And the history continues … you may find a few parallels with the present …
SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
6 January 2001
Responses to She Is Still Burning continue to flow in; they not only keep me writing, they are a form of life sustenance. For which, many thanks. You bring me joy. Not an exaggeration.
So far this winter the weather has been near-apocalyptic (and the newly non-elected US president believes that global warming, with its drastic alteration of weather patterns, is a hoax perpetrated by environmentalists intent on destroying the Texas oil industry, uh huh). The storms just before Christmas were the worst on record—nothing like them according to the native tribes’ oral histories either. The winds broke telephone poles in half. And in the bay two gargantuan oil tankers were ripped from their anchors, crashing into each other. The tanker most damaged had two hulls; the outer hull broke, but the inner hull didn’t, which is why there isn’t oil all over the Bay of Fundy.
Quite a few things seem to be hanging from a very narrow thread, and it is not, at least in the northern hemisphere, a time of high energy. Hence, I would like to urge all of us, especially where it is deadly cold, to remember the “winter sleepers” who showed up on a card Ann Stokes sent me in December: the raccoon, the black bear, the jumping mouse and the chipmunk. All these little and not-so-little darlings are curled up in safe places, hibernating. Ahh … role models. Stay safe; stay warm; take naps; dream of renewal.
But there is one Bear I would like now to bring out of obscurity, for a round of applause. My partner, Albert E.B. O’Brien, helps me keep body and soul together, but he also helps keep She Is Still Burning alive, by steady encouragement of its editor and steady maintenance of its technological base. For which, many thanks.
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada
IN THIS INSTALLMENT
•”Lucile and the Power of Persistence” (a tribute to my aunt Lucile)
•”What Remains” (a collage-poem by Jane Picard)
•”To Cultivate Laziness” (winter advice I have trouble following)
•”Thick and Black” by Ann Stokes (a poem full of energy to revive flagging winter spirits)
•”Winter Dreaming” (a poem written in its original version about ten years ago)
LUCILE AND THE POWER OF PERSISTENCE
by Harriet Ellenberger
My brother called the morning after Christmas to say that Aunt Lucile had just died. I’d gone back to Iowa to see her the year before because my mother had said that she wouldn’t last long. Lucile was weak then, in a wheelchair when she wasn’t in bed, but still with her wits about her. We had a subdued but affectionate last visit, and I thought I was doing fine, not at all wild with grief, until I arrived back at my parents’ apartment minus my backpack, which contained travel cash, return plane ticket and my entire paper trail (passport, credit card, medical insurance card, Canadian citizenship card, driver’s license). A call to the nursing home confirmed that I’d left the backpack beside Lucile’s bed; a quick-thinking nurse had found it and locked it up with the medicines.
Lucile is one of my mother’s older sisters, and she worked as the principal of two elementary schools in Des Moines when I was growing up. She fought for the children in her schools; to me, that was her defining characteristic. She had a low opinion of most of the men who took over the system’s top administrative jobs from women, once those jobs had begun to pay well and acquire social prestige. And she had an even lower opinion of parents who neglected their children or tyrannized over them. But administrators and parents had power over her as well as over the children, so she fought them in a wily manner.
Her wiliness was at the crux of our differences. When I was a small girl, I relied on Lucile for a mutual exchange of truth-telling. She was independent, she was smart, and she didn’t mince words. At least with me. I could give her honest reports on my furious alienation at school, and she listened. She even agreed with my teacher evaluations, which were disrespectful in the extreme. I was so entranced with the effect her listening had on me (it made me feel sane) that I wanted more: more telling truth, more listening to truth, truth everywhere, truth at all times! Revolutionary truth! Truth to turn the world upside down! But Lucile would always add the proviso: Now, Harriet, you and I can know these things, but we can’t say these things.
What she meant was that the world is a cruel and unjust place, and she didn’t want to see me destroyed by it. I knew there was caring behind her caution, but the caution itself was a barricade set between me and a life I could not imagine in detail, but desperately longed for. I wanted more than anything in the world to say what I saw and felt and knew. I wanted to speak freely the way people crossing a desert want water.
Lucile had arrived at her stance of cautious resistance through personal encounters with cruelty and injustice. The story she told which most outraged me goes as follows: It’s the Depression. She’s one of the lucky few with a job, teaching children in Bloomfield, Iowa, for $900 a year, a salary which remains the same for ten years. On this salary, she supports herself, her mother and her grandmother. She also continues her quest for a college degree (it will take her more than twenty years to graduate). In the summers, she and a girlfriend go to Cedar Falls teachers’ college to take courses. But she does not have money enough to pay for the tuition and the meals, so she eats very little. One day she faints in class. The Dean of Women calls her in and grills her. Finally, Lucile admits she has no money for food. Does the Dean of Women ask her to supper, take up a collection, admire her for her persistence and courage and arrange a scholarship? No. The Dean of Women, mindful that the other students’ delicate sensibilities not be upset by the presence of the hungry among them, expells my aunt.
That Depression-era functionary and the societal values she represented (now once again in the ascendance) wounded Lucile’s pride and slowed her progress, but they didn’t stop her. After years of teaching on nothing but a high-school certificate, with a salary to match, she earned her bachelor’s degree. And then she travelled to Columbia teachers’ college in New York City every summer for ten years to earn her master’s degree. In her fifties and handling a job that was in fact two jobs, she was still going to school. But she found friends during her New York City summers, discovered the city, entered a new world. And she continued to be a life-giving, life-altering presence in the schools where she worked, according to the testimony of a legion of former students on Des Moines’ south side.
One Saturday morning when I was about thirteen, I helped Lucile prepare a brunch at her house (by then, she had a home of her own) for her friends, a group of single women, all in their fifties, all holding jobs as elementary-school principals. They called themselves “The Old Bags,” but they were the most sophisticated and irreverent women I’d ever run into. They were a revelation. And they treated me as if I were one of them. We drank champagne with orange juice. In the morning! Together!
Dear readers, will you do me a personal favour? Sometime soon, with friends, please lift your glass (it can be Perrier, peu n’importe) and propose a toast to Dorothy Lucile Truitt, as strong-minded a woman as ever walked the face of earth.
He was afraid to die.
Il avait peur de mourir
He yearned to eat
He yearned to speak
He yearned to drink
Crever to burst, to split, to die
as in I would die to be a singer.
Je crève de manger, je crève de boire
Je crève de dire.
Il crevait de danser. Il crevait de dire.
He was dying to eat.
He was dying to speak.
He was dying to dance.
He was dying to drink. —
“like light behind film strip, a ticking mutability in everything
left behind on the nightstand, and it was so little and it was
nothing in the way of effects
for he had nothing to leave us —
… when the scent of his shirts began to degrade
I could do nothing to stop it
though I must have thought I could follow it as if it were
a thread, a shining new umbilicus
leading to the other side of matter
where the problem of matter is repaired.”
“The snow lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
— a collage by Jane Picard (stanzas 1-2, Jane Picard; stanzas 3-5, from a poem by Camille Norton for her late father; stanza 6, from James Joyce’s “The Dead” in The Dubliners)
TO CULTIVATE LAZINESS
by Harriet Ellenberger
Eat when you’re hungry, lie down when you’re tired, sleep all you want to.
Designate one day of the week as your “day of rest.” “Rest” may include lollygagging around the apartment in your pajamas, not answering the phone, not brushing your teeth.
When you’re not sure what to do, do nothing.
Try not to read anything for five whole days.
Remember water. It follows the path of least resistance, thereby eroding mountains.
THICK AND BLACK
Into the alley she swooped her skirts
a flowing through the sun the
set the roses were yellow and
green touched white she was tight
lipped and her tears flew into the sky
to shape the rim of a cloud all blue and
grey the beak of the heron hit her
knee she was all aglow
she wore a red sweater there was
no forgetting her voice
the night was thick she was black she
yelled fell through and swept
— Ann Stokes
I am still forming,
I am not yet myself,
but I dream a lover to come —
someone who will know me
from the left side,
someone who will remember my eyes
from a place where people spoke differently,
someone who will call me
white moon and lotus,
the one who dances in my heart.
People now say what I do is dreaming,
But I say winter dreaming keeps me on earth.
We ourselves are a dream of the earth.
She filled us with her mind.
And I am dreaming a life to come
as she once dreamt mine.
— Harriet Ellenberger