Sappho-Simona: A Love Story

IMG_0335 (4)

Wikipedia: The cat (Felis catus) is a small carnivorous mammal. It is the only domesticated species in the family Felidae and often referred to as the domestic cat to distinguish it from wild members of the family. The cat is either a house cat, a farm cat or a feral cat; latter ranges freely and avoids human contact. Domestic cats are valued by humans for companionship and for their ability to hunt rodents.

SAPPHO-SIMONA

I am besotted with a cat. I, whom no one has ever described as an animal lover, have fallen in love with a feline, a mixed-breed mostly-Balinese cat of great beauty, beauty, in fact, extravagant enough to be justification all on its own of her existence. Were I an Egyptian long ago, I am sure I would have worshipped and set up graven images of her in my temple. Though I had no granaries to protect, the patrolling of which to rout vermin would have been her sacred role, her comeliness alone would have made her worthy of worship. She is the Mona Lisa of cats, the Venus of her species, the Helen of felines.  I will soon convince you, dear reader, of her other endearing and admirable qualities; for now know that, however shallow it may immediately seem, I was first won over by her good looks.

Now I embark upon the history of our relationship, the bare facts of her journey from homelessness to animal shelter to foster care and, finally and happily, to my home. But wait! I have left her nameless so far, dependent on a pallid pronoun when she deserves further identifiers. When I first met her in the good care of a woman devoted to rescuing  and finding homes for cats, sometimes minutes before their euthanasia in a kill shelter, said rescuer had named her –I shudder to repeat it –Heidi Klum. I realize that the name was chosen to acknowledge the exceptional beauty I have already described, but anyone who knows me knows I could not endure life with a cat named after a bosomy blonde model. My first question was “May I change her name?”

Hearing an affirmative, I immediately began calling her a name chosen long ago when I was considering rescuing a dog. She is now SAPPHO, in honor of the great Greek poet who opened a school for girls on the Isle of Lesbos, more recently known as an island flooded by refugees arriving on inadequate boats, leaving as witness to global indifference their piles of life preservers and dead bodies on the shore. She has a middle name –Simona – in memory of Simone de Beauvoir, one of my feminist foremothers. I added the “a” to the end instead of the “e” at the request of a beloved granddaughter who has a friend named Simona. So Sappho-Simona is the name to which my beloved kitty sometimes answers, when she chooses to acknowledge my existence.

Back to her history: My daughters, each of whom adopted a rescue dog into her family to happy effect, decided that I, who lives alone, should adopt a dog. I put my foot down immediately, having watched people in my building trudge out in all kinds of weather hauling reluctant or eager dogs on leashes for the necessary walks. (I have also taken note of the stains on our hallways’ carpeting and the puddles in the elevators, testimony to bad timing and owner reluctance to brave the elements quickly enough.) Not for me, I said, not at my age. We had dogs when the children lived at home – Guinevere, Lancelot, and finally Merlin, all of whom came to sad endings. We also had cats on and off over the growing-up years. The most fecund, Amy, came and went, bore several litters and finally met her own sad end. Over the years, I fed her and nagged the kids to change her litter, but I never found time or money to have her spayed. I felt no particular affection for her.

There had been no pets in my home for many, many years when my daughters decided I needed company. The facts that I had developed a rise in  blood pressure and that  research  alleges pets help bring it down added to their coercion. When I claimed the allergic symptoms I had shown in my later years in the company of other people’s pets, they countered with evidence that some breeds are less allergenic because they have some genetic variation that causes them to produce less of the Fel d 1 protein that causes trouble for folks with allergies.

I knew I was beginning to weaken when I found myself  browsing rescue sites for cats in my area, particularly those of breeds alleged to be less allergenic. My search was desultory compared to that of my daughter Alida, whose tenacity when set upon a search task is legendary in our family. As luck would have it, the woman fostering Sappho/Heidi Klum had just put up a photo of the cat on a pet search site where Alida spotted her under the search term “Balinese,” that being one of the less sneeze-inducing breeds. Within a couple of days, I had been coerced into contacting the rescuer who had Sappho/Heidi in her care. She let me know that I probably would not be considered as an adopter  because this cat needed special care in a home with no children, no other pets, and an owner who would be patiently willing to help her adjust. Not sure exactly what she meant, I explained that I ticked all the boxes, even claiming to be patient, one alternative fact in a world full of them.

So next came the visit, the moment of connection, of decision, of life-changing significance. Alida’s twin sister Shantih went with me to meet the cat. Her rescuer maintains a non-kill rescue shelter that encompasses the third floor of a lovely old Victorian in a nearby suburb. The rooms are cat friendly in every way: feeding stations, litter boxes, many toys and soft beds for cats and kittens. When we got up there, Sappho/Heidi was tucked tightly into a pod on a cat-climbing tree by the window. We could see little of her besides furry areas being extruded by the pressure of her body from the portholes on either side of the pod. When we approached, she turned her face away from us and contracted her whole self into a tighter ball. She allowed us to touch whatever small part of her we could reach through the porthole like openings. She obviously did not, however, appreciate our contacts, cringing at each one.

Her rescuer explained that she had taken Sappho/Heidi out of an urban shelter, after which, as is her custom, to a vet for spaying and vaccinations, and vetting for diseases. The cat was fine and, surprisingly, had already been spayed, a condition that became obvious only after she was anesthetized and shaved for surgery. She then went to a foster family where some traumatic event seemed to push her over the edge into terror of human or even cat contact. She mostly hung out compressed into the cat pod on the cat tree. The camera in the room revealed that she emerged at night to eat and use the litter box. She would permit no contact, no cuddles, no play. As I heard her sad story, my maternal instincts overrode warning signals. In addition, the rescuer practically begged me to adopt Sappho. (I had already dropped the name Heidi Klum from consideration.) I have to admit that I was flattered to be so in demand as the savior of this animal. Her rescuer offered to include her bed, transportation to my apartment, a waiver of the adoption fee, and a guarantee to take her back if the cat and I couldn’t work it out. How could I refuse? When Shantih added her approval, the deal was made. Sappho would be delivered to me the following week.

And so she was, crying in a towel covered carrier. I had never heard a cat cry! As soon as the rescuer pulled her out, attempting to hold her gently to console her, Sappho bolted from her arms and disappeared behind the toilet in the nearby bathroom. She was a sadly funny sight because she is a big cat, so both ends of her protruded from the sides of the toilet. When we tried to lure her out or to grab her, she bolted again and again, sheltering behind doors, under the couch, and finally in her hut-like bed that her rescuer brought along. I felt better knowing where she was when her rescuer left, after checking to be sure I had arranged for all Sappho’s needs: food, water, litter all easily accessible. And then there we were, two breathing creatures stranded together in uneasy proximity, I, solipsistic human,  hoping for some demonstration of gratitude  and she obviously terrified. She did not emerge from whatever hiding place she skittered into for over a month, except to eat or use the litter box. She met both of these needs in as much secret as she could. I learned to go into another room or out for several hours to give her time and privacy. She was active at night, after I went to bed. If I got up, however stealthily, to check on her, she would instantly sense my presence and hide again.

It was during this period that I learned I could be patient, in fact a model of patience. I stroked her while she was in her bed-hut; she accepted passively, never hissing or scratching, just seeming to endure my touch. Sometimes she spent the whole day under my bed. The first outright communication we had was when I decided to close my bedroom door so that she would have only the run of the living room,  kitchen, and laundry room where I kept her litter. She was asleep in her bed in the living room when I closed the bedroom door. A while later,  I heard a caterwauling cry and turned to see her poised at the bedroom door, pushing at it with her head and shoulders, standing up on her hind legs and thrusting at the door with her front paws. She was so frantic that I immediately opened the door, and she dashed to her spot under the bed. Of course that should have been the first sign that she was taking command of our relationship.

I adopted Sappho in February of last year. Sometime in the spring, when there had been little progress toward contact between human and feline, my granddaughters Hazel (11) and Chloe (9) came to visit. Sappho immediately hid herself behind the laundry room door. I told the girls to ignore her, but they were determined to get a good look. Hazel got down on the floor on her belly and slithered into the laundry room up behind Sappho who was squished into the vee between open door and wall. There she talked and sang to her and actually got to stroke her briefly. That moment was the beginning of the breakthrough. Gradually over the next weeks, Sappho began staying out in the open when I was around, allowing me to get close enough that she could sniff my fingers or allow me to drop a treat close to her. She still acted like a creature suffering from PTSD: whenever anyone visited, she disappeared; when I moved by her too fast, she streaked away to a hiding place. But in fact we spent more time in each other’s company each day.

The taming, for taming it was of both of us, was a slow process during which I learned patience, learned to have no particular expectations, learned to be delighted and grateful when Sappho tolerated a contact, allowed me to pet her briefly or to feed her a treat from my hand. One day, feeling overly confident, I bent down and picked her up. I hadn’t realized how sturdy she was. Or how heavy! I tried holding her to my shoulder as one holds a toddler; she panicked and wriggled loose, leaving a row of puncture marks on my arm where she dug in to gain purchase for her push off my body. To this day, I cannot pick her up. She utters a scream such as I have never heard from a cat, and I drop her immediately. I am not sure she will ever permit me to lift her from ground level.

The next breakthrough also came when the granddaughters visited. Chloe was up on my bed, reading, when Sappho came into the bedroom. Chloe beckoned her, called her to come up on the bed and, mirabile dictu, Sappho sprang up and settled down beside Chloe. Chloe began to pet her and then tried applying the brush Sappho had dramatically rejected many times. Sappho permitted vigorous brushing that resulted in piles of cat hair in the wastebasket, so much that Hazel hand-felted and wove some of it into a bracelet. Since then, progress has been steady. Sappho demands stroking whenever she sees me sitting on the couch or lying on my bed. She has gotten over fear of the brush. And she has decided to sleep with me, a decision that gives me  pause because, sadly, she, a mixed breed,  is not entirely hypoallergenic. I suffer some sneezing and wheezing on an irregular basis, having something to do, I think, with how frequently the apartment is vacuumed and dusted, if the furnace is blowing air, and if I am not careful about washing my hands. So I use an inhaler and sometimes an antihistamine. I know if a doctor told me to get rid of the cat, I would refuse and seek instead an allergist to prescribe relief. Love is not rational and, as I said, I am in love with my cat.

I am too much a creature of the mind not to interrogate this new, unusual condition of infatuation with a cat, however beautiful and soft she is. I have read about animals relieving loneliness and giving purpose to older people. Now I believe that it’s true. In the morning, Sappho jumps down from our shared bed and rubs around my ankles and feet as I rise. She follows me everywhere, hunkering down to wait patiently as I complete whatever task I am about. Remember when your kids hung around in the bathroom while you were putting on your makeup or shaving? The other day I was involved with my bathroom mirror and some eyebrow pencil when I had the feeling of being watched. I glanced over my shoulder to see Sappho folded up over her legs, gazing at me intently, her body just over the bathroom threshold. I felt strangely gratified by her attention. At night, when  I wake up for one old-age reason or another, my arm reaches out in the dark to seek her furry self, asleep on the pillow next to me.

We have our separate sides of the bed, hers covered with an easily washable beach towel. She knows not to cross on to my side, and I guess we know that I respect her space as well. I usually watch a film at night or read on the couch. If it gets later than our usual bedtime, she appears by the couch, meowing loudly, a stereotypical “meow,” until I get up, turn off the lights, and get ready for bed. She watches and waits and then springs up onto the bed, stretches out to be stroked or brushed. If I am too slow to respond, she head-butts me aggressively until I give in to her demands.

After she thinks I am asleep, she heads back to the living for a noisy session of play with the only plaything out of many expensive choices she enjoys –one of those circular plastic things with a scratch pad in the center and a ball trapped in a trough. She bats the ball, attacks the ball, and runs back and forth at the ball with great enthusiasm. She has no interest in laser light spots or stuffed animals or the new pricey marshmallow bed that the ads claim will seduce any cat into sleep. Occasionally she sits in the window to watch the trains come and go from the nearby platform. Dangle one of those wands with feathers at the end, however, and she regards it with disdain before stalking away, insulted by the offer of such an obviously inferior plaything.

So what is, you and I ask, so enthralling about this beautiful creature? I think there is a connection that goes beyond the language-driven relationships we have with fellow humans. The first analogy that occurs to me is that of a parent with an infant. The contact is wordless and tactile; they need us to care for them. We are conditioned to see them as ours, to want to care for and protect them. They are vulnerable to us. All of that is true for Sappho and me, I guess. But she actually demands very little of me. I feed her; I keep her litter clean. I pet her and brush her and share space with her on her terms. She will not, for example, be picked up or sit on my lap.

We are two breathing creatures, at different places on the hierarchical chain of being, but both animate and mortal. (I have already made arrangements for her care after my death; she is a young cat and I am soon 80 years old.) My cultural training accepts the idea of species hierarchy so I have never considered animals on a par with humans. We are thinking creatures with language at our command after all. Cats are all instinct with few ways to communicate their ideas or dreams. The fact of shared mortality makes us companions, of course, but she will never write a poem about death or the dangers of illness and pain. Cogito ergo sum, I remind myself. Then I came across this poem by Marge Piercy.

The Cat’s Song 

Mine, says the cat, putting out his paw of darkness.

My lover, my friend, my slave, my toy, says

the cat making on your chest his gesture of drawing

milk from his mother’s forgotten breasts.

Let us walk in the woods, says the cat.

I’ll teach you to read the tabloid of scents,

to fade into shadow, wait like a trap, to hunt.

Now I lay this plump warm mouse on your mat.

You feed me, I try to feed you, we are friends,

says the cat, although I am more equal than you.

Can you leap twenty times the height of your body?

Can you run up and down trees? Jump between roofs?

Let us rub our bodies together and talk of touch.

My emotions are pure as salt crystals and as hard.

My lusts glow like my eyes. I sing to you in the mornings

walking round and round your bed and into your face.

Come I will teach you to dance as naturally

as falling asleep and waking and stretching long, long.

I speak greed with my paws and fear with my whiskers.

Envy lashes my tail. Love speaks me entire, a word

of fur. I will teach you to be still as an egg

and to slip like the ghost of wind through the grass

Simplistic? Perhaps, but animal lovers who accuse us of “speciesism” have advocates as illustrious in academic circles as philosopher Peter Singer of Princeton. Singer published Animal Liberation in 1975, a book that has influenced the animal liberation movement. In it Singer argues that “the greatest good of the greatest number” is the only measure of good or ethical behavior. Singer also contends that the boundary between human and “animal” is arbitrary.

Skeptical? Consider this: There are far more differences between a great ape and an oyster, for example, than between a human and a great ape, and yet the former two are lumped together as “animals,” whereas we are considered “human” in a way that supposedly differentiates us from all other “animals.” Singer popularized the term “speciesism,” which had been coined by English writer Richard D. Ryder to describe the practice of privileging humans over other animals. Singer argues for the equal consideration of interests of all sentient beings. In Animal Liberation, Singer also argues in favor of veganism and against animal experimentation.

Piercy’s poem suggests we have much to learn from our cats who are, in many abilities, superior to us. I don’t think I am ready to assert total equality of species, and I will never become a vegan, although I admire the stance of some of that ilk. I do think that many of the crises we face on the planet, including the danger of extinction of species (though surely not our prolifically fertile cats!) result from the assumption that humans “own” all of creation, that God put all of its riches there for us to exploit. More ethically responsible thinkers such as Pope Francis and Greta Thunberg would put it differently. The bounty of the earth is entrusted to us or, more radically, we are but one of many species living on the planet and we should honor others no less carefully than we care for our own kind. (Of course, we don’t do a very good job of caring for those of our own kind whom we view as “other,” do we?)

When I look at Sappho, I feel a swelling of some emotion beyond sentimentality. I could call it love, but that’s not it exactly, unless it is a generalized love of that which is alive, vigorous, and lovely. Perhaps I identify with her life as similar in its needs and impulses to my own. Then there is the daily feeling of awe as I watch Sappho move about a room. Cats bear a strong resemblance to their larger ancestors, tigers particularly. Watching a cat move, stalk a rolling ball, leap from one surface to another with a fearsome grace calls up images of jungle cats or those we have seen in zoos. Sappho will bare her fangs and hiss menacingly if someone approaches her fast, head on. Then she really looks impressively fierce and wild. Later, when she rolls around on the rug, revealing her soft undefended belly, she becomes a playful, harmless kitty again. She is so well designed and assembled, all her small bones and strong muscles, the sheen of her back hair and the fluffiness of the ruff round her neck, that one delights in the anatomical perfection of the design. I am moved here to think of William Blake’s “fearful symmetry.”

The Tyger

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,

In the forests of the night;

What immortal hand or eye,

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.

Burnt the fire of thine eyes?

On what wings dare he aspire?

What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,

Could twist the sinews of thy heart?

And when thy heart began to beat,

What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,

In what furnace was thy brain?

What the anvil? what dread grasp,

Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears

And water’d heaven with their tears:

Did he smile his work to see?

Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

 

Tyger Tyger burning bright,

In the forests of the night:

What immortal hand or eye,

Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

What indeed? Despite my agnosticism, my rejection of the creator god in favor of evolutionary theory, there are moments that startle me into something akin to gratitude and awe and often terror for all creatures in this created or evolved and much endangered world. Robert Frost’s poem Design limns the dark indifferent side of “death and blight” that remains part of mortality’s inheritance.

Design

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth–
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth–
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small.

Sometimes when I am caressing Sappho with fingers fluffing the ruff around her neck, I feel the smallness of her skull, the frailty of her neck, and I think how easily I could snuff her out like a candle. The thought scares me, of course, that I should permit it entry into consciousness. I remember once on the hot balcony of the garden apartment to which we brought our first child home, trying to nurse him in the sweltering humidity, he fussing and cranky, I exhausted. I remember having a fleeting thought/desire/impulse to hurl him over the railing. Shocked, I retreated inside and tried to dismiss any remnants of that brief impulse. Now I remember it as I fondle Sappho’s small perfect head, aware that I could crush it in my fist.

I think of the “witches’ broth” to which Frost refers. I think of what Blake was saying about the creator god he worshipped, about the terrifying-ness of created symmetry and beauty. If nature is, as Tennyson said, “red in tooth and claw,”* it’s wise to recognize that humans are as “natural” as animals, our natures both cruel and kind.  I don’t know what I conclude beyond the fact that I know Sappho and I are connected in some perhaps spiritual relationship. Martin Buber spoke of the I-thou versus the I-It of relationships, dancing around the connection with the divine. Maybe I am trying to assert an I-thou relationship with a cat! I know, I know. So many scornful, logical arguments against such a link. I am not arguing it, however, merely allowing these voices to speak in my head about my unsentimental….yes, love – for Sappho-Simona, a gorgeous cat who has been commended into my care.

POSTSCRIPT

I am sure some of my readers are thinking I have gone soft in the head. My readers usually expect  either existential melancholia regarding mortality or irate indignation at the utter inanity of our political leaders. This hymn to the call of the animal world may be an interrogation of our faith in the superiority of the human animal, the age of reason, and the Enlightenment with its deistic faith in the perfectibility of man and the social contracts he creates. (Please note that I choose to leave unamended by inclusive pronoun-ing or added noun the “he” and “man.”) Here I am attempting to consider a more animistic philosophy in which gods can be found in creatures (and trees and rocks and waters) we have evolved to consider ours to despoil, hunt, kill, eat and control. Maybe I am channeling Emerson and Whitman, delighting in Nature with a capital N. Maybe I am trying self protectively to retrain my brain to replace images of McConnell, Graham, and all the Trumps with this living manifestation of the creator’s good taste, my singularly lovely and innocent cat, Sappho-Simona.

 

*The Tennyson poems from which these lines are excerpted is In Memoriam A.H.H.

Who trusted God was love indeed

And love Creation’s final law

Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw

With ravine, shriek’d against his creed

 

Labor Day Reflections: School Shootings

“We lose eight children and teenagers to gun violence every day. If a mysterious virus suddenly started killing eight of our children every day, America would mobilize teams of doctors and public health officials. We would move heaven and earth until we found a way to protect our children. But not with gun violence.” ~ Elizabeth Warren

 

This week they head back to school, our beloved children, the country’s future, as the politicians say from their stumps and soapboxes. Like turtles, they’ll be bearing backpacks, lighter than they will be after the big books are distributed. Some backpacks are already heavier than usual; supposedly bulletproof, they are purchased by anxious parents fearful of gun violence.

Once consulted, Google offers many sources for bullet-proof backpacks.  Every cloud has a silver lining, right? So someone (or many ones) profit from the demands made by gun violence. What could be more American? Supply and demand. Free markets, no regulations, Second Amendment. Ask Ayn Rand and her many toadies on the Republican side, those who dance with death in the arms of the NRA.   Wait, you say? These are kids, these are schoolkids. These are OUR kids.

I pulled up one Google offering by the Home Security Superstore. For $119.00, they offer: “Streetwise™ bulletproof backpack offers NIJ Level IIIA soft plate protection against most handguns and is lightweight with a kid-friendly style.” That “style” a pattern of repeated  smiley- face emoji’s, an image both familiar to kids and reassuringly cheerful. Who would shoot at an army of emoji’s on a little kid’s back? The problem is that, historically, most school shooters have not used handguns for the slaughter of innocents. They seem to prefer automatic weapons, and this model does not offer protection from those guaranteed- (according to the gun fanatics) by- the- Second- Amendment military weapons. Moving along the list of pictured offerings, I find that for $186.99 you can order one that claims to stop rifle bullets: “Spartan Armor Systems™ durable tactical backpack with steel core armor plate that is NIJ level 3+ rated to stop rifle bullets.” So one step closer to safety (assuming the student is wearing her backpack and the shooter shoots a rifle from behind). A little more googling turned up a test of bulletproof backpacks by NEWS4SA. The text of the reportage deserves to be quoted; reading it, I feel I am immersed in something written by Samuel Beckett or Edward Albee.

“We took a bullet resistant insert from one of those backpacks to a gun range just outside of Austin. We shot it with a .380 caliber, 9 mm and .45 caliber handgun. The bullets didn’t make it through but the force of the impact could still be lethal. So we went another route with a PakProtect backpack insert, which fits into almost any backpack. Zrazhevskiy, founder of Ready To Go Survival that sells these backpacks, said parents from coast to coast are buying these for their kids …’Our baseline is around 100 units a month but when back to school time hits we do see about a 250% increase in sales,’ Zrazhevskiy said. ‘We put the PakProtect to the same test. It did well. We were even able to pull out the 45 caliber slug. So we went a step further and lit it up with a dozen 9mm rounds. As you can see this is been shot to heck and nothing,’ said owner of SpecOps Communications Adam Handelsman.”

 

The News4SA text continues reassuringly, “The likelihood of your child being a victim in a mass shooting is extremely remote and if a shooter were to be using an assault rifle, these bulletproof inserts wouldn’t do much to stop it. But that won’t stop parents from looking for more peace of mind for when their kids go back to school.”  Hell no! All good parents want to purchase some peace of mind. Those parents looking for peace of mind as their children return to school make eager consumers, and entrepreneurial manufacturers are eager to meet their demands. I can’t help but wonder how many of these suppliers are in league with the NRA and/or have their lobbyists busy in Washington DC and state capitals.

 

I don’t have words to express the horror, the absurdity of this current situation. Little children in primary grades are being taught rhyming ditties about how to stay safe, to reinforce routine during active shooter drills and to reassure them that this is just like nursery rhyme time, I suppose. Older kids are being encouraged to take heroic measures against an active shooter. Some “experts” encourage arming classroom teachers. Are we assuming that students will know no fear, have no nightmares because we present active shooter practice as a rhyming activity or a challenge to one’s courage? Read the words of this chant and imagine your child or grandchild entering kindergarten where this ditty will be an early lesson in rote memorization.

 

Lockdown Lockdown, say no more.

Shut the lights off, lock the door.

 

Go behind the desk and hide,

wait until it’s safe inside,

Lockdown lockdown it’s all done.

Now it’s time to have some fun.

 

I can barely breathe over my incredulity at the image of tiny girls and boys learning this chant from a patient teacher who is most likely as appalled as are you and I. And what about the effect of encouraging older students to take risks to stop a shooter? The press lionizes a young person who runs into danger, as did Kendrick Castillo, an 18-year-old student who was the sole victim killed during the shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch in Colorado. Castillo died trying to stop one of the armed suspects from firing, allowing his classmates to escape. “He was one of several students whose heroic actions prevented further carnage,” reported the press.   I don’t deny that the kids’ actions were brave, but the reporting prompted many suggestions about how we should train students to run at shooters, should expect students to do their part in protecting themselves and others.  That’s far too heavy a burden of expectation to lay on kids when the adults in our society have the power to stop this epidemic of gun violence.

 

I won’t get into how much money has been diverted by school districts from educational materials, programs, new teachers to security measures that run the gamut from bulletproof doors and windows to fully staffed security rooms with cameras monitoring every school in a district. That’s fodder for another writing.

 

I have two granddaughters in middle school in two buildings in Brooklyn.  I have a grown-up granddaughter who will be teaching in a New York City first grade. I am sure they will tell me about their “learning” experiences with school safety protocols. I will ask them how they feel about such measures; I suspect they will answer more or less matter-of-factly that they don’t like it but, with a shrug, “that’s the way it is today.”

 

And that “way-it-is” shrug of our national shoulders is the source of my rage. I am as guilty as anyone of feeling that we have come to a place of national …not indifference exactly but of ennui, of overload, of atrocity fatigue. Every week there seems to be a mass shooting somewhere. Perhaps summer vacation offered respite from worries about school shootings. Perhaps we just don’t know what we can do about the intransigence of the Republican senate majority who remain cowed or bought by the forces and followers of the NRA. I don’t have any practical suggestions beyond the obvious: work to get out the vote for change in 2020. Support democrats like Amy McGrath running against Mitch McConnell, who is the person currently most responsible for keeping gun control legislation off the floor.

 

I spent 30 happy years as an educator in a public high school in the community where I lived and raised my three children. We entered through unguarded doors. I never felt unsafe inside the walls of my school. Of course we knew the world outside was dangerous, some places more than others. When a tree limb fell on a student on a windy day, we were appalled and shocked – the lawn in front of a school was supposed to be a safe spot for gathering. I don’t think I could have imagined, short of the nuclear alert drills of my childhood, students practicing safety strategies against the threat of an active shooter in their midst. School was sanctuary. It still is for many kids whose neighborhoods are full of easily available guns that make street shootings all too common. (Note that most school shootings have NOT happened in inner city neighborhood schools.) To me the idea that, as Americans, we tolerate or defend the sanctity of gun ownership, of any and every kind of lethal gun; that we do so knowing that we are the country with the largest by far number of gun deaths and the greatest number of guns at large; that we, either through ignorance or stubbornness, refuse to see the 2nd Amendment for what it really defends –an armed “militia” not every person who wants to arm himself like a warrior in battle; that we cannot even get minor gun reform measures to a vote on the Senate floor because one man, one man who calls himself the “grim reaper” with a grin, as though being a facilitator of a death industry is some kind of distinction about which one should boast; that people may continue to vote him into office, some because of his stand on gun rights… that idea of us as Americans so willing or so helpless or so weary makes me ineffably sad. That’s why I am writing this piece on Labor Day, the day I remember so well as the last day of summer and the day before teachers return to school to prepare to welcome their students for a new year. That today’s teachers have to include active shooter drills and, at the same time, assure their students that they shouldn’t feel afraid in their classrooms makes me want to stand weeping at the doors of the school I loved. I want to at least acknowledge, not ignore, this shame of living in a country that can’t find a way to do something meaningful about the gun emergency, the gun crisis, the human rights catastrophe that is gun violence in the United States of America.

 

 

Reflections at 79: On Not Going Gentle

At our family celebration of my 79th birthday, my daughter noted that I was now entering my 80th year.  Eighty! I hadn’t thought much about turning 79, probably because I don’t like odd numbers or the ends of things, in this case another decade. But 80! When people in their 80’s die, visitors to wakes or viewings (shudder-inducing term) or Shivas often comment consolingly, “She lived a good long life” or, in the case of the still-popular open casket, “She looks good for a woman of 80.”

If I make it to 80 on this side of a hearse, I have been very clear about my expectations for the celebration of my birthday: I crave a full-blown party with attendance mandatory for family and friends. While I no longer drink alcohol (long story there, each chapter an embarrassing record of one or another fall from grace –or just plain fall on my face on 14th St. in Manhattan, one example of why I no longer drink alcohol), I want champagne to be served along with delicious food. Bring on the tributes, spoken and written and even sung. If I am at 80 on the verge of devolving in the crucible of fire to unrecognizable ashes, I want to go out with a bang, not a whimper, while I can still participate in the fun.

As some of my (few) readers have noted, I haven’t posted a word to this blog in months. I have been rendered literally speechless by my own anger and indignation at the state of our country and the world. I have written rough drafts of several rants and then fallen into the swamp of my own inadequacy to say anything important. My blog file lists several possible topics about which I was briefly energized/indignant/enthusiastic. Among the labels: patriarchy (no surprise), St. Therese of the Blessed Sacrament (my college writing professor, rumored to be a mystic), sentiment vs. sentimentality (That one I still plan to pursue.). And Aging. Since I am considering the imminence of my next, 80th, birthday, I’ve decided to click that draft back into life.

When I opened the “Aging”  file, I saw that all it contains is a New York Times (January 12, 2019) opinion column  by Mary Pipher entitled The Joy of Being a Woman in Her 70s. Her thesis is best summarized in the subtitle: “Many of us have learned that happiness is a skill and a choice.” Reading that precis, I remember why I copied her piece into my file. While I enjoy and respect most of what Mary Pipher has written, this piece rubbed me the wrong way. Pipher begins by asserting an obvious truth: “…ageism is a bigger problem for women than aging.” I certainly agree, having been micro-aggressioned to virtual death by endearments like “honey” and “dear” and, most maddening of all, “young lady” delivered gratuitously like pastel teddy bears on a pediatric ward by people (doctors, nurses, waiters and waitresses, flight attendants, gas station attendants, clerks of various establishments.) I know what many of you are thinking; “They are just trying to be nice/polite/kind.”  So was my dear mother being kind when she patted a small Asian child on the head and crooned, “What a little China doll!” I suppose tolerating kind endearments from people who look no  older than 12 is better than enduring howls out a car window by thuggish young men crudely disparaging  the physical adjustments old age has made to my body. And then we have the ads, with women who look no older than 60 marveling at the comfort and joy of the latest incontinence diaper-designed-to-resemble-sexy-underwear or the gentle relief, without the embarrassments of gas or leaks, offered to a glowing silver haired woman by the latest laxative. There is also the ongoing insult of plastic surgery’s omnipresence and the almost mandatory tone of those ads encouraging women to have bits and pieces lifted, smoothed, plumped or reduced. Jane Fonda et. al, make natural aging look cheap and aesthetically offensive.

Let me share my latest experience with the medical establishment. A few months ago, I had what has been called a “small” stroke. In the aftermath, I had Dopplers and scans and blood tests and finally an appointment with a neurologist. I couldn’t get in to see the woman most recommended, so I was given an appointment with a man in her practice. Given the fact that he is an attractive and healthy male specimen who looks maybe 16, I assume he is relatively new to the game, although he didn’t seem uncertain or tentative. At his request, I told him the circumstances of the incident. He leaned casually against the exam table that I had not yet mounted. (I try at initial medical appointments to greet the doctor from a regular chair, maintaining the fiction that we are on equal terms.) The young doctor asked a couple of cursory questions, told me to “hop” up onto the table, and ran me through what seemed a very cursory series of exercises to determine if my stroke (I’ve come to have a rather proprietary relationship with the incident.) left any residual damage. So I touched my nose, raised and lowered my arms, and so on. He pronounced me free of damage and asked if I’d like to see the scan of my brain on which the “small” stroke appeared as a kind of fuzzy milky spot. As he seemed to be indicating the end of our session, I asked him if I was a greater risk for another “incident” and what he recommended as preventative measures. Smiling patronizingly, he said that really the greatest risk for a recurrence was “your advanced age.” He assured me that all people of my “advanced age” were prone to strokes. He seemed not at all interested in salt restrictions, blood pressure meds, weight loss, exercise –any of the various easily Googled measures recommended post stroke. He ventured that baby aspirin and the prescription blood thinner my regular doctor has prescribed were more or less interchangeable as perhaps reliable attempts to forestall future strokes, but repeated (for the 4th time) that my “advanced age” was my greatest risk for finding myself drooling in a wheelchair, wearing not-so-sexy institutional diapers. He said a pleasant goodbye with no encouragement that I return. My conclusion is that he was faintly bored when he realized that he was dealing with a garden variety “advanced age” incident, not a more exotic brain injury. I know I am making assumptions here, but I left that exam room feeling older and closer to death than when I entered.

I digress in the service of anecdotal experience. Back to Mary Pipher. What really sticks in my craw, as my New England farmer ancestors would have it, is Mary’s choice to speak in the collective “we” as she rolls out her argument. She says, “Most of the women I know describe themselves as being in a vibrant and happy life stage. We are resilient and know how to thrive in the margins. OUR happiness comes from self – knowledge, emotional intelligence, and empathy for others.”

Whoa there, Mary Pipher! Who is/are this WE about whom you make such confident statements? She assures her readers that WE older women don’t make assumptions as we were wont to do when younger. What about this assumption of the WE/US?  She goes on paragraph after paragraph to describe US as choosing happiness, making everything work, finding serenity in even the worst circumstances, like the woman she describes,  “old, crippled and living in a tiny apartment facing a brick wall” who claims she is happy because “I have everything I need to be happy right between my ears.”  I guess she’s the antonym to Melville’s Bartleby, who chose to die facing his brick wall; she simply chooses to be happy, no protest against the political and economic forces that have abandoned her to her fate.  And that’s one of Pipher’s main points – WE (old women) just merrily accept the slings, arrows and depredations, throw on our yoga pants without apologies for sag, and add blessings to our gratitude lists every day. Describing the state of collective bliss WE can achieve, Pipher offers as an example that now she “can feel it [bliss] “when I look at a caterpillar on my garden path.” That’s some caterpillar!  As Mary says, “Attitude is not everything, but it’s almost everything.” That’s a line with a familiar jangle. Isn’t that what some Trump official, Ben Carson, I think, said recently about the poor? Of course, he is not the only one in a long line of privileged power people who dismiss the discontents of the poor and oppressed as simply a problem of attitude.  They need to pull themselves up by the proverbial bootstraps! Who cares about the aging poor? Or the incarcerated elderly? Or the demented? The lonely, abandoned, hungry, cold, homeless senior citizens all over this country?  I wonder Pipher expects them to alter their negative attitudes in order to feel that caterpillar bliss.

And my point is? That articles like Mary Pipher’s are themselves ageist-sexist, in that they glorify another aging female stereotype: the wise, kind, patient, forbearing, accepting old woman who avoids anger, criticism of others, complaints and ingratitude. And that WE? It doesn’t even encompass me, even though I enjoy some measures of middle class privilege. Given that much of what Pipher praises about these women she “knows,” who seem in her telling to constitute the collective containing the pleasures she and her WE and Us  experience – yoga pants, good friends and long term partners, stimulating books, homemade pie, friendly phone calls –. I would suggest that she is dallying in the feel-good fields of economic comfort, lots of company, physical agility and health, good reviews and book sales. How else could she prattle on with her sentimental vision of the way WE are?

Yesterday, standing at my dresser, looking at myself in the mirror, I noted a long hair growing witch- like from my chin, the puffy blue pouches under my blue eyes, and the dewlaps that my grandchildren love to jiggle.  Then I looked down. There on my dresser were the little black casket in which my very expensive hearing aids hang out each night to be charged; my home blood pressure monitor that I should be using every day according to my regular doctor and useless according to the neurologist who knows it’s really all about my “advanced age;” the base of my emergency alert system, currently disabled after the cat knocked it off the table, given to me by my daughters to reassure them that I can summon help at the push of a button; and an extra pair of glasses. Oh, also a bra that more closely resembles an architectural support system than a piece of sexy lingerie. As a retired English teacher and constant reader, I know a symbol when I see it. These metonyms speak of and to the realities of old age for women as privileged as I am to have good medical insurance, generous children, and enough education to rely on irony, literary and otherwise, instead of sentimental gratitude, to get by one day at a time.

How can I (not WE) be happy in the “miracle” and “privilege” of life that Mary Pipher lauds? Although I don’t believe in a generic attitude of happiness, I do believe in heartfelt defiance, full awareness of the human condition, and love. Not sentimental, feel-good love, but fierce love that resists easy platitudes and hymns to the beauty of aging and death. I’m with Dylan Thomas here: “Do not go gentle into that goodnight.” I recently saw Glenda Jackson on Broadway in a production of King Lear. She was splendid. I have discussed the play many times with students and with colleagues. I only began to “get” it, however, as I grew older. At this production, seen at 79, I felt its full tragic majesty in my bones (and in the backache that resulted from four hours of theater sitting).  So much is great about the play, but for me this time around, I was struck by how emotionally dynamic the drama is, how much Lear (and Gloucester) learn about themselves, about others, about love. The play is cruel and fierce, as tragedy should be. In its fierceness I see illuminated the possibility of transformation even at the very end of life. As fortune turns against him in the form of his ungrateful daughters, and his confused ego drives him mad, Lear realizes something surprising for a man who has taken advantage of his privilege to ignore the sufferings of others. In the raging storm, he takes a first step outside of himself to recognize the suffering of others:

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,

Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you

From seasons such as these? Oh, I have ta’en

Too little care of this!

 

First he is humbled to the edge of empathy for the “other,” and then, annealed by a descent into madness, he learns to love. Reunited with Cordelia, he is ready to be go to prison with her, where “We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage/ When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down/And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,/And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh.”

And then, of course, she is murdered, his “poor fool” is dead and he must take his new-found wisdom and love with him to his grave.  The grave to which we all take whatever we have learned, unable to judge the effects of what we leave behind.

Piper says that WE all have more tragedy and bliss than we expected in life. She doesn’t account for the vast inequality of both tragedy and bliss in the widely divergent lives of old people, even in OUR own privileged circles. I for one have known more sadness than bliss, and that is probably at least partly a function of my own psychology, a lifetime of the kind of chronic depression that so many women face, adding to the physical insults of old age. Like so many other women, I have known lots of loss.

Loss is out of my control:  death, especially the death of the young to disease and to suicide; disillusionment, especially the failure of democracy to keep its promises; divorce, the failure of what I thought of as enduring love; dementia, my sister, mute and frozen in a locked ward. I am often reminded to feel lucky that I am still showing strong cognitive function. Sure, but at every visit to that ward, I also feel the weight of human pain, what Arnold in the poem “Dover Beach” called “The eternal note of sadness…” that “Sophocles long ago/Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought/Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow/ Of human misery…” To borrow from John Donne, “No [woman] is an island.” I cannot control but I can choose to make each woman’s grief my own.

I know my old age is fortunate in that it is comfortable, I am loved by my children and a few dear friends, and my health is more or less stable. I know that the appropriate old woman thing to say is that I am not afraid to die. Sometimes, however,  I am tempted to agree with Ezekiel Emanuel, oncologist, brother of Chicago’s ex-mayor Raum, who wrote an article for the October 2014 issue of The Atlantic, explaining that he hoped to die by age 75, preferring death to endless tests and procedures, being a drain on the medical system, and watching his family witness his slide into old age.  Of course, Dr. Zeke was in his healthy, active 60’s when he wrote of his preference for death over aging and left himself the option to change his mind when the time came. He did not encourage suicide but rather cessation of medical tests or treatments for anything except an emergency such as a hot appendix.

Another writer I admire killed herself rather than hang on into the declining years. Carolyn Heilbrun, feminist scholar and activist, wrote that she planned to kill herself by her 70th birthday, then reversed herself when she found she was enjoying her old age. Later, at 77, she did commit suicide, leaving little behind to explain herself except that earlier commitment. Having read all of her works, I think I understand why she chose to take control of the timing of the inevitable, to go out on her own terms.

I am not advocating for suicide, but I now believe that it’s a reasonable alternative to an impaired and senile old age. Pipher says “it’s been a miracle and a privilege to be alive.” Perhaps, but we don’t get to choose the beginning, the circumstances or the end. Maybe that’s her point: that we can choose to be happy or act as if.  But what if it all ends in a dementia ward, a cancer treatment center, in a homeless shelter, a warehouse for the aged. What about elder abuse? Hunger? Loneliness, a condition considered epidemic among the old. I am NOT as Pipher says, “less angst filled and more content.” Like Lear I have learned so much about how human beings suffer, what they suffer at the hands of other human beings; I have educated myself into the real mysteries of human life: cruelty, indifference, selfishness. I think often of James Baldwin’s “There are so many ways of being despicable it quite makes one’s head spin. But the way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people’s pain.” What I have seen and read and learned in this long life is that there are so many ways, overt and covert, to look away from, denigrate, and blame others for their pain, if not actually to inflict it, that I can’t choose an attitude of personal happiness as my default emotion.  I can and do know moments of joy and satisfaction, sometimes serenity.  But I don’t really aim for happiness in the sense of feeling wise or fulfilled or part of some larger mystery. Life is what it is, my life has been my own, partly of my making, partly controlled by forces within and without of the self that is my own. If I seek to be fully human – and I do – I can’t assume that my experience of old age is universal nor can I pretend that a woman’s attitude toward the depredations, physical and social, of old age is more important than defying and decrying the ways our culture denigrates, mistreats and ignores old women.

I think I am saying – and please don’t read it as prescriptive for anyone but myself – that I don’t think I should be happy, knowing what I have learned, seeing what I now see, refusing to look away from the hard reality of being mortal, of living to a “ripe” old age. To me, if, as Hamlet said, “ripeness is all,” we should remember how short the time is between ripeness and rot. And we are all destined for that rot, one way or another– “Green” burial, tree fertilizer in a pot, old fashioned lead- lined casket, or the finality of fire. As I move into the genuine agedness of my eighth decade, I’d like to think my life has been worth something, that I have made a difference beyond the important but quotidian bearing and raising of children, my reproductive duty to replace myself and the long absent partner who donated not much more than genes to the project.  But I am not sure. I have been more or less existentialist in my philosophy, long in love with Albert Camus and his unwillingness to commit himself fully to any cause, even as he participated in the work and goals of several. Although I have long eschewed formal religion, I sometimes attend a Friends meeting for worship, finding nothing objectionable in Quaker silence, so my inner critic gets an hour of rest.  And since I first heard the advice attributed to Rabbi Tarfon – “You are not obliged to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” — I have tried to act with integrity, never sure that my acts make a difference but sure that I must perform them anyway.

I feel a prick of guilt for launching this critique of Mary Pipher’s rhetorical use of all-inclusive plural pronouns. I am sure she was thinking, as she said, of her friends; but her choice of collective pronouns was ill-considered and exclusive.  She might at least have mentioned socio-economic-educational status as factors in the female experience of aging. As it is, her cheerful description of how WE all feel doesn’t apply to me, for reasons I have carried on about long enough now. I’ll never accept learning “to thrive in the margins” because the margins are artificially drawn and too narrow for me and so many other women.  So, Mary Pipher, whose work I usually admire, forgive me. I don’t fit into your WE and US categories, and I suspect many other women can’t see themselves there either.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reclaiming “Cunt”

BY ANY OTHER NAME….

Every Friday on the PBS News Hour, veteran journalists Marks Shields and David Brooks take to the pundits’ table to offer their polite, judicious, Public TV- style commentary on the week’s events. On June 1, in response to Judy Woodruff’s question about the relative DE- merits of Rosanne Barr’s racist tweet and Samantha Bee’s javelin-hurl of the word cunt, David Brooks, always the gentleman touting the virtues of civility, bemoaned the degradation of manners. Shields, always the more colorful and opinionated of these two talking heads, leapt to the high moral ground, sputtering, “It is—what…Samantha Bee did, was nuclear. This is a nuclear word. This is a—this is the universal most offensive word to women that I know of.”  Reading the transcript misses the visuals: on screen Shields looked as if he was about to pop, like an overinflated balloon. He appeared apoplectic, his considerable jowls quivering as he shook his head in a palsy of righteous anger.

Now let me clear: the word cunt has stopped me in my tracks when I have heard it hurled as an insult. When I saw news clips of Trump supporters in shirts that applied the cunt epithet to Hillary, I wanted to rent a flame thrower. But watching Mark Shields fulminate in full  blown hyperbole about the absolute awfulness of this little noun, I found myself asking why he declares it the “most offensive word to women.” I rummaged around on etymology and dictionary sites, finding that cunt is a very old word used by Chaucer and Shakespeare literally and punningly (as in “country matters” in Hamlet). Some sites note that the word has not always been pejorative. After some web surfing, I decided I was less interested in the history of the word than in its effects, particularly on an old feminist like me. Why did I shudder when I heard the word?

Cunt means literally, according to various sources, female genitalia; some dictionaries say it’s the vagina; others embrace a fuller context of vagina and vulva. (So few young people, girls included, have a clear idea of the complexity of lady parts — vulva, big labia, little labia, clitoris, urethra, all before one gets to the vagina.) All agree that the word cunt refers to our genitalia, our “lady parts,” the terra too often incognita down there.

So why is cunt so vile a word as to earn Mark Shields’ epithet “nuclear?” Let’s analyze dispassionately. The word refers to female genitals. One could compare it to prick, but that word would not, I am sure, earn Shields’ opprobrium at the same level of disgust. Prick is a dry word that conjures up images of the aggressive penis in contrast its opposite, the even less offensive limp dick. Cunt on the other hand evokes from Shields and many others a cringe, a wrinkled nose, the yuk effect. Why? Because there is a long cultural history of revulsion and disgust associated with female genitalia and its functions.  Think about the most obvious –menstruation. Even today in the age of TV advertising for tampons, unthinkable when I was a girl, our then president-to-be expressed disgust when he made his “blood coming out of her wherever” remark during a debate. I’ll stick to what I know well here, but there are still religious rules and traditions that stigmatize a menstruating woman as unclean. So menstrual blood (and other seepages) may be an obvious source of disgust toward female genitals.

To call a woman a cunt, the most offensive insult according to Mark Shields, is to reduce her to biological destiny, to those tucked away body parts that pee and bleed and ooze and produce lubricants to facilitate sexual intercourse, which can, in turn, if one wishes and sometimes when one doesn’t, produce a baby. To call a man a cunt is to ratchet up the insult scale; calling a man a woman (as in “you throw like a girl”) is bad enough. Calling a man a cunt reduces him even further, to what lurks between a woman’s legs, hidden, interior, mysterious, female, and disgusting.

Is cunt worse than pussy or twat or any number of other slang terms/insults? It seems to pack a greater punch, a nuclear one according to Shields. The general coarsening of public discourse, so decried by David Brooks and others, has certainly led to a greater tolerance for words formerly banned on TV and radio. (Judy Woodruff noted that Samantha Bee had used a word “so bad we can’t repeat it here on the News Hour.”) Music lyrics, the internet and our current president have “liberated” a whole lexicon of previously taboo words and phrases. Still, some vulgar references to female parts retain the power to shock.

If cunt is a dirty word, it is because women’s private parts are seen as unclean, shameful even as they are desirable. The sexual and reproductive power associated with the vagina and its habitat is both seductive and repellant. Perhaps that power is also mysterious, threatening, fearsome. In Yeats’ poem “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop,” the old woman cries, “But love has pitched his mansion in/The place of excrement.” Talking to several acquaintance about why they remove by razor or wax all of their pubic hair, I often hear, especially from young women, that it is disgusting and nasty. When I point out, as I am wont to do, that the removal of pubic hair leaves them looking like pre-pubescent girls, they seem oblivious to the implications of that image. In this supposedly post-feminist age, women have the right to remove, alter, plump up, lift any part they deem inadequate or unattractive, I guess. I do wish, however, that they would be cognizant of the politics of such alterations. I mean, labiaplasty? Vagina rejuvenation? So many ways to make one’s cunt more beautiful, more virginal, more penis-friendly…and less natural.

Back to Samantha Bee and her now notorious use of the cunt-word. (Note, I am not playing the “c-word”game! A word is a word is a word. It gains or loses positive or negative power by the way we use it; its value either way is not lessened by expurgating all but its initial letter.) I am sorry that Samantha chose to use the word cunt in derogation of Ivanka Trump’s insensitivity in tweeting out the photo of her nuzzling her adorable child. In using the word as an insult, Samantha bought into and validated the ongoing cultural problematizing of the female body, specifically its genitalia. She perpetuated disgust for the female body. In choosing that word to do her dirty work, Samantha, usually feminist  in her consciousness, added her own brand of plutonium to the nuclear fuel that outraged Mark Shields to castigate feminists in general and the Me Too movement in particular, saying, “but I just found incredible hypocrisy on the part of the MeToo movement, on the part of a lot of feminists and a lot of liberals, that they have not been as harsh on Samantha Bee as they were rightly on Roseanne…” (What’s a week of cultural outrage without an attack on feminists from a white male pundit of a certain age?)

There is a similarity with a difference between Roseanne’s nakedly racist tweet and Samantha’s sexist name calling. Yes, I am calling out Samantha Bee’s use of the word cunt as sexist because cunt’s power to dehumanize and affront depends on the cultural feeling that a woman’s private parts are nasty, disgusting, and vile.  If Ivanka had any truly feminist smarts, she would have turned the insult on its head by embracing the word, by claiming pride in her sexual, generative anatomy that produced the adorable toddler in her arms. There is, however, no way to redeem Roseanne’s tweet that called upon a racist trope so widely available in our culture: African Americans as less than human, as ape-like. Both insults rely upon stereotypes deeply embedded in our casually racist and sexist culture. The difference I see is that one can redeem cunt from its power to disgust by reclaiming it as a powerful descriptive noun. There is no redeeming the verbal or visual image of an African American woman as an animal.

I am not defending Samantha’s use of the word cunt. She hurled it out there in the most sexist/misogynistic of ways. She validated its cultural baggage – nasty, smelly, disgusting, vile: that’s what the word has come to say about what lurks between women’s legs. She apologized; I don’t think she should be fired. After all, as Shields points out, the show was taped and approved before broadcast. Samantha did not blurt out the insult spontaneously.  Roseanne, the solitary tweeter, has a long history of racist remarks on and off twitter, not to mention her support of wacky and dangerous conspiracy theories. Samantha Bee, like many comedians, is no stranger to the shock value of vulgar language, knowing that it seems more outrageous, thus newsworthy,  when spoken by a woman. Since she has already staked out and gotten lots of publicity in the forbidden territory of cunt, I would like to see Samantha deliver a routine in which she reclaims the word; in which she takes us on a tour of cunt’s original meanings and explores why and how it has become such an incendiary verbal weapon. I’d like to see her repeat the word over and over, incite her audience, as Eve Ensler did with vagina, to chant it as a way of reclaiming cunt from opprobrium and misuse. Remember pussy hats? How they and their wearers reclaimed the word that described the female part Trump bragged disdainfully about grabbing? So perhaps, if we can knit the pussy into respectability, we can reclaim cunt from the bathroom wastebasket of contempt. After all, cunt at its four-letter core is simply a word for the collective “down there” parts that we often don’t know how to label. Cunt covers more territory than the more specific vagina. Cunt has a powerful one-syllable punch. Having typed it now many times, I feel ready to befriend the word. I think it will take practice for me to say it aloud, publicly and securely, as in “One’s cunt is a seat of pleasure and sometimes pain.” But really, readers, think of cunt as a useful addition to your conventional vocabulary. The next time some street corner tough or TBS comedian tries to insult or intimidate you by calling you a cunt, refuse to cringe or blush. Somewhere in this great country of ours, someone is, I am sure, working up an intricate crochet pattern that honors the irrepressible cunt.

 

PS: I want to laud Samantha Bee’s use of another all-too-seldom applied adjective –”feckless.” She called Ivanka a “feckless cunt.” Feckless means “lacking strength of character, weak, irresponsible.” Samantha could have stopped there, as in “the feckless Ivanka Trump.” I don’t think Ivanka or any woman should be attacked by equating her to her cunt, which, after all, is merely a collection of body parts, not a brain with the feckless will to tweet out an insensitive photo. Maybe Samantha just needs a better editor on her team of comedy writers and an online copy of the O.E.D.

 

 

 

 

It’s the Patriarchy, Stupid!!

Patriarchy (n.)

Patriarchy literally means “the rule of the father”[3][4] and comes from the Greek πατριάρχης (patriarkhēs), “father of a race” or “chief of a race, patriarch“,[5][6] which is a compound of πατριά (patria), “lineage, descent”[7] (from πατήρ patēr, “father”) and ἄρχω (arkhō), “I rule”.[8]

Historically, the term patriarchy was used to refer to autocratic rule by the male head of a family. However, in modern times, it more generally refers to social systems in which power is primarily held by adult men.[9][10][11] One example definition of patriarchy by Sylvia Walby is “a system of interrelated social structures which allow men to exploit women.”[12]According to April A. Gordon,[12] Walby’s definition allows for the variability and changes in women’s roles and in the order of their priority under different patriarchal systems. It also recognizes that it is the institutionalized subordination and exploitation of women by men that is the crux of patriarchy…

As an English teacher, I always discouraged my students from leading with a dictionary definition, as in “according to Webster’s…”Here I violate my own rules to open this blog entry with Wikipedia’s riff on the etymology and definition of the word patriarchy. I’ve avoided wading into this morass of alleged sexual molestation/harassment/inappropriate behavior because just thinking about living my 77 years in the body of a woman makes me tired. Several women friends have asked me to weigh in, so I can’t resist any longer. The reports that Senator Al Franken, a man I admire, has joined the long list of the accused, with a photo to prove at least part of his behavior, have pushed me out of silence. What I have to say, however, may disappoint some of my followers.

I begin with Wikipedia’s definitions because, really, this scandal is rooted securely in patriarchy, not in individual evil, as so many would have us believe. The idea of this “bad guy” or that “bad guy” is comforting because the answer involves ostracism, punishment, shaming rather than a radical change to how we see the world, how we govern our societies, how we raise our children. It’s the difference between the micro and the macro view.

As example, I refer to the number of indignant men seeking to distance themselves from the behavior of their more licentious peers. So many of them haul out their female kin, especially daughters and wives, sometimes sisters and mothers, as reasons for their horror and indignation. “As the father of a daughter…” is a preferred line. Ok, you say, what father wouldn’t want to protect his daughter from a sexual predator? Remember that not so long ago, fathers owned their daughters, married them off to men fathers chose, (a custom preserved in the ritual of fathers walking their daughters down the aisle, “giving” them away.) Patriarchal indignation speaks to the power men, abusers and saints alike, wield over the women in their lives and the larger category of women in general. Note the etymology quoted above. Invoking beloved daughters and wives  speaks to a particular and personal indignation not to the need for cultural change in the way all women are viewed. And it makes man-the-protector another icon of the patriarchal structure. Wives and daughters need protection; they are objects of both male predation and protection. I will protect my own, but I can, with impunity, assault yours. As another example, think about the way rape by conquering armies is still institutionalized in the violence of war.

The #Me Too campaign, one to which I added my voice, is a victims’ rallying cry; it says that all of us walking the world in women’s bodies have experienced the feelings of victimization or powerlessness because of some man’s (or many men’s) assumption that he can do as he pleases to our bodies. Every woman I know can testify to at least the catcalls and the crude remarks that become part of daily life after puberty (and sometimes, tragically, before.) #Me Too is a wake-up call, a threat, a bonding strategy, and an important moment. Many women call it a watershed moment, claiming that men won’t get away with such behavior in the future. I say good luck with that! When the dust settles and national attention is diverted elsewhere, the behaviors will resurface. Like gun violence, sexual violence resists institutional change because those in power don’t want to give up any of their power .

I will also argue that the public face of the #Me Too movement is class based. The raised voices are those of famous, mostly white women about their experiences long ago. Back then they say that their fear, their youth and inexperience, kept them from reporting, seeking help, resisting their abusers. Some women did resist, walk out; others participated, albeit unwillingly, in blow jobs in hotel hallways. I don’t see the famous women now speaking truth to power as heroes; a hero takes a risk; speaking from a secure financial and social place is not risky. I admire and applaud their willingness to out the abuse, but I cannot call them heroic. I am not judging these famous actresses, but I am asking what about the waitress today, the bartender, the clerk, the nurse’s aide or the nurse herself. Are these women going to report men who pat their rear ends or grab at a breast or leer while telling a dirty joke? And if she does report, is the bar owner, the restaurant manager, the head nurse on the ward going to respond in a way that changes the work conditions? Is she going to get fired? Refused promotions? Does she even know to whom to report? If the affront is of the dirty-joke, fanny-pat variety, she will be advised to shrug it off, carry on, stay out of the “bad guy’s” way. If she is assaulted and reports the assault to authorities, what happens? Think about the huge number of rape kits languishing in storage. The difficulty of prosecuting an unwitnessed act. The tendency to think women lie. She is not rich or famous, can’t afford time off from work or a lawyer; the press is not interested in her unless the attack is vicious enough to merit column inches or a mention on CNN. She says #Me Too and then what?

The #Me Too movement, credited to actress Alyssa Milano, was actually started by a lesser known, less glamorous black woman years ago. As reported by Ebony Magazine, “A plethora of articles credited Milano with igniting the conversation. As the movement picked up speed…, journalist Britni Danielle pointed out that activist Tarana Burke, a Black woman, began the crusade 10 years ago particularly for women of color. Burke is the founder of the ‘Me Too’ movement’, which aims to do exactly what the recent trending topic has done on social media: unify those who’ve been victimized by sexual violence.” Interviewed on a recent segment of the PBS News Hour, Ms. Burke eloquently explained the need for something to happen after one discloses in a #Me Too moment. (Coincidently, a young woman close to me said she had reservations about the #Me Too movement because she feared women would feel pressured to disclose and worried about what happened afterwards by way of support.) Ms. Burke has devoted her work to helping victims of sexual violence. In the history of the United States, patriarchal institutions, particularly slavery and its aftermath, have been particularly brutal for women of color. They continue to be often marginalized by white women’s movements today, in another example of the dangerous intersections of racism and sexism. (The Black Lives Matter movement, while not directly about sexual violence, is led by women of color and is the target of Justice Department investigations as a subversive group. No surprise there. )

So much of the coverage of this scandal dwells on the salacious details of each encounter, the position and history of the rich and famous perpetrators. But two elements of the story are glossed over:

1. We need to scrutinize the flattening of time that allows reporters to apply the rules, conventions and assumptions of today, a time enlightened just a bit by feminism, to earlier time periods. I think back to the 50’s/60’s when I came into womanhood. At the time, I, now a radical feminist, then a college “girl,” joined my peers in blaming women for what happened to them. The only believable rape was perpetrated by a stranger who jumps out of darkness. As women, we were responsible for how we dressed, how much we drank, how we behaved, how far we let a guy go. I hear the echoes of myself saying to friends, “Well, she had it coming, getting drunk at the dance.” I believed that; I had been taught that men were sexually dangerous and women had to keep them in check. Men in power were protected. Remember the idealized JFK; what we now know of his predatory behavior makes Weinstein look like a choir boy…almost! Reporters, aides, everyone around him, smart, educated people, accepted his droit de seigneur casually, with no pity for his victims. Many people still live culturally in the past:  fanny patters  like George H.W. Bush; victims who still accept what happened to them as “boys will be boys,” as Melania Trump famously commented when interviewed about her husband’s pussy grabbing boasts; a lot of voters of my generation who distrust women who speak out and consider the behavior of men “natural” or “no big deal.”  They may be the same people who protest when statues of Confederate “heroes” are taken down. We need to understand that some people get stuck in time; they act and judge actions from a  perspective many of us consider outdated and uninformed. I think my late mother would have been among them because she resisted the idea of victimization, valorized individual autonomy, and resisted her daughters’ feminism.

2. There has been a kind of moral equivalency assumed between, say, the behaviors of George H. W. Bush, the fanny patter/dirty joke teller, and Harvey Weinstein, the gross abuser/molester. If I were to analyze the specific behaviors we have heard about almost daily in the last weeks, I would set up a continuum. For purposes of illustration, think of the old George H.W.Bush at one end and Weinstein and Ailes at the other. On this line. we could chart degrees of everything from casual insensitivity to vicious rape and assault. Along the way we could parse every salacious detail, compare degrees of force and resistance, judge levels of criminality. I am not interested in that detailed analysis of individual behavior, however, because, as the #Me Too campaign illustrates, this problem is not solely one of depraved individual behavior. It is a problem of a swollen patriarchy that wields its power in many ways –legal, religious, educational, social – and permits all degrees of the sexual abuse of its power to be overlooked, trivialized, facilitated, excused and ignored.

Some readers will accuse me of minimizing the individual offensive, perhaps criminal, acts of this or that man. Not so. I think they all should be held to account for their thuggish, crude, gross behavior; they should be called out, censored, and appropriately punished. I do not think, however, that crude, vulgar sexual behavior,  automatically prevents a man in power from using that power also for causes in which I believe. I could not vote for a rapist; I could vote for a fanny patter if he was willing to acknowledge and mend his ways. That ethical seesaw will put me and those who agree in difficult political positions, especially on elections days. As a liberal, I am not alone; consider the ethical balancing acts that must have led Republicans of good will to put Trump in the presidency. Look at the supporters of Roy Moore who, despite a lot of evidence, remain in his camp. And, yes, you can look at me as riding this ethical seesaw because right now, knowing what we  know, I would not support removing Al Franken from the Senate.

Patriarchy is not, however, a partisan issue for me. As we have seen, sexual harassment and assault know no particular political party or inclination. Conservative and liberal men (and women, I guess. It won’t be long before someone comes out of the woodwork to report harassment or inappropriate behavior by a female boss; we already have seen men behaving badly with other men/boys, i.e. Kevin Spacey.) It’s not a partisan issue because while the offenses are committed by individuals, usually men, we all live under the rules and conventions of a patriarchal society. The patriarchy shapes every institution that controls or serves us. It controls and influences women, too.  Sometimes its very pervasiveness forces uncomfortable political choices that leave people on both sides open to charges of partisan hypocrisy.

The photo making the social media rounds of Al Franken leering as he gropes the breasts of a sleeping comedian travelling with him on a USO tour, is a classic example of what Laura Mulvey called the “male gaze” in action. Franken’s gaze and grope invite the culturally accepted “looking” at a woman being touched by a man without her permission or, indeed, even her knowledge. It is supposed to be funny; after all, they were both comedians whose humor was often raunchy, dependent often on the objectification of women and their bodies. Franken himself acknowledged that sexual vulgarity in his somewhat tortured apology. To Franken and those around him, it was “OK,” harmless and funny. At the time, Leeann Tweeden did not speak out or protest, even though she reports another incident in which Franken invaded her personal boundaries with an unwanted kiss. Both aggressor and victim were ensnared in the patriarchal culture that condones sexist and unwanted sexual behavior and makes the victim hesitant to report. Now, in an altered cultural consciousness, the victim speaks out, and Franken is left to acknowledge and apologize. As a “bad guy,” I’d put him somewhere in the mid-range of the continuum, neither as “bad” as Weinstein and Ailes but not as “forgivable” as old man Bush. But that’s not my point.

My point is that they –the assaulters – and we – women of the #Me Too campaign—are all participants, willing or not, in a patriarchal structure that has historically, psychologically, culturally condoned, ignored, permitted, and often facilitated such behavior on the part of those in power, usually white men. Given that assertion, can we claim, as many women have,  the #Me Too movement as a turning point?

Well, in terms of elevated consciousness it should be. Knowledge is allegedly power. People, men and women who want this behavior to stop, should be working to overthrow the patriarchy by insisting through legislation, and the reform of institutions such as church and school and workplace that we must ensure equality of women with men in all arenas. But guess what? I don’t think that will happen any time soon because power is hard to give up and sharing power is regarded by those in power as losing power. So we make token gestures in the direction of equality. And then our Republican legislators (and this is partisan) demolish legal efforts to ensure reproductive freedom, equal pay, subsidized child care, Title Nine protections, etc. etc. These same conservative lawmakers will call for sexual harassment training, which in my experience usually emphasizes how harassers can protect themselves without attacking the cultural norms that preserve the objectification of women and the dominance of misogyny. It is worth noting that we have a resident president who falls pretty far along the sexual assault continuum and shows little sign of acknowledging his sins.

I stand sadly in front of my bookshelves, looking at titles by Simone de Beauvoir, Adrienne Rich, Gerda Lerner and so many other scholars and activists who have eloquently unveiled the history, psychology, and religion of patriarchal sexism. Writers of color such as Toni Morrison, Henry Louis Gates, Audre Lorde who have sought to explain the tragic intersections of racism and sexism. And then I run my mind over the names of the famously accused: Cosby, Weinstein, Moore, Ailes, Weiner, Clinton, Franken, Bush, et. al. I remember my idealization of the Kennedy men and how the press protected them.  I look back over my #Me Too moments, remembering that white women got credit for inventing this form of protest in which I, a white woman, participated. I think of Paul Ryan, still in thrall to the cruel and crude ideas of Ayn Rand, whose books’ heroines idealize rape as a natural and potent expression of love and power; I think of what we  know now of the Kennedy “boys’” predatory behavior… and my mind sighs. Yes, it’s complicated.

Do I think that revealing the names of men behaving badly on a continuum that stretches from nasty words to actual rape will result in the destruction of patriarchal institutions? Ask me if now I think that high schools will stop imposing dress codes that problematize women’s bodies, allegedly to prevent men from distraction and bad behavior? Will the Catholic Church ordain women? Will other conservative denominations cease citing the Bible as the reason women must be subject to men? Will legislators stop passing laws that control women’s bodies by denying them reproductive freedom? Will we see laws that guarantee equal pay, decent child care, accessible and affordable medical care that erases the disgrace of the Unites States’ high maternal mortality rate? Will we allow attacks on Title Nine because we assume that many women lie about sexual assault? Will convicted rapists receive shorter jail sentences than  black men convicted with scant legal representation of drug possession?  Will we see equal representation by women elected to our local, state and national legislatures? Will we elect a woman to the presidency any time soon?

I think not.

#Me Too is important; consciousness raising is always important. But what happens next is more important. Yes, let’s punish the “bad guys” in a non-partisan way, especially those whose actions broke laws. If we elected them to office, let’s demand that they go beyond apology and use their power to help move us toward the erasure of patriarchy as the (largely) unwritten law of the land.  Let’s not make moral equivalencies that conflate a pat on the ass with a rape in a hotel room. At the same time, let’s acknowledge that all such behaviors are rooted in the abuse of patriarchal power, male hierarchies and Capitalist conflations of fame and fortune with sexual impunity. Let’s change the assumption that they [the white patriarchs] rule to we [women and men, white and of color] rule/govern equally.

PostScript:

I watched the nightly news on CNN and PBS. Wolf Blitzer was busily validating my critique by asking Sen Blumenthal if the charges against Al Franken equaled those against Judge Moore; if Franken should be expelled from the Senate, if the charges against him were true, etc. (Since then  the drama heated up as allegations surfaced that Roger Stone has something to do with charges against Franken. Convenient distractions. What no one is talking about is the systemic, institutionalized patriarchal culture that seeks to avoid scrutiny by dwelling in the devilish details of each alleged affront. I am pretty sure that many male senators, congresspersons, their staffs and aides are on their metaphorical knees praying that their transgressions on the playing fields of sexual intimidation, harassment and assault are not #Me Too’ed by some emboldened woman out there. And their more virtuous or controlled or courteous colleagues are, I am sure, bathing in smug self-congratulation, pretty certain there is nothing lurking to dirty their linen in public. I also imagine a few lonely voices crying in the patriarchal wilderness, mine I hope included, saying that the bigger issue is not the individual offender. (Remember:  I am not suggesting said offender is not responsible for his actions.) The bigger issue is the culture that allows offenses to occur, followed by complicit silence sponsored by fear or boys’-club loyalty. We need to change the institutions, the systems, the whole damn white-male dominated culture!!!! It is the patriarchy, stupid!!!

No Cordelia in Trump’s Cabinet

Watching the circle of craven sycophants, aka the President’s cabinet members, compete to outdo one another in paeans of effusive praise for their toddler-in-chief, I could not help but wonder if English teachers all over the country were reminded, as I was, of Act I, scene 1, of Shakespeare’s King Lear.  Commanding the presence of his three daughters in the public space of the court, he requires of each that she declare her love for him as the price for such portion of his kingdom (He is dividing it up prior to retirement from kingly burdens.) as he deems the declaration of love deserves:

Tell me, my daughters,–
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state,–
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?       

First Goneril and then Regan produce hyperbolic declarations of devotion and love

Goneril:

 Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter;
Dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour;               
(1.1.56-59)

Regan:

Sir, I am made of the self-same metal that my sister is,
And prize me at her worth. In my true heart
I find she names my very deed of love;
Only she comes too short.                                                            
(1.1.71-74)

Lear smugly accepts and rewards these avowals before moving on to ask his beloved youngest daughter Cordelia, “What can you say to draw/ A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.”

Cordelia answers, “Nothing,” going on to barely explain, “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave/My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty/According to my bond; nor more nor less.” (1.1.93-95)

As I watched the replay of Trump’s cabinet members, invited to say something about the accomplishments of his administration in front of the media, this scene played itself out on my English teacher’s memory screen. But there was no Cordelia refusing to utter puffed-up blandishments, so blatantly insincere that I was embarrassed to be witness to them, even coming from cabinet officials for whom I have little respect. Cordelia refuses to pander to her father’s vanity.  Starting with Vice President Pence, who declared his connection to Trump the greatest honor of his life, one after another of Trump appointees declared his/her gratitude and pride in serving this amazing administration led by this outstanding man. Reince Priebus offered the most fulsome response, his paean including the pseudo-religious “blessing given” by Donald Trump, as if from some Olympian height. “On behalf the entire senior staff around you, Mr. President, we thank you for the opportunity and the blessing you’ve given us to serve your agenda and the American people,” the White House chief of staff said.

No Cordelia there to interrupt the chorus of obsequious adulation. If I wanted to extend this comparison, I might invoke the ghost of James Comey, the man who refused to pledge allegiance and loyalty (love?) to Donald Trump; but that perhaps remains for a brilliant dramaturge such as Oskar Eustis to incorporate into a relevant production of King Lear. Although he’d have to take liberties with the text, I can imagine Comey as a Cordelia figure, both of them honest and, truth be told, a bit self-righteous.   Of course Cordelia ends up dead and I would not wish such a fate on James Comey.  Eustis’ controversial Julius Caesar, now playing in Central park, is currently dealing with the withdrawal of financial support from corporate giants Delta Airlines and Bank of America because of its rendering of Caesar as a Trump look-alike (sort  of) with an affinity for long ties (Oh, don’t tempt me here!), a Slavic wife, and despotic power.  Remember, Caesar is assassinated, so to the corporate oligarchs who rule this not-so-democratic republic, the play must seem a Democratic/liberal plot to hide the fact that Trump won the popular vote. Remember that Shakespeare served under an absolute monarch, that his plays were subject to official censorship, and that the assassination of a head-of-state, good or bad, could not be presented as a positive feat. I suspect those who see subversion in the play have neither seen it nor read it all the way to the end. Maybe in their sophomore year in high school, they weren’t paying attention to their English teachers.  Maybe they lack a sense of irony or even of humor.

Trump’s story, no matter where it ends, can never be a tragedy.  Trump is no Lear, no grand, frail, flawed hero capable of recognizing his flaws.  I do not believe that Trump is capable of honest recognition of his ego-driven folly and foolishness, his need for constant praise.  He will never, I suspect, cry out in honest self-assessment, as Lear does when he begins to see the damage he has wrought,

I am a very foolish fond old man,

Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less.

And to deal plainly

I fear I am not in my perfect mind.”

(4.7.60-64)

Trump lacks the majesty of tragic hubris; his ego blinds him to the possibilities of honest self-assessment, of redemption.  He may suffer reverses of fortune brought about by his own prideful errors in judgment, but I doubt he will ever see himself, rather than the Democrats and leakers of either party, as responsible. Trump is as shallow as a vernal pond, as vain as Narcissus, as psychologically naked in public as the monarch in Hans Christian Anderson’s “The King’s New Clothes.” He is mindlessly cruel both to strangers and those close to him, loyal only to his own appetites, and heedless of the hurt and humiliation he disperses like contaminated seed. He will never be able to declare, as Lear does on the edge of mad regret, in the insightful and empathetic speech I love most in the play:

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.                             
(3.4.28-36)

Lear learns compassion, caritas, and humility. He realizes that he is not the only sufferer, in fact hardly a sufferer at all, compared to those enduring poverty of body and spirit. Through his suffering and his consequent consciousness of self, he emerges as the tragic hero of a great tragic drama.

I can’t envision Donald Trump looking deeper than his own skin to recognize the suffering that he and, under his leadership, the ilk of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and Tom Price and Ben Carson and Rick Perry and Betsy DeVos and Jeff Sessions and Rex Tillerson, are inflicting on the least among us. His story will not reach the heights of Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. It is more theater of the absurd, occasionally funny but mostly Godot-goofy, Brecht-bitter, Sartre-sardonic – at least from an audience’s view. To Trump himself, his reign is an amazing spectacle of the superlative, theater of the rococo, the vulgar and the vicious. To this viewer, his little drama is neither ennobling nor elevating. It’s not even sad enough to be considered pathos. I’d call it a national embarrassment with potentially dangerous consequences.

I swore off ranting about Trump a few weeks ago; hence the blog-silence. I had begun to feel the fatigue of constant outrage, indignation and disbelief. Instead I read poetry: Yeats, Auden, Brodsky, Wisława Szymborska, Anna Akhmatova, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde.  They expressed indignation, anger and apocalyptic terror so much more elegantly than the talking heads on TV or the columnists of the New York Times.  Today’s televised replay of the cabinet of toadies bowing and scraping before the petty wanna-be tyrant, competing with one another to lick even the dirty sole of the master’s boot, heated my simmering umbrage to a pasta-cooking boil. Silent no longer…at least for now.

Every day someone posts an article on Facebook assuring us like-minded users (Of course, we see only the like-minded on our own pages along with the ads for anything we have ever coveted on line.) that the end is in sight, that impeachment or indictment or implosion of government is surely at hand, like the “sly beast slouching…” so often referenced. Then another day passes and Trumpkin is still on the throne, still twittering like a mad wren, still proclaiming accomplishments the likes of which no one has seen since perhaps George Washington’s day. I ask myself: is the outrageous becoming the new normal? People post that love will conquer hate. I think that I don’t think love has much to do with our current national dilemma. I think action has to challenge hateful legislation and language and lies. Writing is action, even though it requires no elbow grease or shoe leather or dangerous provocations of authority. Words are what I have to send out into the marketplace (good capitalist diction!) of ideas. Sharing the page with William Shakespeare helps keep me humble. Sharing citizenship with the likes of Donald Trump makes me wistful for the days when my ancestors were still living in Quebec, speaking French. I remind my adult grandchildren to be sure their passports are in order. I am writing checks to Planned Parenthood in lieu of birthday gifts. I am not hopeful but neither am I totally without hope, not when I have poetry and drama to terrify and console me. I will let Auden have the last words, from a poem he came to reject but that continues to inspire me.

From “September 1, 1939,” last stanza.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Thoughts on the Morning of a 77th Birthday.

You awaken slowly, slats of light through the blinds, the vague realization that you are alive again, that it is another day again, that soon you will move your limbs into the motions of getting out of bed. Into this bleary foggy early awakening comes an intrusion, an interruption of the ordinary: it is your birthday, your 77th. You are, says the calendar, 77 years old today. The number is indifferent and stunning.

When you rise, you know, there will be messages on the devices –the IPhone, the Kindle –because, even in these late years, you have adapted, in an elementary and limited fashion and despite daily frustration, to the technology of instant communication. While you still experience a little frisson of anticipatory energy when you open the mailbox in the lobby and find therein a “real” letter or card, as opposed to the endless flyers, catalogues, and bills, you have learned an appreciation for e-cards and e-gifts certificates and cyber-greetings. You seldom resort to such greetings yourself, at least not as the only acknowledgment of occasion, still retaining your title as “Hallmark Queen” and helping to keep the US Post Office in business.

You will rise as a 77-year-old woman, having lived long enough that events of your past experience are now “history” in the textbook and classroom sense of the word. You will rise into a broken world, your own country and many others still at war. Your life began in 1940 as WWII raged; you have a vague memory of sitting on the porch steps of the house in Buzzards Bay with a cooking pot on which you were banging, with the grown-ups approval, a metal spoon – war’s end. You came into your own first wave of political consciousness in the McCarthy-red-scare era. Influenced by your father’s views, you learned to speak of “pinkos” and “fellow travelers” with patriotic scorn. You remember the Rosenberg executions. You have a cocktail napkin autographed to you personally by Richard Nixon, whom your father, district manager for Western Union,  met while handling communications for Nixon’s campaign tour of New Hampshire. You will leave for college in 1958 as a conservative and graduate in 1962 as a liberal, the civil rights movement having replaced your father as authority on justice. You will hope to change the world.

And then you will fall in what you think is love, fall pregnant when you are sure that can’t happen, get married because there is no real alternative, have three children in 17 months (a singleton and twins), move from Maryland to Connecticut to Kansas to New Jersey, there to stay through divorce, raising your children into adulthood, growing in your career as an educator, writing a bit, getting published a bit, gaining some limited recognition in your field, growing older alone, sometimes lonely, sometimes not. Then after 30 years, early retirement, too early perhaps, and a move to a small town in the Adirondack mountains, there to interact every day with grandsons and every summer with Manhattan grandkids. And then to Utica, here where you are waking to the realization that you are 77 years old.

Old age is strange place –not Byzantium, for sure, pace Yeats. The strangeness is exacerbated when one lives, as you do, in an apartment complex segregated by age –one must be 55 to live here; many, perhaps most, residents are older. The appearance of children, guests, arouses in various residents, either sentimental delight or irritation. There are many dogs here, and they, too, evoke similar responses from the residents. There are fewer couples than there are women living alone –widows, divorcees, and just plain single women. There is a comfortable, safe, secure flatness to this world of old people. Their conditions illustrate the fickleness of fate: the active ninety-year old with all her faculties intact; the woman in her seventies who sometimes can’t find her apartment and roams from building to building until rescued by a friend, those of different ages dependent on walkers and scooters and other people to move about. You know you should feel grateful for reasonably good health, having done so little to maintain it. You know you should not eat so much chocolate. You don’t drink alcohol any longer –at least there’s that.

This birthday morning you realize again that you didn’t change the world, that you never really got to emulate Joan of Arc whose name you took at confirmation, that you now understand too well Stephen Spender’s lines:

What I expected, was

Thunder, fighting,

Long struggles with men

And climbing.

After continual straining

I should grow strong;

Then the rocks would shake

And I rest long.

 

What I had not foreseen

Was the gradual day

Weakening the will

Leaking the brightness away,

The lack of good to touch,

The fading of body and soul

Smoke before wind,

Corrupt, insubstantial…

 

You have lived your life in literature; books have limned the life you dreamed, the exit lines you wanted for yourself, the plots you wished to inhabit. Poems spoke for you, the poems of others better than your own. The hardest realization this morning, this 77th birthday morning, is that your life, like that of most people, has been small, average, relatively insignificant. You are supposed to take heart from the fact that your children, now in their 50’s, live decent, independent lives; that they have raised children whom you love and who give you moments of joy. But you also know that the greater number of people you love –three children, then six grandchildren—the more anxiety, pain and disappointment you can expect. Your expectations, for self and others, is often too high. The “gradual day” can be long and colorless, bland and lonely.

Now you understand King Lear as you never did when you taught the play many times years ago. Not so much the selfish Lear of Act I, but the mad Lear on the heath and wandering alone afterwards, deranged by the realization of his own insignificance, powerlessness and selfishness.

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this!

Like Lear, you have realized how little care we have taken of the less fortunate among us, how the current administration will strip the poor even more naked, how powerless you feel at this realization. Later, Lear, bending over the body of his finally beloved daughter Cordelia, begs someone “Pray you, undo this button.” you understand this plea now, very well, as a prayer to be unclothed from one’s flesh, to be free to die unencumbered by the trappings we wear to cover the pathos of mortality. In “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Albert Camus, the man for whom you would have become a camp follower, speaks of “the hour of consciousness,” that allows us to consider Sisyphus happy despite his endless, repetitive struggle to push that rock up the hill. You have been conscious, as Lear becomes and Camus explicates, of the absurdity, the randomness, the essential smallness of a human life. The consciousness began as youthful aspiration –to be Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Cady Stanton; as time, with its relentless pounding away at illusions, went on, you began to realize the limits of your own courage and vision. You settled into the middle class and safely bordered life of career and suburbs and literature. Now in old age, you see it all too clearly, the long sadness that comes of consciousness, loss of faith, depredations of age, the simple fact of mortality.

Yesterday you heard from a young man whom you encouraged to write poetry and who thanks you for mentoring him into the life of the intellect. He called to tell you he has been accepted into a prestigious MFA program in creative writing. He will be a poet, and he credits you for inspiration and encouragement. There have been a few such young writers whom you, like so many English teachers, have mentored into the confidence to write and publish poetry. You realize with a mix of sadness and pride that you are a better editor and mentor of emerging poets than you are a poet yourself. That the poems you write lack verve and energy even when they “work.” But you have been unerring in spotting a potential poet or novelist. They have acknowledged you in autographs and acknowledgments. You love to read their work.

Is that enough? As the end comes nearer and seems both inevitable and perhaps desirable, is it enough to know you have influenced young people, that you have raised good children and influenced the raising of grandchildren, all of whom love you? Is it enough that you did not change the world, lead an army, earn an obituary in the New York Times? You ask yourself as the sun stripes the comforter you huddle under and your cellphone chimes as a message comes in, probably a birthday greeting. Perhaps it has to be, you think, it has to be enough. Every life you have touched has also touched and changed yours.  Perhaps that really is enough. Time now to get up and make a day of this one, your 77th birthday.

Republican Cruelty

Samantha Schmidt in the March 7 issue of The Washington Post reported, “In an attempt to deter illegal immigration from Mexico, the Department of Homeland Security is considering separating children from parents caught crossing the border, Secretary John Kelly said Monday on CNN. The proposal would result in detention for the parent while any accompanying children would be placed in the care of the government or sent to live with any relatives in the United States.” Explaining his reasoning to Wolf Blitzer, Kelly said, “I would do almost anything to deter the people from Central America getting on this very, very dangerous network that brings them up from Mexico.”

Every day elicits from me another gasp as the Trump administration demonstrates over and over again a complete lack of human compassion or even of attempts to understand the cruelty of their various proposals: to destroy healthcare for the poor, to deny women coverage for reproductive health, to question why men should have to pay for insurance that covers prenatal care, to suggest that the poor don’t really want health care, to suggest that the poor should give up expensive cellphones so that they can pay for health care, and on and on.

I have tried to read and listen, tried to figure out what goes on inside the heads and hearts of the men (and they are mostly rich white men) as they gather to discuss and plan ways to make the rich richer and the poor poorer, all  in the name of saving money and demolishing “big government.” I struggle against hopeless cynicism and despair, not only about Trump’s administration and its proposed policies but also about my faith in the basic goodness of human beings who hold positions of power.

Kelly’s statements about separating parents (mostly mothers) from their children in the name of deterrence left me literally wordless. I couldn’t help imagining a conference room full of Homeland Security officials calmly discussing Kelly’s proposal. Of course we don’t have the transcript, but I try to imagine what was going in their heads as they seriously considered ripping traumatized refugee kids from their equally stressed mothers. These women are trying to protect their children by escaping from countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras where the dangers of gang-related violence, forced gang recruitment, extortion, poverty and lack of opportunity make the dangers of fleeing to seek asylum pale in comparison.

Having survived a perilous journey from countries where they lived in imminent danger from ruthless gangs and corrupt governments, probably having been further traumatized by the craven coyotes whom they paid to guide them to the illegal border crossing, having made it through hunger and thirst and even sexual abuse, they arrive on American soil only to be forcibly separated. This inhuman move on the part of U.S. government agents would supposedly deter other mothers from attempting the perilous journey with their children.

How can humans being actually consider such a proposal? How can a room full of federal officials seriously discuss with one another an idea so counter to everything we supposedly stand for, to the family values the Republicans like to trumpet, to the universal concept of sanctuary? How can these officials, part of an administration whose leaders claim a Judeo-Christian heritage (with an emphasis in this administration on “Christian”) propose and defend the idea of separating children from their mothers, turning them over to government agents or relatives and immediately deporting their mothers? Where in the Gospels, in the words of Jesus, in the larger ethos of human compassion can they find justification? These women seeking asylum represent no threat to our safety. This proposal, however, represents a threat to the ethical center of  American ideals.

I want to hope that at least one voice in that room full of Homeland Security officials spoke up to suggest the essential wrongness, the immorality, the cruelty of this proposal. When asked if he worried that public opinion might be outraged, Kelly said he would do anything to stop this flow of traffic.  The Washington Post referred to “Barbara Hines, an immigration law expert, who argues that it shouldn’t have to be a choice between detention or separation — families should be released from the beginning. She also argued that such a policy change probably would do nothing to deter women from crossing the border illegally with their children.”

“The experts have established that when people are fearing for their lives, what is going to happen at the border is not going to deter them. The women that I’ve seen over the last two years are fleeing for their lives,” Hines said. “They’ve gone through such incredible trauma in their home countries.” Separating them from their children, she said, would be “unthinkable.”

The Washington Post article also quoted the American Academy of Pediatrics, a credible source of wisdom about children: “Federal authorities must exercise caution to ensure that the emotional and physical stress children experience as they seek refuge in the United States is not exacerbated by the additional trauma of being separated from their siblings, parents or other relatives and caregivers.”

I assume that some of the officials in the discussion with Kelly are parents, fathers, maybe some mothers (although I cringe to think of any mother agreeing to this proposal).  Kelly himself raised three children, one of whom died in action in Afghanistan, so he knows the grief of losing a child. How many others in that room have children whom they love and cherish? Why is it so difficult to demand of people in positions of power that they seek to understand and perhaps, although it may be asking too much of the rich and powerful, to empathize with the least who seek to be among us? What elements of power and comfort deaden human feelings or defend the old argument that reason must override sympathy; that promoting fear of the other makes us safer in the long run? Or even more cynical, Kelly’s suggestion that concern for the safety of the fleeing mothers and children justifies making object lessons of those who have already made it to what they hope is safety?

I just don’t understand. I realize that there are so many other outrages: the denigration of the truth; the blatant misogyny of a president who claims he respects women; the attempts by a party that valorizes the importance of the individual over government to strip women of control of their reproductive freedom; that talks up motherhood and family values while stripping the poor and middle class families of health care; that parades the nanny-supported motherhood of wives and daughters who go “to work” in designer outfits. I am outraged daily by all of these assaults on reason and emotion.

I am, however, particularly outraged by this particular story. I am not even sure that this proposal will be enacted. I hope it is not; I hope there are people in power who will share the outrage I and others feel. I make this story the topic of this blog because it seems to me a potent, pathetic example of what is happening in our country today. I am no Pollyanna. I understand that politics are not usually informed by high moral standards and that moral views can differ, as they do around the abortion issues. I just can’t stop thinking about that conference room full of Homeland officials listening to John Kelly propose this draconian measure. I can’t stop hoping that someone stood up and cried out in protest at the very idea of ripping children from their mothers just as they begin to think they are safe to claim asylum in the land of the free and home of the brave. If anything will push me over the edge into a morass of cynicism and despair about my membership in the human community, implementation of Kelly’s inhumane and cruel proposal to rip apart the bond between mothers and their children certainly will.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Woman’s Response to President Trump’s Exploitation of a Widow’s Grief

 

When Shakespeare’s King Lear demands that his daughters tell him how much they love him, Goneril and Regan comply with effusive, insincere declarations of devotion, their eyes on the territory Lear is dividing up among his three offspring. Cordelia, his youngest and most beloved, responds sincerely, “I cannot heave/My heart into my mouth.” She refuses to be manipulated into dishonest flattery. Of course Lear, a selfish, egotistical old man, furiously disinherits her on the spot.

I was reminded of that scene last night during the President’s address to the legislature. In a maudlin, hypocritical and dishonest rendition of the death of Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, President Trump directed attention to Ms. Owens, the grieving widow who sat beside Ivanka Trump in the visitors’ section. Ms. Owens was obviously and understandably distraught as she struggled to maintain composure, to contain her tears. Of course most of the assemblage on both sides of the aisle rose to offer long sustained applause, while Trump, his thin-lipped smirk stretched smugly, pickerel-like, across his face, clapped and nodded. “Ryan is looking down right now, you know that?” he assured the widow, then quoted General Mattis saying, “‘Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemy.’” Then a stroke of rhetorical hyperbole: “Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity.”

Immediately after the speech, some talking heads on PBS and CNN agreed sagely about the emotional power of the moment –the widow’s gallant attempt to stay strong, the dramatic sustained response of the audience. One or two suggested that Trump had exploited the death of the Navy seal, our “hero” of the moment; but most bought into the televised drama.

Today, as I read the news and scrolled through Facebook responses to the address, I note that several voices bitterly denounced the few legislators on the Democratic side who chose not to stand for the ovation. I am writing this because I know I would not have stood, would not have applauded. In no way am I seeking to trivialize or denigrate Ms. Owens grief, nor will I criticize or comment on her willingness to attend the event as the President’s guest. As background we have read about her father-in-law’s refusal to greet the president when Trump and his daughter went to pay respects to Owen’s body as it arrived at Dover Air Force Base.  “I told them I didn’t want to make a scene about it, but my conscience wouldn’t let me talk to him,” Owens said. He asked that his son’s death not be used to hide the truth.

Ms. Owen’s grief is real and her struggle to maintain her dignity brave. Perhaps the wave of applause and the president’s words comforted her and validated the canard that her husband did not die in vain. Ryan Owen’s father’s grief and anger are no less valid, however, given what we know (or don’t know) about the success of the mission. People grieve in different ways, to which they are entitled.

I understand, however, those who did not stand. As I watched the televised display of enforced patriotic feeling and human sympathy, I was angry and embarrassed. Trump wielded Ms. Owens’s grieving presence as a cudgel to force a public reaction that validates his claims of a successful mission that justified an American hero’s death.

There was, of course, no mention of the nine children killed during the botched mission. American lives matter; the children were collateral damage.  Trump insisted again that the raid secured valuable intelligence that will save many more lives; there are convincing reports to the contrary. The appalling truth is that Trump’s exploitation of Ms. Owens’ grief created a tsunami of sentiment that obfuscates rational critique. Perhaps those Democrats who refused to be manipulated into ringing applause realized that Trump was hearing approval for himself, his decision to approve the mission, and his pledges of safety for the American people. As he nodded and looked from side to side to survey who was applauding, that self-satisfied smirk widened. The most telling signal that Trump remains obsessed with the size of demonstrations of approval came as he bragged, as though he were citing crowd or poll numbers, “ And he’s [ Ryan Owens] very happy, because I think he just broke a record.”  That remark is exploitation taken to its callous extreme: suggesting that record breaking applause can make a dead soldier and his grieving widow “happy.” To those who chose not to join the cast of Trump’s melodrama, I say they acted with personal integrity.  Sometimes one cannot heave one’s heart up and out in response to an emotionally manipulative demand from an emotionally stunted and dishonest man, however elevated his status.

 

 

 

A Valentine Poem

Valentine in the Snow

 

What if I fill a bucket

with paint or blood

pull on my tall boots

and wade out

into the back yard

where thigh high snow

gleams whiter than white

dimpled with rabbit tracks

freckled under the feeder

with hulls of sunflower seeds?

 

Carefully I’d tip

the bucket to pour

like maple syrup

a thick and steady stream

with which to draw

into the snow

a huge lopsided heart

with a little curled flick

at its bottom vee.

 

I’d have to walk

my way all around

the perimeter of the scarlet

that could be seen

by passengers on planes

and birds en route

to the feeder

the chickedees and red polls

and one cardinal one day.

 

I guess no one would see

me splash my crimson cry

against the black and white

and endless winter

Even so I think I’d lie right down

in the center of that heart

a performance artist

shivering out a message

in the Adirondack snow.