BACK IN CHICAGO…

BACK IN CHICAGO...

The ability to love everyone starts with children. We are blank slates. We see the world bathed in equality—until, as we grow, we begin to become aware of differences. Or they are pointed out to us. Regardless, there is always hope.

In a world where we are truly now a global nation, where we could look like the United Nations, differences should not be an issue.

But there is something in an individual’s DNA that makes them cling to those first times when we see differences or feel different or are taught to claim a difference. Why? I don’t have an answer. 

EVERYONE HAS SOME PREJUDICE 

There are people on this earth who claim that they have no prejudices. That everything in their purview is equal. I say, that’s impossible. Maybe you are or have always been comfortable with the differences that exist in humanity regarding skin color. Awesome. Wonderful. But I proport there isn’t a person walking this earth that isn’t prejudiced in some way. And it may be as simple as food choices.

Because life is about choice and within each of us is some small voice telling us that THIS is better than THIS. It just depends on what we are talking about. But we must be honest.

HOW PREJUDICE BEGINS 

As a child, I lived on the southside of Chicago. But—in a neighborhood that was all white. The people of color I knew were few. There was Jenny, the Sioux Native American who cared for us when we were very young. (read here). And there were the two Black women who cleaned and ironed for us. (read: here.)

OPENING MY EYES

But what did I notice as I grew up in Chicago? (I am doing my best to be honest.)

  • That all our neighbors, the people who worked in stores, the kids in school, the people in church, our doctors—they were all white.
  • That when my mother drove me through neighborhoods to downtown Chicago (before the city built the Dan Ryan Expressway, which was geographically laid out to separate many Black neighborhoods from white ones) that the sidewalks were crowded with people walking; that there were people missing limbs, people in wheel chairs, maybe even people who had lost hope. READ: people who had to rely on public transportation; people without good healthcare. People who lived in food deserts and healthcare deserts. Please note that in certain decades THE CAR was everything. This was before we began to look on public transportation as a positive way to travel. I did live three blocks from the Rock Island train that zipped my mother into Chicago for her job. From that train, I could look out upon housing, old apartments, yards bare of grass, sometimes filled with trash… Okay—poverty.

What did I notice during my years of education?

  • Well, I’m certain I would never have looked around for a Black child in my grade school. That possibility wasn’t even on our radar. There were two girls in my class whose skin was actually tan all year long: read, darker than mine. Damn, that I noticed that. Is there something in our DNA that points that out?
  • But after high school, working in the city every summer in downtown Chicago, the variety of people along the sidewalks was fascinating.

What did I notice off and on just living and working in Chicago and its suburbs?

  • That even though I was white, there were sales women in high-end stores that were not interested in helping me return a blouse or search for a size. Because prejudice can move through all tribes—I obviously wasn’t dressed in a way that indicated my buying power. That memory still stings. But GET OVER IT, You Privileged White Woman.
  • That working in an integrated high school in Chicago Heights, Illinois and then much later working as an RN at Mercy Hospital in the Bronzeville area of Chicago, were some of the best years of my life. If there was some ignorant, leery, unsure person hidden inside me—those career choices made me push her aside.

MY FIRST JOB INTERVIEW 

“Some of our students have knives,” the Superintendent of the high school where I was interviewing told me. I needed the job. I said that was okay. I spoke out of ignorance. What did I know about dealing with a student who might be carrying a knife? I learned to be open and caring of all my students. Was I lucky? Yes. But there were so many students throughout my teaching years that showed me their humanity.

It was the same at Mercy Hospital when I first started working in maternity. I might be nervous walking into a room to help a stranger deliver her child. But the bond of the female species, of motherhood, of helping someone in pain—damn, humanity was flowing through those rooms and continued to do so.

NOTE: It is 2021, and thank God, Mercy Hospital, that will always serve minority families, was saved from the wrecking ball. But close by in Bronzeville, Michael Reese Hospital did not survive. (read: Life and Death in Englewood by Linda Villarosa, New York Times.) 

WHEN THINGS CAME TOGETHER–FOR ME

“Gresham went over night.” You would have to live in Chicago (or maybe a different urban city) to know what THE HELL that means. Translation: the white folks moved out and the Black folks moved in. THIS IS OUR HISTORY. It’s Chicago’s history and it is the history of many cities in this country. It is wrong. 

Other terms are contained in one blistering sentence (a friend said this): “Yes, for sure there is gentrification going on in that neighborhood, cause they are getting rid of the slum.”

Definition of Slum: a densely populated usually urban area marked by crowding, run-down housing, poverty, and social disorganization. 

Actual Definition: an area of a city where people unable to find good-paying jobs are forced to live. And regarding history, people of color are forced to live there, a place where houses are abandoned because of job loss; stores and hospitals close. When I grew up, the hospital where I was born was a quick drive away. I took that for granted. Again, from a recent article in the New York Times: Now you drive through communities like Englewood and see empty lot after empty lot…  And I recently learned that the south suburbs of Chicago do NOT have a trauma center. They have hospitals, but not a trauma center. The trauma center is   Christ Advocate Trauma Center which is three miles from me, within the city limits. 

EDUCATING MYSELF BY READING…

There was James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, Alice Walker. But now there is Ta-Nehisi Coates. Thanks to my daughter-in-law, I read BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME. Then I read WE WERE EIGHT YEARS IN POWER, which wasn’t just about the Obama era, but about Reconstruction, the freedoms initially given to freed people of color and then taken away. The continuation of brutality, of lynching and home burning. The device of red-lining which is to refuse (a loan or insurance) to someone because they live in an area deemed to be a poor financial risk. Short version, because they are Black. 

When Black folks left the South, looking for employment and better lives for their families, white men devised ways to isolate them in run-down neighborhoods, to prevent the breadwinner of the family from getting ahead. White people have always been able to get ahead by buying a home for their family, which provides them with shelter, but also the possibility of increasing their initial investment.

Getting ahead is the key to everything, for everyone. In America, each one of us should have that chance.

But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms

Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?              

From Kitchenette Building by Chicago Black poet, Gwendolyn Brooks

PS Fighting prejudice must be an ongoing but oh so worthy effort. 

Photo: Monument in Bronzeville, Chicago, Illinois. Honoring the World War I 8th Regiment of the Illinois National Guard.

Ava DuVernay Talks to Barack Obama about A PROMISED LAND

Ava DuVernay Talks to Barack Obama about A PROMISED LAND

Our 44th president, Barack Obama, recently spoke with Ava DuVernay about the publication of his book A PROMISED LAND. The first of two volumes.

This event was part of the Virtual Community Book Club sponsored by the Los Angeles Times.

Ava DuVernay grew up in Long Beach, CA. Her production of the film A Wrinkle in Time highlighted her being the first Black woman to direct a live-action film. She created the Netflix drama series WHEN THEY SEE US, based on the 1989 Central Park jogger case, when five young black men were accused of rape. The series was nominated for an Emmy and won the Critics’ Choice TV award for best series.

When the discussion began, DuVernay mentioned that she had always appreciated Barack Obama using his honest response I don’t know, when he didn’t have a definitive answer to a question from a news person or anyone interviewing him. This was a great start to their discussion.

DuVernay: What is the most important best step in overcoming our current problems? (note I have shortened some of Obama’s answers, but have not changed his message.)

Obama: In the book, I was tracing the deep-rooted divisions in our society, which came to the fore and maybe were even exacerbated by my election: the fault line of race and the fault line around equal opportunity and class. To me, as a writer and a human, you don’t completely overcome our differences. We are a complicated democracy, there are always going to be clashes of idea, notions of what comprises the good life and how we should organize ourselves in government.

But we can work to see each other’s humanity, understand that we are all deserving of dignity and respect. We can try to resolve those differences.

When I ran in Iowa, there were few Black people, but still we were able to bring together young Black followers, Jews, Asians and whites. We listened to them, eager to know what they needed. We formed bonds and trust in Iowa. It is all part of listening, understanding others.

DuVernay: Tell us about your loss when your first ran for a position in Illinois.

Obama: I can still feel the disappointment, and I asked myself: Why am I doing this? I might have to put aside this dream for something else. A valuable lesson is what you have control over, WHAT YOU DO. But of course, there are lots of variables. I try to be tough on myself if I’ve been lazy or inconsiderate. Things that I can control. And you learn. The sun still comes up. Then I ran for US Senate and it helped when I told myself not to be concerned if I didn’t win. The cause is larger than my success.

DuVernay: Any thoughts on marriage, leadership?

Obama: (laughs) Clean up after yourself. Leadership. How do we learn? Challenge your own assumptions. Understand what your mission is. Reflect on what this is about. Because your decisions are about what your first principles are.

DuVernay: When you were president, how did you deal with difficult problems on your desk:

  1. Know your first principles. 
  2. Have people smarter than you working for you. Remember that you don’t have to be seen as the most important person. 
  3. Your junior staff know a great deal; you are the facilitator. TAKE YOUR EGO OUT OF IT.
  4. And yes, be accountable. Get rid of people who don’t follow those rules, who take ideas of others as their own. There are those who often do that to women.

What would you like to be remembered for?  

Obama: The Paris Climate Accord. To fight Climate change. (then he offered some opinions on this process) Getting elected. Is this about doing what I think is best and long term for the country? Is my goal to get activists off my back or try to solve problems? KNOW YOU FIRST PRINCIPLES. You are going to make decisions that are sub-optimal. Nothing arrives on your desk with the perfect answer.

Then later, a young woman named Grace, calls in, asks Obama specifics about the Paris Accords. 

Obama: Legacy in the context of the presidency–its hard to get distance or perspective. How will this all play out? It might take 20 years. The Paris Accords. You had to take specific actions to reduce Greenhouse gases. It was a big lift, a big achievement. We got China to partner. Then India, even though they stressed that they didn’t cause the problem of greenhouse gases. But we were able to set up the structure. Then my successor pulls out. We are the one county…but it didn’t fall apart. Cities and states continued to adhere to the goals. Car companies followed the rules.

DuVernay: What is something else you would like to be remembered for? 

Obama: It’s hard to gauge. I modeled our leadership that whatever mistakes we made, we showed it was possible for someone elected president to do so without scandal and with a message of inclusion–a government that operates with integrity. Because so many of our problems occur when we don’t have trust in the people in power.

Think about what happened on January 6th, the riots that threatened Congress. We have gone outside the process entirely of whoever gets the most votes. If we set aside those norms, that my tribe will do whatever it takes to overcome the norms, then we will have a hard time coming together, a hard time learning how to listen to each other’s stories.

THANKs to Ava DuVernay and President Obama 

My Comment: I do want to read A PROMISED LAND. I applaud DuVernay for her questions and President Obama for his answers. They give us a look into the book’s content. And President Obama is already working on a second book, continuing this important discussion of his years as POTUS. 

FINAL NOTE: In this first book, he talks about Pastor Moss, an older Black pastor who encouraged Obama when people were saying he couldn’t win. He was being told that he should drop out. The cause belonged to the Clintons. It was likely someone would shoot him. But Pastor Moss lined it up this way: the beginning struggle for Black people in America was the Moses stage. Obama was now leading the Joshua stage. He was bringing all of us closer to A PROMISED LAND. 

 

A VERY Early Encounter with Diversity

 

An VERY Early Encounter with Diversity

The Rosebud Landscape with Horses

While raising my children, I found time to write. No longer working OUTSIDE my home, I would get up early, write before my beauties had arisen. During that time, I started a memoir of my own life. Though my age did not require that decision, my mother was a treasure of memory, information. I needed to mine that knowledge sooner than later. Below is an excerpt from 10055 Wood Street, my memoir. It emphasizes how isolated we were from diversity, from people of color. How singular life was. Thank God for my mother’s open heart, for books, and for travel to the crowded streets of downtown Chicago where the real and true world was growing.

NOTE: In the memoir, SHE is my mother, who became a widow with three children in her early 30’s.

*   *   *

She needs help and so weeks after my father dies, there are borders. Our first is Jenny Mae, a Sioux Indian from South Dakota, who we first meet when she comes out of my bedroom wearing a terrycloth bathrobe. My brothers and I are in the upstairs hallway, the oldest, John, who at his young age knows a little about much, reveals right away that he is disappointed. He was expecting Jenny Mae to appear in feathers and he tells her so. She smiles, a beautiful quiet smile. He explains that he reads, that he has seen Indians on television, and doesn’t she at least have a headdress?

Jenny will live with us for about four years, her major duty being to help take care of the youngest, Bill. He is only three months. 

It was not uncommon in our neighborhood for families to have young Indian women from the Pine Ridge and Rose Bud Reservations working for them. I only learn much later that it’s a mixed blessing for these women, because in that time period, they are paid very little. Sadly, even rather “enlightened” families are eager to take advantage. As she becomes more comfortable with us, Jenny tells my mother that the family she previously worked for had her doing laundry, cooking and cleaning their entire home. And for this she was paid only fifteen dollars a month. Deciding she was done, Jenny packed her things, boarded a train to Ohio to visit her brother, a doctor with a wife and eight children.

But when my father dies, a good friend of our family, Jay Adler, arranges for Jenny to come back to Chicago and work for us. Jay has promised better wages. Yes, my mother will pay Jenny $15.00 a week.

Jenny folds Bill’s laundry, changes him, gives him a bottle, walks him in his buggy. Bill is as blonde as a shot of sunshine, Jenny as dusky as twilight. When people stop, admire her baby, they can’t help but remark that the baby’s father must be blonde. Jenny only smiles and says yes, he is.

But still angry at losing my father, and still very shy—it takes me a while. But when I am more comfortable, I let her hold me, and she talks to me about my dreams. We imagine. We build towers, castles and rose gardens. We make the princes come riding on their horses. Jenny is in her early twenties. Later, I will learn more about Indian reservations, her large family, their poverty, her eagerness to help herself, help her family.

The castles Jenny creates are real to me. The sound of her quivering voice forces these towers to break through piles of clouds. And though I am child and would not know—Jenny’s own dreams are rocky, like the hills of South Dakota.

Lovely and kind Jenny Mae is also intelligent and capable. Later she will leave us, use her long, graceful fingers to become a skilled dental hygienist. She will move to San Diego where she believes her dusky skin will be more accepted. There she will marry a man, Ken from Kentucky. They will have two children, a boy and a girl. But he will drink, call her names, leave her. Jenny will work hard to support her two children, take a bus and a train to come back and visit us, later die in her early fifties.

Back in Chicago, we will get this news, and my mother, always considerate and loving, will try to hold on to the threads of Jenny’s life, keeping in touch with her son and her daughter.

Post Script: We lived in a small community south of Chicago. It was through an acquaintance of my mother’s, a restaurant owner who had lots of “business dealings” going on, that we were able to invite Jenny into our home. Looking back, I smile. The restaurant business can be a tough one. His restaurant was bombed in the 60’s. But during all of this questionable stuff, this man had a large heart. He did much to help Native Americans.

Background Information from the Internet: About the Sicangu Sioux. Rosebud Reservation is home to Sicangu Sioux, one of the seven tribes of the Lakota nation. The Lakota were traditionally the ultimate representative of the Plains Indian culture, with organized bands, dependence on the buffalo for food, clothing, etc. and emphasis on warring and raiding.

Lakota, Dakota and Nakota speakers make up the Siouan language family, which inhabited over 100 million acres of what is now Minnesota, parts of Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century…The Lakota acquired horses around 1740 and shortly thereafter crossed the Missouri River. They arrived in the Black Hills area around 1775, and at about the same time they divided into seven tribes, one of which was the Sicangu. 

History of the Reservation. Under terms of the Ft. Laramie Treaty of 1868, the Lakota were placed on one large reservation that encompassed parts of North and South Dakota and four other states. After defeating the Indian tribes in the Plains Wars of the 1870s, the United States confiscated 7.7 million acres of the Sioux’s sacred Black Hills and created several smaller reservations. The Sicangu were assigned to live on the Rosebud Reservation.

For the rest of her life, my mother did what she could to fund organizations that supported our Native American Communities.

 

Consider History: Yours and that of Others

 

Consider History: Yours and that of Others

As we grow our bodies change. And that reference is not just to our getting to adulthood. We are constantly growing and changing until we aren’t. Until we are dust.

Every day people die. Reading the news, we become complacent, change and often death becoming too familiar.

On the brighter side, moments in our lives present us with the ability to reach out to others, learn about the wider world we live in. The pandemic has accentuated the cocoon, though it also provided a time for us to read widely, talk to people we didn’t previously make time for, look deeper into our own lives, our own health and find gratitude. “Smell the roses” I guess.

OPENING UP is a familiar phrase in the political world we live in. BUT TRULY, it should often apply to us. We need to find ways to OPEN UP to the other: people, ideas, places, vocations, to name only a few.

HISTORY, THE WORD

Looking at the word it truly is    HIS STORY.  Or HER STORY. When you first see a medical professional, that person takes your HX–an abbreviation for HISTORY. A doctor, a nurse, cannot know how to treat you without a history. So it’s not just a word that students often groan and moan about when teachers move on to that subject.

Every day, all of our actions contribute to our own history. We are living it, creating it. And what is happening in the wider world has a profound effect on our lives, whether we consider that or not. RIGHT THIS MOMENT, people are being born who could possibly change the course of our very lives. Or become part of our lives. Truly, the future is a mystery. But our own history is not.

MY INTRODUCTION TO APPRECIATING HISTORY

It wasn’t a teacher putting a book down on my desk. It wasn’t memorizing dates. I became interested in the history of the world outside my home, neighborhood, when a photo of Queen Elizabeth appeared on the cover of LIFE MAGAZINE. I started asking questions about other places, other people. That brought me to the library where I checked out books, taught myself things about English, Spanish and Russian history.

For others, the world with all of its power and frightening change, might have been a sudden death, an accident, a fire, even the loss of a friend who moves away. WHY AM I LISTING THESE THINGS: because they Shake Up the circumstances within which we live. They are CHANGE AGENTS. They force us to look beyond the bedroom, the backyard, the TV set, the public school classroom.

MAKING CHANGE

Each of us is our own history maker. Who knows who will discover another element on the periodic table, or travel to another planet, or discover a medication that will eliminate surgery as the main tool to cure certain cancers.

The world is a wide and wonder–full place. Each of us is our own combination of walking histories. With the power of communication, we have shortened the time needed to educate ourselves about opportunities and advances. That is history IN THE MAKING.

FINAL THOUGHT

I decided to write about this topic when I saw people disregarding the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, people degrading him, taking one or two mistakes in his life and deciding that was his SUM TOTAL. No. It’s not. 99 years is complex. We make mistakes and we do what we can to make up for them. No one of us reading this can incapsulate the 99 years of Prince Philip’s life. We can’t even do that about our aging parent or grandparent. What we can do is read about the span of a life to see how that person responded to change. How that person rose to do good things, better things.

WE ALL HOPE TO BE THE PERSON who uses the gift of life to become a better person, to change, to reach out and be thankful for the opportunity to do so.

WHAT IN YOUR LIFE made you realize that we are only here for a while, that we need to do good things during our lifetime. 

 

Some of The Amazing People I Have Met

Some of The Amazing People I Have Met

We meet many people during our lives. There is often the iconic story of the teacher, doctor, employer who teaches, employs and cares for a young man or woman who goes on to become known in the world: the scientist who creates the polio vaccine; the political activist who becomes a state senator and then president of the United States; the gardener who loves plants and then becomes known for his gardening advice. The writer who wins the Pulitzer.

Every one of you has someone you worked with, met or taught—someone who has gone on to do great things. Maybe that person is you!

Today I’m sharing some of the amazing people I have met who still inspire me to this day.

THE BEGINNING

Born, raised, and completing my education in Chicago—there are hundreds of people during that time in my life who had great influence on me, who loved and encouraged me. Certainly, every member of my loving family. 

BUT WHAT PATHWAY TO TAKE

My biology teacher at Mundelein College saw something in me, called me into her office to underline that I should NOT major in English, become a teacher. I should immediately switch to the sciences, go into medicine. I didn’t listen.

But after teaching high school English at BLOOM TOWNSHIP HIGH SCHOOL (I loved my students) and having my children, I became fascinated with medicine and followed her advice, became a nurse. I worked in the maternity unit at MERCY HOSPITAL in Chicago, assisting pregnant women of all ages and backgrounds. Like teaching, this position opened my vision of life, stressed the importance of understanding all persons in our society.

LIVING IN IOWA EQUALS POLITICS

Then a few years later my husband accepted employment in Des Moines, Iowa—another adventure. Des Moines is the state capital, and because of Iowa’s first in the nation caucus, it is always the center of political activity. My husband and I couldn’t help but become more involved in politics. When HILLARY CLINTON ran, we were sitting in the Drake Dinner at 5:00 in the morning, watching her prepare for interviews on all major stations. We were friends with DR. ANDY McGUIRE, who ran for governor of Iowa, who has been head of the Iowa Democratic party and will always have political blood running in her veins. Through Andy, we met Hillary that morning, and I asked her how she did it all. She teared up. And for those reading who remember a similar episode, this was way before New Hampshire.

SENATOR BARACK OBAMA won the caucuses and I was able to shake his hand during a meet and greet in Des Moines. That’s a huge memory for me. But that event was also fortuitous, as the woman standing next to me was an RN at the Polk County Health Department in Des Moines. I had recently lost the amazing work I had done for Meredith Corporation in Des Moines—(think Better Homes & Gardens, Midwest Living, Country Home and many other amazing magazines), because the Meredith Books group had shut down. (Thanks to Terri Fredrickson who guided me through the years I proofread for her.) So I interviewed at the health department and was hired JUST AT THE TIME, — H1N1 was surging.

But because of my work at MEREDITH BOOKS, I had met JAMES WAGENVROOD, a writer from New York City, who became my mentor and dear friend. We actually wrote a book together that you would not think would be in my wheelhouse, MIANI INK, MARKED FOR GREATNESS. 

I also met and toured the garden of ELVIN McDONALD, gardener, writer, and lovely person. You might be familiar with his: A GARDEN MAKES A HOUSE A HOME. 

BOOK SIGNINGS 

The Des Moines Library (newly built in the re-emerging city center with a roof that originally was covered in grass, a salute to the green movement) hosted authors and there I met ELIZABETH BERG. She shook my hand and said I needed to get my novels out of the drawers where they were sitting. I’m still working on that project. She was charming, of course.  

THE IOWA WRTERS’ WORKSHOP

And speaking of writing, Iowa is the home of the University of Iowa, in Iowa City, famous for its creative writing program: The Iowa Writers’ Workshop. An easy drive down Route 80 and you’re there!

So get jealous now: I and twenty other writers spent a weekend with Pulitzer Prize winning ELIZABETH STROUT, known for her novels OLIVE KITTERIDGE, OLIVE AGAIN, AMY And ISABELLE, MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON (and more). I’ve read ALL her work and encourage you to do so.

There were more wonderful teachers at Iowa: my friend and helpmate SUSAN CHEHAK who helped and encouraged me to publish my collection of short stories: A MOTHER’S TIME CAPSULE.

ONE FINAL and FUN STORY

Through Andy McGuire we met many people in Democratic politics: Governor Vilsack, former Vice President Mondale, Governor of Vermont Howard Dean—but the most memorable was meeting NANCY PELOSI.     

We were in Andy’s inviting house for a fundraiser for a House Representative. I was sitting in the back of the room. I have often found myself in the back of rooms, but when someone is speaking, I go back to my grade-school days—I look right at the speaker, focus on what she or he is saying. When Nancy finished, she became surrounded by people. My husband and I got up quietly and walked into the dining room. I was sure I had seen some chocolate cupcakes along with other goodies set out on Andy’s dining room table.

But then someone was tapping me on the back. I turned. It was Nancy Pelosi. She said, “I came over to meet you.”

Okay! Why? I guess Andy had suggested that she do so. As we chatted, John asked her, as only John would, “What is the most important thing in your life going on right now?” He was waiting for a political response, but Nancy answered: “My grandchildren.” We loved that.

The bottom line in sharing all of this with you is that I have been blessed. The people I have met in person and the people I continue to meet online and now in my new but old home of Chicago, are all important to me in so many ways. So thank you….AND, ANYONE READING THIS–YOU ARE ALL AMAZING, Beth 

Photo Credit   Citizenship Creations Stock.

We’ve Tried To Create Rainbows Before…

We've Tried To Create Rainbows Before...

We’ve tried to create rainbows before. But the powers that be are the powers that stomp out such ideas and their prejudices are still raging. In some sectors. Like the attack on the Capitol.

But there are also those who find other ways. But they take time, and they take being aware. And we are all guilty of not being aware.

Then there are headlines like this one: A GRIM PAST WE’RE STILL LIVING WITH.

This two weeks ago in the Chicago Tribune. Yes, we are still living with it. And it’s quietly personal to me.

FRED HAMPTON AND MARK CLARK 

A piece, by Michael Philipps in the Chicago Tribune, refers to another film coming out concerning the deaths of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.

Phillips calls this new film a “leap and a bound ahead of the recent Netflix production ‘Trial of the Chicago Seven’”. He even calls the first film a speechifying fraud. (Wow, Aaron Sorkin must not be happy about that, as he wrote the script for the first film.) 

But where am I going with this…The new film is “Judas and the Black Messiah.” It deals with the death of Fred Hampton and also focuses on the FBI informant William O’Neal, a one time petty thief, who using his prejudice as a motor, became head of Hampton’s Black Panther security. Thus he could provide intelligence as to where Hampton was staying that led to the FBI breaking into Hampton’s apartment and killing him.

The article provides the history: “On December 6, 1969, 14 plainclothes CPD officers fired more than 90 times on Hampton and other Black Panther Party members. Two died, first Mark Clark, who was on guard that night, then Hampton.”

ME and LACY M. 

Searching Google, the day of the murder was a Saturday. So I am uncertain what day the Pep Rally was to be held the following week at Bloom Township High School.

I was a freshman English teacher, wet behind the ears. I mean I was innocent to a fault, though I had done my student teaching in an integrated Chicago school, one of the finest—Lane Tech. I was openhearted and eager, doing my best with my students. But I was truly inexperienced.

Each morning, students wandered into my third floor classroom for Home Room. This was a time for announcements over the PA system and for students to hand in signed report cards—general things, not related to their individual classes.

Lacy M. (will never forget his full name, but for privacy concerns won’t include it here) sat five seats back in the first row, by the door. He was tall, Black, quiet. That morning I don’t remember if I noticed the Black glove he was wearing on his left hand.

The assistant principal came on the PA for announcements which included reminding all students that the Pep Rally would be held in the gym at second hour. I don’t remember if that was my preparation period, meaning I didn’t meet with students, or if my second class arrived and we then immediately made our way to the large gymnasium on the first floor of the building.

AND THEN…

What I do remember and will never forget, it that Lacy M. walked over to my desk at the end of homeroom period, leaned over and said, “Don’t go to the Pep Rally.” That was all he said, and then he left.

Truly, Lacy hardly knew me. I mean, it was December. He had been in my classroom for maybe 20 minutes each morning, since September. I wasn’t his teacher. I was just some young woman trying to teach English to high school juniors. I did have three preparations (teacher talk for 3 different presentations to be given each day) so I was busy. I don’t remember how I responded to Lacy. But he was looking out for me. 

The second hour Pep Rally went as planned until the very end when Black students moved down from the bleachers and began throwing anything that wasn’t nailed down.

THE RIOT

It’s all vague in my memory, because we had two of these episodes during my teaching years, and they flow together. They were definitely riots, because chairs and desks were thrown, windows were broken, I was told to go into a classroom that wasn’t mine, where students were huddled. Another time the principal grabbed a student who was coming into the library to do me harm. I was okay. I had to give a deposition.

WE DID OUR BEST, BUT WAS IT ENOUGH ?

I write this, because it’s so clear as to why these events were happening. But to enable students to still go to class, and keep things calm, the school went to a split schedule—half the students attending from 8-noon; the other half from 1-5. There were police on campus. We got through it, made it work. Things calmed down. Curriculum was changed. I mean, these were good things. We needed to dust off some of our old ways. Stop teaching plays or novels that as another student once told me “Has nothin to do with my life.” And that changed. A combination of the classics and new authors of color provide a diversified and immediate curriculum that students WANT to take part in.

FINAL THOUGHTS 

In a recent interview in TIME MAGAZINE Inaugural Poet Amanda Gorman talked to Michelle Obama. Gorman: Poetry and language are often at the heartbeat of movement for change. If we look to Black Lives Matter protests, you see banners that say: THEY BURIED US, BUT THEY DIDN’T KNOW WE WERE SEEDS.

I still wonder about Lacy M, and how his life proceeded. He did good by me.

For more information: Judas and the Black Messiah 3 and ½ stars. A Grim Past We’re Still Living With by Michael Phillips  Chicago Tribune, Feb. 7, 2021

Artwork: WESTWAYS Spring 2021

VALENTINE THOUGHT: ARE YOU LIVING ONLY FOR THE NOW?

VALENTINE THOUGHT: ARE YOU LIVING ONLY FOR THE NOW?Yesterday, watching how the Senate voted, it felt like THE NOW was their only concern. They seemed to be deciding that the power they had in that moment was more important than living into the future, than considering the people they represent. Grasping for their singular purpose, meant ignoring how they should have voted—for their constituents. But instead, many were still voting for just themselves, voting out of fear for that guy in the shadows.

STILL, I believe in democracy. It just doesn’t always work the way it should. Yes, we have checks and balances, but damn, our government reps don’t always hold on to the truth. And where would we be if the Framers had not been able to look into the future and realize that? (There was actual video and even that didn’t make a difference.) It didn’t touch some, the way it touched others. It’s power, that’s for certain. Fear of losing that power caused them to look away. 

THE NOW VERSUS THE FUTURE

I write this only to remind each of us that only considering THE NOW is not the best idea. We have to consider the future. There will be a tomorrow. That’s why many of us have children, to replace ourselves. Not for glory, but for love. It’s cynical to live in bubble that is only about you. And COVID, unfortunately has confined many of us to our little bubble.

But moments ago, my husband and I were able to communicate with our adult children, our grandchildren on this Valentine’s Day and that brings more love into our lives. We realize our good future.

SO LET’S ALL BELIEVE IN THE FUTURE, AND…HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY 

I hope you have sunshine (we have snow and sunshine) maybe some chocolate ( I am addicted to dark chocolate) and the voices or texts from those you love. Maybe even a glass of wine or some flowers. It doesn’t matter. We are gifts to each other. You are a gift to me. And I’m thinking about the future….because the “now” goes away—there is always tomorrow. And the sun will come out…

Photo, thanks to French Country Cottage

THE KINDEST LIE

THE KINDEST LIE

The Kindest Lie is written with love, yet you feel the undertow of sorrow and regret. Amazing.

 

 

It’s Black History month and Nancy Johnson’s debut novel, THE KINDEST LIE, has just hit bookstores, gifting us with an evocative and emotional story.

Ruth Tuttle inhabits an unsettled world before and after Obama, a world of struggle and success–a world where family love is sometimes misguided and often based on secrets. An engineering degree from Yale has transported Ruth from the small Indiana town of Ganton, where she was raised, to the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. The novel begins on a special night–Ruth and her husband Xavier have gathered friends to await the results of the 2007 presidential election. When Obama wins, there is joy in the room, the future now seemingly boundless.

“Her whole life, Ruth hadn’t dared to believe this could happen, and she almost forgot to breathe. A picture of the little house in Ganton came to mind…Mama at the kitchen table counting money on the first of the month. Papa’s body quivering underneath his plant uniform as he tried to walk straight in the early days of his illness…To get here, to this moment. To this man with the funny name. To this day in history.”

But their joy that night sparks in Xavier an amazing idea: if they had a child, now it might be possible for that child to become president. Ruth immediatly pushes back, asking: “Aren’t you getting ahead of yourself?” knowing if this is truly what Xavier wants, her life will change, she being forced to face her past in Ganton, to remember Ronald Atkins.

They met in high school, Atkins, a white football player, Ruth’s mouth becoming dry, just speaking his name. A story, eleven years past its due date, Johnson writes: “Ruth thought back to when she was seventeen, with Mama and her brother Eli looking down on her half-naked body in the bed, their faces tight with worry, urging her to push.”

And then in those powerful moments of Obama winning, Ruth surrounded by her successful husband, her smart and successful Black friends, she questions if she has truly ever left Ganton, left Mama, the grandmother who raised her after Ruth’s own mother left, seeking drugs, shrugging off responsibility, knowing that Mama would step up, would always be there rescuing family, even naming Ruth and her brother Eli.

Johnson writes: Ruth: one syllable, old school and biblical. A name that Ruth’s grandmother said would at least get her to the interview.

But though smart, farsighted and an indomitable Black woman, Mama cannot protect Ruth from every aspect of life, from Ronald Atkins, from the physical power of teenage sex, when this white football player tells a young innocent Black girl, “I see you,” Ruth becoming fired with desire because, “Everyone saw him.”

But as the “little knot of unripe fruit” grew, “everything felt like walking on the edge of a cliff.” Johnson knows how to fill in the background, these two burdened lovers dancing to “killing me softly” which in retrospect is exactly what Ronald Atkins did to Ruth. 

Johnson has created in Ruth, a character who epitomizes a woman who has found a new pathway and turned away from her past. But when that past rises, Ruth must know everything, make Mama tell her: who she gave her son to, where he is now living, how his life has been without her. Back in Ganton, a town suffering from a dying economy of closed plants, workers out of work, Ruth comes face to face with the poverty affecting people of all colors and stations. Searching for her son, she encounters a white boy of a similar age, named Midnight, encounters the loss, anger and futility that can affect children, no matter what color they are.  

Johnson has created real people, brought us into their kitchens to watch them cook wonderful foods, into a beauty salon to hear of their joys and sorrows, their complaints concerning how to raise a child, keep a business going. Though it’s the holidays, there is poverty at Christmas, at New Years, where weather holds people inside to once again find joy in friendship and the lights of a small Christmas tree. Johnson’s real people. We see it all, their weaknesses and strengths. We experience their honesty and their hidden lies, not only in reference to their own lives–where they live, how they live, how they struggle–but also in how they reveal their pride in Ruth and what she has accomplished. As Eli, her brother reminds her, “Nope, one baby don’t put you at ho status…” Certainly KIND and also honest.

 

Joan Didion and Me…

Joan Didion and Me...

 

I faithfully read Time Magazine and the last page interview. This week Lucy Feldman interviewed writer & journalist Joan Didion. I became a fan when Didion published The Year of Magical Thinking after her husband died. I then read essay collections and other works—she a word crafter, convinced of her own ideas. Ms. Didion is now in her 90s. Maybe that’s why her answers were, well, terse. Could I do any better? Here are a few attempts.

How are you feeling in these trying times?

Joan: I feel fine. Slightly bored, but fine.

Beth: I’m eager to get my hair cut, see my grandchildren. But I’ll follow the rules no matter what.

You once said that an experience with vertigo and nausea you had in 1968 was an appropriate response to what was happening in that period. What’s an appropriate response for 2020?

Joan: Vertigo and nausea sound right.

Beth: Quiet rage, but a gradual feeling of relief when the year finally ended ie on Jan. 20th.

You wrote two defining books on grief, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. What would you say to the millions who have lost loved ones this year?

Joan: I don’t know. I don’t know that there is anything to say.

Beth: These are difficult times and loss cuts deeply. Mourning loved ones is necessary and you have a right to go through all the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But I would hope that those who have lost someone have a partner to talk to—either in person or regularly through the phone or video chat. We need each other.

Do you have hope?

Joan: Hope for what? Not particularly, no.

Beth: Of course. I don’t think you can get out of bed missing someone or mourning someone or looking at a time when you can’t do the things you love and not have a glimmer of hope—we all have to have hope.

Which feels more like home: New York or California?

Joan: Both.

Beth: I would have to alter the question to Chicago or California. After recently living in the latter for seven years, yet having been born and raised in Chicago, I would have to say I have come HOME. But there is always adjustment. Today, we have over ten inches of snow. So you could say that does require an adjustment, but I made my first snowball in seven years! This snow is “GREAT FOR PACKING!”

What do you make of the old adage, write what you know?

Joan: I don’t make anything of it.

Beth: It’s a great stepping off place, especially writing fiction. You have to KNOW something about the PLACE in the story. People mirror where they live: neighbors, public places like schools, churches. I don’t think I could write about NYC, but I can write about Chicago.

Do you ever reread your past writing? If so, what do you think?

Joan: Sometimes I do. Sometimes I think something is well done, sometimes I think, Woops.

Beth: Ditto.

Is there anything you wish to achieve that you have not?

Joan: Figuring out how to work my television.

Beth: Ditto.

What are you looking most forward to in 2021?

Joan: An Easter party, if it can be given.

Beth: Everything—getting the vaccine, shopping, trips to be with my family. Blessings.

PS These are not all the questions Joan was asked, but the ones I felt pertinent to my post. Thanks for reading.

 

What to Wear to the Revolution….

 

What to Wear to the Revolution....

Elizabeth from Knoxville Tennessee chose a piano scarf to highlight her frightened, tear-streaked face when she was stopped outside the United States Capitol this last Wednesday, January 6th. “Yeah!” she told a reporter who stopped her as she ran from the scene: “I made it like a foot inside and they pushed me out, and they maced me.”

In the falling temperatures of that moment, the sky over the United States of America darkening, clouds and crowds gathering for the tempest, Elizabeth from Knoxville was trying to figure out why she was there at all. It had not gone her way. What next? But she cried out: “We’re storming the Capitol! It’s a revolution.”

But the interested reporter was soon swept away by the crowds of people, eagerly running from the Capitol. And so is Elizabeth from Knoxville, though she might be trying to find the food court at the revolution. (Not my whimsy, but that of another writer). Anyone who watched this quick clip that was widely broadcast must see it as the metaphor for craziness that currently grips our country.

MORE IRONY

I had planned to post about “differentiation– a theory of family therapist, Murray Bowen, who created the term, describing the process of finding a balance between autonomy (being a separate YOU) and connection (being with OTHERS) while creating goals and working toward them. Or to make it simpler: the concept that within a family each child can achieve emotional maturity by becoming his or her own person, able to form healthy relationships.

But Elizabeth from Knoxville had not considered differentiation, or may I point out USING HER OWN BRAIN. She had drunk the Kool Aid, she had traveled to be part of the group, the mass, the revolution. She believed that within the mob, there was glory. This was better than fulfilling a homework assignment. This was better than a vacation. THIS WAS the 6th of JANUARY, when all crazy people would triumph for trump.

Oh, and Elizabeth in her piano scarf did have a goal, the goal of the group–destruction. But sadly, she was running AWAY from the scene, without a statue or a portrait, or the head of one of the congress members.

And yes, maybe as she fled, she might have been singing one of the platitudes about a NEW GOVERNMENT, the GLORIOUS government of trump. MAKE IT PERMANENT. Because for Elizabeth of Knoxville, who probably never read her Social Studies book, or cheated on the exam, she had been reborn into a new way of thinking:

“it’s easy, guys. You get in a car or on a plane and go to DC and a whole new life will be laid out before you. It’s a REVOLUTION!! Let’s make trump king.”

AND FORGET HISTORY

So they wanted to create a different government, a trump government. But MY GOD, this country did start with a revolution, and then for hundreds of years used judgment, research, the arguing of ideas to keep the heat off. (And yes there was the Civil War) But do we need this???

Elizabeth, back in Knoxville, decided, along with many other crazies, that a romp at the CAPITOL was all that was needed to change things. Maybe the phrase Civil War only related to some dusty books or an old film like GONE WITH THE WIND. Today is today and we are going to make a permanent change with our mob mentality. We are going for it. How ironic. Oh, and when I first saw this clip, I tweeted that possibly she got really really angry when given a certain homework assignment. After all, that’s limiting her freedom. Time to grab that piano scarf and start a revolution.

FINAL THOUGHTS

So forgive my going off script today. But if you are full of doubt, if you have a family member who doesn’t want to listen to you or you don’t want to listen to them, maybe this questionnair created by differentiation guru Murray Bowen will help.

Which of Bowen’s statements, defining self-differenciation, applies to you or your children or grandchildren?

  1. I understand the position I hold in my family, and the power given and not given to that position.
  2. I am committed to be fully responsible for my own life, while committed to those I love.
  3. In developing autonomy, I set goals for my dreams and ambitions, yet develop intimacy by allowing those close to me to see and know me as I really am.
  4. I can tell people what I need, ask for help, but not impose my needs upon them.
  5. I am able to detect when controlling emotions and reactive behavior have sent me in the wrong direction; then I opt, instead, to use creative thinking to make better and more purposeful choices.

THANKS FOR READING Thanks to Hunter Walker for the photo.