Reading the News

 

“Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation / Grant us thy peace.” —T.S. Eliot, “A Song for Simeon”

The sky’s still here, the sun’s out, the first bulbs are sprouting in the garden. Everything seems OK. But I fear the ghosts—the demons, devils, tribes—inside us. I remember the months I spent in the archives in Spain, principally Madrid and Granada, trawling through newspapers from the early 1930s. In particular, I remember the small articles, the notices so tiny they nearly dissolved among the ads—offhand reports of edicts against Jews in Germany; accounts of random violence in Madrid. None was more than a ripple in a lake, the benign burbling of some creature breathing beneath the surface of things. No storm yet, no kettle-drum rolls, no ominous movie soundtrack. Just incremental history, as slow as a cake rising in the oven, even, sometimes, sweet-smelling.

But still. There I sat, a U.S. government grant recipient paid to study the life of a gay poet murdered by Fascists in 1936. I sat there with my crisp and eerie knowledge of what later unfolded—the gradual and then sudden suppression of rights not only in Spain but across Europe; the bombs; the round-ups; the mass graves. Blessed with a hindsight I wish I had now, I knew where those little articles led. As I read them, I made invisible underlinings, reminding myself—as we’ve been reminded lately by the likes of Masha Gessen—that this is how it happens. The tanks don’t just suddenly appear on the streets: we get there in increments.

So how do we function? Do we merely note the warning signs and hope to survive?

I remember sitting beside the open window of the reading room inside the archive in Granada (a repurposed Renaissance palace, one of the loveliest archives I’ve ever used), reading those terrible newspapers from the summer of 1936—the black headlines, the trucks, the guns, how the city morphed overnight into a battleground. I’d take a break midway through my morning and go across the street for a coffee, and sit there chatting with the bartender, and wonder how this peaceful and pretty city could have turned so abruptly into a killing zone in our own century. The barracks, the truckloads of victims ascending the steep road to the cemetery next to the Alhambra, where the firing squad waited.

And here I sit now, in my own country, sipping coffee, chatting with friends. The sun is out, the streets calm. I read the headlines and turn the page and every so often wonder if 50 years from now a scholar on a government grant will be poring over the articles I’m reading today, asking how did they not know.

How long before we enter the time of cords and scourges and lamentations? Or are we there already and just don’t see it?

Tree of Life

When my first husband and I split up 30 years ago, we didn’t have much trouble divvying up our stuff, except—to our astonishment, given the fraught nature of our five-year union—for the Christmas tree ornaments. Those hurt. My second husband (18 years today!) reports the same. He and his first wife fell apart when it came to the ornaments.

Later this week, we’ll take down this year’s tree and, as I did three weeks ago, when we put the thing up, I’ll finger its decorations and remember their provenance. Increasingly, it’s a gallery of the dead and lost: gifts from long-vanished mentors and friends; hand-blown eggs painted by my late mother (and even earlier, by her sister, who died in 1977 at the unimaginable age of 54). Presents from colleagues and friends, from a former sister-in-law and a never-to-be sister-in-law; souvenirs from travels; more than a dozen felt birds painstakingly assembled and embroidered by my grandmother, gone since 1994. A pair of hearts stitched from fabric left over from a skirt I wore onstage during my first appearance at the Fulton Theatre in the early 1970s.

African Americans build bottle trees to trap evil spirits. The Christmas tree, it seems, corners good ones (mostly)—the absent loved ones invoked in the daily blessing we said over dinner in my childhood. It courts the grown living, as well. There’s the star I colored for the top of my parents’ tree when I was five years old, still in use, and the painted discs that my stepchildren emblazoned with their names maybe 15 years ago.

I imagine my mother fondling the ornaments as tenderly as I now do. Each one a voice, a year, a friend, a child. Maybe that’s why she shed the whole business in the last, awful years of her life, and put the ornaments away in boxes that sat on the top shelf of the bedroom closet in the condo she loathed, unopened until after her death.

Meanwhile, we continue to haul out the decorations and display them on a dying tree, that emblem of marital harmony and family connection, that time bomb ticking with significance.

Snow, Unpublished

“Publication,” wrote Emily Dickinson in 1863, “is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man.”

… We – would rather

From Our Garret go

White – unto the White Creator –

Than invest – Our Snow –

Words of commerce—merchant, sell, parcel, price—mark this small poem (# 788). The implication is clear: to publish is to sell out, to enter the marketplace.

I’ve just spent nearly two decades working at the University of Michigan in what was once a department of “external relations” and for the past several years has been a department of “marketing and communications.” The obsession today is with our “brand,” with selling and promoting that brand, something universities are increasingly wont to do.

I’m glad to be getting out of the selling game, though I’m not in truth getting out. This bit of commercial property, for example: lesliestainton.com. What does that represent, if not myself in the marketplace? My “brand”?

We brand animals. We have branded people whom we regarded as property. So if we “brand” outselves, who owns us?

Dickinson urges that our “thought” belong “to Him who gave it,” not to the marketplace. To publication.

In the age of Facebook and all the rest of it, how quaint, the writer in her garret.

Here sit I in mine, gazing out the window at this week’s latest gloss of snow. Think of it falling, how it quiets the world, blots, sharpens, defines (memo to self: reread The Dead this Christmas). How beautiful the cardinal and woodpecker look against its erasures. How it brightens, makes things new, makes us new. Takes my breath, literally, away.

That’s what Dickinson proposes: don’t turn this stuff into commerce. (Of course we do: we blacken our snow as quickly as we can. We scrape it away, and if not, pay a price here in Ann Arbor, where there’s a law requiring snow removal from public sidewalks within 24 hours of its falling.)

How to use this image to strengthen writing? To remind myself it’s not about publishing—it’s about going out into that snowfall and wallowing in its revelations. The sudden blessing of idea, of language. Old thought wiped clean; that clarifying plunge in temperature. Dwelling in this, rather than shoveling it up the instant it lands and heaving it out into the street.

Unmasked

I’m struck by pictures of Hillary Clinton these days: hair unstyled, face free of make-up, lines and circles visible (though the smile is still radiant). The Times ran a small piece about this yesterday, accompanied by selfies taken with the former candidate in places as ordinary as the woods near her home and an indie bookstore.

Her performance—at least the one conducted over the past two years—is over, the long run ended, the star shorn of props and costume and setting. I find myself wondering whether, had she won, we’d still be seeing the helmet hair and military pantsuit. (Never mind the Kevlar vests.)

There’s so much theater here—so much about the way women, in particular, must gird themselves for the stage(s) of public life.

Just as 19th-century actresses were treated with a contempt and suspicion far beyond anything to which their male counterparts were subjected, so this woman warrior—this actress impersonating a man (did she ever appear in a skirt?)—endured a level of scrutiny her male competitors were spared.

When Victoria Woodhull ran for president in the late-19th century, she suffered accusations and attacks that would have felled someone of lesser mettle. The feminist Woodhull persisted, convinced of her calling. She dressed not unlike a man. When she appeared onstage at the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1874, she wore a plain black dress with white cuffs and collar. Still, critics reviled her. “We do not clearly see what manly privileges Mrs. Woodhull wants that she does not enjoy,” one charged.

Black performers knew something of what Woodhull experienced. I think of Bert Williams, the brilliant, turn-of-the-20th-century, mixed-race performer from the Caribbean who found he was most successful when he performed in blackface. And so he went with it—and died with it, collapsing onstage one night in Chicago and being carried off, his face still caked in burnt cork, never to return.

Why was his real face less appealing—less lucrative?

What truths about Woodhull did people not want to see?

Why did Hillary feel she needed to arm herself with highlighted hair and airbrushed skin?

Perhaps it’s their humanity which, like our own, we know to be flawed. Rather than confront their (and our) mortality, we ask our stars to be larger than life, more resolved, higher-definition.

Williams was profoundly saddened by the discrepancy between who he was and who he pretended to be. He knew that audiences were more comfortable with a cartoon black—a man who knew his place and his limits—and he hated it.

A century later, here was Hillary, masquerading in whiteface. It’s nice to see her dispense with it so quickly post-election. May she persist.

Requiem in Chalk

In the week since the election, I’ve been turning to words for consolation—as I did when I was 13 and spent the summer away from home for the first time and was deeply homesick (I lost six pounds the first week). I was attending a summer boarding school in Virginia, and in the evening, after supper, we’d sit at desks in the gymnasium to do our homework. Because I was taking classes in typing and drama, I had little to do, so I wrote in my journal instead. It was the first time I’d really kept one.

Bathed in citron light from a score of overhead fluorescents, the cavernous gym took on the quality of dream as I traveled beyond that particular time and place into the territory of language. The aches of my adolescent heart arranged themselves into sentences and then paragraphs, which in the instant of their conception made things clearer, if not always better. Night after night, I pinned my fluttering longings onto the lined pages of my journal like so many moths. There they sat: inert, visible, somehow tamed. Writing was power.

I thought of all this last week as I walked across the Michigan campus some eight hours after Hillary Clinton conceded the election. I hadn’t felt so numb since 9/11. Fogged in thought—in fear—I nearly stepped on the first phrase before I saw it. Chalked onto the pavement, in capital letters: “Stay strong.”

And then: “You belong.”

And then: “This is still home.”

The more I walked, the more I encountered. “Estamos juntos.” “Be kind.” “Love>fear.” At the center of campus, the words were so thick I couldn’t untangle them. I began to cry. A student came over and said, “You look like you need a hug.” He confessed that he was worried about his gay mothers. I said I was worried about so many people on the margins. We talked. Then he headed to his next class, and I walked on. More words, more evidence of a godlike voice among us. Praise the anonymous writer—writers—who got up early that morning, or went straight out into the dark just after the news broke, and with the most primitive of instruments (a stick of chalk straight from elementary school) conjured language to soften the hard day ahead. As I stood there, sobbing, a Muslim student walked up to me and held out her arms. Surrounded by words, we embraced.

Totems

Here in Vancouver, on a brief (and surprisingly welcome, given my recent misgivings) trip, I’ve been looking at totem poles. Dozens of them at the Museum of Anthropology; a handful of contemporary ones in Stanley Park; and just today, at the Vancouver Art Gallery, painter Emily Carr’s enthralled and turbulent renderings of the totem poles she saw during her travels along the BC coast in the first half of the 20th century.

I grew up with images of them, as I expect most Americans my age did. But I’d never really looked at them until now—at the intricate and fluid metamorphoses that unfold up and down the length of an individual pole. One creature grows out of another, resides within another, emerges intact from another’s mouth or ears or loins. Animal morphs into human, human into animal. It is an inviting, prelapsarian world—an egalitarian Eden, summoned, literally, from nature itself: those massive cedars I saw yesterday in Stanley Park, the whirling blue-green trees that sent Carr into such spiritual rapture.

But it’s their ancestral role (and work) that most intrigues me. A marker at Stanley Park describes the totem pole as “the British Columbia Indian’s ‘coat of arms.’” Clans identify with totemic animals, and poles narrate family history. It’s a rich image, one I’m eager to milk as I continue to wrestle with my own family’s past. In the presence of these towering structures, I see afresh how the generations build on and spring from and nest within one another—how long-gone ancestors grow into enormous figures whose deeds cast thick shadows. Try though I might to build my own house, independent of ancestral influence, there they are: immense familial poles rising tall on either side of my front door, exerting their power, generating complications, reminding me whose I am.

The View from Oman

Through the window of my hotel in Muscat, Oman, I see the Gulf of Oman, which leads to the Arabian (or Persian, depending on your politics) Gulf. Off in the mists of the horizon sit a trio of oil tankers. They’ve been docked offshore for the duration of my visit here—four days and counting.

I’ve been thinking a lot about journeys—this one, which I didn’t particularly want—and journeys in general. My two grandmothers, maternal and paternal, both set their sights on the wider world, and for women born in the last years of the 19th century showed surprising travel mettle. One took tours to South America and Spain in her older age. The other moved with her engineer husband to the Caribbean in the early 1920s and spent the next 30 years there, raising kids on a sisal plantation in Haiti, battling who knows what illnesses and fears. I’ve inherited their wanderlust but not, it seems to me increasingly as I age, their apparently singleminded devotion to its pursuit.

I find it harder and harder to leave home.

I find the thrill of travel more and more elusive. My curiosity—that faithful driver deep inside the reptilian human brain—is waning.

So why go? In this instance, because the trip was more or less thrust on me. I said yes before I knew what I was doing, and here I am, in Oman, for a conference about cancer, which is its own unwelcome journey, of course, to use what’s both a cliché and a reality for the dozens of people I’ve met here—women, mostly, whose nobility in the face of their unwanted travels I find humbling. I’m here to talk about how stories can empower those who have cancer and those whose job it is to report on the disease, but it’s the stories I’m hearing that are teaching me.

As my flight took off four+ days ago, I thought of that term “liftoff.” You lift off from the earth and plunge like a needle through the clouds, and with luck into the clarity of a blue sky or a starpocked night. Maybe that’s what still impels me to say yes to these less-and-less welcome embarkations—the chance to lift off the mind’s clutter, shed the routines and rituals I take for granted, see those oil tankers on the horizon and know that we’re connected. To meet the intrepid women at this conference, voyagers who in so many ways remind me of my grandmothers: their passports stamped with the record of their travels and their travails, open still, ready for the next page.