Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Tinsel Time Gives Way to My Tipping Point

Maya's tree beside Bill's piano
Two weeks ago during an interview with a singer named Tracey Thorn, NPR’s Scott Simon aired a portion of her rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” I have never liked that particular Christmas favorite because it seemed patronizing to me, like someone patting a child on the head. However her styling was lovely, and I stopped to listen, thinking to myself, “Yeah, that’s just what I want, a merry little Christmas.” I looked up the lyrics and was struck by this line:

Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.

I immediately began to work on my planned holiday post, which would start with Tracey Thorn and then segue to my fifty Christmases with Bill. He was exuberantly devoted to the Yuletide celebration. It was a season of performances for him as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Drosselmeyer in Nutcracker, conducting or singing solos in Christmas oratorios, playing the piano for parties, and directing Christmas plays. At home he was eager to get the house decorated, make fruitcakes, plan great meals, and read Christmas stories or poems to the children.

This past week my friend Janey took me to nearby Burnsville to hear the Christmas concert of the Toe River Community Chorus and the Toe River Chamber Ensemble. The program featured Vivaldi’s “Gloria.” In my essay outline the concert readily became the subject of the next paragraph because Bill had in the past conducted both the ensemble and the chorus in some of their earliest performances. This concert started me thinking about celebrations in small towns all over America and the joy of being in a packed church, full of familiar faces, listening to the uplifting sound of the human voice. To conclude my holiday post I was planning to head back to the Merry Little Christmas and what it feels like to muddle through somehow, making new traditions without Bill.

Friday afternoon as I was driving to Burnsville to do a few errands, I switched on the radio and heard the news of the massacre in Newtown, and my eyes filled with tears as I thought of the murdered children. Then it immediately crossed my mind that for those parents, these tragic deaths would forever cast a shadow over the holiday season.

When I got home there was an e-mail waiting for me from my brother David, saying, “On my way across town in the car I was tuned to a news channel and was suddenly hearing about the killings in the elementary school in Connecticut. I literally burst into sobs in the car as I listened and waited for a light to change.” I imagined people like us all over the country letting our tears flow for children we have never met and never will.

When it came time to complete and polish my essay, preparing it for blog publication on Tuesday, I simply could not proceed with the work I had started. This election year had already made me long for the world of my childhood when there were fewer media outlets, there was no Internet, and we were accustomed to greater civility. The hardest part for me this past year was not just the unrelenting negativity, but also the sense that there were individuals and organizations that behaved as if the office of the President was for sale. I was equally distressed that an individual (Grover Norquist) could convince or cajole candidates into signing a pledge against taxes with the implied threat that if they did not live up to it they would face a well-financed primary challenge. Instead of being responsive to their constituents, they are hamstrung by a pledge that does not allow for responding to changing circumstances. Likewise the candidates knew that bucking the National Rifle Association would guarantee a challenge in the next election cycle, equally thwarting legislators who want to respond to societal problems that relate particularly to assault weapons.

In his initial public reflection on the Newtown tragedy, President Obama signaled the need for a serious response. During the Sunday night prayer vigil, he spoke directly about his commitment to action that could prevent such horrific acts in the future. Stating that he would take whatever steps he could as President, he concluded that, as a nation, “We can do better than this.”

I hope and pray that now is the moment when our nation can begin to change our approach to the balance of rights and safety. Personally I believe that the inclusion of assault weapons in the arming of America and the shameful fact that we have such a high murder rate are unintended consequences of the right to bear arms. I was deeply distressed by the most recent Supreme Court ruling on that troublesome Second Amendment. The massacre last Friday was my tipping point and I knew I had to write about it.

Sunday morning, I tuned in late to NPR’s On Being so I don’t know whether it was a repeat chosen for the occasion or a wonderful coincidence. (I heard no reference to the murdered children.) The guest was Kate Braestrup, a chaplain to game wardens. She is often called upon to go with search and rescue missions in Maine and says that she works “at hinges of human experience when lives alter unexpectedly.” Commenting on how kind people can be, she told the story of hunting for a woman with Alzheimer’s who was lost in the woods. When the word went out, hundreds of people joined the search party. Although the woman did not survive, her son said, “This is a miracle; all these people turned out to hunt for my mother.” Kate Braestrup concluded that people do come to help in potentially tragic circumstances, and that is often redemptive. Today I heard a short interview with a father whose daughter was in Sandy Hook School during the shooting but was unharmed. He echoed Braestrup’s conclusion when he said that “all of Newtown” had turned out to help, and people were coming from all over the state to offer counseling services or whatever was needed.

The massacre of twenty children and eight adults has been juxtaposed with the message of peace on earth, goodwill, and the new beginnings that Christmas brings, and the tolerance and respect for religious boundaries that Hannukah celebrates. Last year I wrote about December as the month of spiritually-based customs that light up the dark nights of winter, including the bonfires of Solstice when the earth turns and the days begin to lengthen. This year I hope all people of goodwill light a new fire under all those who have the power to enforce laws already on the books, make new laws, give greater attention to the needs of the mentally ill, and turn to our faith-based wisdom to find the way forward.

And whether it is big or little or in between, I wish you a merry Christmas and a peaceful New Year.

"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" has music by Ralph Blane and lyrics by Hugh Martin.

Schedule Change: I'm leaving for Tybee Island on New Year's Day so the posts in January will be The 8th and the 22nd.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Turbulent Sixties, Grad School, and a Radical Nun

Ever since Sarah Palin made her denigrating comments about community organizing, I’ve wanted to write about my own journey as an activist developing a congruent approach to human resources, communication, fundraising, and administration. Here’s the first in a short series to be continued in the New Year.

It was about ten in the morning on an ordinary day in the spring of 1968. My children were at school, sitting in the same classrooms where I sat twenty-plus years before. My father, who lived around the corner and abided in the fog of Alzheimer’s, had come by for his morning cup of coffee and chat. Every day he told me the same stories and then headed back home. Bill was off at work with the Quakers in Philadelphia. He was finishing up a year in a settlement house and would soon start a new job with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) as the director of the nationwide youth services program. At the same time he was increasing his involvement in the anti-Vietnam War movement by volunteering with Resistance, one of the many organizations opposing the War.

I sat in my sunny living room wondering what to do next. The house was clean, I didn’t feel like ironing, and it was too soon to start working on the evening meal. Suddenly I came face-to-face with my discontent and burst into tears. I was finally facing the fact that for the past three years I’d been deeply involved in the social change work we were doing in Guatemala and now I was just a housewife. I didn’t feel like I was important to anyone outside my family in the way I had been while we were co-directors of a Peace-Corps-type AFSC program. My responsibilities included running our large house where the volunteers ate and slept when they had business in the city. I also kept the accounts, paid attention to everyone’s health and well-being, carried on the necessary correspondence, and assisted Bill as needed.

That evening after the homework was done and the threesome was tucked in for the night, I poured out my unhappiness to Bill. He responded by saying it seemed like the right time for me to fulfill the promise I made to him when we got married—that at some point I would go to graduate school. Although a little uncertain about both finances and curriculum, I agreed that he was right and started to investigate what was available.

Temple University in Philadelphia was (and still is) dedicated to making it possible for working people and mothers with children at home to continue their education. In addition to the regular classes, they had late afternoon, early evening, and weekend programs and could tailor a schedule to almost anyone’s needs. The nearby University of Pennsylvania was prestigious and expensive while Temple was for the proletariat. In its relatively new School of Communication and Theater, they offered a fine program that suited my needs. So even though the campus was located in a dicey part of North Philadelphia, I matriculated there in the fall of 1968, majoring in Communication Theory with an emphasis on International Journalism.

For two years, I juggled household chores, mothering, and graduate studies on a campus that was a hotbed of every flourishing or incipient movement I’d ever heard of and a few (emanating from the Free Love climate of the 60s) that shocked me. On sunny days the main courtyard was jammed with booths, displays, and activist hawkers trying to get you to sign up for a cause, attend a rally, participate in civil disobedience, or listen to a soapbox speech. I was totally caught up in the vitality, vision, and vigor of that young world.

In my classes I lapped up every bit of learning I could, and I spent my breaks hanging out with a radical nun (in a short, chic habit) who was in the same program. Her goal was to develop communication skills in order to help stop the Vietnam War. It was heaven on earth for me, and it redirected my life in ways I could not have imagined. I found I couldn’t study at night so I had to get very efficient about housework and meal planning in order to spend the mornings studying. The children took note, and an unexpected benefit was that they became more responsible about their own schoolwork. My classes were all late afternoon or evening, and my mother was the backstop if I needed her. I can’t remember how I managed everything, but I do know that we became an activist family. Bill was the only one who ever got involved with civil disobedience, but the children and I went to rallies when we could, worked on a political campaign, and got involved with Earth Day. We also became vegetarians in solidarity with Dick Gregory.

In the spring of 1970, I sat for my written exams. The questions lent themselves to political examples, and I wrote the answers from my heart and my personal experiences. Two weeks later I had the immense joy and satisfaction of receiving a letter saying that not only had I passed the exams but my papers were the finest set of written exams they had ever had in the program (which was only a few years old). I had majored in psychology as an undergraduate and didn’t have any awareness that I had been changed by my education. The biggest result from college was marrying Bill, and that was certainly enough. But the two years at Temple changed me: the combination of the courses, the required research and writing, the field trips to the UN, the endless philosophical and political conversations with Sister Joan Marie, the break times in the courtyard, and conquering my fear of walking to the train station in North Philly after dark all made me more confident, more committed, more directed, and more determined.

Even the fact that I chose not to finish my thesis and thereby forfeited the degree was a political act. The dean who had approved my research plan resigned, and his replacement changed the rules. After I had already started the research, my advisor wrote me about the change, and said the dean would not accept my chosen project. By then we had moved to Winston-Salem, and I was working as the director of public relations for the North Carolina School of the Arts. (Bill was on the drama faculty.) I made my case in writing to the dean, suggesting a compromise position, and concluding with the request that if they ever changed their new rules to please let me know. Ten years later I was surprised by a letter from Temple (delivered to my mailbox in Celo) informing me that they had indeed changed the requirements, and if I was still interested they would allow me to submit a thesis based on the compromise I had suggested a decade earlier. I declined with thanks saying I had moved on, was doing just fine with the knowledge I had gained, and had never really needed the MA letters after my name.

During our years at the School of the Arts, the children finished high school and left for various colleges. My desire to work as an activist took a backseat to financial needs, and I had to be satisfied with serving on the Executive Committee of the AFSC Southeastern Regional Office (SERO). When the executive director of SERO resigned to take another job, I was asked to become the interim director for the seven-state region. For the next year I applied what I had learned both in the field and in the classroom to develop my own activist approach to the administrative tasks that make the work in communities and movements possible. It was the beginning of my recognition that facilitating the work of others on the front lines of organizing was very appealing. I had taken the next step in my journey.

Sidebar: Organizing for change can mean working in a neighborhood or with a community defined by a specific issue. Bill’s cousin Nancy Heinrich works in the field of public health and is currently concentrating on helping obese children through a program she developed called “Growing Healthy Kids”—which she implements in addition to her day job. She has just published Nourish and Flourish, a book of recipes and tips to curb obesity and prevent diabetes. It is now available on Amazon. Here is the link to her website, where you can find the other aspects of her outreach. She works directly with kids, engaging them in making better choices about their diet while having fun cooking together.

Next Post: 12/18/2012