Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Driving Toward the Angel of Death

After my sister's death, collecting some of the pieces I wrote during the 30 months of her decline.  Here's one:

Close to midnight in the sickly airport light, the driver rushes out to greet us, huge bearded man with taqiyah and caftan and a hand-drawn sign.  We straggle gratefully behind him to the big black car.

We start with pleasantries:  how he got here and how life is in Detroit, and how it was some greater good that brought our unexpected call when we missed our connection and when he needed the work.

Somehow, it gets to my dying sister and how we have to rush to her side.

And then he says, the Angel of Death knocks on my door every day.  And repeats, the Angel of Death knocks on my door every day, but then it's not my day.  Some day it will be and I will have to open that door.  I tell my children, get ready, the Angel of Death knocks on your door every day, too.

In the back seat, frazzled from hours of turbulence at 36,000 feet and a missed flight and facing a fast run to what might be my sister's demise, I reach for my husband's hand.

At first the driver's rap amuses, but then it sours.

The Angel of Death knocks on everybody's door every day, the sonorous driver continues, but most of the time it doesn't come in.  It's not your day.

I draw toward my husband's body warmth and try to find his eyes in the fast-moving dark as we swerve north onto 23.  I am night blind but eventually I find my husband's eyes, shining, alert, and he looks at me and I understand he sees me back.  The Muslim guy moves on to the story of Joseph in the Quran, a story I know well from my childhood Old Testament Days, and decades and centuries fall away, the fear-filled Sinai desert and the prophets mixed up with my mother's lap after dinner in a Midwest parsonage.  How I followed along, my own finger tips learning the darkest human tragedies from a picture book, took it all in through the skin and eyes and my mother's hymnal voice.

And yet I am still here, too, the driver's drummed-in account weaving way beyond the Angel of Death, droning ancient conspiracies and dreams and rescues, and Michigan's cold roads slide unseen beneath us, pushing us home to an uncertain night.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Eating Papaya at My Writing Table



Autobiography isn't necessary.  History wants in all the time, like the way I put my great-grandmother's silver spoon in this shot. I wasn't actually eating with it.  I'd first just grabbed a regular one from the regular drawer but then I got into a spirit.  Complications ensuing.   Want to celebrate the moment.  See how the papaya looks on that plate. I love that plate, its merry colors, totem of abundance.  Remember when I bought that plate, its set -- and then --

Oh lord, there comes the first husband, and the dying parents, and that day in Ohio, one of a thousand days of grief, guilt and sorrow.

Back to The Moment, please.  See how beautiful is that silver spoon.  Yes, evidence of bygone elegance, something of loveliness and pleasure after all those other stories, to the contrary.  The why of my persistent desire.

Back to The Moment.  Gentle, ripe papaya  with black seeds on a beautiful plate.  Scooping a mouthful with a silver spoon --

-- how I used to buy papaya at the market in Tonga decades ago -- we all loved it, it was cheap and sweet --  and once one of the other volunteers ate so much the palms of his hands turned orange.

The Moment will not stay put.

Getting up and backing away.  Looking again:  from here, you see a different moment:  things less artful, the cords, a glass of juice, the mug of tea, the phone -- less order now.




And backing away.  And looking again at this corner I've made, readied for what I hoped would happen.  A room I love with a blessed bed.   Love and color and light.



And coming back.  The gentle, ripe papaya with black seeds on a beautiful plate.  Does it need my great grandmother?  Ex-husband?  That guy with the orange palms in long ago Tonga?

Okay, ubiquitous memory, devil and angel and pride and melancholy and muse, I let you in.  And then I come back.

The gentle, ripe papaya with black seeds on a beautiful plate.  The Moment I'm in.





Affirming

A sunny Sunday morning.  Backdrop of robins and wrens, chattering and eliding, crisscrossed arias from the tops of maples.  Solitude in the house where sunbeams nudge away doldrums.

Almost forgot how to get started.  It is curious how a woman who has always limned herself "writer," would resist this actual moment, the moment of sitting down.  Opening up.  Typing the first words.  Turning inward.

Of course that's it:  the layered mix of risk and self-esteem.  Which will win -- the loneliness that feeds lackadaisical avoidance or the propellers of self-love, belief and hope?

Stay tuned.  This feels good.




Sunday, November 06, 2011

You Can't Dance with Architecture. But Still...

Today was proofing day at East Village Magazine, meaning that I showed up at 4:30-ish to read my column (copied below) on the table at Gary's cluttered office on Second Street. And to make my little edits. I found only one thing I wanted; I wanted the word "interesting" italicized. Gary says he CAN do anything I request. Whether he WILL is another matter. I love the scraggly-bearded Rip Van Winkle of East Village, who sleeps on a desk in the back of his store-front and for 35 years has been working 14-hour days, seven days a week to get his little paragon of community journalism out.

As I've noted many times before, one feature of proofing day is that Gary sets out a bottle of Bushmills, along with my proof and a pen, and a chipped cup. He knows I like a finger or two when I'm editing. It is one of the high points of my month. We sit there and argue over writing and I drink a couple of fingers and ask him to pour just another finger or so, and we talk about stuff that we both remember. No matter how depressed I am in the morning, by the time I've had a couple of slugs of Irish and an hour or so of conversation with my friend Gary, I feel better about life. Tonight it had to do with John's Mini-Mart, a stop-and-rob that used to sell beer and lottery tickets and bad junk food next to the EVM office. It was torn down and leveled years ago, and now there's just some desultory grass there. But when I lived in my first Flint digs, a walkup on Avon Street right across the street from Gary's family homestead, John's "mini-rip" was a big neighborhood hangout. John, a broad-bellied white-haired con man, used to be a friend of mine, and I'd go over there a lot to buy beer, cheap wine, boxes of mac and cheese, and lottery tickets.

Tonight I told Gary my old house on Seventh Street is vacant. It makes me sad: I lived there for 15 years with my first husband, a wonderful poet and the man with whom I once thought I would live forever. I once thought we would be literary lights and thrive and prosper. For a time, it came true. But something went wrong. We disappointed each other. Booze came between us like a rude mistress, not to mention that when it came down to it there were lots of ways in which we struggled to connect. There is no way to write about this without being overcome by melancholy, by the lingering grief that comes with a relationship that went awry.

But that house...I loved that house. Everything I feel about that house has to do with my first husband, and my hopes for a life of poetry, and a deeply embedded love of romance.

I told Gary I'd just discovered the house was vacant -- a victim of what's going on in this town and has been going on everywhere in the country lately. After my first husband and I divorced he sold the place, capitalizing luckily on a decent market just before the bubble burst. I was happy for him -- I had abandoned my claim to the house out of the guilt of my escape. But the new owners eventually foreclosed. For the first time in its 92-year history, the house is empty.

Gary always says "you can't dance with architecture," meaning, I guess, that some kinds of art defy analysis. He's probably said that to me about two dozen times. I always nod and agree, though half the time I don't know what the hell this actually means. I just googled it again, and it looks like Martin Mull might have said something like that back in the '80s...but actually I think it goes back to about 1918. Gary probably knows and will tell me eventually.

Anyway, even though Gary says you can't dance with architecture, I am very susceptible to buildings. That place at 942 E. Seventh Street is in my heart, in my memory, in my soul -- whatever that is. It hurts me that it's vacant. As Neil Young said in "Helpless," it feels like "All my Changes were there." I'm going to take a break now to think this through more, and then I'll come back to it.

...So, after I left EVM I turned onto Second Street, and then onto Crapo, and then to Court, where I had my turn signal on to turn left to go to the house I live in now, in the nicely manicured and upper-class neighborhood known as "The College/Cultural Neighborhood." We have a big sign and everything announcing this. But when I got down to the light at Crapo and Court, I looked in my rear view mirror to see if anybody was behind me. There wasn't. So I turned right instead, going up the hill to the light at Court and Avon, and turned left. I turned left off of Court at that light for 15 years -- it was so habitual that for about three years after I left I used to turn left there without even thinking about it, coming and going for other reasons. My body and brain thought I still lived in my old neighborhood years after I left. I would go down Avon to Seventh and turn left again. My old house was the last one on the right at the dead end of Seventh. There is a brick gate into a mansion at the dead end. My old house is a solid gray stucco place on the right, NOT a mansion but a lovely, solid square place. An immense maple still arches over the front yard -- a tree I'd written poems about for years, a tree that turns gold every fall and used to send brilliant light for a week or so every October into the second floor master bedroom where my first husband and I slept together for years. This is all I can say now. The memory of that tree, that brilliance, that bedroom where we cleaved and cleaved, is all I can handle at the moment. I have to take another break.

So...I went down to the dead end of Seventh and pulled into the driveway, on the first night after the time changed and it was already dark. The maple tree was leafless, and a three-quarter moon overhead glinted silver into the yard I'd spent many years in.

In a way, it's a gift that the place is deserted. Now I can stop and be there. I used to go by there from time to time, usually when I'd had a drink or two, and sneak a look, but it always felt a bit invasive. Were the new people happy there, where my own life as a poet had flowered? Where my life as a wife had foundered? The place always looked nice. But now there is a sign on the mailbox that says, "Vacant. No Mail" and a paper on the door that says it's managed now by a "Five Brothers" company in another county. I know that because I parked my car in the driveway and audaciously walked up the walk and climbed up the three steps to the front door. After staring at the depressing signs, I turned around and sat on the top step of the porch. I spent many hours on that front porch. Here is a poem I wrote on that front porch once:

Smoking on the Porch, Winter Night

I want just this moment of flagrance.

Breath mingling with smoke, smoke with

breath, no difference. I am on fire and

the sweet air snuffs me. I am beeswax

stolen from church. Leave me alone.

It takes eight minutes to smoke each one.

All eight stretch to my fingers’ tips.

I lift up, up to the relief

of oaks and that recumbent moon. Who

is that woman smoking on the porch?

She is a timer for a small death.

She chugs knifey air like whiskey

to compose herself. She solicits

the blues. She gets itchy waiting, wrapped

in smoke and her good black wool.


Okay, I've reached another moment where I have to stop writing. More later.

Give This Old Woman Some Air

Make way, step aside, back up, get the smelling salts…and give this poor woman some air. This poor…old woman.

Yes, your friendly neighborhood writer is feeling a bit weak in the knees right now, a bit dizzy and faint. I might need to plunk down, right here on the floor, among you.

Here’s why: as of Nov. 14, I qualify for Social Security.

So I’m officially elderly. I’ve seen it coming. I’ve been spurning invites from the AARP for ten years and even though I’ve been ripping up the packets and stuffing them into the trash, the calendar is winning. As I wrote last month, my arches have collapsed and my bunions have set up their own rogue government. My grey hair insistently pushes out the “Red-brown #6” judiciously administered by Esteeve, my Pico Rivera stylist. My neck rivals Nora Ephron’s. I’ve got age spots and a menagerie of bumps and flaps suggesting my skin has been on the planet too long. My tri-focals keep getting thicker, prosthetics for myopia, presbyopia and some other –opia I can never remember. And while I’m at “remember,” what was it I was going to say next? I forget. Has anybody seen my cell phone?

I’m not just old enough to be my students’ mother, but now their grandmother. My allusions to Talking Heads and Twin Peaks, to name just two items from my moldy pop culture baggage, are so unknown to my students I feel like a lumbering brontosaurus.

What has been occurring to me about old age, though, is not so much how my body is falling apart, but how my dreams are faring.

The other day I was recalling the first time I traveled overseas. It was 1974 when I flew alone into Athens, Greece, where I arrived in the middle of a coup. I holed up taking bubble baths in an overpriced hotel until things calmed down and I could proceed to the Parthenon and Delphi and eventually Crete. It was exhilarating.

I was driven back then by a focused dream: to get out of Ohio, to get out of my ordinary life, to flex my choices, to be interesting as I thought of it back then. That energy propelled me through many more adventures: Peace Corps, marriage, more education, many jobs, a lot of writing good and bad.

Perhaps it’s part of the inevitable course of things: my dreams have changed. Now, some mornings I’m just satisfied with waking up. My dream is to sleep with my husband every night and go out for breakfast at Westside Diner. I could give up traveling tomorrow and never miss another TSA frisking, another roller bag. I have enough stories. I have enough material.

Now, I realize, my dreams have to do with my “village,” my neighbors. My dreams have to do with being in a community that is humane, safe, and manageable. I’ve given 30 years of my life to Flint and I have never been more anxious about its survival, as homicides pile up, break-ins plague even my own street, and the city seems unable to stop a spreading failure of the basic human services we need to live peaceable and sustainable lives together.

I see my young neighbors, beloved additions to my recent existence, struggling with life – raising their children, making sense of their careers, making ends meet. I see their exhaustion and worry. I see my students pulsing with the restless energy I once had, and I want them, like me, to have the chance to fly off to Greece if the impulse propels them and have the satisfactions I once enjoyed. I fear that the world is tightening up for them, the country miserly, crimped and divided. I want a better dream for them.

I’ll wrap this up with an actual dream. One night recently I woke up from a deep sleep, finding myself tightly tucked into a fetal position. My husband was in LA and I had a pronounced sense of solitude, not quite loneliness because I was enjoying the warmth of the bedspread and a nest of cushy pillows I’d assembled around myself in the scary darkest hours. As I unfolded my legs and stretched onto my back, the blankets warm under my chin, I savored the reassuring slats of morning light tipping over the rooftops and venerable silver maples of Maxine and brightening the blinds. I love my street, I thought. About Maxine, I’m a conservative: I want it to stay the same forever -- lovely, neighborly and green.

Suddenly I remembered a dream I’d just been having: I was in my apartment – one of those dream creations that bore no relation to my actual house. I had bought a new bed. It was big and lavish, with an ornately curved brass headboard. But where would I put it? Suddenly I realized my digs had a room I’d never noticed – a room I didn’t know was there. When I discovered it, open and empty and with a glowing hardwood floor, light streaming through big windows, delight and relief washed over me. I went and got my husband. Look, Ted, we’ve got another room!

So, my subconscious seems to be saying, there’s some leeway here somewhere, and when the door opens, it’s going to be good, even for an old lady eligible for Social Security.

But I no longer think that room is only for me. It has to have room for everybody. What we put inside should help us build a smarter, more compassionate life.

Oh, there’s my cell phone on the counter where I left it. Can somebody help me find my glasses? Once they show up, I’ll plunge right in to filling that new room. Here’s the thing: making that dream come true might turn out to be a job for the whole village.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

An Ode to Feet

While sitting in a hotel in Washington D.C. waiting for rain to let up, I found myself thinking about my feet -- prompted by yoga and an old photo. And it became my October column for EVM:


Not long ago I ran across an old photo – dried out on the edges, decades before digital – that I’d taken of my own feet.

I remember the moment: I was lounging uncomfortably by an algae-infested pool in a nearly-derelict motel in a seen-better-times town in the redwoods. I was there with my then-boyfriend, a shaggy-haired Californian whose brothers had invested in the fleabag inn, the whole proposition spiked with other shadowy schemes like baggies of pot changing hands behind the tree trunks and afternoons in a mescaline haze.

I was not hippie enough for the scene, feeling my worrywart Ohio roots, a kid up for adventure but fretting about the consequences. I didn’t feel at home with any of those beatniks and they knew it.

So I stationed myself by the only square of honest daylight I could find, where the trees had been cleared to make way for the pool, and I painted my toenails bright red. My camera a reassuring straight girlfriend, I took a picture that grounded me, literally, in an uneasy moment. My feet I could call my own – my body my own territory.

I empathize with that momentarily alienated young woman, finding temporary solace in what she could see and stand on.

Now, of course, the photo also carries an inconvenient reminder: those are young feet, not the bunion-bent, calloused dogs I’m walking around on now. As if I didn’t already see it every time I look in the mirror, the photo is evidence – time marches on.

But I appreciate the feet I have, even today.

It’s odd, isn’t it, to have these protuberances so far away from our eyes, these odd bony tootsies we have to encase in cotton and leather every day to keep us moving through the world?

They are remarkable. Each one, a quick Google search confirms, has 26 bones, 33 joints, 107 ligaments,19 muscles and 19 tendons. They can saunter, jump, run, dance, twist, turn, grab, slide, and even moonwalk. They respond hilariously to tickling and sometimes, despite their silly appearance, participate in, um, the occasional ménage a paws. (Stop groaning --I’m trying to protect the children).

Some people are ashamed of their feet. In yoga class the other day, where bare feet are required, a newbie said, “I’d rather not” when the teacher sternly ordered off the socks. She gave her a one-class pass, but we know she’ll eventually have to give in – we all do, unmasking our pale and naked soles.

My feet have long simian toes – both of my husbands claim – not at the same time, you understand, that I could play piano with my monkey feet. Until my inherited bunions made both big toes crowd into the others, I liked how my feet looked, the only place in my otherwise zaftig architecture you could find a touch of svelte legginess.

Most of my life I’ve simply taken my feet for granted, unless I stoved a toe into a bedpost or stuffed them into ridiculous high heels.

It’s only since yoga came into my life that I’ve come to bless my feet. There’s a pose called tadasana, the first step toward the standing poses that I find very challenging. Basically you stand up straight, your legs together and your arms stretched out, palms facing outward at your sides.

It seems like a simple pose, but like so much in yoga, it isn’t. There’s the whole question of balancing the feet. Spread out your toes, Rachelle orders. Balance the balls of your feet! Place your weight evenly on your heels! Be aware of the outsides of your feet! Roll your outer ankles in!

Her steady stream of pelted imperatives mystified me at first. My ankles have an “outer” and “inner” to think about? I have to spread my toes from the outside in? I have to care about those fleshy mounds behind my toes and find an even balance?

Tadasana, so seemingly elementary, still sometimes drives me crazy. I lean invariably to the right, my left foot refusing responsibility like a lazy teen. My weight wants to go to the balls of my feet, my heels gliding up as if ready to pounce – or keel forward.

But one day I started to feel the power in my feet – the remarkable, utilitarian beauty of the body’s design – the possibilities to anchor myself, feel myself grounded, deeply, to the earth.

The first time I felt it – energy arrowing from toe to brain, a flash of love and solidarity, I actually teared up. I could feel my body and mind finally, affectionately, strongly connecting.

I went to the foot doctor, who treated my mangled arches like ladies-in-waiting and started me on the road to better metatarsal health. And when I stand up now I salute the way those many bones and muscles work together. I take tadasana with joyful and attentive gratitude.

So, my feet waited a long time to be acknowledged since that poolside moment in the redwoods. Apparently it’s not too late to cultivate – okay, I waited until the end to say it – a good understanding. Getting old, a person needs to stand up to the world, to the world’s assaults. That begins, it turns out, with those funny looking kids at the end of the legbones, Thank you, feet!

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

I Couldn't Kill the Spider: Remembering 9/11

Oh my, it's been months since I've been here -- I've neglected poor Macy Swain and her electronic life. Well, here I am, slipping back into the blog life, and the occasion is remembering 9/11. This is also available on eastvillagemagazine.org.

I couldn’t kill the spider.

It was pea-sized and black and crawling over the black and white tiles of my Sylvester Manor apartment. I’m not afraid of spiders but I’d never been above smashing them to pieces.


This time was different. It was Sept. 13, 2001, and that week there had been just too much death.

Instead of crushing it, I got the creature to crawl onto the towel, and I gently carted it down the hall and jostled it into the bushes on Court Street. I freed it with aggressive determination: I wanted nothing to do with any killing.


I don’t know why that spider is the image that comes most readily to mind when I think about ten years ago.


Maybe it’s because the other, less metaphorical memories are too hard to take,


That spring and summer I had created my own debacles. In April I sat up in bed in the middle of the night and told my husband of 15 years “I think I’m moving out.” In May a truck from Red’s pulled noisily into our driveway and took half our stuff; my stuff.


That night, shocked and prickly with hope, I sat at the window in Apartment 104 and poured myself a glass of white wine to go with the Cornish game hen I’d baked in my little oven, dinner just for one.


I’d deliberately decided against cable, and throughout those summer months, which I remember as so hot the strongest smell in my rooms was the acrid bubbling asphalt of Wallenberg Drive, I watched movie after rented movie.


I had a new man already who flew in from time to time from Los Angeles. His arrivals were intense – we had loved each other for 25 years, never knowing where the other was – and it was jarring to reclaim our ardor. Daily weeping for my failed past life was a matter of course. I was 51 years old and starting over. It seemed impossible, unadvisable, audacious and naïve.


The last weekend of August my Ohio sister was in a serious auto accident. In the middle of a Labor Day party, I got a call that she was in the hospital and I needed to get there. I shot down to Barberton, where I found her dog, an expensive pure-bred beagle, untended and hungry in the house. She’d peed and pooped anywhere she liked for at least a week. I tried to make sense, yet again, of my sister’s complicated life.


The dog had an open abscess and I got her to the vet. I tried to clean up the house. Outraged at my sister and ashamed of it, I declared I was taking the dog back to Flint. On September 9, I put her in my car and drove back along Interstate 80, stopping every 50 miles to let her pee…she was wild and untrained and made the trip interminable.


My friends Bob and Philip agreed to take her, but when I got her there, she ran away, Bob chasing her up Ridgelawn yelling and yelling. He caught her but it was clear she would never be a lovely pet.


And then it was September 11. That morning I drove to Okemos to see my therapist, full of grief and guilt and anger – about my sister, again, about the debris of my life. On the way back I heard it – after tiring of the orderliness of Mozart’s 12 versions of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, I switched to NPR, where Bob Edwards was announcing that the second tower had just collapsed.


It was a different world from that moment on, was it not? I drove straight to UM – Flint and called my new man. Then I went in to my husband’s office and we hugged, along with everybody else – the electricity of the tragedy overwhelming us and making me wonder if all could be forgiven, reset.


I went to VG’s and bought whiskey, cigarettes, Hershey bars and canned fruit cocktail.


That night, I went to my old house, where my not-yet-ex-husband made comfort food, linguine with marinara sauce, and with four other souls we obsessively watched CNN. There was pot and I smoked it, but it didn’t work – leaving me only more heavily disconsolate.


I’ve often thought that if I’d ever gone to bed with my husband again it would have been that night. But when we hugged goodbye and the question hung in the air, the shock and neediness between us was intolerably raw. I rushed back to Apartment 104.


The dog didn’t work out either. Bob and Philip said they couldn’t handle her. Philip and I took her to the Humane Society on Dort, where she failed her personality test by lunging at an assistant. My husband, who always loved beagles, took her as a stopgap, but she wouldn’t stop barking all night, and he sent me one angry, accusatory email after another. We finally gave her to a student we both knew who had a farm, and the dog roamed freely for three more years before dying a reasonably merciful natural death.


Without cable, I rented The Sopranos, which I’d never seen, and watched every episode, one after the other for three days straight. The opening shot of Tony Soprano chawing that cigar, the Twin Towers in the background,seemed cruelly right, lacerating me with bad news. They’re gone, they’re gone, they’re gone. My marriage was gone, my old life was gone, the world as we knew it was gone.


Life did go on, of course. I found hope in love, and now that LA guy is my second husband. We bought a house on Maxine. I bought a big stone Buddha for the back yard and stones and candles for the windowsills. I wrote a novel, and now I even have a new job. Just like everybody else, I’ve gone on with my life, because that’s what humans do. In fact, recently realizing I’ve been in Flint a full 30 years, I realized with a start that despite all the ups and downs, I am – shhh, don’t tell anybody! – happy here.


I still think about that spider, though – how for that one moment, that one week, we were all aflood with compassion. I wish it could last. I wish – and hope – as human history rolls out beyond us -- that it is the impulse toward love that survives our primal bloody urges. Frankly, at best I think it’s a fifty-fifty chance. Absurdly, illogically, nonetheless, I’m banking on the love.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Remembering Hazel Dickens at Flint

Here's my new column for East Village Magazine:

This week I remembered a thrilling Flint moment.

It was March 22, 1990, and in the UM-Flint Theater, bluegrass singer Hazel Dickens stood in a spotlight on the stage and sang her powerhouse elegy Black Lung a capella. Her four-man backup band waited, reverently idle, behind her. Sitting alertly in about the tenth row, nervous because I had been in charge of getting her there, I felt the hairs stand up on the back of my neck as her haunting plaint echoed out:

"Black lung, black lung, you're just biding your time
Soon all this suffering I'll leave behind.
But I can't help but wonder what God had in mind
To send such a devil to claim this soul of mine..."

It was a hell of a show.

And when Dickens died recently at 75 of pneumonia in her adopted hometown of Baltimore, I felt as if something essential, someone passionately essential, had left us.

Her visit was part of how I came to a deeper, more vivid understanding about the significance of the country's labor struggles and history — particularly in my own adopted hometown, gritty old Flint.

I wanted to remember all the details of her Flint visit.

Dickens' appearance was part of UM-Flint's Women's History Month. In only my third year at UM-Flint, I was the coordinator of what was then called the Adult Resource and Women's Center. We invited Dickens, along with the amazing Bernice Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey and the Rock, to perform.

As I recall it, there was one long set by each of these astonishing singers.

Our funding for that event came from the Ruth Mott Fund. We were very grateful for it, including the Ruth Mott Fund's last minute willingness to pay for Dicken's superb backup band. Two of them were Barry Mitterhoff on mandolin and Tony Trischka on banjo, and I think the other two were Dudley Connell and Ronnie Simpkins.

(Thanks to Paul Gifford, UM-Flint Library archivist, for helping me recoup some of these details.)

I remember a buzz in the hall as Ruth Mott, 89, appeared and was ushered into a seat in the front row.

Dickens, a West Virginia native then 55 and a longtime advocate for the rights of the working man and woman, requested just one thing on her few off hours in Flint.

She wanted to see the site of the Sit Down Strike.

I drove her to what was left of Fisher Body Plant 1, and pulled the car over just in front of the historical plaque that never seems like enough of a tribute to what happened there.

She asked for a moment.

We got out of the car. She read the plaque and then looked up at the building, gazing at its rows of windows where workers hung on, during weeks of drama in the national spotlight, from Dec. 30, 1936 to Feb. 11, 1937. The outcome was earth shattering — a one-page memo recognizing the UAW as the bargaining agent for the General Motors employees.

I suddenly realized Dickens was crying. She stayed there for a while and then got back into the car. She was quiet the rest of the way back to her hotel.

Her heartfelt respect for Flint's history and struggles powerfully affected me — and I have never forgotten it.

As the readers of this column know well by now, my relationship with Flint has always been charged with ambivalence, and I well know I am not the only one.

Part of that, obviously, is Flint's complicated labor history. Through my years here I have gradually learned what this means.

When I came here I knew nothing about labor history, even less about Flint's role in it. I had never heard of the Sit Down Strike.

But by 1998, eight years after Hazel Dickens' visit, during UAW strike against General Motors that started here in Flint, my sense of this town's difficulties had taken an elegiac turn.

In a commentary broadcast back then on Michigan Radio, I said: "There's an old French custom. When a loved one dies, friends stand at the grave, shouting curses at the corpse. That's sometimes how it feels to live in Flint."

But in that commentary I described how I finally found myself on the workers' side.

Later, I helped advocate for and organize the Lecturer Employees Union for nontenure track faculty at UM-Flint.

Flint has indelibly marked me.

There are some things that should not be forgotten. Here we are in another moment when the country seems to be turning its back on its labor history — the significance of the labor movement shaped with raucous and audacious energy partly by the working men and women of Flint. It seems like a long time since those workers' hopes and idealistic aspirations forced the Boss Man to recognize them.

Many things improved for workers after the Sit Down Strike. But things are worse now for the working man and woman than in 1990, when Hazel Dickens came to Flint. She knew justice requires continual vigilance and tending, and had continued faithfully to sing and advocate for workers right up to her death.

Another stanza of Black Lung goes like this:

“He went to the bossman but he closed the door/Oh, it seems you’re not wanted when you’re sick and you’re poor/Your not even covered in the medical plan/ and your life depends on the favors of man.”

Hazel Dickens told it like it was — in the minefields of West Virginia and right here on the stage of UM-Flint. The truths her mountain voice sang out so gorgeously are needed today more than ever.

We will miss her.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Freedom

I woke up this Easter Sunday irritated by academia. I'm thinking specifically about how part of the reaction to my quest to get a shot at a tenure track job last year turned toward ridicule: some of my esteemed colleagues ridiculed me for my column in East Village Magazine, a 35-year-old "neighborhood newsletter" for which I've been providing back-page prose for four years. How embarrassingly naive and parochial of me to assert that my writing for EVM was something to be proud of, something to offer up to my colleagues as evidence of my value for their precious position. How bush-league of me to point out that EVM has more readers than most literary magazines -- though my readers, who've been avid and attentive, have far less lofty pedigrees than academia demands. How incompletely professionalized and myopically amateur I was, to ask the publisher of EVM, Gary Custer, to write me letter of recommendation. My friends have endured my ruminations on this matter repeatedly over the last year, and contrary to what some of them think, I don't particularly care, nor did I take my stab at tenure naively. It was aggressive, at heart, and I'm not very surprised about the results. As I recently told the ultimately successful candidate for the position, I tried to push my colleagues into acting like another species, as if a giraffe could be an octopus.

Also, I am long in the tooth. Ted and I heard the phrase on NPR this morning, and Ted said it refers to old lions, whose teeth lengthen with the years. I am then a toothy old lioness, crabby and demanding and still periodically driven by hopes new and old. I'm not a writer for the young; my concerns are neither glamorous nor hip. I'm dreading getting old and I'm preternaturally observant of my body's varied declines. I like knowing something about my community from 30 years of it. I enjoy thinking about things that happened at the halfway point of the last century. I'm doing more remembering past adventures than generating new ones.
I've occasionally thought that my indirections and inward-looking observations make ripe fruit for parody. I could parody my writing myself, before some young wag beats me to it. Not that there are many young wags left in Flint who'd notice.

Anyway, this is a long introduction to savoring my freedom. For about the 45th time, I'm embarking on writing my next column, and it strikes me that I really am free to write whatever I want. What does it matter? There is nothing to stop me from being whoever I am on the page, and today this carbonating freedom pleases me immensely. We're making mimosas later, using our new juicer. The finches are gold again; maybe we can sit out on the porch. I wonder where the day will take me.