CLEAR-EYED AND COURAGEOUS

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The end of any year, but especially this one, can feel elegiac to many. For me there is no better answer within reach, to the litany of sorrows I could name, than to offer tribute to those who’ve inspired me in the past twelve months—thankfully also a long list. Here are just two.

My first tribute is to a mother of my acquaintance. A little over a dozen years ago, she contrived an ingenious way to save some of her income from her abusive partner, so that she could escape to a women’s shelter with their infant daughter. In the process, she lost a best friend because the friend feared retaliation for any show of support to her. The experience of trauma persisted for a decade, as the man haunted her life, until at last he died of an overdose. Now, never having found time to care for herself, she makes the effort to support her daughter’s ongoing grief over losing her father, whom she had barely known, whose death meant something very different to her.

My second tribute is to a girl of my acquaintance. A daughter in a different family, she recognized her stepfather’s instability long before her mother did and looked up the signs and symptoms of abuse to educate her mother in what was happening to them. She persuaded her mother to divorce the man who would, before they left, harass and molest the girl whose clear vision saw the truth, whose courageous spirit spoke out to make change. This girl-becoming-a-woman now wants to study the brain, maybe work in child development or forensic psychology. She wants to understand things. She wants to make sense of the world.

Certainly there were dozens of men and boys this year who moved and delighted me (including one eight-year-old I know who stated recently that he is now “obsessed with Canada”; the liberal-minded among you can probably guess why). Then there are those (men, women, and algorithms) who miss the mortal glory that surrounds them, profoundly confused by marketed images: made up, airbrushed, photoshopped, contrived, assessed, judged, “had,” bought, and/or sold to the highest or nearest bidder. After the year the world has had, after the year my country has had, after the slurs we’ve all been suffered to hear uttered by persons of influence, I feel inclined to celebrate the real beauty of the women and girls whom I’m proud to have met: their strength and grace of character; their intelligence and the light they carry, kindling within every cell, every smile, every look of comprehension, every gesture of warm and real humanity.

To them and to you, Happy New Year.

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REGRESSION BENEATH THE MEAN

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I have never aspired to seek political office. Such striving wouldn’t suit me, and the work itself would likely bore me; my competitive and my reformatory energies both, I have expressed in other ways. But many nevers permit at least one aberration, and mine came in fourth grade, when at the last possible moment, I ran for class president. My platform? The ignorance of misogyny.

The otherwise unopposed candidate was a tall, somewhat stocky boy whom I remember to this day for his brush cut and his brash remarks belittling my gender. Be it classroom banter or playground bullying, he was unrelenting in his hateful attitude. I couldn’t stand it, and I couldn’t let it stand.

So I presented myself in front of my class, by the overhead projector, and made an impassioned, impromptu speech denouncing his language and behavior, asking my classmates in the most rhetorical tone, “Is this really what you want?”

How I wish I could revisit that scene and take in the view from the age that I am: the faces of my classmates in our poor parochial school, my teacher and how she reacted. That was before social media, before the highly public whisper campaigns that crush so many young spirits and regress to something well beneath the mean. I don’t know how I’d fare in our current culture. Back then, my cause triumphed in a landslide.

This past Monday night, between November 7 and November 8, I dreamed that I’d travelled back home to the Midwest, to visit the elementary school where the election that I’ve just described took place. I wanted to walk again the long, wide halls where our teachers hung our art, and the speckled black steps worn smooth as soapstone, leading up from the entrance to the main floor of classrooms and up again to the gymnasium where we congregated as a community, sharing school mass, meals, and spirit days. The stage there where, as a first-grader, I won the spelling bee, almost disqualified because I’d spelled education with a capital E, my teacher having told my class that important words get capital letters.

What I found in my dream, a dream that left me in waking tears, was that the building had been sold; the stairs I’d loved had been dismantled; and the whole thing was being renovated…as a luxury hotel.

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Text and image copyrights held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. Thank you for reading.