toni mcnaron's garden

Proximity and Paradox

From earliest childhood–the 1940s in Fairfield, Alabama, I remember there seeing “Negroes” in my house and yard. Needless to say they were there as maids and yard men, paid a pittance and given food and iced tea in dishes/glasses not used by us. But they had names–Josephine inside and Charlie outside–and they played with me and let me “help” them as they worked. My mother’s theory about “colored people” was simple–“her” Negroes were not like “those other people” who were lazy and then got drunk and fought with knives on the weekend. When Josephine needed to see an eye doctor, Mamie (what we called my mother) took her to her own person though Josephine couldn’t ride in the same elevator to get to his office as my mother did. Often, my mother went back to work right after lunch and was read to out of a favorite magazine by Josephine who refused to work until half an hour had passed so that her food could digest properly. And Mamie was fine leaving me in the care of Josephine, whom she exploited by paying her $5.00 a day, when she went off to her garden club or church work group, though she refused ever to let one of the white teenagers in our neighborhood “baby sit” me because she didn’t trust them with her precious child.

I could keep sharing examples of blatant paradoxes around the relationship between my white family and the Black people I knew in my growing up years. What these examples all illustrate, however, is the ultimate paradox that existed between contact and messaging between black and white southerners. Only recently, as I am reading critical race theorists, have I begun to assess how that paradoxical proximity has enabled me to “read” white supremacy differently from some of my white friends who grew up in other parts of the country than the South. In an odd way, my youth and adolescence spent in the cauldron of white supremacy with all its inhumane manifestations has given me clarity about what Black thinkers/writers/activists are working so hard to convey to too many of us whites who have trouble dislodging ourselves from our privileged bubbles.
Because I spent hours every day with Josephine or Charlie, I talked to them about everything, many things I never would have dreamed of saying to my mother or father. So I developed an easiness and familiarity around black people, even as I came to hear more white adults say really demeaning and harmful things about all such individuals. ‘

My patchwork exposure to “racism” turned on a huge paradox: I knew in my very bones that my whiteness meant all sorts of different things from their “colored ness.” (I use “colored” to refer to the non-white people I saw every day because Mamie chastised me severely the day I came home from fourth or fifth grade and said the “n” word: “You must never say that word again, Honey, because it would hurt Josephine’s or Charlie’s feelings.” Having no idea what she was talking about, but loving Josephine and Charlie the tangled way whites often do, I never said the word again.) But I also knew in those same bones that Josephine and Charlie, and by extension other people in their community had lives and ideas, cracked funny jokes with me, taught me all sorts of useful lessons about gardening and cleaning and food preparation. I even knew Josephine had children since her two daughters often came to our house when they weren’t in school and we played together for hours in the side yard.

The limits that proximity couldn’t erase, however, turned on my not knowing anything about what they did when they were not at our house, so their full humanity was denied me because of the system in which we all were trapped. As I’ve spent most of my life in Minnesota, being in proximity with blacks is hard won for me. But when I find myself with black people, I must fall back into my childhood/teenage years because I have an easy way of talking and relating that often eludes me at white dinner parties or wedding receptions and the like. More importantly, in a perhaps odd way, two words in the phrase “Black Lives Matter” make deep sense to me since some of the important people in that childhood were black and they mattered. The fact that their “lives” were pretty much a blank slate complicates everything about our proximity but it still gives me clarity in many political situations.

I’ll end with just one glaring example of how this works for me in the present. When the Orange Man began to run for president, he uttered his basic slogan “Make America Great Again.” I felt panicked when I first heard him because I flashed to all the white southern governors/mayors/business owners who had said the same thing when they wanted to exclude blacks. It was not anything as subtle as a “dog whistle” to my ears–it was a megaphonic cry that meant millions of my fellow Americans would know what it meant and move into his orbit. My white liberal friends laughed at what a fool he is, but I tried to get them to take him seriously since I knew he had a genuine chance to get elected. After all, all those whites had endured eight long years of watching the wrong colored man light the Christmas tree, free the Thanksgiving turkey, roll the first Easter egg down the expansive lawn, and speak at the podium in the Rose Garden where he was supposed to be walking around with a tray of goodies.

So I am coming to understand those early years with Josephine and Charlie in a new and deeper, more complex light. And, once again, I am feeling at home in the midst of an unsolvable but powerful paradox.

The Face of Trauma

One of the eye-witnesses who testified in the on-going George Floyd trial was Genevieve Hansen, a member of the Minneapolis Fire Department with extensive training in EMT work. This young white woman answered all the prosecutor’s careful questions about her several training programs that qualify her to give immediate and potentially life-saving medical assistance in Minnesota and nationally. When the attorney asked her what she said once she saw Mr. Floyd pinned under the policeman’s knee which was firmly pressing on his neck, I saw small facial tightenings, especially around Ms. Hansen’s mouth. Her reply was clear and specific: she identified herself as a firefighter with medical training to which the officer guarding the scene told her that if she really was a firefighter, she wouldn’t have wanted to get involved–whatever that might mean. The patient attorney continued by asking her what she wanted to do for Mr. Floyd and we heard her go through a list of about five moves she would have performed to open Mr. Floyd’s blocked air ways. As she recited these, she touched her own chest and neck and I saw more facial movements that told me she was feeling constrained breathing herself, there in the courtroom, and I began to grasp that giving this testimony was forcing Ms. Hansen to relive those tense and awful moments when she was forbidden to do what she is so eminently trained to do. In other words, she was reliving her own trauma of that day.

When I teach novels and poems written by Black or Latinx or Indigenous writers, I often help readers see how trauma, both personal and intergenerational/cultural, works. We also discuss how trauma can be re-experienced and set in motion by external details and by speaking about the original moments. So I was witnessing Ms. Hansen’s reawakened memories of what is so clearly one of the most violent examples of trauma as it was being inflicted upon George Floyd. The attorney asked Ms. Hansen how she felt when the police officer insulted her by suggesting she is not what she is–a firefighter with licensed EMT expertise. She replied, exhibiting upper body movements that told me she was feeling deep emotion, “He didn’t believe me,” to which the attorney countered “And how did that make you feel?” “Totally distressed” spilled out off her mouth and she broke down in tears. I could see with my own eyes that her upper body was shaking inside her pristine, starched white uniform shirt.

After some moments of wiping her eyes and trying to get a drink of water from the tiny bottle provided her by the court, she went on. In tears myself in my safe home, the reality of our ability to relive traumatic events broke over me. I just sat and cried for Ms. Hansen, for George Floyd and his girl friend, and for all his relatives. I also realized that I had just been an eye-witness to Ms. Hansen’s account of her own eye-witnessing of the murder of George Floyd by a white policeman who seemed to be feeling a combination of calmness and power as he just kept his very strong knee on one of the weakest parts of a human body. In other words, I had seen the face of trauma, up close and powerfully painful. I will not be able ever again to discuss this phenomenon with the same distance I’ve had until now. Genevieve Hansen has let me see what trauma really looks like as it takes over our bodies and our spirits. I believe not only her words about being a trained fire fighter–I believe every word out of her mouth and every ounce of body language that accompanied those words.

The Solution vs. the Problem

A few months into the pandemic, I started attending a new OA 12-step meeting for people dealing with compulsive eating problems. It originates from Arizona where my OA sponsor and her husband now live. When I stopped drinking alcoholically, I just transferred my addictive behavior to food, gaining about fifty pounds. Eventually I found my way to OA and now have accumulated 34 years of abstinence around food. I’ve gone to the same meeting in my home town all that time and was wanting a second meeting where there might be people with as much or more abstinence than I have. My sponsor assured me I’d be welcome at her AZ meeting since they were meeting via Zoom because of the pandemic. So for the past six or seven months, I’ve been a faithful face in my little rectangle on Saturday mornings.

As is true at most 12-step meetings, someone reads the same words each week before we share individually. In one of these template moments, I was taken aback my first time because I heard a new sentence. We are being reminded about not talking too long when we speak, and about not giving “advice” to anyone but just to listen. That part was familiar but then the person reading said “If you need to talk about a food issue, remember to speak from within the solution and not from within the problem.” That caught my attention immediately so I wrote it down to ponder later. The more I thought about what that statement really means, the clearer I became that this group accented the fact that we have a program structured around tools that have proven through many years to help any one who seriously uses them. As I listened to women speaking about their struggles with food issues, I could tell that most of their “share time” was devoted to what they were doing to work their way out of the struggle and get back to sanity around what we were eating. So I changed how I contributed and even have seen a positive carry over into other facets of my life.

All this story is backdrop for what I want to share about my responses to watching “Nomadland” recently. Like many others, I was drawn in immediately because of Frances McDormand’s amazing presence. So much of this movie depends on non-verbal expressions and body language–things McDormand employs with tremendous skill and discipline, I think. Once I’d seen the movie and talked about it with a friend with whom I watched it, however, I kept thinking of the group of people who played themselves and actually live a nomadic life style. That meant I paid particular attention to Bob Mills, the older man who has helped formulate communities of individuals who just can’t manage living under roofs, who “have to depart” as we are told at the end of the film. Given the fact that many scenes show Fern’s listening to another of these individuals recount her or his story. Those recitals are often about losses or other hard circumstances faced by the speaker. Fern mostly just listens, and the more I thought about it, the story tellers did not cast themselves as hopeless victims who blame parents or some government for what has happened to them. But they also are not “resigned” or even brow-beaten by life’s offerings. I wouldn’t say they had “acceptance,” because often that involves stopping hoping for miracles–or at least positive surprises. As my friend and I kept sharing on days following our seeing the movie, I had an epiphany–the people speaking for themselves were “speaking from within the solution and not from within the problem.”

Indeed, Bob tells Fern this in his own words near the end of the film. And those words now are deepening my own understanding of the OA sentence. I believe that the people in his communities are making strenuous efforts to LIVE within the solution, not just to speak from within it. So whatever hard knocks come at them, they rely on their “tools” for meeting life on life’s terms as best as they can. It may not look heroic or even successful by our world’s standards, but the real people and the character of Fern have a composure and perhaps even a grace that is not that different from what I work to maintain around my relationship with food. Their tools and mine help us avoid despair and self-pity and that is a blessing.

Elizabeth Bennet, Hannah Arendt, and the Impeachment Trial

For two whole days, the managers from the House of Representatives shaped in meticulous and unavoidable detail exactly how the former president is responsible for the violent and lawless mob’s insurrection as they stormed the Capitol building on January 6th.  Each speaker was responsible for another facet of this monumental assemblage of facts, video both seen and previously unseen, direct quotations from the former president.  What impressed me as much as the content was the utter seriousness with which these women and men were taking their assignment.  I was sure that not only they themselves had devoted countless hours to finding just the right balance between outrage and reasoned argument, but each of their staffs had been instructed to spare no detail that might bolster the general argument.  

Watching the faces especially of some Republican Senators who listened attentively, especially on the first day, I felt sure that many of them would have voted to convict had the vote been secret.  But it was not secret, so in the end only seven of those Senators stood on principle, followed their oath to obey our Constitution, and risked serious backlash from many in their own party.  News in the days following the vote to acquit tell us that is precisely what is happening to the honorable seven–they are being censured by state party officials and may be subjected to more tangible rebuffs or even threats in coming weeks and months.

The managers from the House used every minute allotted to them because they felt the gravity of what they were being asked to do for our country as it veers dangerously off course and away from even the vestiges of democratic principles and behaviors.  Then day three dawned and it was time for the former president’s defense attorneys to have equal time to present their case for acquitting their client who refused to appear and give direct testimony about his claimed innocence.  Imagine my surprise when, driving in my car to the grocery store mid-afternoon after the defense had begun at noon, I heard that it was over!  They had spoken for less than three hours.

As I tried to take in this surprising brevity, two names kept entering my mind–Elizabeth Bennet, a main character in Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice and Hannah Arendt, author of The Banality of Evil, her reflections on attending the trial of a former Nazi.  Anyone who has read Austen’s novel or seen a movie version of the story will remember that Mrs. Bennet could trivialize the most serious subject matter or moment in her own life or that of her daughters.  Her only goal is to marry them off suitably, so she brushes facts away as insignificant pests that slow her down in reaching her goal.  She also favored garden parties or strolls along the seashore to a serious conversation about the complexities of human existence.  As for Arendt, she is frightened and appalled by her realization that the Nazi on trial was not a looming monstrous figure but rather a simple man who thought he was just doing his job.  To have to admit that evil could be purveyed by so banal an actor forced her to understand how a group of people could come to idolize a figure as evil as Adolph Hitler.

By refusing to engage seriously in the second impeachment trial of our make-believe president, those lawyers insulted all of us who were stunned by what we saw unfolding before our eyes on January 6th.  They completely brushed off the whole affair, speaking just a little while before resuming their everyday lives.  Maybe they had a late afternoon golf match with fellow lawyers or a dinner date for which they needed to hurry home and change into something appropriate to the occasion.  What their so short argument before our Senators told me was they knew the outcome before they said a single word, so why “waste” words on so insignificant a case.  Not only did their shameful behavior let them thumb their respective legal noses over something many of us consider one of the most serious political subjects–whether to impeach an elected president of the country–but it also confirmed a boast that person made while campaigning for the presidency.  Yes, I refer to his saying “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody without losing any voters”–a comment worthy of Elizabeth Bennet and surely one that would strike fear in the heart of Hannah Arendt.

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