Mementos 8: Joy of Family, Works in Progress
[I’m preparing for mitral valve surgery in November, 2016. One of the instructions is to bring mementos with me. The best way to do this without hiring a moving truck (Diana’s suggestion) is to put some of what I would bring with me on this blog. I can then access it on my phone. That is my goal here]
I gave this poem to Courtney when she turned 21. We were all in turmoil then. Self described as the “baby sitter” for what turned out to be one set of our Evanston/Howard Ave. area neighborhood gangs, she had run afoul of some others and, one day, we found the lobby in the building of our fourth floor apartment covered with graffiti and with threats against her. When I called the police to file a report, the landlord came over, the officer took his statement and buried mine (so that my report never existed). Then the landlord, Aaron Kats, proceeded to insult Courtney and threaten me (with physical, gun violence — the man was an Eastern European who bragged of his underworld connections, disregard for law and order, except that which would protect his property).
We moved as quickly as we could.
David and Diana and I moved into an apartment on Pratt and Greenview in Rogers Park. The year was 1996, and Courtney began to move out on her own. A year later we became grandparents for the first time, Courtney, living in Aurora, introduced us to Téa; and I, for the first time, had the chance to watch the miraculous creature a baby is, how every modality is a learning machine. Experience transfixed me, more than any book ever had. And Courtney, who had never gotten a high school diploma, began to prepare to take a GED exam. In January, 1999, Courtney pregnant with Zachary and sick with the flu, took her test and passed it. Then, in April, Courtney, Téa and Zach drove with us to Waterloo to visit Greta and Mert.
John was born in 2002, but what seemed like finally a good partnership fell apart and Courtney was once again raising a family alone. Things did not go smoothly.
How do you write about a life lived intensely, from crisis to crisis. Persistent, determined, bright, Courtney struggled as a single parent with three kids, still struggles. Mostly employed, but never employed enough to get out of debt, pay rent, buy enough food, afford health care. Mirroring the irregularity of her precarious existence, Courtney shows the heights of creativity necessary to pick her way through the mine-field of poverty, falling into the depths of depression when circumstances gang up around her and block her way. We’ve been lucky enough to be in a position to help when the depths were deepest; after all part of the joys of family is to alleviate the pain of those close to us. But the other part that we have had to come to grips with is that we are living the life of a new section of society that is being born. Yes even us, the old ones, Diana and I.
John Edgar Wideman wrote about it in a novel called Sent For You Yesterday. This is an
image which has stayed with me for over 30 years.
“They used to put people on wheels and pull them apart. Pull the arms and legs out of the sockets just like a kid do a bug. Boiling people in oil and slamming their heads in a helmet full of spikes, and horses tearing men into four pieces and that wheel with ropes and pulleys stretch a man inch by inch to death. The rack, Albert said . . . They got us on a rack, John French. They’re gon keep turning till ain’t nothing connected where its supposed to be. Ain’t even gon recognize our ownselves in the mirror.”
Courtney has her own image, a personal one, that comes from the character in the Lil Abner comic strip. Joe Btfsplk, the world’s worst jinx, the well-meaning character who walks around with a rain cloud over his head. Ever since I wrote “Twenty-one Is,” we’ve been coming to grips with how one’s personal luck fits in the context of the relations of society. The dialectic of taking responsibility for what is in your power to control, but not accepting guilt for what cards class society deals you.
That’s what John French is trying to negotiate that early morning when he waits on the corner to get a day-labor job as a paper hanger, feeling all the joints in his body aching, and trying to explain that to himself. It’s the social relations that force him into the back breaking work. And it’s the social relations that force Courtney into having to move every year or two, to struggle to get adequate care and counseling for the kids, to get food stamps when out of work, to avoid on pain of starvation and eviction, going to apply for welfare . It’s the social relations that bring Diana and me to look at our social security to figure out if we have enough to pay rent this month, or pay the medicare premium.
“They’re gon keep turning till ain’t nothing connected to where it’s supposed to be.” This image split my brain 30 years ago. How is it that such an image that is so horrible is at the same time so beautiful? It is a Goya painting in words. It fascinates. Your eyes keep returning to it. Your fingers want to touch the blood to see if it is fresh, if it is real. But it is real, because it captures the essence of what I am feeling each time I pay rent, each time Courtney loses a job. And each time I dream of diamonds out of broken glass, pearls growing around sand grains.
We are, all of us, a work in progress, hoping to become who we need to be, trying to figure out how we learn what we need, to negotiate our lives and contribute to a better world.
It’s an internal dialogue I’ve been having, externalized by Daniel Wolff’s great book, How Lincoln Learned to Read. And while Daniel does explore how Lincoln learned to read in one of the portraits of this book, he’s really asking a much more profound question about what we need now, at this time, for a new kind or quality of education. It very much relates to the fact that a new section of society is groping, mostly without knowing it, for how to remake the world in our own image for the interests of all, not just the few.