Thank you for the opportunity to speak this evening, and for the hard and unglamorous work that you all do as school board members. My name is Laura Crossett, and I’m a 1988 graduate of Lincoln Elementary, a 1994 graduate of West High School, and a librarian at the Coralville Public Library. I live in Iowa City, and my son attends kindergarten at Mark Twain Elementary.
Every morning when we get to school he goes over and rings the buzzer and says “Hi, it’s me, Peter,” and every morning, Whitney Wessling, the amazing secretary at Twain says “Hello, Peter.” He’s an anxious kid, and this is one ritual that helps him know it’s okay to go into school every day.
I have seen Whitney show that same level of individual care for all the students at Twain. In the midst of handling phone calls and incoming messages from parents, teachers, and staff, she still knows which kids might not have gotten breakfast if they’re late, and she always knows who needs a hug.
Secretaries, janitors, physical plant workers, groundskeepers, and food service workers aren’t just automatons making a machine work: they are human beings doing difficult, demanding, essential work for which they are rarely recognized, and as such they deserve a say not only in their wages but also in the conditions of their employment, including sick leave, vacation, grievance procedures, and all the other so-called “permissive” topics in collective bargaining agreements — topics that have historically been bargained in good faith for the past 40 years.
Saturday you released a statement noting that “the board and administrative team’s intent to protect and preserve prohibited and permissive items was not conveyed clearly” in meeting with the secretaries’ union. I would call that a drastic understatement: a document that reads “The District proposes to remove the following articles from the negotiated agreement: payroll deductions, union rights, employee hours, seniority, discipline and discharge, sick leave, leaves of absence, vacation, health provisions, safety provisions, grievance procedures, wages and salaries” could hardly be clearer in its intent to strip these employees of everything but a pennies per hour pay raise.
You have apologized for your error. I hope that means you plan to return to the bargaining table ready and willing to include those items in the next collective bargaining agreement and that you will soon come to the table with the janitors’ and food service workers’ unions with that same good faith. The people who make our schools run deserve no less.
These days my phone sends me only two kinds of news alerts — reports of mass shootings and reports of new allegations of sexual harassment or assault. (We know a good deal about the effects of media conglomeration on the quality and quantity of news reporting. It would be interesting to study the effects of smart phone news alerts on people’s awareness of current events, but that’s another topic for another hour.) I find these both distressing, of course, but primarily they make me very, very tired.
That The Onion has been able to recycle the same story about mass shootings for years now is a marker of the kind of outrage most of my friends feel about this country’s inability to address the problem of gun violence. I know many fine people who are hard at work on this problem, and I wish them luck but have little faith in the possibility of any change. Any form of restriction on gun ownership or gun type will never fly on the right; stop and frisk (which my former prosecutor friend assures me is an extremely effective tactic for preventing gun violence) will never fly on the left. I am unaware of a third path, unless there is a fundamental shift in human nature. I have not encountered anything new on the subject (see again that recycled Onion story) and think it unlikely that I will, and I am very tired of reading the same things over and over again.
A friend in college once said that I was unshockable, and this may be true, as so far the repeated news alerts about yet another man groping a woman or a girl (or raping her, or masturbating in front of her, or making any sort of unwanted sexual advances) have left me perhaps a little more deflated each time, but not shocked. I am instead very tired — tired of having to read the details of an incident which, if it has not happened to me, has undoubtedly happened to someone I know — and even more tired of reading men’s responses to it.
I do not particularly wish to congratulate or thank men for their apologies, or for their writing about realizing the error of their ways, or for admitting their wrongdoing and pledging to do better, or their musings on what it means to be a man, or their exhortations to other men, or their admissions of the times they participated in locker room talk, or whatever else it is they are posting about in these times (for truthfully, I have stopped reading). No apology is likely to be sufficient to either the woman who was harassed or assaulted, or to those of us who have been similarly harassed or assaulted. I did not think I would ever find myself quoting my driver’s ed teacher, but I am tempted to yell “Don’t be sorry; just don’t do it!” each time I run across another apology.
I don’t mean that the apologies are insincere or that they should not be made — I merely mean that they should not be made with the expectation of absolution or congratulations or even acknowledgment. I am tired and I do not wish to spend my limited energy thanking men for their honesty or congratulating them for their self-awareness or otherwise performing what they now call emotional labor on their behalf.
I think a lot about how I am raising a white son and whether it is possible to do so and create a decent human being in this society.
I think a lot about how the worst sexual assault is never likely to show up as a news alert on my phone, because it happens within families and cannot be spoken of for fear of reprisal or of upsetting the delicate net that holds us together.
I think a lot about how we have heard — or are listening to and reporting on — primarily to the accounts of white women, and whether I would see as many news alerts and social media posts and apologies if the reports were made by women of color, who surely experience such things at an equal if not greater rate.
I think a great deal about the abuse perpetrated upon bisexual and transgender youth and how improbable it is that their stories will ever become mainstream news alerts or popular hashtags.
I think about these things, but I have not had much to say, because, as I have said, I am very tired, and that is why I have not commented on your musings or liked your posts or engaged in your discussions. It is not that I am giving up: I will continue to fight against poverty, hunger, injustice, and oppression, against “hypocrisy, porcous pomposity, greed, lust, vulgarity, cruelty, trickery, sham, and all possible nitwittery.” But I will do so largely outside the echo chamber of news alerts and hashtags and social media posts.
I hope that anyone reading this can find a way to do the same.
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.
To write I need an opening line. Preferably I need an excellent opening line, one that gets me in the middle of something, ties me up in knots I have to untangle my way out of, or lays out a road so open and wide I have to follow it, like a two lane highway on a summer’s day.
Rarely do I get such a line, but even the lesser lines are ones I get attached to, as if they are talismans. It’s very hard for me to throw an opening line away.
I didn’t have any opening line when I sat down to write today. I had nothing but dread and loathing, neither of which is a place that produces great writing, or any writing, at least not for me. But my friend Pooja people to take part in this write in today, and I had to try.
A year or so ago I decided to give up on the pretense that I would ever write about anything other than my dead father. I even say to people now, “Oh, I have another dead father essay if you’d be willing to read it.” I thought that perhaps by surrendering I might somehow open the way for new material, but that has not happened. I keep coming back, circling around. I’m not sure if I’m digging a hole to somewhere or if I’m mired in muck like one of the circles of hell (the suicides, I think, appropriately enough). But it’s the hole or the muck I’m stuck in, like it or not.
I wrote last week about how my father would likely have voted for Trump. There’s an outside chance he’d have sat out the election, but there’s no chance in hell he would have voted for Hillary Clinton. Trying to write about your father while trying not to think too much about his presidential picks is a neat trick. The only way I avoid it is by sticking to the parts of my father’s life that overlapped with my own. He died when I was five and a half, at which point politics hadn’t yet entered my world view.
The only way I can deal with the current political reality is sort of the opposite—by taking a very, very long view, one long enough that the next four years (or even eight) are just a blip in history, the wink of an eye or the toss of a hand. I think of the Trump administration in terms of how much space it would take up in my AP European History textbook. I had the seventh edition of the book my mother had used the second edition of when she was in college—Palmer & Colton’s A Short History of the Modern World. She used to say you couldn’t underline the important parts of that book because you’d be underlining everything, which I found to be true. I imagine a short paragraph about Trump in a subsection called Authoritarianism in the 21st Century, and then I feel a little better.
But not much. We don’t live in the lines of a history textbook. There are more of us than fit there, and our lives are too big, and many of them aren’t even deemed worthy by the authors. But we keep slogging along, even on the days when we have no inspiration. We keep showing up and doing the work.
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 thought Dr. Mixdorf was rather grouchy when I first met him. Grouchy and a hardass. I had him for American Studies II my freshman year of high school and I couldn’t really figure him out. He had an impressive agenda–he taught us about institutionalized racism and union history, topics not often addressed in general high school American history classes then or, I suspect, now–but he often seemed humorless. Then again, I thought, who wouldn’t be if they had to teach American history from that godforsaken book with the sunset and the Statue of Liberty on the cover? One day, though, I was walking out of class when he stopped me. It was late 1990 or early 1991, the lead up to the “first” Gulf War, and I was wearing my black armband with my all time favorite button that read “Are you willing to die for Exxon?”
“Nice button,” he said.
Two years later I had him again for AP Government. The first day of class he assigned us a ten page paper due in a week. My topic was reapportionment and redistricting–topics I’m fascinated by to this day. The day we turned in that paper, we got another assignment–another ten page paper, and a 20 minute presentation, this time with a partner, due in a week. I went to the University of Iowa libraries with my partner Laura to read up on Rousseau. We were so overwhelmed by the library that we spent most of our time at the photocopiers, madly making copies, as we couldn’t check books out.
Things never slowed down much after that. Somewhere I still have the set of drawings Amy made for me of our year in AP Government, which features coffee (which I think we all learned to drink that year), stacks of papers, bad grades we mourned, good grades we were proud of, and “a bed that was never slept in.”
I didn’t much like high school, but for 53 minutes (really more like 50, since I was late every morning) at the beginning of every day of junior year, it wasn’t so bad. Our textbook was written by a James Q. Wilson, and at the end of the year Daw-An made us all JQW tshirts–“outdoor gear for the rugged individualist.” We read the Articles of Confederation and the early constitutions of New York and Virginia. We gave a lot of oral reports, and thus I got a line I still use today when Dan said, “The minority whip is a man named Newt Gingerich, whom my father describes as somewhere politically to the right of Darth Vader.” I got sick of doing straight reports at some point and so instead wrote a play about Harry Truman and the steel mill seizure, complete with a “To seize or not to seize” soliloquy, and I made everyone in class take a part. Dr. Mixdorf tolerated that and even dealt graciously with my argument about why I should get a better grade on a paper comparing Japanese and American political cultures in which I quoted Pretty Woman.
He showed us a documentary about the campaigns of Ronald Reagan, which is where I first learned about focus groups. When they showed the Reagan bear ad, which concludes, “Isn’t it good to be as strong as the bear?” Dr. Mixdorf intoned, in a perfect stage whisper, “If there is a bear?”
I made brownies for that class for some occasion or other that I no longer remember. I’d set them out on the table in the middle of the room where Dr. Mixdorf kept copies of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal in the vain hope that we’d read them. He mentioned there were a few brownies left and then, as Rebecca started reaching for one before he’d finished, said, “Down, Becca, down!” They’ve been called Down, Becca, Down Brownies ever since.
As the other Laura said earlier today, Dr. Mixdorf made you want to work hard and do well, and that’s a rare quality in anyone, particularly in a high school teacher.
Dr. Mixdorf died two weeks ago, and I made a version of this post on Facebook. I was astounded not so much by how much I remembered (before I got knocked up, I used to remember everything) but by how much of my AP Gov class of thirteen I was still connected to in some way. A year or so after we graduated, a bunch of us got together while we were home on winter break to watch the movie The American President and go out for ice cream and coffee afterward and talk about the movie and college. I don’t remember if we talked specifically about Dr. Mixdorf and how much he taught us, but surely we should have. I am sorry now that I never had the chance to tell him.
Down Becca Down Brownies Essentially, these are the recipe for brownies on the back of the chocolate box, plus an egg.
4 oz. baking chocolate
1 1/2 sticks butter
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup flour
Melt the chocolate and butter together. Combine all the other ingredients in a bowl and pour into a greased square baking pan. Bake about an hour at 350 degrees. Cool slightly and eat as soon as possible.
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.
In the late summer or very early fall of 1987, my mother and grandmother took me to hear Joe Biden speak at a picnic shelter in Upper City Park in Iowa City. He was running for president at the time. That was truly a golden caucus year — Bruce Babbitt, Jesse Jackson, Gary Hart, Paul Simon, Al Gore, Michael Dukakis, and a few others listed here I don’t even remember. Biden dropped out shortly after we saw him, and my family transferred its allegiance to Bruce Babbitt, thus continuing with our long line of unsuccessful presidential candidates (Paul Tsongas ’92, anyone?). I believe Adlai Stevenson is the only guy we’ve liked who ever got a nomination. I missed the caucus in ’88 because I had strep, and I’m bummed out about that to this day, but a bunch of us at my grade school collected discarded stickers the next day and wore them around proudly till they unraveled in the wash.
But back to that evening in City Park. Biden gave a rousing speech to a few dozen people, most of them the same sort of upper middle class white professionals that we were. I remember he said damn once and changed it to darn. I remember he said every American high school student should be required to take four years of English (that got a lot of cheers). And my mother remembers that he said that even when school was boring (calculus was the example he used — sorry, mathematicians), it was still important.
In 2008, I was living in Wyoming, far from the land of the first caucus and the People’s Republic of Johnson County. I asked my mother whom she was caucusing for, and she said Joe Biden. “Why?” I asked.
“Do you remember when we went to hear him speak?”
“Yeah. Remember how he said that education was sometimes boring but it was still important?”
“Well, that just really impressed me.”
“So you’re caucusing for someone based on a speech he gave twenty years ago… ?”
I tell this story a lot because of course I love to make fun of my mother (whom I love very much), but in actuality, I agree with its message.
I never planned to have children, and thus I never imagined what I would do with a child, or what I would want to teach one or instill in him. I have my doubts about the ability of parents to teach or instill anything in their children, but if I were to pick something, it might well be this: we don’t always get to do the things we want to do. Life isn’t all about fun. You don’t always get to do what you love. And that’s okay. There’s honor and dignity and meaning in all sorts of work, even the dullest. My job is far from glamorous. Once in awhile I get to talk on TV or radio. Once in awhile I get to clean up puke. Most of the time I deal with the cash register and try to make sure the desk schedule is taken care of and handle various problems. Even the parts of my job that sound exciting are often not all that. I order all the adult fiction for my library, which sounds great (and sometimes is, because I get to buy and promote amazing books like Love Me Back and Battleborn and After Birth and Women), but mostly it means that every month I order five copies of the newest James Patterson* novel, because my job is to keep all the readers happy, not just to pander to my particular tastes.
This time of year tends to be full of people Living Their Best Life, or pledging to, and casting aside the past year and planning for only bright and shining things ahead. And that’s all great. (I have a few plans myself — they include getting all my pictures framed and hung and finding black ankle boots that fit. Check back with me in a year to see if either of these things has happened. I have my doubts.) But I often think we don’t give enough credence to drudgery and toil and even ordinary mind-numbing work. It doesn’t matter how many great ideas you have — someone still has to collect the garbage. The folks who make our clothes and gadgets — including the black ankle boots I’m coveting and the fancy machine I’m typing on — still make wretched salaries, work horrendous hours in horrific conditions, and have very little of what we all might consider life.
I was of course raised not only on speeches by Joe Biden but also — and more importantly — on literature that posited a very specific kind of world view. Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott and so many of the other books I read as a child were about nothing so much as stoicism in the face of deprivation. When Pa survives by eating the candy he was going to give the girls for Christmas, or when Laura wonders if she can bring part of the orange she gets at a party home to share, as she’s never seen an orange before, or when Marmee insists they take their Christmas feast to the poor family — these things have stayed with me, even if I don’t live up to their ideals. “We must never complain. We must always be grateful for what we have,” says Ma over and over and over again. I know there’s a lot to be said against that point of view. No one should be grateful for terrible working conditions or domestic abuse or rape culture. But absent the kind of horror you can and should fight against, there’s a lot to be said for it, too.
*It’s true that Patterson gives a lot of money to independent bookstores and booksellers, including here in my town. But buying multiple copies of books whose major plots involve women getting raped and dismembered always leaves a sick feeling in my mouth. Just handling book covers of hazy women’s body parts — and there are a LOT of these, not just by Patterson — makes me kind of ill.
The fall of 2001 was not a particularly good time for anyone, but it was a particular kind of very bad time for those of us who are pacifists.
I taped a peace sign to the front window of my apartment with masking tape that night; it stayed there till I moved out two years later. It was a patched together thing, uneven, hopelessly hippie-ish, a sign to most, I would guess, that I could not be taken seriously. But I did it anyway, and I kept it up.
Those weren’t easy days. Neal Conan was hosting call in shows on NPR where he’d lambaste anyone who suggested maybe we shouldn’t be bombing Afghanistan. And that was NPR (which my friend, who’d been calling it Neoliberal Propaganda Radio, just started referring to as Nationalist Public Radio). I couldn’t bear to check any other major news source. A group of us met on an upper story lounge of the IMU a few nights after the planes hit to start a group to do something, and Iowans for Peace later did a lot of things — rallies and candlelight vigils and letter-writing campaigns and all the things you do to fight a force larger than you, one you know on some level you can’t stop but that you know you have to resist. And then you wonder at your metaphors — fight, resist, disobey — because all you ever wanted to do was create the beloved community, and here you are in the master’s house with nothing but the master’s tools.
But we met and we marched and we stood in silence, shielding lighted candles, and we wrote letters at a pizza joint downtown, because we cared about stopping the war, but also because we cared about each other. And so sometime that fall when some people started talking about going down to the SOA protest that year, I decided to go along.
Steven Kanner’s sister Rebecca was serving a prison sentence at that time for civil disobedience at the annual SOA march a year or two before. Steven had been going for some years, and likely he was the impetus for the trip that year. I knew Steven as the progressive on City Council, the one who came to Students Against Sweatshops events, the one took us seriously, as he took everyone seriously. I also knew him as something of a doofus, a guy I knew and liked and respected but that I knew no one on Council, and few in town, would ever take as seriously as he took us.
We had a few meetings, rambling affairs held on the porch of the coop house in town, where people would half talk politics and half strum guitars, and then we took off in caravan. My friends Meg and Erica and I took my car, Steven and our friend Karly and a WWII resister whose name I’ve forgotten were in the next, and the rest, whom I can still picture but can no longer name, came in a third.
The times were awful, and the cause was deathly serious, and the drive was long, but it remains suspended, as some drives do, in a magical, out of time place. Meg and Erica and I lost track of the caravan at some point because we got so dreamily distracted singing along to “Rocky Mountain High.” None of us had cell phones yet, but we found each other again somehow. We drove through the night, taking turns, and pulled into a Waffle House in Georgia just at dawn. We stood in the parking lot, dazed, exhausted yet awake, blinking slightly, and Steven — of course Steven — insisted we all do a sun salutation, which he led us in, right there in the parking lot: nine pasty white Midwestern hippies doing poorly formed yoga in a deep South Waffle House parking lot as the sun rose. That was Steven all over.
That night we settled into our rooms at the motel, and Steven — of course, Steven — organized a group to go watch the Leonid meteor shower, and of course I did not go. I don’t remember if it was that night or the next day, but at some point Meg came to me and said, “Oh God, we’re in trouble.” What was it? I asked. “You know Karly rode down all the way next to Steven?” she said. “Well, she just came and told me, ‘Steven and I are in love!’”
We rolled our eyes and sighed, certain we knew better, sure this was going to end in more heartbreak.
We were wrong, of course — or if we were right about the heartbreak, we were wrong about its cause or its timeline. Meg is dead now, and the School of the Americas is still there, and we are still at war. And now Steven is dead, too.
But we were wrong about their relationship, which started that trip and carried on. We were wrong to doubt love and faith and strength, which are the only things, ultimately, that keep us going — the things themselves, and the memory of them. Meg and I talked about that a lot, when she was still here, and writing now I feel her chortling with me still — chortling and then weeping.
This has ended up being more about me, and about Meg, than it is about Steven, which is wrong for Steven but reflective of him, too, and the ways in which he cared for others above himself at all times.
I knew him very little, really, and I learned very little about him. It is my loss. I’ve been reminded in these past weeks of a story someone told at my own father’s memorial service — an old rabbinic tale about “a scholarly and pious man who was repeatedly and brutally rebuffed by those to whom he tried to impart his love of truth. Finally he was asked by a sympathetic man why he persisted in the face of continual failure. He replied, ‘At first I spoke to change people and when I realized I could not change them I kept speaking so that they would not change me.’”
That story is one part of Steven — the part we all know that loved social justice, the part that, as another old friend of our said, was “at odds with a world at odds with justice.” But as I’ve thought about it more I’ve realized it isn’t nearly all of him: for Steven wasn’t simply a person who spoke out against injustice and continued against the odds (though he was that, too). He was a person who in his own life created the beloved community.
We live, I think, by these moments of grace that come in the midst of chaos and tragedy and fear and boredom and nitwittery. Mostly you work and grocery shop and pay bills and do dishes. Sometimes you drive insane distances to protest human rights abuses and don’t get enough sleep and eat too much bad road food and possibly have no effect on the state of the world at all. But then sometimes you find yourself with your friends, doing sun salutations in a parking lot.
Steven lived more of those moments than anyone else I know, and he was better at creating them than anyone I have ever met. I wish I had paid more attention and shown up more.
At the last hootenanny I remember going to before I left town, or before Steven and Karly did, we sang Phil Ochs’s “When I’m Gone.” I’ve always thought of it as the depressive’s social justice anthem, in that it lists both all the pleasures and all the responsibilities that one can’t enjoy or take on when one is dead, so, as the refrain goes, “I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.” Steven was a far more energetic and upbeat person than Ochs, or than me, and when I let his spirit in, it’s talked me out of many a funk—as it has many others, I would venture. I guess we’ll have to do it on our own now, but with the memories and moments he created to guide us.
Today marks two things: It is my son’s third birthday and it is the 42nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade. I assume that at least one of my readers will be concerned that I connect those two events, but to me their link is crucial. For a long time I wasn’t sure what exactly made me decide to have my son. The other day I realized: I was free to choose to have a baby because I knew I didn’t have to.
Like almost half of the women in the United States who get pregnant, I did not plan to get pregnant. In fact, I went to considerable trouble and expense — $500 out of pocket and three visits to a clinic 30 miles from where I lived that was open only during the hours I worked — in order not to get pregnant. Like all birth control, though, mine had a failure rate, and I am one of its number. (That I did not ever get pregnant while using much less reliable methods of birth control, or pure blind luck, still strikes me as deeply ironic.) Look around you: half the women you see with children did not plan to have them (half the men, too, presumably). That is a lot. Look again: one in three of those women will have an abortion during her lifetime. That is a lot, too. I offer these statistics not as reasons to mourn or to celebrate. I offer them as facts, like the rocks beneath your feet that may trip you, like the water in which you will either sink or swim. What I hope for is not so much a change in any particular policy as a change in attitude, one where pregnancy is seen as what it is — something bestowed at random, just as frequently coming to those who hope to avoid it as it avoids those who seek it. (It is also not lost on me that the day I took a positive pregnancy test is also the day I read my friend’s story about IVF.)
Abortion rights are perhaps the most heavily euphemism-ridden of all modern political issues, so we end up with “pro-life” people fighting the “pro-choice” people. I tend to say I am pro-abortion rights, as I find it less dodgy than the pro-choice formulation, and, like most people, for many years I was uncomfortable with saying I was pro-abortion. I’ve changed my mind on that, though. I am pro-abortion. I am in favor of recognizing it as a reality, as a necessity, as an inalienable right.
Roe v. Wade was decided, according to my limited understanding of the law, as a matter of privacy — that a woman’s right to her body and to privacy in the decisions she made about it outweighed the state’s interest in her body and its offspring. That’s still a good argument, and it’s still the right one, but it positions abortion as a thing that must always be private, and what is private is often seen as shameful. I am on the side of those who fight shame with openness, and thus I greatly admire (among other things) the work of the Sea Change program and this excellent op-ed piece by Merritt Tierce (really, just go read it — it’s much better than anything I’ve written here). And thus I write this here.
There’s a picture of me on the history wall of the Emma Goldman Clinic here in Iowa City. I was standing near the front of a Roe v. Wade anniversary rally when I was fifteen, and some of the organizers knew me from the anti-war movement, so I was asked to hold the amplifier for the primitive PA system the speakers were using. I was standing right by the speakers, and thus my picture got in the paper with theirs. Twenty four years later I am living back in the same town with my son who is, as the former director of Emma said to me when she met him, “a chosen child.” I would choose him all over again, and I do, every day. But my independence and my ability to do so come, so much, from knowing that I have that choice.