Packing list for the coming year
Packing list for the coming year
For the journey ahead
I will need supplies.
clean dry socks to prevent blisters
a cozy hat to keep my head warm
layers for cold days and hot.
A good supply of trail mix
some crunchy, salty bits
soothing coconut flakes.
And of course, some company
chatty and quiet
urgent and calm.
A marching song
One step and then another.
Hoping for fresh water every few miles.
My last first day of classes
And so my last semester begins. I am retiring at the end of the term, after over forty-two years in the classroom, all but a year and half at the university of Maryland. Yes, I have mixed feelings, but mostly I am looking forward to my next chapter, which I hope involves more writing and fewer citations, more teaching and less grading, and more community and collaboration but fewer formal meetings.
I want to take this semester slowly and savor it. I want to compare it with my beginnings (which I reflected on obsessively in my written journals long ago). The “slow" part has taken care of itself — a case of bronchitis turned into pneumonia a few days ago, so I am under doctor’s orders to take it easy for the next several weeks. That should give me time to think, and the physical demands of writing are light. I will take the diagnosis as a gift, and settle in.
More to come.
Hidden Figures and Untold Stories
I saw Hidden Figures yesterday with a group of friends, and was blown away. The performances and the production design were spectacular, but it was the story that stayed with me. There were so many layers of intertwined stories, big and small, each told as carefully and lovingly as the other. There were happy stories (Katherine’s relationship with Joe) and stories that inspired (Mary’s struggle to become an engineer). There were thrilling stories that kept you on the edge of your seat, even though you knew how it would end — John Glenn just died in 2016, so clearly he survived near-disaster in 1961. And there were many, many sad and disturbing stories, most of them about the daily race-infused exchanges that characterized life in America fifty-five years ago.
I lived my own little stories in that time, as did any truthful American alive in the 1960s. On Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, we like to tell the big, familiar, uplifting stories, but maybe it is time to share the hidden ones. Here is one of mine.
In the fall of 1965, my small rural high school in western Connecticut was host to two African American "exchange" students who came up from Alabama. I realized much later that it must not have been much of an exchange, because no one from my school went down to Alabama. One of the boys had a great time -- prom king, all kinds of yearbook superlatives. The other — Ronald, quiet and bespectacled, had more trouble fitting in. He was in some of my classes, and we sometimes talked about school and books. In late September, there was a sock hop at the school, and Ronald and I danced three times -- fast dances, like the Pony, which was one of my favorites. But then he asked me to slow dance. I told him I didn’t know how. What I really didn't know how to do, at 16, was anything that my peers would have remotely frowned upon -- like slow dancing with a "colored boy".
There were so many times in Hidden Figures where someone explains, “That’s just the way it is”. Sometimes it’s said with a sense of comfort and justification, sometimes an uneasy apology. Sorry, Ronny. I really wanted to dance with you, but I was too chicken. And that is “just the way it was”. Some days I feel like I have traveled light years since then; some days I am not so sure. But I am working on it, every day.
Home, always out of reach
"If you don’t leave home, you suffocate, if you go too far you lose oxygen."
-- Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story
The words blew me away. I was taking a break from the painstaking task of course preparation, relaxing with a cup of coffee and Gornick's book about the personal narrative. It was a relief to be just reading something without looking for an answer, something I just don't do often enough. Her description of Harry Crews' essay "Why I Live Where I Live" was interesting, even engaging in a comfortable detached way. It was about Crews, not about me. We could not be more different, Harry Crews and I. He hails from the Georgia swamps; I am from the high, dry plains of Nebraska. He lives in Florida; Prince George's county, Maryland is as far south as I have ever lived or wanted to live.
But then he described his writing life and how his home in Gainesville gives him "a kind of geographic and emotional distance I need to write", and Gornick translated: "If you don’t leave home, you suffocate, if you go too far you lose oxygen." And I started to cry.
I just spent nearly a month in a place no longer my home, writing every day with focus and passion. Since I've been back, I have shifted from desk to chair to dining room table and from one coffee shop to another, trying to recapture the feeling I had there. I don't want to be tied to a place or a time of day or a ritual to be able to write. I want to be close enough to "home" but not too close.
The problem is that I have no sense of "home", and the emptiness of that realization hit me hard. Unlike Crews, "home" for me has no fixed location.Forty years in Maryland, and when people ask where I'm from, they get a five-minute answer. My writing has flourished not in some place with a mappable relationship to a long-time homeland, but in far-flung locations with seemingly nothing in common: the porch on Star Island, a slope overlooking the St. Lawrence River, the lounge car of a moving train, a coffee house in a small town. I am grateful for each of these places and the many others I have yet to discover. But I will never be home.
Over the last week, I have been revising my materials for the two courses I will be teaching this spring. One of them -- Fashion and Consumer Culture -- has required only the usual tinkering. Change the dates on the syllabus, shift and update a few readings, make minor updates on the website, and it's good to go. The other course has turned out to be a challenging mess, and one I thought at least some of my readers would enjoy hearing and thinking about.
I woke up several times last night, with a stuffy nose and then a sore throat. This suggests I am cultivating another cold. Delightful. But I also lay awake for a while each time, being anxious about the upcoming Reign of Terror that seems inevitable with Donald Trump in the White House and a Congress dominated by the worst of modern American conservatism.
I used to admire conservatives, and even toyed with the idea of identifying myself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal. The problem, of course, is that I had no idea exactly what "fiscally" conservative even meant. I just re-read George Lakoff's excellent book Don't Think of an Elephant, in which -- among other things -- he describes the various progressive subtribes. There are the environmentalists, for example, with whom I have friendly alliances, but there was one tribe I instantly recognized as my own. I am a civil rights progressive. Civil rights are my political priority, my motivating cause. I wonder if I could find allies among non-Democratic voters? Libertarians, for sure, though I do not agree with all of their positions. Once upon a time the GOP cared about civil rights --when they were the "party of Lincoln", as many love to point out. But lately it seems their passion for civil rights has shriveled to something much less than "all men are created equal, etc.". The right to bear arms is important, but not if you are Black. The "right to life" is sacred for embryos and fetuses, but not for poor children, or women, or people needing health care or clean water. Voting rights? Not if you are going to vote against Republicans. Religious freedom? For Christians, yes, but not Muslims or (horrors!!) atheists. That may be an unfair characterization, but it is the face they present in their rhetoric and policies. What else can I do but take them at their word, and judge them by their actions?
My activism in the coming year (at least) will be focused on civil rights, especially voting rights. Is it too much to hope that I can find a nonpartisan community where we can work together?