What To Think About Watchman?

First I have to say that I have not yet read Go Set a Watchman. I do intend to read it though; my copy arrived from Amazon yesterday. But the early reviews of Harper Lee’s second novel have been playing on my mind and I feel a need to set my thoughts down now.

As I said in a previous post, I was concerned that this “new” book would expose writing that wasn’t ready for publication, that maybe it just wouldn’t be very good. It never occurred to me that the beloved Atticus Finch could ever be anything but the paragon of handsome virtue Gregory Peck portrayed him to be. But is the racist, segregation-supporting Atticus of Watchman a first draft character that Lee totally discarded when she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird? Or was this darker man always there in her thoughts as she wrote the story from a child’s point of view? Was she intending to write a sequel where the adult Jean Louise would be disillusioned to discover the true nature of the father she had idolized?

Perhaps I’ll have a clearer answer after I read the book, but I want to believe that the former is true. I want to believe that Lee never released this book because the Atticus Finch of Watchman no longer existed. Maybe she’d thrown him out and invented a whole new guy for Mockingbird. Of course this is a very idealistic wish, and the fact is none of us will ever know what the answer is. Harper Lee is unwilling or—more likely—unable to tell us what she was thinking back then.

It’s occurred to me this past week that Atticus Finch has been a perfect, pure, unadulterated hero for all of us white progressives. At the risk of his reputation, his safety—and most importantly the safety of his children—he did the right thing, he stood up to the bigots in his town and defended an African American man unjustly accused of a crime. We all like to think we could perform as well, you know, if we were ever tested. And yet most of us design our lives so we won’t be tested, so we won’t have to confront our own bigotry. This is especially easy here out west where there are no Civil War battlefields or memorials to fallen Freedom Riders.

So here I will present a small test for my literary minded friends: how many books have you read lately by African American writers? How may books have you ever read by authors of color? I have to admit for myself, it’s not many. I will say that when I was first out of college, as a fledgling feminist and aspiring writer, I deliberately chose to mainly read books by women. I was looking for role models. Margaret Atwood and Barbara Kingsolver are now favorites, and I wouldn’t miss one of their novels as soon as they hit the shelves. I’ve read and enjoyed some of Toni Morrison’s work, but I’m sorry to say I can’t tell you what her last novel was called. And oh—I just remembered—I used to read each new book by Alice Walker, but at some point decades ago she fell off my radar too.

What’s really embarrassing is I don’t even know where to begin. Who are the up and coming young writers of color?

We can speculate forever about Harper Lee’s state of mind back when she was writing Watchman and Mockingbird, and about her cognitive health now. We’ll never know for sure. So let’s take the discussion in a new direction. It turns out Atticus Finch was a closet racist. Well, guess what, he’s not alone. Let’s expand our reading lists to include more ethnic diversity. I challenge you to help me out, to give me the names of novels to read and writers to watch for.

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Join the Discussion!

Let’s celebrate the upcoming publication of Harper Lee’s novel Go Set a Watchman by reading (or re-reading) her only other published novel, the incomparable To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m hosting a discussion group right here on my website! For details click on the Mockingbird link above. It will take you to a special page devoted to one of my favorite books of all time.

ps–if you don’t have the time or the desire to read (or re-read) the book, go ahead and rent the movie. You won’t regret it!

Celebrating the Rain

We’re celebrating a rare and wonderful rainy day here in parched Northern California—complete with deliciously heavy downpours, lentil-sized hail, lightning and big time thunder. I was blessed this afternoon to get home before the big show started, but here’s a journal piece I wrote after driving home in a powerful rain last fall—back when we all had high hopes that one rainy month was going to stretch into a rainy season and heal our drought woes. Thanks for reading:

Driving home from Placerville in the rain, mesmerized by the sound of the storm pounding like dried beans poured in a metal bowl, like pebbles striking. Suddenly I’m distracted by a high pitched rain drop, a maverick who wants to stand out, a small single dried pea that slips through the colander and pings on the floor. The noise is coming from the window by my left ear and I wonder if I will get to the valley and discover a leak and water puddled on the floor by my seat belt. No matter, I can’t turn now to check, can’t take my eyes off the wet road and the clutch of traffic. The car ahead of me is driving without his headlights on—a violation of a recent state law—and when I notice how grey and colorless his car is, I’m grateful for the high-pitched, pinging rain drop at my left ear. The steady pound of the storm on my windshield and roof is hypnotic; it’s the ping ping ping that’s keeping me awake. I think about getting home to my notebook so I can write all this down, and I berate myself that I haven’t written much lately. When I write every day the images and the words rise up out of the horizon like birds and airplanes and large animals, eager to appear in my poems and stories. It’s the habit that summons them. When I don’t write regularly I am stuck with the specter of dead friends and relatives, bullying bosses, and lovers who deserted me:  they come to tease at my frustration, my loneliness, my vulnerability. Specters who disappear like the rain.

 

Wherever you are today, I hope you’re enjoying your weather.

Easter Musings 2015

For thirty-something years I had the privilege of working with children who have severe disabilities. Often when I was out in the community with my students, strangers would approach me and say, “You must be so patient.” Yeah, sure, but probably no more than any other teacher. Other times folks would tell me I was doing “God’s work,” and once a school nurse said I would get a “crown in heaven” for all I was doing for these children.

The truth is working with these kids was a hecka lot of fun, and I don’t need any greater reward than that.

Tim Shriver, one of the Kennedy clan and current chairman of the Special Olympics, was quoted in Parade Magazine last weekend, and what he had to say really summed it up for me too. Just as his parents taught him, this is what my parents emphasized to me: “What our Catholic tradition has done well is make you not just ought to help, but want to help—hunger for it. Be hungry for justice, be hungry for healing, be hungry for connection, be hungry for leveling the playing field. That’s more than just a moral imperative. It’s believing that your best self will always be in solidarity with those who are having a hard time.” After all, he adds, “Jesus was all about [taking care of] the poor and the marginalized and then having a party.”

Yes, Jesus teaches us to be hungry for justice, hungry for healing, hungry for fun and hungry for cake. And I think Jesus would be fine with Christians making wedding cakes for same sex couples too. Just thought I’d throw that in there.

Happy Easter

Why I Left My Job

I spent a lovely Sunday afternoon yesterday, eating, walking, gossiping and sharing projects with Sister Writers, June Gillam and Leslie Rose.  For some reason I got started venting about an incident that happened a few years back–all part of the ongoing healing process, I guess.  So today I thought I would share a poem I wrote at the time.  It’s called:

Why I Left My Job

 The other driver and I

retreated to neutral corners

to wait for the police.

 

I had a cell phone

the size of a shoe box.

The other driver had a newer,

tinier model

that fit in the palm

of her hand. She stood

on her corner, talking,

talking, staring

at me, and flapping

her free hand.

 

My boyfriend didn’t

have a cell phone

so I couldn’t call him.

I called my Mom

on my shoe box.

She said she’d come

but I told her, no,

don’t be silly;

I was okay.

Neither of us mentioned

it was the anniversary

of my father’s death.

But each of us knew

the other was thinking

about it.

 

A police officer arrived

alone in a patrol car.

The other driver and I

both ventured toward him.

He said he’d speak to each

of us separately.

The other driver

stepped forward quickly

with narrowed eyes

glaring at me, clutching

her purse, as if

she expected me

to snatch it.

They went to her corner.

 

A man from the house

on my corner

came out and asked

if I was okay.

He had a spiked

dog collar

around his neck

and a ring

through his nose—

a big ring, like

the brass ring

on a merry-go-round.

I’m okay, I said.

Do you want a Pepsi?

he asked.

No, I’m okay, I repeated.

But it was nice of you

to ask.

 

The police officer came

to talk to me. He asked

my name and I gave him

my driver’s license.

He spent some time

writing on a pad.

He asked me what happened,

and I told him she’d run the stop sign.

I swerved, I said, I tried to miss her

but she pulled right out in front of me.

 

Just then the other driver sauntered over.

I called a tow truck, she said.

Her voice was cheerful,

almost lyrical.

“I can’t believe it, you know,

twenty years with a spotless

record, twenty years, and now this,

twenty years, what can I say?”

 

She laughed, shaking her head

so her long dark hair swayed

like in a shampoo commercial,

and in that moment I hated her.

She was at a dance club

or a country club,

coquettish and flirtatious,

on a sunny

patio drinking sangria.

Worse than that:

she was just like me,

seeking some kind of approval

as if the officer should tell her

it was okay that she pulled out in front of me,

no big deal, don’t worry

about it, Ma’am, happens all the time.

 

I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly through my nose.

 

The police officer turned to her.

“We need some privacy, Ma’am.

You had your turn.”

 

“Oh. Of course.” She sashayed away.

 

“How fast were you going?” he asked me.

 

“I don’t know,” I said, “but

I couldn’t have been going

more than 15 or 20 miles an hour.

This is my neighborhood.

This is where I live.

I wouldn’t speed in my own neighborhood.”

 

The officer nodded and smiled a little.

“You should know: the other lady

admitted she was in the wrong.”

 

“She did?” I was stunned.

“She didn’t say anything to me.”

I was batting back tears now.

I didn’t tell him she’d been rude

to me; had demanded to see

my license, had even reached into

my wallet trying to grab

my insurance card.

I looked down

at my hands, fingering the zipper

on my purse. “I wanted her

to apologize,” I admitted.

 

He looked down at his pad.

“She’s not going to apologize,”

he said curtly.

 

He had me sign his report,

told me I could go.

So I did; I didn’t call

a tow truck. My car

looked fine. But it wasn’t fine.

The damage was

so extensive

the insurance company

refused to fix it.

The car was totaled.

 

This happened well over a decade ago.

But what happened this year

at my work place—the circumstances

were very similar:

it was my own neighborhood.

My classroom was totaled.

No one apologized to me.

 

 

Here for the Weekend

Last week on NPR’s Morning Edition, in a segment on Story Corps, they played an interview with the first single man who was allowed to adopt a baby in the state of California. It was 1969. The man had always wanted to be a father. He knew it would be hard to raise a child alone but he forged on. His social worker brought him to see a toddler who had been born to a drug-addicted mother. The baby was born addicted to heroin and had gone through the pain of withdrawal in infancy. At 18 months old the boy was already a child with severe behavioral challenges. The man knew he should say no, but he said yes. He entered the adventure.

I knew as the man related his story that it wasn’t going to end well because he only spoke of his son in the past tense. The man’s voice broke when he said his son had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and had died of a heroin overdose at the age of thirty. His body was found in an alley between two buildings.

My first thought was: how do any of us stand it? How do any of us stand living here in these bodies on this planet? We don’t all have stories as tragic as this man’s, but each of us has something, our own private sadness. Life can be joyful, but even the happiest lives are spotted with episodes of such exquisite pain.

My friend Craig was a perfect master. He told me once that between lives we’re all hanging together on the astral planes, waiting to come down here. Finally it’s your turn. You’re born on Planet Earth. You live 70 or 80 years, give or take a decade or two, then BAM! You drop your body and you’re back on the astral plane. All your friends there say, “Hey! How was your weekend?”

What if coming here is like going to Disneyland? Some of us love roller coasters; some of us prefer to float with the Pirates of the Caribbean. When I was five years old I made my mother take me on the Peter Pan ride over and over again because I was thrilled to see his shadow racing across the wall. When I was eight my cousin Jimmy held up my long braided hair over my head as we rolled out of the haunted house ride on Santa Cruz’s Boardwalk. “Look how scared she is!” he taunted, laughing as I slapped his hands away from my head. Sure, sometimes it’s scary, but maybe our sojourn here on Earth is no more real than a trip to an amusement park.

I’ve got no wisdom, just stories. Stories about riding the waves, about enjoying the ride. You’ve got them too. Feel free to share them here with me.

 

Unsafe Airbags

Last week I took my 2002 Honda into the dealership because there was a recall due to unsafe airbags. They told me it would take a couple hours so I asked if I could test-drive a 2015 Civic. I’ve been on the fence wondering if this will be the year for a new car and since I had time to kill, I thought, why not?

Many many moons ago I encountered more than one car salesman who thought it was cool to be condescending to a young woman who dared to shop for a car alone. Even now I had my defenses up, using nature’s tricks to look bigger—feet set wide, arms akimbo, chin raised. And some nice looking, rather young man came to help me. I relaxed a bit.

I just wanted to get in a car and drive around the block, but he wanted to be my friend, or so it seemed. He asked me where I lived, and wanting to be noncommittal, I told him East Sacramento–which of course convers a broad area. Nonetheless it seemed I was now a stereotypical white woman from an upper middle class neighborhood. He proceeded to tell me that his kids went to a school in East Sac known for its program for gifted students and its high test scores. Then he complained that the principal they loved had transferred to a middle school farther south where he had started a prestigious program, but that particular school attracts kids from Oak Park, and “maybe we don’t want that kind of influence.”

I was stunned that a salesman who wants to sell me something big and costly would say something that reeks of racism. But I didn’t say anything. I just narrowed my eyes and gave him my disapproving teacher look. “Where are the Civics?” I asked curtly.

He led me toward the cars and asked what I did for a living. I told him I was a retired teacher and that I had generally worked in poor neighborhoods. I thought maybe he’d understand but I overestimated him. He made a comment about the “bad side” of the Natomas School District. I decided to be direct.

“Look, sweetie,” I said as if talking to one of my 4th graders, “you shouldn’t make comments like that when you don’t know who you’re talking to. You don’t know me.”

He looked very confused and professed ignorance. I said, “What you said about Oak Park hurts my heart.”

“Oh, no,” he said.  “I didn’t mean it in a bad way–”

You don’t want kids from Oak Park in your kids’ school, but that’s not a bad thing?

 I said, “Look, I just want to drive a car. Can I drive a car now?”

So he let me drive a car. And I don’t know if it was the East Sac white thing again, but he insisted I take the car with all the bells and whistles. I was less than impressed—and said so repeatedly—but I figured if this is what cars are like now, I guess I could get used to it. When we came back he showed me the scaled down version. Oh, gee, I thought, this one is more my speed. Wish I’d seen it first.

He gave me his card. But if I decide to buy, it won’t be from him. Like I said: unsafe airbag.