I often feel awkward, if not outright apologetic, as a white woman who gave her very white son the middle name of Malcolm after Malcolm X.
I am a pacifist at heart, but I am a follower of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. I am a big fan of the Black Panther Party’s Ten Point Program (and for God’s sake, if you’re not familiar with it, stop reading this and go read it now), and I often fantasize about what a Malcolm X-Black Panther alliance could have done, had Malcolm not been assassinated.
My reasons for choosing Malcolm as a middle name go back a long way. They go back to my mother telling me when I was twelve that Malcolm went to Mecca and saw all races getting along and wanted to make that happen everywhere. They go back to hearing Alex Haley speak when I was in high school. They go back to first hearing the Phil Ochs song “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” which starts “I cried when they shot Medgar Evers / Tears rolled down my spine / And I cried when they shot Mr. Kennedy / As though I’d lost a father of mine / But Malcolm X got what was coming / He got what he asked for this time / So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal.” They go back to wishing Malcolm were alive every time an unarmed black man is shot by the police. But most of all they go back to this line from a speech of Malcolm’s I read in graduate school:
We didn’t want anybody telling us about Africa, much less calling us Africans. In hating Africa and in hating the Africans, we ended up hating ourselves, without even realizing it. Because you can’t hate the roots of a tree, and note hate the tree. You can’t hate your origin and not hate yourself. You can’t hate Africa and not hate yourself.
I underlined that passage long before I knew I’d have a son. I underline that passage back when I did hate a lot of where I came from. I still hate some of it, still hate that I had ancestors who were slave owners (even if one of them set his slave free). I still hate that I had ancestors who profited from the labor of enslaved people, even if only directly — because really, if you bought cotton in the United States during the era of slavery, you profited from slave labor. (And really, if you bought it afterward, during the era of sharecropping, you shouldn’t feel that much better about yourself).
Malcolm X gave this speech in Detroit just after his home was bombed. I cannot imagine what that is like — to have your home with your wife and four young children bombed — but I know it is a daily reality for many people.
I can’t pretend to understand the lived experience of African Americans. And I can’t claim not to feel slightly uncomfortable claiming one of their martyrs as one of my heroes.
But he is one of my heroes, and those lines from that speech that I underlined so long ago came back to me when I was pregnant. I didn’t plan to become pregnant, and my son was born out of wedlock in a relationship that many didn’t think well of. But that line came back to me — “You can’t hate your origin and not hate yourself.” I didn’t want my son to hate himself, and so I didn’t want him to hate his origin, and so I gave him the middle name of Malcolm, the man who taught me that.
We all of us have small, personal stories that run alongside the larger historical ones. Sometimes they intersect, and sometimes they cross pollinate. Sometimes you start out admiring someone for the work he did and end up loving him for one small line. Sometimes you want to support a movement and end up selfishly supporting only yourself.
I get very odd looks from white people when I tell them that I gave my son the middle name Malcolm after Malcolm X. I don’t know what kinds of looks I get from people of color because I live in Iowa, a state where 2% of the population is black and something like 26% of the prison population is black. I visit a prison every two weeks, but even the people I see there are mostly white, because I work with the inmates with the highest level of privilege, and most of them are white, and if you don’t think there’s something wrong with that, I don’t think I want to know you.
I think a lot about racial justice and the ways in which I’m not doing enough to achieve it. My son’s middle name reminds me of a lot of things, from my idiosyncratic personal reasons for choosing it to the larger societal struggles it stands for. But most of all it reminds me that I have to try harder.
The pictures are from my seventh birthday and they make me cry. My mother found them the other day and originally thought they were from my fifth birthday, so she labeled the one she posted on Facebook that way. I looked at it and thought that was the last birthday I had while my father was alive. But I didn’t remember my father there for that birthday, and he’s not in any of the pictures. (Neither is my mom, but she’s rarely in the pictures — she took most of them.) Later my mother decided it was actually my seventh birthday (perhaps the label on the pictures tipped her off—they are labeled 5TH BIRTHDAY, but someone crossed out the 5 and replaced it with a 7), and then I thought that is a birthday when my father was dead.
It’s a little ridiculous that my reaction to the photos has nothing to do with me and everything to do with my father. In fact it was a wonderful birthday. Three friends came and got along, and we had a magician, a medical school classmate of my mom’s who did magic on the side. He pulled things from our ears and made them disappear, and to this day I’ve never seen a better magic show, maybe because that one was so small and happened right in front of our eyes. It was a good birthday, as all my birthdays but my sixth were, and my mother made it happen. But it’s hard now for me to look at any picture of my childhood and not measure it against my father’s presence or absence.
In a few short months my son will be five-and-a-half, the age I was when my father died. It’s like a clock counting down to that date, and the closer it gets the more I expect something awful to happen, though that makes no more sense. But I can’t help but look at him and wonder what he knows, what he remembers, what he will remember of this time.
The worst thing anyone has ever said to me is that it must not matter so much that my father died because I was too young when he died to remember him. Multiple people have said this to me, people who apparently remember nothing of being three and four and five. I pity them. I have so many memories of my father and of that time. I remember fishing for leaves with him off the limestone wall that marked the border of the college where he taught. In my memories it is always autumn there, as is appropriate for a small liberal arts college with old brick and stone buildings. My father always wears a long sleeves and a coat and tie and smokes a pipe, just like a professor in a book or a movie. I remember riding in the way back of the station wagon with my friend and my father saying pollylops and ephelants and giving us the mayonnaise jar full of peppermints and lemon drops, as many as we wanted, and we always wanted some of each. I remember watching tennis on television with my father as he sat in his Swedish modern chair, his pipe rack by his side and the black and white TV balanced on an end table across from his chair. Don’t ever tell me I do not remember him.
The first photo ever taken of me is actually a photo of my father. He is carrying me out of the hospital on a snowy night. My mother walks a few feet behind him. For years I assumed she must have taken the photo until the day I realized the dim figure in the background was her. It’s hard not to read that photo as symbolic: my life has been defined by my father, while my mother, who did all the work, is relegated to the background. If I were to stage a photo of how my life has actually been, my mother would be carrying me proudly, and my father would be a dim shadowy figure lowering behind. But that’s not the photo that was taken, by whomever took it — my grandmother? — and even though my photo is truer to my life, the actual photo has had its influence.
It’s hard for me not to imagine how my life might have gone if my father had lived. I know my parents would have divorced. I know in reality I would have grown up to argue with my father horribly, for he was, as one of his students described him to me, a Neanderthal in his beliefs (though I hear perhaps the Neanderthals were more advanced than we are). But it’s hard not to imagine the good times, the things we would have shared. Perhaps I would have grown up to love watching tennis and football. Perhaps we would have done translations together. Perhaps I would have applied myself more under his eye.
It’s no good to speculate, but it’s hard not to. In the meantime, the photos watch me watching them, daring me to look and see.
My mother and I learned to knit from a book called Knitting in Plain English. She got it first from our local branch of the Indianapolis Public Library and later bought a copy. I remember her showing it to the woman at the knitting shop, who attempted to dissuade her from the purchase. “It’s a very basic book,” she said, but my mother was undeterred. She bought the book, and we taught ourselves knitting from its instruction. Later we made one of the beginning projects in it, a shawl, all garter stitch, which we gave to my grandmother for Christmas that year. I mocked up a tag to go with it about how the variations in the knitting were part of the beauty of the handmade garment and should not be considered flaws. Our gauge was all over the place in that shawl, sometimes tight and anxious, sometimes so loose as to make mesh.
We still have the shawl, and the years have been kind to it, stretching out the tight spots and shoring up the loose ones till it almost looks as though it had been knit by a single hand instead of a couple of people working at cross purposes.
My mother still knits: she is a knitter, the kind with a yarn stash and a dozen projects going at once, the kind who has special bags for carrying around socks she’s knitting and who goes to conferences and conventions of other knitters and stops at farms to see sheep and sometimes attends sheepdog trials. She first learned to knit while she was pregnant with me and the knitting got mixed up with the morning sickness and she thought she’d never do it again, but for some reason when I was in junior high she decided to get that book out of the library.
I can knit but I don’t. I’ve made a handful of things over the years, mostly scarves and hats, although once I knit a doll sweater, doing the sleeves on four points and feeling very proud of myself. I can hardly imagine taking on such a project now. For years I’ve proudly said that I don’t knit at all, some sort of latter day rebellion against my mother’s obsession.
But lately I have been knitting. I have been knitting hanger covers, a slightly ridiculous project but one that uses up bits of yarn too small for anything else. I’ve been knitting hanger covers to deal with my mood disorder.
It started last fall when a drug I was taking gave me akathisia, making me feel constantly as if I’d had too much coffee, only worse. I wanted to jump out of my skin, and I was desperate for anything, anything that would calm me down. My mother suggested knitting. I tried it, and it worked, at least a little bit. During the few weeks I was experimenting with that drug, I made three hanger covers. Then we gave up on the drug and my need to occupy my hands stopped.
Recently, though, this latest bout of anxiety and depression has left me unsure of what to do not only with my hands but also with my whole self. In the evening after dinner I clean up and then wander the house, unable to read, unwilling to watch Paw Patrol with my five-year-old son, incapable of thinking of some other way of occupying myself. The other night my mother again suggested knitting. I tried it, and it seemed to work: I had something to do, at least.
It’s not a cure for depression by a long shot, and I may end up with every hanger in the house covered before I’m done with this illness, but it’s keeping me sane, at least a little bit.
Of the many books about knitting my mother has purchased over the years (the original one is long gone — it was, in fact, quite basic), the only one that’s caught my eye is one called No Idle Hands, which is a social history of knitting. I’ve not read it (and thus I apologize for discussing a book I haven’t read), but it deals with a concept I’ve read about elsewhere, that women are rarely truly idle. We fold laundry while watching TV, iron while listening to the radio, knit socks for soldiers while sitting by the fire in the evening. Of course no one knits socks for soldiers anymore (and I can’t remember the last time I ironed something), but the pattern still exists. It’s hard even for me to feel idle at home. I always feel I should be doing something, and that feeling worsens when I’m depressed.
For now, though, my hands are not idle, and for that I am grateful to my mother and to whatever impulse led her to that book so long ago.
My father was a drinker, if not a drunk. Opinions vary on whether or not he was an alcoholic. I think he was, though I’ve heard arguments against it, but perhaps at this point it doesn’t matter, as he’s been dead over thirty years, and debating the illnesses of so long ago seems like a waste of time. But he was a drinker, a man who mixed himself a row of drinks every night at the kitchen counter throughout all my childhood, a man from whom I learned the word jigger at a very young age.
Bourbon was his booze of choice, and he made it into whiskey sours, though I believe he also drank it neat. I remember him standing at the counter and measuring and pouring and mixing — we had a little two-headed pewter jigger he liked to use, and various other implements of the sort people once used for mixing drinks back in the days when people drank more such concoctions at home. Our house was not far removed from a 1950s academic cocktail party, though it was the 1970s by the time I showed up on the scene to wonder at why grownups took so very long to drink their drinks when I could down my apple juice in no time.
We have been clearing out my mother’s house and recently she offered me a bourbon decanter. I had not idea there was such a thing, although I suppose now that I think of it that people in old movies drink their liquor from lovely decanters they keep on their sideboard and not poured straight from the bottle they keep in a cupboard. I own no sideboard and drink bourbon perhaps only once every month or two, so I declined the offer. The bourbon decanter was, my mother said, a wedding present, though she could no longer remember from whom, and I likely wouldn’t know the people even if she could.
As with so many things we have uncovered, the bourbon decanter is a relic of a life we no longer live, a life with formal dining rooms and sideboards, a life of dinner for twelve on china and large roasts. We did keep two small glass items that apparently are meant to form a rack where you rest your carving knife. Surely they have a name, but what it is I couldn’t say, as I rarely cook anything that needs carving, and on the occasions when I have made a turkey I’ve ended up hacking away at it with a paring knife. Such are the times we have descended to.
My mother’s family does not come from hard scrabbling, at least not for a few generations back, longer ago than anyone now living can remember. We come from grace and ease. My great grandparents had servants and took vacations of the sort where all my great grandmother had to carry was her purse. I have been reminded often that this was not uncommon for the time they lived in, but still, they had servants; they were not servants themselves, which presumably other people’s great grandparents were.
My father’s parents were not so well to do, and my grandmother on that side (who was the same age as my great grandmother on my mother’s side because generations in my family are off) kept plastic over her furniture, perhaps due to a lack of servants. But even she had silver, a few pieces of which we still have and drag out to use on rare occasions.
My house was built in 1931 and has now been added onto twice. It’s still not a large house by 2017 standards, but it was much smaller when it was built, and it was a house for a family. There were two small bedrooms and one bathroom and a living room and a kitchen, and that was the whole house. The people who lived here first did not keep servants, nor can they have had much room for china and silver. I don’t have much room for it myself, many decades and two additions later. But it humbles me to think of a family in that small space, as it humbles me every time I think of raising children in the era before on demand TV.
The bourbon decanter isn’t something I remember my father using, so it was easy enough to let it go, handsome though it is. The weight of history is upon almost all the objects in my life, and I am trying not to let it drag me down.
It is not possible to describe the amount of stuff there was in my grandmother’s house.
She would admit, I think, to being a hoarder of paper, though she was never diagnosed as such to my knowledge. But there were piles of paper everywhere. Old real estate listings and business cards from ever Realtors office she’d ever worked at. Book and movie reviews for her novel study group and later for the movie selection committee she was on at her retirement home. Recipes. Lists. Lists of things to buy and things to do and things to consider. Lists of home improvements and the contents of folders and filing cabinets. Lists of lists she’d already made. All these were settled around the house like snow on a landscape, and to find one among the many was akin to digging for a single snowflake.
One day when I was living with her I came home from my early morning dog walking job to find her frantically sorting. She was trying to find her property tax bill, or more precisely the piece of paper that she needed to file to be relieved of her property tax bill, as her income was low enough that she merited such relief in the eyes of the township.
I looked at her, an old woman behind a dining room table piled high with papers, the one paper she could find the one that said they were putting her house on the market in fourteen days, and the first thing I did was make her take a Xanax. Somehow we got through the day. We got a loan from the bank to cover the taxes. We went to the township office to file a new copy of the piece of paper. We went somewhere else for a purpose I no longer remember but that had to do with yet another piece of paper. We made it through.
I think of that day now as I prepare to move my mother into my house. One tactic for getting pieces of paper — and other things — out of my grandmother’s house was for us to take them, wholesale, to our own houses. Some of those boxes have been sitting at my mother’s house now for almost a decade, and some of them now will be making their way to my house.
This week we have been frantically sorting, trying to separate the letters and photos we want to save from the bank statements and lists we don’t. Even so there’s too much. I don’t know what to do about it, but I cannot yet throw away my grandmother’s letters, even the ones she didn’t send. Especially the ones she didn’t send. I can’t read them, either: they are too heartbreaking, too much the symptoms of a woman lost in her own life and not always able to fight back against the tide.
I feel bad writing about her that way. She was amazing, not pathetic, although my renderings of her always seem to come out the with more pathos than glory.
Perhaps the best way is to describe the other things in her house, the things that were not the snowfall, not the things that nearly buried her.
She also kept possession of her father’s rock collection, stored in glass topped wooden boxes of his own design. Each box held a series of wooden panels, and on each was a rock in the rough, a polished slice, and a cut and polished cabochon. He did all the work himself. The rocks lived at his house, and in later years they went on display in the schools and libraries of his descendants.
There were masks in my grandmother’s house, and bongo drums and maracas, and a dollhouse built for my mother. There were antique toys of intricate design and a glass topped table full of curiosities, including, among the things of actual value, the plastic airplanes Delta used to give out, one of which she’d let you take with you if you were good. Also in the coffee table was a small turtle, its head and tail suspended by thread. If you looked at it hard enough, she said, it would move, and it did, almost fooling generations of us into believing it was a real turtle. To this day I don’t know if it moved because we looked at it or because she nudged the table a bit while we were staring. Its movements were tiny, nearly imperceptible.
When people tell me to get rid of things, it is these things they are talking about. Oh no, they say, you can keep the stuff that means something. But everything means something. Everything in that house did.
A legacy is what’s left to you — money or goods or a cowlick or a personality trait, admission to a college or admission to a society of hoarders. It is a burden as much as it is a gift.
I look around at the things and do not know what I will do with them in my small house, but I know I am destined to cling to them, to not let them go.
While I miss him daily, I often reflect that it’s just as well my father isn’t around to discuss politics with me. While other people have to deal with the reality of family members who voted for Trump, I have only to deal with a ghost, one whose intentions can be guessed but never known. But I have a pretty good idea, more’s the pity.
It’s one thing to stand for three days beneath the American flag at the college where you teach to prevent students from turning it upside down. I respect the man for that, even though I disagree, and though I would have, as I told my mom when I first heard this story, probably been one of the people trying to turn the flag upside down. (“You and your father would have disagreed on a lot of things,” she said. “Call me if you need to be bailed out. I was on my way to an anti-war march.)
But it’s quite something else to suggest that the Republican party needs to adopt the techniques of the civil rights movement and find its own James Meredith, as my father suggested in a memo to the state Republican party in the mid 1960s. I felt ill reading that memo last year in the basement archives of the college where he taught (the same as the flag incident college). I feel ill writing about it now. But he said it, there in black and white.
Several years ago I resolved to stop writing things about or for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in part out of embarrassment at what I’d written before and in part for the real and good reason that white people, myself most definitely included, need to talk less and listen more. I’m breaking that promise now, and in the worst way possible, opening a remark about MLK with an image of my racist father. But then it’s my father I’m writing about, really, not Dr. King. If acknowledging one’s own racism is the first step in being a good ally, then surely reckoning with the racism of one’s forebears is part and parcel of that.
I’m not sure how much help it is, though. Anything I start to write is too easily contestable by those who knew him and who might well hold a different impression of the man, about whom I have heard little but good in the years since he died. But not entirely, for which I’m grateful.
I’ve been told, for instance, by multiple sources that he believed the best man would always beat the best woman. If Billie Jean King won anything, it must have been because she wasn’t actually facing the best man. (He was a tennis player and would doubtless have had an informed opinion on this, even if it was wrongheaded. I know King only as a cultural icon and have no ability to pass judgment.)
But then I’ve also been told that he was deeply and profoundly upset by anti-Semitism in any form, despite what we would now term his own anti-Semitic microaggressions, usually in the form of commentary on NPR reporters. For years I clung to this as a sign that he wasn’t completely given over to the dark side: as long as you think Hitler is evil, you can’t be all bad, right?
But what I’ve learned — in part from trying to listen more than I talk, which isn’t a strong point of mine, as this essay demonstrates — is that one good instinct does not a good ally make, or even a potential one.
So it’s just as well, I think, that I can’t talk to my father about the presidential election. Still, though, I wish I could. Because the other thing I know — from listening, from reading, from writing, from life — is that one’s lived experience rarely fits neatly into a paradigm not matter what your political affiliation. Blood, in my case, runs thicker than the bully pulpit, and I’m willing to forgive a lot in the people I love. In real life, I’m not called upon to do so much, as my family and friends largely inhabit the same bubble I do. I often say that if my father were alive, I’m not sure we’d still be speaking. But I never stop wishing we could.
I am 41 years old and I have not yet learned that the dead no longer inhabit the objects they leave behind. My father’s body is no longer in his shirts, nor does his breath flow through his pipes. He no longer reads his books nor sits in his chair nor hangs knives from the knife rack he made that fits nowhere in my house but that I keep just the same. He does not mix drinks with the jigger that I don’t use.
The one remnant of him that lives is his voice, but it is locked away somewhere in a backpack full of reel to reel tapes I can’t play, tapes that may well, in the 36 years since he died, have disintegrated completely, so that I am carrying around a backpack full of nothing. He and I used to play a game about that—we each carried a bag full of nothing, and we were gleeful over how big our bags were. I did not know that my bag would someday fill with all the things he left behind, things I hoard even though they serve no purpose.
I come by this tendency honestly. My grandmother carried her checks in a holder with a picture of her dead father in a photo sleeve on the outside. My mother carries it now. I carry my grandmother’s cigarette case (I store credit cards in it) and wear my great grandmother’s ring. Those things at least we use. My office is piled high with my great-grandfather’s rock collection, and our house is full of boxes of papers from my grandmother’s house. To give you an idea of their value, one turned out to contain a folder labeled “Receipts—Toss.”
My grandmother never got a diagnosis as such but was likely a hoarder in the clinical sense of the word, especially with pieces of paper. The maxim that you should handle no piece of mail more than once was lost on her. Most of them got handled eight or ten times, or, more likely, piled in a pile to be dealt with later. I still remember her sitting at her dining room table, extended to its full length with leaves, sifting through pile after pile of paper looking for her property tax bill, which she hadn’t paid. She had, at least, opened the letter that said they were putting her house on the market in fourteen days if she didn’t fork over the cash.
On one of the last weekends we all gathered as a family at her house, she set my cousin Jennifer to alphabetizing her catalogs. Some were more than a decade old—the LL Bean Christmas catalog from 1994 was among them, as I recall. Jennifer looked at the catalogs, looked at me, and said, “Laura, could you do me a favor? It’s eleven o’clock in the morning, but could you go to the kitchen and get me a beer? Because I don’t think I can do this without one.” I got one for her and one for me, and we set to work.
We moved my grandmother out of her house eventually and into a one-bedroom apartment at a retirement place, but the problem continued. I used to say that getting her a printer was the worst decision we ever made, though I contributed to it, buying her a multifunction printer/coper/scanner exactly like mine so I could help her troubleshoot it over the phone. She printed out recipes and articles and movie reviews and the prices of books she owned as collected by AbeBooks and Powell’s and bookfinder.com. She was convinced her first editions would net us a fortune and always believed the highest price listed was the one we’d get.
It was maddening, and yet I loved her. I loved her even when, when visiting, I could not find a place to sit down and had to move treacherous piles of paper from the sofa to the floor in order to have a place to sleep. I loved her even though she’d never let me help—or not really. She was happy to accept help she got to delegate, so you could sort by year or alphabetize to your heart’s content (after you wiped down the corner of the table you’d just cleared so you’d have a space to sort on), but there was no wholesale tossing or recycling of the sort we all desperately longed to do. Those pieces of paper were as valuable to her as her checkbook with her father’s photo, as her mother’s ring (the one I now wear), as the china bouquet in her glass topped coffee table that came from the Chicago World’s Fair.
I suppose if I were to cling to my grandmother for real, I would keep all those scraps of paper—the movie reviews (she was always hoping to improve the selections for the movies at her retirement home), the book prices, the articles, the magazine clippings, the ancient catalogs, the piles and piles of Sunday New York Times crosswords waiting for their final clues. And indeed, sometimes when I find one, I am tempted, especially if it has her handwriting on it, writing like no one else’s.
But for all that I loved her, I am trying not to become her. So I let them go. But I keep the rocks.
This is an old, old essay from my MFA thesis, posted in honor of the Shelter House Used Book Sale, happening again today from noon to 4 pm at 1925 Boyrum Street in Iowa City. Many of the books mentioned below are for sale there, as well as many other books you might actually want to read. Every kid who goes gets a free book, and proceeds go to support services for the homeless in Iowa City.
For four years, from third through sixth grade, I lived with my mother and our cat in a brown shingle house tucked far to the back of its lot on a side street near a large park in our small midwestern city. The house was an ordinary split level, ugly and unprepossessing, with a sad band of trees planted haphazardly in its yard: a tilted Russian olive, a sinking willow, a nearly barren pine, trees I climbed and sat in and put stones around, even in their brokenness. The house’s chief feature, and the reason that my mother bought it, was that in back, opening out from the living room, there was a library, added by the house’s previous owner, a lawyer, who moved out when he needed even more room for his books.
Although we gave away 108 boxes of books to my father’s former students and colleagues shortly after we moved in, we still had over 2000 volumes, which is what you get from the marriage of two Ph.D.s with eighty years of book-collecting between them.
My mother kept fiction and children’s books in the living room, and sci-fi novels in her room, but the mass of books was in the library.
The library had greenish-blue industrial carpet and a sloped ceiling. The wall on its higher side was made of bookshelves, and the wall on the lower side was dominated by an enormous picture window.
Out the window you could see our yard and into our neighbors’ and almost all the way to where the street dropped off into a sudden ravine. Over the years, fueled by enthusiasms from reading A Girl of the Limberlost and Gerald Durrell’s The Amateur Naturalist, I learned the rocks and plants and birds outside—shale and limestone, columbine and yew and wild rose, cardinals and chickadees and mourning doves with their low, insistent notes.
I spent a lot of time in this room, often looking out the window instead of doing math homework or practicing viola. But, especially as twilight darkened the window so that it reflected the space in time, my attention turned to the other wall, too, to the shelves and shelves of books.
They were arranged, I now realize, by the Library of Congress system, by genre and nationality and century. The volumes were elegant, many of them hardback, black or grey or blue or olive green or, occasionally, red, with gold leaf and lettering on their spines. The titles and the covers o f these books were as much a part of my landscape as any living aspect of the natural world: The Oxford Book of English Verse, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Studies in Words, De Boetheius, The Oxford Book of Greek Verse, and its companion, The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation, The Imitation of Christ, The Vagabond Scholars, The Greek Stones Speak, The Faerie Queene, and, at the bottom, the twenty-odd volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica from 1911. Unlike the World Book at school, these encyclopedias, though alphabetical, were not separated a letter at a time, but in groups — ITA to LOR, one was called, LOR to MUN, MUN to PAY. I often pulled them out so I could wonder at their tissue-thin pages and unfold with care their delicate and ancient maps, as if they might hold some key to these lost worlds, these foreign words.
* * *
When people asked me what I wanted to be when I was a kid, I said a naturalist and a writer, which produced a certain degree of puzzlement, the latter being an impractical career and the former an obscure one. One could be a journalist or a scientist, but the desire simply to study nature and write of what you saw was, I suppose, peculiar.
The belief that nature has something to teach you, and that you can start from scratch, with the world around you, is as arcane to the world of science as the notion that you can read literature without theory is to the world of letters, but it was not always so. When Aristotle w anted to know how many teeth a horse had, he went out and counted them. That later generations took his word for it seems to me a sign not of progress but of an appalling lack of curiosity. Book-learning may help me identify the species of a bird or the meter of a poem, but what the bird and the poem have to teach me they will do themselves.
In college I was technically a Classics major, but I spent a great deal of time in the eighteenth century. It was an age that seemed to have much that the present one lacks. They all read Latin and Greek, they had intelligent and witty conversations, they never tolerated a fool, and even when they were angry, they were very, very elegant. But, most appealing of all, they seemed genuinely interested in human nature and natural law. All the men I read seemed to be natural philosophers — natural both in that they were observant of the ways of nature and natural in that their observations seemed to come from them, not through any critical or sociological theory. I read Hume on natural religion, Rousseau on man in a state of nature, and Montesquieu on natural law, and I wrote an entire term paper
on American natural history of the eighteenth century, when everyone was trying to figure out the nature of the New World, its new governments, and what Crevecoeur called “this American, this new man.”
But I also learned -— or was told -— that by and large, these men got nature wrong. Their ideas of order and equality left a lot of people out -— had I been around at the time, in fact, they would have excluded me by mere fact of my sex. Rousseau, that great proponent of noble savagery, had no desire to live amongst the “savages” himself, and abandoned his illiterate wife and five children to schmooze with the upper classes. Benjamin Rush, an American physician much enamored of Enlightenment philosophy, believed that black skin was a disease of the moral faculty (located, he posited, in the spleen), though by selective breeding, it might eventually be possible to purify the morals and thus lighten the skin. That phrase that Thom as Jefferson so charmingly altered to “the pursuit of happiness” was still understood by all to mean what John Locke had originally written, “the pursuit of property.” The prescription for manifest destiny and destruction was carved on the cornerstone of the country, and much of it, I was told, came from pondering not only nature but also the very books I had stared at in the library as a child.
Somehow, it seemed, I had horribly misread the words and the world. Growing up in that space where art and nature met had made me want to plunge more deeply into each. Apparently others were similarly impelled, but for them that plunge meant drilling for oil in the wilderness and arguing for the advancement of one group of people by the oppression of another. The effect was something like that of learning you and your worst enemy share a common ancestor or a fondness for the Gospel according to John -— yet it makes sense in a way, for what is enmity if not a belief that someone else is perverting that thing which is dearest to your heart?
Lately I have been reading Longinus, the first century AD rhetorician, in a translation with commentary done by my father and his former student and colleague, James Arieti. His chief work is On the Sublime, a treatise on composition that deals explicitly with questions of art (or technique, as my father and Arieti translate it) and
nature. Are poets born by nature or made through technique? An old question. Both, says Longinus: without nature, art would have no substance; without art, nature would have no form.
Always I find myself back in the library at dusk, watching the world as it fades and then reappears, as the trees turn to books and the leaves to words printed on a page. Always I remember searching for smooth flat black stones to place in a circle on the ground beneath a tree, and lying on the ground to listen and feeling something listening back. Always I remember the night my m other turned to the shelf, pulled out a volume, and read to me from Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Policy.
Now if nature should interm it her course, and leave altogether though it were but for a while the observation of her own laws; if those principal and mother elements of the world, whereof all things in this lower world are made, should lose the qualities which now they have; if the frame of that heavenly arch erected over our heads should loose and dissolve itself; if celestial spheres should forget their wonted motions, and by irregular volubility turn themselves anyway as it might happen; if the prince of the lights of heaven, which now as a giant doth run his unwearied course, should as it were through a languishing faintness begin to stand and to rest himself; if the moon should wander from her beaten way, the times and seasons of the year blend themselves by disordered and confused mixture, the winds breathe out their last gasp, the clouds yield no rain, the earth be defeated of heavenly influence, the fruits of the earth pine away as children at the withered breasts of their mother no longer able to yield them relief: what would become of man himself, whom all these things now do all serve?
See we not plainly that obedience of creatures unto the law of nature in the stay of the whole world?
Perhaps, then, these things, this space, are more than just a hall o f mirrors, art and nature, nature and art. Perhaps they were preparing me to walk that narrow, filmy spider’s thread that connects the ages, touching mountain peaks and hidden caves, galaxies and nuclei, tangled in spots and often invisible, but ever present, just waiting for you to find it.
I thought I might have more to say on this subject than I did fifteen years ago, in another lifetime, but for the most part I don’t, except to acknowledge how hard and awful a day it is for some people, and how I wonder, much as I enjoy seeing pictures of people’s mothers, if this might not be one of those days Facebook has made worse and not better.
I posted this there yesterday, but I wanted to get it into my own space as well, having gone to the trouble of scanning it and so on. A friend there commented that my name was bigger than the headline, and I said yeah, I used to be sort of famous in this town. That was long ago, when we had an independent weekly, and Dan Coffey (of Ask Dr. Science) and I both were columnists for it, and I was twenty-four years old and had just gotten arrested and accepted into graduate school, and I never planned to have a child. I still believe what I believed then, though, and that’s some comfort (as is the fact that I have a much, much better haircut now).
Peanut butter sandwiches on raisin bread, and grapes. That’s what Hilda packed for me for lunch on August 28, 1993, after feeding me a breakfast of eggs and toast and scrapple. “This is what I packed for them back in ’63,” she said, “because it would spoil on the bus, and they couldn’t stop at restaurants.”
Hilda was the mother of my mother’s best friend from high school, Rachel, who had ridden a bus from Chicago with an integrated group to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. That’s why they couldn’t stop at restaurants, of course: few if any would have seated a mixed-race group in 1963. Their high school had its prom at a fancy hotel downtown that year, because no place in the suburbs would accept interracial couples.
I was staying overnight with Hilda, who by then lived in Washington, DC, near the National Zoo, the night before the 30th anniversary of that march, whose 50th anniversary was today. The next day I’d meet up with my best friend and then ride home on a bus that was half International Socialist Organization, half NAACP. A few days later we started our senior year of high school, wearing our tshirts from the march, as Rachel had gone back to start her senior year of high school from the original one (where, I must admit, I doubt they sold tshirts). I had been out east with my mother visiting colleges, the very sorts of colleges that many of the white civil rights volunteers in the South in the 1960s attended, the sort that I myself attended a year later. We ended our trip at Swarthmore, and then my mother put me on a train from Philadelphia to DC, where Hilda met me at the station. That night I started reading a copy of A Prayer for Owen Meany that was in her guest room, though I still haven’t finished it. The next morning I took the subway to the Mall and met up with my friend near the Washington Monument.
I remember very little about that day because it was very, very hot. It was the kind of heat we had today in the Midwest, only multiplied by tens of thousands of bodies surrounding the Reflecting Pool and the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where so many people gotÂ up to speak that day and where so many of my heroes had spoken before. I know that Rosa Parks spoke, but I do not remember what she said. Mostly I remember an endless search for people selling water, in tiny six-ounce bottles for $2 each, highway robbery for water in 1993, but it seemed I could never get enough to drink. And I remember the seas of people in colored tshirts, like slices of a pie chart. There was the NAACP in one color, then the AFL-CIO in another, then some smaller union or state delegation in a third and a fourth and a fifth. I remember the tshirt vendors and wish to this day I’d bought the better looking $10 tshirt, which was white on black, instead of the cheaper $5 one, which was white with yellow and blue lettering. And I remember that on the bus ride home, our first stop was at a strip mall pizza joint outside district, a place where we were so rambunctious from exhaustion and dehydration that we left a tip for nearly fifty percent of the cost of our meal by way of apology.
It was, in short, the sort of experience you go to not so much because of the experience itself but so that you can say that you were there. I wore my tshirt back to school with pride, though no one seemed much impressed. But I was impressed. I had been there. I had been there with my best friend, who had been to the 20th anniversary with her mother when she was seven. I had stayed the night with the mother of my mother’s best friend, who was there for the big deal, the real thing, in living memory. I was there.
Later I would read about the problems with the March — how a lot of the SNCC kids hadn’t even wanted to go, how John Lewis’s speech had been censored (or toned down, depending on your point of view) so it was less critical of Kennedy, how a lot of the real activists thought it was just a big show. I got a bit cynical myself. I’d been to a few other marches on Washington, and after awhile they all start to seem the same. Take the bus (or drive, in my later, more decadent years) for twenty-four hours, get out and protest for eight hours, get back on the bus. Listen to a lot of people speak for three minutes each. See the event get no news coverage whatsoever, except perhaps for a picture of a guy on stilts (“why do they always take a picture of the guy on stilts?” my late friend Meg would say) or a giant puppet.
Later still I’d be in Wyoming watching the inauguration of Barack Obama in a school cafeteria, where it was being shown under duress. I stood in the back and cried, knowing that no matter what a disappointment Obama already was, or what a disappointment he would prove to be, that there was something miraculous about this, something to take note of. My friend Tim said some years previously that he assumed we’d have a black man as president before we had a woman, but that he’d probably be a Republican. I thought that was probably true but that it wouldn’t happen in our lifetime, and yet there was a black man being inaugurated. There was Aretha Franklin singing. There it all was, streaming through on a TV in a room full of tense white people, and me, crying.
Today I had the 50th anniversary of that great March on Washington streaming on the second monitor in my office, though I only got to watch bits and pieces of it. The other day in the car I broke down in tears listening to bits from John Lewis’s speech there on Saturday, and I went in to my son’s daycare and attempted to explain to them all what it meant. I was there twenty years ago, I said. I was there. “Oh, you must have been a child!” someone said in response, I assume in an attempt at flattery.
I’ve seen at least three stories lamenting the lack of a Republican presence at the event — amusingly enough, from the Washington Times, the Wall Street Journal, and MSNBC — bipartisanship exists in the media, people! Mark the day! I get the lament, but in a way I am glad. Dr. King was not bipartisan, although he was no great fan of any party. But he was explicitly political. His was not the politics of flags or commemorative postage stamps of inventors and entertainers. He was not, in his lifetime, someone everyone got behind because he had a dream. He was a leader in a movement that wanted to cash a check, that wanted jobs and votes and admittance as full-fledged members of society, not just drinking fountains and abstract ideas about character and freedom.
It’s pretty common in my circle of friends for people to post links every MLK Day to “A Time to Break Silence,” King’s speech opposing the Vietnam War, or to mention that he was speaking to striking sanitation workers when he died, or to talk about how yes, he did associate with Communists. But all of that is rare in official King celebrations. Making his birthday a national holiday was a triumph in many ways but also a disservice in some ways to the causes for which he fought.
Eradicating racism isn’t just about loving your neighbor and joining hands (although perhaps a little more loving your neighbor would have saved Trayvon Martin, and Amadou Diallou, and countless others before them). It’s about figuring out how to end the discrepancy between the black population of Iowa as a whole and the black population its prisons. It’s about ending the (sadly) quite reasonable fears that people of color have about being stopped by the police or even about being doubted in customer service transactions. It’s about people like me — people who think of ourselves as enlightened and with it white people — reading about how it’s actually not really helpful or cool to describe times we’ve witnessed racist behavior to people of color, because it just reinforces to them that such behavior exists rather than making us look cool for recognizing it.
So Republican leaders were invited to today’s commemoration and they didn’t show up? Well. Perhaps that should tell you something. Perhaps that should tell us that Dr. King isn’t just a faded memory, the sort of person you dig out when you want to think harmonious thoughts and sing “Kumbayah” off key, but with feeling.
Today I ordered a poster of the famous photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X standing side by side, smiling. I’ll feel like a little bit of a white girl poser when I hang it up in my office, but it will also remind me of something important: that both men are people my mother told me were important. Both were people she let me stay up late or go out at night to learn more about. Both had dreams, and both worked on those dreams through any means they found necessary.
The pie chart of colors I saw at the 30th anniversary march in 1993 was beautiful and inspiring but also depressing, as if each slice of the pie were only there for a part of the dream. I didn’t see that color coding on the Mall today, though perhaps that was due to the rain. I don’t have a solution to it. But I want to try. And I want to believe.