All of us who are white in America were born into a country steeped in racism. Even for those of us who were taught that racism is wrong, that we are all equal, all God’s beloved children, regardless of the color of our skin, racism was something dark and deeply troubling we had to contend with, something that colored our whiteness.
It shaped our sense of self, our sense of justice, fair play, and compassion for others. It fostered a sense of collective guilt and shame for white ancestors who enslaved others or looked askance at those who did. For those today who persist in holding racist views. Even for beloved grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins who ought to know better, and yet through the occasional disparaging remark and negative attitude revealed a meanness of spirit toward a whole race of people simply because of the color of their skin.
I learned at an early age that good-hearted people, people I loved and admired and thought I could trust, held racists views. That they could be, God-forbid, racists themselves. Who held views that filled me with shame and sadness.
I was fortunate to be raised by a mother who was not prejudiced, who spoke out against those who were, and who taught me through her words and actions to understand how wrong racism is.
I have been fortunate in that all of my brushes with “blackness,” black people and black culture, have been positive, enriching experiences, and have colored my view of blackness with a deep admiration and respect. My one negative experience was no exception.
Today, when the whole world is rising up to reject racism, to protest against its continued brutality, is a time for all of us to reflect upon our own “Brushes with Blackness,” as I call it here, the experiences that have colored our view of what black lives and black culture mean to us, to examine if we in any way contribute to those negative connotations implicit in racists views.
Do we merely look askance at the racist views and systems embedded in our society? Or do we do what we can in our small corner of the world to not only oppose those views, but to celebrate the beauty and braveness and wisdom found in black communities and black culture?
That’s what I’m hoping to do on these pages in a short series examining my “Brushes with Blackness.” This is the first. Three more follow.
With graduation season upon us, I thought I’d re-share the most inspiring graduation speech I ever read. One by the acclaimed writer George Saunders that went viral several years ago. Below is a slightly altered version of my original post as well as the poem by Hayden Carruth that inspired his speech.
It’s not often you get major writers speaking of such mundane and seemingly trite things as “regrets” and “kindness” to students graduating from ivy-league schools. But that’s what Saunders spoke about at Syracuse University in 2013.
You can read the whole speech HERE.
Saunders starts out with this amazing statement:
What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.
Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.
Then he lists sensible ways to learn how to be kind:
Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend; establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition – recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.
Because kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include…well, everything.
But not to worry, he says, because kindness, hard as it is, becomes easier as we grow older. As life kicks us around a bit we learn to become more kind, because we realize how much we need it, and depend upon it, and want it for our loved ones.
Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”
And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love. YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE.
Wow. To be replaced by love. I can’t think of a more worthwhile goal to strive toward for anyone starting off in life. Or winding down, for that matter.
Here is Carruth’s poem.
by Hayden Carruth
So often it has been displayed to us, the hourglass
with its grains of sand drifting down,
not as an object in our world
but as a sign, a symbol, our lives
drifting down grain by grain,
sifting away — I’m sure everyone must
see this emblem somewhere in the mind.
Yet not only our lives drift down. The stuff
of ego with which we began, the mass
in the upper chamber, filters away
as love accumulates below. Now
I am almost entirely love. I have been
to the banker, the broker, those strange
people, to talk about unit trusts,
annuities, CDs, IRAs, trying
to leave you whatever I can after
I die. I’ve made my will, written
you a long letter of instructions.
I think about this continually.
What will you do? How
will you live? You can’t go back
to cocktail waitressing in the casino.
And your poetry? It will bring you
at best a pittance in our civilization,
a widow’s mite, as mine has
for forty-five years. Which is why
I leave you so little. Brokers?
Unit trusts? I’m no financier doing
the world’s great business. And the sands
in the upper glass grow few. Can I leave
you the vale of ten thousand trilliums
where we buried our good cat Pokey
across the lane to the quarry?
Maybe the tulips I planted under
the lilac tree? Or our red-bellied
woodpeckers who have given us so
much pleasure, and the rabbits
and the deer? And kisses? And
love-makings? All our embracings?
I know millions of these will be still
unspent when the last grain of sand
falls with its whisper, its inconsequence,
on the mountain of my love below
Leaf shadows thrown by the morning sun against a creamy wall.
Soft, sensuous folds of a warm blanket tossed across my knees.
My grandmother’s hands wrapped around a mug as I sip sweet coffee.
So much I fail to see in the time of corona.
Or seeing, fail to note,
Or noting, fail to feel
What once I felt.
Poetry all around me.
— April 30, 2020
after the photo by Jonathan Bachman
Our bodies run with ink dark blood.
Blood pools in the pavement’s seams.
Is it strange to say love is a language
Few practice, but all, or near all speak?
Even the men in black armor, the ones
Jangling handcuffs and keys, what else
Are they so buffered against, if not love’s blade
Sizing up the heart’s familiar meat?
We watch and grieve. We sleep, stir, eat.
Love: the heart sliced open, gutted, clean.
Love: naked almost in the everlasting street,
Skirt lifted by a different kind of breeze.
When I first started this blog eight years ago, I had planned on using it as a vehicle for writing about our 6-year voyage around the world aboard our sailboat, La Gitana. Below is part V of that Sea Saga. I’m reposting it here because in some ways all the places and homes we chose to live are a larger part of who we are. They shape us as much as we shape them. La Gitana shaped the lives of my children who were only 11 and 8 when we sailed out of Ventura harbor. I still like to imagine myself rocked to sleep in the bowels of La Gitana, or flying on her wings when I smell salt in the air and feel the wind rushing through my hair. I know my children must too. It was a sweet time in our lives that lives with us still.
La Gitana, Our Larger Self – Sea Saga, Part V
We named her “La Gitana,” Spanish for the gypsy, partly in tribute to our family’s Spanish heritage, partly because sea gypsies are what we would be once we moved aboard her and sailed away, partly for my long fascination with everything pertaining to Gypsies.
I loved the music, the dancing, the clothing, the jewelry, the colorful furnishings of the caravans. I loved what they stood for, the capriciousness of their existence living on the edge of society, their adventuresome spirit, their playfulness and spontaneity, their wildness—all the things we grew up thinking of as gypsy-like. La Gitana symbolized all of that for us. We feminized the masculine gitano and added the lyrical signifier “la” for alliteration, and to show her singular importance. The, not a.
Of course she had to be feminine—all ships traditionally are. They are vessels that serve us, that carry us in her belly, under her wings. Her sails are softly rounded breasts bravely and proudly pulling us onward. And she was alive! So lively with a personality and purpose all her own—a creature, not a thing.
She seemed almost as alive to us as the other creatures that she cavorted with, the dolphins that played at her side, the whales that swam beneath and circled her, the flying fish that landed on her decks. Her spirit was all her own. But her breath, her pulse, her beating heart, her life blood, was us, the people who inhabited and cared for her, plotted her course, walked her decks, stroked her beams, and dreamed her dreams.
It was a symbiotic relationship. We trusted her and sank everything we had into her. And she depended upon us to steer her away from the harbor and allow her to run with the wind, to lead her to a safe haven and hunker her down when the hurricane blew.
Originally she was called “Swagman,” which is what peddlers and tinkers are called Down Under. We bought her from an Aussie living in San Diego who had commissioned her to be built in Taiwan—a Formosa 46, a 46-foot Peterson designed cutter rigged sloop with a center-cockpit. Cousin to the better known and more costly Peterson 44.
We had invested so much more than money in her—our hopes and dreams, our safety and security, our hearth and home, our larger selves. She is what separated us from the sea on those long ocean voyages and moved us through the air by harnessing the wind. Deep in her belly she rocked and sung us to sleep. When the storms rose she sheltered us from the rain. When huge rogue waves came crashing down she lifted us up. When the wind died away and left us floundering in the middle of nowhere, she was the still center in a circle of blue.
I cannot tell you the pleasure and affection I felt when we were ashore and looked out at her waiting patiently for our return. What it felt like to bring our dinghy aside her and hoist our provisions aboard. The thrill of weighing anchor and heading out to sea, raising her sails, watching them fill.
Hunkered beneath her dodger during night watches, I listened to the rush of waves and sails in the black, black night, and watched her mast stirring stars. Sleeping below deck as she rocked with the waves, her rigging humming overhead, the soft gurgle of the ocean whispering through the hull, was sweetness like no other.I loved sunning my chilled skin on her warm teak decks after a long morning hunting and diving for scallops. Falling asleep in the cockpit on balmy days in port, watching the stars gently rock overhead as she rolled with the soft swells.
How I miss her! But we carry her in our hearts and in our memories, in the words on these pages, and the novels I am writing. I like to think another family has taken over where we left off, hugging her close, and steering her on new adventures.
La Gitana—my larger self.
MORE POSTS ON OUR SEA SAGA
I wrote this tribute to my son seven years ago, shortly after the birth of my granddaughter.
Recently I posted a tribute to my daughter on her wedding day, and as I wrote it, I wondered about the tribute I might pay to my son, whom I love equally, but whose life journey, even while raised so similarly, led him down a very different path, often heartbreakingly so.
It always amazed me as my children were growing up how they had come to be, in some uncanny way, the embodiment of very different parts of my psyche. My daughter was growing up to be the woman I had always wanted to be—beautiful, brave, strong, independent and self-confident. While my son was turning out to be the kind of boy that I and so many young women were drawn too——wild and reckless, handsome and charming, sweet and funny, willful and stubborn—a born rebel, who cherished his freedom, testing limits and bending rules. Living with him was like living on a roller-coaster ride, full of thrills and chills that never seemed to let up.
Almost from the day he was born he was a handful. I would ruefully tell other mothers how he entered the terrible twos when he was one and never grew out of it. At the tender age of two he ran away from home–twice. Once to visit his grandma five blocks away. Another to buy candy. A policeman brought him home that day when he was trying to cross a busy street with a nickel in his pocket. I installed locks on all the doors and gates after that.
Yet he was a loving child, a sweet child, popular with other kids and his teachers, even while he spent much of his early grade school days in the principal’s office. Not because he was a bully, but because he refused to be bullied, or see those he cared about bullied.
When he was 11, we moved on our boat La Gitana in Ventura Harbor. He immediately took up surfing, and learned to row and sail a dinghy. He became an avid sport fisherman, making all his own lures and rigging his own poles.
When we finally did take off on our journey there was always a line in the water and he supplied most of the fish we dined on. He could free dive to depths of 20 or more feet to spear a grouper or capture a lobster.
He made friends easily with other sailors and fishermen who were impressed by his skill and knowledge. He became a certified scuba diver at the age of twelve. He was a true Pisces—at home in the ocean he loved.
Trying to home school him was a challenge, but once I enrolled him in a self-paced program where we mailed his work back to a teacher for grading and feedback, it went better. Not that we didn’t have our moments.
By the time we reached Australia, he was 16-years-old and didn’t want to leave. In Australia at the time, many children that age left formal schooling to learn a trade. Often they lived on their own, helped out by the government, or boarded with those who were teaching them a trade. Chris was invited by a boat-builder to join his crew. When it was time for us to leave Australia, he begged me to let him. It was his dream to become the captain of a sports fishing boat, and this seemed like an opportunity for him to pursue that goal. I interceded on his behalf with his father, who, against his better judgment, allowed him to stay.
I’ll never forget the day we sailed away, leaving our son behind in Australia. I felt like the worst of all mothers, like I was abandoning him. And something in his eyes made me wonder if he was thinking the same thing.
At the same time, I felt like I was giving him an opportunity to be the man he wanted to be, to live the kind of life he wanted to live.
I had read books of young 16-year-old boys taking off on their own from Ireland to seek their fortunes in America, how difficult it had been for them, but how they had thrived. It’s what I had hoped for him. I trusted that he had what it takes to make it on his own. To this day, I don’t know if I made the right decision.
He spent 18 months on his own in Australia. We exchanged letters and talked to each other as much as we were able. Always I asked if he was ready to come back on the boat, or go home to stay with his grandparents. Always he said no, he was fine. But I never really knew. I learned later that the old guy he had gone to work for was hospitalized and eventually died. I heard tales about him drifting around working as a carny, and later for a Mafia-type family who owned a string of Italian restaurants. He’s very tight-lipped about those days, and I do not press him.
He came home at age 18 around the same time we returned from our travels, and he was tall and handsome and had an Aussie accent. He seemed happy and confident. He spent some time with his grandfather, going mountain climbing and obtaining his GED. Eventually he became a commercial diver, working on the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.
Then he moved to New Orleans. Two years later when he returned home to California he was a heroin addict.
That’s when the roller-coaster ride became a nightmare. He couldn’t hold a job, couldn’t stay clean. He spent years on the street, in and out of rehab, in and out of jail and prison, in and out of hospitals when he overdosed. We took him in when we could, until we couldn’t anymore. On more than one occasion I moved out with him, thinking hands-on mom-care would help. It didn’t.
The worst part was when I didn’t know where he was. I didn’t know if he was sleeping on a park bench or was rolled up on someone’s couch, or lying in a ditch somewhere. When he was in jail, or even in the hospital, there was always hope. He was safe, for now. And maybe at last he’d hit bottom. Maybe this time he would begin to turn his life around.
Yet even in the midst of all this he showed strength and resilience, street-wise resourcefulness, and a basic goodness that would inspire him to share the little he had with those who had less.
He saw himself as a “Rider on the Storm,” riding a long wild wave that would surely crash him on the rocks unless he could hold on tight and ride it out, and manage to turn it at just the right moment. He couldn’t control it, and he couldn’t stop it, but he could perhaps outlast it. And he did.
He claims now I helped save his life. And sometimes I believe him. My love for him was so strong, my prayers so constant, my will so fierce, nothing could make me let go, nothing could tear him away from me. That’s how I saw it, willed it, demanded that it should be. But I know better. A mother’s love isn’t enough to keep a child safe. Yet still, still, we would so believe.
Sometimes I think he’s the bravest person I’ve ever known. No one else that I know could survive what he’s survived. I know I wouldn’t. Even his father, strong as he is, would not have survived that craziness. Few do, I’m told. Only fifty percent of heroin addicts survive their habit, and only half of those who do eventually lead drug-free lives.
I’m proud of him for being a fighter, a survivor, for not giving up, for having the stamina and courage to start over again and again and again—with nothing, no job, no money, no prospects.
I’m proud of him for winning the heart of the woman he now loves, for helping to bring their child into the world and raising her together, for caring for this child with such love and tenderness. For becoming the Father, the rule-maker rather than the rule-breaker, the Authority Figure in his young one’s life, someone she will look up to, and trust to care for her and keep her safe.
I think of those fairy tales and journeys heroes take, how they go into the dark, scary places of the world, do impossible deeds, overcome unimaginable challenges, fight off terrifying monsters, then save the princess and ride away with her on a white horse. To some degree, in some measure, he’s done all that.
I see him as the warrior turned woodsman who has built a home on the edge of the forest. All the scary things are still out there, but now he’s a seasoned fighter, and he has something other than himself to protect and keep safe. He’s guarding hearth and home, this dragon-slayer, demon-hunter, who has lived with and among dragons and demons for so long.
His body art tells the story of his survival and his path to recovery. Draped along his upper chest are the words “Riders on the Storm” to remind him where he’s been. On his shoulders and across his back are nautical stars and a compass rose to guide him through the storm.
On his arm is an anchor with the word “Family” wrapped around it, to help keep him grounded and remind him of what’s he’s fighting for. Beneath his heart are the infant footprints of a son he almost lost and is seeking to regain. Soon to come, he tells me, are the fingerprints of his tiny daughter whose hold on his heart is so fierce.
Perhaps we all live at the edge of a dark forest, at the edge of the wild, with the dark scary things we fear forever yawning at our backs—addiction, disease, poverty, financial ruin, failure, loss of loved ones, war, famine, even enslavement for some. Perhaps our life journey is to keep ourselves strong enough to survive the darkness, and bright enough to face the light and keep walking toward it.
I trust we all shall continue doing so.
NOTE – His journey is still ongoing. He’s out riding that storm again. Re-reading this post somehow comforts me. He’s strong, he’s resilient, he’s good and decent. He will survive.
I often turn to the poetry of Mary Oliver when seeking solace, when trying to negotiate a path through the cares and sorrows of this world and its grace and beauty.
“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine,” she says, simply.
As if she and me and despair are old friends. As if despair, with all its sharp, broken edges is as common as grass, as remarkable as wild geese shrieking across the sky. Just another thing among the many that make up a life.
Not to be avoided. And not to let drown out the other voices that call to us, or whisper up from deep within.
Here’s one of my favorites.
Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things
I’m finding it harder to blog these days, harder to paint, to play piano, to clean house, to do most anything but write, rewrite, and write again.
And yet, despite this, I’m trying to keep the blogging going at least. The painting is on holiday until I start an acrylic and oil class this summer. But the piano, the poor piano! I feel guilty each time I walk by. She so wants to play.
And the house. Well, let’s not talk about the house.
I’m explaining more than complaining. I set this rigorous writing schedule myself. A “scaffolding” Annie Dillard calls it. A “blurred and powerful pattern.” It is all that.
Here is her full quote:
What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being: it is a life boat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.
She also writes about the writer’s precarious relationship to a work in process which I’ve found to be quite true:
I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend. During visiting hours, I enter its room with dread and sympathy for its many disorders. I hold its hand and hope it will get better.
This tender relationship can change in a twinkling. If you skip a visit or two, a work in progress will turn on you.
A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight . . . . As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room.
Another quote relating writing and dying strikes at the heart of the writer’s task:
Write as if you were dying . . . write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. What would you begin writing if you knew you should die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?
Push it. Examine all things intensely and relentlessly. Probe and search each object in a piece of art. Do not leave it, do not course over it, as if it were understood, but instead follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength.
Who but an artist fierce to know—not fierce to seem to know—would suppose that a live image possessed a secret? The artist is willing to give all his or her strength and life to probing with blunt instruments those same secrets no one can describe in any way but with those instruments’ faint tracks.
One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.
I read the above quote daily as a reminder: Push, pull, probe, go deeper, page by page. Leave nothing unturned. Don’t do what’s easy. Do what’s hard.
And finally, another reminder when the writing seems so slow and never-ending:
You are writing a book. . . . you do not hurry and do not rest. You climb steadily, doing your job in the dark. When you reach the end, there is nothing more to climb. The sun hits you; the bright wideness surprises you; you had forgotten there was an end.
“Do not hurry and do not rest.” Yes. Got it.
“There is an end.” Thank God!
Photo credit: Mary Pickford, public domain.
While neither of these poems have anything in particular to do with remembering those who have given their lives to defend our freedoms, they are reminders that death is not an ending but another beginning. So my heartfelt prayer for them is that they fell into the arms of that great Mothering and are being nurtured and renewed there.
Farewell Letter to My Son
She wrote me a letter
after her death
and I remember
a kind of happy light
falling on the envelope
as I sat by the rose tree
on her old bench
at the back door,
so surprised by its arrival
wondering what she would say,
looking up before I could open it
and laughing to myself
in silent expectation.
Dear son, it is time
for me to leave you.
I am afraid that the words
you are used to hearing
are no longer mine to give,
they are gone and mingled
back in the world
where it is no longer
in my power
to be their first
not their last loving bearer.
You can hear
words of affection now
only from your own mouth
when you speak them
As for me I must forsake
and be bound gladly
to a new childhood.
You must understand
demands of me
an elemental innocence
I ever held in my hands.
I know your generous soul
is well able to let me go
you will in the end
be happy to know
my God was true
and I find myself
after loving you all so long,
in the wide,
of being mothered myself.
P.S. All your intuitions are true.
By David Whyte
To Leave One’s Own Name Behind
Of course, it is strange to inhabit the earth no longer,
to give up customs one barely had time to learn,
not to see roses and other promising Things
in terms of a human future; no longer to be
what one was in infinitely anxious hands; to leave
even one’s own first name behind, forgetting it
as easily as a child abandons a broken toy.
Strange to no longer desire one’s desires. Strange
to see meanings that clung together once, floating away
in every direction. And being dead is hard work
and full of retrieval before one can gradually feel
a trace of eternity. – Though the living are wrong to believe
in the too-sharp distinctions which they themselves have created.
Angels (they say) don’t know whether it is the living
they are moving among, or the dead. The eternal torrent
whirls all ages along in it, through both realms
forever, and their voices are drowned out in its thunderous roar
By Rainer Maria Rilke
from Duino Elegies, The first Elegy
translation by Stephen Mitchell
I found both of these poems and the photo by Edward Steichen on Beauty We Love, a wonderful source of inspiration I turn to often.