How I Became a Leftist: Phase I

I was born into privilege—from a long line of Republicans on both sides of the family. We hated the Democrats, we hated Jimmy Carter, and my brothers and I, on long car rides, would try to outdo one another finding the meanest, lowdown shacks and say, “That’s Jimmy Carter’s house!” We didn’t know anything, of course, about politics. It was just something we picked up, something our parents laughed at, thought was cute.

That was when we lived in Texas. I was 6 when we moved there from California—just that age when you get really good at your body—running, riding your bike, swimming. All that good body stuff. It was 1974 when we moved there, and we were encouraged, forced, to play outside unsupervised. One of my mother’s signature lines was, “Go outside and don’t come back in until dinner!” I had a mile-radius roaming ground easy, with my bike, and I did everything. I explored the woods, found an ancient burial ground, caught lizards with their long, toothless mouths and put them on green leaves to see them turn green, brown leaves to see them turn brown. I dug clay out of our yard and made pots to dry in the sun. I melted my Crayons onto leaves with a magnifying glass, loving the drops of color so much I just wanted to eat them or something…something I couldn’t quite imagine.

When I was ten we moved to a small town in Upstate New York. I was a sun-tanned, gawky kid with a Texas accent who wore sneakers with skirts so I could run around at recess. It started right away. “Yvonne is a pest! Kick her in the chest!” This was recess now. A group of girls would walk around behind me chanting this, and I had no clue how to deal with it. I limped through the end of fifth grade and entered summer, thinking they’d forget about me over the months.

But sixth grade was worse—more girls joined in the fun, including my new best friend. She was my friend, but also the other girls’ friend, and so I was tied to this group somehow and I couldn’t escape. I still look back on it and wonder at that. I had no power to leave, find other people to hang with.

Seventh grade was worse still, because we moved to junior high and boys joined in with the girls. It became very focused on my body, which they picked apart with precision, but mostly focused on my chest—my flat, pubescent chest. I remember once, standing in the hallway outside my English classroom, all of them sneering at me, picking at me with their words, until one of them said, “What you got there on your chest? Mosquito bites? Why don’t you put some Band-Aids on those mosquito bites?” Everyone laughed, and it was too much, I couldn’t hold it in anymore, and I started crying, right there in front of all of them, showing them how much they’d hurt me. Hot, shameful tears.

I endured this daily onslaught at school for 3 ½ years, from the time I was ten until the night before I turned fourteen, when me moved once more.

On the dark car ride to the new town, I swore I would never allow myself to be stepped on like that again. I asked to be put back into the 8th grade, even though I’d finished one quarter of 9th grade—just so I could hide my skinny, flat-chested body among a younger lot. When the prep-girls tried to make friends with me I withdrew from them—I didn’t trust groups. I made two good friends, Tracey and Mary, and went about building my life again, being a kid again.

One day, Mary and Tracey and I were marching arm-in-arm down the empty corridor after school, chanting some silly nonsense over and over at the top of our lungs to hear the echoes. We turned a corner and met the toughest girl in the school and two of her lackeys. Diane yelled at us to cut the crap, and without thinking I yelled, “No!” Diane said, “What did you say?” and I repeated, “No.” Tracey grabbed my arm and whispered, “Shut up!” Diane said, “Come over here and say that.” So I extricated myself from Mary’s and Tracey’s arms, walked over to Diane, and told her to her face, “NO.”

There was an instant of pause before Diane said, “You’re lucky I’m wearing a skirt today or I would beat the crap out of you.”

And in that instant I knew I’d won.

October 10, 2016

There’s a foul wind blowing across the land–
Hold on to your good nature, my friends.

I felt it keenly this weekend, and all day Saturday the phrase, “a foul wind is blowing” kept repeating in my head, even as I walked through the woods. The peaceful woods, where I go every chance I get to wash myself clean of the things I pick up that I wish I hadn’t. A foul wind is blowing, a foul wind is blowing…an evil spell that has affected us all. The id of humanity has woken and is running amok. A meanness is in the air–has been building for years but it seems to have crescendoed in the past few months, dragging even the most mild-mannered, careful people into its maelstrom.

Other thoughts were tracing themselves in my head this weekend, too, though. The first-year burdock that had grown almost exactly in the middle of the path–spindly and beaten down but still there, spreading its leaves–made me think of the random nature of life. A burdock growing here is stepped on and struggles to survive, while a burdock sown a few feet over, off the path, thrives. No blame can be attached to the burdock on the path–it was born where it was born, and according to the law of nature does its best to live. No blame. Just the luck of the draw. The spindly burdock isn’t inferior, and the thriving burdock isn’t superior.

The thing is, science is finding that plants are part of a complex network, and will help one another through that network, sending out nutrients and warnings about danger, and even killing off invading plants. So I’m thinking about all this and talking to my husband, saying that since all of life is connected, it stands to reason that humans are part of this network just as much as trees and plants–except we’ve been doing our best to destroy it instead of participating in the give and take. And Bob says, “Yeah, how strange it would be if I got a cut on my hand and the cells around it said, ‘Oh well, too bad. Tough luck. You’re on your own.’ Then my hand got infected and became gangrenous and I had to amputate it.” (Well, he didn’t say anything about gangrene and amputation, but I like the effect.)

So the thought of “no blame” attached to those who are sown in difficult places–such as ghettos, or Syria–and the thought of the network of life–how the refusal to participate in the give and take of life breaks the network–came together in my head alongside the “a foul wind is blowing” mantra and produced the little almost-rhyme couplet above.

A foul wind is blowing across the land–
Hold on to your good nature, my friends.

It is time for a full-on War of Love. This war has been building for a very long time, too–you can read about it in the poetry of Walt Whitman and Homer, the prose of Maya Angelou and Emerson, the fiction of Philip Pullman and George Eliot; you can hear it in the music of Beethoven, the Beatles, the Wood Brothers; see it in the art of Van Gogh and O’Keefe; study it in the scholarship of Joseph Campbell. Of course this is far from an exhaustive list–just a taste, a taste of all the voices of humanity that have, over centuries, sung their souls for Thee Old Cause, the War of Love.

Don’t expect it to be easy. But take a step and another. Get through a moment and another, always turning toward love. Go home and be kind. Listen to your children when they talk. Watch them when they play. Cook wholesome, real food. Take care of yourself, love yourself, and love this beautiful world. Go outside and behold the beauty of sky, trees, wind, sun. Turn off the TV, throw away the fashion magazines and gossip rags and read again–really read. Read those you can trust and discard the rest. You’ll know who you can trust because it will nourish your soul. It will strengthen your bond with the goodness in yourself and others. Love may be roused to anger but it never counsels hatred. Ever.

Incident at 5th and Main

Actually, it was at Thacher Park Road and Indian Ledge Road, but 5th and Main sounded more newsy. And this is Human Nation News–something I’ve been neglecting because I sort of lost my vision, and I sort of felt it was too big and unfocused.

Right now, I just want to tell a story about my drive up to Thacher Park this morning. I do this every Saturday and Sunday, usually in the morning but sometimes late afternoon, and I do it to escape from the pressures of day-to-day life. These  pressures include at least 80 minutes of commute every weekday on the Adirondack Northway–Interstate 87 for those who like numbers. It isn’t for the faint of heart, or if you are you’d better be in the right-hand lane and hope someone who can’t pass on the left to their liking doesn’t barrel down on your ass.

Accident N87 Exit 4-5

Image from the Times Union. Photo: Skip Dickstein

After commuting thus every day for over a year, and three days a week for 2.5 years before that, I have “had it” with being herded by aggressive drivers, being passed on the right (sometimes being passed on the right and left simultaneously–a tactic I call flanking), and watching cars weave over lane boundaries while their drivers text or eat complicated meals involving spoons or forks. I have had it with fatal crashes that send the rest of us lucky blokes who weren’t killed off the Northway and into congestion that delays arrival time by hours. I have had it with spending 80 minutes of my life every day just to get to work and home again, but I’m grateful I have a job. That’s what I’m supposed to say, and it is true, but….

Anyway, I back up to the end of my driveway this morning and nothing is going by on our usually very busy street–that is, until I actually get to the end of the driveway and all of a sudden there are three cars perfectly spaced so I have to wait what seems a long time just to back out and get going. And once I do get going, immediately it seems a big black truck is on my tail. I’m driving my usual 5 mph over the speed limit in a 30 mph zone, but it isn’t fast enough for this one and he’s right on my ass. I do my best to relax and simply drive, listen to music, enjoy the ride to the woods, but that big truck in my rearview mirror takes its toll. Precious life energy spent realigning myself away from a habitual feeling of being herded wherever I go.

These are winding roads, and I will pull over and invite people to pass when it is viable, but sometimes it is not. Today it was not. Finally the truck turns and I am free of the hulking presence behind me. I get through Voorheesville and on to 85A nicely. Just as I like it–dog with her head out the window, me singing to Badfinger or Mike Doughty, or Courtney Barnett or Ana Egge or oh, lots of things. Life is good, and then I see a motorcycle coming up fast from behind. He slows when he gets near and doesn’t ride up my ass, but I know I’m going slower than he wants to go. My 5 mph rule is too conservative for this busy world I know but I like driving slow, especially in the country and especially in the morning–the animals still are out on the pavement and it is hazardous to their welfare to drive fast in the country in the morning.

I pass a man jogging with his jogging stroller, making a sweeping arc into the other lane to avoid crowding them, and the motorcycle does the same. I slow and swerve to avoid hitting an already dead skunk. Turn onto 85 and lose the motorcycle for a while on the steep ascent, but then he’s back and my Fit just ain’t cutting it up to 55 on that hill. I turn on to Thacher Park Road and he does the same. I sigh and tell myself I’ll lose him when I turn on Indian Ledge, my secret winding long-cut to Thacher, but when I put my turn signal on I look in the mirror and see his go on, too. At this point, this instant, I lose my patience and pull over to the side of the road. He is still behind me because there are two cars coming the opposite direction and we have to wait before we can turn. When they pass he still waits behind me. I look at him in my sideview mirror: he’s an old-school motorcyclist–the way I imagined Robert Pirsig while reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He’s got a no-frills helmet, a brown leather jacket, and jeans. His motorcycle is just a motorcycle–not a crotch rocket or other overblown thing. He’s a guy out to enjoy the morning and I am angry and motion angrily for him to go-on-ahead-what-are-you-waiting-for? He looks at me, calmly nods, and does just that, and suddenly I am crying, knowing he meant no offense or even to make me drive faster than I wanted to drive. Just a man out enjoying the morning, as I had wanted to do before I let all the baggage I carry drag me down.

Hear ye, fellow traveler: Thank you for your gentle response to my anger today, for popping the boil of my day-to-day pressure and giving me a glimpse into my own insanity in this insane world. I’ll try to do better next time.