(The fire on Storm King Mountain, Colorado at the point of blow-up, July 1994)
Since the California fires began this year, I have been thinking, as I do with every Western fire, about Mann Gulch and Storm King.
Norman Maclean, best known as the author of A River Runs Through It, at the end of his life began writing Young Men and Fire which was published posthumously with the help of his journalist son, John N. Maclean. Young Men and Fire tells the story of the Mann Gulch Fire near Missoula, Montana on August 6, 1949. Prior to 1994, Mann Gulch meant the worst disaster in forestry's firefighting history. Thirteen young smokejumpers, some of them still in their teens, were overrun by a blow-up fire that day.
But in July 1994, on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, another group of 50 smokejumpers, hotshots and helicopter pilots were overrun by a blow-up, in terrain and circumstances eerily similar to Mann Gulch. Fifteen of them, including young women this time, lost their lives. With what seems like inevitability, John N. Maclean wrote the definitive book about the Storm King Fire, Fire on the Mountain.
I've read both books, more than once. Norman's, of course, is by far the superior. It's a work of art, not just an accounting, and I prefer it to A River Runs Through It. Ideas and imagery from that story have worked their way into my poetry. And when I watch the news broadcasts now, I'm thinking not of the people fleeing their homes or the tragedy of lost possessions but of the folks heading toward the fire, armed with only helmets, masks and pulaskis, to try stopping a living, roaring monster in its tracks.
The events of Mann Gulch changed, for the better, how fires were fought in the West. The most compelling outcome was re-learning the lesson of escape fires, which had been used for millenia by Native people of the American plains as a means of surviving prairie fire. I'm going to use the excellent synopsis created by book reviewer Tony Dalmyn in Review of Young Men and Fire to tell the story:
"The Forest Service dropped 15 Smokejumpers under the command of Wag Dodge to contain the fire. They were caught when the fire suddenly exploded into a racing wall of fire that crossed the gulch. Dodge set an escape fire and threw himself into the ashes of his own fire. The main fire, deprived of fuel, passed around him. 13 of the 15 men who tried to outrun the fire died.
"The families of some of the dead men sued the Forest Service and they blamed Dodge for their sons's deaths. They said his escape fire had caught and burned the other men. The lawsuit was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds. The families never accepted the findings of a Forest Service Board of Inquiry. Dodge died of cancer in 1954 and the story of the fire was left untold until Norman Maclean decided to tell it.
"Wag Dodge was the foreman of a crew of 15 (including himself) Smokejumpers. Dodge had not worked or trained with this crew. He was skilled with his hands and during the training season, he had been assigned to repair and maintain gear, instead of training with the men.
"The Smokejumpers' objective was to parachute onto fires while they were small, and put them out. Typically, they jumped in small teams on small fires. They were also a summer service - made up of University students or local men. The men worked in a rotation and the same men seldom worked with the same foremen or the same crew. The men did not know one another, or their leaders. They tended to work in small units, and they were arrogant and independent.
"The crew jumped and landed between 3:10 and 4:10 PM. They landed on the north side of the gulch, about a mile east of the fire. The winds were fierce, buffeting the plane and scattering the jumpers. It took nearly an hour to gather the men and gear.
"When the men landed, the fire was on the south side of Mann Gulch, burning on the ridge, above 4400 feet. It was about a half mile wide. It seemd to have been growing along the top of the ridge, upgulch, from west to east, although it was also moving downhill, to the north. By the time the crew had gathered, the fire had grown. The gulch was filled with smoke, and the exact location of the front of the fire was difficult to determine. The radio was smashed in the jump, and they had no communication with the spotter in the plane.
"Dodge and his men started to move west, to the river, along the north side of the Gulch. They started at an elevation of about 4250 feet, and maintained that elevation (sidehilled) for about a half mile as they approached the river. Dodge had decided that it was not safe to attack the fire from the front. He wanted to get below and behind it, attacking it from the west - with the river behind him for a retreat. His thinking was sound, except that it was nearly two hours after they had jumped and the fire was now growing rapidly.
(Photo by Rob Benson taken from the opposite end of Mann Gulch, looking toward the southwest where the fire was roaring down on them. The barren slope on the right is where the Mann Gulch Fire ended the lives of the 13 men. At the bottom of the gulch the Missouri River winds its way through the "Gates of the Mountains Wilderness")
"A couple of chapters near the end of the book imagine the last 10 minutes of the mission as a deadly race with fire.
(Photo by Rob Benson, taken from the place where Wag Dodge first saw the oncoming fire and ordered his men to turn around. This is the view the men had as they turned away from the fire and began to move up the slope.)
"At 5:45 PM Dodge ordered them to stop and turn around. At first they tried to climb gently, at an angle, upgulch to east, and slightly to the north. At 5:53 after they had made about 250 feet of elevation and about 300 yards (they had climbed to about about 4480 feet) Dodge ordered them to drop tools and get to safety. They were moving away from the fire, which was now coming straight up the gulch. The fire had blown up, fed by the winds. It had turned into a solid wall of fire. First it blew down the south slope of the gulch, and then it blew upgulch, swirling and roaring and gaining speed.
"The smashed watches of some of the men pinpoint the time the men were caught by the rushing fire at around 5:55 to 6:00 PM. Maclean tried to reconstruct the progress of the fire on a time line and suggests some times for some key events. The fire reached the point where they had turned around at about 5:49. It reached the point where they dropped tools at 5:54. It caught the slowest men at 5:56 and the swiftest at 5:57. They had travelled between 800 and 1100 yards from where they turned around.
"Dodge survived by setting an escape fire. Maclean suggests he set it at about 5:55. The escape fire was unknown to the Forest Service, although it had been known to the First Nations of the Great Plains. It came to Dodge almost instinctively in a crisis. An escape fire is a fire set to run in the same direction as the main fire. The idea is to let it burn, and then run into its ashes. The main fire, deprived of fuel, will not burn there.
"The other men did not understand, and they did not trust Dodge. They ran. Two jumpers [teenagers Robert Sallee and Walter Rumsey] went straight for the ridge, across the advancing fire. They made it, barely. There were many opening in the rock, but the main fire was ahead of them, burning in the larger openings, which were as grassy as the main slope. They found refuge in a narrow crevice. The others continued upgulch and uphill, racing the fire. The blast of the fire blew watches, keys and other articles several feet uphill.
"There was a controversy about the escape fire. Some suggested the escape fire had caught and killed the fleeing men. Maclean and the survivors rebut this. It was the racing main fire that caught them. After the fire blew up, around 5:30, it began to gain speed. By the time it caught the men, it was likely travelling at 100 yards per minute. It sounds slow compared to a competitive sprinter - but the men were running in workboots in waist high grass on a 45 degree slope, in terrible heat, choked by smoke and tired after earlier exertions. Maclean carefully assesses the suggestion that Wag Dodge's escape fire caught the dead men, or raced ahead of them and prevented them from gaining the safety of the ridge, and he absolves Dodge."
Three years before I read Young Men and Fire, I left California for Texas. My partner and I moved from Oakland at the end of August 1989. A month before our move, a number of logistical difficulties had arisen, and my partner had been offered a renewal of her job contract for another year. We sat down after dinner to discuss the possibility of delaying our move for a year or even half a year. The reasons for delay outweighed the reasons for moving by September. I was tabulating them on a sheet of paper, and I have a long habit of weighing columns to make my decisions based on concrete factors rather than impulse. Still, that evening, I turned to her and said "My gut is telling me we have to go. Just go. Get out of here."
She was surprised and wanted to argue, but I had no "facts" to give her, just my gut. Finally she said "All right, we'll move."
I now believe some part of me knew about the impending Loma Prieta earthquake.
She worked in the Sunset area of San Francisco. Most days, I drove into the city around 4:00 to drop off my work and then give her a ride home so she didn't have to contend with buses, BART and a very long commute. Despite the traffic jams of the freeway, it was quicker for me to drive us, and we'd spend that hour talking over our day. By around 5:00 each day, we were on 580 about to take the Cypress Street exit to my apartment.
We'd have been in that freeway collapse, at that point and time. I'm convinced of it.
I lived through a number of earthquakes during my dozen years in the Bay Area, two of them seriously frightening me. I checked out fault lines and made sure I didn't live in the worst areas for the various risks (subsidence, liquefaction, jolt, mudslide, toxic aftermath). Every single time I crossed one of the bridges, drove through the Caldecott or the long tunnel out to the Marin Headlands, I prayed steadily -- out loud if I was alone -- despite the fact that I did not believe in g*d at that time. And I was disturbed by the level of denial I felt from the people I knew there, a sense of fatalism that, when I prodded them to talk about it, they said was necessary and a fair exchange for the benefits of getting to live in that region.
Once I was back in Texas, I had only begun to notice the sense of personal safety I felt walking terra firma when Loma Prieta happened. I was watching television when it hit. I was in the break room at my evening job, with a group of coworkers who stopped to eat and watch Roseanne together at 7:00 on Tuesday nights. We had the TV on, waiting for coverage of the World Series at Candlestick to switch over to regular programming, when there was a jerk of the camera, the beginning of shouting, and then the screen went black.
I immediately stood up and said "It's an earthquake!" My coworkers laughed at me. I'd already entertained them with my panicked reaction to the sway of our office building during a high wind. They told me to sit down, it was just a signal problem. Instead, I went to the phone and tried to call my best friend in Oakland. All the lines were busy. I kept trying to call everyone I knew. Finally, a few minutes later, one of my coworkers called to me "You're right, there's a bulletin coming on about a quake."
Nobody I knew directly was injured or killed, but the close friend of one of my close friends, a young Lesbian named Robin, was killed in a building collapse in Santa Cruz. I was glued to the TV for days, recognizing every single shot and feeling an agonizing mixture of relief and survivor's guilt.
A year later, Whole Earth Review's Fall 1990 issue had two sterling articles about the quake. They are long and life-changing, and I can't recommend enough that you read them. But -- there are graphic details, so consider this this a PTSD alert.
(Cypress Street freeway collapse in Oakland, October 1989, Chronicle photo by Deanne Fitzmaurice)
In the first article, Epistemology of a disaster: a physicians's lessons from the Bay Area's October 1989 quake - in Oakland by Mark Renneker, a physician who was on the collapsed freeway in Oakland recounts his experience and what he learned from it. Intermittently in his account, he stops to insert what he calls a "metalogue", and I'm going to copy these in here for you.
"Metalogue: Why do some people freeze up at a disaster? I was senseless in the first moments after the quake, in active denial of what my eyes were seeing. It was my knowledge of CPR that brought me back to reality. In fact, simply knowing that one knows CPR empowers one to act in such a situation. CPR is the ultimate tool, far more powerful than any other medical tool. It is something that all citizens can and should learn.
"Metalogue: What do doctors know about disaster medicine? Practically nothing - it's not taught in medical schools. Apart from mock-disaster drills at our hospital (which were only infrequently scheduled, and then usually canceled), I'd only had advanced CPR courses and spent time in trauma rooms during residency - inadequate rehearsals for what I was facing now. And I couldn't imagine that it would be different for most other physicians. The irony is that, as physicians, we are always 'on call' to our communities in the event of a disaster, but, in truth, we emperors have no clothes.
"Metalogue: Why is there chaos after a disaster? There is an analogy in the field of cardiology. If you expose a heart to a strong electrical shock, it will momentarily stop - called asystole (the disaster equivalent of 'bottoming out'), and then usually restart itself (the 'self-jump-start' process). When it restarts, though, it may have an abnormal rate and rhythm - or what is called an arrhythmia 'chaos,' in disaster terms), The nature of heart cells is that if separated or disrupted, each cell begins beating at a different rate - a rate inherent to each individual cell. Remove the disrupting element and allow the cells to touch each other again (i.e, re-establishing communication), and the cells will return to beating at the same rate.
"Metalogue: Why don't disaster plans work very well? I think the explanation lies in the domain of what psychiatrists refer to as denial - to deny the existence of something despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. While denial can be regarded as a protective mechanism, it is also considered abnormal behavior, and can be destructive. An alcoholic, for instance, may deny having a drinking problem, despite having lost job and family. In children, on the other hand, denial is often a healthy, normal behavior. For example, a child may have fantasies about being able to fly, which is understandable given the reality of being small and helpless.
"When it comes to disasters, however, a carry-over from childhood is not healthy. The big, bad wolf may blow your house down, and you may end up in Oz from a tornado, but somehow you'll survive. Even though we may hear about disasters in the news on a daily basis, we feel immune because they so rarely happen to us. It is from that mind-set, I believe, that most disaster plans are generated; accordingly, disaster plans - whether personal or governmental - consistently misapproximate what can actually happen.
"Metalogue: What is a disaster? In terms of systems theory, a disaster is an event or a series of events that halts or severely reduces the output of a system. A disaster leads to system disintegration and dissolution, a stripping away of structure and of what one has learned or knows. Rebuilding after a disaster is a lengthy and painful process.
The quake has left me feeling as if, for a brief time, I was a part of the Holocaust - yet I survived. (And, similar to Holocaust survivors, I don't want to let people forget what happened. I've even thought it would have been a good idea to have left a crumpled part of the Cypress as a monument, so we would be less likely to forget.)
"I've developed a deeper mistrust of the capabilities and responsiveness of governmental agencies (a mistrust which, as an inner-city family practitioner who sees homeless and HIV-infected individuals, was already quite high). I've come to see more clearly how the editorial policies (and fears) of the media direct their reporting and consequently distort information. And I've come to realize that this little perch of land we're on up here, San Francisco, is to be appreciated one day at a time."
When I read this article, however, the part that struck me the most was this:
"Perhaps fifteen minutes had elapsed since the freeway's collapse. By now, there was frantic activity all along the overpass: men from the neighborhood, of the sort to project an image of street brigands, were dragging ropes and rickety ladders from their garages and were scaling the face of the fallen freeway, climbing up hand-overhand - like pirates boarding an enemy ship, but they were on an errand of mercy. When firemen and other rescue personnel finally arrived, victims were already being helped down, some on the backs of their ghetto rescuers, for whom my respect was and is enormous. (I've since pondered why the neighborhood people seemed so clear-minded and capable in the quake's aftermath, but it makes sense: disasters are a fact of life in West Oakland - with crack wars and daily shootings on the streets, you learn not to wait for civil assistance; you take matters into your own hands.)"
The truth is, despite the news coverage emphasis on later rescue efforts cutting people from crumpled vehicles, the bulk of human life recovered from the freeway collapse was done by people who lived in the projects around Cypress Street. They climbed up the concrete pillars by any means possible, without waiting for "professional" help, and did what needed to be done without hesitation or chains of command. And the writer is correct in attributing this to their poverty: Poor people know how to cope in an emergency. If they are not prevented from acting by "authority" or overwhelming circumstances, they will get themselves out of harm's way and assist those around them as they do so.
I want you to remember that as, in the weeks to come, comparisons are made between the poor of Katrina who were forcibly herded into the Superdome and abandoned vs. those from higher class levels who were able to drive themselves to a well-stocked evacuation center, with their pets, plenty of food, and even acupuncturist and masseuses on hand. Do not allow victims to be blamed. Speak out every way you can against hopelessess in thought regarding class.
In the second article from Fall 1990 Whole Earth Review, Learning from the earthquake: volunteers crucial in disasters - in San Francisco, Stewart Brand recounts his experiences in the Marina District of San Francisco during rescue and firefighting efforts there. This story will break your heart. But I consider it a necessary read, especially if you live in earthquake country. At the end, the author states his intention in writing this piece: "To do good is noble. To teach others to do good is nobler, and no trouble." He follows this with an extremely useful compilation:
WHAT RESCUERS LEARNED
* Right after an earthquake, nobody's in charge. You self-start, or nothing happens.
* Collect tools!
* If you can smell gas, turn it off
* After an earthquake, further building collapse is not the main danger. Fire is.
* When you see a fire starting, do ANYTHING to stop it, right now,
* In any collapsed building, assume there are people trapped alive. Locate them, let them know everything will be done to get them out.
* Searching a building, call out, "Anybody in here? Anybody need help? Shout or bang on something if you can hear me."
* Give people who are trapped all the information you've got, and enlist their help. Treat them not as helpless victims but as an exceptionally motivated part of the rescue team.
* Join a team or start a team. Divide up the tasks. Encourage leadership to emerge.
* Most action in a disaster is imitative.
* Most effective leadership is by example.
* Bystanders make the convenient assumption that everything is being taken care of by the people already helping. That's seldom accurate.
* If you want to help, ask! If you want to be helped, ask!
* Volunteers are always uncertain whether they're doing the right thing. They need encouragement - from professionals, from other volunteers, from passers-by.
These are some of the tools that have proven useful for earthquake search and rescue and for fighting fires while they're still small:
Crow bars and pry bars
Wrenches for gas valves
Flashlights, miner's lights, lanterns, extra batteries
Portable generator and power tools and work lights
Jacks, blocks, and shoring material such as 4x4 lumber
Work gloves, boots
A lot of people don't know it, but the best fire extinguisher in the world is a garden hose with a hand shut-off nozzle and enough hose to reach any part of your building. If you don't have a hose, use a bucket."
(Marina District, San Francisco, 17 October 1989 -- the fire that took the life of Janet Ray)
Almost two years to the day after the Loma Prieta quake, a firestorm swept through the Oakland and Berkeley hills, coming within blocks of where I had lived. According to Wikipedia, "The fire ultimately killed 25 people and injured 150 others. The 1,520 acres (6.2 km²) destroyed included 2,843 single-family dwellings and 437 apartment and condominium units. The economic loss has been estimated at $1.5 billion."
(Oakland hills on fire, 20 October 1991)
I went back to Oakland that winter for the holidays and stayed with former neighbors whose friendship circle extended deeply into the destroyed neighborhoods. Lisa spent a day driving me around the rubble and ash in their old Honda, and we wept over and over. It was the missing pet notices that especially hurt: A scale of loss that we could comprehend.
(Oakland, California after firestorm of 1991)
That night, over dinner, she and her husband Deon told me how their friends were coping, how they had survived, or not. One woman jumped into her swimming pool with a towel that she soaked and kept over her face, the rest of her submerged, as the water grew hot around her and the towel began to singe.
Another family had a series of frantic messages on their phone machine from their teenage daughter, trapped at someone else's house, until finally the messages stopped.
How did those parents bear it?
When Katrina approached, I had an amazingly accurate idea of what was about to occur with regard to natural consequences because of reading John McPhee's The Control of Nature and its focus on the madness of the Army Corps of Engineers with regard to the Atchafalaya. This same book devotes a third of its content to the San Gabriel Mountains, the environment and human folly which has created mudslides and fires of the magnitude we're seeing now. (Be forewarned: The loss of brush combined with the peculiar qualities of chaparral means the next rainy season's earthslides will destroy a great deal of what is not consumed by fire.) Read it for the lessons it contains.
(Robert Sallee in 2005, now sole survivor of the Mann Gulch Fire which he outran at age 17)
I often think about Wag Dodge, a man who thought in terms of tools and character rather than ideas, a working-class guy who was put into an extraordinary situation and invented a way out. When the fire blew over him, the winds it created lifted him off the ground more than once, but he dug his fingers into the ashes and held on, his eyes closed, trying not to bring in air which would melt his lungs. I wish he'd had the time with his crew in advance to create enough trust so they followed him into his escape fire. But sometimes, as Mary Oliver says, it has to be enough that:
you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save
RECOMMENDED ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:
Mann Gulch Tribute, a YouTube video set to the music of Cold Missouri Waters (written about the fire) and containing a wealth of photos from the incident
Mann Gulch Virtual Field Trip, a photo essay created by Rob Benson of the Helena, MT High School Science Department
The Thirteenth Fire, a short but excellent summary article on the Mann Gulch Fire's 50th anniversary by Dave Turner, Helena National Forest, which appeared in Forest History Today Spring 1999
Forest Service Remembers 1949 Blaze, An AP article on the 50th anniversary of the Mann Gulch Fire and its consequences
Mann Gulch Board of Review, a PDF file transcription of the Forest Service's inquiry into the fire
Mann Gulch Fire: A Race That Couldn't Be Won, Richard C. Rothermel's technical article for the Forest Service which examines the probable behavior of the fire and the movements of the crew during the last 20 min of the tragedy
A Walk in Mann Gulch, Learning Leadership from the Fire of August 5, 1949, mostly useful for contemporary photos of the site
Lessons on the line - How the Storm King fire helped reshape the way we fight wildfires, from The Missoulian online, a good overview
Wildfire Tragedy on Storm King Mountain - The South Canyon Fire Explained, a long article by Steve Nix rich in photographs and minute-by-minute description
Wikipedia's entry on the Oakland Firestorm of 1991, with some excellent links
Friday, October 26, 2007
(The fire on Storm King Mountain, Colorado at the point of blow-up, July 1994)
Thursday, October 25, 2007
(Maggie in 1955, age 5 months)
On this day 53 years ago, I was conceived.
It was my parents' eighth wedding anniversary. They went out to dinner, then dancing, had a few drinks, came back home tiddly, and...
Mama said she knew the next morning that she was pregnant. Claimed to know I was a girl and what I'd look like. They'd been trying for six years.
It's nice to be born wanted.
In 1981, I wrote the first of my Mama poems. I can recall clearly when the first lines came to me, as I was driving a delivery route down Church from Noe Valley -- on the hill at 19th, overlooking Dolores Park, I stopped for two minutes to write down the beginning of that poem. I sent it to her for Mother's Day.
When she died in 1984, I found the page folded, in her purse, opened so many times the folds were coming apart.
Thank you for this life, Mama.
JUMPROPE RHYME FOR GROWNUP DAUGHTERS
As she watered,
So she daughtered, mothered,
Taught me how to grow.
Strong brown hands that smelled of dirt
Made me better when I hurt
Kissed my bobos, rubbed my stubbed toes,
Cooled my burnings, eased the turnings
Poppy, pansy, paintbrush, peony
“Come heah, sit down on my knee, honey
Tell me what’s the mattah”
Mama knew of Bread and Roses
Long before I sang the song
Mama grew a summer garden
Made the money stretch along
Grew the squash and new potatoes
Canned the corn and sauce tomatoes
But in winter, it was beans
“Eat your beans, child”
Voice sounds mean
Eating beans till can’t no more
Then I’d dare: “Mom, are we poor?”
“No!” she’d say
and in the way
She looked away, I knew she lied.
So I watched her hoe the rows
Bring in greens and cook ‘em slow
But nearby grew four-o-clocks
Bachelor buttons, daisies, phlox
Oleander and poinsettia
“When you’re older, things be bettah”
Mama, I know why you lied.
Mama dug and found the bulbs
In every inch of last year’s yard
Mama told me I was special,
Told me I could take the hard
Mama, Mama, I have loved you
Every memory of my life
Even when we spark and battle
Shake our world till our hearts rattle
I am always holding on
The best that I know how
© Maggie Jochild, printed in Americas Review No. 14, Spring 2004
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Here's the very beginning of my novel-in-progress Ginny Bates. I seem to have the flu, so this is the easiest post I can manage -- except for not posting at all. Enjoy.
There's links to background information in the sidebar to the right, third item from top.
Fall of 2010
Myra picked up Gillam in front of the university library. She saw him a block away -- taller than the people around him, with a cocoa-brown turtleneck that set off his glossy mahogany mop. He saw her, too, lighting her last half block with a grin. He kissed her on the cheek, pulled on his seatbelt, and said "I've found a place for lunch you're gonna love." He directed her to a diner in a working-class part of town. As they slid into a booth fronted by window, he said "You have to try the chili. Nothing near as good as in Texas, but this is the next best thing."
"Okay" she said, looking over the menu. "They have with beans and without -- what kind of beans are they using?"
"Kidney, not pintos" he said apologetically. "But the all meat version is a mix of beef and pork, just like West Texas."
Myra's round face was serious, as it always was when she discussed food. Her brown eyes were a match for his turtleneck. "I prefer the original Canary Island version, honestly, but that requires pintos. Do they have cornbread?"
"No." He was apologetic again. "But they make their own crackers, extra big and kinda like water crackers, really good at soaking up the grease."
There wasn't a grease smell in this place, however. Just the usual coffee/syrup/bacon of a diner, no matter the time of day. The leather of the booth was soft and a faded red. Myra could imagine hanging out here for hours, writing and sucking down fountain Cokes.
She grinned at Gillam, delighted to be having a private meal with him. "Sounds great. You know, my grandmother -- well, the woman who raised my Mama after she was orphaned -- she was like a lot of the really old people in North Texas when I was growing up in that she believed that food was categorized by whether it was 'hot' or 'cold'. And this had nothing to do with temperature, or spiciness -- no method to it at all that I could ever figure out. Anyhow, she believed that chili should not be consumed with milk, because they were from two different groups. It always upset her when I mixed the two."
"Do you think they were operating on some rural version of food combining theory?" said Gillam. He was at his best when he was earnest.
"Likely. When you grow or gather absolutely everything you put in your belly, you notice things. Anyhow, I'm getting milk." She put down the menu and adjusted her silver glasses. They were a match to all the silver in her once-dark hair. She was close enough to 60 that her near buzz-cut no longer made people mistake her for a man.
"They have a cherry pie here, too, you won't want to miss." Gillam grinned.
"You know how to make me happy" said Myra. "Reminds me of that old separatist joke: You know the quickest way to a man's heart? Through the ribs."
He laughed, wincing. "Listen, I've got a favor to ask. I want to interview you about when you won the lottery. It's not just that I want to hear the entire story -- though I never have, I realized -- but I'm thinking about using it for a paper I want to write about class and culture."
"Don't use anybody's real names. Except mine, you can use mine" said Myra.
"Okay. Can I borrow your notebook? I left mine in the car."
Myra reached into her back pocket and pulled out a small notebook with a pen. "Find a clean page, and don't read anything in there" she warned.
They ordered their chili, and Gillam turned back to her, his lean and agile hands on the table in front of him, fingering the notebook.
"Tell me how you bought the ticket again" he prompted.
"Well, I stopped at a mom'n'pop on the way home from work. I remember it was a Wednesday, because I wasn't going to get paid again until Friday after work, and all the money I had in the world was in my overalls pocket. I was stony, you know? Well, you don't know, not this kind of broke. And I was hungry. Really hungry."
She saw Gillam's face register pain. "You okay with hearing this?"
"I asked, didn't I?" Having his feelings and being brave, that was Gillam.
"I remember I was trying to figure out a way to get both bread and milk. The bread they had was that crap white stuff, of course -- it was out of the question for me to get real bread from the Co-op, not that week. But I had a can of dolphin-safe tuna in the pantry at home, and with bread I could make two sandwiches, for Thursday and Friday lunch. I had dinner for that night, Wednesday, in the fridge -- a couple of potatoes to bake and some cheese to put on it, plus a tomato to slice. It sounded so good right at that moment."
"Just a baked potato?" said Gillam.
"Two baked potatoes, with cheese, and a tomato. That was a good meal" said Myra. "But I still need to figure out what to have for dinner on Thursday night -- "
"What about breakfast for the next two days?" said Gillam. He was sharp.
"I would skip it, or sneak a doughnut from the break room at work. But I always felt so guilty eating doughnuts." Myra paused. "You remember Sierra, her moms were Val and BlueSky? Well, there was a talent show years ago to raise money for Mom's Apple Pie, the lesbian mother's defense fund, and Sierra was about 12 at that time, she did a monologue that began with her saying she'd grown up thinking the main definition of lesbianism was what you ate. Everybody cracked up, but then she went on to talk really intelligently about mandatory vegetarianism, boycotts of certain foods, how sugar equals patriarchy, the lofty status of vegans, the link between fruitarianism and parthogenesis, and even our brief mid 70's attempt at something called breathairianism. She was very funny, even as we knew it was mostly not a joke. Anyhow, I still have that ethic in me, that eating a doughnut is not just putting shit in my bloodstream, it's letting down the sisterhood."
"What about cherry pie?" asked Gillam with an amused grin.
"Not nearly as bad as doughnuts. Which are one step up from a candy bar. Anyhow, I'd not had breakfast that particular day, and my job was running air courier deliveries in downtown, humping up and down staircases because elevators take too long, driving my piece of shit Honda like it was a motorcycle -- it was high stress and I was tapped out. Not a good way to be when shopping for food. But if I got something for dinner on Thursday, then I couldn't afford milk. And I was really craving milk."
"Calcium depletion?" asked Gillam.
"Maybe. Or maybe just comfort. Even that dead white stuff they sell in convenience stores. So I'm trying to do math in my head. I've got like one crumpled bill in my pocket, the rest is change I scavenged from everywhere I could. And that's another piece of stress, having to pay at a grocery store with a big wad of change. Except in those overpriced corner stores, most of the customers are poor people, old folks, junkies -- we all pay with lots of coins. They take it, you know -- money is money."
He was looking intently at her, his large brown eyes soft. "What?" she asked.
"No wonder you always have a wad of twenties in your pocket" he said gently.
They were silent for a while. She fiddled with the napkin holder.
"I grew up hungry, Gillam. My mother grew up hungry. I don't know how long it takes to get over that. When I was a girl, Mama was often too sick to go into the store and buy our groceries. So she'd write out a list on a piece of notebook paper, in the kind of handwriting you don't see any more, that beautiful kind of script they used for movie titles in the 40s, that's how she wrote. She had memorized the store layout, and she'd put the list in order of when I would encounter each item, because I was a little girl and this was a job she hated asking me to do. And beside any item on the list that was not a necessity, she'd put in parentheses a number; that was the upper limit of what I could pay for it, if it was more than that, don't get it. I always did my best to get bargains for her. Anyhow...." she trailed off.
"So, this day. I don't have any pasta or beans or rice left at home. I had one box of brownie mix which had never been used because it was double-bad, you know, sugar and chocolate. I was trying to wish one more meal out of thin air, when I suddenly remembered that Thursday night was a potluck meeting of Stop the Cops."
"I don't know that group" Gillam said. He underlined the name in the pad.
"Buncha ten to twelve dykes organized against police violence in minority communities. It being a potluck, I'd have a spectacular dinner -- there was sure to be whole grains, black beans, a salad, maybe fruit. And I realized if I made those brownies, there might be one or two comments made about how corporate interests grew sugar on the backs of third world people, but those women would eat every one. I wouldn't lose face. So suddenly I had enough money to buy the bread and the milk."
"I'm glad we're doing this over a meal" said Gillam. "I'm feeling empty just listening to you." He was nearly done with his bowl of chili. He motioned to the waiter. "I'm getting seconds, how about you?"
"Yeah" said Myra. "This is really excellent, by the way. Good find." Gillam was pleased with himself.
After ordering another round, Gillam said "So you could get what you needed for the next two days, but where does the lottery ticket come in?"
"Well, I pulled out my change and counted it again. Once the pressure was off, I could actually do some mental math. And I realized I had a buck and nine cents left over, even including tax. I had to walk by the lottery kiosk on my way to the front. And I tended to buy a lottery ticket if I felt like I could afford it. Allie always teased me about it, saying 'Do you know what the odds are against you winning, ever?' And then she would say the exact number, she can remember shit like that. And I would always grin at her and say 'But the odds against me winning if I don't buy a ticket are even higher.' So the question was, could I really afford it this night? It would mean walking the streets of Seattle with nine cents in my pocket. Which is hard to do, even on a good day."
New bowls of chili appeared. They barely noticed the young man serving them. Myra crumbled more of the wonderful crackers in.
"And here's what I thought. You're gonna want to write this down. I thought, maybe the potluck happening the last day before payday was a sign. I had community instead of family. I had memories instead my mama. And I would have milk to drink when I got home."
Myra took a long drag of her cold glass of milk, going "Ahhh!" afterward.
"So I stopped to fill in a lottery ticket. The first four numbers were always the same: 8 and 5 -- "
"For your birthday" said Gillam.
"Then 1 and 31 -- " she waited.
He pulled it out of his memory. "For your mother's birthday."
"And then 41, which had been the number of my basketball jersey in high school, the one period of my childhood when I'd been healthy enough to play sports and be normal. Kinda normal. But that left one number."
She took a few more bites of chili, followed by a sip of milk.
"Sometimes I'd use a number connected to whoever I was dating at the time. But not only was I single at that moment -- it was a new kind of single. The very night before, I'd lain in bed and decided that all the things I was doing to try and get over being an incest survivor were not cutting it. Allie, you know, quotes from AA constantly, and she liked to say one definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again in hopes it would work this time. If what I was doing wasn't working, I had to think of somethng new."
"I don't quite follow" said Gillam. "Weren't you in that support group?"
"Yeah, but that was just coming up with theory. The other half was practicing the theory. Which is where it got tricky. In the last couple of years, I'd tried -- well, I tried being completely vulnerable in sexual encounters. I got clobbered, so I switched to -- quantity, I guess you'd say." She was looking ashamed. "I would say to women 'I'm only going to bed with you because I don't know how else to get close to you.' Which just egged 'em on, it seemed like. I fell in love with my best friend, but thank god she said no. I tried -- have you heard of fuck buddies?"
Gillam nodded, his full cheeks red.
"Well, that, and then always being the initiator, and then S/M."
He was now officially shocked. "What kind of S/M?" he whispered. He wasn't keeping notes on this part.
"Being held down or tied down. It rang my chimes, but not in a good way. I broke up with that woman, brutally. I tried -- " she began turning down fingers as she remember items -- "Acupuncture, moxa, psychic healing, seders, RC, going off dairy, going back on meat, crystal balls, tarot, and writing fiction instead of poetry."
Gillam's color returned to normal with this litany. He even laughed.
"These were good ideas but not the answer. So, the night before, I had decided to stop having any kind of sexual or romantic relationship until I knew what to do. Just go cold turkey. I said it out loud in my dark bedroom: 'As long as it takes. Whatever it takes.'"
"Wow" said Gillam. "Was it your rock bottom?"
"I think so. In the big picture. So when I tried to think of a sixth number, I knew it had to be from my own life, not some girlfriend connection, you dig?"
Gillam nodded, leaned over the table toward her.
"I was racking my brain, trying to come up with a number, sifting through my life. And the week before, I'd found a manila envelope of genealogy stuff my Great-Aunt Lee had sent me, and I'd gone over our family tree she'd filled out in her spidery old-lady handwriting. It went all the way back to Captain James Davis. You remember which ancestor of mine he is?"
"The guy who was part of Jamestown?"
"Yup, that's the fucker. Got here in 1608 and watched women and children starve to death that year, screwed over the Native Americans so bad they wouldn't come near the settlement any more, refused to do manual labor because he was a gentleman, doncha know. And then in 1619, when a slave ship passed by with some extra slaves, Captain Davis was one of the geniuses who said 'There's our solution: Slavery!' I mean, my line ever since then has had guys like him in it, dirt poor but you're never too poor to give up hating niggers or treating women like shit."
Gillam looked around them nervously at Myra's use of the word nigger. He didn't get how she knew when it was okay to say, when it was descriptive and not racism.
"So here I am, this revolutionary dyke descended from a puke in Jamestown, and it occurred to me that he was my ninth-great-grandfather -- that's what Aunt Lee had written. I counted on my fingers and that turned out to be 12 generations in America. If I used 12 as my final number, that would mean I had four numbers of my six that were under 20. Which was a skew that looked pretty unlikely to me. But then I laughed -- the whole thing was a crapshoot, right? So I put down 12 as my last number, went to the front and paid, and got my lottery ticket."
"And that was it" said Gillam. He leaned back against the red leather.
"Not quite. I was so happy about having dinner the next two nights, when I walked out of the store into the dark damp evening, I didn't put on my usual radar. I didn't pick up on these three teenagers, boys, up on the corner. They were white but not skinheads, lucky for me. They were smoking and no doubt saying hateful stuff to each other, and it wasn't until I was level with them and smelled the smoke that I noticed them. When I first moved to Seattle, I took this psychic healing class from Tasha Silver, and I knew how to put on an aura of armor, like instantly. I could be invisible on the streets. But this night, I didn't have it on."
"Fuck" said Gillam. "What happened?"
"Oh, nothing to me. Nothing major" she reassured him.
At that point the waiter brought them their slices of cherry pie. She took a big bite before going on.
"Just -- one of the little pricks turned just as I walked by and said in this nasty voice 'Faggot'. And they all cracked up."
Gillam laughed uncertainly. He was eating his pie in big bites.
"And you know, I could have just slammed on the armor and gone my way, which is what I did every other time. But that night, I -- I was hungry, you know? and exhausted, and from a long line of fuckers I was trying to make up for. So I stopped and I faced them, and I began screaming."
She lowered her voice but used emphasis to get the idea of screaming across. Her eyebrows were raised in self-humor.
"I said 'You fuckwit, it's DYKE, not FAGGOT. You're such a bottom feeder, you don't even know how to HARASS strangers with the right WORDS. I'm a DYKE, and I'm FAT, too, what made you pass up THAT opportunity? What the FUCK would your MOTHER say?' I mean, I totally lost it. I pulled my hand out of my pocket with my keys spread between my fingers like a weapon, and I took a step toward them."
Gillam was laughing wildly. "Oh, my god. What the hell did they do?"
"Great pie, Gillam. World class." She was down to the last bite. "Oh, the little idiots scattered like pigeons. I mean, poof, they were gone. A guy stepped out of the store to see what the ruckus was, but he just looked at me as if I wasn't there and went back in. And I thought suddenly of that Alix Dobkin lyric, you know, 'for they won't defend / a woman who's indifferent to men / and she's my friend / she's a lesbian'. I started laughing -- probably pure adrenaline -- and I got so winded I had to use my inhaler. Then I pulled the milk out of my bag and opened it up and took a big swig. Like I was some kind of dyke superhero in a milk commercial."
"Oh, god, I'd give anything to have seen that" said Gillam gleefully.
"So I went on home, had my dinner, finished the milk, and went to work the next day without breakfast. I did sneak into the break room to filch a doughnut, and it was there I saw the Post-Intelligencer lying on the table. Up in the corner was a little headline that said 'Seattle Area Winner'. I read the numbers, and I went completely numb. My brain shut down. Finally I pulled the ticket out of my jacket pocket where I'd stuffed it the night before, to be sure I really had written down those six numbers."
"How did you feel?"
Myra thought for a second, looking off to her right like people do when they are calling up a memory. "I didn't feel. It didn't make any sense. About then my boss came in, with a run from B of A to SeaTac, I remember that line, and I turned to him and said 'I have to go home.' He glared at me -- he was not a nice guy -- and he said 'What are you, sick? You look like shit on a stick.' So there you go, there's an independent observation of my reaction: Shit on a stick. I just walked out. I didn't know what to do."
"Well, what did you do?" asked Gillam, trying to grab the check but she got it first. He had a tiny smear of cherry at the left corner of his generous mouth.
"I went to find Allie, of course" she said, as they got up from the booth.
(Twenty-five years earlier, in March 1985)
Allie was working short-order at a cafe ten minutes away. Myra sat down at the counter. Ruthie, the waitress, said "Hey, Myra, you want a Coke?"
Myra shook her head, tried to get Allie's attention through the little window. Finally Allie saw her, called out "In a mo."
After two more orders were pushed through the window, Allie came out from the kitchen, wiping her hands "What's up? You look weird."
Myra pulled out the lottery ticket. "I won" she said.
"Holy moly!" said Allie. "How much? Fifty? A hundred?"
"The paper said...$7.2 million after taxes."
Allie froze like a mannikin. Finally she said "Don't kid me, My."
"I don't know what to do" said Myra.
Allie picked up the ticket and read it front and back three times. Allie was always TCB first. "You need to sign this sucker -- Ruthie, lemme borrow your pen. Here, sign it there. Use your real name, not your dyke name. And put your address on it. Now you go call this number." She pointed to the pay phone outside the window.
"I don't have the change to make a call."
Allie reached into her pocket, pulled out some coins. "Go. Ask them what to do next."
As Myra slid off the stool, Allie began screaming. "Oh, my god, you WON! You won the fucking lottery!" Everybody in the cafe looked up. Allie was turning around in a circle, her arms up over her head. "My friend won! She's a millionaire!"
Myra concealed the ticket in her hand and hurried out to the pay phone.
When she came back in, Ruthie had a Coke waiting for her. "On the house" she grinned. Ruthie was short and young, with the pallor and bad skin of a former needle user. Myra had never been able to decide one way or the other if Ruthie was a dyke. She grinned back and tore the end off a straw, then blew the paper off, catching it before it went behind the counter. A guy at the corner table yelled out "You really win the big one?"
She spun around on the stool and spread her arms. "You, my fine people, are looking at a millionaire!"
"How's about a loan?" joked another guy.
"How's about she get her money first?" said Byron, coming in from the kitchen. Byron was a massive man with a shaved head, black though not as black as Allie. This was his cafe. He was also Allie's sponsor, gay, and someone Myra trusted almost as much as she did Allie.
Allie was right behind him. "What'd they say?"
"I'm to go to their office this afternoon. They wanted to know if I'd let the press take my picture, publish my name, all that. I have the choice because I took the annuity rather than the cash option. I said no."
"I'll be done here at 2:00, after the lunch rush. I'll go with you" said Allie.
"Where is your ticket?" said Byron in a low voice.
"Buttoned into my watch pocket" whispered Myra. She took a long drag of Coke.
"Why don't you stay here until Allie can go with you?" suggested Byron. "Have you had breakfast?"
"No, but -- " she laughed, a little crazily -- "I don't have the money to pay for it. Not yet."
He laughed too. "I'll take your credit. Anything you don't want?"
"Nope" said Myra, feeling for the first time what this might mean.
Allie headed back to the kitchen to make her food. Allie knew how she liked her eggs. Byron pulled a legal pad from behind the counter and handed it to her, along with the pencil behind his ear. "Make a list" he said. "Start with who you're gonna tell, since you aren't going public -- which I think is a damned good idea, keep the list of who needs to know short. Then write down what you need. On the next page, write down what you'd like. The second page you may or may not get to eventually. Don't laugh, but do you have a lawyer?"
Myra did laugh. "No, I've barely got a library card."
"You need a lawyer and a financial advisor. I'd recommend mine, he's good, but he don't care much for women. You need one today, girl. Hey, Allie" he said, turning and talking through the order window. "Who's that gal you know who works for the nonprofit, the one who did that accounting thing for me a while back?"
"Alveisa?" said Allie. "Yeah, Alveisa! Gimme a sec, I got her number in my book."
Allie came out with toast, sausage and grilled tomatoes on a plate. She set it in front of Myra, saying "First course" and pulled a little red book from her back pocket. "Here's her work number. Drop my name."
"Use the phone in the kitchen" said Byron. "Anybody asks, you're about to wash me some dishes."
Myra popped a sausage in her mouth, grabbed a half slice of toast and went into the kitchen. Before she got to the phone, Allie grabbed her in a big hug. "I am so fucking happy for you, Myra." Allie was close to tears. Myra hugged her back just as hard.
Alveisa gave her detailed instructions; Myra had to go back to the counter to get her pad and pencil to write them down. After she hung up, she finished her breakfast, which now included a plate of hash browns, eggs over medium, four silver-dollar pancakes, and a big glass of milk. She felt a little light-headed, like her blood sugar was low. She hoped eating would turn it around.
After it was done, she scooted to the very end of the counter because the place was starting to fill up with early lunch customers. At one point when Ruthie was coming back around the counter, Myra stopped her with a hand on her forearm and said "I literally don't have even a quarter to tip you today, but I sure as hell will be back in tomorrow to thank you for that Coke and your everlovin' grin." She leaned over and gave Ruthie a kiss on her cheek. If Ruthie wasn't a dyke, she was still not immune to charm. She blushed and refilled Myra's Coke.
She made her lists. All of them were hard to think about at first. The second list, her needs, got easier when she remembered her Aunt Sarah and her Great-Aunt Lee, both of whom were living precariously on Social Security in Aunt Lee's old house without any consistent help from somebody able-bodied. One of her needs was to get them assistance and make sure they were comfortable.
Her Honda's transmission was about to die. Okay, she could buy another Honda, used but with only a few thousand miles on it. Maybe make sure it had good tires on it. If she quit work -- well, no if about that -- then she'd need health insurance. For that matter, her car insurance was the bare legal minimum, she could get uninsured motorists' now. She could move out of her roachy efficiency and into a real one-bedroom flat, still in her working-class neighborhood where lots of dykes lived. A place with a little bit of yard out back, and maybe a washer/dryer in the basement instead of having to go to a laundromat.
Allie had had a bad molar for several months now, needed a root canal, probably. She could afford that. Hell, she could make Allie quit work, too, do whatever she wanted with her time. Allie could draw like nobody Myra'd ever seen, but she had no college degree and no contacts except for being the person all of the politicos went to when they needed a dynamic graphic for a flyer. Myra didn't know how someone became an illustrator or graphics designer or whatever it was called, but she thought Allie would -- just like Myra knew the steps it would take for her to be a published writer some day.
Suddenly Myra had a big glimpse into her future. This money meant survival, for her, for Allie, for her brother Gil if she could get him clean and sober. It meant years of doing just about any kind of activism or support or writing she put her mind to. It meant help, the kind she had not been able to buy. It meant security like she'd never known. It meant she might live past 53.
That was the age her mother had been when she'd died. Myra had never imagined herself being old. Old and poor is not a good fantasy.
At 2:00 Allie took off her apron and washed up. Myra gave Byron back his legal pad, folded several yellow sheets into a thick wad and stuck it in her jacket pocket. They said "Bye" cheerily and headed out toward Myra's car.
"Do you have your ID and checkbook with you?" said Allie.
"This is unreal, My. I keep trying to wrap my head around it but it's too big."
"They're gonna shit and fall back in it when they see you walk in that door. I bet a stomping sep never won the lottery before."
"Allie, if I get all close-mouthed and shy, will you kick me a good one so I snap out of it?"
"Not to worry, white girl."
"This is the building, I think. One more thing, Allie -- I want you to quit work, too. I want you to go do what you'd do if it was you winning this money. I can't stand to have it unless it means we both get set free. Don't look at me that way, it's not charity, it's exactly what you would do if you won it. You would not hang me out to dry, so just take it."
Allie was seriously rattled. "We have to talk more about it, Myra. Not right now."
"Would it help if I called it reparations?" said Myra with a grin.
Allie punched her on her upper arm, hard. "Ow" said Myra.
"Get you shit together. You about to be a millionaire" said Allie.
Myra's word later for what the pink-handed little white guy had done when she identified herself as the big winner was plotz. Yiddish covered it better than anything else.
After following all of Alveisa's instructions and signing paper after paper, she handed them a deposit slip from her bank and got them to direct deposit. Which meant signing more papers. There were quite a few people in that office with her and Allie, and every one of them, except the black woman, looked at Allie as if she was maybe kidnapping Myra and going to knife her as soon as they got out the door. Myra got steadily more angry, which definitely kept her from going into her meek poor kid mode.
When they walked out into the marble hallway, they began doing the Balkan yells Alix Dobkin used on her first album, the kind of cries that carry across mountain ranges. It pulled people out from behind frosted doors up and down the corridor. They waved, laughing like nutcases, and didn't quite wait until the elevator doors closed before starting another round of yells.
They drove over to Alveisa's office, Myra grinding her gears with abandon. "Just one more fucking hill, you fucking piece of shit, and then I'm going to turn you into a Honda-sized planter" she muttered grimly to her car.
"You're not going to buy a new one?" asked Allie.
"'Course not. You know how much ecological waste is produced with each new car?"
"I think I'm the one who told you" said Allie.
Turns out, Alveisa was originally from the Rio Grande Valley, near Cotulla, a town Myra knew. She was ten years older than Myra, with short black hair and a gorgeous big nose. They talked for a while about going to school in the early 60s with racial segregation in full swing. Then Myra said "I know you're not a lawyer, that I need a lawyer for a lot of this -- "
"I've got some names to recommend" said Alveisa.
"Need to be women. I don't care if they're straight or lesbian, but I don't want to do business with a man" said Myra. "But here's the thing -- I want a will in place before I go home tonight. Is there a way I can write one out in my own handwriting and that would be binding?"
"Holographic, yes" said Alveisa. "Is there a reason for this urgency?"
"Yes, my peace of mind. If I die on the way home, my family would get the money, right? Since I'm not married and of course never will be."
"It would be split between your parents and any siblings, I think" said Alveisa.
"Well, that dog won't hunt. Can't have it" said Myra. "Not even for an hour."
"I have a blank here somewhere you could use as a guideline. If you follow that wording, and write it out in ink, we can get witnesses here in the office and I could hold it for you until you get one done properly by a lawyer" said Alveisa. She could go with the flow, this woman -- Myra already liked and trusted her.
"It would be best if you could put the full legal name and address of your beneficiary, plus their Social Security number if you have it. Or beneficiaries" added Alveisa. She handed Myra another legal pad and a typed form she'd pulled out of a drawer.
"On the top sheet there, Allie -- write out what she said" said Myra. "I'll copy it into my own handwriting. And try to write legibly, for once."
Allie froze. "Uh-uh" she said. "I can't handle this."
"Well, you fucking have to. I mean, I'm having to. Do you want my money going off to people who think David Duke should run for President? I'll figure out something more -- I don't know the word for it, proper, I guess -- after I meet with a lawyer. I know there must be ways to do this without the IRS eating my lunch. Or your lunch, if you're my heir. But until that happens, I need you to cover my back. If I get killed before it gets fixed up, first off find out if my family somehow heard about me winning, 'cause if they then did one of them -- except Gil -- will be the murderer, right there. And second, keep track of your whereabouts and create clear abilis for the next few days, you know they'd love to pin it on you." This finally made Allie laugh. Alveisa was watching with a highly interested expression. Allie took the pad, tore off the top sheet, and began writing. Myra began doing likewise.
Once the will was witnessed and out of the way, Myra and Alveisa began trying to speak the same language. "You will receive a yearly amount, an annuity, every year on the same date for 25 years, of this amount" said Alveisa, writing it down on Myra's pad.
"Holy shit" said Myra.
"I insist that you find a way to protect every bit of what you won't need to spend this first year. There are several paths available to you. But we should begin with what you plan to do for income."
"I'm quitting my job. So I won't have any income except this" said Myra.
"Will you have any severance? Do you have any savings? How much is your checking account at the moment?"
"No, no, and zero" said Myra.
Alveisa paused. Her Valley accent came on stronger as she said "You go, sister, I am thrilled you won this!" She and Myra grinned at each other.
"Do you need money for the next little while until your accounts get stabilized?"
"Well, I'm supposed to get paid tomorrow, but they may hang onto it because I'm not giving them any notice" began Myra.
"I've got her covered" said Allie. "Don't argue with me, you just made me your motherfucking heir, you peckerwood, you will fucking take spending money from me for the time being."
"Apparently I'm okay" said Myra to Alveisa ruefully. "And listen, I've got a list of what I know I'll want to shell out for. At least, so far."
She pulled the wad of yellow paper out of her pocket and separated out the middle sheet. "I have two old lady aunts in Texas just barely scraping by, living on their own and they aren't in good shape. I want to hire somebody to be there every day with them. And get the house repaired, if it needs it. And buy they whatever they goddamned want, a color TV for starters."
"You don't have a color TV" said Allie.
"I don't need one. The revolution will not be televised" said Myra. She turned back to Alveisa. "But I don't want to fuck up their Social Security or whatever."
"Are these people you plan to inform about your winning?" asked Alveisa.
"Yeah, this is the good side of my family, my mother's side. The ones that actually went to school and treat women like human beings and don't hate queers. I'll call them in the next couple of days. They won't tell anyone on the Bircher side of the family."
Alveisa looked like she was having a blast. "I'll draw up a list of information you'll need to get from them. What else?"
"Last year I earned $7 an hour for full-time work, before taxes. I can't remember what that comes out to, but I'd like to make about twice that, if I could. That would let me live in luxury, I think."
Alveisa's hands were moving rapidly over her calculator. "All right. We'll talk more about that when you come back in, but that's a starting point."
"I'm going to need health insurance, dental, disability, whatever I need, because it will all vanish with my job."
"Do you have any pre-existing health conditions that might interfere with that?"
"Asthma, but it's in good control. And I'm fat, I guess, but I do manual labor for a living. But here's the thing -- I want Allie to get to quit work, too, and to have whatever income she thinks is right for her, and she's gonna need health insurance, too."
Allie leaned forward and put her face in her hands. "Myra, I told you we'd have to talk about this."
"That's what we're doing now. Allie, I know you don't want to be a short order cook for the rest of your life. You want to draw, and whatever route it takes to get there, you need to start on it. This is god dropping it down in our laps, you shove it back in her face and she gets ugly."
Allie looked at Myra. "I'm not going to be your girlfriend, Myra. Not ever. Is that part of this?"
Alveisa sat back in her chair, probably wishing she had a camera running.
Myra looked extremely embarrassed. "I swear to you it's not, Allie. We've been all though that."
"No way, no how" repeated Allie.
"I got it" said Myra. "This is about family." She turned back to Alveisa. "However you set it up, fix it so I can't change my mind, so there are no strings attached." She said to Allie "Will that make you feel better?"
"None of this feels okay" said Allie. "The class stuff is hard enough, but I can swallow that down because, as you say, you're swallowing it too. But the race stuff..." She looked at Alveisa. "Maybe you won't want to answer this, but what would you do? If your best friend was white and wanted to support you, no skin off her back to do it, and supposedly no strings attached?"
"It would be inappropriate for me to -- " began Alveisa.
"Oh, come on, you're my advisor, right? I'm paying you for your thinking, right? So give your advice" said Myra. "You and Allie know each other personally from -- where is it? Oh, god, you're not an ex of hers, are you?"
Alveisa burst out laughing. "No, I'm not. I know her from -- other circles."
"Oh. Does that mean you're in AA, too? I'm in Al Anon" said Myra.
Allie jumped in heatedly: "Myra, I have told you and told you that anonymous doesn't mean until you're in a closed room or that you coming out with your own identification gives them automatic leeway -- "
"I'm a recovering alcoholic" said Alveisa, her voice suddenly serious. "I have 8 years and six months of sobriety. I work the steps. And Allie, as someone who is your friend outside of meetings, I would say -- there is nothing without strings attached. But there are strings either way. If she wasn't white, you would take the money, I think. I know I would. This is how we make the bridge to the next level, by taking a step and seeing what comes up. That's my advice to you personally."
"I don't know what your fee is, but it sure oughta be high" said Myra, jubilant.
"It will be" said Alveisa, which made Myra even happier.
Allie sighed. "Okay, then."
"So, back to the question of health insurance for Allie -- I know you got some hinky liver tests a while back, is that gonna shut you out of the loop?"
Allie looked at them both. "I don't know."
"Well, we'll check it out" said Alveisa. "Let's get the records from your doctor and from there we can figure out which company we should apply to."
Myra went down the rest of the list with Alveisa.
"Add a microwave to her purchase list" said Allie. "And a new bed."
"I agree to the bed, but I don't think microwaves are safe, they're just covering it up so far."
"I'll create a discretionary spending fund, we can discuss the amount at the next meeting. What else?"
"I might want to give some to my little brother. But if I do that -- he'll tell the whole family. Shit. Leave that one for now, I don't know. What are you doing to do with what's left over, put it in savings?"
"No, I'm going to find ways to invest it -- in progressive outlets, of course -- so it will generate money for you" said Alveisa.
"But what I need to spend it?" said Myra.
"That's what the discretionary fund is for" said Alveisa.
"No, I don't mean spend it on myself. I mean give it away. I want to support any cause that says they are opposed to Reagan, for starters. I want to bail out the bookstore, I want to pay for poetry readings and theater performances and protest flyers. I want to use the master's tools to dismantle the master's house, as far as I can."
"Are you talking about setting up a foundation?" asked Alveisa.
"I don't know, am I?" said Myra.
"With a foundation, you can create guidelines for dispersal, you can have tax shelters, you could build a permanent fund -- "
"I don't understand any of that" said Myra.
"Don't look at me, Myra" said Allie.
"I can explain it to you as we go. Maybe this first year, we can try out some options and leave things more flexible for you. You've got a huge learning curve ahead of you. You can do it, but it will take time. They make the master's tools hard to fit your hand on purpose" said Alveisa with a conspiratorial smile.
That night they went out and had a raucous meal with their friends Sima and Chris. Allie had to go home by ten because she had to get to work by 6 a.m. She wasn't going to leave her job until Byron could replace her. Myra lay in bed, unable to sleep for fantasizing about telling her aunts and seeing the relief on their faces. She suddenly realized if her Mama had still been alive, this would have saved her; Myra could have had a mother until she was old, like other people do. She began crying, then. Alice curled up with her, putting her head in Myra's palm. Her purring flashed on and off like the lights on top of radio towers, a kind of semaphore rumble. Myra finally went to sleep.
The next morning she called in sick, claiming the flu. She asked them to mail her paycheck to her house, which aroused her boss's suspicions -- he knew she lived hand to mouth. But he agreed. If it came by Monday, she could cash it and then give notice. Might as well have that last bit of money.
Allie had given her fifty bucks and told her to go buy some groceries, so she did that, picking up fresh bread at Pike and a case of Cokes in the little glass bottles that tasted so good. She dropped back by Allie's cafe and put $10 in Ruthie's tip jar. She stopped at Red and Black and bought a little notebook she'd been coveting for months, along with a new kind of pen called a Uniball. Then she got scared about spending so much and went back home. She called her oldest, best friends outside of Seattle, Kate in Portland and Claire in Oakland. Neither of them were home -- it was the middle of the day -- and nobody answered.
She pulled together two bundles of laundry and took them down the street to wash. She sat in the window of the laundromat and wrote in her new notebook. After her clothes were dry, she went home and did a Tarot reading, putting the results in her new notebook. It was the same basic reading she'd been getting for years; she didn't know what it meant any more.
At 6:00 she went to a meeting of the War Resisters League. She wasn't a part of this group yet, but several of her friends and exes were in it and now she might have time to join. Afterward she got a burrito and went to Allie's house. On Friday nights, if nothing else was happening, they watched Nightmare Theater on KIRO and Myra slept over. The movie this time was one Myra remembered from her childhood, about a giant tarantula roaming around a desert small town. It had given her bad dreams as a girl, and this night she woke up again in a pulsing terror, trying to remember where she was.
Allie sat up and turned on the light. "Was it a regular bad dream or an incest dream?" she said.
"Both, I think. Something with eight legs and snapping mandibles was dragging me toward it, my legs spread."
"Ah, shit, Myra."
"Go back to sleep. I'm okay, it's not like it once was. I'm going into the kitchen to drink some milk."
Allie's cat Bearsis went with her. Myra let him drink from her glass in between sips. She thought I wonder if I could get a therapist. Someone to kick her recovery into overdrive. Her working class friends, especially the seps, were relentlessly critical of the idea of feminist therapy -- paying for therapy was like paying for friends. The best joke she'd heard was "How many Capitol Hill feminist therapists does it take to change a lightbulb?" The answer was "Only one, but the lightbulb has to really want to change."
She did a sleepy version of a fearless moral inventory. She was going to be 30 next summer. She was cute, but not that cute. She was tired of waiting to feel completely okay about herself. She thought of that song Bernice Reagon sang, about Fannie Lou Hamer, her saying "I'm sick and tired of feeling sick and tired." Something had to give. Brains had gotten her this far. Maybe money could buy her another several miles of travel.
copyright 2007, Maggie Jochild
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
This is an excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Ginny Bates. If you are already a familiar reader, skip down to Read More. If not, here's links to background information in the sidebar to the right, third item from top.
Ginny walked past Myra playing with Margie and her blocks on the floor of the living room and said "I'm gonna borrow your typewriter, okay?"
"Whatcha typing?" said Myra.
"I had this idea for my parents' 45th wedding anniversary next month. I'm going to get a certified copy of their marriage certificate, then decorate it like an illuminated manuscript. I need to write Denver for it."
"Cool. What date is their anniversary?"
"February 14th" said Ginny with a grimace.
Two weeks later, a manila envelope stiffened with cardboard inside arrived in the mail for Ginny. She opened it at the lunch table, handing Margie's bowl of applesauce over to Myra and wiping her hands first. "It's from Denver County, I know what this is" she said with anticipation.
Once she had it in her hands, however, she said "Shit. They sent the wrong certificate -- the date is wrong, it's for some other couple."
"Oh, bummer. How could they botch it like that?" said Myra.
Ginny was staring at the certificate. "Well, it's weird. The names are the same -- who would guess there would be two people with the same names as my parents married that year in Denver? David Myron Bates and -- this can't be, this is more messed up that I thought. My mother's name is really unusual, Helen Vashti Shapiro, this has got to be her, there can't be two like that. But this date is June 7, 1946. Not February 14th."
She looked at Myra in bewilderment. Myra had stopped spooning applesauce into Margie. Margie had her mouth open like a goldfish and finally said "Mama!" Myra looked at her for a moment and handed her the spoon, then looked back at Ginny. Margie immediately began scooping applesauce out of her bowl onto the high-chair tray.
"Can I look for a sec?" asked Myra. Ginny handed over the certificate.
"It's got a gold embossed seal on it, Gin. This means they double-checked it. Maybe your parents had a religious ceremony but it got filed late or something."
"It has to be, because Cathy was born in December, there was barely nine months between the time of their wedding and her birth -- " Ginny's face changed from confusion briefly to recognition and then, swiftly, to anger. "Oh my god. They lied about when they got married. They've lied all these years to cover up the fact that they had to get married. Because Cathy was on the way."
"What a trip, Ginny. And especially since their anniversary is only one day after ours, in reality."
But Ginny was focused elsewhere. "That bitch." Myra had never heard this word come out of Ginny, and glanced involuntarily at Margie. Margie's mess was now monumental, and Myra grabbed her napkin to begin dealing with it.
"She trapped him into marriage! This explains everything. He would never have married her if he hadn't felt obligated to. God fucking dammit, she ruined his life, she trapped us all." Ginny's face was dark with rage. She stood up and reached for the phone on the breakfast bar.
Myra now had applesauce all over both hands and was trying to get the spoon out of Margie's grip without sending her into a tantrum. She couldn't grab Ginny, so she barked at her "Who are you calling?"
"Cathy" said Ginny grimly, dialing the phone.
Myra let go of the spoon abruptly, which flipped back toward Margie and bonked her on her face. Myra reached out with her smeared hand and pushed down the button on the phone receiver. "No, Ginny. Wait a minute." As Margie's howls began, Myra picked her up from the chair and said "Oh, honey girl, I'm so sorry, did you get an owie?"
Margie's tears got through to Ginny. She joined in the comforting. After Margie calmed down again, Myra said "You're jumping to conclusions. I mean, yes, it does sound that way. But before you tell Cathy she's the reason her parents got married, think -- would you want that information?"
Ginny looked at Myra. "I'm not sure."
"And, Gin -- you won't like me saying this, but it takes two people to get accidentally pregnant."
She was right, Ginny didn't like hearing it. She scowled at Myra.
"I'm going to go wash me and Margie off" said Myra. "You think about it, and we can talk in a bit."
Getting Margie anywhere near running water meant an episode of frolicsome splashing and needing to wipe down their surroundings afterward. By the time Myra returned from the bathroom, Allie had dropped by and was sitting down at the dining table with a bowl of Ginny's tomato bisque. She was listening to a stream of consciousness rant from Ginny, but when she saw Margie, her face lit up and she stood, reaching for the baby. Who in turn was reaching for her, crowing "Allie, Allie, Allie!"
Myra went into the kitchen with just a pat of her hand on Ginny's shoulder as she passed. She put some of last night's broccoli rice casserole into two bowls and heated them up in the microwave, then added a couple of sourdough biscuits to the lip of one bowl and handed it to Allie, settling down between Allie and Ginny to eat her own bowl. Ginny had not slacked off. Margie had apparently decided to eat a second lunch and was cadging bites of everything from Allie, chatting quietly to herself between chews. When Myra leaned in to hear what Margie was saying, she could make out "We do each other in and that's a fact." Myra had been reading from "The Work of a Common Woman" to Margie last night. It was a perfect counterpoint to Ginny's emphatic outrage.
At a slight pause for breath, Allie pointed to the dish of grated parmesan in front of Ginny. Momentarily distracted, Ginny handed it over and, keeping it out of Margie's reach, Allie sprinkled some on her two bowls of food. Margie immediately began trying to pick off small flakes of parmesan from the broccoli with delicate pudgy finger tweezers, putting each bit in her mouth like feeding a baby bird. Myra had another moment of what she'd begun thinking of as Margie Vu, when looking at the face of her daughter gave her a wave of love and recognition that sent shivers down to her bones.
Into the brief silence, Allie said "So, how your family commenced is not what you thought. But that is that to you? Right here right now?"
Myra looked at Allie as if she were nuts. Here was her chance to change the subject, and instead she was diving into it with Ginny.
But Ginny paused to think for a minute. "I'm not sure. It's news, but it doesn't actually contradict anything I've felt my whole life. And I've always had compassion for Daddy. Just -- now I have something concrete to back it up."
Myra held out her hands for Margie to come get in her lap; she really wanted to hold her baby at the moment. Margie looked at her briefly, then looked away. Not much could pry her away from Allie, certainly not an everyday mama.
"Here's another question: If they began so bad, why have your parents stayed married? Why didn't they divorce?"
"Divorce was unthinkable in the 40s and 50s, you know that, Allie" began Ginny.
"Yeah, but it ain't now. They could do it now" said Allie.
Ginny's face showed her brain was back fully engaged. "I don't know. I ask that question in my head a lot, I guess, just not so directly. I never see any signs of real love between them. I have not a single memory of it. Daddy is unbelievably committed and responsible, that's one thing."
"But why hasn't your mom gotten out?" asked Allie.
Ginny liked this question less. "I don't know the why for much of what she does. The way she drinks, there's probably not much logic left in that brain."
"Good questions for you to think on" said Allie, switching Margie to the other side of her lap.
Ginny looked levelly at Allie. "So I should answer my own questions before I jump on them, is what you're saying." The heat had left her tone.
How come Allie gets credit for that viewpoint?, thought Myra. Allie just waltzes in and everybody thinks she's special.
"Well, that's the difference between being in AA and being in Al Anon" said Allie, with a grin. "In AA, you have one job, and it's the same every day: Don't drink. But what's your job in Al Anon?"
Ginny laughed. Myra was relieved enough to venture speech: "One thing you could do, is go ahead and give them the present you were intending to make. Using this certificate."
Ginny leaned back and guffawed delightedly. "Oh, how wickedly passive-aggressive" she said, finally looking at Myra. Then she leaned forward and reached toward Myra's forehead. "You have a smear of applesauce in your cowlick" she said affectionately, wiping it out between her fingers. She kissed Myra lightly, then turned back to Allie and said "So, what's up with you, pal?"
Allie held up one finger to pause for a moment and asked Myra "Am I hearing this baby quote 'A Woman Is Talking to Death'?"
"It's the most important poem perhaps in the English language" said Myra, thrown back on the defensive.
Allie said to Ginny "You know, that month we lived in the Bay Area -- Myra found out where Judy Grahn lived in Oakland and went there one day. She saw a pair of jeans hanging on the clothesline in the back yard that was clearly Judy's shape. She shimmied over the fence and stole 'em. They wouldn't fit her, of course, so she just slept with 'em."
Ginny looked at Myra with an incredulous smile, putting her hand over Myra's. In a confidential voice, she asked "Did they smell like her?"
Myra relaxed again. "No, they'd been washed. But they were poet jeans, you could feel the vibe." She held onto Ginny's hand.
Margie was trying to grab Allie's extended finger. Allie began playing keepaway with her, and said "You got any of those peanut butter cookies left?"
Ginny went into the kitchen, squeezing Myra's hand before she let go. Myra grinned at Allie and said "You're like a stray dog. We keep feeding you..."
Allie grinned back, then handed Margie forcibly to Myra. "I can't eat cookies with this one on my lap." After a moment of protest, Margie leaned back, looking at Myra from between her dark lush Ginny-like lashes and prompting "Margie?" Myra kissed both cheeks before obligingly beginning to sing:
"Days are never blue
After all is said and done
There is really only one
Oh Margie, Margie, it's you."
(Maggie at Bean Hollow Beach, near Pescadero, California, 1980)
A decade ago, a friend in Oakland sent me several back issues of The Sun. One of them, from 1994, contained an essay by D. Patrick Miller called "A Primer on Forgiveness". It was one of those cases of receiving exactly the information you needed out of the blue just when you needed it. I reread this essay so often that eventually I typed it into a form I could send to others. Since then, Miller has gone on to teach and publish something called A Little Book of Forgiveness at Fearless Books, which may be the same as his original essay. I hope I'm not violating fair usage or infringing on Miller's copyright by sharing his essay with you here. If I am, I'll pull it down. But I'm hoping it does some good out there first.
A PRIMER ON FORGIVENESS
copyright by D. Patrick Miller; published in The Sun, September 1994, Issue 225
When I was a fledgling investigative reporter in my early twenties, I wanted to save the world, to uncover wrongdoing and make room for rightness. It didn’t take me long to realize that I could spend my whole life trying to expose the evil deeds of “bad guys” and never answer the fundamental question: What makes people bad?
Uncertain how to blow the lid off that story, I decided that world saving was too tough an assignment. I set out to make a decent living as a freelance graphic artist instead. That didn’t work out so well either. Then, at the age of thirty-two, my career began to crash – along with my health, my closest relationships, my pride – during a prolonged struggle with Chronic Fatigue Immune Deficiency Syndrome (CFIDS).
What I first perceived as a vicious insult of fate eventually proved to be a great blessing in disguise. The profound psychological surrender induced by CFIDS was followed immediately by the deepest, most rapid learning of my adult life. I discovered the key that would renew my health, redeem my relationships, and reveal to me my true work as a writer: Forgiveness.
Before I became ill, I thought forgiveness was something you did every now and then to let someone off the hook for his or her stupidity or meanness, and to give yourself a fleeting feeling of warmth toward humanity in general. Now I see it is a radical way of life that openly contradicts the most commonly held beliefs of this troubled world. I’ve also come to believe that it’s the lack of forgiveness that makes people bad, spawning every kind of crime, from the intimate to the global.
It might be a lot easier to forgive someone if only he or she would show signs of changing. The paradox is that we are unlikely to see signs of change in others until we have forgiven them. This is true for two reasons: First, resentment is blinding. It limits our perception of what is real in the present and eclipses our vision of a happier future. Second, forgiveness tacitly gives others permission to change. We think that we grow and change only within ourselves, but also grow and change partly within others, and they within us. Some people need others to let them into a psychic territory of forgiveness, where they can feel free to try a new way of being.
Soon after I began internally forgiving my parents for all the wrongs I thought they had done me, they seemed to become more open and frank about their personal history, about what had influenced them to become who they were. Their revelations were stunning to me, and I wasn’t sure exactly what was happening. Had I heard these things before but not paid attention because of my resentments at the time? Or did my parents subconsciously feel permitted to tell me more about themselves because I was showing them subtle signs of acceptance?
Now I know that both kinds of change were occurring. I’m no longer concerned about which is their change and which is mine. We all change together if we change at all, in a couple, or a family, or in the family of humanity as well. That’s what makes forgiveness so powerful. Anyone can initiate the changes we all need by opening up new territories within his or her mind – our one mind, really – where others can find the room to take a deep breath, tell the truth, and shake off the cloak of guilt they have so long mistaken for their own skin.
Begin, not with the idea that you are doing a favor to someone who hurt you, but with the idea that you are being merciful to yourself. To carry an anger against anyone is to poison your own heart, administering more venom each time you replay the injury in your mind. If you cease repeating the offense inwardly, your outward anger will dissipate.
Examine carefully the temptation to catalog, classify, and update the file of wrongs done to you. In doing this, the only case you build is against yourself, as you increasingly believe that you deserve what you’re getting, even as you complain about injustice.
“Forgive and forget” is a popular distortion of surrendering grievances. The real process is better described as “remember fully and forgive.” (It’s true that we do eventually forget some things we’ve forgiven, but it’s not something you can direct yourself to do. Trying to forget is just another form of denial – and whatever is denied is not forgiven.)
If you are trying to decide whether someone deserves your forgiveness, you are asking the wrong question. Ask instead whether you deserve to be someone who consistently forgives.
Living in forgiveness means yielding your grip on misery. Many people feel that this grip makes them authentic and serious; such is the melodrama of the adolescent soul. The adult soul empathizes with misery only to connect with those in suffering and lead them to forgiveness.
When I was younger, I spent a lot of time communicating with friends about the state of the world, the flaws and failures of people we knew, the general difficulty of being human. Now when I find myself drifting into a pessimistic bull session, something new within me puts on the brakes and seeks a different, more useful direction for the conversation. I don’t want to be a Pollyanna, skipping gaily off into silly optimism and losing my connection with anyone who is suffering. I have to keep one foot planted there, at the ground level of another’s unhappiness. But with the other foot I try, sometimes quite awkwardly, to step in a new direction. Sometimes I think I might be a better exemplar of hope if I were more confident of where I’m going. But it’s possible that people are moved more by my tentative willingness to see things differently than by any dramatic declaration of a better way I might make. Perhaps watching someone learn to change makes a more lasting impression than having someone try to save you.
(Small creek at Sunol Regional Wilderness, East Bay Parks District, California, photo and copyright by Dorothy Gantenbein)
Don’t be alarmed when resentment returns after you think you have thoroughly released someone from blame. Our attachment to fear runs deep, and the thought of holding no grudges threatens to steal away our old familiar world of isolation and suspicion.
Every power you have sought through scheming, self-promotion, or purchase is a sickly virus compared to forgiveness. Only forgiveness opens the door to authentic, inexhaustible power, not of your making, but freely available for your use.
In a forgiving relationship, the struggle over power is replaced by a mutual impetus to serve. Jealousy dissolves into playfulness, suspicion into helpfulness, possession into shared freedom.
Early in our relationship, my wife and I struggled through an unusual pattern of conflict as each of us rushed to take more blame for our problems. “I’m causing more trouble than you are.” “No, I am!” I don’t know if this was easier for us than blaming each other, but it did lead us to allow each other to fail at crucial moments. Accepting that we both do fail – and will fail – is what might be called proactive forgiveness. It allows us to see our marriage as a mutual learning process instead of a battle over “getting our needs met.” As we realize that learning to love is our one fundamental need, we become more patient with each other’s tendencies and habits, which might otherwise be intolerable. Thus, we are able to live together with less and less anger, and to work steadily toward a constant joy in our relationship, but without any deadlines.
Make no mistake: Every grievance, regardless of degree, is an argument with divine creation, the fundamental power that made things the way they are. In other words, when you are made at anything, you are made at God. It’s crucially important to admit this; it can save many potential victims from your anger.
The grudge against God is the keystone to all one’s unhappiness. Follow all your petty, middling, and major grudges back to this keystone grudge, and then ask yourself the question, “Is it more likely that God was wrong to make the world this way, or that I’m somehow wrong in the way I’m looking at it?” If you decide that God is wrong – or that there is no God, just a faceless, mechanical universe that cares nothing about the human drama – then there isn’t much you can do. But if you realize that you can always adjust your perceptions of the world, you can start learning and contributing again. This seems to be the way to both humility and power.
I’ve experienced two fundamental ways of being in the world. Before I became ill in my early thirties, I lived the normal life of the ego: looking out for Number One, trying to preserve my habits and defend my fixed worldview, making bargains with my fears in order to squeeze some enjoyment out of life. Everything felt risky then, and there were few people I trusted. But I could always compare myself to someone less fortunate and feel like I was making out all right.
After my crisis, I undertook life on a spiritual path. This meant that I couldn’t focus on looking out for Number One, because I wasn’t sure of who or what I was anymore (or even if an I existed at all). It meant surrendering my habits, enlarging my worldview in light of new information and insights, and regarding fear as an illusion – something to be acknowledged but never allowed to dictate terms. Now I increasingly feel cared for by an ineffable, pervasive intelligence I call God. I trust everyone to be doing the best they can to find that same kind of security, even if some are seriously misguided or tragically deluded in their pursuit of it.
In a day-to-day sense, I don’t know if my spiritual way of life is any easier than my old, ego-driven way. In some ways, it’s more demanding. What has made the shift worthwhile is that now my life makes sense to me; I feel consistently guided toward growth and service, whereas before I deeply doubted my purpose and secretly thought that I had too many insoluble problems to be of real help to anyone. The bridge from my old life to the new one was forgiveness: the complete release of my pained idea of who I was. This is the most important work I have ever done, and in retrospect I marvel at the victory I was achieving during the time when I felt I was suffering a total, grinding defeat.
Begin with the dull ache of a long-held shame. Don’t try to argue it away; you’ve lost that argument too many times already. Accept that your shame has helped make you who you are. Then compare your sense of self to your sense of who you could be, who you’ve always wanted to be. Between your shame and your ideal vision of yourself lies a great longing. Shift your attention to that longing – and look back on your unforgiven shame.
Forgiving your flaws and failure does not mean looking away from them or lying about them. Look at them as a string of pitiful or menacing hitchhikers whom you’ve picked up on your journey to a changed life. Each of them has a piece of the map you need, hidden in his or her shabby clothing. You must listen to their stories and win the friendship of each to put your map together. Where you are going – a forgiven life of wholeness, passion, and commitment – you will need all the peculiar denizens of your dark side working diligently on your behalf.
Perhaps there is an insult or injury you have dealt that cannot be taken back or dismissed. It seems to be proof of your sinfulness, a personal stain that will never wash out. In fact, it is a mark of your initiation into a more serious life, the business of which only begins with apologies and recompense.
When did you decide that you had the power to ruin your whole life? How do you know how much healing is possible? Are you in charge of all creation? Are you calling all the shots?
When I came to understand how arrogant I was to believe that I was deeply flawed and doomed to failure, I was chagrined in a way I had never been before. The difference was that this chagrin did not add to my burden of shame, but helped dissolve it. I saw clearly my errors of thinking and truly released them – which meant giving up the expectation that I would continue to think stupidly!
Never forget that to forgive yourself is to release trapped energy that could be doing good work in the world. Self-prosecution is never noble; it does no one a service.
Don’t be fooled by the subtlety of self-punishment, and don’t mistake what is habitual for what is natural. Brooding, feeling bored, and reviewing your laundry list of grumbles may seem like understandable reactions to a cruel world. In fact, they are all ways in which your attention wanders from the purpose of healing, the only worthwhile work there is.
To accelerate forgiveness, practice gratefulness. Every night, try to give equal thanks for all the day’s events and encounters. When you become grateful for things that seemed unpleasant, you will no longer need to take pride in your wounds as a defense. When defeats, downturns, and disappointments are forgiven, misfortunes only add to your strength, alertness, and responsibility.
Learning is slowed less by lack of intelligence than by reluctance to let go of bankrupt ideas and exhausted ways of thinking. This is why some problems never seem to go away even when their solutions are clearly within our grasp. When you feel cursed by fate, look to your own stubbornness; when you seem blocked by others’ stupidity, question your own reasoning. When nothing seems to work, consider whether you have correctly identified the fundamental problem behind your struggles. The object of your blame is always less of an obstacle than your decision to blame.
Can be begin to imagine a politics of forgiveness? We’ve had the politics of one-upmanship, deception, and belligerence for so long that we have mistaken this way of doing things for “human nature”. If we believe this is our nature, then peace, justice, and human equality become unachievable, romantic ideals – used as excuses for more war and sacrifice, to keep the enormous wheels of global misery grinding along.
The extent to which we think world peace is possible is exactly the extent to which we think our own minds can someday be peaceful. To understand why distant nations fight over territories, national pride, or religious beliefs, we need to look no further than to our fight for a parking space or our struggle to procure a prestigious position over our competitors.
If we think of surrender as raising the white flag before our enemies, nothing within us will change. The only surrender that matters is giving up the belief that we have any enemies.
How can our politics begin to express forgiveness? Imagine politicians debating publicly in order to learn from each other, to educate the public, and to make sure all parties have been fairly heard. Imagine the media hesitating in their rush to judge people and events, in order to place reporting in the context of profound questions about human consciousness and moral evolution. Imagine our country’s diplomatic envoys arguing for peace in international conferences by admitting our warring history and violent tendencies first.
The meek will inherit the earth, not by learning to be aggressive but by bringing forth the latent power of patience and humility. If you are engaged in a struggle against certain people or ideas, you are bound to lose sooner or later. But if you are engaged in the work of resolving all opposition within yourself, you will find, paradoxically, more and more power at your disposal. This is contrary to the way of fear, which dictates the world’s rules of power.
Do not be misled by the many political faces of hatred. Jews and Arabs hating each other, Irish and English hating each other, white and black, Christians and Muslims, left and right -–there is no reason or dignity to any of it. Even chronic hatred began when someone attacked, someone suffered, and no one forgave. These insane examples were multiplied and passed on through the generations, falsely ennobled by tales of crusades, uprisings, and martyrdoms. The cycle of vengeance will never resolve itself. Someone has to step outside it and say, “I will take no pride in my tradition as long as it teaches murder, sacrifice, or revenge.”
Beware also of hating the one who hates. Remember that you are here to help that one lift off his or her yoke, not to boast that you stagger under a yoke of a better design.
I’m always amazed by the power of bigots or fascists to arouse within me precisely the kind of hatred that I despise in them. This is their real (if unconscious) agenda – to recreate their inward misery in the consciousness of others, and thus feel less alone. To understand the hater, I need to look at my own revulsion in his or her presence. And I have to look at this revulsion steadily, continuously, courageously – until I see exactly how my own loneliness has crafted such a fearsome mask. Then I am a step closer to understanding how bigotry might be undone.
Forgiveness sends a healing message much further than you might believe or comprehend. As you develop a forgiving demeanor, you change minds less by your words than by your example, saving souls less by your program than by your presence.
Forgiveness is a curious paradox of accepting everything just as it is, while working tirelessly for a complete upheaval in our behavior and consciousness. Some believe we must be constantly aggrieved to set right the injustices of the world – that good anger corrects bad anger. But an enlightened activism respectfully acknowledges all anger and sorrow while demonstrating the superior strategy of mercy.
Forgiveness is not mere sympathy, nor condescension, nor forced generosity. It is the ultimate declaration of equality, founded on the recognition that all crimes are the same crime, every failing the human failing, and every insult a cry for help.
The only way to remain angry at someone is to stop thinking about what is behind the crime or injury he or she has committed. If you thoroughly investigate someone’s motives, you will eventually find the sense – however twisted – behind even the most negative acts. They all boil down to one of two general purposes: One either thinks that causing someone else suffering will ease one’s own, or one believes that everyone deserves only suffering. These mistaken beliefs drive the world as we know it, and I doubt that anyone is entirely free of them.
You will feel a shock when you realize that you have mistaken cynicism for sophistication, and that very little of what you have so long and so bitterly believed is true. You have hoarded only the evidence that fits your theories of attack and defended your misery. With forgiveness, all that evidence will evaporate like a mist. This can be highly embarrassing – what if your friends see you losing all your vaunted toughness? But forgiveness doesn’t particularly care for your social reputation.
Forgiveness is the science of the heart: a discipline of discovering all the ways of being that extend your love to the world, while discarding all the ways that do not.
As forgiveness liberates your energy, you may be moved to sing, dance, write, make art, or otherwise celebrate. Don’t let your day job get in the way.