Friday, January 19, 2007


David Grossman addressed a crowd that had gathered on November 4, 2006. November 4 is the date that Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. It is important to note, if you read through the entire speech (and please, please do so), that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was in the crowd.

And these are some of the reasons that, in an amazingly short time, Israel has degenerated into heartlessness, real cruelty toward the weak, the poor, and the suffering. Israel displays indifference to the hungry, the elderly, the sick, and the handicapped, equanimity in the face of, for example, trafficking in women, or the exploitation of foreign workers in conditions of slave labor, and in the face of profound, institutionalized racism toward its Arab minority. When all this happens as if it were perfectly natural, without outrage and without protest, I begin to fear that even if peace comes tomorrow, even if we eventually return to some sort of normality, it may be too late to heal us completely.

This diary is not intended as a criticism of Israel. It is intended as an appreciation of a beautiful speech that is itself a reflection of what happens to a country, to a people, who are continually at war.

In that respect, I read it as an opportunity to ask what will become of us, of Americans, if we continue on this path that we have set out upon, or, if you prefer, that has been laid out for us by this administration.

But, in the past 100 years, I wonder how many armed conflicts we have engaged in. (Anyone? I know there's an historian out there who can give me that exact figure.) And I'm not just talking about our official wars. I mean the unofficial ones, too. The "police actions" in the Dominican Republic; the interference in elections in Chile; the intervention in the former Yugoslavia.

Our need to take up arms, to have an enemy, to step into the perceived "fray," regardless of whether it, in fact, exists.

How much of our refusal to deal with our own racism, with poverty, with the suffering of our own people is a direct result of the constant distraction of war? Do we not care that immigrants toil in our cities for close to nothing? That our toys and knick-knacks are made by slave labour? That women in this country slide ever closer to their former status as chattel? That our elderly choose whether to pay for prescriptions or food?

One of the harsh things that this last war sharpened for us was the feeling that in these times there is no king in Israel. That our leadership is hollow, both our political and military leadership. I am not speaking now of the obvious fiascos in the conduct of the war, or of the way the rear echelon of the army was left to its own devices. Nor am I speaking of our current corruption scandals, great and small. My intention is to make it clear that the people who today lead Israel are unable to connect Israelis with their identity, and certainly not with the healthy, sustaining, inspiring parts of Jewish identity. I mean those parts of identity and memory and values that can give us strength and hope, that can serve as antidotes to the attenuation of mutual responsibility and of our connection to the land, that can grant meaning to our exhausting, desperate struggle for survival.

Today, Israel's leadership fills the husk of its regime primarily with fears and intimidations, with the allure of power and the winks of the backroom deal, with haggling over all that is dear to us. In this sense, our leaders are not real leaders. They are certainly not the leaders that a people in such a complicated, disoriented state need. Sometimes, it seems that the public expression of their thinking, of their historical memory, of their vision, of what really is important to them fills only the tiny space between two newspaper headlines. Or between two police investigations

Can one lead if one's leadership comprises the constant refrain of "Be afraid. Be very afraid." Can one lead if one's finger is constantly pointing at some other and emphasizing the differences rather than the commonalities? Can one lead if one asks others to do what one is not willing to do oneself?

We have no leadership. We have corruption. And fear. We have no history. We have no vision. We have only the blaring of headlines that distract us; we look away from the bloodshed and the suffering of others in order to participate in the pornography of celebrity, of the news of the fantastical, the marvelous, the grotesque.

Just as there is unavoidable war, there is also unavoidable peace. Because we no longer have any choice. We have no choice, and they have no choice. And we need to set out toward this unavoidable peace with the same determination and creativity with which we set out to an unavoidable war. Anyone who thinks there is an alternative, that time is on our side, does not grasp the profound, dangerous process that is now well underway.

Peace is possible. Our administration tells us that it is not. That we must be ever vigilant against those who would destroy us. But it is that constant vigilance that does destroy us. We lose a part of our souls each time we stand in line at a security checkpoint. What must we do to make peace a reality? If war is the not the answer, what then must be done to find another solution?

From where I stand at this moment, I request, call out to all those listening —to young people who came back from the war, who know that they are the ones who will have to pay the price of the next war; to Jewish and Arab citizens; to the people of the right and the people of the left: stop for a moment. Look over the edge of the abyss, and consider how close we are to losing what we have created here. Ask yourselves if the time has not arrived for us to come to our senses, to break out of our paralysis, to demand for ourselves, finally, the lives that we deserve to live.


Friday, January 12, 2007

Water, Water Everywhere


The town of Roscoe sits at the confluence of the Willomec Creek and the Beaverkill River. It is tucked into a niche in the Catskills, a valley through which the Beaverkill traipses like a dancer. Unlike the Mississippi, say, or the Columbia, there is no sense that this is a river of broad, burly shoulders, pushing aside huge mounds of dirt on its way to the sea. No, this is a gentle river, home to thousands of lazy trout, and eventually, the river flows into the Delaware and after that, Chesapeake Bay.

But back in late June, central New York state and northern Pennsylvania were drenched in ten inches of rain. And the tiny little Beaverkill became leviathan. Roscoe, Walton, Livingston Manor and other towns were under eight feet of water. People drowned. Houses were carried downstream. Roads were washed away.

In August, I walked along the river. It had returned to its pre-flood daintiness, and in fact, I was told that the river was now so shallow that you couldn’t take a canoe down it. You’d have to portage the canoe through the shallows. The signs of the destruction were everywhere. Part of the motel where I stayed, a motel I’ve stayed at several times before because it is quiet, inexpensive, and sits upon the banks of the river, had washed away. People told me how they’d watched the motel building run into the bridge, and then, smashed by the torrent, watched as it was carried miles downstream. On the door to my room was a dark mark a foot or so above the door handle. It was the waterline. Inside the room, only the bare essentials had been restored. There wasn’t even a phone. Just a bed, and a couple of pieces of furniture that looked the worse for wear. The bathroom had been scrubbed clean, but the smell of bleach and mold was overpowering, sickening. In the corner of the bathroom grew a fungus that looked like kelp, something Neolithic, as if it belonged on the sea floor.

So, I did a lot of walking. The sky was a shade of blue that would break your heart—so much deeper than forget-me-not, but not as dark as the indigo indications of an encroaching storm. How to describe the ripple of water over stone? As I walked along the Beaverkill--the sun on the back of my neck, its warmth on my shoulders as if someone had draped his arm there—I watched the water. The movement is subtle in most places; your senses tell you that it is, in fact, still, but the water moving across the stones dispels the notion of stillness. The sun glints in such a way off the angles of the water, those angles the signs of the disruption on the surface as the water moves over stones.

And the stones are testament to motion. The stones are not jagged. There is not a rough edge left on any of them. They are ovoid, softened by the caress of water. I’ve noticed these changes in my face of late. My face is softening, like a baby’s face, the skin that used to cling so tautly to the bones beneath are letting go, sliding. Maybe I have smiled too much in my life. Perhaps I’ve focused on too many things out of my reach. The furrow in my brow is now a gorge, a chasm in the otherwise smooth plain of my forehead.

I feel too fleshy. Such a privileged complaint, I know, to lament the passage of time and its effects on the body. I have already surpassed the average life expectancy of entire sections of the African continent. I should be grateful. Instead, I bitch. But I note the patterns of sun and wear on my neck and chest, and I see a glimpse of my older self.

If you didn’t notice the smashed guard rails, the washed-out sections of road, the boarded-up buildings, there would be little evidence of what had happened along the Beaverkill. Already, the wildflowers have filled in the spaces created when water washed away earth. The downed trees have become part of the landscape. The Canada geese, the loons, drift undisturbed. The water was clear, and I could make out the tiny fish fry—just a couple of inches long, that swam close to the banks. A bald eagle beat its wings and flew a straight trajectory, the center of the river directly below it.

Only the people had suffered. They had built their towns on flood plains—not even 100- year flood plains, either. The river has flooded twice in three years. Despite that fact, folks were rebuilding, in exactly the same spots that they had been flooded out of just six weeks prior.

I keep that in mind as I contemplate my body, the one that nature is wearing away. Time doesn’t seem to be moving, but it is. I don’t think I’m changing, but then, every now and then I catch a glimpse of myself and I think, “Have I always looked like this?” I could undergo plastic surgery, could coat myself in miracle products that promise to rejuvenate my skin, make it appear fresh. But there’s no stopping this process. I am getting older. My body is getting older. Eventually, bit by bit, I’ll be washed away. But the wildflowers will still be there, as will the eagle and the loons. And ultimately, that means everything to me.

Thursday, January 11, 2007


Today is the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. I come, not to bury the decision, but to praise it.
I also come to mourn for the young women, those under the age of 18, who for whatever reason—fear, for example—cannot tell their parents that they need an abortion and thus suffer unreasonably.

Parental consent laws are a hot-button issue. Many, many on the left support abortion rights, and yet, when it comes to the fate of those under the age of 18, there seems to be a "NMD" (not my daughter) attitude that consumes them. They argue, and I know because I've argued against them, that no person under the age of 18 should be allowed to make their own medical decisions.

This is what I wrote a few months back:
I want to talk about parental consent laws, and why I have a problem with them. I'm not condemning anyone for feeling different than I do; I already know that there are people here, people I respect, who believe that parental consent laws are a good idea. So, I want to offer this in the spirit of discussion, and not in the spirit of rancor.
Communicating with your children about the intimate act of sex is not easy. Communicating with a teenager about anything is not easy. I'm not a perfect mom. I fuck up on a regular basis, and I've learned to say "I'm sorry" to my children for particularly egregious fuckups because it's important to me that they know that I'm aware of my limitations. Which I think gives them room to know about their limitations.
My children talk to me. Because I believe in their right to privacy, I cannot tell you the things they have brought to me as issues, but needless to say, I've dealt with things that are relevant to this discussion.
I know that being a parent is terrifying. I make the assumption that parents love their children and want what's best for them, while I also acknowledge that such is not always the case.
New York is not a parental consent state. I'm glad of that. Even as I hope that if either of my children were faced with the kind of decision that abortion is, they would talk to me about what they want and need to do.
These days, when I take my eldest to the doctor's office, she goes in alone. She has private conversations with the doctor, and unless she gives the doctor permission, I learn nothing about what happened within those walls. I'm okay with that, because it's crucial to me that my daughter understand that what she says to her doctor is private, confidential, sacrosanct. That's the way it's supposed to be.
As it turns out, she usually chooses to tell me what's going on. I take her to the doctor already knowing what the issue is. But I don't pretend that there may not be things I don't know about.
The other thing that has helped tremendously in the raising of my daughters has been the notion of a "pod." My daughters are surrounded by other people who love them. There have been instances where my eldest daughter has confided something to a friend's mom, or to one of my friends, sometimes with the instruction that said confidante should approach me with the issue my daughter suddenly feels shy about discussing. And sometimes, she just talks to another adult female because that's what she wants and needs.
I'm okay with that. I wish that other people were okay with that. i wish that adults could allow their teenagers to grow and develop into young adults, instead of treating them as extensions of themselves to be disciplined, broken, bent to a higher will.
Parental notification laws, to me, are a blaring neon sign that proclaims that people are afraid to trust their children. And I don't have naive beliefs that teenagers don't fuck up on a regular basis. But that is part of their humanness. And if I am going to maintain my commitment to the humanity of others, I have to extend that to my children. My children are not me. I gave birth to them, and I am here to love and nurture and protect them, but I do not own them. The line between "doing something to protect teens" and "declaring your ownership of teens' is thin, but I cling to that line, and trust that it will hold.

Many people whom I have a great deal of respect for, disagreed with me on this one. Alas, I have learned that ultimately, it's best not to get into any kind of discussion about raising one's children. We all have our ways. We all think we're right. And ultimately, I believe, we are all doing the best that we can.

But still, I look at this map and I wonder what it's like to be in a state that is not shaded "white" on this map.

David Beckham: Designated Hitter?


David Beckham, once considered one of the best soccer (football) players in the world was told yesterday by his club, Real Madrid, that his contract would not be renewed. The news had been expected for weeks. Beckham has lost something in his step. He's not as fast as he used to be, and there has been much criticism that Becks doesn't seem to take the game as seriously as he once did.

So, what was the solution?

Go to Los Angeles.

The 31-year-old former England captain will sign a five-year contract worth as much as $250 million, according to Sky Sports. He'll join the Major League Soccer team in August, Beckham said in a statement today.

Beckham, acquired from Manchester United partly to help increase Madrid's merchandise sales, will play out the end of his career in the U.S. Since he and his England team exited in the quarterfinals of last year's World Cup, Beckham lost his place in the national team and has failed to secure a regular first-team berth at Madrid following Fabio Capello's appointment as coach.

If you have never seen David Beckham take a free kick, you have missed a thing of beauty. You've missed a thing of beautiful physics as he is renowned for being able to "bend" the ball so that it bypasses the defensive wall and swirl into the goal.

Unfortunately, lately, the only thing Beckham seems able to do is to take free kicks. Which leads to the question: Will American soccer actually create a "designated hitter" so to speak. That is, someone whose sole job is to come in and take free kicks? Beckham is only 31, and yet, his legs seem that of an older man.

Still, he may be able to bring magic to Major League Soccer. And, as someone who grew up in a family where soccer is a religion, that isn't such a bad thing.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Ashes on My Fingers

When I lay in bed, I clutch a large teddy to myself. It's an infantile reaction to my loss, but it helps. When I lie in that position, on my side, my legs pulled up in a semi-fetal position, I can almost feel Yves tucked up against me. When we were laying in bed, that night, that only night that we were together, he wrapped himself around me, his chest against my back, and he said, "I think this was the most perfect sleeping position ever invented. Because it allows me to kiss the back of your neck like this." And then he sent shivers down my spine as his lips brushed underneath my ear. He didn't stop there. He kissed the place where my neck met my shoulder, and then trailed his lips, in tiny increments that thrilled me not only with the sensation of the kiss but with the anticipation of the next, he moved his lips all the way down to the small of my back, and then turned me toward him so that he could kiss my belly. "I love this belly," he said.

I don't often find men with whom I'm sexually compatible. Of course, I find men who are perfectly content to fuck me, or be fucked, but, magazine bravado to the contrary, I don't often find men for whom sex is a passion. Certain men touch you as if they are you; so closely have they familiarized themselves with the female body that it's as if they've become female themselves. And no, the men who claim that they are lesbians are not the ones I'm talking about either. I'm fascinated by the inherent insecurity and shallowness I've encountered in men who consider themselves to be modern-day Casanovas. And there are other men who are so intimidated by women's bodies that they they never fully give themselves over to love-making. In fact, I've been told by more than one of those types of men that I'm too much woman, that I'm too voracious, or have too much of a sexual appetite for them. So, finding a man who has a passion for sex but is not a "dog" and who is secure giving himself completely over to the experience of making a woman happy is a rare, and wondrous, thing. Another thing to be pissed at the universe about.

Because it was incredibly clear that Yves and I were each other's sexual mirrors. To open myself up to the pleasure he was giving me, I had to trust him. I can imagine that for those who have never fallen into bed with someone on the first date, this may not make a lot of sense, but for someone like me, who is driven by her need to understand the world through knowledge filtered through her flesh, first-date sex has a certain ritualistic quality to it. It's when the date is outside the ritual, when it's clear that despite the short amount of time that has been spent together, there's real knowledge of the other there, that's when magic happens. And there was magic between Yves and me. Rough magic. Sweet magic. Sexual magic.
And I'm upset that I lost that, too. That one is hard to admit, because it makes me sound so shallow. "Oh I miss Yves because he was great in bed." But it's true. Sexual compatibility can be more difficult to find than someone you can simply talk to. Because true sexual compatibility presumes, I think already, that you can talk to this person.

When I put my hand on the urn, it warmed under my hand, and I remembered us curling our hands together at the restaurant. And that look. That look in his eyes when his mouth was between my legs and he was watching me experience all the pleasure he was giving me. These were the words I wrote at the memorial service in the black notebook I had brought with me. On the table that in a religious context would have been considered an altar, there was a photo of Yves—in it he stared into the camera with a puckish glint in his eyes. Next to the photo was the urn containing his terrestial remains—the charred bits of bone and flesh that were all that was left of him. I stayed away from the urn for much of the meet-and-greet part of the service. I was introduced to dozens of people who had loved Yves and who wanted to meet the woman who had been with him when he died. When I finally got an opportunity to approach the urn, I stood, my hand resting upon the urn, my eyes locked with his. I knew that look. And that was what I wrote in my notebook.

No one approached me while I stood next to the urn. It was as if I had been given a cordon sanitaire, or perhaps, more aptly, an asile sacré, a sacred sanctuary where I could be alone with him in the midst of all those people. Around me, people talked, looked at the collages of photos that had been positioned throughout the room, held each other's hands, hugged. It wasn't as if I was watching them, but I was aware that I was not alone in the room. And yet, for the period of time that I stood there—somewhere, I think, between two minutes and twenty—it was just him and me.

The urn was silver, and intricate scrolls traversed it. It had texture, and I stayed my hand from caressing the urn. It would have been easy to do. To rub it, to touch it, to try to bring it to life. I have enough experience with caressing flesh and causing it to change under my hand; I think I was self-conscious enough to know that standing in front of the crowd and stroking Yves' urn would have been too crude an act. But, in my head, there was nothing crude about it. I wanted to unscrew the lid from the urn, plunge my hand into the ashes there, and become sticky with Yves. I wanted to take a handful of those ashes and put them in my pocket, carry him with me for the rest of my life.

Anne Lamott has written about tasting the ashes of a friend. I am not certain I could have done that, I think, sucked the ashes from the end of my fingers, but certainly I can imagine that, given the opportunity, I might have done.

Miss Havisham

I was afraid, in those first few days after Yves died, that I would turn into Miss Havisham. I didn't want to shower, or change my clothes. If I sat and pulled my knees up close, put my face down on my chest, made a tent out of my sweater, I could smell him. He was still there on my flesh, the places he had touched and licked and sucked. The skin he had told me was so touchable, so soft. The skin he had stroked in play, but also in wonder, in awe, that this thing was happening to us. And so, I buried my nose under my cardigan and breathed in deep.
When I finally did take a shower, I wept. I wept that I was washing off whatever remained of him. I wept as the sponge passed over the parts of my body where his mouth and fingers and cock had been. I wept that the previous shower had been a deux, the two of us playing grownup games.
I stayed in the shower for a long time. I needed its warmth to penetrate what had become numb. My interactions with the world that weekend were carried out behind a curtain of gauze. People hugged me, but I did not want to be touched. I couldn't feel anything except that theirs were not the bodies of my lover. It was raining that weekend, but the air had the stifled, semi-opaque feel of summer; it clogged my sinuses, clouded my eyes.
I was so afraid that weekend that I would forget. I wanted to hold on to every little word he had said to me, every phrase, everything that had made me laugh, or shiver in delight of what was to come. Truthfully? I wanted to become Miss Havisham. I wanted to be 80-years old and able to remember every last detail of those few hours I had had with him. I wanted to wear those clothes until they were rags, wanted to be able to tell the story over and over again to a generation not yet born, of what it was like when he touched me. How it felt when his tongue was in my mouth, or the laughter at the restaurant that night, how when I got up to use the restroom at the restaurant, I could feel his eyes caressing me as I walked away from him.
I wrote words and phrases down in a black notebook. The writing was schematic; the details were few. The words scalded me, but I wrote what I could, holding the pen as if it were the fire-end of a poker. But the words look. like. this.
Weeks later, I look at them, and they still burn. I do not want to be reminded of Yves' death, and yet, I know, I knowthat I have no choice.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Rockin' the Congress

On this day in 1973, "School House Rock" debuted. Last night, apropos of nothing, my youngest brother mentioned that he had never forgotten any of the lyrics to any of the songs. They had become embedded in his brain, always there for access.

I felt the same way when I took a test in eighth grade in which I had to write the words to the Preamble of the Constitution. I, like everyone else in the class, simply sang the song under my breath as a I wrote.

'Course, I can't find the Preamble on YouTube, but I did find "How a Bill Becomes a Law."

Funny, but nowhere in that song does it mention that the president gets to attach any of his goddamned, fucking, wrong-headed, fascist signing statements to those laws.

Just sayin'.

Friday, January 05, 2007

The Witches Among Us


I often think, when I'm reading the news, of the years I spent working as an undergraduate and graduate student to understand, through my study of history, of why people interact with one another the way they do. I was especially interested in notions of "community," of how communities define themselves as much by what they "are not" as by what they are.

In for example, Quattrocento (15th century) Italy, war raged (those pesky French were always invading, Constantinople fell), disease raged (the Black Plague originally swept through Europe in 1348, carrying off at least one-third, and possibly one-half, of the populace), crops failed, etc, etc. (Amazing how one can use "etc" to casually dismiss the untold suffering of thousands of people. You know, like Iraq, etc.)

In the Quattrocento, Franciscan Observant preachers--such men as Bernardino da Siena and Bernardino da Feltre--berated, warned, and raged at the communities in which they traveled to preach about tolerance of "sodomites," witches, and Jews. Allowing sodomites and witches to live amongst the Christian members of a community was sure to call down God's wrath, and Bernardino da Siena had no shortage of precedent from the Bible to cite as proof of God's hatred of tolerance. Later, Bernardino da Feltre would get it into his crazed head that Jews drank the blood Christian boys during Passover, and caused the tragedy surrounding the death of Simon of Trent.

I spent a lot of time studying witchcraft. Not actual witchcraft, which I'm sure never existed--at least in the ways it was defined by the witch hunters. I wanted to know why 80 percent of those accused were women; why the panics got worse after the Reformation, and were especially virulent in newly Protestant nations; how witch panics operated like ripples in a pond but would come to a sudden end; how Plato and Aristotle played a part; how stripping away from people a notion of "good works" led to the kind of ostracism of old, poor women who sometimes were accused of witchcraft; how the horrendous rates of infant and maternal mortality led people to believe that malevolence had been directed at those who died.

In short, this blog entry could potentially turn into a dissertation, so I'll try to steer it back to the article at hand.
Witches are being persecuted in various villages in Africa. In northern Ghana, for example, 80 suspected witches were expelled from their village. They are sent to live in "scruffy camps".

Like the witches' trials in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 or the Cold War persecution of alleged communists in 1950s America, the fate of a suspect often hangs on the word of another.

Death, illness, dreams, superstition or even visible signs of success may be enough to provoke accusations of sorcery.

No matter how hard the allegation is to prove -- or how hysterical the accuser -- the fact that witchcraft is virtually impossible to disprove means many women are forced to live outside their communities, some for as long as 30 years.

Many of the women and men who find themselves in the camps are there because of the kinds of bad things that happen to ordinary families: a child dies, a marriage goes bad. A desire to assign agency to evil leads to accusations of witchcraft.

And, of course, there's always envy. Or perhaps more telling, the idea that someone, especially a woman, has stepped outside of her traditional role.

In some cases, witchcraft offers an easy explanation as to why one person is successful and another is not.

"In cases where successful women, brilliant women, have gone beyond the confines of their status as women, witchcraft is used as an explanation," said Dr Abraham Akrong, of the University of Ghana's Institute of African Studies.

While the writer of this article seems surprised, the following statement is not ironic at all:

Ironically, the rise in Ghana of charismatic Christian churches, with their focus on the fight against evil, has intensified fear and belief in witchcraft, even among educated people, Akrong said.

As I said, witchcraft persecutions increased in those areas that had supposedly traded in their superstitious beliefs in relics and saints and priests for the "more rational" religion of the various sects of Protestantism. Fundamentalist Christians are the descendents of Protestants, not Catholics, and the increasing belief among Fundamentalist Christians that evil operates with agency in the world (the devil is afoot) feeds directly into traditional beliefs in these villages that evil can be explained by a witch's bad will.

So, what does this have to do with us? (Who you calling us? Okay. Americans living in the US in 2007 under the rules of the Patriot Act.)

Being labeled a witch begins with word of mouth. A neighbor gets into a dispute, accuses another neighbor of witchcraft, and the rumour mill grinds up another victim. In this country, right now, suspicion of being a terrorist, terrorist sympathizer, etc is enough to launch an investigation. Step out of line in the airport security checkpoint and you might find yourself held overnight in a jail cell. And now, anything you send through the U.S. mail service may, if it's deemed "suspicious", can be opened according to the president's signing statement.

In many ways, we are no different than the neighbors who accused each other of being secret Jews, or sodomites, or witches. We have new words to define our fears--we call the folks who could potentially hurt us "terrorists." We watch them closely. We sit in our houses, afraid to go out for fear that the terrorists are going to blow up a plane, or put poison in our food, or make us sick. That they will destroy our cities because we tolerate their presence.

The two Bernardinos are laughing in their graves.

Image details: ID F064-002
Title Cerbère [et] Léonard
Medium photo-offset
Book Bataille. Le Diable au XIXe Siècle. Paris et Lyon : Delhomme et Briguet, 1895. Page 937.
Notes Les principaux démons, tels qu’ils appparaissent d’ordinaire d’après les diverses constatations: Cerbère [et] Léonard. anthropomorphic dog with bird’s feet; horned devil with witch’s broom, lifting skirt to show his other cheek
Theme The Marvelous
Subjects satan/devil

Rare and Manuscript Division, Cornell University Library

Cross-posted at Culture Kitchen and Progressive Historians

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

I Stand Here Ironing


In 1980, I was a college freshman. I entered school with an inchoate feminism, a sense of rage that I was treated differently because I was a woman, that there had been things that had already happened to me in my 17 years that made it clear to me that being a woman came with baggage that seemed unique to my sex. But I didn't really have a name for it.

I had done a lot of reading. I began reading at three, taught by a father who sensed my hunger for knowledge, and it's true that I spent much of my childhood not outside communing with the nature who has become my teacher at this point in my life, but, rather, nose buried in a book. Still. The voices that spoke to me prior to college were rare.

One of the first courses I took was "Introduction to Women's Studies." And one of the first texts I ever read was "I Stand Here Ironing." When I read just a few minutes ago that Tillie Olsen had died, it was as if I was standing on a beach and the tide was running out beneath my feet. I could feel the sand moving me back almost 30 years, and I was standing there, ironing. Reading. Remembering that the text had had an impact on me, but not remembering exactly what that was. Just that it moved me.

And, as I read through the story of Tillie Olsen's experience, an experience that I now feel obligated to read about more fully, I cringed in recognition.
Politically active and class conscious, joined to the world as if every soul were a soul mate, Olsen countered the literary myths of her male peers. She did not immortalize the cowboy or the outlaw, but the woman who stayed home. For her characters, the open road did not lead to freedom, but only to the next job.

And then I read the following passages and my heart stopped. Tears came to my eyes. Oh God. I know this is not about me, it's about her but here it is:

But Olsen's theme - and her fear - was silence, the dream only dreamed. Olsen knew this firsthand. After beginning a novel in the 1930s about a migrant family, her writing career was delayed 20 years for sheer lack of time. She never stopped regretting all the stories never told.

"Well, I'm going to be one of those unhappy people who dies with the sense of what never got written, or never got finished," she said.

How many women writers out there can tell the same story? How many more generations of women's stories will go untold?

I just read the acknowledgements to the latest novel I'm reading. It's a fantastic book, but there was something in the acknowledgement that got to me. The women writer thanked her husband for putting up with the fact that she spent 10-12 hours a day in her office, working on her novel. She is a young woman, no children, and I found myself wondering if we are still not stuck in the days of the choice--children or writing. And money? I assume that the best way for most women writers to get their work done is to a partner who can support the two of them while the writer toils away on the project that brings in no income.

And now, as I'm writing this, I remember the poem by Marge Piercy.

For the young who want to
by Marge Piercy

Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.

Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.

Genius is what they know you
had after the third volume
of remarkable poems. Earlier
they accuse you of withdrawing,
ask why you don’t have a baby,
call you a bum.

The reason people want M.F.A.’s,
take workshops with fancy names
when all you can really
learn is a few techniques,
typing instructions and some-
body else’s mannerisms

is that every artist lacks
a license to hang on the wall
like your optician, your vet
proving you may be a clumsy sadist
whose fillings fall into the stew
but you’re certified a dentist.

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

Obviously, I need to work. Tillie Olsen, I thank you for the gift of your life, your writing, the journey you started me on when I was a 17-year old girl. The 43-year old woman has a lot to think about. I wish you peace on the continuation of your journey.

If there is a heaven, may you find a room of your own there.

A memorial service is planned, although no date has been set. Olsen's family requested that instead of flowers, donations be made to the Tillie Olsen Memorial Fund for Human Rights, Public Libraries and Working Class Literature, c/o the San Francisco Foundation, 225 Bush Street #500, San Francisco, CA 94104.

cross-posted at Culture Kitchen and My Left Wing