Susan Brownwell Anthony met Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1851. They fiercely loved what I got to do today. Neither lived to see women in the U.S. vote, a human right to which they devoted their lives. It was ratified 96 years ago, August 18, 1920, My grandmother, Amy Mildred Farley Hutchins, born in 1896, was 24 years old.
In my own childhood, I watched the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution fail, watched as state by state failed to ratify it. I remember what that felt like. I was standing in a grocery check-out line and saw the headline, “ERA FAILS” over a photo of a huge, cheering crowd. To say such a national event was not personal is to miss the fact that it was personal, and not only in the feeling of knowing myself as devalued that permeated me as I stood in line next to my mother, a moment against which I have had to fight in my most private self all my life. The failure of the ERA has also meant that each right gained during my lifetime has needed to be fought for separately and most remain permanently at risk: abortion, Title 9, even the right of a woman to wear pants in the workplace. This is the status quo that is embedded in our daughters still, no matter how much contemporary rhetoric suggests that feminism is no longer needed.
Women’s suffrage did not begin with Seneca Falls but has been part of U.S. history as long as the nation has existed. It is not over. Women gained the right to vote in Saudi Arabia only six months ago, in Dec 2015. Even in the U.S., though the right to vote became law in 1920, after the necessary 36 states ratified it, that right was still not ratified in six states when I was born. Mississippi, the last, ratified women’s right to vote in 1984.
If you have not seen the movie Suffragettes, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It is a feature film of relationships and events in the years preceding the women’s vote in England. At the end, as in the movie Selma, there is actual footage of the activists who were beaten en masse, the leaders imprisoned, bound, and force fed.
Voting for Hillary Rodham Clinton as the President of the United States, apart from her being the smartest and most humane among the candidates, is, indeed, “a woman thing.”
Voting today stands among the proud moments of my life.
Today is Christmas Eve, 2015. Last week I spent an evening poured through by the holiness of George Frederick Handel’s oratorio, The Messiah, gift of a mature composer, of musicians of the San Francisco Symphony, Chorus, and the soloists, of the gathered listening, an audience intensifying the experience, and of my father’s gone baritone, setting this oratorio ever alive in me. The announcement with which the oratorio begins is from Isaiah 40, which is among my most favorite of biblical passages:
“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people… The voice of one cries in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way…, make straight in the desert a highway…
“Ev’ry valley shall be exalted, and ev’ry mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.”
This lyric holds a phrase that long has rankled me in my queer-embodied life and social-critiquing commitments, yet this year I hear it so differently. “The crooked made straight” has become not a quelling of a humanity and world wildly diverse but the gift that lives in my body and enables me to walk again and for the years to come.
I have a new knee.
I also love how Handel, as he does throughout this oratorio, makes audible the vivid images, textures and brings them fully alive. Images are no longer metaphors but voiced, toned, harmonized into a common experience, hugely resonant. The melody of this first Air begins with a valley, very low pitched and suddenly exalted, leaping high. The mountains, risen clean and majestic, then slope down in pitch. In my imagination I watch the greening of the world. What was distant is come close. And then that melody, sung by a tenor with the energetic, staccato-bowing string sections, becomes all crooked and jagged, until finally it shakes itself into a smooth, long-held note, “plain,” sung and shared by the whole orchestra.
The knee is a gift of the taxpayers. After decades of often severe pain and increasing deformity, falling again and again, my leg would no longer hold me. The surgery would have been impossible without my Obamacare/Covered California health insurance. The Affordable Care Act* is aptly named. It is a tangible way we care for each other, and I have experienced the magnitude of that care. This public care is come close, into my own body, not as a metaphor but in my actual and most intimate motion. The knee and my newly straightened and strengthening limb is also a gift of Dr. David Seidman’s exactitude, of Kaiser nurses, anesthesiologists, PAs and PTs, and of loved ones who have fed, accompanied, soothed, advocated, and cared for me exquisitely in the bodily vulnerable year I have lived.
“The rough places plain.” This gift lives in my body. I walk and am brought to tears with the ceaseless joy of it.
Thank you, President Obama. Thank you, all of you.
*Prior to the ACA, I carried a minimal insurance plan, with low total cap on coverage and an immense deductible, which, as a low-income, non-benefited professor in higher education, nonetheless took one third of my income. The ACA also allowed me to disclose to healthcare providers an obviously preexisting condition, my increasing limitation and never-absent pain , without being refused coverage. Out of a constant fear of losing all access, instead of asking for healthcare, I had worked to hide my need. The ACA’s other prong legislates as illegal the refusal to insure, due to any preexisting condition, anyone in the U.S.
This isn’t an x-ray of my knee, but mine looks like this!
“I type poems, the first draft, and many that follow, on my Hermes Rocket or, sometimes, on an Olivetti 22. I am fond of a well-working typewriter in the way I esteem a good piano, as an instrument for making music. I need the muscular effort of pressing keys that lift to imprint a sheet of paper and then fall down again. I draw on the rhythms of my typing to guide the poem, while it decides its beats per line and the size of its stanzas, if there are any. I value having to retype the entire poem with each draft. When the whole piece moves through me afresh with each set of changes, unforeseen shifts occur.”
“Most of all, the typewriter sometimes lets me leave the line I’m typing behind, before I reach its end, so I am chanting, often aloud, one line ahead of myself. It’s something I’ve never been able to do while working on a computer. The temporal alteration of making has something to do with not being able to see the line while I’m actually typing it, because the paper guide covers most of it. This frees my psyche for a mysterious constellating process by which complex images, felt language, and associative leaps become inseparable as they move.”
Last New Year’s Eve I attended a lovely celebration, and on New Year’s Day I woke with my hair full of a fistful of stars. I was laced with confetti thrown the night before by the jubilant hands of a then-eight-year-old, now-nine-year-old friend. While I thought about my resolutions the next morning, about possibilities my own New Year might hold, that young friend’s parents were vacuuming their carpet , then going onto their hands and knees, picking up all the fallen stars.
For this New Year’s Eve, here are six lines from an Irish poet and five lines from an African American poet. In Delanty’s poem, I do disagree with the ban but understand the grief, and how the blunt, new law, its imperative voice, defines the stark absence of the beloveds. Clifton’s poem gets at a dynamic of creativity, not so much about the failures and repetitions that proceed toward making or perfecting a particular object, rather, how it is by failure that evolution proceeds. By means of mutations, the failures of reiterating or reading the “true” names of exact strands of DNA, new species emerge, and by failure, too, we so often discover, grow, and intensify human relationships and cultures.
A New Law by Greg Delanty
Let there be a ban on every holiday.
No ringing in the new year.
No fireworks doodling the warm night air.
No holly on the door. I say
let there be no more.
For many are not here who were here before.
The Making of Poems by Lucille Clifton
the reason why i do it
though i fail and fail
in the giving of true names
is i am adam and his mother
and these failures are my job.
On holidays, like New Year’s Eve, when we turn to kiss a someone and that someone isn’t there—perhaps the someone has died, or perhaps a relationship was irrevocably broken sometime in the 12 months since last Auld Lang song was sung—we may acutely feel the absence of another as a kind of presence in itself, a hole shaped like the reality we knew and loved. Often there are other days: anniversaries of death or birth or a Thanksgiving gathering with one less seat at the table, when we acutely grieve a beloved and feel the shape of an absence.
New Year’s Eve, though, is a little different, as some of the absences we might grieve are not losses of human beings but losses of possibilities for our own lives. It’s a holiday particularly apt for noticing, as we do on no other day, the things that didn’t happen, didn’t come to fruition, didn’t follow the plan, the once-in-lifetime possibilities lost during the past 12 months, or maybe resolutions made with great determination and the highest of hopes only and exactly a year ago, resolutions that were not carried very far into the year still new. New Year’s Eve can be a kind of secular Yom Kippur, hidden within us, not wholly unlike New Year’s Day can become something of a degenerate Rosh Hashanah, a feast of American football rather than of trumpets.
Maybe there was bodily weight to be lost or gained or miles to be run. Maybe one’s voice was never again going to be raised at one’s teenager. Maybe there waits in one’s own city, a Little Brother or Little Sister never met. Or, maybe that dream job was not applied for or was filled by someone else. Maybe the planned marriage didn’t happen, or it did happen but the experiences of being married are not those one thought were possible. Maybe the book was going to be finished and find its publisher. Maybe a child was to be conceived. All those shapes of absences fill the room, invisibly, just before we blow the horns. It is likely I have failed you and, maybe, almost certainly, I have failed myself.
Those lost possibilities, failed resolutions, are they really lost? If time splays forth radiantly, might we ourselves never know the reach of the unformed possibilities, even those residing, we think, solely within us, hidden in our minds and bodies? What happens to those things we’ve never made happen?
Sometimes I think about—and grieve—the un-composed symphonies of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who died on 5 December 1791 at the age of 35, with so many possibilities, full-fledged ideas even, still alive within him. That is one of the greatest sadnesses of human death for me: the way anyone’s death, anywhere, every death, is also the death of those particular possibilities that might have been realized, those singular surges of creativity and new or deepened relations that seem to die when a human dies.
I think if you open a bit of time, about 9 minutes, you will not regret listening to the final movement of the last symphony Mozart completed, his 41st. The movement itself, Molto Allegro, is below. I love this symphony, especially the Great Fugue at the very end of this movement. It always makes me wonder, along with his Requiem, what strange, neverbefore style Mozart would’ve unfolded had he lived longer. The 2nd movement of this same symphony is also such an original, non-classical-style composition. I grieve what was evolving… for it was very big, and very strange, a kind of new musical species, and it would have carried my emotions as nothing else will carry them.
The loss of possibility is a real loss. But does the possibility die with our failures of living into realization in and through our own lives? If time splays radiantly, and I think it does, truly, then those possibilities may have been or are yet to be translated, reinterpreted, entered into other lives, other makings. So many composers after Mozart were influenced, not only by his existing works, but most of all by his trajectory toward the strange and new, the freeing urge within him that had grown yet not fully been realized, to let the existing classical forms of harmony fail themselves, shift toward dissonance, to lengthen and depart from sonata form, let the “what” of a symphony move beyond itself as already existing. Beethoven, who greatly admired Mozart and wished his entire life that he could have studied with him (another possibility lost to Mozart’s early death), took up some of Mozart’s own trajectory of possibility. Beethoven’s modes of drawing out the development of themes, his unfurling in his own singular ways some of Mozart’s lure toward dissonance made new music that could carry and even drive our own human longings further into their intensities, and sometimes into their deeply satisfying resolutions, the possible realized and made!
What if our own losses, our failures, open other, unknown possibilities, not only for our own future living and becoming, but for the makings in and of other lives? As we are so deeply constituted by our relations with others, so those possibilities lost to us, are often discovered or translated into constellations of becoming other than those we would call our own. What is learning, after all, both formal education and the learning to know another person more intimately, but a translation and re-gathering of undone possibilities and potentials from one human life into the motions of another, different life? When students read Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality, it is not only for what Whitehead discerned and connected and wrote, but for and into the directions he was not able to follow, those possibilities he did not take, or turned his back to noticing, or could not notice, because they required future interactions that had not yet happened. His lost possibilities and his failures, gaps, become sites of our own unfolding of thought and feeling beyond Whitehead’s own imaginings. I think that’s what he meant by Adventures of Ideas.
Really, you and I will never know what will become of our own lost possibilities, what and how they might be discovered by and adventure through lives other than our own. Failure and loss are not necessarily the terrible outcomes that they appear to be from the perspective of a single life or moment. What departures will be facilitated by our own failures, in our lives perhaps, but certainly into realizations belonging to another? What if those failures are one of the jobs of existing at all? Of passing forth into change beyond ourselves? The opportunity for the personally controlled Possibility Fulfilled Like This may have passed, and may be grieved, may make the shape of an absence only known in the privacy of a single psyche, but are those personal possibilities really that singular? And do they really belong only to us?
What if it is the motion of those lost possibilities in the hidden realms between us that are invisibly mingling and being offered, one to another, just before the blowing of the horns? Oh, the fallen stars… My friend, who is now nine years old, has parents who saved last year’s confetti, vacuumed and gathered piece by piece from the floor, and we’ll all be throwing it again, and all that same glitter will be landing again mostly on different heads than it did last year. Some of it, some of last year’s stars, I’ll wake to again in the morning, tangled again into my hair amid those stars that last year fell elsewhere.
Here’s conductor Jeffrey Tate and the English Chamber Orchestra performing the Molto Allegro of Mozart’s Symphony 41 in C Major.