THE CENTER THAT HOLDS
I recently watched a documentary on prolific author Joan Didion, titled “The Center Will Not Hold”. I first imagined a piece of cheese toast, soft and falling apart in the middle. I wondered then, if the title referenced some physics principal applied to structures without enough support to keep them intact. When I finally Googled “The Center Will Not Hold”, I saw that Didion took it from “The Second Coming”–a dark, mysterious poem written by Yeats in 1919. I can’t claim to understand all Yeats wanted to convey, but I did know he meant that nothing is for certain and things fall apart.
Then I flashed on what happened to me after GG’s memorial service. “GG” stands for “Great Grandmother”, the name our daughter, Sigrid, gave to Kathleen, Ed’s mother, a great grandmother to her four biological great-grandchildren and a GREAT, GRAND mother to everyone related to her, by blood or marriage or simply fortunate proximity.
The service was glorious, on a warm, July day, the river’s rush a comforting background for family and friends honoring one of the finest women we knew. After Ed’s welcome and his sister Shirley’s scripture reading, the great-grandchildren sang “Jesus Loves Me”, their little voices sweet and high. I read my account of GG’s life story, one that flowed out of me with such ease when I wrote it, it felt like it wrote itself. We sang “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and then the grandchildren, grown with children of their own, carried GG’s ashes to the vinca-covered place near our deck, next to the ashes of Harry, her husband of sixty years, while Jesse Winchester sang “The Far Side Banks of Jordan,” assuring us GG and Harry were eternally united. We feasted then, on our potluck and memories of GG while we laughed and hugged and cried.
The next afternoon, tired but satisfied that we’d sent GG off in a way she would have loved, I took a walk on the trail that goes past our house. I paused to lean back and look up at the stately cedars, their tops fringed against wispy clouds and clear blue sky. Quiet except for a bird’s cheep. Inhaling the smell of leaves and dirt.
In that moment I experienced a knowing in the knowing place that surpasses words and ordinary thought. I knew, for absolute certain, that GG’s spirit was inside me, and that she’d live inside me forever. I knew too, that my spirit would live in my children and grandchildren, that they would carry me with them in the same way, and that they would leave their spirits with their children–and on and on and on. And in that moment, I was sure that the transfer of loving spirit was all there is and ever will be. I knew that’s what matters. I knew it was enough. That is what we live to do.
I think of that now, when the head of our country tells yet another blatant lie. When transgendered people and people of color are persecuted. When another mass murder shocks me. I think of my grandchildren standing at an altar in their church, the light through stained glass polishing their hair, as they light candles for GG and thank God for “having her as a role model in our lives.”
I remember, then, that when loving spirit is passed down to loved ones, the center does hold. Perhaps it’s the only center that does. But it does. It holds. And holds.
October and pumpkins on porches and cottony ghosts wisping from trees and the Facebook post, “What movie terrified you as a child?” I didn’t have to think. No contest: The Tingler.
I was twelve, mesmerized, as I watched Vincent Price warn against the merciless Tingler that would burrow into my spine, infusing it with bone chilling fear. When, in the bathroom of a woman whose fear had driven her mad, the black and white film exploded into technicolor and blood gushed from the bathtub faucet, I shut my eyes and breathed hard. At the end, a lobster-like creature crawled across the screen, and big-eyed Vincent gasped, “Ladies and Gentlemen! The Tingler has escaped into the theater! Run! Run for your lives!”
That night, terrified and twisting in my twin bed, I called for help. No one came. The thick, lonely darkness was almost as scary as the movie.
I had often lain awake, scared my house would catch fire. “Dear God,” I’d pray, “Please don’t let my house catch on fire.” Then, afraid of being selfish, “And please don’t let anybody else’s house catch on fire either.” Scared I hadn’t covered all my bases, I’d add, “Tonight or any other night ever in the whole wide world. Okay?”
All that fear plus my daddy’s genes plus a rebellious temperament were fertile ground for adolescent and adult addiction, and, though massive quantities of alcohol gave me temporary courage, it was no contest for next morning’s hangover, where shame about what I’d done and fear about what I couldn’t remember matched my Tingler fear and then some.
At thirty-five, I got sober. Scared of everything I’d used booze to stay away from, I learned to sit with my pounding heart rather than run for my life, ala Vincent Price, from intimidating people and situations. Instead, I embraced the directives from the book, “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway”. I remember sitting at stop lights, saying to the dashboard, “I will always feel fear if I’m going to grow. The only way to get through the fear is to go out and do the fearful thing!” I got pretty comfortable working as a counselor at a clinic, but when I took the plunge into private practice, I was so scared I decided to write and facilitate a workshop on fear. After all, I was an expert.
I didn’t feel like an expert last November, when a destructive, deranged reality TV star was elected president of my country and began dismantling our democracy. I felt, and still feel, betwixt and between. I run for my life, internally anyway, from the fearmongering Tingler inside me, distancing from the daily horrors. The Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway part lets me acknowledge the atrocities and cry and cuss and then wipe my eyes and step up where I can. I donate to human rights organizations. I call senators. Ed and I do free couples workshops. We make and take biscuits to neighbors.
The part that flees from fear and the part that feels it swap off being in control. For all I know, they made a deal: Let that Carol person feel afraid—just enough to face and help with today’s horrors, but not enough to lose her mind, and, thus, not help at all.
The combo seems to be working. I knew I appreciated “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway”. I never thought I’d be grateful for The Tingler.
When I tell people that, for six years in the eighties, I taught psychology at an historically black college near Jackson, Mississippi, they often say, “So you got to feel what it’s like to be a minority?”
As one of the few white teachers at Tougaloo College, I did feel “different”, always aware, if only slightly, of the contrast between my skin and the skin of my students and colleagues. I was mostly accepted, but something of an outsider. “I suppose I did get to feel that,” I’ve answered.
Recently, though, I remembered something that makes me question my response.
One stifling hot September day, at lunchtime, I was driving the blacktop road that exited the college grounds. My air conditioner was on High, battling the breath-sucking heat. The road was lined with elm trees, Spanish moss streaming from them like long grey beards. The radio was on. Aretha Franklin.
I was almost to the main road, where I’d turn and head to town, when, with a loud Crr—rack!!, my driver’s side window shattered. Glass flew all over me and the dashboard and the seats. I was stunned. My head prickled in a hundred hot places. A rock? A gunshot? But I saw nothing in or around the car to support that. I tried to breathe for a minute, then turned and drove back to campus.
Shaky and teary, I climbed the stairs in Magruder Hall. At the top, I saw Angie, the tall, thirtiesh Social Sciences Secretary. “What in the world?” she said. She listened, shaking her head, while I told her what had happened.
She walked me to the campus clinic where the nurse picked glass from my head with tweezers. Dr. Mehti, a middle aged East Indian man, squinted at me, and, with his precise English, said, “I saw this happen a month ago to a young man driving on the highway. The outside heat collides with the inside cool and the shattering is intense.”
“Ah,” I said. I saw Angie’s eyes close, just for a moment.
We returned to Magruder, and when we reached the front door, Angie stopped. Her face was troubled.
“Oh, Carol,” she said, “I’m so glad I wasn’t with you in that car. I’da thought it was somebody shooting–somebody who didn’t want black people and white people riding in the car together.”
I was too dazed to do much but nod. But, reflecting on it now, though I’d briefly thought “rock” and “gunshot”, I had not, for a second, thought my shattered window had anything to do with race. But that was the first thing that came to Angie’s mind.
Because she was black. She was a minority. And I, I see now, was not. I was a privileged, white teacher with only a sterile, intellectualized idea of what it was like to be black and afraid in the racist South. I didn’t know jack.
I still don’t. But as I watch and listen to and read about how minorities see the world, my view of myself as a good little liberal with a clue is being shattered, albeit less dramatically than my window that day in the car. It’s time to wake up. Past time, really.
LET US BE TRUE
I used to wonder, reading a novel about Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Russia, how oppressed and threatened people managed to carry on in a constant state of fear. When I saw them going through “normal” motions, I’d feel wary, off kilter, as if evil were about to burst through the drapes into rooms where people drank tea and knitted scarves and quarreled over petty things and laughed at silly ones. Did those people have some way of turning off the fear? Or were they just braver than I?
Recently, during our annual “Revelry on the River” reunion, I watched our family avoid talking about our country’s perilous state. We did gasp an occasional, “Oh My God!” when newsfeeds on our phones offered us another atrocity. The gasper would then say, “Sorry. Sorry. Not going there. Not now.”
We had a new baby here, with the most infectious smile, and a newly married couple, still glowing. The children hung out in the treehouse and concocted secret missions on their walkie talkies. Their parents worked jigsaw puzzles, made rhubarb pies. We watched The Red Turtle with the kids and Carnivale without them. The old folks (That would be me) loved seeing everyone so happy.
At dinner on the deck one night, we slipped up and fell into politics. Michelle, our forty something niece and the new baby’s mama said, “I feel so helpless. Like nothing I do makes any difference.”
I heard myself say, “But we’re making a difference now. By being here for each other. By not letting Trump and his puppet masters destroy us. By not letting them steal our souls.”
Our niece looked doubtful. I didn’t blame her. I’d surprised myself, and I had to look deeper to see if I really believed what I’d said.
I do. I’m not being a Pollyanna. I’ll keep making phone calls to Congress. I’ll continue to resist this regime. But I won’t spend time obsessing anymore, and I won’t use my energy to despair, because I have loved ones to hold close and nurture.
Last week, our thirteen year old granddaughter, Sophie, holding the sign, “I support LBGT+”, marched with Ed and me and the Snoqualmie Valley Indivisibles in our small town parade. Near the front of the parade, staff from a local healing center carried a long, funny-looking thing made of yellow foam blocks. When Sophie and I walked closer, we saw that the blocks were vertebrae and the strange looking thing a spine, the individual pieces forming a backbone that snaked through the North Bend streets.
That’s us, I thought. A collective spine keeping us upright, moving us forward.
I picture that spine now when I feel afraid, and I believe I know how those fictional characters coped. They refused to let evil keep them from enjoying each other’s company. They refused to let fear steal their souls, and thus their connection. They were there for each other.
“Ah, Love, Let us be true to one another,” Ed often quotes me from Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.”
Yes, let us.
LET FREEDOM RING
I don’t know exactly when I began flinching at the sight of an American flag. I know it’s been since last November’s election, as I’ve watched civil rights crushed and truth trampled and our beloved national landmarks turned into private assets. I know these wrongs have dealt me an internal seismic shift, leaving me off balance, angsty, scared. And I know that for some time now, when I glimpse a flag, I automatically assume it belongs to a family or business group of Trump supporters, and I check to see if there’s a billboard close by, blaring “Lock Her Up!”. I know I’m painting a complex landscape with a ridiculously broad brush, but that doesn’t stop me from flinching and then feeling bad about it.
Not that the flag has ever particularly moved me. I saluted it at school, by holding my hand over my heart as I sang, “From every mountainside, let freedom ring!” But the words were mostly words, the song a rote recitation. As an able bodied person with white skin and an advanced education, I’ve grown up with so much freedom I’ve seldom questioned it.
So, when the Fourth of July happens, rather than celebrate my country’s freedom, I usually overeat at a barbecue and complain about the ear-splitting fireworks that boom three days early here in the Valley, and the flag is just a piece of the holiday scenery.
Last January, sick of being alternately depressed or enraged at the latest political blow, I helped organize a celebration for Martin Luther King’s birthday at our local Methodist Church. After I’d recruited Washington’s poet laureate and two fine activists for Seattle’s homeless population as speakers, I got anxious that too few people would come, and I went into high gear, spreading the word.
I needn’t have worried. Folks told me they were no longer shell-shocked and were hungry to be with like minded people, to find comfort and direction. The day of the event, I watched those people throng into that church till they filled it to overflowing. I watched them as they listened to the speakers, their faces hopeful, yearning. And, after the choir sang “Precious Lord, Take my Hand,” Dr. King’s requested song at his funeral, I stood with the people as we closed with “My country, ’tis of thee. Sweet land of liberty. Of thee I sing.”
I saw the American flag standing in the sanctuary, bold with red and white stripes, stars spangling the dark blue square. I saw the people, singing from their hearts. And though I don’t think a national flag belongs in any church, I felt the magnitude of what that flag symbolizes, and I shifted again, to fierce pride for the rights our people have fought for, and to the preciousness of those rights as we ended with a rousing “From every mountainside, Let freedom ring!” Yes, I thought. Please.
So, this year on Fourth of July, I whined about the stunningly loud fireworks, and I ate too much at a barbecue. But I also made a sizeable donation to the civil rights warriors at the ACLU. And I went outside and stuck an American flag, one Ed bought at Ace Hardware, in the ground right in front of our mailbox, bold as could be. I claimed it. Because it means let freedom ring. And because it’s mine now. Mine.