Dressed in black, unadorned by jewelry, the lean woman stands in front of the class like an exclamation point, a dark stroke in this bland room. We students sit and face her — ten women who’ve come here to the Mendocino Writing Conference eager to learn about nonfiction from an author we admire, Eleanor Cooney.
The first thing we notice is our instructor’s long brown hair, straight, sleek and youthful. I find it inappropriate, as if she’s posing as a girl instead of a mature, wise writer. Authors, it seems to me, wear glasses, have short haircuts. Cooney looks exotic. Her two-foot mane swings from side to side while she talks, as if her switch of hair propels energy. It’s her shield and muse, moving around her face, covering and animating. The dizzying, hypnotic effect unnerves me.
We student observers don’t look like Eleanor Cooney. We’re short-haired women shielded by colorful sweatshirts and parkas, adorned by earrings and wedding bands. Gathered in an expensive writers workshop on a foggy, ocean-smelling August morning on the California coast, we’re amateurs who hope to publish our articles and essays some day. I hope we’ll get to know each other, become a troupe of writers telling our stories with clever literary techniques. I expect Cooney will supply handouts, tips on the construction of nonfiction, especially notes on the wonders of memoir.
The room is too quiet for friendly talk.Our attention is fixed on the front of the class. How this awesome woman can be a teacher surprises me. She looks like a long-nosed Amazon, a warrior-woman who doesn’t live indoors, certainly not in a classroom. I imagine she wants to be alone, staring out at the infinite Pacific Ocean. I don’t have anything like that solitary Cooney temperament. I don’t know if I’m brave enough. But I know I want to learn what she has to tell me. We listen wide-eyed, fearful, like captives held at gunpoint.
Instead of lecturing, Cooney takes our manuscripts, sent in ahead of time, and reads parts of them aloud, with no preamble or criticism. She’s chosen only the parts in the essays she likes, and we’re riveted by her voice, that swinging hair, our words read in that musical way. We get what she’s emphasizing: how honesty is everything. She has no need to condemn the sloppy stuff. She explains how the truth of our feelings and experience is what we must use to touch people who choose to read what we write. Nothing else matters, she says, and bends over the desk, retreating for a moment behind her hair until she pulls the brown partition back and looks at us again.
Cooney explains her process of writing her memoir, Death in Slow Motion, an account of the death of her mother from Alzheimer’s disease. She tells how she stripped the story of everything pretty. “Alarming,” our deep-voiced leader says. “I like alarming, disturbing, irreverent writing.” The words describe Cooney herself, disturbing and alarming. She makes me feel shallow and frivolous. I wish I’d worn plain clothing, understated, so I could take on this rich, exciting idea: wear the truth and nothing else. I wish I had the courage to let my hair grow long.
Gazing into the distance, Cooney smooths her hair with her right hand as if to polish her speech. I look away too, alarmed by the invitation — to be like her. She has a Bronte look, I think. She belongs on a horse, waving a sword. In a sense she’s used a sword — herself — to cut through civilized manners that get in the way of truth-telling. The morning haze, a Pacific fog, blurs the room, thank God, so I don’t have to confront what this teacher represents.
What would happen if we became disturbing and irreverent, and wrote as Eleanor teaches? What if we contrived strands of words that grew powerful, swinging dark and wide? The thought stuns me. I’ve never considered letting the irreverent come into my writing. Could I dig into the dark places? The guilt I’ve felt for my own inadequacies? The hopelessness I felt as a mother? The despair of a failed marriage?
I have to glance away from this teacher whose black form challenges and frightens me. She might conjure and change the reality I’ve created, a safe place where I can be the polite, smiling lady I present to the world. Could I abandon that persona in my writing, and tell the truth?
The sea outside our window churns and murmurs, a backdrop for the unease that moves through the room as each of us feels tempted by a sorceress.
“Drive by Wilson School,” I said. “Could it still be there?”
“Remember Mrs. Suprenand, the principal?” asked my sister Connie. “We called her Superman and thought we were so clever.”
At the wheel of our rented car, Connie turned onto familiar residential streets and we peered out at our old neighborhood. Wilson School looked much the same, small and neglected.
We’d decided to take a roots trip, two grandmothers on a journey to see the house and street where we’d grown up. Having driven from the airport through Los Angeles on a warm spring afternoon, we arrived in San Gabriel, our California mission town. It would be a treat to revisit our childhood home, I thought, not realizing it would also surprise me.
“Superman is probably dead,” I said. “Makes me feel old. But I bet Billy is still alive somewhere. He was the cutest boy in school.”
“I don’t remember thinking he was cute,” my sensible sister said. “I do remember Mrs. Maple in her bathrobe. She never wore anything else.”
The neighborhood looked as tranquil as we remembered, a California postcard. Our ranch-style house was different from the other homes on the block. It had a long front porch with a row of posts along its length. When we lived there my father had put a wagon wheel against one of the posts. Very pioneer. Very Western. I’d imagine myself a cowgirl on that porch, gazing out at ranchland, the sounds of bawling cattle in the background.
I felt conscious of changes in me since we’d lived here. I’d gone from barefoot youngster to high-school teacher to minister in Arizona. Connie had raised five children on a farm in Michigan. Our ranch house, though, stood unchanged, except the wagon wheel was gone.
In the center of our front yard, the oak tree my father had planted on my tenth birthday stands like a monument, its thick trunk and branches reaching higher than the orange trees on the block. I imagined the oak to be a symbol of my own sturdy self. Like me, the tree was still standing, healthy and real. How satisfying!
My sister and I walked up the driveway, past the oak tree, and knocked on the front door. I knew what the inside of our house would be like. I’ve no idea what my sister was imagining, her face poised as always. I’d find our bedroom with the window to the backyard and the tiny bathroom the four of us shared. I could already hear Mother’s voice and smell my father’s pipe.
The current owner, a woman wearing a painter’s smock, invited us in. We told her how our parents had built the house on a street carved from an orchard where acres of citrus trees stretched for miles. Back then, there were no freeways, or sidewalks, or shopping malls. During the Korean War Toby, a neighbor boy, enlisted and was killed. She listened politely to our stories.
The interior of our ranch house looked all wrong! The shelves around the dining-room window-niche no longer held German beer mugs. The living-room fireplace should face two green wing-chairs. The screened-in porch used to have a cement floor where Connie learned to roller-skate; now it was carpeted and looked like a TV room. How could the owner live like this? There were no smells of Prince Albert tobacco. My mother wasn’t standing in the white kitchen. My mother was dead.
I knew how foolish it was to expect our things to be in these rooms, and I tried to keep from making absurd comments, but until I’d walked in, I was connected to my early life by tangible imagesm like the backyard incinerator where I’d burned trash, or the mangle that squeezed the wet clothes in the laundry. Now, the emblems of my past had been erased; only an oak tree remained.
My sister seemed as serene as always, a model of well-groomed composure. Speaking in a low voice, she talked with the owner, who told us she was an artist, and we admired her still-life paintings of flowers and old clocks. I could understand why she wanted to capture a scene and make it stay unmoving forever. I wanted things to be fixed too. People talk about “moving on,” as if they could leave behind their stories. That sounds like death to me.
Connie and I said goodbye to the artist and walked out to the car. Before we drove off, I stared at the oak tree and remembered my father on the day he’d planted it, working the shovel and talking about how the skinny sapling would grow with me. The vision centered my spirit, quieted my heart and rooted me in gratitude for a good sister and a home preserved in good memories.
When I read recently of the new production of The Merchant of Venice starring a black actor, John Douglas Thompson, as Shylock, I wondered what an actor of color would bring to that role, a Jewish character who schemes of revenge. A memory of my efforts to teach Shakespeare in the Sixties came back.
I see myself in front of a group of teen students holding copies of Shakespeare’s Merchant — a stack of small, tattered paperbacks. Tall windows, bright with sunlight, make this a pleasant setting, and the atmosphere is friendly.
When I taught, our literature curriculum favored only privileged European voices, as Christine Torres points out in Education Weekly. I was trained in the tradition of English literature as the foundation of all things cultural — never mind the Latino and Asian heritages of some of the California teenagers in the room — and I felt the students needed Shakespeare’s Merchant as part of their education.
Me: This is The Merchant of Venice, a play by Shakespeare. (I distribute copies of the play to the students.)
Brian: I’ve heard of it.
Olivia: Is that clock right?
Me: Turn to the first scene. I’d like you to read parts. I know the language is unfamiliar, but let’s try. I’ll explain words that are difficult to understand. This is a comedy, but nothing like the comedy you’re used to.
John: (raises hand) I’ll read.
Me: Do you want to be Shylock? It’s the pivotal role.
John: Yes! Is he the Merchant?
Me: Not exactly. You’ll see.
Olivia: Will there be a test on this?
Me: No. You don’t need to worry. Just try to follow along. Ask questions if you get lost.
Brian: I’m always lost.
John: Are there knives in this? Oh, I forgot, it’s a comedy. Probably no knives.
Olivia: You’re going to make us write an essay; I can feel it in my bones.
Me: Can you wait and see?
Brian: I need to close the blinds. I can’t see the page. (He goes to windows and tilts the blinds, then stands and plays with the cords and stares outside.) Someone’s going home early.
Me: Brian, please sit down. I want to get to scene two. (Brian meanders to his seat.)
Brian: Why do we always have to study Shakespeare? Why can’t we read Gilligan’s Island?
John: I can’t find my part. The Shylock guy isn’t even in this.
Me: Just wait, John. Wait till you meet Shylock; he’s intrigued people since the 16century.
John: If you say so. (sighs) That name ‘Shylock’ sounds bad. Are you sure it’s the best part?
Me: Let’s try the next scene, with Portia and her suitors.
Olivia: What’s a suitor?
John: At least I know that much. It’s a guy who wants to marry her.
Brian: Venice must’ve had rich people. A servant for Lady Portia, and all those suitors.
Me: Yes. Shakespeare wrote this in 16th-century England, when wealth was in the hands of the few, and the rich had servants. Now comes the Shylock scene.
Brian: It says he’s a Jew! What’s that about? I thought they were Italians.
Olivia: I know about the Jews. Venice is a Christian country, and they didn’t like Jews back then.
Me: I have to mention that Venice is a city in Italy, not a country — but you’ve got it right, Olivia, about prejudice against Jews. In Venice, and throughout much of Europe at the time, Jews were not of the dominant Christian religion and were outcasts. Shakespeare is not kind to Shylock, you’ll notice.
John: We have a neighbor who’s a Jew. I think he’s a banker.
Olivia: Yes! In those days, they wouldn’t let Jews be anything but bankers, and people hated them. I read it in Ivanhoe.
Me: This play is about a Jew who takes on the Christians with anger and wit.
Olivia: I see an essay coming.
Brian: Where’s the comedy? I can be the clown.
Me: This comedy doesn’t have clowns. It ends happily, so it’s considered a comedy. Brian, you’re the Merchant, Antonio, the handsome suitor! Give this a chance. See what you think.
John: I think this is pretty good, even without knives — but Gilligan’s Island would be more fun.
I realize now that my teaching life was biased and sheltered; it even has the atmosphere of innocence. I wonder whether Shylock is even studied in Prescott schools. The struggles teachers face today, like school shootings, smartphones with Tik Tok feeds, and abysmal salaries, leave teachers so burdened that it must be hard to teach what is beautiful and important — like Shakespeare, and Shylock.
On a clear desert morning Ethel Godfrey appears in the doorway of my church office holding a stout broom. “I removed the cartoons from the bulletin board in the entry,” she says without a greeting.
Do I hear her correctly? She’s taken down my religious cartoons in a cleaning fit? I’m her minister, her spiritual leader, and she’s eliminated my cartoons?
She has me, and she knows it. I can’t really defend my tattered collection of cartoons claiming they’re necessary to my sanity. I stare at her and her broom thinking how much I treasure those drawings — like the one of Moses leading the Hebrew people through the Red Sea after stopping to let a family of ducks pass through. Ethel doesn’t approve of making fun of Moses. Ethel doesn’t approve of fun, period.
Religious cartoons cheer me with their parodies of harried ministers, dotty church ladies, confused parishioners. They offset my feeling that I’ve been forgotten here in ranch country beyond the beyond. They resonate with the wit of clever people out in the urban world.
“Oh?” I say, “I’d been collecting those religious cartoons for a long time.”
“The entry looks better now without those tattered scraps. They’re really not appropriate for a church.”
Ethel did not heed my sermon on joy last Sunday. I’ve not waved a magic wand and created the community I’d imagined where joyful people work together to respond to social injustice and support each other.
Our real church is more complicated. We have a mixture of older folk who’ve come to Arizona for the climate and the golf. They’ve brought with them all sorts of religious perspectives, the majority from Midwestern towns where stern Lutherans prevail, as we know from the stories of Lake Wobegon. Our members have to compromise to create a successful mixed community, but they’ve managed heroically. They are an openhearted, friendly group. My freedom to preach as I choose is rarely questioned, and I’ve been accepted — a woman and a progressive — by most of the members.
Ethel and her husband are the holdouts. I hear her begin an earnest sweeping, as she attacks the invisible dust and dirt of a spotless kitchen. Give back kindness, I tell myself, and follow the servant of the Lord into the kitchen to refill my coffee mug. Ignoring me, Ethel kneels down and scrubs at a spot only she can see.
“I liked to think the cartoons livened up the atmosphere,” I say. “That one about the chicken and the lemmings ….” Ethel isn’t listening. She stands and takes a mop from the cupboard.
“Did you save the cartoons for me?” I ask.
“No. They’re in the dumpster,” she says, as I knew she would.
“Isn’t anyone else coming to help you this morning? Muriel was saying —”
“I don’t need help,” she interrupts, her back to me.
I open the refrigerator and find a bag of Oreo cookies. “I appreciate your support of the new building project,” I say, fussing with the package. “This’ll be a much better kitchen in a few months.”
“Guess so, Pastor. I hope people keep their pledges, that’s all I can say.”
“I do too,” I answer, studying my Oreo cookie and finding a metaphor for Ethel’s thinking in my black-and-white treat.
Mug and cookies in my hand, I leave the mopping Ethel and return to my office where I swivel side to side in my desk chair, gazing out at the desert. Ethel and Jim, I muse, could be the farm couple in the painting American Gothic, glowering at us with their pitchforks raised. I have to admit that I stand facing the Godfreys with a sour face too, holding — what? A Jesus cartoon?
Did the Godfreys come here to teach me something? If I’ve learned anything from Ethel and Jim, it’s how little we have in common. Unlike me, they live like pioneers. They work year-round in their garden; they deny themselves television and sweets; they repair broken things with competence and skill.
I hear rattling. Ethel must be leaving. I can see her in the graveled parking lot. She looks like me — short dark hair and glasses — though she wears denim pants and a printed work shirt. She gets into her white pickup and backs around to swing the truck onto the road.
As she drives away, I think of how much she and her husband contribute to our church life. Often they give me their Social Security check to help out a needy family. They repair the church building and tidy the grounds at their expense. Ethel sings a lovely alto in the choir.
Sighing, I know I’ll never get the Godfreys to follow me like lemmings. They are the ducks, and I’ll have to stand aside in this desert sea and let them take any path they choose.
When my eightieth birthday arrived, I hosted a tea party to mark the occasion, a party catered with fancy foods, tables set with flowers, and friends managing china cups and saucers. My cousin flew here from Austria to video the event and polish old silver. I must have needed a ceremony, with people speaking in mannerly voices and wearing nice clothes. A tea party also suited a view of my future filled with gracious living, chamber music and philosophical discussion. Picture me as dame Elaine in gown and pearls.
Of course, that future was just a fantasy I’ve put away with the silver and china. I’ll soon be giving away those treasures. Maybe my truly gracious days are up ahead, when I’ll be content to listen instead of sing, read instead of teach, and stroll instead of hurry. I’ll accept the hard facts: I’ll never move back to California to live in a home I’ve designed. I won’t travel far to take an expensive hotel room in a city that has great theatre and concerts. I can’t audition for the role of Eleanor of Aquitaine at the Center for the Arts. Those dreams disappear like dancers leaving the stage, and I practice acceptance.
I like to write about the journey that is my life. I’ve even written a book about my experiences as mother, minister, teacher and wife. Putting those words on the page explains myself to me. I hope that by the age of eighty I’m well acquainted with me — or am I? I’m not so sure. Do we ever really know ourselves, except by way of how others respond to us? I’ve a friend who looks a little worried when I approach, as if I’m going to bite her. Another called me austere. My children see me as a remote figure who writes, can’t cook very well, and doesn’t know how to use a smartphone. My students treat me as an informed expert, learned and funny. I like that one. Austere? Really?
I have no idea how to dress this new eighty-year-old body, this expanded width and overgrown top. (You don’t want to know about my lingerie; it’s a sad story.) I’d like to wear clothes that proclaim my inner growth, maybe flowing robes and dangling earrings. I’d like my hair to be long and lustrous, the locks of an aging spiritual soul. Instead, I’m short-haired, clothed in turtleneck tops and roomy pants as I write in a cluttered study.
I must now confront losses that come constantly. They are bitter. They comb your tangles and set you straight. Grieving the loss of friends, family, and pets takes a lot of time and sends us into sorrows. We lose our looks too, and the brain goes funny with hearing, vision and memory losses. Acceptance of these realities is the most challenging discipline I face. Don’t tell me I’m only as old as I feel. I feel about eighty. Within this reality, the poet Sara Teasdale expresses my hopes as a writer:
I shall take my scattered selves and make them one,
Fusing them into a polished crystal ball
Where I can see the moon and the flashing sun.
I’ve seen some character improvement in me as I age. I think I can say I’ve sloughed off my former accommodating self and replaced her with someone I like better, a more outspoken, candid person. I can write my truth, and when folks turn away I’m learning to accept rejection. I wish I’d learned it sooner. You’ll be wanting my counsel after eighty years of living. I’m now an official sage, a crone with profound thoughts to impart. Teasdale implies that as we age we grow wise:
I shall sit like a sibyl, hour after hour intent,
Watching the future come and the present go.
So my advice is this: you have to figure it out for yourself. That is, even though we learn a bit from others, mostly we learn by making mistakes. I know that the sum of those mistakes has created whatever wisdom I’ve acquired. I’m still learning, of course — from my patient husband, and from my friends who listen as I process my life over a mug of tea or glass of spirits.
The poet Linda Gregg writes of a world “Near the Border Between This Country and the Next One,” a place I find myself these days:
Each evening I walk for an hour, paying
Attention to real things . . .
An ant carrying the wing
Of a butterfly like a flag in the wind.
Those ‘real things’ are what
matter, of course.
Mom! The adoption searcher just called. They’ve found my birth family!” My daughter’s voice over the phone from Oregon sounded thick with urgency. “I couldn’t even talk to the lady,” she went on. “I started crying ... I can’t believe it!”
“That’s wonderful,” I said, meaning it.
We’d been searching for Mia’s birth family for ten years and had never broken through the barriers of secrecy. I’d spent over four thousand dollars paying the expenses of detectives, internet geniuses and outright scammers. Then one day Mia’s aching stomach made her angry about not knowing her health history. She and her two daughters had a right to know. She went to a website and paid for another searcher she’d learned of on a television show — Montel I think it was called.
“They live in Oklahoma on the Comanche Reservation,” Mia went on, and I could hear her fighting tears. “I guess I’m a real Indian …. My other mother works in a smoke shop. Isn’t that funny?”
“Doesn’t matter. It’s just wonderful … smoke shop?”
“I think the searcher must’ve called everyone on the reservation. I’m so scared ... wish you were here.” She started to cry. I could picture my daughter on her back patio in Oregon, a green lawn and vegetable garden extending out from the small cement pad. She’d be holding her cell phone, a cigarette in the other hand, tears streaming.
“I’ve never been to Oklahoma,” I said. “I picture tornados …. Comanches are plains Indians, I think, and they’re expert riders. You’ve always loved horses.”
“All I can think of is Dancing With Wolves,” she said, her voice in a higher register. “Mom, she’s almost got my name — Maya. I wonder if I could join the tribe. I mainly want to know where I came from — to see it and learn about it. I think they’ve a college there — maybe my kids could go. I’m so excited. Sometimes I forget to breathe.”
“It would be fun to give your kids Indian names.”
“Yeah,” she said, coughing. “I think I’d call my Sara, ‘Runs With No Shoes’”
I turned to look outdoors at the wind-tossed flowers on our deck. Though I lived in northern Arizona, those few pansies and petunias evoked the colors of California I’d always miss. Perhaps my daughter’s spirit craved an Oklahoma landscape in the same way I yearned for California.
You might wonder why I’d tried so hard to assist on this search for my daughter’s birth mother. Mia had been a cranky, sullen youngster who fought with her brother and the neighbor children. I worried that she suffered abandonment issues. Then my wild child became an angry teen, and I’d become convinced that Mia needed connection to her heritage for both of us to find peace.
“Mom,” Mia said, “It’s so great not to be lost any more. Did you know I’m related to Jim Thorpe? I looked him up on the internet. Cool.”
“I’ve been waiting so long for you to claim your Indian heritage,” I said. “I’m excited too.” I wondered who Jim Thorpe could be — a hero of some sort?
“I know,” she said. “You kept putting Indian stuff around and trying to get me interested. Now I’m really interested. Maya says I have two brothers. Oh Mom, two brothers! Maybe they look like me.” Mia paused as if absorbing a universe of images.
“Son-au-uuat,” Mia said. “That’s my birth grandmother’s name. I’m going to find out what it means.”
I don’t know if that name translates or if I could pronounce it. For me, the word resounds with unfamiliar, untold stories of older cultures, of deep urges for identity. I do know that with a living birth mother and family, Mia could fill the “hole in her heart,” as some have phrased the feeling of not knowing their origins. She’d said she felt lost, and I know how sad and frightening that must feel. I used to have dreams of being lost, unable to find my way home.
I’ve read that our children are not ours to own, but are like arrows we send out from us. That image fits my Native American daughter well. A month after that first telephone call, Mia packed her car and drove from her Oregon home with her husband and daughters, on their way to meet her Comanche family and her two half-brothers. She sailed — as if shot from a taut bow — to Oklahoma, and came back with a calmer stomach and a landscape as firmly fixed in her heart as California is in mine.
On my last day as minister at a little church in northern Arizona, I felt sadness and regret about leaving the people who served tea, arranged altar flowers, held my hands with a cool touch, made me laugh. The women.
I was a female cleric intent on proving herself as good as any male pastor, and as I found my way in that church setting I made assumptions at first about the women in their aprons. I viewed them as children to be cajoled and preached at. After all, I was standing in a pulpit where only men had gone before; God forbid I should be seen in an apron.
I wore my robes with pride and let myself envision new directions for the church. One Sunday morning, at the end of the service, I announced from the pulpit, “I’ve planned a spirituality retreat!” Our volunteer musician, Marjorie, played an emphatic chord on the organ as if I’d proclaimed the Second Coming of Christ. “We’ll share our thoughts and feelings in a cabin tucked in the Prescott mountains,” I added.
I hadn’t taken into consideration that the congregation was made up of people who’d gone to war, worked on farms or labored in tough jobs. Their idea of a fun retreat didn’t include two days in a cabin with their minister. Creeping into my consciousness, too, was the suspicion that I’d devised a project based on a slippery concept, spirituality, an abstraction I barely understood.
The next Sunday Ardith and Sarah, best friends, signed the list, and so did Millie and Curtis, a couple new to the church. My husband John chose to go too. Marjorie, our creative organist, said she wanted to find spiritual healing for an incurable golf swing and added her name. Not the response I’d hoped for, but enough to pay the fee at the camp.
Two weeks later, a van carrying nine retreatants left for our spirituality retreat. No sign of aprons. Instead, we wore sweatshirts and bluejeans — except for Marjorie, a thin blond in shorts. As we headed out Copper Basin Road, a pickup sped past, a shotgun visible in the back window and a German Shepherd pacing in the truck bed. Marjorie muttered, “Made out your wills?”
After settling into our spacious cabin, I gave everyone a blue notebook and asked them to write about the question, What gives you courage? We continued through the afternoon, reading our notes aloud and eating snacks. We talked of neighborhoods we’d lived in, people we’d admired, our love for Arizona.
“Look at those balloons!” Marjorie said suddenly, pointing at the window. We followed her outdoors to get a better view of three hot-air balloons over the tops of the pines. I gazed at the joyful sight and felt wistful, aware I’d not moved our conversation to spiritual depths. Then an eerie sound startled me, a birdcall. “That’s the daddy quail,” Marjorie said, “trying to attract predators away from the nest. He’s saying, ‘No one is home. No one is home.’” It was oddly comforting.
The next morning, I asked the group to tell stories about their religious backgrounds. My husband spoke of his childhood as a minister’s son and the hypocrisies he’d seen in churches. Curtis confessed to enforced Bible readings he endured as a youngster.
“Sounds tough,” Marjorie said. “We had to read the Bible aloud at home every night, but I remember it as funny, especially when my sister said ‘Jesus spit.’”
Six weeks later, I stand in the back of the church taking a moment to marshal the strength I’ll need before the memorial service begins. Someone has put fall leaves and a drawing of a quail on the altar. Beams of light, shining through the faceted glass in the high windows, don’t lighten the somber mood. Murmurs of women — perhaps wearing aprons — come from the kitchen, where they prepare sweet food for a reception. I don’t remember music.
Marjorie isn’t with us. She’d caught a chest cold while registering junior-high students before the opening of school. Within days, she’d collapsed with pneumonia and died. We’re here in church to remember her with our words and prayers.
After the service, I join family at Marjorie’s home, where her husband sits looking outside at the quail, who seem to say No one is home. No one. The smell of blooming honeysuckle, Marjorie’s lure to butterflies, drifts in through an open window.
What gives me courage? Memories of the laughter and music of a blond organist in shorts.
Footsteps outside. No member of the congregation came on Mondays to disturb meat the church. I had no secretary. Our choir director didn’t come this early to interrupt my quiet with complaints. I was the lone staff at the church, a woman minister in rural Arizona, 1990.
A knock. This must be a stranger or he’d have a key. I got up to answer the locked door. I wanted to open our doors and welcome whoever was there, but I had to use caution.
I opened the heavy door to a small man in grimy clothes who looked like a weathered character in a western movie. He stood in the parking lot a few feet from the doorway. “Where’s the preacher? I got these troubles . . . need money.”
“I’m the minister here,” I said, feeling pleased to help out a man of the Wild West. “I can give you some ….”
“You ain’t no minister! I wanna see the real minister!” he shouted as if confronted by the evil eye. “You’re a woman, for Christ’s sake!”
I tried to look clerical. “Well, yes, but I’m the minister of this church, and ….”
“I know why this church is going to hell, lady. It’s because of people like you! You ain’t even got a Bible!”
I had no answer for that, and the tired visitor backed away, distancing himself from a sorceress.
There it was again: a woman minister perceived as a menace to everything normal and reliable. Why was I in ministry, where many felt I didn’t belong? I loved devotional music, the study of ethics, and the idea of creating absorbing sermons from a close reading of sacred literature. People who seemed to have a spiritual center appealed tome, and I wanted to learn how they got that way.
My questions multiplied like our desert rabbits: where could I find the courage to stand up to criticism? Did I have the benign qualities of a minister? I’m a tall, schoolteacher type, with brown eyes behind glasses. Could I summon enough faith to lean on the grace of God when my credibility was being challenged?
As an 18-year-old in college I’d hurried on Sunday mornings to a chapel service held in an ancient Romanesque building. The chaplain preached about the ethical life informed by Christian ideas. I sat captivated. Often I’d provide flowers for the altar, picking them from a small garden behind our dormitory. That’s what I knew to be my role, to serve without anyone’s notice. God forbid I should speak up in a church.
I left that girl back in the chapel, and years later, after I divorced, I decided to leave high-school teaching and go to Berkeley to study religion. I’d miss my students, but giving up teaching, now dominated by effort to raise test scores, was an easy decision. The hard part was telling John, the gentlemanly fellow who’d been living with me for the last year.
I was leaving to go to graduate school, I told him. We’d finished dinner. He put down a wine bottle and butter dish with an unnecessary clatter. “Women ministers aren’t normal. I mean, they seem like .. ..”
Aren’t normal? “Don’t worry. I’ve never been one to knock over icons,” I said, offended by the noise John made with the clean-up. “Besides, I’ll probably hate it and miss you terribly.”
Knowing I wouldn’t hate leaving him or hate my new direction, I turned to open the dishwasher and noticed the bird-feeder outside the window. Illuminated by kitchen light, it moved in the night breeze, a tiny tray waiting for songbirds. An image of anticipation I’ve never forgotten.
After I was ordained, I served as assistant to a dignified minister. In that subordinate role I chose to wear a cheerful child’s rosary —the ideal accessory on a clerical robe, announcing holy, feminine, fun — instead of appearing like a pompous bishop bent on keeping you in your place. Finally, the time came when I knew I’d have to open a new door and take charge of a congregation, testing my capacities to represent comfort and hope as a real minister.
I twirled my rosary like a stripper (speaking metaphorically), and searched for a church that would accept a woman as leader, a place that offered little money and few benefits, so obscure that men would turn it down.
Arizona responded, and I found myself sitting in a quiet church office beneath skies where hawks circled and rabbits crept out from behind the rocks after the raptors moved away. When challenged by the fearful or the inflexible, I remembered, “You’re a woman for Christ’s sake.”
I waited in the windowless exam room for the medical specialist, an expert in pulmonary matters. I wasn’t sick, but I needed advice on lung problems because I’d had some shortness of breath. Such worries erupt as I get older.
The room seemed to become smaller as I waited. I tried to stay calm and practice breathing slowly. I’d brought The Week magazine to browse during what I knew would be a long wait; nothing like news of a pandemic to quiet one’s fears. My watch recorded the sluggish passing of time, as if the colorless room cut me off from the rotation of the earth.
Eventually the doctor walked into the room in a white coat carrying a large folder. He was younger than me, a slight man who seemed uncomfortable. He muttered something unintelligible and sat on a tall stool facing a high desk. He opened the folder and paged through the material, as if he preferred to deal with his papers rather than a woman with lungs.
“I have some questions about …,” I began, hoping to gain his attention.
“I can’t answer questions until I’ve read this material.” He turned the pages. “I’ll need to order some tests.”
“But… can you tell if I have a lung problem? What’s going on?” Did shortness of breath signify a serious illness? Did I have cancer? Should I get my affairs in order? Was he listening?
“I can’t tell you anything until I see the results of the tests,” he said. “Barbara will make the arrangements with the hospital.”
He slid off the stool, gathered his papers and left the room in a twirl of white.
Tests? What tests? Hospital? Still seated in my chair, I waited for Barbara to appear and answer my questions. Was Barbara on her way? Not a stir outside the door.
I took out my pocket calendar, turning the pages with my thumb. Calendars remind me that I have a life. They comfort me. December. The End. Another year gone.
I went to the door to check if Barbara was on her way. The hallway was empty. The doctor had disappeared. Baffled, I felt abandoned. Where was Barbara?
Bravely, I walked down the corridor, the calendar clutched to my breast, and found a person who directed me to Barbara. There, sitting behind her desk, was a human being wearing glasses and gazing into a monitor.
Feeling foolish for having waited so long, I introduced myself and asked Barbara about the tests. Would they involve needles into the lungs? Radiation?
“I can’t answer your questions. You’ll see the doctor after the tests,” she said as she typed.
Still fearful, I went home and decided to write my own fantasy appointment with a sensitive, caring physician — one like Marcus Welby, MD, a television doctor, played years ago by the affable Robert Young. I let my imagination invent an imaginary world where a kind Dr. Welby had time to talk with me.
As Dr. Welby enters the exam room, he places a folder on a desk and introduces himself. Seated next to me on a low chair, he asks me to explain what’s going on with my breathing. Have I tried an inhaler? he asks with a smile. I shake my head.
After listening to my lungs, he tests my breathing with an instrument he has on the counter. He checks my fingernails for signs of stress.
“This doesn’t sound troublesome,” he says. “I’ve read some of your reports. I see you’re experiencing tiredness, lack of energy. It’s probably related to your breathing problem.”
“Yes. I’m quite fatigued. Is that serious? Are there ways to help?”
“You seem in good health. (I grin, proud of myself.) I’ll need to examine your history more thoroughly in these reports before I can be sure about what’s going on.”
“What happens after that?”
“Your shortness of breath could be caused by a number of things.” He outlines various possibilities and we discuss options. “I can order a scan and perhaps a sleep test,” he adds.
I frown — maybe glower. “You’ll notice in those reports that I had a biopsy of a growth on my lung twelve years ago. It was found to be benign. I’m not keen on tests.”
“Would you want another biopsy to check it out?”
“I don’t think so. If it’s cancer, I’ll probably refuse treatment at this age. What do you think?”
“I’d go with your decision. My clerk, Barbara, will set up one test that would help me get a better picture. Is that okay?”
I agree, and the doctor leaves after giving directions to Barbara’s desk.
Walkers and joggers emerge onto the walkways of my neighborhood in the early morning, turning the silent district into a hive of motion. Our enclave of shade trees, tall pines and waving cholla bustles with the primary colors of my fellow exercisers wearing colorful outfits and headbands.
These fitness folk are thinner than I am and a good deal faster. I differ from their urgent plunge into the morning because I have a different way of starting the day. On my walks, I look down at the path instead of up and ahead, perhaps because I’m a tall woman who is used to stumbling on rocks and sticks and minor hillocks. I take time to check out the roads and sidewalks so I won’t twist an ankle. You could call me a down-looker, as opposed to the other half of humanity, the up-lookers.
I like to watch every step and note every item, weed, and trinket left on the byways. The advantages are huge. I notice the tiny things —the wild violets growing insanely between the cracks in the tarmac, the scuttling lizard, the colors of pebbles, the mysterious droppings of animals. I’ll resist waxing romantic here about the variegated leaves of fall and the memories they evoke, but they are wonderful.
Maybe I don’t care about what’s ahead in the distant landscape, and that says something about my character. Either I’m a citizen of the universe, attuned to the unseen realities, the music of the spheres, or I’m afraid I’ll get lost if I look up. My attention to the inner life and the narrow path tell you I’m a book-lover with philosophical friends.
Even the snowy winter streets are intriguing, and I walk carefully in the cold, glad to be wearing my warm boots. This is a new kind of pleasure. The frosty black-and-white world evokes a kinship with the Arctic, with the high Sierra, with the freezing dangers wild creatures must endure in winter. These sensations are new to me; I’m from California, where one sweater was enough against the temperate outdoor world. Now I’m exposed to actual weather, and I feel the excitement of a new season.
On my reflective days I like to think I can see the whole world, maybe the infinite too, by looking down on my walks. William Blake agrees:
To see the world in a grain of sand,
And heaven in a wildflower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
While I scrutinize the earth, I can ignore the larger, more frightful, threats to my safety, like global warming, drought, and surging Covid cases here. I’m too busy looking down at the small things to worry about those catastrophic dangers. My down-looking is a respite from the terrors of guns and the miseries of the homeless. I can see only the present displayed at my feet. Isn’t that what the wise gurus teach us, to live in the moment?
I’m not a dreamy romantic. The lower world is not all beautiful. Discouraging evidence is in the sorry litter. Careless folk discard wrappers and cans in the gutters. Weary moms drop dirty diapers. I see vomit and condoms, too. Once I saw a colored chalk message: “Bring our troops home!” scrawled in pastel letters. It seems the torn shoes of the mumbling man sitting on a curb are all we need to know.
Occasionally I find names carved on the path, some with old dates: “Suzy loves Brad, 1961.”My mind goes back to 1961, when I was a beginning teacher. I can feel my anxiety, see the faces of a pretty cheerleader with brown eyes and the chubby kid who got tangled in the blind cord sat the window.
I know I miss a lot, looking down — the sky at different times of day, the sense of where I’m heading and even where I am. I may miss an appealing garden, walking as I do with my head down, and I don’t see people’s faces before I see their feet. Yet, once I discovered a perfectly good drinking glass, and another time I found a sapphire ring. I probably missed a passing parade.
You’ll agree we can’t change certain basic things about ourselves. I’ll probably choose to poke around at the shells on the beach and miss the sweeping waves for the rest of my life. I’ve stopped trying so hard to work at things that don’t fit me.
And I’ve stopped paying attention to my mother’s voice: “Look up! Watch where you’re going!”
My parents made a decision that our family would take no more long vacation car-trips, especially with a child who stands behind the driver of the car and asks questions throughout the entire trip: “When are we going to get there?” “Will I like that place?” “Tell me if they have bears!”
That was me. I enjoyed narrating the trip for my sister and parents. I asked important questions. Back before seat belts it was normal for a child like me to stand in front of the back seat, my head next to my father’s in the driver’s seat, and make sure everything went as planned. I had the best view, and I liked being so near my father. “What’s in that truck?” “Why is California so long?”
From my vantage point next to my father I could spot the best restaurants. I could read the Burma-Shave signs aloud. I could point out the horses and cows we passed. My father taught me to recognize crops, too. He’d been a picker as a boy, so I could pronounce the names of the vegetables growing in the fields we passed — broccoli, onions —and even the different nut trees of the California heartland. I commented on everything, and made suggestions: “They have alligators there! Let’s stop!” Frequently I’d see cars abandoned beside the highway with steaming radiators or broken tires. They needed to be mentioned. People were in distress!
After the trip to Yosemite National Park I was never again taken on a long ride into the beauties of nature, never again taken on a California driving adventure. Sadly, we would no longer motor north through central California fields, the view enhanced by my narration. Making excuses, my parents told me they were the kind of people who tired easily when traveling with me and my sister for a long time in the car, as if they had a character flaw. Not till much later did I appreciate their kindness in not mentioning their exasperated weariness with my constant narration.
Languishing at home, I had few chances to narrate anything exciting. At our house, in our humdrum life in a California suburb, we had no drama —no rusty, broken cars, no murders, no screaming ladies. I had to depend on scary movies for excitement.
My friends would hop in the family car and go long distances to see cousins and grandmas. My parents wouldn’t consider it. They had long ago given up driving us to visit Dad’s six sisters or my grandmother, who had a parrot in the backyard — a parrot that talked to Grandma! By careful listening I found out that some of our relatives begged my father for money. Others got on my mother’s nerves. Mother could be judgmental like that; she had enough to worry about, she said, without all the complaints of relatives. So after those early trips we never ventured long distances away from home in a car.
I had an aunt who was a lounge singer. She was a fun relative, and she knew Peggy Lee! I loved to visit her before the crackdown. She lived in a rowhouse in San Francisco with a husband who played the trumpet. The trumpet! He looked so marvelous with that trumpet, as if he could be in the movies. But San Francisco was a long way from where we lived in southern California, and so I was deprived of the adventure of a visit with celebrities.
Instead of driving through the glories of California’s central valley, or into the Bay Area with Alcatraz and the Golden Gate bridge, we’d vacation at a Sunset Beach rental, a two-hour drive from our home. We’d settle into a cottage on the shore and not go near the car. My sister and I rode huge inflated pillows on the ocean waves all day, coming in at night too tired to breathe — although I liked to sing in the shower.
Looking back, I can see that my parents would have had to use force to stop my chatter about the wonders of the road if we continued to visit Uncle Frank and his trumpet or even Grandma’s parrot. If they’d stifled my commentary, my spirit would have been crushed; I’d have withered, never becoming the drama queen I was destined to be. In place of a ride north, my parents made the right decision to go to the beach at vacation time.
I accepted the change. Singing “Home on the Range” in a shower is almost as fun as narrating the passing view from inside an Oldsmobile.
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.