Do Better

The father squatted down on the patch of mud and dead grass. The little boy, maybe five or six, stood beside him, watching closely as his father pushed the metal legs of the stand into the soft earth, which in January should have been bedrock. The father straightened up, stepped back, placed his hands on his hips to survey what they had just planted: a plastic blue and gold sign that read “PETE 2020.” The little boy looked up at the father, gauging his reaction—was this okay? Was this good work? Did we do it right? The father returned the boy’s expectant gaze with a short nod. He lifted his hand, palm out to invite the universal “high-five;” the little boy responded with a speed that would make Pavlov blush with pride. I watched the pair cross the street from the narrow traffic median. The father placed his hand protectively across the little boy’s back as they prepared to cross the street. Their heads swiveled in sync, glancing left and right to check for oncoming traffic. All clear, they walked over to the adjacent parking lot where they loaded themselves into a car and drove off.

The simple scene filled me with gooey hope. “When you know better, do better,” wrote Maya Angelou. This is the simple message Greta Thunberg has taken with her around the world: here is what we all know, what is proven in scientific data, what can be ignored, but cannot be unknown. Do better. I’m only finding my way to better in these last three years, mostly out of outrage and despair. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that becoming more politically tuned-up was also an attempt to alleviate the shame of my white, cisgendered privilege, which at times feels like it has subterranean depths. I might lose points for lateness, but I’m willing to do extra credit.   

When I attended the first Women’s March in 2017, I was emotionally overwhelmed by all the families I saw: Dads with little girls perched high on their shoulders, moms and grandmothers pushing strollers, all kinds of parental formations moving through the crowd, their hands joined with toddlers and tweens, converging and dividing like cell clusters in the organism formed by this massive outpouring. No one was too young or too old to sport their pink pussy hat. It was an introduction to democracy that I never had. The experience of gathering with thousands of other people to raise a collective voice in a wail containing the notes of pain and steely resilience to fight for a stronger humanity, is one I hope many of those kids never forget. I’m counting on them having the recognition that participating in democracy is both a privilege and a responsibility tattooed onto their consciousness, making advocacy as reflexive as blinking.  

My parents were politically informed, but not active on any kind of national level that I could see. Both were brought up in enclaves of whiteness and buffered economic diversity—my father from the upper-east side of Manhattan, my mother from a mid-sized town in the Hudson Valley of upstate New York, home to the Roosevelt family. Neither ever had to confront prejudice or injustice or even a whiff of class discomfort. My mother went from high school into the work force; my father was a college graduate, but if he did encounter any type of student political organizations they either didn’t make an impression or they cut into the time he spent nursing hangovers and cramming for exams in the classes he skipped.

At some young age, I had the sense that politics happened out there. They belonged to people I saw on TV, mostly men, mostly white, who wore suits and swung briefcases as they climbed the stairs to the capitol. Things happening in government seeped into our house in the crackle of a disembodied voice on AM radio tucked into the corner of a kitchen counter. They were carried in by newspapers that I hated handling for the way the filthy ink left their sooty marks on my fingers and hands. They were brought to the dinner table in color images of a place called the Gaza Strip, portrayed as perpetually on fire, a chaotic scene from an action film in search of a plot on loop. There was comfort in the displaced nature of the world, as I saw it. I simply didn’t have to care about what didn’t seem to infiltrate my tidy, suburban kid life. If my parents cared beyond being able to hold a water cooler conversation, they didn’t show it.

Yet somehow I grew up knowing the value of a vote, especially in town business. Voting for local offices as well as on articles for things like approving the budget to build a new elementary school or passing a law to preserve an area of wetland was more crucial, I learned, than casting your ballot for the sexy elections for governor or state senator.

This was driven home to me one March when there was a freak snowstorm on town election day. A No’reaster had plows prowling the streets like bloodhounds, but the polls stayed open. The 1980s were not a delicate decade nor one where a lot of common sense prevailed. My mother waited for my dad to get home from work around six. She crammed my brother and I into our snow suits, and the four of us walked the half mile in the whipping, drifting snow down to the elementary school that served as our polling place. We shed clumps of ice from our boots and gloves on the linoleum floor as my brother and I thawed out from our adventure and waited for our parents to reappear from the little curtained booths that looked like they belonged in a magician’s act.

What I couldn’t see then is my parents cared fiercely. Maybe they didn’t have a protest or rally to attend, but they showed up in an arena just as charged. They were in those stalls marking a sheet that contained the stakes of “out there” rendered in intimate terms—safer streets, better schools, more jobs—for their family and the lives of others around them.

When our political systems work (and they have, maybe it feels like in a galaxy far, far away these days), they remove the jargon and spin and hot take from the issues and remind us what they are really about: lives touching lives. When we remember that, when we help each other remember that, when we teach it to others as the model, not the exception, we all have a fighting chance at doing better.

A Little Light in Fall

I had no idea why Dad was so grumpy. They were just leaves–piles of them that he had spent the last hour raking onto a big, blue tarp and hauling off into the woods at the edge of our yard. While my father raked, my brother and I chased each other around the yard, diving, jumping, and rolling around in those same piles like a couple of Collies. You’re welcome, Dad! We tore after each other, laughing, scooping up armfuls of leaves to dump on each other’s heads and shove inside the backs of our jackets. How are you not enjoying this great, fall day, Dad? To us it was pure kid bliss. It was the same attitude that helped us shoulder through every New England season—all six to twelve of them, give or take: every day a blank canvas, already primed for fun.

Decades later, the source of my father’s sourness revealed itself when I had my own yard with just enough deciduous trees to make me beam with joy as the leaves burned scarlet and orange and curse with irritation as the relentless hours of raking set in. The magic of fall superseded by minutia of seasonal chores and upkeep that Judy Blume never bothered to tell us about. She prepared us for expanding bust lines and reproduction, but not adulty things like taxes and dental appointments and winterizing the patio and scheduling gutter cleanings. She didn’t warn us that there would be work seriously getting in the way of our play.

Though, truthfully, for me, fall had become my least favorite season long before I reached the point of homeownership. By the time I was in college, I actively dreaded autumn. It was not only about putting away the beach bag and pulling on jeans and sweatshirts. It signaled the time to pack up and leave. It meant casting off a sense of freedom and ease and returning to what felt like a life on lock down, first as a type-A, overachieving undergrad, and then later as an ambitious graduate student. The autumns of those years in particular were some of the rockiest. I cried as I left what I knew to be home in the rear view mirror or boarded planes, steeling myself for another cycle of semesters where I was habitually stressed and suffocatingly lonely.

Endings. That’s all that fall spoke to me. The last words printed on the last chapter of the last book of the series written just before the author drew her last breath. I had heavy (and dramatic) feelings about fall that I took the liberty to share with anyone within beleaguered (and dramatic) sighing distance. Accepting change has never been high on my list of priorities. I associate it with loss that feels gutting and permanent even though I know it’s a necessary cleaving. The white hot pain of transformation, shedding, and clearing is part of the alchemy of the Universe, it’s the evidence of grace that comes with the privilege of becoming.

Even so, I typically want no part of it, like I have a choice. I do not. Just when I think I’ve successfully lied to myself that I have somehow gamed the Universe, fall busts me. I hold grudges for much less. So it went with me and fall, settling into an uneasy, wary relationship. After many years in transit, I finally got to set down roots, which helped with the feeling of despondency as the September light thinned to the shade of pale honey. I allowed fall a few concessions like cider doughnuts and apple pies. Most autumns I greet with resignation, like that coworker that always approaches you for their kid’s school fundraiser: Well, here we are again already, Ted.

Several weeks ago a violent northeaster rain storm passed through the region. It sent leaves scattering, trees arching, power lines failing, and ushered in a stretch of damp, soggy days. I went for a walk on the bike path not far from my house. Leaves carpeted the pavement, slicked down and trampled upon like confetti following the end of a parade. A bright red maple leaf caught my eye. I leaned down and picked her up. She glowed a nearly obscene cherry red. I held her fragile stem and twirled her a bit, letting the grey light reflect off her wet surface. I looked closely at her veins, tiny highways of life, a design marvel.

I couldn’t remember when I had last held a leaf like this that I wasn’t stuffing into a collection bag. I flashed on an image of myself as a little girl walking around the edges of our yard. My head bowed, I scanned the ground for not just any leaves, but ones I thought were perfect or special, that were particularly bright or comically large. I saw myself picking and discarding with the fussiness of an old woman inspecting each piece of fruit at the market. Serious business. I remember going on this hunt for the purpose of taking them inside and pressing them onto paper to make leaf collages or leaf portraits. It was a silly craft that we did each fall, no doubt partly designed to send us out of the house and out of my mother’s hair for a half hour. But it was one I looked forward to. It was a ritual like so many others that felt so critical at the time, but with distance and perspective seem trivial or embarrassing. At the time there was nothing more natural to do than to fill your arms with every inch of fall.  

On the trail that day, I felt like that little girl again–curious, excited, greeting the world like an old friend. It started to drizzle and I just stood there smiling down at that leaf, letting myself remember the pure, kid-joy of autumn, feeling lighter than I had in years even as the world moved into its season of darkness.

Women Do

At first it seems like the three women are just hanging out in the middle of the Commonwealth Ave. mall—a quiet, tree-lined promenade that runs like an artery through the heart of Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. Abigail Adams, Phillis Wheatley, and Lucy Stone appear as life-size bronze statues, posed around large granite blocks. Quotes from each woman are inscribed on the blocks, their words reaching across the past to tickle the present. The Boston Women’s Memorial, like the women themselves, is unassuming until, of course, it isn’t.

Abigail Adams, wife of president John Adams, mother of future president John Quincy Adams (must have been something in the water), leans against her horizontal granite plinth. Her arms are folded across her chest, one foot extended forward, her head turns slightly as if she’s been the one tapped to be lookout for this badass lady gang of three.

In addition to harboring presidential genetics, Abigail took an active role in politics to the point where opponents referred to her as “Mrs. President” (never going to get tired of trying that out on my lips). As a woman in the 1700s, Abigail didn’t just stand on the right side of progressive history when it came to lady issues, she carved out feminist territory upon which many of her peers and future generations would inhabit. She openly advocated for women’s education and for more opportunities for women in general. In one of her most famous or infamous (depending on your perspective) letters to her presidential husband and the congress, Abigail wrote:

Remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.

I count a minimum of five hashtaggable phrases in this short statement. Also, talk about your echo from the past resonating with the present as if it were blaring out of 8 billion watt speakers hooked up to someone’s low rider.

Abigail is flanked on either side by a couple of historical friends: Phillis Wheatley and Lucy Stone. The first African-American poet, Phillis sits upright at the edge of her granite block. A hand with one elegant finger raised, rests gently against the side of her face. The other sits on the surface of the stone, palm up, fingers curled in except for her forefinger pointing downward to the desk as if she had just finished speaking and was punctuating a point (I like to think it might have included a sick burn about a racist colonist’s wig or a racist colonist’s racism). Sold into slavery to a family from Boston, they eventually taught Phillis how to read and write. She put those skills to good use, stunning half of the country with her eloquent and rigorously intellectual poetry. That a slave and a woman (gasp, pearl clutching, fan waving, fainting!) could be thoughtful, smart, artistic, and, essentially, human was enough to twist more than a few knickers. But for others, Phillis was an immense inspiration and source of power and hope.

Across from Phillis sits Lucy Stone, an ardent nineteenth-century suffragist, orator, and writer and winner of lady-with-the-coolest-name. She sounds like a tough, savvy detective from a 1940s noir series who breaks cases and hearts. Lucy sprawls across her granite “desk,” one hand clutching a thin pencil in the act of composing something on the page. She was the first woman from Massachusetts to earn a college degree, helped initiate the first National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts, and founded and wrote for Womens Journal, a weekly periodical publishing essays about women’s rights and generally scaring the crap out of people.

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I walked around the memorial, running my hands over their hands, giving Abigail an affection pat on the shoulder (thanks for the assist a few centuries ago, we’re kind of in a pickle these days), and couldn’t quite believe that I didn’t know this memorial existed in my town! I felt a little ashamed, but squared it as less about being a lazy feminist and more about being a feminist a tad preoccupied lately or for the last two years. Recently, for instance, watching an unhinged, likely sexual assaulter ascend to the highest court in the country where he is, also likely, to eviscerate rights and privileges afforded to women and vulnerable populations. Also, there has been all the ugly crying over new episodes of This Is Us and pretending to care about Boston sports ball teams. The sched. has been a bit tight.

But then again, maybe it was exactly the right time for me to discover these incredible women, each of whom could easily fit in along with the rest of us as contemporary feminists, represented in this unique way: doing work they were passionate about, working for change and impact they believed was important to purse.

Each woman seems animated—writing, speaking, composing—and it’s this sense of action threaded through the memorial that I find ingenious and compelling. Together, the installation reifies the legacy of all women across time, space, race, and background: action. It is simply what we do, what we’ve always done—engaged with and driven movement. Consider our greatest biological hat trick, which is called “giving birth,” “having a baby,” or “going into labor.”  It’s not “receiving a slimy ball of precious goo just freed from its germination pod” (though, if science can make that a thing, I doubt any of us would mind all that much). Women have the capacity to turn the world. And it is this that we need to remind ourselves of a thousand times a day every day if we’re to make it out of the Patriarchal Fire Swamp with any hint of sanity in tact.

Women shift, we break through, we disrupt; we are fearsome kinetic energy refusing to be bound. We will corner you in an elevator, senator, and you will feel our hot, incensed breath, the heat of righteousness and pain, pushing against your face as we make you reckon with our inconvenient, unrestrained selves. We travel thousands of miles to march, to sit-in, to stage die-ins, to meet, to canvas, to move and be moved, to do the work that needs to be done.

Like Abigail, Lucy, and Phillis, hundreds of thousands of women have taken themselves down from their symbolic pedestals and platforms, surging into their communities and surrounding areas, applying what they have and doing their own part to make a difference during this extraordinary, distressing, dark, and also exhilarating time.

I step around the memorial, snapping photos and consider these three women who are carrying the history of millions on their bronze shoulders. I marvel at how difficult it must have been at that time to not just be a woman in the world, but to be a woman so active in the world. I think of what new difficulties we face today and what’s at stake now (everything) and what was at stake then (everything) and I start to walk onward, leaving the ladies behind, my pace quickening.

 

 

Hearts and Seeds

For a long time now I’ve been catching hearts out in the wild. They show up everywhere—in patterns of leaves, in the formation of clouds in the sky, as graffiti on the sides of underpasses. It’s a lot like that Sixth Sense kid, “I see hearts, they’re everywhere!” and sometimes I do whisper in that same creepy little kid voice just for fun. I’ve decided they are my own private cosmic Valentines, postcards for the soul that make me feel counted and seen in this wide world and to remind me that hope, love, compassion, empathy, just softness, really, are the mightiest gifts we can give and receive.

Thanks to the super keen attempt to put an alleged sexual assailant on America’s highest court (like of JUSTICE), this week has not been a ride on a cloud of cushy Charmin.

Walking through the city Wednesday night, dragging my already low mood along with me, I glanced down to see these two hearts set against the dirty pavement.

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I snapped a photo and considered the juxtaposition: the black pieces of what looks like bandages slapped onto the sidewalk in a right angle to form a heart with a fragile, “helicopter” tree seed (also known as an “angel wing” seed) resting gently on top. I don’t know if I could have more perfectly captured a visual representation of what I’m feeling these days if I had staged it in a studio. In these times, it seems as if my heart is in some constant demand for triage, for fresh bandaging from the lacerations that never quite heal fully before some fresh trauma pulls them open. Despite these conditions, something tender and thrumming with life force pushes through to make itself known and felt.

Hope, love, compassion, empathy, just softness. No matter the scorched terrain of our heart-selves, these things find a way to grow and blossom.

Recently I wrote about what we’re working through culturally as a frightening, messy, hard lurch forward in our social evolution. I still believe that, though I really wish we could hurry up and montage through this part set against the tune, “Maniac” from Flashdance. As tough as it’s been this week in particular and as nastier as it’s guaranteed to get (and honestly, my liver is not having too much more of this day drinking and swearing at CNN), I don’t believe that the rage and pain and legitimate suffering is in vain. And seeing this the other night made me feel it even more acutely—many of us are weary, broken, and scared and also intensely alive, passionately engaged, and acutely tuned into that most organic, fertile part of ourselves where we keep our angle wing seeds seeking to root, longing to spread.