72 In The Back Seat of a Car

 

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I had a terrific but also hard birthday. For the  terrific go to my Facebook page,  Facebook is terrific for the terrific. And the mundane. Blogging is for details, for hitting the harder stuff, like Dylan says. Being with Simon in a close family situation was fabulous but also made me feel vulnerable. I am going through big transitions into a life I did not choose.  I’m no longer the driver of the car but all of a sudden I’ve become the grandma who sits in the back with the kid while the son-in law takes the wheel. How did I end up here?  One restaurant  we went to in Monterey had a special section for baby strollers. Someone had parked a walker amidst the strollers. Together in a single special area. I was struck by how Shakespearian that scene looked:  a white bread brew pub version of the seven stages of man in As You Like It, from the infant “mewling and puking in his nurse’s arms” to “second childishness…and mere oblivion.”  Time may be speeding by but none the less I felt like yelling “I am not yet close to the oblivion phase goddamnit!”

Still, for the first time this birthday I did begin to think about my mortality.  Unfairly, I blame David for raising that one. I know –  there’s nothing I can do about aging except to use the time I have to make myself into whatever combination of new and old Judy Gumbo I want to become. For the first time, I acknowledge I am over the hump. My life will end. Not in the grand revolutionary way I once envisaged, but the same as any ordinary mortal. What I need now is a good vision of who Judy Gumbo will be as an older woman, a widow and a grandma. I don’t have that vision yet.  In my early waking hours,  I question if I have the grit and determination I need to get there, But after coffee (2 tbsp decaf, 1.5 caf) I feel fine. Maybe I’ll up my caffeine ratio as well.

Birthday Countdown: the Day Before

Stability: This word that accompanied my once again difficult wake up this morning.  Emotional stability not material in the Marxist usage of material world . The stability I once got talking things through with Stew or David. I know I’ve mentioned this before but I am what Stew used to call a talking woman – I process my feelings even more than ideas with friends but in the past I relied on my husbands for such emotional stability. With friends the conversation line is sporadic, with Stew and David my conversations and resolution of my questions were ongoing. Since David and Stew are gone, I process my emotions here, in my blog. Sadly, my blog cannot give advice or answer back.

I realized this morning that I must and can locate that stability within myself. I knew this in some abstract intellectual sense, but still, it feels like a revalation. That I can recognize my need for inner stability means I must have it down there somewhere right?  Does that make sense?

Except for the wake-ups, I’ve been doing this first birthday without David pretty well so far.  More than a week of evenings out, one on one, or two on one with friends. Tonite is Chez Panisse. Deciding who not to invite to this one was difficult. I knew six was the most I could handle, so I could hear and have real conversations. (I hope those I left out will forgive me but know that, unless you had to cancel, you and I have celebrated together.) Three of us who will be there are widows, two singles and one married woman. Since we widows must re-build our emotional stability by and for ourselves, I”d like to find out how singles do it. But not tonite, Tonite at Chez Panisse I will celebrate I got this far. I’m in a great mood now.



Birthday Countdown Day 3

When I was in my 20’s I thought deliberately about my life. I ran away from home on purpose, once when I was 9 or 10; and ten years later to escape my familty by marrying a man who turned out to be that cheating husband.  Before I dropped out in a liberating, existential, unplanned act to join the Movement, I had planned a career. A straight line life. This is what I mean by planning: to see a trajectory and act to follow it to its conclusion. When my end of the movement faded in the mid 19070s I planned a pregnancy, married Stew when I was 8 months along (still a rebel against bourgoise conformity)  and entered  two of three careers -sociologist followed by fundraiser – in which I was the family breadwinner. I retired, met & married David & now attempt  to be an author. Perhaps not altogether straight but still a line. Or so I saw it. 

 Stew often called me a naive optimist.  In all my plans and imaginings about what might happen with my life, I never included or expected to have two dead husbands. Yes, I fully indulged in the fantasy of a heroic death for myself or Stew on the barricades of revolution but Death did not fit in any way with my go-getter, optimistic image of myself.  I don’t want to sound too Stalinist but my Communist Party upbringing did teach me to be invested in achieving goals so I could live a worthy life.

I need acknowledgement for my life accomplishments on this birthday. Especially  getting through the deaths of the two people closest to me. But David isn’t here to give me that affirmation. Nor is Stew. Is that why I wake-up sad? D’uh.

Birthday Countdown

Evening: 5 days before my 72 birthday, Thursay, June 25.  Youth culture did not prepare me for getting older. I’m not griping about my real age, I’m in good physical shape.  It’s the grief-induced mood swings. Even with the loss of Stew and David, I have happy moments. I  have a large, extended circle of delightful and provocative friends. I am grateful to be secure enough financially and in my home to get by. Despite the osteoarthritis in my hands which makes them spasm so I drop or fling objects to the floor, my health is good. I have my family: Simon, Jessica and Dan. I have projects: Yippie Girl and the Berkeley Barb reunion (www.BerkeleyBarb.org) with its endearing Barb-like combination of chaos and excitement. Plus the memorial/celebration of David’s life here at co-housing this coming Labor Day, Monday September 7, to which everyone including you are invited, a gift to myself of being surrounded by my friends on what would have been David’s and my 6th wedding anniversary. 

I look skyward as I write this and mutter Kine Hora, out loud. I am asking for protection from the Evil Eye who, at least in my interpretation, has everyone under surveillance just like the NSA.  Do I actually believe that speaking openly of good fortune will cause an entity called the Evil Eye to notice and, in that perverse way of the different aspects of the Jewish God, smash my happiness  to pieces?  Rest assured, I’m still agnostic, a  Red Diaper baby, a faithful child of the Communist Party. I do however wonder whether Buddhism, in which you pay attention to your gratitude and contentment in the midst of life’s inevitable illness, suffering and death is the way to go, but I am too Jewish, too addicted to the watchful, vengeful aspect of the divine to stretch that far.

In my down moments my positive energy dissipates.  I feel overwhelmed by loss, by negativity which leads me to exaggerate the small stuff, like feeling  jealous of friends on Facebook who are younger and more successful than I am. Does reaching 72 mean I can never be them? And do I really want to?  It’s 11:30 p.m. I hope to wake up in a better mood,

Morning: 4 days to go: Half-awake, I am still tired. I want to stay asleep but I can’t escape that fog of first awakening when remnants of anxious, unremembered dreams make getting up so hard. I calm myself with by meditative breathing, in, out, in out. It doesn’t always work, but it helps. Fully awake, at least this morning, I feel excited for the day; I look forward to being by myself, me with me, writing Yippie Girl. I must be disciplined; not allow the doubts to creep in. I am confident I will get published in some form or other; it’s the getting there, the “Will l I ever finish? What does finish even mean?”about which I worry.

On to ageing: My memory prefers to focus on the big picture. Small details of my life have all but disappeared. I am grateful I wrote down much of Yippie Girl when details and events were fresh.  I hate this forgetting aspect of getting older. When I was young I had a fabulous memory, I easily memorized and recited Shakespeare’s plays and poetry. Who knows, perhaps that type of memory is different from the details. I have learned, however, not to wallow in such fear of the unknown. I have done enough research – yes, online, yes, reading the New York Times and yes I even saw Still Alice –  so no I don’t have Alzheimer’s.  Forgetting details is age appropriate behavior. I admit though, I envy friends my age whose details still remain within their grasp.

Enough complaining. My task today is Yippie Girl. Onward into the past!

Letter to Bill Schaap, Ellen Ray’s husband

My dearest Bill: I am so sorry for your loss.
I know we haven’t seen each other for years, but I remember fondly our close connection back in the day. You may already know this but if some of what I’ve learned about grieving can provide you any comfort here goes:
Grieving is not linear. One day, one hour, one minute you think you will feel one way and the next minute, hour or day – wham, you feel the opposite. No predicting and certainly no control  – which can be an issue for us control freaks, right?
Everyone grieves in her or his own way. After Stew died, I had a fight or flight response and got the fuck out of Portland as fast as I could. With David I’m more settled and I’m older; my mourning  is deeper and includes the grief I never got to after Stew first died. I’ve even merged the two of them into a single character I call “Dewey.” Imprinting turns out to be a useful outcome of having had long term, intimate relationships. Whenever I ask Dewey for advice he’ll answer back inside my head.
Finally, don’t listen to anyone who tells you it will get better.  Death changes everything. It will only get different. And stay different.
I went looking thru my photos to see if I could find a picture of you and Ellen at Stew’s and my wedding in 1977, which, sadly, I could not.  But I did find this blurry one of you, surrounded by relatives. Stew’s mother is seated to your right. My mother is standing on your left with her usual frown and semi-down turned mouth.
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Do you recall telling us at our wedding that you and Ellen were already married, but  you hadn’t yet made it public? I thought of you and Ellen as pioneers. Our movement’s correct line that heterosexual marriage could be nothing more than oppressive to women was just beginning to fade. Hearing that from you helped me justify to myself getting married to Stew.  You acted on your beliefs back then and from everything I hear, continued to do so for your entire lives.
Feel free to call or e-mail at any time, especially if you are feeling down & would like someone  to talk to. It’s friends I’ve known for a very long time who are my best support.  But don’t feel burdened or obligated in any way. Just know you are in my thoughts.
Much much love to you my dear,
Judy Gumbo

Ellen Ray 1939-2015

I just received a FB message that Ellen Ray has died of cancer. I first met Ellen at the Chicago 8 Conspiracy Trial, where she arrived with famed director Nicholas Ray, whose films included Rebel Without a Cause. When Stew and I lived in the Catskills I would see and spend time with Ellen when we went to New York City, especially after she partnered and later married Bill Schaap, a movement lawyer who, among other things, I still fee grateful to for helping fund my first trip to VIetnam. Ellen’s interests – and Bill’s – veered in the direction of conspiracys – the Kennedy Assasination and publicly naming CIA agents. She was what I used to call a Conspiracy buff. Even though I had found a tracking device on my car I thought of Ellen as a woman who went too far with paranoia, who discovered byzantine plots and “they’re out to get you” everywhere. I was quite wrong. Ellen and Bill were Snowden before Snowden.

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Ellen was a tall, willowy red head with sharp facial features and an equally sharp tongue. Which got exacerbated by what I experienced as her excessive drinking. As a result, we did not get along.  I heard my mother’s vicious tongue in every confrontational remark Ellen made, not just to me but in groups, with friends. The last time I saw Ellen I could not even walk next to her; my dislike was so profound. Why do I write this now she’s gone? have no question I over-reacted to Ellen’s drinking.  Exaggerations based on negative experiences in one’s past lead you down the path of later regret. You never know when death will strike. I always advise people to resolve as soon as you are able any issues you have with others. With Ellen I failed to take my own advice. I wish we could have had a conversation and cleared the air. Or that I could have been more compassionate and forgiving.  Woulda coulda shouda. if Ellen meets up with Stew in that great 1960’s Movement rally in the sky, I hope he’ll talk to her on my behalf and tell her I regret being so arrogant I could not see beyond my own mishegas and accept her for the dogged, brilliant person she was.

Chris Hedges & the Ideal Revolutionary

I saw Chris Hedges speak at a KPFA event last night (6/9/15). I went with my friend Connie, to spend some time with her over dinner, to fill the evening and not spend it in front of a lonely TV set but most of all because I am interested in the topic: “Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt. ”  I thought perhaps I might pick up some pithy words or phrases I could “borrow” to use in Yippie Girl. Couldn’t hurt, right?

No question Hedges is a smart man. There’s a lot of brain hidden behind his tall shiny forehead. And he has an enviable speaking style; without notes; clearly not yet a victim of the ageing brain that causes me to fumble and forget names.  Hedges came up with memorable phrases: corporatist oligarchy, hyper-masculinity, inverted totalitarianism to describe our current system. America is experiencing a corporate coup d’etat in slow motion, he says, especially since they have turned even the natural world into a commodity. I especially appreciated Hedges comment that progressive achievements come from radical movements that never achieve power.  So yes, I agree: to live a moral life,  we must stand with the oppressed; we must cultivate and practice defiance. 

So, why wasn’t I inspired? Why was I slow to raise myself out of my seat and join the standing ovation? It was not, I think, my usual lack of energy from grieving; my mood was good. It was not Hedges critique of Bernie Sanders run for President – that by so doing Sanders gave legitimacy to a corrupt and venal Democratic Party. I remember that critique from the 1960s. For me, one of the mistakes I think my end of our movement made was rejecting all electoral politics. I say that as a non-citizen. I’m still Canadian. Like  a woman before suffrage I have never voted, yet haven’t we all learned by now that elections controlled by bourgeois oligarchs have consequences?  Nor was it Hedges wide-eyed approval of Ralph Nader, a man who I once asked at a private event in Portland to clarify his position on choice and received an answer that I can best describe as a waffle.

What bothered me most was Hedges idealization of prisoners. I know, I know, our militarized police state murders, tortures, and puts in jail what is it – 35% of our young African-American population?  We have 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners. Imprisonment, especially putting human beings in 23 hour a day solitary confinement for 40 plus years  – is horrific, abhorrent, evil and wrong.  My words are mild compared to black lives ruined.

Hedges teaches classes to inmates in a New Jersey prison. In itself an admirable and praise-worthy act. As did I. When Stew and I lived in Hurley, near Woodstock, I taught at Napanoch Correctional Facility, driving 45 minutes from home once a week to have door after steel door clang behind me, cutting me off completely from any outside contact. Hedges rightly pointed to the brilliance of inmate art and poetry, to the sadness, and self examination those imprisoned can give.  I recall a prisoner named Rasheed, who somehow put together the most heart-wrenching and beautiful book of photographs.  So yes, the number of black lives ruined is legion, the corporate prison-industrial complex is a defining evil of our time. 

At Napanoch I had in my class a man who claimed he was one of three participants in the murder of Malcolm X. True? No way to know except his sentence – murder. Did he introduce himself to me as one who “did it?” Not in so many words but his inference was clear.  Was the man repentant? Not a bit, he was proud of his act.  It had defined him as a person and a celebrity. To generalize the behavior of one individual to an entire people is unfair. And very possibly racist. But Hedges did exactly that: he lumped all the prisoners in his class into one category,  not bad guy but revolutionary angel.  Hedges is an either/or kind of person who spouted too much high level rhetoric for me not be a little skeptical.  He offered that same binary “solution/problem” perspective I used to hear from Eldridge Cleaver. When Hedges said “we must stand with “all of the oppressed” he added “or none of the oppressed.” I once believed that. I have excellent ultra-leftist credentials. But I have learned from having two dead husbands that even things we hate contain nuance and complexity.

Finally, Hedges refuses to use social media; for him print is the only legitimate outlet. I wonder, does he still use a typewriter not a computer? Is he aware the corporate oligarchy he hates has infiltrated publishing as much as any other business? Hedges claims to admire the tattooed piercing of those who make up Occupy, yet he can’t bring himself to learn or use their preferred technology.  That’s the grumpy old white guy arrogance I remember from back in the day.  People like Hedges who have important things to say need, in my humble opinion, to show a little humility. 

End of rant. Yes I am glad Hedges is with us to say what he does and is enough of a celebrity that people take him seriously. And no, I haven’t read his book, where he may indeed offer the nuance I was missing, so perhaps everything I’ve said here is as inconsequential as a puff of smoke. 



Post Berkeley Book  Fair

I returned home from the Bay Area Book Fair feeling empowered to use a cliched word (but this is a blog.  I give myself permission to commit a breadcrumb sin.) Perhaps my good mood came from the half/caf coffee I drank at 5 p.m. to get me thru the last session; or the 12,796 steps I took walking around the site attending sessions. Perhaps it was the fries with crab & too much mayo I scarfed down in the food court for lunch. It could have been Marty, a longtime Berkeley friend I reconnected with who said he loved my writing & when I posted on my blog  wasn’t I reminding him about it thru Twitter? A great idea. It could be that I wore my Berkeley Barb t-shirt with its familiar logo: a Day of the Dead style skeletal rider on a skeletal horse pointing its spear at the universe. 

 The Hedgebrook panel – all female –  took me into the world of women authors. Some of their writing, especially fiction, came out with a specificity and poetry I could only dream of, but some of mine, the competitive Judy in me noticed, sounded (at least in my opinion) just as good as theirs. And they are published authors! How validating can you get? Perhaps my self-critique of yesterday are just misgivings exaggerated into paranoia by, through no fault of their own my two dead husbands. I do posess enough good work to give the agent after all. 

 At a different panel – all male – my friend Steve Wasserman described publishers and editors using phrase from Antonio Gramsci that  I appreciate as a guide to good behavior but hadn’t heard in decades: “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Steve may have been talking about himself in the third person the way men can (Steve is an editor at Yale University Press who I first met when he was a radical kid at Berkeley High)  but he took on the corporate mentality and practice of the slick black haired guy from Harpers. Steve called the big trade publishers timid, washed up businessmen who  lacked imagination. There are four. Penguin/Random House has annual revenue equal to other 3.  Corporate publishing the corporate guy said, is a hits driven business; they know thru hits on first day of publication if a book is working. Returns happen with lightning speed. One author got ill the week her (I assume her) book was published, so she couldn’t do her book tour and guess what – the her publishers withdrew the book. The role of the editor is under seige; considered an obstruction, elitist; the  erosion of their authoriy is palpable. The poor author, Steve and others on the panel opined, literally has to write & sell out of the back of her or his station wagon. I do not doubt that publishing is a brutal system; the corporate 1% has infiltrated everywhere. Who knew?

Enough reportage. How come I enjoyed myself yesterday? The spectral presence of death haunts my waking life and tells me I ought to feel sad when I do things alone since I am no longer coupled.  You may recall in DC I remembered who I was but I had both long time friends and Stew’s ghost to pal around with. At home, the transition from coupledom to singlehood is harsh but at the Book Fair my local ghosts made their appearance only in the memories of long time friends. I ate by myself and enjoyed watching passers by, I talked with enough  total strangers that I did not feel alone. 

Here’s the genesis of my (sorry, I really think this is an ugly word)  “empowerment.” I raised my hand with pride when one of the Hedgebrook women asked who in the audience considered herself to be a writer. Hearing writers employ elegant phrases and use levels of detail as I have learned I must, reinforced my commitment to write well.  To realize at least some of what I have written is at least as good – and at times better than – what I heard was so uplifting I feel my heart pound as I write this. Kine hora – protect me from the evil eye, but I belong in the company of writers. Mortality may have diminished my “I” voice but in this moment the skeletal horse and rider can go on their way without me. 

Panic Attack

I met yesterday with a potential book agent. My longtime friend & literary maven Steve Wasserman introduced us over lunch at Chez Pannisse. These are short blogs, I am on my way to the book fair in Berkeley so here are the headlines of that meeting: I felt fine when I left; high in fact;  I liked the agent; he seemed sympatico & given the dearth of men in my life right now I could use any male guidance that comes along. The good news is he asked me to send him 50 pages!  He will judge Yippie Girl based on the quality of my writing, he seemed to like  the fact I had been working on the book for 7 years & that my picture remnded him of the girlfriend that broke up with him to live in a hippie commune. He seemed neutral on the fact that Yippie Girl would be one of the very few memoirs written by a woman, he didn’t appear to like my mention of FBI surveillance & didn’t think the fame of the 60s characters I write about carried weight; in fact could be a negative. I had heard about the anti-1960s bias in the publishing industry before, I thought perhaps they were past it but doesn’t seem so.

I should be happy, right? At least someone objective, beyond my circle of friends, is willing to read enough of Yippie Girl to get a sense of it. But last night I panicked; waking up at 4 a.m. Am I having a crisis of confidence? Do I think my writing isn’t good enough to pass muster? You betcha. I try & remember what my friend Noreen said to me in DC  that I used for the title of my blog piece on the Vietnam, Power of Protest conference:  “Have you forgotten who you are?” I picked up that the agent was saying that younger editors haven’t forgotten, they don’t know who we were in the first place so why should they be interested?  Only by the quality of my writing. Hence my panic.