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A Diary of Change

On the 18th anniversary of the day our world changed – forever.

zack-gwen-twin-towers

September 12, 2001. Last night I looked frantically for the picture of my SAVAR students on our yearly trip to NYC to no avail. But I can still see the their faces. BJ’s thousand watt smile, Kim, Thea, Byron, Jessica, Tiffany, Kristy, Nikki, and Katie all in adolescent poses of deep friendship. There were more but these faces found the camera at every turn. It is what I see when I close my eyes. And I could be wrong, relying, as I do, on the sovereignty of memory. I could be thinking of the picture we took on the eighty-third floor of the Empire State Building – different year but some of the same smiles and definitely the same Twin Towers in the background. I will always remember these pictures and yet over time I know these memories will fight a losing battle with the vision I beheld Tuesday, September 11th. Shocked, I watched the south tower as it belched smoke and flame. I saw the second plane bank and then plunge out of sight into the tower behind, propelling the fireball out beyond the south tower. I knew then that this plane was not coming in to drop flame retardant on the first tower – as I first thought. My heart raced. I held my head. Only later did I curse technology. Oh to return to the world of word-of-mouth transmission. The time when one hovered around the television or radio, listening to the newscast as it was filtered through the minds and hearts of stoic announcers. I thought of Cronkite’s voice coming over the speaker in my junior high library and how it cracked and caught on the words that president, John F. Kennedy was dead. That was a time when we were allowed space to form our own mental pictures of catastrophe – however tragic. It is different now.

 Yesterday I had a student write in her English essay, “Change is inevitable…” At fifteen she knows this. And here I am, half a century in age and barely able to remember when a postage stamp was two cents and the closest war was the ‘gas war’ happening over on the boulevard. I’ve missed something about change. Maybe it is the sameness of my days; the only changes are the ones I make.

 Now, my days are changed. An unseen hand has written a tragic script complete with murderous planes. How does one teach this? I don’t want to gather my son and the sons and daughters of others around me and have to explain hatred and intolerance. I fear it is completely beyond my ability. And yet I must.

 I left school on that Tuesday with nowhere to go. Everywhere there was nothing but television news so I watched my son’s soccer practice. I sat in the bleachers reading the local paper, the last one printed before the attack. I could believe, for a few minutes anyway, that the news of the day was light. Periodically, I’d look up at the boys and girls of various ethnic backgrounds on the soccer field in the bright sunshine. The day was exquisite, with the green hillsides only hinting at the golden leaves to come. On the broad expanse of lawn I witnessed young people in innocent athletics giving high fives to friends and competitors alike. I could have stayed there forever, a frozen tableau of perfection. No hatred, no intolerance, no headlines of alarm.

 A student asked about our annual New York City trip. I was resolute in my response. “We will go. That’s one thing that will not change,” I told her. But change is inevitable. A fifteen-year-old told me this. And she was right.

April 2002. The New York City trip did happen. Phantom of the Opera enthralled my forty-five students, most from the hinterlands of rural western New York. On the subway to South Street Seaport, I decide not to make the trek to the hole in the ground that changes forever they way I view human nature. Most of the young people go with another chaperone. A few students stay with me and the vendors of cheap memorabilia. I sigh with relief. I am not ready.

Our chartered bus is faithful to our departure time and, after a last minute buying flourish of knockoff glasses and watches, we depart. I count heads then relax amid the excited chatter of adolescence. Even as darkness descends I sense we are on THAT parkway. My senses are validated by the silence that befalls the group. The bus slows to a crawl – not for traffic but for the view of the remains of the Twin Towers – the hole that has swallowed my city memories. I thought if I didn’t look – maybe things would become unchanged. I looked.

I admonish myself for my foolish, pretzel logic – to think we could achieve some type of retro-sameness. Like the skyline of lower Manhattan, we are all forever changed.

GDF – 2019

 

Thoughts From the Archives of Past Failures

 

king-20th-cent-martyrs
20TH Century Martyrs: Westminster Abbey, UK

The mind and the heart do a silken dance of deception as we answer questions of the decade with such rapidity as not to allow the worst possible scenario to come to pass. We organize the details of our lives for ease. We run from those who would infect our skin with want, moving to the woods, the shores and hills to breathe fresh air for the last time. We know this. Yet we move anyway. We leave our cities, our works of art to those who’ve sold them to the curriers of chaos.

 

The mind is an enchanting stadium filled with the lies we tell ourselves because, if we know anything, we know our hearts. Do we? Are we not the same flesh and bone that steps over the bodies of babies washed up on our hostile shores? Are we not the masters of our own lives – the very lives we allow the heartless to fill with fear and hatred? What can it mean when we exhaust ourselves shifting our lines-in-the-sand of decency? What can it mean when, in a final heat, our feet will slam an earth that will crack open under the weight of our finish?

 

We cannot run fast enough to escape the fact that our fates are tied. And we just may perish under the truth that we are lead by the worst in humanity. The worst in the world. The worst in us.

 

Gwen Davis -Feldman ©2017

 

 

 

Why I Marched

me-w-sign

I am of that age to which some “ladies” don’t generally admit. I am 65 years old and no “lady”. I’ve come a long way from those years when my mother would scold me for unladylike behavior; gum chewing, swearing, wearing mini-skirts, and sloppy bell-bottom pants. I was admonished for any behavior that would have me in motion, speaking my thoughts, and waving my fist in the air. I guess my mother’s wish was that she be the mother of a lady. But that wish came before my dad left her and us. My father left me with the hard fact that it was always a man’s prerogative to leave. I was 16 when I watched my mother dragging home an old typewriter and asking to use my grammar text to practice letter writing – something she did not learn before being taken out of fifth grade to care for her blue-eyed brothers and sisters in the Canadian Maritimes. I fell asleep many nights to the cadence of the old Royal typewriter’s “home row” as mom practiced for the job of receptionist with Los Angeles’ only African-American optometrist at the time. It was a job that would take her from the sweatshops of downtown and provide a sense of dignity she so desperately wanted. It was about that time my mother quit pushing me to be a lady, instead, telling me to stay in school and get a good job so I wouldn’t have to depend on a man to take care of me – “be able to care for yourself.” She was telling me to be, like her, a real woman. I started college in 1969 only to witness events that did not revolve around whether or not I saw myself as a lady. Later, as the only African-American female in my Los Angeles workplace, I was made aware of the prevailing assumptions regarding my collective and gender. Insulting still was the old term “ladylike” often used when I responded with a few well-placed expletives in my defense. I learned that fighting misogynistic attitudes with anger was ‘unladylike’. Eventually, I was able to return the “favors” with a tough, wisecracking demeanor that shielded me in the male-dominated industries in which I worked. It wasn’t long before I realized that being a lady made me vulnerable while being a woman made me strong.

So, on Saturday, January 21st I marched with REAL women who were proud of their pussy-hats. The experience took me back to my days as a student at San Jose State University in northern California when, with my Afro as a halo, I marched against the purveyors of the Vietnam War just as fervently as I marched Saturday against the current war on women. I marched for my older sister who died of breast cancer in 1990 and for the sister of my college roommate who had just succumbed to this dreaded disease; a disease that hunts down women with a criminal, bloodstained accuracy and kills with impunity. But I also marched for the women who voted for Trump and against (in my mind) the best interest of ALL women. I’ve lived long enough to know there is not enough time for blame and finger pointing. The die is cast and everyone, all women and the people we love, will be hurt by the Trump legislation that is coming our way.

 

So, I marched, I yelled until I was dizzy, waved my fists in the air and hugged my history-making girlfriends in wild abandonment of that outdated

moniker; LADY.   I marched as a WOMAN.

Comes the Fate Upon Us: Taking Adversity Seriously

King - 20th cent. martyrs
Martyrs of the 20th century – honored in granite and poetry – Westminster Abbey

December 17, 2016

I’ve just read a summation of our president’s news conference on Russia’s hacking of the election that allowed Donald Trump to steal the election from Hillary Clinton. I saw clips of our beautifully cerebral President Obama thoughtfully picking his way through the minefield of words available for times such as these; words that could highlight injustice in a big and angry way. And for that moment I wanted him to be that angry black man – the idea that so scattered the brains of bigoted whites eight years ago – I wanted Obama to tear away at that inbred institution designed for service to the very few. But he didn’t, and that saddens me. My president’s behavior revived for me the belief that there is some unseen player in presidential politics. One who holds all the rules governing this experiment we call democracy. This is the player who gladly sits sideline whispering, to the one front and center, cautionary tales; this is the preemptive hand upon which are written all the options at a President’s disposal. What were the options facing you Mr. President? Instruct the Electoral College to do the right thing, nullify the elections? Declare Hillary Rodham Clinton president? (Personally, I think your parting tasks to ensure a legacy of courageous decision making should be to put Sec. Clinton on Supreme Court and declare Santa Claus legally, officially, a black man). But no, sadly, you have no legal standing in this case. You may have been besieged by thoughts of a civil war even as you understand fully your duty to ensure a “peaceful and orderly transition”. But, there will be war – an uncivil war – waged by the upcoming Theatre of Thieves – the 21st Century robber-barons. And yes, we will protest even as we hide the sickness that resides in the thought that our beloved President, hands tied by a constitution he has taught, is as helpless as we are  watching further shredding of this democracy.

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December 19, 2016

It seems clear to me today – December 19, 2016 – that we are moving towards that southern economic doctrine of low wages, no unions and little concern for the environment. A southern doctrine that addresses ideas like diversity and the need for common courtesy (erroneously referred to as political correctness) as frivolous, white-power killing, sentimentality. This new “strategy” will ensure that those who live in poverty and those refugees whose fate lies in the kindness of strangers remain 2nd and 3rd class citizens (if they are allowed to remain at all). It will ensure that those who, by nature, have to work outside their small circle of cultural acceptance live in fear. Fear of a capriciously dispatched army who will bend and convert non-believers to their will. This doctrine resides in the barren drought-stricken stretch of community where women know their place, little girls don’t appear too smart and all females understand the ugly consequences of striving to be richer than a man. It is a place where the aims of decent men and the female pantsuit are outlawed.

It is time, now that the Electoral College has affrimed its predilection for inertia, to take Trump seriously and not literally, as Christy Wampole of the New York Times suggests in her piece, How to Live Without Irony (For Real this Time) Yes, we now have a president who can’t spell, who tweets his thin-skinned pain like a hurt child, who has grabbed women by their genitals because he could. Now, according to Wampole, we should be seriously prepared “for a new, expressive austerity.” I agree. It was easy to sit on our self-righteous liberal laurels and ignore the suffering of the “uneducated deplorable” citizens. We are all guilty, in some form or another, of this class combat. And these self-righteous thoughts may still be the palliative we use to soothe the cuts of loss. I know I sleep better knowing I am right; that the best candidate did not win. And, God help me, I have to catch myself, feeling happy for the sure to come ‘I told you so’s”. The low-income, less educated worker, the praise-worthy military and its veterans who will stand and die for the next war to come in spite of GOP continued resistance to Veterans Bills and continued funding, all will suffer (much more than I will) for their willingness to trust a different voice – as long as that voice promised personal well being and for some, as long as that voice as male and white. I have to acknowledge and take serious the ‘trust’ his voters have. I agree with Wampole when she says “this president-elect, seems incapable of laughter…[embodies] the thirst for profit …apocalypse fetishism, joyless ideology, and even cruelty. [His] is a punitive seriousness, a burn-it-all-down ethics that favors revenge over reconciliation.” That said, we must never normalize his brand of seriousness. We must never forget this man is a dangerous buffoon who takes money and retaliation seriously. His hollow promises, laughter and smiles are simply means to an end. As decent human beings, we must take the high road as we struggle to soften the blow Trumps tactics will surely have on those who simply wanted to “shake things up.”  God help us.

 

So, this evening, my second glass of wine has sufficiently lubricated the hinges on the doors to my big, rusted political heart and I find myself returning to a line in Homer’s Odyssey, a scene really, where Polyphemus, blinded and bested by an arrogant, boasting Odysseus, stands huge upon an outcropping, breaking off mountain-tops and hurling boulders and curses in the direction of Odysseus’ retreating ship. And, for the moment, we are Polyphemus, blinded and outwitted by our lack of seriousness and the arrogant tools of injustice. The line that haunts me? “Now comes the weird upon [us].”

 

 

THE LIFE LIMITED

tracks

Not the express train –

The uneventful

Quick-trip to decay

 

We’re on the Limited;

Confined within limits

On life’s platform

Night watching

Brief recognition vanishing outlines

Illuminated windows, They stare ahead

Silhouetted profiles against flashing light

Glimpsing the gold coins of

The Paradise Express

 

We remain for the day

As we see ourselves

Age and wisdom

In separate cars

On that same track

Tearing through

A landscape of

Scattered grace

 

THE PERILS OF BEING THE BEST

Rainbow Little Torch

I’ve been running for my dream
That started well before
The public even knew
There was someone to adore

I was swimming for my dream
Well before I was born
Who knew the heights that I would reach
The laurels my head adorn

I’ve been throwing at my dream
As you watched and tisked disdain
“She’s so big and unbecoming”
As if my goals were your domain

I’ve been fencing with my dreams
Assault by angulation
Beautiful balestra in hijab
Avoiding fearful imagination

I’ve been balancing all my dreams
On rings and bars and mats
Long before you got off your couch
To write uncharitable scat

Don’t shower me with bloodless praise
“I’m the greatest in the land”
And in ultimate compliment say,
I “compete just like a man.”

First Lady Once Removed

NYT 7:23:16 Lauren Tamaki
nyt 7/23/17 Lauren Tamaki

 

The door to my 10th grade English classroom was flung open with more than a little purpose on the afternoon of October 24, 2003. Irritated, after a long day of teaching, I looked up to see two stocky men, strangers, each with a curly black cord snaking from a right ear to God knows where. Fear replaced irritation as my heart leapt, scared by the suddenness of their movement and the no-nonsense look on the faces of the United States Secret Service. My high school was being “swept” in preparation the arrival of Senator Clinton. The three students in the room, frozen by a situation they had only witnessed in movies, looked at me in surprise, happy to be getting out of their current assignment. I told the agents we needed to stay put to finish our work. The looks of the agents softened as they gave us a nod before closing the door and moving down the hallway to “sweep” the remainder of our school.

 

Senator Clinton was due to speak within the hour in the high school atrium to award the our school district a federal grant to equip district school busses with diesel emissions reduction systems. I waited with my students in the hallway behind the stage with hopes of meeting the Senator and former First Lady.  I moved closer in an attempt to hear my students converse with Senator Clinton. She look up at me and smiled. I offered my hand and introduced myself. I noticed a twinkle in her eye, a softening humility of the often beleaguered former First Lady who had been so hated by so many – even some from her own party. Initially, my feelings were mixed regarding Hillary Clinton. I had friends who resented her for not ditching her husband in the face of his infidelity. There were those who could not separate the president’s personal faults from the actions of his wife. I heard the degrading comments referencing Senator Clinton’s political aspirations; “too ambitious,” some said. But I know a woman’s ambitions are not judged the same as a man’s. Like Sophocles’s Antigone, Clinton’s drive comes from a place that is feared by her opponents. Hillary Clinton has long embodied the power of one who prefers reality to dreams. And, when her First-Lady reality punctured the dreams of those Americans used to seeing women behave a certain way, the ground was in place for all manner of campaigns to bring down Hillary Clinton. She’s a woman who will not be held in place by the principles of double standards revered by the political, nattering, nabobs who slink about, reading and seeing only that which justifies their point of view.

 

There is an aura that surrounds Hillary Clinton. And maybe, my end-of-the-day fatigue made me more prone to awe. But, once in the Senator’s presence, I would have signed on for whatever job she gave me. Such was the strength of the power she conveyed and shared with those working with her. The idea of Hillary Clinton as a natural politician provokes fear.  That a person can go into a building full of people and by her mere presence win hearts and minds, is frightening indeed, especially to the more artificially programmed politician who will spend untold public dollars to find the smoking gun that will close the circuit on her power source.

Later, when I related my experience to others I was reminded of how awe can be inspired not necessarily by decency but the simple power of prominence. I should say here that I was no stranger to being in the presence of prominent people. I have met my share of the famous and infamous. The names that remain in my memory are there for having shown a certain unpracticed humility that overrode all the accolades and awards. It is a power that comes from knowing oneself and an understanding of human nature in general. The venerated journalist, Walter Cronkite displayed the same humble power as he shook hands while walking through the hallway of my first post-college job at CBS Radio in San Francisco. I often thought that, as a naïve twenty-three-year-old I was blinded by the bright light of Cronkite’s accomplishments but the longer I live; I know what can and what cannot be faked. There are times when humility has to live along side of ambition – times when humility seems practiced to veil naked drives for power. But ambition, for women as for men, is not necessarily a bad thing. I believe it is this ambition that Secretary of State Clinton’s detractors cannot abide.

Still holding my hand, Senator Clinton thanked me for teaching, saying that so many of our country’s teachers could be successful in many other professions – but instead they come to the classroom. Intrigued, I wondered how this woman, whom I had never met, could presume to know me? Now, 13 years older and wiser, I understand (like Clinton) more about human nature. Senator Clinton’s acknowledgment of a certain nobility in one’s desire to teach made me glad, all over again, for my decision to leave California. And there will be those who say that all Senator Clinton represented for me that day in 2003 was a simple affirmation of my own life choices. But, as Antigone infers, there are two laws: man’s law and the law of nature. And one is more infinitely worth fighting for.

I’M STILL

Slide1

We teachers are a docile lot

Teaching this world’s polyglot

Glued to plans and kids alike

Don’t ask us what we don’t like

Keep the kids’ assembly line

Moving forward marking time

And when the hammer rears its head

Do ‘be still’ until you’re dead

HOME WORK

Jr. hi sch

I’m tired

Of the look

Insolence interrupted

By the jaundiced-whites

Harbingers of your future

What do I care?

Of your English grade – 32

Why should I care

More than you

Or your mom’ s not

Your dad’s what?

They made it harder for you

You make it hard for me

To care – the cycle

I dare to meet

Those eyes

You raise

To the sound I make

What you care to hear

Around the earbuds that let in

Only the nuance of thuggery

Now

Waiting at the school door

For pick up

Graduation?

To the line at the Mobile station

Bathroom – the 8X8 cell where

You’ll lose your innocence again and again

So don’t move – keep the look

Dare me to care

If you have

Your homework