Monthly Archives: February 2012

the speaker

A man named Echo
holds the conch.
His wrinkled pants
a blue linen, the color
of unyielding optimism.
His tube socks, dirty
from communing in
defunct prayer rooms,
have eschewed his Birkenstocks.
His hat, a tubular scull cap
that made more sense
in Africa, sits atop
a doodle of blond hair.
His homespun shirt,
an anthem to his aspirations
towards a life of exotic modesty.

Echo speaks of currency
and “common sense,”
of how to escape the dialectic
by starting with yourself.
Change comes from within
as long as we all agree
to trade confederate money
for organic eggs.
He was blessed to witness
a live home-birth
while couch-surfing with a midwife
at Burning Man.
He has much to say on patriarchy,
on communities,
on class divisions,
on belonging.

Echo does the algebra
of Robin Hood.  One and one
and one makes three.
(Got to be good-looking
cuz he’s so hard to see.)
And in that room, watching
him brainstorm his way to paradise
I want to come together
with these people, these echoes,
these burning men.

I want to imagine something better.
Except I cannot see myself
trading Berkshares for Birkenstocks,
living off the grid, raising my own beets.
But you see I never did
think just one person
could change the world,
unless that person lives
inside a fantasy of his own design.

At the end of his sermon,
Echo is still holding the conch.
Evidently, it is not a conch
for passing.  But from time to time
he lifts it tentatively to his lips.
If it makes any sound,
either animal or ocean,
only Echo hears it.
It does not sing for me.

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earth mothers in manhattan

I was already late when I got to the site of the Occupy Wall Street Forum, a building that appeared to be a prayer room of some kind or perhaps a community theater.  The room was well lit but cold—most people kept their jackets, shawls, or oversized sweaters on—and smelled vaguely sweet, like pineapples and patchouli.  I noticed bowls of fruit on a table by the kitchen along with Dunkin Donut’s coffee and slices of challah bread.  Another table was slowly filling up with pamphlets, schedules and sign up sheets. Also on the table was a white 10 gallon bucket slowly filling with  dollar bills marked up, in protest, with red sharpie. The bucket boasted a sign: “Help us keep the lights/heat on.”  Evidently they hadn’t earned enough for the heat, yet.  I threw in a couple bucks. In the center of the room, chairs were arranged in a large circle around two microphones and a small, low stage. Nobody stood on the stage, but people sat on the steps in front of it.  I was reminded of the “cafetorium” in my elementary school where we used to put on school plays.

I didn’t need to worry about being late—the program began a full hour behind schedule. No reason was given, but we were all corralled to sit in the front circle while eating our breakfast.  A short woman with poofy grey hair wearing a knit forest green sweater with wide sleeves and expensive hiking boots made it her mission to beckon attendees to the front.  Her welcoming Mother Earth vibe coaxed even the shiest and newest attendees to follow her lead. Sitting near her was a mom with a harelip and a hairstyle that was kind of hippy-punk: she had short, cropped hair in back with one long strand in front that had at one point been dyed green but had faded to a kind of greasy chlorine color.  The mom was loosely feeding and entertaining two girls, approximately six and three years old.  The younger one had a harelip just like her mother.  They both had uncombed, straight brown hair and big brown eyes.  They provided much of the entertainment before the Forum began. The three-year-old, seeing all these people gathered, asked if we were going to sing.  It was only when the moderator started the “Gender/Health/Care” Panel that I realized all four of these people were family—and they were the presenters.

The grey-haired Earth Mother began by professing how she’d found her newest cause–what she called a family–when she joined the Occupy Wall Street Movement.  But her oldest cause was to be a midwife.  She gave birth unassisted, alone, on an island. By choice. She repeated that several times. By choice.  She and her daughter help women breastfeed and have natural home births.  She asked everyone: “Where did your grandmother give birth? Or if you are in your 20s or younger, where did your great-grandmother give birth?”  I thought about Baba in San Francisco putting Grandma in a bassinet on the potbelly stove to keep her warm in December 1932.  This is what Earth-Grandma wanted to return to?

“We are midwives; we are wise women,” she said of herself and her daughter. “And, we believe in ancient ways and lost know-how…in short we are witches.”  She smirked and licked her finger to turn to the next page in her notes. She looked around as if to show everyone she was in on the joke, but really, to let us know the joke was on all of us. Then some of the attendees did something odd: they raised both hands to about the level of their chin and wiggled their fingers in a kind of mystical jazz hands.  Apparently, this gesture of agreement (like saying “Right on!” or “Amen!” in a Southern Baptist church) was well-known by the Occupy Wall Street crowd.  It reminded me of how members of the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association (OSCA) would gently rap twice with a fist on the table to affirm or agree with a comment. This practice started in OSCA meetings, but some students began using it in class to approve of something another student had said particularly eloquently.

Earth-Grandma turned over the presentation to her daughter who discussed breastfeeding and how children need the contact and warmth of their parents from the first few minutes of life.  She described birth in a hospital as “traumatic” for babies who are whisked away to infant units and to mothers whose pregnancies are medicalized and treated as anomaly or illness.  (The rise of C-sections and induced labor is certainly a sign of this.) While I have heard and agree with many of these issues with “Western medicine,”  I kept thinking about how 25-30% of women used to die in childbirth.  Is this the wise past of community partnerships and inter-generational birthing experiences that we want to bring back?

Meanwhile, as the Earth Mothers talked, the two little girls fidgeted, kicked their legs, and munched stickily on strawberries,  brown-shelled hardboiled eggs, and square pieces of  Nori, the seaweed paper that’s used to make sushi.  The littler one squealed, interrupted, and fought for her mother’s attention.  Finally the mom began to breastfeed her, while talking about being a “Lactivist” and doing a “nurse-in” at Facebook’s headquarters to protest Facebook forcing a woman to take down pictures of herself nursing her new baby.  This news was very interesting to me, but in an A.D.D. moment, I found it impossible to focus on what the woman with hair the color of chlorine was saying because of her daughters’ distracting behavior.  At the end of their presentation (in which anyone who ever fed a child formula at any point must have felt like a heartless cog in the Carnation corporate machine),  the six-year-old  shared some drawings she had made: “Here’s a mom nursing a baby.  Here’s a water birth.  And here’s the baby sleeping in the bed with the parents.”  Her mom and grandma beamed with pride.

The next speakers talked about various topics on health and LGBT issues and how they related to problems of capitalism and other concerns of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  The little wiccan children played a noisy game of Parcheesi in the middle of the talking circle, danced around, doodled, and dropped their half-eaten hardboiled eggs on the floor.  Earth-Grandma and the mom tried to shush the girls on several occasions and ended up bribing the younger one with a fresh sheet of Nori.

As cute as the girls were, I found it very hard to take seriously the Midwives’ tearful entreaties to stop hospital births and let everyone breastfeed their kids until age four when their own children were so poorly behaved.  The follow-up speakers were two very reasonable young women who formed a child care coop for working women in New York City.  They spoke in favor of “inter-generational spaces”  where seniors, adults, teens, and kids would interact and go about their business.  As they talked about the benefits—reminding adults that play is good; teaching children to be comfortable around different people—many of us in the audience were looking ruefully at those two little free spirits who,  by acting as children act were completing distracting the adults from the purpose of the Forum.  When the hippy mom finally took the girls out after the first workshop session, there was a noticeable sigh of relief, even among those who had raised their hands when asked if they had ever witnessed an in-home birth.

Earth-Grandma stuck around for the entire day of workshops.  She recorded the speakers on a small tape recorder that she would push around the room with a great show of tiptoed discretion.  Whenever a speaker said something particularly profound, she would nod her head vigorously, her grey poofy hair buoyed by the shakra of her mind.  She scribbled notes intently.  Her devotion to Occupy Wall Street and changing the world were patently clear from how much she smiled, reacted, laughed, spoke.  It took me a long time to figure out what I found so oppressive and distracting about this open-hearted, motivated woman. Eventually it hit me: she is so confident in her own lifestyle, choices, affinities, opinions, and thoughts that there is no room for doubt, for capitulation, for ambivalence in others.  She professes tolerance for everyone but believes that the world would turn best if everyone lived like her.  She is open to the extent that she believes anyone, regardless of race, creed, gender, etc could follow her path. In fact, look how easy she’s making it for everyone! How much wisdom she and her daughter are sharing with the women of New York!  How many communities she’s part of!

Even sitting in that room, I struggled with this notion of community, of joining, of casting my lot in with others.  I sensed no similar reluctance on Earth-Grandma’s part.  It’s easy to be part of a larger community when you think everyone is one epiphany away from living as pure a life as you.  What inspired me most about the Forum was its diversity. Yet, many of those who spoke up about “change happening from the inside” and about “choosing to live differently” did not acknowledge the position of privilege that allows them to make such choices.  Their convictions did not leave room for others to fight in a different, more pragmatic manner.  Earth-Grandma’s demeanor professed tolerance, but her tone and her smirk condemned the choices of those who lead a more middle class, mainstream, or bourgeois lifestyle– people who might nonetheless be class-conscious and hope to fix income inequality, health care, and other systemic injustices, through more practical, short-term means.  People who were sitting around that circle, patiently watching her naturally born, breastfed, nori-eating children be the center of attention when it was not their turn to hold the conch.

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There is something soothing about sleeping in the back seat of a car, especially as a child. Defying the perils of the road and slipping into comfort.  Allowing speed and motion–which could turn deadly in an instant– to lull you into a calming half-sleep.  There is power in vulnerability.  We must remember that.

I remember driving back to Oberlin from Pittsburgh my junior year.  It was four or five a.m., and four of us were in Michael’s 20-year-old beige Volvo.  The leather seats were not quite cracked, yet not quite softened.  We’d been dancing all night.  At Pittstop.  It was one of the first swing exchanges that we had been to as solid, intermediate dancers; one of the first dances where we weren’t following the addictions of our mentors, the seniors and juniors who came before us, the upperclassmen who had taught us how to dance and infected us (Lis called us “pod people”) with the lindy bug.  This was our  pursuit of the Swing Dragon– looking for that dancing high that hooks you and leaves you blissfully stranded in mid-song, out of time, straddling the twilight and the dawn with swing-outs and triple steps.  We had followed the Swing Dragon that night, and we had found it.

As usual, we got lost on Squirrel Hill on the way across the Hot Metal Bridge to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Ballroom.  The band was either the Boilermakers or George Gee and His Orchestra, either way a favorite.  The floor was fast.  The four of us–two boys, two girls– spent quite a bit of time dancing close to the stage, letting the music unstick any stray thoughts so we could lindy and blues dance on waves of notes.  Midway through the night, I remember watching a group of dancers break into the Big Apple, which at that point I’d never seen before.  In the middle of the circle of dancers was a smiling guy on crutches who hopped around on one leg, having broken the other in an aerials tragedy just before the big dance weekend.  At lindy exchanges, the goal is to dance with as many new people as possible and to reconnect with old friends from other cities.  We had done that all night, and now, reconvened, the four of us were heading back to Oberlin. Back home.

It was November, so I’m sure we had midterm papers and lots of homework awaiting us. (Back then, I was able to sleep until noon after an exchange, go to Stevenson Dining Hall to eat an omelet, and move about my day without further readjustment.  No jet-lag, headaches, crankiness or symptoms of sleep-deprivation.)  But despite our impending term papers, we felt that the three-hour jaunt to Pittsburgh to dance on one of the smoothest floors with one of the friendliest crowds in the region was an essential venture.  Traveling is where you find the lindy dragon, of course.  And, having accomplished our goals of dancing with So-and-So from Columbus , trying out new swivels or sugar pushes, and scoping out new partners, we were pleased to be reunited in contentment and fatigue in Michael’s car, heading home in the dark under clear black skies with jazz to accompany us.

I can’t remember in detail a single dance from that night, although I know I wore a pink newsboy cap.  But I do remember falling asleep in the back of the Volvo in the wee hours of the morning, past Youngstown, half-lying down in the middle seat with the seat belt lax, tucked under my arm.  Our bubbly recaps of the evening trailed off, and as I nodded off, Brandon, who was sitting next to me in the back seat, put his arm protectively across my shoulders.  He was wearing a leather jacket which had a comforting leather smell.  When I awoke from a kind of twilight sleep, we were just leaving a gas station in Northern Ohio and “Hard Times” was playing from the stereo.  It was a saxophone version, instrumental.  Michael had once played the sax solo in jazz band in high school, and it was one of his favorite pieces.  I didn’t move, just stayed resting there, with Brandon’s arm around me, and Michael humming along, and the dark highway interrupted by the blinking yellow traffic lights on Lorain Street as we headed into town.

I think we all were holding our breath there, appreciating the prolonged moment of the drive on 80 West, content to be in the same place, sharing the same experience, for as long as it would last.  When I miss dancing now, what I really miss was that car ride home.

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She guards his sleep like a lioness,
pouncing on dreams that crawl through the grasses.
The birdcalls of the evening are marked, as prey,
beneath her hungry stare.

And when the stars fall down on the savannah,
her whiskers will twitch with the Sandman’s dust
and this– yes, this alone– will wake him.
A nocturne sung in silence.
A lullaby that lies in wait.

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things in the reference desk drawer

Today I cleaned the Reference Desk drawer and found…

  1. A red cup full of pennies
  2. A pair of non-latex surgical gloves
  3. A red sharpie
  4. A black sharpie
  5. Five keys, two of which look like they belong to a bike chain
  6. No locks for the keys in # 5
  7. Red printer paper
  8. Purple printer paper
  9. Manila envelops
  10. A pile of blank CD roms
  11. A jumble of papers that I suspect were once the Reference Handbook
  12. A jumble of papers containing hash marks for every Reference question asked this year
  13. A screwdriver (useful for unjamming staplers)
  14. Our heavy duty stapler (in drawer due to being jammed)
  15. An orange flash drive
  16. An orange flashlight (added to drawer after last year’s campuswide power outage)
  17. An allen wrench
  18. A roll of industrial toilet paper used to wipe up spills
  19. A handful of napkins for the same purpose
  20. Can of compressed air (useful for cleaning dust out of keyboards or the empty reference desk drawer)
  21. Three boxes of staples
  22. Bevy of rogue staples, waiting for blood
  23. A box of bandaids (added to drawer after last semester’s “Help, I stapled my finger!” incident)
  24. Six paper clips
  25. Four pads of post-it notes
  26. Two rubber bands
  27. An empty box for golf pencils
  28. Two dead mice: one roller-ball, one laser
  29. Various cables of the printer, USB, and power cord variety
  30. Three unidentified pieces of plastic too mysterious to throw away
  31. Staple-remover that looks like alligator teeth
  32. Staple-remover that looks like a tool dentists use to examine teeth
  33. A baggie full of pencils, all with nubbed erasers
  34. One pencil that said “Happy Birthday” with balloons
  35. Treasure-trove of “Out-of-Order” signs
  36. A bottle of hand sanitizer in the shape of a # 1

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