The White Wall

new yard path 1“I wish I’d paid better attention. I didn’t yet think of time as finite. I didn’t fully appreciate the stories she told me until I became adult, and by then I had to make do with snippets pasted together, a film projected on the back of my mind.”
—Jessica Maria Tuccelli, Glow

I am at that time in life. I want to ask:

“Did he give me a music box covered with pink roses?”

“Did you go to Fisk?”

“Did you give new meaning to Debutante Ball—with the busboy?”

But they are all gone, the people that could answer those questions.

Years ago, I don’t remember which television news magazine reported it, I saw a story about a woman, an artist, who had received a devastating diagnosis: she had an aneurysm that could burst at any moment and she would die.

She lived with this knowledge for a year. A moment-by-moment experience of life. After a year, they discovered that she had been misdiagnosed.

This is what I remember about her back-story.

Sometime after that year, a gallery owner came to her studio. He noticed a subtle, but significant difference between her paintings. She told him her story and they realized that the differences he noticed reflected that year of living with the knowledge that life, time for her, was finite. There was a distinct before and after to her work.

He wanted a gallery show that told that story. They decided on a mural that would take up one wall of the gallery. She wanted it to be done with pastels. She wanted it to be up for one month, and one month only. And she wanted the opening to be reserved for people who were living with a terminal diagnosis.

I believe she spent a month on the mural, weeping as she worked, her fingers bleeding from working pastel onto plaster. As I remember the mural, it was a series of framed scenes, scenes as you would see them through a window, as if you were doing something mundane, happened to look up, and see a snippet of life. Simple but glorious.

At the opening, the invited guests passed through slowly, weeping. Weeping with joy and sorrow.

After one month, she stepped back to look at it one more time, then wept again as she took scrub brush in hand and washed away her work of love and passion.

But a ghost of the image remained. The gallery, with her permission, covered it with white paint.

In a way, it was the coat of white paint that touched me the most. Behind it, the ghost of the mural remains.

I have come to think that that is how it is when we die. We disappear behind the coat of white paint, but the ghost of our experience remains—in the memory and hearts of those who experienced us.

I stand with my back to the white wall, its coat of paint between me and the people who are gone. I have memories, some vivid and clear, others misty and muddled. I cannot verify any of them. I cannot point to them as facts. But I trust their presence behind that coat of white paint, and that their presence in my life has shaped it.

Fill Our Hearts with Power

I really do intend to update the Writing Shed weekly. But sometimes, events seem to leave me dumbstruck. Well, not so much dumbstruck, as waiting for the light bulb to click on, shed light on the dark corners that harbor the missing pieces of the puzzle I am trying to put together.

My small personal world and the global world intersected last week. There was the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech. There was a comment in a blog by a colleague that claimed we really can’t ever get into another’s shoes, can’t really imagine what their lives are like. And then, the drumbeat for action in Syria, followed by Obama stepping back, deferring to our Constitution, defining this moment as one that has global as well as national interests.

In many ways for me, the decade of the Sixties was about tossing our Pick-Up Sticks into the air and waiting for them to come down. The music, the liberation from the conformity of the Fifties, the march into a future that attempted to shed the past, were a part of that era for me. But what really defined that period for me was the Civil Rights movement. That August 1963 March on Washington was a defining moment.

In the shadow of Lincoln, a quarter of mile from Jefferson, King took the idea, the dream, of America to the next level. Jefferson planted the seed. Lincoln cleared the blight of slavery, and then King called on us to partake in the bounty promised by Jefferson’s ideas. He claimed entitlement to the ideals promised by Jefferson’s declaration that all men are created equal.

Some pointed out that there were no women speaking on the day. There weren’t. But fifty years later, it was his youngest daughter who delivered the clarion call, the words that ended with bells rung throughout the country in the name of human rights.

The Civil Rights movement, the clarion call of King’s dream have rippled over the years. The women’s movement was about civil rights. The disability movement was about civil rights. The LGBT movement is about civil rights. It shone a light so that those who lived in darkness and shadow could claim their right to a place at the table.

Clearly, things aren’t perfect. My colleague’s blog told of her experience as a female attorney in the late Eighties and early Nineties. Fifteen years younger than I, hers was the generation of women who began changing in large numbers the landscape of the playing field that had typically been an exclusive male club. Women, it seemed had arrived.

The message she received when she joined the firm was clear: be one of the boys or be the outsider, and by the way, you will never be one of the boys. Her colleagues in the firm, she said, could not imagine her life, what life was like in her shoes, because we are not capable of really doing that.

I think she let them off the hook. I think they chose, consciously or unconsciously, to refuse to see the world from her perspective. They had too much to lose—their position of privilege based solely on their gender and race.

The biggest flaw in the early women’s movement was the assumption that we needed to be seated at the men’s table—that power came from emulating them. I think that is changing. I suspect that to the current generation (the Millenials, if you will), this is not much of an issue. I think they see each other as equals in a way that none of us dreamed possible fifty, or even twenty, years ago.

The drumbeat for action in Syria left me with such mixed feelings. The horror that is happening is Syria seems to me to call for some kind of action. But what is the proper action?

Then President Obama took a step back. He called on the American people to respond to the atrocities. And, just as important, he called for the world community to take a stand.

To some, this was a sign of weakness. I think not. I think it is a sign that he has a deep understanding of the world we live in, and of power.

We have perhaps the most powerful military in all of human history. We have the might to enforce might makes right. Obama is probably correct that he has the authority, the power, to order military strikes without the consent of Congress or other countries.

But that is too much power to put in the hands of one person. I think that is what Obama understood, and why he took the step back. That is not weakness. That is strength.

I don’t want to idealize Obama. I could be wrong. We’ll see. I’m hoping that by forcing Congress to be accountable, he can disrupt the dysfunction that has consumed it and that maybe, just maybe, we can take that next step to realizing the dream.

In the film The Mission the priest, portrayed by Jeremy Irons, explains to Robert deNiro why he won’t take up arms. Perhaps might makes right he says. Maybe so. Maybe so. But if might makes right, there is no room for love in the world. I cannot live in such a world, he says.

I hope we are taking this moment in history to make room for love in the world—to fill our hearts with power—as we move forward as a country and as a world community.