Lesley Wheeler’s The State She’s In

The older I get, the more I need poetry.  I need to read, hear, teach, write, and evangelize about it.  I don’t know if it’s my age, or the years of teaching, or these more than just trying times.  I’m not sure what makes me turn increasingly to volumes of poetry I read years ago and others that are brand new. I don’t know why I’m experiencing verse in a more physical, visceral, emotional way than I used to.  It’s a little bit like a drug at this point, and I need my fix.

Enter Lesley Wheeler’s latest poetry collection, The State She’s In.  Wheeler is a friend and colleague.  We are close to the same age and live in the same state.  And so, in many ways, the state her poetic voice is in is the same state I’m in.  Even with my already very proximate relationship to this collection, the book surprised, delighted, and nourished me at every turn.  I remember a French professor who said imperiously from her high teaching bank at the Sorbonne, “Mais ce livre est fantastique.  C’est un must-read.”  Unfortunate though it may be that I only remember her hilarious look and tone, and not the fantastic book itself, I want to adopt her same posture as I say to you all, glasses at the end of my nose, voice forceful, Wheeler’s book is a must-read.

When I read a single poem, I tend to perform close-reading: reading out loud; listening for rhyme and meter; understanding the flow from stanza to stanza; seeking words and images that repeat; coming to grips with poetic voice; deciding if the poem tends more towards metaphor or metonymy; slowly unraveling the theme.  It’s a delicious savoring of an accomplished writer’s carefully wrought offering.  It is a gift.

When I read a whole collection of poetry, I read it like a novel.  The collection’s sections are chapters, the titles an invitation to keep moving.  The poetic voice, so different from poem to poem or section to section, becomes like a shifting narrator, guiding me through the collection and giving an overall impression of its contents.  I end up sensing the overall coherence of the work, the logic of the poet (and her editor) as she edits and compiles works drafted over time.  When I finish the collection, I can almost narrate what happened, as if I had just read a plot-driven work.

This is not really how poetry should be read, and so I always go back to read the collection again—usually not in order.  I pick poems and reread them, close-read them, seeking the lyricism, solace, humor—the focus I would normally lend to a single poem.

Last Thursday, I devoured Wheeler’s fifth poetry collection like I would a gripping novel.  When I finished, I sat with the flow of blood, assonance, and indignation that marked the collection for me.  I loved that each section was titled “Ambitions,” allowing the reader to think of the many ways—semantic, semiotic, musical—in which this word can map meaning. The poems that treat racial history, which in this state is also the racist present, are centered in the second “Ambitions” section and include “Blue Ridge,” “American Incognitum,” and the “Unremembered settlements” series, which disappears right before the reader’s eyes, effectively de-mapping the settlements of the Algonquians and Iroquois who lived in this state before it was a state.  “John Robinson’s List, 1826” considers the enslaved persons owned by Lexington resident John Robinson. “Some of the entries hint at stories. Creasy, / 68, twenty dollars, but the note, / in a column usually blank, offers a hard ‘worth / nothing.’ The cursive relaxed but well-groomed.” The insistent enjambment moves the reader forcefully from real person to half-bared truth—the buying and selling of human beings, and the multiple erasures of their stories.  Wheeler imagines lost stories without stealing voice, a feat she masters through careful archival work and an earned frustration with the state of race and gender where she lives.

Many of Wheeler’s poems present the blood of erased peoples, the reality of invisible people, the frustration and indignation of collective existence snuffed out.  It is no accident that many of the poems in the third “Ambitions” section are dated 2016.  Together, these poems decry the ever-increasing power of an-almost president who, down the line, would be impeached.  “Bleeding on the street’s not too good for her, / thinks forty-plus percent of my broken / country. The liar calls her liar and the smear / sticks. After all, horror’s ordinary.  The thirteen-/year-old boy just killed for holding a BB gun. / An an open-mouthed woman—well, blood’s her career” (“Inside Out”).  The blood of racial violence and the blood of the vagina dentata, presumed mysterious, dangerous, and unworthy.  In “Inappropriate,” Wheeler writes, “…Just her bad / inhospitable secret vagina, delivering plans. / Can’t see what she’s got up there’s / what they can’t stand.”

The poet weaves these themes through artfully wrought poetic forms, with evocations of the natural world reminding the reader to breathe—to activate the senses in order to sort through the themes (to experience the meshing of forma y fondo [form and meaning]).  Wheeler writes with an urgency about pain and passages as she considers collective metamorphosis and personal, intimate transitions.  I was particularly moved by “Pushing Toward the Canopy,” which appears towards the end of the collection.  The allusions to trees, branches and leaves, and then to “water, water” are gently astounding and combine with the profound “I” of the poem, who asks at the end, “What do I want, if not dirt and rain / and friends who turn to me and wave?”  As does the whole collection, this poem communicates both vulnerability and power, and, for those of us living decades in small towns, it reminds us of the intensity of union and disjuncture as life unfolds, as we “push towards the canopy.”

I loved this collection in part because it recalled the interstices of anger and frustration of my joints and tissues.  It reminded me of political outcry and resistance and of gentle community-building—the to-and-fro of denouncing evil-doing and attempting to model something like radical love.  C’est un must-read.

Guns ‘n Threats

“They’re comin’ for yer guns, no doubt about it.”

“Just bury your guns for two years, and then you’ll get ‘em back when we flip the statehouse.”

“Guns don’t kill people. People do.”

“We’re gonna get to the point where you can’t even give a gun to a child.”

“We are not going to be sheep led to slaughter.”

“Don’t let liberal elites tell you what to do.”

“More guns, less crime.”

These are a few quotes from the December 8th (2019) townhall meeting held by Virginia 24th District Delegate Ronnie Campbell (*described in this post). The meeting served as regional Republican Party preparation for the Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors meeting to decide on a local Second Amendment, or “gun sanctuary” resolution.  The following night, the Board of Supervisors meeting, ostensibly scheduled to vote on the resolution, turned into a Trump rally. Here is a link to the Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors site.  As yet, neither the December 9th minutes nor the resolution itself has been posted.

As you might have seen in my previous post about the townhall meeting, Delegate Ronnie Campbell introduced the gun question by first launching three major GOP talking points—voters’ rights (“Why should everybody get to vote?”), abortion (who gets to decide?), and “you can’t trust the left-wing media” (adding, “Citizens are not well informed.” I’ll say!).  As he introduced these three points, Campbell said, “These are not Republican talking points or anything like that” (um, Ronnie, that’s exactly what these are).  He has been well-trained in Trumpism—appeal to the one-issue voters by making sure to bundle their one issue into the whole package, never distinguishing between or among issues, and never providing actual data or facts.  You can get a crowd good and riled up in this way, which is why the United States is in chaos three years into this tyrant’s so-called presidency.

I attended the December 9th Board of Supervisors meeting with about twenty people opposed to the gun sanctuary proposal and 1180 in favor. We twenty knew the fix was in, but we believed it was worthwhile to show up and have resistance heard.  With several hundred students doing evening activities and competitions at the high school and a host of heavily armed deputy sheriffs all over the school, the atmosphere was tense. I was not surprised by the numbers, nor was I surprised by how this board of our rural county ran the meeting like a Trump rally.  They told people from Lexington City that they would not be allowed to speak until everyone from Rockbridge County had spoken.  This would make sense, maybe, if Lexington City residents did not have (and vote for) the same sheriff as the Rockbridge County residents, did not send their children to the only public high school in our area (Rockbridge County High), and did not work and play in Rockbridge County.  But we do do all of these things, and therefore our voices should also matter.

In addition, the Board allowed two featured speakers before they opened the discussion: Virginia House of Delegates Ronnie Campbell and resident of Rockingham County (one hour north of us) Jennifer Brown, who serves as a regional committee chair for the Republican Party.  Campbell did his assigned part by giving a Trump stump speech, ending his remarks with a loud, cheerleader-like “Vote for Trump!”  Even though she is not a resident of Rockbridge County, Brown was able to deliver her comments as she had at the townhall the day before—as GOP talking points and with no data, no statistics, no real information.  The Board of Supervisors set the tone from the get-go, telling us Dems in the front two rows how this would go.  The set-up was a big middle finger to anyone interested in discussing common sense gun reform and to the reality of a state turned blue.

Of the seventy or so people who spoke in favor of Rockbridge County being a gun sanctuary (although, of course, the resolution itself is quite limited), only four were women.  Three of the four women acceded to the public stage by claiming themselves Christians, wives, and mothers.  This declaration seemed to give them permission to speak. The 66 men who spoke in favor of the resolution performed various combinations of the following: citing their military service; talking about their families’ longstanding ties to Virginia; creating an us/them dynamic, especially regarding northerners and migrants; disparaging lawmakers in Richmond; criticizing “liberal elites”; mentioning, sometimes in one fell swoop and always without historical or political nuance, the Holocaust, socialism, and communism; claiming what God owes them. Some of those who spoke promoted their books and websites; others promoted their shooting ranges. Of all those who spoke in favor of the resolution, one single person advocated for a real conversation between the two sides to see if some form of compromise was possible.

Board Chair Jay Lewis (whose actions from the previous weekend are described here) had told the audience that no waving of signs, heckling, or general disruptions would be allowed.  Second Amendment signs were waved throughout the almost-three-hour session.  When some of us 20 in opposition asked for the Board to follow its own established rules, we were shouted down, being called the “b” word and the “c” word and being told to shut up.  Lewis chided us, but not the others, who received a complicit half-smile and nod.  The intention was to establish a threatening atmosphere, and it worked.  These are the moments at which the Second Amendment folks try to use guns and/or the threat of guns to limit First Amendment rights (especially freedom of speech and freedom of assembly). (*See this related Gender Shrapnel post about these dynamics in Charlottesville, 2017.)  Not only did the Board of Supervisors not have our backs, but they actively made our backs a target for Second Amendment backlash.

While I sat in the school auditorium, I received a text from a friend containing a Facebook post from the regional GOP chair.  The regional chair (who at that point was seated five seats away from me) had posted this:

“FB page: Jennifer M Brown
8 hrs ·
Fellow Rockbridge Patriots! There is a woman who is a member of 50 Ways Rockbridge, which is a progressive group of rabid agitators. She has personally threatened a fellow brother of our cause, and I take personal exception to anyone who threatens one of our own. She also is a professor who teaches our youth, which is especially concerning.
She attended last night’s 2A info meeting and made sure to record and take notes what was said. She has reported back to her group and they are planning to be present at tonight’s Board meeting with an agenda.
Please be respectful in your comments and do not engage in any communication with this group. They want us to respond so the media narrative can make our cause look fringe.
We are NOT gun activists. We ARE Constitutional Patriots! #2AStrong”

This spokesperson for the Republican Party said the following that was true: I am a woman. I am a member of 50 Ways Rockbridge. I am a professor. I take notes.  The rest of her statement seems to come from a second-rate Russian bot-farm, but, of course, it is designed only to spread lies and shut people down.  If I wanted, I could establish a case for libel here, especially since this person is impugning my professional reputation. I invite her and anyone to talk to me about my teaching and scholarly accomplishments and about the careful and constructive ways in which 50 Ways Rockbridge has worked in this community.  Bring it. But do not threaten me or silence me.  (*See this NPR report and this Washington Post piece about Virginia delegates receiving death threats.)

It bears mentioning that I reported this libelous post that very night to our newly elected sheriff, telling him that I felt unsafe (1180 to 20; violent name-calling; targeted trolling).  He tried to reassure me by pointing to all the officers with guns.  “Q….E…..D,” I thought.  Armed officers do not make me feel safer. Guns do not make me feel safer.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, my field of expertise is cultural studies.  For cultural studies, you learn as much as you can about the history, demographics, legacies, languages, cultural production, and cultural practices of a specific region and apply that knowledge to an analysis of the audio, visual, and written texts produced by people from the area.  I have lived in Lexington, Virginia, for 23 years and have lived in the state of Virginia for 27—half my life, more years than I lived in my hometown of Philadelphia.  The lilt and twang of the local accent no longer strike my ears as different or odd.  The use of “sucker” for “lollipop” or “buggy” for “shopping cart” sounds completely normal.  I know the range of typical last names in the area, from the Clarks to the Zollmans and the Mutispaughs to the Nicelys.  I have ridden my bicycle through many miles of this large county and have seen the mansions and the no longer mobilized trailers with old sweaters stuffed into windows to keep out the rain.  I have been to many of the churches, despite my atheism. This is home to me, even if others see me as a Yankee, a damned Yankee (the kind that doesn’t leave), or a carpetbagger.  I have watched this community grow and change over these years, and I have tried to do so as both participant and observer, understanding my outsider status but also learning how you become a part of a community over time.

Cultural studies practices tell you to understand your own baggage before analyzing that of others.  In a way, I think this practice is the greatest strength and weakness of the Democratic Party.  The party’s hallmarks should be (and sometimes have been): recognition, celebration, and amplification of a diversity of peoples and voices; sincere and well-versed people advocating for competing ideas and duking them out; adherence to executive, judicial, and legislative norms as laid out in founding documents; examination of depth and nuance.  While the Democratic Party falls far short of these ideals, it at least still seems in dialogue with them. Over these past three years, I have asked repeated times in the Gender Shrapnel Blog: To what extent must we politicize kindness and humanity?  If calm, careful, thoughtful, and generous approaches to problem-solving are now old-fashioned, passé, done, as I fear they are, then how do you advocate for what is right in a measured way without always losing to an entrenched, mendacious, narcissistic, racist, sexist, homophobic—an unjust—other side?  Does civility mean that the powerful control the process and ask others to accept it quietly, with no fuss?

Local friends have often talked about hunting—when the season starts; when it ends; what you can hunt; how you hunt it; when you use a bow or a gun; how you train the kids to hunt; how you prepare the meat you’ve hunted; what it means to be in nature in this way.  I have been curious about these issues, which, of all the cultural elements of our region, are the most distant from my own upbringing.  As someone who for years cycled through the hills, mills, hollows, and valleys of this beautiful county, I have seen hunters and signs for hunting.  I have laughed at the image of the yuppy cyclist commingling with the camouflaged hunter, thinking there has to be some kind of cosmic cultural fusion joining us in nature.

I hope I am a careful thinker, and I definitely am an ardent talker.  Don’t let the impassioned expression of my ideas trick you.  I earn my opinions, and I want others to do the same.  If I thought the Second Amendment extremists (which I would define as those who believe the Second Amendment to be more important than all other amendments) were also careful thinkers and also invited reasoned debate, I would want to engage in real conversation with them.  I want to see Republicans take a cultural studies approach to their discussion of common sense gun reform and educational reform in Virginia.  Guns do kill people.  Virginia’s, and the United States’, continuing legacy of violence must be addressed.

The December 8th townhall meeting allowed me to think through the proposed legislation for the Virginia General Assembly session—specifically Senate Bills 16, 18, 51, and 64. (*See this link for all legislation related to weapons.)  The GOP talking points, distributed by 6th District Republican Committee Chairperson Jennifer Brown, read more like rally propaganda than clear education on the actual legislation proposed.  The document, designed only to whip up a crowd, not to provide information, parse ideas, and ask for reasoned feedback, included no links to actual proposals, no direct text, no grounded reality of the issues.  This is propaganda, not education or democracy, and this is the problem with regional, state, and national politics in the United States.

Why do we want to control people, rather than allow them the information they need to make their own decisions?  Isn’t that real liberty, real freedom?  For example, the Rockingham (VA) GOP Committee states in their talking points: “School shootings are relatively rare despite recent media narrative reporting and Democrat messages that would have you believe otherwise.”  They include no data, no links to reputable sources, no verifiable information. (*See this post and this one for actual statistics on school shootings and gun violence. *Also see the Moms Demand Action site and Everytown for Gun Safety.)  I do not want to mislead people.  Why would I?  I just want to share real data, real statistics, on a real problem that has deeply affected the state of Virginia and the United States.  I want a little bit of book learning to go a long way.

What I am about to say will strike you as naïve, and it is.  After all these years here, and after all the thinking about culture and roots and belonging and not belonging, I somehow did not anticipate the profound ways in which Republican talking points would distill themselves, like so much moonshine on a late summer’s day, into just guns.  Guns as power, guns as a God-given right, guns as a community of men and the supporting cast of women, guns as military pride, guns as sacrifice, guns as “sacred honor,” guns as nation, guns as Christianity. Guns as, like you see on the t-shirt in the photo included here (from the December 9, 2019, Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors meeting), Family-Faith-Friends-Flag-Firearms–“Five Things You Don’t Mess With.”  Guns as an old United States that should be able, through education, to embrace a new United States built on community, care, and justice.

Don’t Tread On Me

 

In Gender Shrapnel, I highlight the ways in which harassment accumulates without our noticing the steps along the way.  I talk about how we absorb harassment for weeks, months, maybe years, and then experience high-consciousness, or “last-straw” moments.  During these last-straw moments, we look back and string together all the harassment events and all the symbols that accompany them.  We put it all together, we synthesize and analyze and, yet, we can go through this cycle repeated times.  Our resilience allows us to take the blow and carry on, kind of like forgetting the pain of childbirth or setting aside trauma.

This month’s “blue wave” in Virginia, which, for the first time in 26 years, boasts Democratic control of all sectors of state government (WAMU; The Atlantic; Salon; The Washington Post) has happened in the White House’s backyard. Serving as a possible bellwether for other state elections and the 2020 national elections, Virginia has thumbed its collective nose at the President and the prostrate GOP. These weeks since November 5th have brought blue euphoria and, I believe, red revenge.  We are on the node of built-up harassment and resultant resilience.  November has been the month of impeachment hearings, clear-as-day proof that Trump ordered Giuliani to negotiate to hold back hundreds of millions of state-approved aid to serve Trump and his reelection aspirations for 2020, and noble testimony from respected and respectful state officials like Fiona Hill and Marie Yovanovitch.  November has signaled our national divisions.

November has reminded me that we Democrats should be at a last-straw moment.  We should have had enough, more than enough, by now.  Each careful little step, each overly cautious accusation in the face of real harm, each mostly uncelebrated victory.  Barack Obama was belittled and threatened and attacked, and the GOP chose to undermine every common-good initiative of his platform. Hillary Clinton was harassed and trolled and threatened, blamed for all that Trump was actually engaging in at the time, told repeatedly and menacingly that she’d be locked up, and then, in essence, she was. These messages and actions told Democrats that we were too black and too woman and too caring of our neighbors and countrypeople, that we too should be locked up.  We were told not to tread, not to tread at all, because there is punishment for stepping out of line in a white, male, cis, hetero supremacist nation.

Don’t tread on me.  That’s what about one-sixth of the license plates in my state tell me.  The license plates peer out from the back of giant trucks that take up more than half the road and more than a single parking spot.  The giant trucks tread on everything, everywhere they go, imperiously declaring their greater size and might.  The Don’t Tread On Me trucks roll through the streets like tanks, claiming their right to everything, their willingness to fight, for their God-given right, to dictate and rule.  They are not asking to foment and share in democratic principles.

“Don’t tread on me” is the motto of the Gadsden Flag, described in this The New Yorker piece as “a favorite among Tea Party enthusiasts, Second Amendment zealots—really anyone who gets riled up by the idea of government overreach.”  The great irony here is that Tea Party enthusiasts have paved the way for ultimate Trump control of the GOP, and Second Amendment zealots allow for the gigantic NRA lobby to have a major hand in government rule.  “Don’t tread on me” ethos actually has brought major government overreach.  Tariffs on China, withheld aid for Ukraine, immigration policy, prohibitions on women’s bodily autonomy, and ever more limited rights for the LGBTQ community all come to mind as particularly heavy-handed government control.

Here in Virginia, red counties are pushing for so-called “Second Amendment sanctuary” resolutions, through which counties pledge to defy any new common-sense gun legislation coming out of Richmond in 2020.  This past Monday night in Rockbridge County, dozens and dozens of people lobbied the Board of Supervisors for just such a resolution.  I feel tread upon, and I think that is the desired effect.  We Virginia progressives are supposed to feel punished for a resounding November victory.

The Virginia Tech campus massacre happened in 2007. In 2017, Charlottesville witnessed a group of armed people overtake its downtown and kill a peaceful protester, while white supremacists marched and chanted, “You will not replace us.” The Virginia Beach shooting took place in May of this year. “You will not replace us” is another way of saying “don’t tread on me,” especially when the Second Amendment arms people to the teeth and allows them to increase their own threatening footprint.

On this day in this month of November in this state of Virginia, I want us to let go of “don’t tread on me” threats and the “you will not replace us” chants.  I want us to prioritize how we can walk together, tread together, towards common-sense gun legislation, stronger education reforms, and greater civil rights for all.

Commonwealth of Virginia: Time to Ratify the ERA

(Here is a letter to the editor I have just submitted to support ratification of the ERA.)

White women got the right to vote in 1920, 133 years after the Constitution was signed in Philadelphia and 129 years after the approval of the Bill of Rights.  African-American women waited even longer, until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  These plain historical facts reveal to us the multiple gaps left by the Constitution’s framers and the ways in which we must encourage the document to catch up with and to reflect contemporary realities of citizens and citizenship.

The Equal Rights Amendment, a Republican endeavor of the 1970s, is still alive, well, and ready for even more support in the state of Virginia.  Virginia could become the 38th state—the last one necessary—to ratify the ERA, following Illinois (2018) and Nevada (2017).

“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex.”  This simple text reminds us that women’s rights are civil rights and that strict scrutiny is needed for gender discrimination cases, as is already the case for race and religion.

84% of the 197 constitutions in the world guarantee gender equality, and all international constitutions since 1950 have included gender equality clauses.  The ERA provides a national standard for the elimination of gender discrimination. In the United States, widespread, bipartisan support for the amendment speaks to the common-sense nature of it.

This is a great time for the United States to step up its game and ensure all citizens equality under the law.  Virginians, let’s do our part!  You can sign local and state petitions in support of the ERA, contact your delegate and the House Leadership every day, visit the General Assembly now or in the future to advocate for the amendment, write to Delegate M. Kirkland Cox, Speaker of the Virginia House, and spread the word to friends and neighbors of the Commonwealth.

Check out the VA Ratify ERA website.

Lexington, VA: Restaurant Revenues are…Up!

(Main Street Lexington sign on the way into Lexington)

Today I’m sharing the Letter to the Editor I wrote in response to some unbelievable–truly not believable–reporting from The Roanoke Times.  I’ll add a link if the letter gets published. (Here it is, published on 9-20-18.)

September 9, 2018

Dear Editor of The Roanoke Times:

I read with dismay Alison Graham’s article titled “Lexington-area tourism group beefs up marketing in wake of Red Hen controversy” (September 2, 2018).  It is September, and the article features photographs from early July, neglecting to state that there have been no protesters outside the restaurant for months and that business is brisk, not only at the Red Hen, but throughout Lexington’s downtown restaurants.  The City of Lexington has released its July, 2018, statistics for tax revenue from meals: $113,641 (*see the Lexington City website for a PDF of the official figures).  This is a 1.4% increase from July, 2017.

Graham not only neglects to cite the increase in meal activity and revenue in the city, but she also cites “a slew of negative media coverage.” Full, responsible reporting would reveal publication after publication that lauded the quiet but firm action of the owner of the Red Hen back in late June.  Not to report on actual revenue data and real, positive coverage of the Red Hen event is to present biased information.  Furthermore, in the article, Graham uses the word “emergency” three times and the word “desperate” once.  How does a revenue increase imply any kind of emergency or desperation?

Why do these misrepresentations matter so much?  They matter because (1) facts should be crucial to fair reporting; (2) the Associated Press wire picks up this type of one-sided piece and then spreads the misinformation nationwide; and (3) our country more than ever needs to rely on careful, full reporting from its media outlets.  The AP wire translates the Graham article as “tourism suffering after The Red Hen denied Sanders” (reprinted in your paper on September 2, 2018).  As demonstrated above, this broadly distributed information is false.

I would hope that The Roanoke Times and the employees of the Rockbridge Regional Tourism Board would want to and choose to offer the truth—no protesters, positive coverage of what happened at The Red Hen, increased meal revenues, and seven new businesses opening in downtown Lexington.

Sounds quite robust to me!

Thank you.

Ellen Mayock

Resident of Lexington, VA

(Main Street, Lexington, VA.  Photo credit: A. Basu Choudhary)

(Main Street, Lexington, VA. Photo credit: S. Mayock-Bradley)

Inauguration in Virginia—A Bit Gender-Deaf, but I Think I’m Supposed to Be Quiet about That

(Photos taken on January 13, 2018, before the inauguration of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, State Capitol, Richmond, VA)

This past week in Virginia brought not one, but two, parades on the streets of Lexington.  The first, on Saturday, was sponsored by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  The second, on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, was sponsored by the Community Anti-Racism Effort (CARE).  My family and I eschewed the first parade in favor of going to Richmond to see the inauguration of Ralph Northam, and we joyfully marched, sang, and quoted Martin Luther King in the CARE parade, alongside over 700 friends and neighbors.  In this blog post, I offer a few observations about the inauguration in Richmond.

Twenty years ago, I would never have gone to an inauguration unless I had been invited to the inaugural ball as well, which I wouldn’t have been.  The antics of my more youthful days kept me away from gown-worthy, gala-sparkled, gorgeous-people events, where most people don’t match high-top Chucks with their most comfortable dress and most women don’t drink beer out of the bottle.  Let’s just say I’ve grown up a bit over these decades, but that my sartorial and libation styles have not evolved much at all.

My husband, our son, and I loaded our tired selves into a car late last Friday evening to drive two hours and some change on a soggy road to Richmond in order to join a good friend for dinner and get to the inauguration grandstand on Capitol Square by the designated time on Saturday.  Our thirteen-year-old daughter made the wise young adolescent choice to have a sleepover with friends instead of hearing “boring political speeches” in Richmond.  Our seventeen-year-old son reads a lot of books, follows national and international politics, and digs Model United Nations, so he was definitely in from the start.  His knowledge and youthful spirit gave my husband and me much-needed energy for the road trip.  In fact, we surprised ourselves in our commitment to see the inauguration of Ralph Northam, Justin Fairfax, and Mark Herring.  Virginia’s newly elected triumvirate works close enough to the nation’s capital to make me believe that they can counteract a tiny portion of the evil taking place in Washington, D.C.

Saturday morning was drier than Friday evening, but the temperatures had dropped by about 35 degrees.  The inauguration tickets encouraged us to get to the grandstand by 9:30.  Nevertheless, we lingered over coffee and one of the best breakfasts we have ever had and then hauled chilly ass down Grace Street to get to Capitol Square by about 10:45.  Streets were cleared, and security was tight.  We stopped at the entrance to hear, and then chant along with, a group of people wearing fluorescent orange caps and insisting on a clean Dream Act.  We ran into a few people from the western side of the state, chatted, and then decided to hit the port-a-potties before the ceremony began.  The port-a-potties were in garden next to Capitol Square.  Our path to the port-a-johns brought us by The Virginia Women’s Monument (see photograph below), which honors the contributions of all Virginia Women.  This reminds me a bit of my poem titled “West Virginia Bridges,” which laments the lack of named women—real live women who accomplished namable things—in the 116 named bridges across the state.  Here are the last two stanzas from that poem:

There is one bridge dedicated to Nurse Veterans.

No specific names because West Virginia has no particular women. 

West Virginia needs one hundred and fifteen bridges for men.

 

Steel stringer and pre-cast concrete bridges

require manly names, like Robert and Don

and Stonewall. No Robertas or Donnas allowed.

When I saw the monument with my husband and son, I stated indelicately that Monument Avenue in Richmond has a statue for every man who ever crapped on a battlefield, but here we have the Virginia Women’s Monument, designed to honor a nameless collective of 400 years of women for their nameless feats.  You would have to work pretty hard to get more token than this.

But I digress.  That’s what happens when you leave an event to go to the bathroom!

The inaugural ceremonies themselves had me paying sharp attention.  I was fascinated by it all.  Seeing judges, lawmakers, and staff muckety-mucks behind the podium, observing the fabulous array of hats and tuxes and corsages, watching former governors greet friends and colleagues, hearing political conversations on our less-important side—all of it was fascinating and somehow finely distilled in the cold January air.  At one point, impossibly marshmallowed giant snowflakes fell to make the scene stand out even more.  People in our area of the stands were welcoming, chatty, funny.

If you can see the photo above well enough, you’ll see the listing of speakers and performers at the inauguration.  These included a volunteer choir from Richmond with a beautiful rendition of “America the Beautiful” and another singer piercing the cold with his interpretation of “Star Spangled Banner.”  The program demonstrates an effort to include people of all races, religions, and creeds.  The All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center Boys and Girls Scouts recited the pledge of allegiance, two Baptist churches were represented, and a rabbi from a Richmond temple gave the benediction.  Representatives of Virginia’s Indian tribes blessed the ground.  As I think was the purpose, the inauguration organizers communicated an overarching message of inclusion and celebration.  I was surprised, though, not to hear any women’s voices in the core program.  (There were two women singing as people streamed out of the stands in the time between the formal ceremonies and the parade, but that was it.)  If you read the Gender Shrapnel Blog regularly, you know I notice these things, but how can you not?  51% of Virginians are women, but 0% of the speakers were.  The judges who swore in Northam, Fairfax, and Herring were also all men.  How are we not noticing these gender-deaf moves? (*See this September, 2017, post on this issue.)

Of the three officials who took the oath of office last Saturday, only one gave an inaugural address.  That, of course, was Ralph Northam.  He stuck mostly to what he knows best—healthcare, and I very much like what he had to say on that count.  He mostly ignored what he does least, which is care for the environment.  In one part of Northam’s speech, shaped around the campaign slogan “The Way Ahead” and concomitant metaphors about paths and compasses, the new governor told a story about a medical diagnosis he had given and how he learned years later that he could have delivered the news in a far more effective way.  I was struck by this simple story and heartened by hearing an elected official admit to committing a mistake and learning from it.  Then I wondered how low I’ve learned to set the bar, through a year of Trump and the trumpholes, when I consider this common act of learning from a mistake a heroic feat.  In any case, Northam’s inauguration speech was better than I was prepared for and slightly less gender-deaf than the rest of the inaugural ceremonies.

See you next week!

(The Virginia Women’s Monument, Richmond, VA / Photo taken January 13, 2018)

Breaking Fast

(The News-Gazette, Lexington, Virginia, September 6, 2017)

Buena Vista (pronounced “Byuna Vista”), Virginia, hosts a big breakfast, parade, and speeches each year on Labor Day.  The Democrats and Republicans break their fast separately, and then join together for the parade and speeches.  Buena Vista’s residents are mostly Republicans; many of the very few Democrats in attendance at the parade drive six miles on Route 60 East from the neighboring town of Lexington.  You know Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.  Well, the Labor Day parade is a tale of two towns, one red, one blue.

My husband and I drove separately to the Democratic Party breakfast because we had to head in different directions afterwards.  As I made the short drive, I listened to radio news about the impending death of DACA.  Gender shrapnel news and events of the past week pierced my thoughts.  A nurse in Utah was handcuffed by a policeman when she wouldn’t violate patient protections and draw blood from an unconscious patient.  A 2014 report on sexual violence was removed from the White House website.  Statistics about the enormous gender pay gap at the White House resurfaced for the Labor Day moment.  Head of the Office of Civil Rights Candice Jackson boasted on her resume that she had fiercely attacked Hillary Clinton.  In my own little town’s lovely pie festival, 99% of the young volunteers were girls, being trained to do free labor for their community while the boys did whatever the hell they wanted.  Some major items, a few minor ones—together they made for gender shrapnel stew.  And when I’m stewing, and the weather’s beautiful, and you’re supposed to just eat barbeque and enjoy, it can be rough going.  The people who usually kindly listen to you or patiently analyze with you or fervently fume like you have had enough.  People experience shrapnel overdoses and a need to disconnect, but I was still stewing and fuming. Breaking fast with the Dems didn’t help a whole lot.

When my husband and I got to the breakfast, we picked up our name tags from the front desk.  Two women were working there, and they seemed to be the owners of the handsome cursive writing on the tags.  My husband’s tag included the title “Dr.,” while mine just had my first and last name.  Men gave each other hearty handshakes and then introduced their “better halves” to each other.  We sat up front with some nice people who seemed to be regulars at the event.  They welcomed us warmly, and we all made small talk.

There in the high school atrium, cinder block walls with “Go Blue” written in big letters, and a vague smell of ham on bun and creamed corn from high school lunches past, we were four feet from the slate of Democratic candidates.  Candidate for lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax and local candidate John Winfrey sat in between the master of ceremonies and the minister.  On the other side of the dais sat Ralph Northam, Tim Kaine, Mark Herring, and Creigh Deeds, well known Democratic candidates and elected officials.

Each did the job he had to do, and each spoke quite well.  The minister gave a prayer and blessed the meal.  For an atheist who believes fiercely in the separation of church and state, the blessings and prayers made me roll my eyes, think impure thoughts, and glance around at everyone in a more curious way than I normally would.  The MC spoke eloquently and graciously and thanked all the right people.  John Winfrey spoke briefly to make room in the packed schedule for those who had a helicopter waiting to whisk them away.  Justin Fairfax spoke with great warmth and charisma.  Creigh Deeds demonstrated his decades of political knowledge in Virginia.  Mark Herring spoke in concrete terms about the four years of work he has done as attorney general and the plans he has for the next term.  Ralph Northam, clearly avoiding any talk of the pipeline or Dominion, hewed to the topic he knows best, healthcare.  I had to remind myself to pay good attention to him because he looks and sounds so much like a former boyfriend that it was distracting.  Tim Kaine thanked Democrats for their activism since 2016, talked about how Democrats need to make opportunities for all, and inspired the crowd to work hard on behalf of the party until November 7th.  For the most part, the speakers were well-prepared and interesting.

I watched and noticed the rhetorical requirements of political speakers in this kind of event—an ability to modulate the voice in order to gently whip up the crowd, a certain false language of self-deprecation as the speakers listed their many accomplishments, a buddy-buddy network demonstrated through the personal stories the men told about each other, and an insistence on talking about the abnegating women who indulge the husbands’ “call” to public service and still feel hot and romantic towards them, all these years later, in a kind of Al and Tipper French kiss thrall.

Have you noticed where I’m breaking fast?  Six Democratic candidates, all men.  One of them black, five white.  An older white man as MC and an older white man as minister.  To use the overly popular new term, the optics aren’t good.  At the same time, I really think I was the only person of the 200 or so at the breakfast who gave a shit about gender in that moment, who noticed how the men ran the public show and the women ran the private one, who wondered if there is a real place in any political party for 51% of the population.  To use Danielle Allen’s words, is there a way for women in any party to be “democratic authors”—to make themselves trustworthy, to participate in tough public policy debates, and to foment conversations that include all the people?  Is the big failed Hillary experiment a signal to the Democrats that they’re to blow off all women because women just aren’t the face of the party?  These were big Democratic players on a small-town stage, and they made clear that they don’t even have to pretend to include women—not as emcees, not as pastors or ministers, not as small-town candidates, not as big state party candidates or officials.

I’ve made my political and ethical home in this party because the other one is abhorrent, and inhumane tides must be stemmed. But the utter lack of gender awareness within the Democratic Party means that we are as far from full gender representation as we’ve ever been.  This is a big, hypocritical, sorry-ass mess.

So, yes, I’m still stewing and fuming and I’m thinking a lot about when I met with Lidia Falcón, famous lawyer, author, and founder of Spain’s Feminist Party (founded in 1979, just four years after the death of the Generalísimo).  When I asked Falcón where on the political spectrum she saw feminism, she replied, “Well, it’s the overcoming of communism and the perfection of all the parties.  It’s true equality.”  A very Second Wave response, it’s now making me think that it’s about as avant-garde as we’re going to get, ever.

Is there a political party that is really ready to nominate, support, showcase, and elect women to run municipalities, congressional districts, states, and the country?  I believe the answer right now is “no,” and I believe this means that this is no country for old women, or middle-aged ones, for that matter.  The ridiculous bifurcation of public service for men and private service for women, of speeches, parades, and pavilions for men and booths, nametags, and phonebanks for women, of skateboarding and loafing for boys and serving up barbeque and pie for girls has got to stop.  We are not your helpmates, men.  We are your running mates.

A photo of blue town starts this post.  A photo of red town ends it.