Wednesday, May 9, 2018

DON"T KNOW MUCH ABOUT HISTORY

            As a teenager in the 1960s, I would sit with my father while he watched The Twentieth Century, a documentary TV show, narrated by Walter Cronkite, that focused on key moments of the preceding decades. In my recollection, there were a lot of episodes about World War II, or as everyone then called it, "The War."  My father, who did not watch much TV, would be riveted.  I realize now that he (born in 1912) was watching the events of his life as history.  

      I thought of this a a while back when Ken Burns' documentary about the Vietnam war began to unfold on television.*  I thought of it again when my husband and I went to see The Post, the Spielberg extravaganza about the Pentagon Papers.  And, before that, there was Selma.  The events of my life now qualify as history.  (Hell, The Beatles are now very ancient history.)

        This takes a bit of getting used to.  

        The first time I was aware that my youth had passed into history was the day in 2000 when I took my daughters to the Smithsonian, and we walked through an exhibit about First Ladies.  There was Jackie Kennedy in one of her famous outfits.  Wait.  What?  This is museum fare?  

          Of course, there had been some hints that Jack and Jackie had passed into history.  Very few people in my workplace had any memory of JFK.  Indeed, when John F. Kennedy Jr. died in a plane crash in 1999, the young people in my office looked blank - I could see them thinking, why is this a big deal?  They didn't remember him saluting his father's casket.   

         Yes, when I gave it some thought on that day in The Smithsonian, I realized it had been nearly 40 years since Jackie had left the White House.  Still, she and Jack had been the first First Couple I had been really aware of.  

        When we are young, everything is immediate.  We are the world.  A minute later, another generation is stepping forward, and they don't remember - didn't even experience - the events that shaped our lives.  My mother's memories of WWII were as real to her as the lines on the back of her hands, but those memories were no more accessible to me than her mother's memories of WWI were to her.

          Is there a moment when life becomes history?  Is there a magic number of years? 20? 30? 50?  Is 9/11 history?  In a world where the 24/7 news cycle chews up and spits out stories before we have a chance to process them, is yesterday's news history?  

          And if yesterday's news is history, how will future historians sort out what is important and true about this moment in time when anyone (including yours truly) can place anything into the stream of data that passes endlessly before our eyes? Who will determine what was real and what wasn't?  Is a flood of postings any more reliable a guide in piecing together the past than ancient artifacts? I begin to seriously doubt it.  

          Our books and movies and periodicals and postings notwithstanding, all we ever really have is our own experience. (And even that may not be as reliable as we like to think.) So, may we pay attention to what we experience in our lives, and  enjoy and/or fix what we can while we are here, knowing that the light we shine to guide the next generation will fade, and trusting those who follow to pick through, and make the best of, what we leave behind. 


           May their memories be long, their wisdom plentiful, and their history eventful in the most positive possible way. 

         
* I couldn't bring myself to watch the Vietnam documentary.  It was hard enough to live through that time.
       







Thursday, April 5, 2018

KINDNESS REMEMBERED




         In the summer of 1967, when I was 17 and newly graduated from high school, I had a job in the technical library of the Newark, NJ conglomerate where my father worked as an engineer.  (Nepotism at its finest.)  I remember very little about the job, other than the fact that I did clerical work that was both tedious and exacting

         What I do remember is an important friendship that blossomed during -- and lasted only the length of -- that summer.  I don’t remember my friend’s name, what he did for the company, or how it was that I began to have conversations with him.  More than likely, he came into the library one day, and that was the start of our friendship.  In any event, how we met is not important.  What is important is what he did for me.

         The man was African American, and, my guess across the mists of time is that he was in his mid-to-late twenties.  The fact of his heritage is important because, having grown up in a white suburb in northern New Jersey, I had only ever spoken with one person of color before meeting this man, who, for purposes of this post, I will call “David.”

         Our friendship was chaste, and he was kind.  Of course, I do not remember our conversations in any kind of detail, but I know that we did not engage in small talk.  I know that we talked about civil rights and the war in Viet Nam.  This was the ‘60s, after all.  I would have told him that I was going to start secretarial school in September (there’s a detour for another post) and he would have told me about his education and his work.  

         Yesterday, I came across this quote from Maya Angelou:   “People will forget what you said.  People will forget what you did.  But people will never forget how you made them feel.”  That is what I remember about David– how he made me feel.

         He made me feel intelligent and as if I were worth talking to.  He was patient and listened to this young girl as she tried to work her way through her confusion and sorrow over the state of the world. I had watched the Civil Rights Movement unfold on television.  I had been horrified by the police dogs and the fire hoses.  But I had been a teenager, a not very mature teenager, sitting in my white suburb with my white family and my white friends, and had been at a loss as to what I could do about any of this.  David took my concerns seriously.  As I said, he was kind. 

         At end of the summer, David gave me a wooden carving.  I felt touched and honored by the gift.  I still have it.  

        

         


        I have carried it with me through all of my moves for over 50 years.

        I had only one more contact with David after that summer, a contact that I had forgotten until yesterday, the fiftieth anniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. 

         David must have given me his address on the last day of my employment at the conglomerate.  How else could I have written to him on that awful day seven months later when MLK was killed?  I don’t remember what I said in my letter.  I expect that I once again saddled him with my grief and fear and confusion. 

         I do remember that he wrote back.  I long ago lost the letter, but I still remember how it made me feel -- comforted and heard.  What a gift to a very young woman who was always being told that she was too intense, too sensitive, too much. What a gift from a young African American man who must have had much more on his mind than the feelings of a young white woman.

         So, David, I may not remember your actual name, but I do remember how you made me feel. 
        
          I hope that your life has been as kind to you as you were to me.  And I hope that I have in ways, however small, occasionally paid your kindness forward. 


         And may all who read this have a David or two to see you through.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

I WILL FOLLOW YOU: Some Thoughts on the New Student Activists



         In the spring of 2000, I visited the Viet Nam War Memorial in Washington D. C. for the first, and to date, only time.  It had been 25 years since the end of that war, decades since over 50,000 of my generation and millions of Vietnamese had been killed in that conflict. The passage of time notwithstanding, tears sprang to my eyes as I approached the memorial.  

         When my 15-year-old, looking worried, asked why I was crying, all I could manage through my tears was, “This is my generation.” I could not then, and still can not, adequately describe what a trauma that war had been for my generation. 

         We went to war or watched our peers go off to fight a war we did not understand. We heard the nightly body counts on the news.  We marched.  We sang protest songs. We wrote letters. And while we protested, the generation before us sent more of the boys of my generation (and boys they largely were) off to fight in this war that, we now know, our leaders believed could not be won. 

         We were young. Very young. We thought we could change the world.  Maybe our protests helped to end the war.  I have to believe so.

         Why do I bring this up now?

         Because I am watching another, much younger generation take up its fight. After Parkland, something broke loose in these kids who have spent their entire lives with the shadow of school shootings hanging over them. We have failed them, so they must take up the fight for their own safety themselves. 

         Today I went to the high school from which my daughters graduated over a decade ago.  I went to bear witness to a student walkout.  I arrived at 10 a.m., just as a portion of the student body began to leave their classrooms along with students all over the country.  They walked out in remembrance of the students and faculty killed at Parkland.  They stood (mostly) in silence for 17 minutes – one minute for each of those killed at the Florida school.

         Tears came to my eyes as I approached the crowd of students, just as they had 18 years ago in front of the Viet Nam War Memorial.  I couldn't stop crying.  I cried for their youth and their bravery and their idealism.  I cried because we have not protected them. I cried for the ways every generation fails the next.  I cried for my frustration with the cowardice of our legislators. I cried for the long, hard fight these kids have ahead of them.  And I cried for the trauma they will re-experience when they visit a future memorial for gun victims. 

         But most of all, I cried with pride.  These kids have given me hope at the end of a long dry spell where hope was hard to come by.  They are passionate.  They are articulate.  And soon they will be voting. 

         So, please, let us join them on March 24 at the March For Our Lives.  Let us show them that they are not alone, that we do not value the rights of gun owners over the right of our children to attend school without fear.  Let us redouble our efforts to get assault weapons out of the hands of civilians.  Let us be there at the moment of turning when meaningful gun reform is enacted by every state.  

         Last month, I submitted this letter to the editor of the New York
Times: 

         “I have a dream that one day all members of Congress will
         refuse to accept donations from the NRA, and that they will
         convene a bipartisan committee to determine within 30 days
         the best ways to prevent future gun deaths.  In my dream,
         both chambers of Congress pass comprehensive gun legislation
         soon after the committee’s report.  In the conclusion to my
         dream, the Justices of the Supreme Court, upon receiving a
         challenge to the new legislation, re-read the Second Amendment
         and come to their collective senses, recognizing that this
         amendment was meant to provide for militias at a time when
         the country did not have a standing army, and that, in any event,
         the militias were meant to be “well-regulated.” [1]
        
         They didn’t print it  -- maybe because I’m no Martin Luther King, Jr. or maybe because they receive over 1000 letters a day.  If I were to write the letter today, it would simply state:  "Thank you.  Thank you to the youth of our nation for raising your voices.  I am so proud of you. I am so sorry that we have let you down.”






[1] The text of the Second Amendment:  "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

Sunday, December 10, 2017

TODAY I MISSED MY MOTHER

     Today I missed my mother. 

     So, maybe you’re asking, does this really merit a blog post?  Well, yes, for me it does. Let’s start with the facts:  

     My mother died three-and-a-half years ago at almost 94.  

     I loved her.  

     We were not close in the usual sense, although, beginning in my adolescence, we did a long and complicated dance that lasted until the brink of her death.

     She lived a mile from me during the last 12 years of her life, so we spent a lot of time together and, during her final three or four years, I did a lot of caregiving.

     I loved her, and I rarely found a way past the thicket of her defenses, which mostly took the form of offenses.

     It pained me to write that last sentence.

     Today I missed my mother.  I missed her fiercely.  I missed her in a way that took my breath away.  I was in my bedroom folding laundry, thinking about nothing.  And then I was missing my mother. 

     Perhaps this seems unremarkable to you - you who are/were able to talk with your moms about things that are/were important to you.  But for me it is always a surprise.  At first, after she passed, I felt mostly exhausted and relieved, and sad for her because of the awfulness of her final months. 

     And then, every now and again, after days or weeks of barely thinking of her, I started to have these moments.  Moments of sharp missing. 

    At these times, I ask myself:  Who am I missing?  Is there a body memory of the woman who held me and fed me and read to me during the early pre-memory years?  Certainly, by the time we were interacting in a way I would remember, she had shown herself to be threatened and confused by a separate me, a me who had opportunities that she had never had, and I was struggling to cope with her defenses to genuine and meaningful interaction.  I was learning that talking, for some, is a way of avoiding intimacy.

     Sometimes I think I have always been missing my mother.  Sometimes I wish I could have known her as a girl, as a young woman -- before life took its toll.

     Before she had to leave school at 14.

     Before her city was bombed during WWII.

     Before she had to leave her job upon marrying at age 23.

     Before my father decided that the family – my mom, my older brother, and I in utero - should move with him across an ocean to Canada, and then to the U.S.

      Before she realized she would never see her parents again.  

      My daughters, who did not carry the baggage with which I was laden, had a different relationship with my mother.  The things she had found threatening in me – my independence, my education – she celebrated in them.  I am happy that they were able to know her in a different way.

       Here is an excerpt from something that my daughter, Anne, wrote shortly after my mother died:

      "If she had not been born in Glasgow in the interim of two world
      wars; if she had not had to leave school like all girls and most boys
      of her social class to become a working member of the family; if she
      had not been expected to marry and bear children as her sole 
      occupation; if she had been of a different time, my gran might have 
      lived a life not so unlike mine.  She was an extraordinary woman.”

      Perhaps Anne, who was able to see the extraordinary in her grandmother, saw my mother more clearly than I did.  Her life was not what it might have been had she been born a few decades later or gotten to choose to stay in school or where and when to work or where to live.  And yet, I can see now in retrospect, that she did the best that she could, or, as her fellow Scots would say, she made a pretty good fist of it. 

         And so today, I raise a figurative glass to her perseverance. Today I miss her in all of her prickly complexity.   

        


Saturday, November 4, 2017

EVERYTHING IS EASIER With TWO LEGS

Lessons learned or relearned during my first week post-Achilles-tendon surgery:

1.   Surgery and its aftermath are exhausting.  Plan for this.

2.   It is much more relaxing to be laid-up when you are retired. (Makes No. 1 above easier to deal with)

3.   My husband is a great caregiver.  (Thank you, Bill!)

4.   Pain sucks.  Taking narcotics for a few days will not make you part of the opioid crisis.

5.   Everything is easier with two legs.

6.   The recliner is a brilliant invention.

7.   The inventor of the knee scooter is a god.





8.   A hat can be repurposed as a toe warmer.



9.   My friends are great cooks. Thank you all.

10.  Mandatory downtime can be a nice opportunity for reading and reflection.  (A reflection: Awkwardness in getting from here to there for a few weeks is not that big a deal in the scheme of things, especially if No. 2 above applies.  I have a warm home, food, hot running water, and I WILL be back on my feet.)

11.  It is not advisable to knit while on narcotics, unless you want to spend three days knitting and ripping out the same 10 rows.

12.  Your doctor won't tell you everything.  For instance, telling me that if I had to go upstairs, I should do it on my bottom was good advice.  Neglecting to mention that I would need someone at the top of the stairs to help me get from the floor to the knee scooter would have been a dangerous omission if I lived alone.

13.  Balance matters.  So glad I did all those yoga balance poses over the years.

14. Take nothing for granted.  When you get out of bed in the morning, check to see that everything is working.  If yes, thank your arms and legs and brain for doing their jobs.  If you can get into the  shower without assistance, be grateful for that too.

Blessings to all everywhere who are now, have ever been, or ever will be, temporarily or permanently without the use of one or more limbs.