(A recording of this post is forthcoming--watch for it in my audio player.)
RADIO LEIGH: Protecting Our 1st Amendment, and poem for another stormy day
October 29, 2018
In the early 70s I had what would now be considered a “progressive” History teacher—which is more a statement defining of our current regressive political and civic climate than it is a remark regarding any degree of this teacher’s actual progressiveness. Today, I’m sure I don’t know how progressive he was or wasn’t. What I do know is that he was a teacher, and civic action, Civics was part of his curriculum; we would learn it whether we knew it or not.
This was back when we all had to pledge allegiance to the flag at the commencement of first hour, meaning whatever class we were in first to start the school day. In this history class we were studying American History with its abysmal treatment of the "Savage Indian" who had to be massacred while, in a practical spasm of irony, also studying the Constitution of the United States of America. As inheritors of the 1st Amendment anyone wishing to exercise free speech and civil disobedience, could, we were told and if so-desired, refuse to pledge allegiance to the flag and that in so doing we could simply remain silently seated. I was already suspicious of blind allegiance to anything/-one, so if pledging all to flag and country wasn’t enough, the McCarthy-Era addition of the words “under god” to the pledge bothered the crap out of me. I was a budding feminist and didn’t figure I owed any allegiance, exactly, to my country and I was even more certain I did not owe it to a god.
I remained seated; silently, respectfully seated. I had internalized the resistance to the Living Room War whose footage my dad watched nightly on the black and white TV. I had internalized the civil rights people were fighting for, some of them killed for the right to be female and equal, the right to be black and equal, the right to resist obedience to government when that government was failing too many of its people too much of the time.
Two years earlier, tired of freezing my legs off at the bus stop I started showing up to school in pants. Mind you, this was a public school, not a private school, but even so, girls were supposed to wear dresses; that was the dress code. But I had bell-bottoms to wear and I was determined to wear them, and I did. I stood up. I stood up for my cold legs and against the sexist pedagogy that was the national trend. Two years later all girls wore pants to school if they wanted to. The Women’s Movement was taking hold, and its impact was real even if we still have no ERA. I still believe it will come. We just have to make it come.
When I told this tale of not being allowed to wear pants to school to one of my nieces she was indignant, “No one would ever tell me what to wear!” she huffed, not realizing she had internalized the benefits of feminism--or that it was ironic that, as benefactor of feminism's resistance to the kind of oppression currently revisiting us under the sway of a vitriolic, racist, sexist President, she would nevertheless vote for him, thus helping to revert such benefit by giving her vote power to fascist ideologues dedicated to civic regression and BEing WORST not BEST. In such an environment the 1st Amendment goes up in smoke much like the sharecropper’s house at a 30's KKK rally—or the peace of gathering for a naming ceremony at a Jewish Synagogue in Pittsburgh, as happened only two nights ago at the hands of a fascist gunman.
When I sat as an adolescent at my desk, watching all but one or two of my classmates stand, raise their hands to breast, turn to the flag and obediently pledge, I had no fear of death for my self-expression, and I was never ostracized by my peers for exercising my right. Neither of those would have been conceivable for there was an understood acceptance that I was peaceably expressing myself and, agree or not, this was acceptable to all in that room and school. This is a lesson that has been wiped out over the last few decades.
The pathway of improved human conditions, the way of Civil Rights, of Freedom of Expression, Freedom of Religion, Free Speech and a Free Press is contained in that 1st Amendment to the Constitution that marks the beginning of the Bill of Rights. How can we not take this to heart? How can we not waste such a right we are endowed with, a right that is inalienable?
I recently posted a poem I’d written 20 years ago for Matthew Shepard but what I want to add is the other poem I wrote in the same year for James Byrd Jr., whose name is on the same bill as Matthew Shepard’s as the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This is an Act of Congress passed on October 22, 2009 and signed into law by President Obama on October 28, 2009. Hence, the recent ceremony for the burial of Matthew Shepard’s ashes. The other man on the bill, James Byrd Jr., was a black man who in 1998 was dragged by white supremacists behind a pickup truck for three miles before being dumped into a Black cemetery in Jasper, Texas.
I won’t reiterate the gruesome details of Byrd’s death, but I want to say there is a vote you have in your hand if you are 18 years or older, are a U.S. citizen, and are registered to vote. If you are not registered to vote I hope you will get registered. And then, of course, I hope you will vote. Yes, I do. I hope you will vote for the quality of life all people deserve and in whatever peaceful manner they choose to constitute their happiness. I hope you will vote for the 1st Amendment because it is waiting for you and it certainly needs you.
So, here is the poem I wrote for James Byrd Jr. I first read it in downtown Minneapolis, at Kieran’s Irish Pub, when they offered safe space for weekly open mic nights and yearly poetry slams. This is James Byrd’s poem, but I dedicate it to all, and especially to anyone forced into the worst of cruelty for simply embodying their freedom to peaceably be.
poem for another stormy day
not thinkin about race they say it isn’t
about race like “but” as in “yes but” and
but that was a long time ago and but
that’s not my fault—
the way that flag slides up & down
its confederated pole sure aint not joke joe
sure aint no simple carolinian runner
draggin its own cloth around
cuz theres all this bein way eric-rudolph-like
& hidin out in the god-only-knows where
blue smoke rolls in the mornin rubbin noses
with low clouds –n- everthin is trees
–n- everthin is misty fog
played out on back roads & mountainsides
speakin murder speakin gray days burnin
so c mon you people of the news
do bring your pads & pens
you holy rollers
theres history up here
in the blood of sunrise
re|d|anger fired up &
big enough to blow
like bombs over-ready
& waiting just waiting
to take your breath
& the comfort
of a slow steady breeze
dedicated to james byrd jr, jasper, texas
at the time of this writing eric rudolph was believed to be responsible for several terroristic bombings, including the july 27th pipe-bombing at olympic part, in atlanta, during the 1996 summer olympics that bombing killed one person Rudolph was thought to have hidden himself somewhere in the appalacians
in november 1999 the naacp accepted a boycott of tourism in south carolina where the confederate flag was being flown over the state building
20 years later...and so the poem I had written after the murder of Matthew Shepard...that language not become the code for collusion with silence. Apply to all fitting shoes...and especially in light of Jamal Khashoggi.
What Is Called Not Poetry
If I could make you an American Prayer
I’d say the times like these were through
that a breeze pours out relief
in the springtime rustling
of a willow’s budding limbs
as you who were willow moved
freely in the wind before the prairie
opened wide in Laramie
and the human storm blew in
A tree we name is free to sway and we say Willow, Willow; Willow—
I’m not a packrat. I like tidiness. I dislike a lot of visual chaos. I can’t write when things are so. I mean, I can leave dishes in the sink for a week, or I can let the living room go when I have to finish a story or poem, work on submissions, or plant the garden in spring. But then I must clean up.
Still, cleaning up, I have also become scrappy, all compliments to family farmers who waste nothing. When I was a girl I lived on acreage owned by farmers. That was a lot of fun, and included a rusted Model T Ford out back somewhere; only a day’s wandering landed that discovery. I don’t know whose car it had been, originally, or if was kept for parts or nostalgia, but it was fun climbing into it, pretending to drive.
Repurposing is the trendy term, and I was into it before it became so. I have always said to myself not to throw a thing away that still has use to it. I might need it someday, my mantra. But now I’m totally into it. You can live pretty well, being scrappy. You don’t have to buy every little thing over and again.
Today, for example, I had to lay a little chicken wire on a very sloped area of the yard that borders my neighbor’s. I have a small fence, as mentioned previously, and originally it was set up along the property line. I reset it recently, pulling it in about two feet because it was now, after some few years, tipping about 25 degrees, tilting with the slope of earth, looking like it was falling over. I had planted on my side of the fence and mulched heavily to help suppress a deluge of creeping charlie. Having moved the fence in, the plants are now on the outside of it and the mulch is falling down the slope into my neighbor’s yard. Not fun for him to mow—and today he pointed it out to me. It has been on my list of things to do. I had to think for awhile how to secure it.
Enter the chicken wire! What to do with this old, rusty chicken wire I no longer use for tomato propping (too weak)? Save it! You might need that some day! Just like the ground spikes for the old, solar lights that finally gave out. Save them! You might need them some day! That day came for both wire and spikes, and I spent the morning securing the mulch. I cut the chicken wire in half so I had about eight strips and I tucked all the mulch neatly back up the slope and pinned the wire into the ground with the leftover spikes from the thrown-away lights. They are really sturdy, holding very well the wire that is hard to see now, and will be unseen when in a few years the daisies take over and fill that slope.
Et, voila! Go ahead and repurpose/reuse to your heart’s content. Be scrappy like our lovable family farmers! The less that ends up in the trash is good for the planet, and therefore all of us.
I love these slow, solitary, days of quietude. In the distance there is a low drone of trucks passing on the freeway and drowned-out momentarily by a cardinal calling from somewhere near the arbor vitae out front. Some days, the freeway is entirely quiet as the patterns of truck-hauling ebb after flow. I often feel I should find a way to live in the country, but that isn’t possible for me, so I try to create country where I am, returning the landscape around the house to as much wild thriving as possible.
Last night, as the neighborhood lit with things bursting in air, I sat with the dog in front of the fire pit’s few flaring logs and watched the sky at dusk begin to fill with color and smoke while the fire licked around itself, blazing a little before settling into calm burning on the windless night. I had made a bowl of popcorn – go figure, the dog loves popcorn – and I slowly dumped on his chair a few of the unsalted kernels I set aside for him. We relaxed, crunching, waiting for the fireworks noise to subside; as slowly it did.
When it did, I became wary. I know there are silent prowlers nearby. I watched the dog whose behavior informs. He was at ease in his enjoyment of the treat. And then he sat up, straighter, straight, turned, and began sniffing the air in one direction foxes have used as point-of-entry at the fence line – a fence high enough to keep the dog from jumping out but low enough for foxes and other creatures to climb in.
Urban foxes. Last March the dog showed up one morning with a rabbit thigh in his mouth. Something had buried it beneath the pine tree in the back yard for later-eating. That was my first clue they were here. They have cleared the mice out. They have put the run on squirrels. I don’t mind. But they have also begun to eye my 20-pound dog that puts on a very nasty, low, snap-snarly growl as none I’ve never heard when he is confronting a fox. No matter. Having looked at the teeth of a fox’s mouth I feel certain my dog wouldn’t win that confrontation, if it came, and so I have had to become vigilant over his vigilance, watching for any moment a fox might enter the yard.
As the logs burned to a low crumble before becoming coals, the dog was up and around and I turned my headlamp on and faced it to the back of my head, light shining toward that dark part in the yard where the dog headed. Foxes don’t like the light. I have a solar light shining on an opposite point of entry. The dog sniffed about, performed sentry duty, and returned to curl up on a lawn chair.
When the bursting-in-air faded, and just as I began to wonder where he was, the fox barked out his alarm call. He was about 15 feet away just on the other side of the fence, behind the chairs the dog and I were sitting in. The dog ran to the fence with his growly growl on and I turned to face the fence with my headlamp, vocalizing NO! while banging the side of the fire pit with the poker. It’s become unnerving now not to be able to fit neatly into relaxation in the backyard after sunset.
Not that the foxes have never been here. Or the coyotes. Or the owls; the dog having been twice swooped down upon but never seized. Coyotes are established her; established. Though I’ve never seen one, my neighbor has. A friend told me one tried to nab his collie pup—a pup about the size of my dog. I’ve read the coyotes are regulars in the park where we walk daily – and sometimes into dusk – behavior I’ve had to change since, last week, coming home too close to nightfall, a neighbor came into my yard to tell me a fox was stalking behind as I returned from my walk with the dog. If walk softly, carry a big stick takes on new meaning it is nevertheless difficult to realize these animals are here because they have lost habitat.
Meantime, the neem oil did not work on the plum tree. Too delectable I guess. It seems to work on the roses and other flowering plants, so there’s a bit of luck; but I’ve bagged the plum tree again with the mosquito netting, working to ward off the beetles Working, always, to minimize my human impact on Nature and the Planet.
Tonight I ate lettuce right out of the lettuce bed...and sun-warmed raspberries off the bushes behind the shed. I got late and ended up sort of skipping dinner, which simply means I didn’t organize my eating with measure; no thoughts about what spices to add. No chopping. No heating. No cooling. The sun and water had already done what I needed in the moment. So hand-to-mouth suited me fine this evening. And there is nothing like the taste of nutrients from the soil—chemical elements that come from keeping healthy soil. The flavor of the lettuce I grow, the fruits I gather – there is nothing like it in the store – not even the fresh food markets. Food delivery compromises quality. It just does. You have to eat raspberries within 24 hours of picking or they will waste. It teaches me what we lose in food. I suppose CSA delivery is the closest a person could get to the direct quality there is in growing her own food. But I advocate growing what you can where you are; even herbs on a balcony, or small tomatoes in a patio pot.
Anyway, I got late for making dinner because my organic neem oil arrived and so I had to go out with my mixture to address the japanese beetles. The beetles are everywhere. I started with one of the rose bushes, moving to a second variety, and then the raspberries, some of which I ate before I sprayed. Neem oil is the better organic choice, I decided, as pyrethrum does have some harmful aspects to it if inhaled, and pyrethrin is toxic to a lot of insects including beneficial ones, bees for example, and also fish. So, I went with the better of the two, according to what I’ve read so far. Nothing is perfect. But neem oil is a good option in organic pesticides. You do need a binding agent with the oil, so I use a non-toxic, biodegradable dish soap.
I will see what the morning brings. I am new to neem, so I don’t know how often I’ll have to reapply. I keep wondering what will happen to, say, organic orchards once the beetles head south. I am told they haven’t gotten there yet, but climate change will bring them, I have no doubt, just as they brought them to the yard where I live.
I often feel I am dancing madly with the earth in a kind of cyclical spin. With the planet, I am joined in this expression of recurrent errancy seeking its return to balance.
So, today, I got up early, having been in a heightened level of activity due to the recent full moon – having cleaned the house yesterday after accomplishing finishing touches on the resetting of the metal fence on the W side of the property – having reset most of it in 99 degree heat w/a dew point of 75 – on Friday June 29 – having completed it on Saturday – having done on Sunday what is lost to me now in this blur of activity – Oh, yes, Sunday it rained – a lot – and I had water come into the NE corner basement so I was reassessed my downspout shortening and cleaned up the water – pulling carpet from the tack – running fans – putting the gutter back together letting the drywall dry – home on the range – life of an urban prairie poet –
So – as I was saying, today I got up early and readied for work and then went out and covered the plum tree with my large mosquito netting to keep the Japanese beetles off of it. I saw the first one on one of the rose bushes about eight days ago, and now these few days later they have already begun their leaf-skeletonizing ways. So I decided to get out there and cover that tree before heading off to work for 4 hours after which I went to buy eight bags of cedar mulch on sale, came home, checked email, got a rejection I didn’t want (some of them I expect, so the disappointment doesn’t bite as much as it did today), took a mediation nap, did my yoga, repurposed some boards and shed shingles into a window well covering (just in case—I’d rather not get water in there [and btw I rescued 2 frogs from the window well when I went to inspect the location of water entry—who knew they were in there? – they could have died or been picked up by a hawk because they couldn’t jump out—a cute toad and a super leopard frog—rare!]) so – ANY WAY –
I reattached the downspout and sealed the window well and tapped the dried carpet back into the tack and debated making banana bread – but instead finally unpacked my new extendable pole for gutter cleaning (extends to 18 feet – no more climbing ladders – this baby attaches to a water compressor – yea!) – checked the light in the yard – a new solar flood light to help keep foxes at bay – Oh, I didn’t tell of the foxes did I? – well, later, that – and had a light supper, walked the dog, and returned home to realign my walking path blocks around the Norway maple and laid seven of the eight bags of mulch around that area beneath the tree. It’s full of hostas and sweet woodruff; anemone, one hydrangea, a carpet rose, sedum varieties, a few lilies and ferns.
Yep. That’s how I live. What I do between writing, and there is never a dull moment. I am the Prairie Poet, living as though I were on a hobby farm. Urban farmer. With the foxes you’d think I’d get chickens – well, maybe – one day….
As for the rejection—well, it’s sometimes difficult to embrace the revolving aspect of the ever-elusive, but publication does happen between all that so any bad feelings are currently outside, left to the summer evening, left somewhere beneath the sweet smell of cedar.
One of the poems--amended for the time--in my book, HOME FRONT
How many times to have to say a thing? To live it? Keep the faith, though. The current reflexive kickback of the Totalitarian mock-up in the White House is an indication that mutually beneficial social change is real, is being actualized, and it is threatening the Old Guard. But change is here, and it's coming from the ground up, where it always comes from: The People.
To all of you purchasing and reading / listening to my work: Thank you! And thanks, also, for your emails. It's wonderful to read how my work impacts you.
I will reopen the comments section for you. All comments will be screened before being posted. If I am not inundated with SPAM I will leave this open. But if the SPAM returns I will shut it down, again.