The color and quality of the light here is, I don't know, dense. I always feel like I am being pushed into myself, quieting, sinking, falling through what is me and through the floor of the Earth when I walk alone here, visiting what seem like the ruins of the civilization I was part of eons ago, like the last survivor of Pompeii, when it was I who left. This is Montgomery, Alabama.
This is where I was a teenager and where I spent my early years as a mother, the place where I worked as a projectionist in a neighborhood theater, a non-profit one screen art house, called The Capri. Alabama is where my mother's family has lived since before the American Civil War, in a small, ever flooding town called Elba, just north of Mobile.I am hardly a survivor as I burn and push through. I used to fancy myself one, feeling the need to keep on breathing through poverty and constant shaming, breathing and birthing a creature I could be proud of. The irony though is that surviving made me ashamed. And birthing is falling too.
I am walking my old walk, my first day in town, through Granny's neighborhood, which is one dead-end block of peeling paint and plastic playsets now, all the old people as dead as where the last house blocks the street that might have been connected, up toward the theater, where I will let myself in, get a soda, just as Mac and I used to, he in his little red wagon, and then I will walk back to my friend's home (where I am sleeping, drinking and bathing), by way of the ditch that always has tadpoles. I am a pilgrim this morning. I call this my Southern Haj.
I think there is a cultural connection between Arabs, Persians, and American Southerners. Our playful, sentimental, tribal, burning, sinking natures. Our grandparents being cast out of the garden of industrial, mechanized Eden, we, in horror, the children of Cain, or the bastard children of Abraham. We are the children who drink from secret springs of fortune and the falling, always the falling.
Isn't it funny, my adviser points out to me in an email exchange, that it is so in vogue to consume local food amongst the very people who have moved away from where they themselves were produced and grown? I am thinking about this. I do a lot of food shopping with Martin, my friend of going on 20 years that I have been staying with. I treasure every litte berry I pick on my walks, to eat the dirt, maybe to make my passage through the Earth easier, to put it inside of me.
There is a home that you can only find in the depth of old friends, their eyes and hands, old places, emotional and physical, in the labor and commitment, or the memory, which has kept the bond whole. We tell funny stories about each other. Do you remember when? There are hands that make the falling move faster, your mass becomes greater, and in so, the falling will disappear, you are moving so fast it looks like stillness, and there are eyes in which the horror dissipates, and this is home inside the rapid and heavy descent.
I have fallen now clear through, as I write this, back to my children and Washington DC, or rather the Maryland suburb, where we live. Driving the rural roads since I left my cousin Wes' place, having discovered a new setting on my GPS that allows me to avoid the interstate. The more things change the more they stay the same.
The drive is misty and the pushing through Tennessee is so beautiful and so worth it. The rusting church roofs set on white cinderblock squares, the mountains being swallowed by clouds and vomiting up the remains of towns. I have a Cheerwine. It makes the skin above my upper lip and my tongue a very gross, like cheap ass uncooked hotdog, shade of pink, my upper lip in a messy crescent. But I am in a car, so totally alone, and it does not matter.
I think I know now why I like to look at and touch old doll houses. They feel to me like these towns I barrel through, like the meaningful to me corpse of what used to have its own meaning.
A man at a gas station tells me to keep laughing my big raucous laugh that he overhears. Southerners are so violent.
I return to my children. I have returned to my children, with many food gifts. Ob snuggles into me. He keeps smelling me. I wrap my arms around him and I make my chest his home again, pulling him close, for the fall.
On Personal Love in a Political Culture
This Sunday, at the Friends Meeting I attend, I shared a long, rambling account of my personal soap opera, which is what I call it, my life, my relationships, when I am not willing to be vulnerable about it all, but I still need to vent, and well, my reality, when I am, when I am willing to share.
Short non-vulnerable version: there is a divorce, there is another long-term romantic relationship gone bad, so bad in fact I have begun describing my feelings around it as a "deranged ghost that lives outside of my body" as I search and search myself for any truth to which I can hold -- to hang my feelings of love -- then there are are things like a diagnoses of PTSD, which I suffer from, and for good reason, and my struggling to finish a degree program in which I am writing a thesis on solidarity behavior while I struggle with a general grumpiness about solidarity in my life and the unnerving prevalence of a philosophy of personal liberation in our culture that says, wrongly, it is actually a philosophy of community. I feel alone in facing the deranged ghost, though I am the subject of much sympathy, and I am often told the best thing to do in response to my haunting is ignore it, not try any further to mediate it, because, ironically, trying to mediate it will result in my being alienated, as honest mediation just makes others uncomfortable. I want to scream.
Someone told me after my deep sharing that my statement was a challenge, a call to community, a catharsis, for her. God knows it was for me too. That is my clearly personal thought for the day.
The clearly political one that I want to draw your attention to is this quote from Newt Gingrich on Saturday night, in one of my home states, South Carolina:
“The debate we’ll have with President Obama mark the outlying of two Americas, the America of the Declaration of Independence, the America of Saul Alinksy, the America of paychecks...The America of dependence, the America of independence, the America of strength in foreign policy, the America of weakness in foreign policy.”
As fascistic as Gingrich is being here, I think he is onto something he does not mean to be onto. Alinsky was a wounded man. He lost his wife in a drowning accident in which she was trying to save someone else. He lost his brother in childhood. There is a machismo to his ideas, a cruel efficiency, a survivalism that I think shows this pain, and a reaction to pain that appeals to many of us. He believed in enemies you must destroy, or at least have a desire to. Nowhere is Alinsky vulnerable in his public writing, as far as I know, and if he were here to tell me off for saying so, for making it an issue, I bet he would. Alinsky would hate my guts.
Alinsky's machismo is stamped on our activist culture, and, just as Gingrich posits the whole thing like the somehow simultaneous dullard and sociopath he is, our country's debates are often flat on the inside even though they look potentially incendiary on the outside. Believe me, Alinksy wanted an America of paychecks. What else was he doing in the slums of urban America but fighting for that, and for independence? "I love this goddamn country, and we're going to take it back," Alinksy said. Sound familiar? There is so much more to fight for, to work for, though, and this debate we are in about taking back America sounds, to me, autistic. Every time I hear it from whomever I hear it from. It is an industrially organized effort, lacking empathy, alienated, and obsessed with irrelevant details.
The two Americas Gingrich is being a nutball about exist, but both are missing something crucial, married together in a death embrace, I think. This reality he is talking about is one in which machismo -- lack of vulnerability, lack of true community, solidarity based community, *inter*dependence -- lack of real values kind of talk, where enemies abound, and fear is about fear of not having personal power, not the fear of losing the love that makes us human, these things are the foundation of our thoughts.
Both Americas Gingrich is talking about think brotherly love is a higher state, a static noun, a yogic pose or a prayer or something, not a moving verb that is about our behavior, our willingness to engage in the messiness that is life with solidarity. And romantic love is like a mental illness we either accept with or without shame, depending on our personal beliefs. This is what passes for personal beliefs, anyway. Love requires a relationship, I think, any form of it, and relationships involve care and care involves some loss of liberty because you don't always get to do what you want when you have to negotiate a reality with someone else who is real, because you care. Community is hard work and love requires being serious about and with community. We need a new tribalism that is not about taking America back, but taking ourselves, our hearts, our families, back from these two Americas, this bi-polar thing we have created.
I think a lot about community, solidarity, my life, life in general. Here's my marriage of the personal and political. I have talked about the importance of being a good neighbor for several years. I often fail at this goal because I still care about the life I left behind, the life of the Leftist, the serious political person. I still want to be validated by a world I no longer agree with on crucial things. All people want love, food, companionship, solutions that get people what they need. I'm from the American South. I know, there is nothing saintly about any of our ideas about how to do that. We just need to be more present to one another.
I advise people all the time to be active in their own homes, neighborhoods, churches, anything that is organized more around people than an ideology. You may disagree with me on the churches part, religion being a kind of ideology, but churches are people based, I think. Look at the Civil Rights Movement. When I became an atheist I remember taunting people, saying that I didn't need a church to have a social life. I thought I was seeing through some hypocrisy. Well, it is a hypocrisy, the relationships that are more important than the ideology, that I now wish was more prevalent in all institutions.
The Occupy Movement has been trying to do this too, I think. I think that is what the tent encampments were or are, in some cases, about, and certainly the reclamations of people's homes from banks and landlords. This is what excites me about the Occupy Movement, though even here, we have so far to go, so much ground to cover, and I hope to god we manage it. We are going to have to work really hard, together, in our homes, neighborhoods, and churches to see it happen. Justice, like my own search for truth in that nebulous failure of a relationship, has got to be moved from being a deranged ghost that lives outside of our bodies. It does not live in a tent, or a non-profit, or anywhere that is not you touching another, making a circuit, living the mess. Gingrich verses Alinsky is not the conversation we need to be having.
I am making a choice today to do more for my Meeting and with my Meeting; do a lot, most even, of my activism there, through there, with, as I like to advise others, the people who know and love me best, or have the potential to, get a normal working class job doing something I just enjoy, part-time, in my neighborhood, which is something I have fought against for whatever reason. I will write, certainly, since I can't help but not, and welcome the relationships I have and the ones I will have as a result. I'll let let you know how it turns out for me as it keeps turning out.
Are we writing people's history in a way that supports a people's future?
For the past two years a friend of mine has been playfully pushing me to write a little book on Mother's Day. His interest is in the pacifist roots of the holiday in the United States, dating back to Julia Ward Howe's Mothers Day Proclamation of 1870: "Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause/ Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn/All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience..."
Howe is curiously not mentioned as an intellectual founder of Mother's Day in some places where she should be, such as in the on-line Britannica profile for the holiday, though her work in this role is not exactly unknown. This fits the pattern of popular forgetfulness of popular movements that Howard Zinn highlighted for us in 1980 with A People's History of the United States and cultural workers like Pete Seeger have fought against for the better part of the last and this century. My friend thinks, like many of my friends and I, that knowledge of our radical history will awaken within us, today, some desire for the embrace of a better heritage than the elite one in our history books -- that our muddled thinking will be cleared -- that we will rise up in a powerful, revolutionary love through stories, repeated, like a meditation.
As a former teenage mother, as a mother who has faced poverty, as a mother who is also an activist and an organizer, he thinks also that I should be less shy about my writing and carry Howe's message about powerfully subversive motherhood to, as we say, "the people," as a representative of such. Sneak up on them, though: maybe in the form of a cute little book, not much more than a card really, with violets and roses on the front, sold for $5 at a checkout counter where "the people" thought they might just pick up a few flowers in their day of consumer obligation, in their appreciation for their mother's incontinence and tense nerves. Even assuming I was able to do such a thing -- find a publisher, much less research and write the tiny book -- I have been reluctant. He's so right, as he often is. I am indeed shy. But, I think it's more than just that.
I often don't know what I am feeling until I write about it so I often talk to myself about myself in diary format, and in this way, I have talked to myself about my friend's idea. I love a good graveyard, I say. Bones and stones rattle and speak through me like a radio station picked up by the tooth fillings in my head. My best stories are death stories and ghost stories, where life ends its reality for one and becomes fair fantasy for the rest of us. When I was a teenager my crushes were on long dead movie stars and the men of non-fiction. Most infamously, when I was 12, I was completely in-love with Peter the Great.
And, boy, do I now enjoy radical people's history. I enjoy hearing it, reading it, making sense of it as a form of cultural explanation and as metaphor. I see the heroes of people's history as intellectual, cultural ancestors of mine. I share the stories with my teenage son who shares it with his friends. Those who came before us are hungry to be heard and we are hungry to hear. Jesus spoke in parable two thousand years ago and still many of us are familiar with at least some of His stories: the master and the servant, the good Samaritan. In the American Left, in our people's history, more commonly than we talk about Mother's Day, or Jesus for that matter, we still talk of Bread and Roses, the slogan of the 1912 textile worker's strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where the women sang:
As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women's children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!
I eat this stuff up. I do. But is it instructional on its own? Why do we repeat this story, this poem, and more like it really? I'm not suggesting we should not. But, what is our motivation? Why don't I want to tell this people's story about Mother's Day in a little book, even assuming, self-importantly, I could, and leave it alone?
I like the Mother's Day Proclamation, just like I like the Bread and Roses poem. But like many good words, I recognize, as I write this, that repeating them on their own doesn't make them understood enough to derive a coherent lesson or change behavior. I think, to be understood, the people in them have to be struggled with as representatives from our own inner lives, which is what they are, as our ancestors. We must be willing to fully struggle with our culture, and not just mainstream culture, but our closest, most intimate cultures inside it.
I suspect I like Howe's Proclamation because it makes me feel good. I'm being a good mother, according to my interpretation of its words, and these are the words of what I recognize is a woman whom I respect. She is fully of my culture, the culture of the American Left. As I read it, I appreciate myself, my cultural history, a little bit better, because in a way, Howe is a mother to me, to us. One, if I were of normal interests, I might know better than the mothers I am genetically descended from in her generation. I have been teaching my two sons all that she calls upon me to teach in her Mother's Day manifesto, I'd like to feel, and up until recently I had never even read it.
I think though, as I introspect, that Howe may have been conveniently misguided in her thinking that women, in general, teach sons "charity, mercy and patience" -- traits then somehow "unlearned" -- and that moral evil is an inherently masculine capacity for which women are uniquely responsible for working their sexual or motherly magic against. And like our mother, we might too be misguided.
Let me now explain to those who are innocent that Howe is also the author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, which became the powerfully moral soundtrack to the American Civil War, a military action in the United States that both lifted the legal institution of slavery without meaningful reparations being made to its thousands upon thousands of Black victims, men, women, and children -- leaving the barbaric institution's survivors and descendants traumatized and still, institutionally, unequal citizens to this day -- and, as for the Whites, it left the large rural under-class traumatized -- violently traumatized and perhaps a little crazy -- for generations. The elite of the South, the criminal class that was rightly targeted in Howe's words, was actually the minority of the South's population. If you want to understand why the American South has such peculiarly self-defeating popular politics, the popular wisdom is study slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction.
Howe saw the devastation and her politics clearly changed as a result. She became a pacifist just a few years after supporting a war. And while she may have admitted to friends in private correspondence the change, and to some degree her own responsibility as a writer, not simply another mother, for its horrors, it is the Mother's Day Proclamation that is her public writing, and in it, she shares nothing of that. This is our people's history.
The Mother's Day Proclamation seems to me interesting primarily as a study in how one can make the mistake of eschewing appropriate personal and communal responsibility in order to pursue a more virginal image, and an impossible responsibility, than anyone deserves or can shoulder, and do so very surreptitiously. It reminds me, really, of an aspect of modern American "progressivism," where we blame evil people (like George Bush) for doing evil things (like bombing Afghanistan and Iraq) and feel like, because we say the right words (like peace and solidarity), or even, in some cases, truly suffer in our efforts, we are among the virtuous (while we continue to bomb Afghanistan and Iraq).
How can we begin to explain, if we are serious people, serious about justice, the constant murder of civilians all over the world in what so many of us have accepted is a series of wars about dominance? And, even without war, the abuse of workers? Poverty? Are we really so weak that we can't do better? We can see the consequences of an incomplete fight for justice -- a justice most human beings on the Earth say we want, and I believe we do, I think. Is it simply that our mothers did not read Howe's Proclamation and words like it? Is that the problem? Somehow, I think this is doubtful.
But it is in the example of their profound complication, her complication, our complication and my complication that I can learn anything, or share anything. It's never enough, I think, to just recall the facts. We must struggle with them in our deepest selves. And we must do so fully with each other.
Are we doing this when we share our culture's stories, our "people's history"? I don't know that we are. And this troubles me.