the gray cat must have continued pacing.
At the movie theater I found the group of young teens fully costumed. My daughter looked like a Native American version of a French housemaid. When the movie started the teens stood up and recited lines with the actors. They sang along to songs like “Hot Patootie.” I was over whelmed by the passion in my daughter.
When I got home I took off my shoes and glasses, undressed and tried to sleep, but I was visited by a rerun of scenes from the movie and the frolicking players. The vision of my daughter as housemaid took me into a housecleaning of my own. The woman who lived behind my saintly eyeglasses had studied a gray cat more intently than she’d looked at her daughter.
I realize now that spirituality doesn’t come from books about God or from hours of meditation. I’m convinced that compassion, awareness and peace come with intense worrying, until our defenses drop away like old boots and we stand in bare feet.
Violent attacks on Asian-Americans have erupted again here in the land of the free. We’ve demonized the Chinese, blaming them for Covid-19. Active hatred still prevails against the Japanese since World War II. White-supremacists have scapegoated American Asians, afraid they dilute the American stereotype — the Anglo-Saxon white.
Little has changed since the day that American racism and fear of Asians touched my life. I remember ….
“Can I get some free paper from the butcher?” I asked Mother, and climbed into the passenger seat of our black Chevrolet. “I told Mrs. Oldham I would, for a banner for Scouts.”
“Yes,” Mother said. “You ask him yourself, and be sure to thank him.” Mother’s glasses shone as she turned around in her seat and backed the car out of the driveway. She had a stern look, as if we were going on a long trip costing a lot of money. We were making the weekly drive to the grocery in our Southern California town, San Gabriel, named for an angel.
Every time we got in the car it was serious business, because in 1942 gasoline was rationed. “There’s a war on,” you heard the grownups say.
The summer sun burned my legs through the windshield, but I was distracted from the discomfort when we passed the San Gabriel Archangel Mission church. A wisteria vine, ripe with purple blooms, covered a high wall that seemed to protect the church from the war. I longed for protection from the guns and bombs that might hit us. We had to darken our windows at night or the bombs could find us.
In town I got out of the car, glad I’d worn my shoes because you could see the waves of heat radiating up from the asphalt. Pretty soon, I thought, I’d get new shoes for Fourth Grade. I loved getting new shoes. Mother looked at me to make sure I was next to her as we crossed the street, but she didn’t take my hand.
The butcher stood behind the white cases of meat along the side of the small market. He tore off some paper, made a roll, and put tape over the end. With the roll over my shoulder like a rifle, I marched behind Mother singing quietly to myself:
From the halls of Montezuma,
To the shores of Tripoli,
We will fight our country’s ba-a-ttles,
On the land and on the sea.
That was my favorite song about the war. General Eisenhower, commander of US forces in Europe, was about to take some 400,000 servicemen to the “shores of Tripoli.” The Germans had attacked Stalingrad. Close to one-third of Europe’s nine million Jews had already been exterminated, but I knew nothing of those facts, let alone where Tripoli was.
Mother and I left the grocery and went next door to the produce market. I was surprised to see no bins of vegetables out front on the sidewalk. The place looked shadowy. I couldn’t hear the familiar music from Mr. Nakajima’s radio. A man in a fedora and white shirt stood outside smoking a cigarette. He stopped us as we started to enter. “This store is closed,” he said. “Mr. Nakajima and his family had to leave.”
“Where’s Mr. Nakajima?” I asked Mother on our way to the car.
“You heard. He had to leave.” I waited for more information. “He’s been taken to a special place for Japanese people because of the war.”
Nothing had ever disappeared from my life before. Everything had always been there — cars moving on our streets, the mission wisteria blooming, Mr. Nakajima in his green apron listening to Bing Crosby on his radio. The bewildering news from this stranger in the hat changed everything. The stores, the heat and the cars had been swallowed by the darkness from inside the empty market. I thought of my five-year-old Austrian cousin Uta, who lived with her family inside the German lines. They had to hide in a dark basement because their home had been destroyed by bombs. I shivered.
“What place?” I asked as we got back to our car. “Who gets his store? Are they coming back? Is Mr. Nakajima in the war now?” You had to ask Mother a lot of questions to get answers.
“They probably won’t be coming back until the war’s over,” she said.
“Why not? He was here last week when we came. He didn’t say anything.”
Mother sat facing straight ahead, her hands on the hot steering wheel. “The Nakajimas had to leave because some people think they’re spies.” She talked slowly as if she didn’t want to say those words.
Spies? That word made me think of black-and-white movies with scary men lurking on a dark street. Mr. Nakajima didn’t fit in a movie like that. I clutched my paper rifle and hummed my song about “the shores of Tripoli” trying to cheer myself with thoughts of new shoes for school.
Did Uta have the shoes she needed, down in that basement?
More about efforts to combat racist attacks against the Asian community can be found at StandAgainstHatred.org.
This is an excerpt from a longer piece, “California, 1942,” published by the Preservation Foundation, 2015.
As a former teacher I’m especially concerned about the welfare of young offenders. Last month Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote the majority opinion that a minor can still be sentenced to life without parole if the young person is “permanently incorrigible.” Isn’t the problem of children who commit crimes more complicated, more nuanced?
I’ve been to prisons and jails with my credentials spread out on grubby tables, heard the sounds of clanking iron, and been left in waiting rooms with stained walls and pungent smells. One time I was ordered to change my shirt before I could enter because when I lifted my arms the waistband of my slacks showed. I was visiting a teenage student from my sophomore English class who’d been sentenced to life in prison for murder, and I was too intimidated to laugh at the waistband rules. I walked into this:
A huge place with tiny humans
Ants in a remote stronghold.
He waits in a noisy room
A boy of seventeen
In a hot Mojave fortress
Two men; a fat woman
In dark green
Hung with weapons
Survey from above
Bored and chewing
Who are you?
That’s a new one.
The boy’s face
Meant for angel paintings
Charles is still there, now a sick middle-aged man. His attempts at parole, over the forty years he’s been locked up, have been unsuccessful due to department ineptitude and his own reluctance to speak up and show contrition.
While serving his sentence he has managed to get academic credits and obtain various jobs that help him survive. He’s taught himself computer skills and assisted prison workers. I’ve monitored his writing and watched him grow intellectually. He has developed a newsletter, hoping to reach an audience, but he is not capable of shouting for his rights. Child offenders, like him, are supposed to get special consideration, be eligible for parole when found to be cooperative, but Charles can’t demand. He’s a quiet person.
The detectives, the lawyers, the probation people I’ve met have sometimes been talented and kind. The facts, however, are hard. In his book American Gulag, Mark Dow reports that American immigration authorities hold people in prison under extremely harsh conditions, like the Somali man they left to bake in the sun in a sealed car to discourage other immigrants from applying for asylum. In Ted Conover’s book Newjack, Guarding Sing-Sing, about his job as a prison guard, he describes dehumanizing conditions. Again, the need for change is urgent.
I’m appalled by our efforts to contract out the building and maintenance of prisons to private companies to run them for profit! The results have failed. Scotland, New Zealand, and Norway have instituted some productive, humane solutions that deserve attention, and I’ve read that South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia and Texas are slashing incarceration rates after concluding that the old lock-em-up policies are a pricey failure. North Dakota has made changes after studying the innovations in Norway, where guards must have at least two conversations per shift with each inmate under their supervision. What a concept!
Mostly, we’re afraid to coddle prisoners lest we encourage them and let them loose to hurt us. It’s time Arizona took a more sensible look at our systems. What keeps us safe, anyway? It doesn’t seem to be adding new jails and loading cells with people of color. I’m sure it isn’t English teachers whose waistbands might drive a prison population to revolt. I’m not qualified to pronounce on what can work best: decriminalize drugs? improve our schools? find ways to employ young men? better training and screening of police? I do know we need a system in which a boy like Charles is not lost forever.
I like the metaphor ‘raising all boats’ as a way to look at social problems. With the goal of improving life for all people, I think our kids will thrive.
Elaine is offering a class on memoir for women. If you're interested, contact her at email@example.com
I have a long list of complaints about aging, of course. Along with worrying about arthritis, I worry about the teens I see around me. Their lives seem so complicated — so overwhelmed by social media. However, I’m delighted to see many of them confronting life with daring energy. When I saw some young people wearing tee shirts that said ‘Wild and Free,’ the message reminded me how much I love feisty teenagers.
It’s the obedient ones who worry me — those not threading their way through our confusing culture, suffering and learning as they find their way. It’s as if they’re hiding, kept from the world so completely that they don’t understand it.
While in my community they often grow up to be honest and hard-working, I find bland, well-behaved youth dull. My aging soul is not enriched — or surprised, or charmed — by robotic predictability. Though kindly folk on the whole, some young people are intolerant of diversity and horrified by everything from Harry Potter to sex education. While I don’t want our youth to defy civility, curse at me, ride roughshod over the landscape or hurt animals, I’d like to see some original thinking from that corner. I’d like them to look through wide windows open to the world and let in a freshness.
My teenage neighbor Linda finds me dangerous because I favor reproductive choice for women. She’s going to stay chaste, she says, until she gets married. Linda seems to be a classic example of a strictly controlled Bible-believing girl who’s kept at home, forbidden television, and monitored in social situations. She tells me her father beats her when she disobeys the rules of family and church. I imagine Linda trapped behind sturdy fortress walls.
Linda concerns me not only because she’s ill treated but also because she’s as lost to us as the woman hidden behind a scarf in Iran. It seems to me we have to allow our young people a chance question what’s out there — what I call critical thinking. While young people always need guidance, our youth need to make their journey unimpeded by the domination of church or the tyranny of heavy-handed fathers. It’s not overstated, I think, to call that overprotection a betrayal.
Youthful, counterculture exuberance ... is the mark of a healthy society.
I wish these passive teens could stand their ground and try on more muscular thinking. They say we lack moral fiber. What is moral fiber anyway?
The glory of being young, as I see it, is a capacity to shock us, to push the rest of us around a corner. I’d like them to confront us and our certainties. Lately we’ve seen young people march against oppression, call for justice, and exhort us to work for climate change. That sort of youthful, counterculture exuberance — made visual in some eccentric clothing — is what I feel is the mark of a healthy society. I’m thinking of young people such as David Hogg and Alex Wind, who have been at the center of a massive youth movement for gun control after a massacre at their school. Marley Dias, at fourteen, wrote a book with a black heroine because she was tired of reading about white boys and their dogs, she said.
Nothing’s wrong with wholesome living, but it should be evaluated as much as any other way of life. I think the young should badger, question, confront society and ask penetrating questions we don’t want to answer. If we keep them closeted or marching in robotic lockstep, I don’t think they can bring a worthwhile response to our complex society. Give me a quarrelsome, fired-up teen and I’ll show you a human being on the way to wisdom.
If compliant youth would look through the slits in their walls at me, I’d enjoy fixing them with an aging brown eye. I’d argue with them about the flag and the Bible and the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman. I have some experience in the marriage department.
According to Doris the Dieter, writes a humorist, “It is better to have loved and lost than it is to have loved and put on 15 pounds.” I go for the 15 pounds and love. We think too much about those pounds. I’d go so far as to say that it’s cost us our very souls when we think constantly about our weight.
I’ve been paying attention lately to our pervasive wish to be thin — those worries about not being as tiny as a twelve-year-old. Some of us women want to look like famine victims instead of people with different body shapes. The cause of this obsession has been studied, but I’m most interested in the results, what the dream to be thin is doing to us.
After every meal we review whether we need to feel guilty about having eaten too much. The time we spend on such nonsense is incalculable. Kim Chernin’s book about people who are obsessed with being thin is called, of course, The Obsession, and it pretty much describes me. I’ve associated being trim with success in love, with success in my youthful hopes to be an actress, and with success as a worthy human being. How can that have happened to me? I’m a student of religion, for God’s sake, one who ponders the infinite — and her body weight.
We know about the growing incidence of anorexia among young girls. These girls become “celebrities of self-discipline,” Chernin says. They claim to hate their bodies, and I’m sorry that our culture has made them think something is very wrong with the person in the mirror. They waste away, and some of them die. They deny natural instincts until there are no more.
We need to come to terms with the fact that we are flesh and blood.
As I’ve watched myself and the students I’ve taught, I’m aware that if we feel overweight, the horror at what we see in the mirror seeps into consciousness until we despise the very self within. Our powerful self-critical spirit is affirmed, and that self-hatred is not healthy. It’s not normal. Not life-affirming. It’s a serious source of depression. We’ve taken this thin-obsession to the point of absurdity. We’re in trouble when we make remarks like this: “I’m sorry to hear she has cancer, but at least she’ll lose weight,” a comment I overheard recently from a middle-aged woman.
Religious teachings have created part of the problem, believe it or not. They’ve promoted a dislike of our bodies, as if our bodies are evil and their urges evil. That thinking has dominated pious folk for centuries. Our Puritan heritage of values like fortitude, commitment, hard work, and piety has left us some darker values as well. In fact, Puritan diaries, especially those of women, reveal a harsh, punishing attitude toward anything plentiful, comfortable, easy or silly. These ascetic Puritans preached attention to righteousness to such an extent that outward signs of easy pleasure were taken to be indications of inward sin. (I think they still are — ever had a lazy day without feeling guilty?) Puritans watched each other for signs of these indiscretions, fearing that their neighbors were headed to hell. One of these evils was gluttony. We still bear their legacy of guilt for that second helping.
Some religious teachers say we need to overcome desires of the body because they are bad even though our natural appetites urge us to eat, and rest, and want sex. Those pleasures are decadent, they say, so we should deny ourselves and be concerned with . . . what? Matters of belief? Yes, said the Puritans. Their young girls who didn’t pray, read their holy books and deny the self were punished harshly.
We have other dubious sources that encourage dieting. The gurus of healthy eating caution us to avoid all fatty foods. New research is showing that fat in the diet not only brings comfort, it aids digestion, protects the circulatory system, and makes skin and hair glow. It may be that enough fat provides the strength necessary to keep us from craving sugar and white flour. Try telling that to the hard-line dieters who are hell-bent on avoiding the pleasures of rich food. It’s easy to see that sacrificing pleasure on the altar of health makes for sour faces and yet more self-hatred.
I think we need to come to terms with the fact that we are flesh and blood. If we keep denying appetite, wishing we were a different size, yearning to be what we are not, we are unable to accept even the soul-parts of ourselves. That is, when we hate our bodies, we can come to despise our inner selves, our spirits, because body and soul are connected. We are unified beings. The spirit vibrates to the way the body moves and lives. We dancers need to dance. We singers need to sing. We gardeners need to plow. Our hungers need attention. We need to value the body as it is, and stop wishing it away.
I sing the body electric.
I’d been working on that book about my life in Arizona for three years, typing away in my little office and yearning for recognition. This prize would mean I’d present my work to an audience, reading my words in a public setting. I loved the idea! I liked to be in the spotlight. As a kid, I longed to be a movie star like Katharine Hepburn. How hard could it be to do a public reading? Put pretty clothes on me and let me strut my stuff! Here was an opportunity to stand before a sophisticated assemblage and read from my own writing.
I’d written this Arizona memoir about my rocky marriage and my choice to lead a small congregation as a Protestant minister in the tiny area known as Dewey. The memoir had originality, funny people, and a unique western setting. Entering that book into a prominent contest at a prestigious conference seemed a way to let me know whether readers would be interested in my Arizona world. It would let me know if I was a real writer who might one day be published. It would be the inspiration I’d need to keep writing. And then, who knows?
Asking friends, and my sister, to read portions of my book was the only way I’d had any feedback on my memoir so far. Who knew whether a retired English teacher could write anything? Maybe I was fooling myself. I’d hoped this contest would tell me if my book was worthy. I needed to know.
At last I had a supportive announcement from outside my community — from San Francisco, the cosmopolitan City by the Bay. I could imagine that evening. After we winners were presented in front of the entire conference of several hundred, including my sister, I’d stand at the podium and read from my memoir. Writers from around the country would be there, as would literary agents. This win would launch my memoir into publication! I couldn’t keep the news to myself.
I wrote an email to our local writers club and they notified the entire association that my memoir excerpt had won a prize at the San Francisco Writers Conference. The members’ kindly responses to the announcement came in at once. I contacted my sister, who also gave generous remarks of support. I’m not shy about sharing. I told everyone.
“You’ve made it!” said a gray-haired woman in my singing group.
“I can’t wait to read your memoir,” said my chiropractor.
“You’re the first writer I ever knew in person,” said my hairdresser.
“All that work has paid off,” said my husband.
I was informed the next day in an email that the San Francisco Conference Anthology would include my submission to the contest. That was even more encouragement. The photo of the Golden Gate Bridge to be used on the cover of the collection looked so inspiring; surely the book was an authentic volume of good writing. However, I did notice that the anthology was to be compiled of all the contest entries in 17 days. The publisher would be selling the anthology to us at the conference. Never mind the self-interest there, I decided; I was actually published in a book.
“You’ve made it!” said a gray-haired woman in my singing group.
I spent some time rehearsing my reading. I polished the first page so it read like “silk off a spool,” as Emily said in Our Town. Reading in front of an audience — in San Francisco! — could be daunting, and my memoir selection had to be perfect. I had fun imagining the experience — the audience, the stage, the distinguished judges.
Then I planned my wardrobe for rainy San Francisco. We’d be at a fine old hotel, the Mark Hopkins, and I’d need to wear the sophisticated black of a Nob Hill honoree. This was the perfect opportunity to wear the Ralph Lauren jacket I’d found on sale. Everything seemed to fall into place. I was set for the trip.
Rain did indeed fall, right on my head, bigtime. The day before I left for the conference I had an email telling me that if I’d not been notified of a prize, I was not a winner in the contest. I’d had no notification that I’d won a prize. My name on the top of the list of finalists didn’t indicate the first place winner; it wasn’t second or third place either.
Why hadn’t they said in the letter that “from this list of finalists the winners will be chosen?” Maybe they said that and I missed it. Why hadn’t I read the letter more carefully? Why wasn’t I skeptical of their questionable book promotion? I wish I’d done a lot of things. Among the first that comes to mind is the practice of restraint, a sign of the mature person. In the heat of triumph I’d set aside reason, rearranged reality, and made myself a prizewinner.
I went to the conference with my sister and sat primly when prizes were awarded. Everyone envied my Ralph Lauren jacket.
Elaine’s memoir, Mrs. Ogg Played the Harp, was eventually published and won first place in the Great Southwest Literary Contest. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The letters had been filed among my books for many years, translated from the German and typed on onionskin paper. The pale type is like the faded idealism that emerges from the words. I feel I’ve uncovered the cries of children. Like toddlers, these letters interrupt my cleaning project. They make me sad, wanting to eat or watch television so I can forget that our youthful warriors still bleed and hope on battlefields today.
Letter One: Before he was killed in December 1914, Emil wrote that he was fighting for “a pure, true, honorable Germany, without baseness and deception.” He added that Germany’s victory in that war will “make people inwardly better.” Emil was 22.
Letter Two: Martin believed he’d return triumphant. An infantryman, Martin believed he was an instrument in God’s plan. “I will live on and on. I am calmed and protected,” he proclaimed before he was killed at 21. He wrote that he’d rather die to make Germany more honorable, pure and true, than win a war that had no purifying effect.
Letter Three: Wilhelm — killed at age 20 — wrote in the midst of “burning villages, the moaning of the wounded,” saying, “God’s goodness will always create a compensation, a completing and fulfilling.” He too was convinced of the sacred nobility of the fight and its final triumph.
It’s as if I’ve found these patriotic words of hope written on papyrus in some ancient cave instead of in my bookcase. I hold Emil’s letter on its thin paper, astonished at its religious sentiments from a soldier of an army that had smashed through Belgium and advanced on Paris. The German army wanted to crush the nations that allowed the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne to be assassinated.
By the time of Wilhelm’s letter, they’d fought in grueling trench warfare and used poison gas. With their defeat of the Russians at Tannenberg, Emil and the others may have felt new aspirations, inspiring the hope we find in their letters. Or perhaps the “moaning of the wounded” forced them to turn to their religious and patriotic convictions for support.
Years ago I’d put the letters away unread. I was a busy young mother when they were handed to me by Helena Nye, who was living at that time in a retirement complex in my neighborhood. A former scholar of the German language at Stanford, Nye had been tutoring me in German.
When I visited Miss Nye I could leave behind the trials of raising children and the sorrows of a bleak marriage. I found comfort in her spirit and in the quiet of the gardens at her residence. She gave me the translated letters one afternoon after our walk around the adjacent nursing home. She’d visited the bedridden while I sat in hallways and listened to the murmuring of the people she patted and encouraged.
Miss Nye died shortly after she gave me the letters, but I kept them safe, knowing the ideals in them touched her heart. I’m sure she intended to publish them, perhaps in some pacifist manifesto. “And now the letters of fallen students,” she says in an accompanying comment. “Note the earnest and pitiful searchings . . .. These soldiers have an idealism of soul, yearnings for democracy, for humanity, for God.” She made each dead youth a blameless victim and his loss tragic. Her notes vibrate with heartache.
Miss Nye called war wicked and stupid. I imagine she hoped her angry message would influence her young American pre-meds at Stanford — all male in her day — cautioning them to think before waging senseless wars of “terrible carnage. ”Her passion may have helped inspire the dissent of the decade that followed, after she retired, when students marched to protest the Vietnam War. I like to think her spirit marched with them.
Those German letters seem not only from the past but also from another planet. War as the refining fire? God’s protection in battle? War making people inwardly better? It amazes me that these warriors of 1914 believed their fight was part of a noble cause ordained by God. They actually believed they could keep evil from the gates with their heroic sacrifices because they were on the side of the angels.
The kind of triumphal high-mindedness we find in those German letters is what I see here in America, where our nation is proclaimed to be part of God’s plan and our perceived enemies the “axis of evil.” I’m shocked by religious leaders who preach American exceptionalism, characterizing the United States as a place ordained by the Bible. They mistakenly bathe American schemes in a light of glorious rectitude that resembles the idealistic glow emanating from my 1914 letters.
Had Emil lived beyond his twenties, he'd have learned that his enemies would triumph. Perhaps he would have acquired my cynicism, his idealism seeping away into the bloody dirt of war. I can imagine him with Martin and Wilhelm on a wide porch in rocking chairs as they puff on pipes, sip their schnapps and despair at fallen dreams of their god’s protection in a righteous war.
We’re all on that porch, I think, trying to make sense of military interventions and speculating where God is in all the suffering.
Elaine Jordan, author of Mrs Ogg Played the Harp, is a local editor who’s lived in Prescott for thirty years.
I stand and face my visitor, surprised by a person I don’t know. What’s this about? Late sunlight comes in slanted beams through the window-blinds, marking stripes of light and shade on the two of us. She and I don’t match, though we must be the same age. She’s a shadow— an imploded soul, protected by a purse, standing opposite my healthy, high-heeled persona garrisoned behind a solid oak teacher’s desk.
“I’m Jared’s mother,” the woman says. Facing me is a mother whose son had recently died of complications from the flu. “You know we lost him on Friday,” she adds. “I’m here to collect everything you have in . . . his handwriting.” She looks around the room as if searching for her boy.
“Oh . . . yes.” I’d known of Jared’s incomprehensible death. He’d been a student in my Junior English class. The news of his death had shocked me, but I was unacquainted with the sorrow I saw in this woman. Did I have any of Jared’s papers? Was there an essay on the bulletin board? No. I’d eliminated the boy from the room, crossed off his name and re-ordered the seating chart. Looking back, I’m astounded at this callous reaction from one who teaches the wisdom and compassion of poets.
My face flushes. A clanging noise interrupts from outside. Someone has taken down the American flag for the night, and the fasteners slam a harsh reprimand against the pole. “I’m sorry. I don’t think I have any of his papers . . . Mrs. Kenten.” Embarrassed for stumbling over her name, I’m unable to meet my visitor’s eyes. Why hadn’t I anticipated this? A child had died, for God’s sake. My head starts to ache. “I’m so sorry.”
I’d not really known Jared. His narrow white face matched his twin sister’s. They had the same thin brown hair and dark eyes. He was a silent boy. I didn’t remember a word he’d offered during class discussions. What books had he read? Did he laugh with the rest at classroom antics?
Mrs. Kenten hurriedly leaves the classroom. I gather papers and follow. Outside, a fall darkness is descending too early. Conscious of my unsteady walk, I go to the drinking fountain, take two aspirin, and force myself to walk to my car. I want the quiet of my home. Once there, I can tend to the grassy yard where a sycamore tree, and a silent cat, provide steadiness and calm.
Later, dressed in the clothes of a gardener, I screw the nozzle on the hose, turn the pressure to full force and make a wide arc of shimmering water in the twilight. The sycamore accepts my ministry without a noisy word. My gray cat Prince at my feet, I try to blend into the green in some metaphysical way. But the scene doesn’t shimmer with transcendence; it surrounds me, as inert as always. The cat brushes against my leg. I’m bound to this prosaic backyard by uncomfortable reality. Jared, I’m sorry.
Then, in a whiff of sunlight, a spray from the hose drifts over me like a blessing, bringing smells ofwet grass, leaves moldering. A bold mockingbird calls out. She’s eyeing Prince so she can dive down and peck his vulnerable bottom. They race around the yard, but Prince manages to evade attack by taking shelter in the ivy. They do this every day after school — the bully and the victim. I try not to see myself in that brutal bird.
I move to the paved driveway, and the sight of the water shooting pebbles off the asphalt diverts guilty thoughts in a pleasant scattering rush. Pushing those stones makes me feel like I’ve cleared a path, found a way forward.
Inside, a few minutes later, Prince hops to the couch and positions himself to observe the birds fluttering in the sycamore outside. I sit in a comfortable chair facing outward too. Cat and I stare into a grayer world, empty of birdsong. I see no promise in the coming darkness. Feelings of guilt return, thundering in my head.
Then, an image of the sun on watered grass brings a dappled hope. Perhaps everything depends, as Emily Dickinson wrote, on the “slant of light.” Maybe I can go on trying to be a teacher. With enough light, I can believe that violence will end, the planet will survive and people will find ways to exist with enough resources. Hope and despair seem to move in my consciousness like the shadows on the floor of the classroom.
Today, some years later, I no longer wear high heels or live under a sycamore tree, and I don’t remember her face, but I’ll not forget that purse and the sound of the fasteners clanging on the flagpole, a memory ofmy failure that lives like a pebble fastened in my heart.
Photo by Cheryl Berry
We’d decided to spend the summer in Virginia, after our junior year in college. We’d go to a town called Petersburg. It would be exciting for us sheltered 19-year-olds — to go far away from our California college to a town where my boyfriend was a youth leader in a Methodist church. We’d work as his assistants with the Sunday school children. He assured us he’d take care of everything. And he did — except he couldn’t ease our shock at being set down in the reconstructed South of 1955.
My friend Ann, a blue-eyed blond with a wide smile, was a science major from California. I was her tall, brown-haired literary friend, also from California. We were both comfortable with church work and enthusiastic about a trip to historic Virginia. We arrived in Petersburg on a hot day in June. My boyfriend greeted us heartily, as if we’d landed in a delightful resort. However, except for his high spirits, Petersburg seemed sodden with low energy. Movement was slow. Voices were muted; the air moist. Indoors, ceiling fans provided the only movement of air. Virginia felt like the outer reaches of the Amazon.
“You two Yankees?”
“No. We’re from California.”
“You sound like Yankees.”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
As ignorant college students, we didn’t know we’d stepped onto a Civil War battlefield where General Grant had cut off supply lines to the town during a horrendous attack, decimating and killing. The people in the church remembered everything. Ann and I were not aware of this memory of suffering. It seemed inconceivable, even laughable, that we were suspected to be enemy Yankees, as if we were part of a battalion hiding out in California waiting to invade and burn down houses. Actually, we’d invaded Petersburg from a prosperous western town, all sunshine and orange trees.
We didn’t realize that when rage reconstructed the South after the Civil War, it built a zone of customs while we in the sunny West panned gold and irrigated our deserts.
“You walked over here to the house in those pants?”
“Yes. They’re comfortable —"
“We don’t wear pants on public streets.”
“I see. I’m sorry.”
“We’ll drive you back.”
We had no language to access the culture, no map to help us find our way in this wooded land where the Civil War burned a slash through wounded hearts. As a young college student who should have known better, I knew more about ancient Roman slave practices than I did of the American South in the Fifties, but we settled into our little Petersburg rental, and under our desultory ceiling fan Ann and I talked into the night about this curious place.
Despite our clumsiness, the church work with the children was fun. Watched by the silent custodian, Washington — leaning over his broom — we set about getting to know the church. Along with our students, we planned a party at the church for the Black children who lived in a local orphanage. We’d have games and treats and perhaps build friendships. Church members seemed to approve.
“That sounds like a nice idea.”
“We could set up tables in the back area and eat outside!”
“Yes. That would be fine, except …”
“Is something wrong?”
“The Negro children won’t use the church bathrooms, of course.”
Did she really say that? As a white girl in the segregated South, I have to say I wasn’t infuriated. We adjusted. We were the outsiders and wanted to get along. Ann and I couldn’t articulate — or even feel — any outrage; that would come later. Still, we took note, made sure we’d remember.
“Would you like to stay and teach in our schools?”
“I’m only 19! I have no degree!”
“That’s not a problem. Our Negro schools need teachers.”
In Petersburg I was part of a ruling class, a privileged order. Like our church custodian, Washington — never without his broom — Black folk were servants, silent and apart, while I could be loud, pushy, and in front. I’d swept into a storybook place where jobs were offered. I was a princess to whom people bowed. If I’d been twelve years old, I’d have enjoyed the deference.
One day the tidy white church secretary gave us startling instructions: “That Nigra woman can’t sit on our church steps. It wouldn’t be right.” Through the window, we glanced outside to see a woman in a straw hat fanning herself. She rested on the church steps next to her shopping bag.
“What are you saying? We can’t tell her to move!”
Then Washington spoke from where he stood in a doorway leaning on his broom. “I’ll take care of it.” What must he have thought? Maybe you can’t really know what it’s like to live in a divided world until you push a broom in a bathroom you can’t use.
Now, from my older perspective, I look over my spectacles at my town, at Prescott in the present day, and am aware that divisions are still with us, still separating the favored from the marginalized. Even in our so-called ‘Everybody’s Hometown’ we’re being served by people who don’t have real names, people who don’t meet your eyes, people who avoid being alone in a room with you. Worse still, a recent standoff on the Square reminded me that some here are ready to attack protesters carrying signs for equity.
Those disturbing events bring back Virginia memories — and the image of Washington leaning on his broom.