BECOME A WARRIOR FOR THE PLACE YOU LOVE

BECOME A WARRIOR FOR THE PLACE YOU LOVE

I have two daughters. I gifted each of them with a summary statement declaring WHO THEY WERE when they were only two years old. I was forecasting, observing, guessing, but I was also right on. My first daughter was a calmer, more reflective child; the second I referred to as a “warrior child,” because from the beginning she was eager to move, to get her life going in a physical way.

And in their adulthoods, they are both WARRIORS. One is a landscape architect on the east coast, working with schools who want to repurpose their buildings so they are “green”—using healthy paints and building materials. The other lives on the west coast raising my grandchildren, but also working with organizations to help disadvantaged women and children.

And me? I am part of a group of women who fight for progressive government actions, help disadvantaged families, register teens to vote, elect the right school board members and make phone calls to support honest and decent political candidates.

FLY-OVER STATE? Maybe they don’t exist. Here’s why…

A month ago, my husband finished a call with an old friend, who had proclaimed, as only this old friend could—that California is a fly-over state. The urban dictionary defines fly-over as: States in the middle of the United States that generally aren’t destinations for travelers or tourists and are generally flown over when traveling from place to place. Of course, it’s a derogative term.

We lived in Iowa for 17 years. I loved living there, though one thing I did complain about was having to transfer when flying to LA or New York City. So for Iowa, that definition has a partial meaning, but certainly not a full meaning! When I lived there, Barack Obama won the Iowa Caucuses. I studied at the University of Iowa, known for its school of creative writing. In the capital city, we had an excellent symphony, a wonderful opera and Broadway theatre events that arrived just later than the true Broadway. Plus, I met and went to lectures with amazing thinkers, writers and politicians. Small can be mighty. Small can be a warrior.

BUT WHY THE SLUR ABOUT CALIFORNIA? 

The guy doesn’t live here. I’m not sure he has ever visited. CALIFORNIA is not a fly-over state, but he obviously does not agree with the things we are doing here. Like: fighting global warming (our wind and solar farms); saving water (we need to work harder in that area); creating a diverse population—we are a diverse state, our elected officials are diverse and a great number of them work hard to help our citizens through expansive healthcare plans, public education, libraries & public transportation. Yes, our state has made mistakes (insufficient affordable housing, insufficient transportation from suburbs to cities where most of the jobs reside, high fuel prices.) Often the decisions that were made in the past (like falling in love with automobiles instead of public transportation) are hard to change when the infrastructure (and the surrounding mountains) are fighting such a change.

But in terms of educational centers, art galleries, recreational centers and the ability to experience the beauty of nature, history and culture—we are a destination state. And to continue to maintain that calling, we have become a warrior state, made up of many warriors. From the northern wine country, through the literary-art centers of San Francisco, the tech centers of Silicon Valley, the film industry and entertainment centers of LA to the Naval bases in San Diego—the state is working to stay ahead of the curve. Some battles it is winning, some I fear it might be losing, like our autumn fires. Like money having more power than the needs of the people. Like some people in Silicon Valley thinking only of making money and not of helping upcoming generations.

But it’s so easy to be out of loop of information and decision-making, to simply toss out a label. I read the LA TIMES every day and I’m not thrilled with all the decisions that are being made, but I also see our state struggling when Washington makes judgments that go against what we want. One example being fracking. But we will fight back.

WARRIORS ALL

Maybe the answer is for each of us to attempt to do ONE THING each week that increases our knowledge concerning our country, state, city, village, neighborhood. You decide. You choose. AND READ

Where we live and how we live is vital to our mental and physical health. Sometimes the smallest change (like educating ourselves on a subject we don’t fully understand) can help more people in our communities than just us.

My youngest child, my son, has lived in many diverse neighborhoods, and now in Chicago, he has become a warrior of the present, using his warm smile and open heart to do his job, reach out to others, write music, live his life. My husband works with people who have become homeless, who need and want a job. He has had many successes, understands the process, has become damn good at it.

Each of us can choose something WE CAN DO. Whether it’s writing a check or getting out there with hands eager and a smile to help—we can all be warriors—eager to move, get life going in a physical and dedicated way. No fly-overs here.

Thanks to MARK NELSON, ART: DOWN TO THE TOWN

ROOTS: In the Country of Women

ROOTS: In the Country of Women

Cajon Pass, California

What would you find if you wanted to discover you and your spouse’s roots—and especially the women, the mothers and grandmothers in your lineage. Because if you have children, imagine the blend of DNA they possess, the women and men that came before and helped root your progeny to this earth. They are not only in your children’s eye color, skin color—but also in their tendency to certain skills, talents, interests and possibly the very ability to live and endure.

Susan Straight did just that (the questioning, the tireless research) and then set it down into beautiful prose in her book: In the Country of Women.

So today, I’m GIVING YOU Susan Straight. Because when you fall in love with a writer and her story of growing up and living in California, the first thing you think about is sharing. And though Straight’s beginnings meant that she did a lot of her own “raising”–her strength never falters. Her writing is exquisite.

“We were feral children, as were most of us then, in the 1960s and 70s, and our wild kingdom was the orange groves. The other kids threw fruit as missiles and set up bunkers in the irrigation towers. But after those wars, I sat under the white blossoms that fell like stars and I read.”

Straight’s mother took her to the Riverside Public Library. Straight writes: “where I attempted to check out twenty-two books. She limited me to ten.”

FINDING YOUR OWN SELF IN A BOOK 

Straight read all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, Nancy Drew and Caddie Woodlawn mysteries and the entire Maud Hart Lovelace Betsy-Tacy series, which takes place in Wisconsin. Straight learned about snow and muffs and ice skating. Her own neighborhood was rough, and at the age of eight while reading Betty White’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, she found a place like hers!

When she heard about a bookmobile, Straight made her way through fields of wild oats, past the pepper trees…across railroad tracks, down into a steep arroyo…and up into a grocery store parking lot where in the bookmobile, she read about death. She read S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. She read James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, and soon after, Toni Morrison’s Sula. Wandering the wild mustard and the arroyos, Straight saw all these fictional children were like me. Books became her addiction.

When her stepfather bought a laundromat, Straight swept the floors, watched the people: descendants of Okies and slaves, braceros and Japanese strawberry farmers.

“As a child in the laundromat, I must have known my life would be about language, and place, because I saw people’s baskets full of stories…”

BASKETS FULL OF STORIES 

Straight CENTERS US in her world:  “I see the Cajon Pass, which everyone in our family navigated when they came to California.”

The generations that came through that pass were descendants of one of the most important women in Straight’s family story: Fine Ely Hofford Rawlings Kemp. Once a slave who was forced to marry one man and then another, Fine was the great-grandmother of Straight’s husband, Dwayne.

“Fine, born just after the Civil War, sent all her grandchildren across that same dessert and down the same pass (Cajon Pass) to Los Angeles.” Straight writes: “She was called Fine when she was orphaned. Then her name changed for each man in her life, for seventy years…a new possession to the white people who took her from the former slave cabin in the countryside northwest of Nashville, where she was born maybe in 1869, only four years after the Civil War ended, according to an 1870 U.S. Census document, or maybe 1874, according to information written on an application for social security just before her death.”

Straight imagines Fine as a child, standing in the doorway of a rough-hewn cabin when a wagon of white strangers pulls up to take her away: “She never saw the brothers and sisters with SKIN that looked like hers and now her life was filled with cruelty …at the hands of an elderly matriarch to whom emancipation meant nothing.” There is even a photo of this stalwart women in the book!

“I imagined her as large and powerful. But she was slight and cautious. Watchful and intent. There was inside her a core of fury and independence and self-preservation, the genetic heritage of survival.”  Don’t we all wish for that in our DNA?

HERITAGE, WRITING, RESEARCH, CHILDREN 

In high school, Straight began to write. (She is now the author of elven published books and copious articles and reviews.) She also tangled with some rough societal issues. Her mother told her: “With your looks, you’ll probably never get married. The only thing you have going for you is your brain. So you’d better not mess it up with drugs. You’d better use it, because it’s all you’ve got.”

Straight’s mother should have given her better advice, Straight writing of events in her teen life that echo time, place and dangers in society. “My girlfriends and I, along with every other girl we knew, had been hunted for years. I had survived torn clothes, hands that bruised, violating fingers, pinching and twisting of body parts, random bites inflicted by older teen boys, my hair pulled and throat exposed.”

Straight did fall in love and married high school basketball star, Dwayne Sims. They had three daughters, who appear on the cover of the book. Straight explores the lives of her ancestors and Dwayne’s, writes with love and pride of the home she has lived in for fifty years, tells of her struggle to learn how to comb and care for her daughters’ hair. 

“Most white women didn’t know about this kitchen, the dense hair prone to snarls at the nape of the neck. Most white women I knew expressed shock that I spent that many hours on your hair. My friend Holly used to laugh: ‘I don’t even think I …washed my kids’ hair until they were four.'” 

She writes of following her eldest in a car, watching when a cop decides to pull that car over. Her three daughters and The six feet four Black Man. “He’s pulling her over,” Dwayne said resigned. “Of course he is. Car full of black kids in the OC.” (Orange County) “He wants D. He’s gonna make D get out of the car. And then something could happen.” 

THE ROAD TO BEING AN AUTHOR

Straight and Dwayne drove across the US so that she could partake of a graduate program at Amherst. She had written four short stories with young characters who were fleeing violence and poverty. But her professors questioned her work: “You can’t use words like this. Not standard English.” “Aren’t you from California? Why don’t you write about surfing?” “Why do you keep writing about all these working-class people?”

Thankfully, there was also the afternoon, when Straight met with James Baldwin who had read her story about a young woman robbed at gunpoint on an LA bus. Baldwin analyzed the story, saying, “It is always the secondary characters who save us. You must continue to write. It’s imperative.” Straight tells us that she loves the word imperative. And dedicates this book to the six generations of women she writes about, quoting Baldwin:

“Your crown has been bought and paid for. All you must do is put it on.”

Photo Credits: Route 66 Travel Guide, Amazon;