Saturday, May 26, 2018

Count Your Blessings


I remember my mother saying this. Often. Count your blessings. 

I took it literally, then. I counted. 

Now I hear it as the hoped for antidote to a form of despair. The kind that comes when mortality knocks with the inner person yet unfulfilled.

Fulfillment varies, of course. For some women, it is knowing their children are happy, healthy, secure. It encompasses making a beautiful home for their family. Cooking delicious food. Easing the burdens of dailiness for loved ones. Those were certainly the fulfillments I and others of my generation were pointed to. Our mothers were pointed to. They—we—the privileged.

Count your blessings.

So many to count in that life. All the things that really matter. Children, friends, a kind husband, good health (for as long as it lasts), love. Maybe a garden?

And yet, and yet. What of the women for whom family, church and good works left a hole in the heart? An emptiness in the soul hollowed out when talent was set aside in favor of a woman’s duty?


My mother was a trained classical violinist, marrying late for those days. As I’ve mentioned before, I never saw her play a violin until the week after my father died.

He was an oilman, trained as a classical pianist. She respected him and his judgment of her musical ability. Apparently, he found it mediocre. Similar to his own, in fact, for he abandoned the piano for years.

He began to play again, for his own enjoyment and ours, when he turned sixty. She did not accompany him.
 
Failed artists, I suppose you could call them. Embracing necessities—earning a living, making a comfortable home. Leaving the hole in the heart to scab over, if it ever does.
 
I watch people I know today making different adjustments. Finding a way to keep working on their art, in addition to the necessities. Counting among their blessings the time they carve out for work on what they love.
 
Who will see or hear the results of that work? Is it important that the work of one’s soul be shared?
 
I think it is. In my view, all art is communication. A visual artist works alone. A writer—poetry or prose—works alone. A musician practices alone or with her/his band. We may value solitude. We may need it. But the expression must be received by others in order to be complete.
 
How lonely otherwise.
 
Exposing the intimacy of one’s art to others can be uncomfortable. After all, it is the private self that gives the expression life. But it can be difficult, too, because the opportunities for sharing are so limited. The judgments that apportion them so harsh.
 
I can’t speak for the visual arts, or music. My experience is limited to the literary world, or market, as it is often termed, in this commercial age.
 
The majority of fiction readers in our country consist of women over fifty, with young women rising fast. The first part of that observation has been documented frequently over the past two decades, corresponding to the boom in book reading groups, “book clubs.”
 
The principal market for writers of fiction, however, remains the “little magazines,” or literary journals, of which there are many, online and print.
 
Both book publishers and journals publish more works by men than women, although statistics indicate the majority of fiction writers are female. According to the national VIDA count, publishing around 35-45% women is still the norm. And, in 2016, only two of the major outlets for fiction published works by older women.
 
The gatekeepers for publishing remain young in general, particularly in literary journals. First readers there are often graduate students. In the offices of literary agents, first readers tend to be freshly out of school, even interns. When I was their age, my passion in literature centered around compelling concerns of my own. I was open to the quality of writing about the lives of middle aged and older people, but really, who cares about that stuff? What’s it got to do with me?

The journal that has published most of my work in recent years, Southwest Review, was cited as among the four worst with regard to numbers of women published. Thirty-nine percent. I have been fortunate, it seems, but last year they changed editors. Two young men now preside.

Count my blessings.

 

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Red Light Blinking

Many women of my generation were shocked by the outpouring of viciousness aimed at womanhood in general during the 2016 election. The Women’s March reflected that we were not alone. #MeToo put teeth in it. With so much outrage displayed, surely the prospects for gender parity have grown much brighter.

Something odd has happened, however. The term “intersectionality” has begun appearing in common usage. Previously confined to academic analyses of social configurations, it now takes over the discussion of gender equality in more practical circles.

The way this happened shows us a lot about resistance in the power centers of our culture to equal rights for women. It also shows us a deep weakness of the Left in American politics, a weakness with important effects on every forthcoming election.

Intersectional feminism, boiled down, says that you can’t have gender justice without racial and economic justice, too. Ordinary feminism is too white, too privileged. White women are marginalized, yes, but a non-white woman is more marginalized on account of race, ethnicity and class—separately or together—on top of gender.

Watch out for that word class whenever you hear it. Americans have an uneasy relationship with the concept. We’ve been denying it as un-American for generations. “I’m as good as you, maybe better.” That belief fuels reality TV, and spills over into the political arena as we are manipulated to hate “elites.”

We used to desire to “rise” in social terms. We wanted our children to “better themselves.” Now, perhaps believing that rising very far is nearly impossible, we appear to deny the value of anything worth striving toward.

I hope that won't become the effect of intersectionality on women’s rights.

When you couple racial, social and economic justice with gender equality you pretty much guarantee that none of it will result. The proponents will spend their passion, energy and industry on the ideal as they see it, while the power structure rocks on, unaffected. Barring violent upheaval, it is hard to see how that can change.

The oppression of women predates issues of race and class, as we define them. In many ways, it is the Original Sin. How can a man be expected to take his rib seriously unless, by breaking it, he feels pain?

And yet, where justice is concerned, we are closer to achieving it in the area of women’s rights than in either of the other areas of concern to intersectionalists.

I’ve never met a white feminist who didn’t desire equality for non-white women. I’ve never met a white feminist who wanted to see non-white women oppressed. We ride in the same boat.

And when we allow concepts such as intersectionality to fragment our determination, we enable our failure. When we allow or force our gains, as a subset of women, to come at the cost of other women, we guarantee failure for all of us.
 

Friday, March 30, 2018

On Soulmates

I found my soulmate. Well, I did. I think of it as circles on a page, each circle a discrete entity until it overlaps part of the other circle. The soul part.

The amount of overlap will vary from couple to couple. Each member of the duo doesn’t have to need the same things from his or her partner. Just compatible things. And the part that overlaps is what looks out on the world and sees a lot, or enough, similarly.

So much remains separate. Should remain separate. There is a line from Jane Eyre I remember from when I read the book, as a teenager. It’s about a strand, a cord, that connects Jane to Rochester’s heart. He fears he would bleed if she went away.

Long married couples form such connections, more than a strand or two. A web. More bonds between them in life, more places to bleed when one of the dyad dies.

February is a cruel month. In our family, for many years, it was the month when people we loved passed away, my father among them. All his life, my father hated February, gray and cold, as though the weather knew what mourning felt like.

His death blindsided my mother. “I’ve never lived alone,” she told me. I think of her when learning of friends who have lost their husbands, as a surprising number have, this month. Husbands—or fathers—after long illness or with shocking suddenness.

These friends bleed behind closed doors. And we, outside, still secure in our connections, know this.

One cannot live in constant awareness of impending loss. It is too stressful. We shut the knowledge away, and too often we shut away anything that will remind us. Anything. Even the knowledge that we have bereaved friends, aching quietly in empty bedrooms.

Cultivating the part of our circle outside the soulmate overlap makes much sense. It allows us to bring richness into the partnership while making more likely our individual survival when even the happiest of partnerships ends.

It’s more difficult to do this, though, when illness surrounds us, when everywhere we go there are sick people, coughing, sneezing, breathing into the air we share. (Yes, if the person breathing beside you in the grocery checkout line has a “flu-like illness,” she is infecting you.)

At community gatherings between November and March—over the holidays and during January when volunteers meet for the year’s planning—contagion is on the menu. No doubt it’s part of the reason for February’s macabre harvest. But it is also an example of a community-wide result from individual choices  made without thinking past the boundary of the self.

Do I have a solution? Not really. I choose to skip indoor group activities in years like this, hoping to avoid influenza for myself, and especially for my husband. We failed this year because we didn’t start soon enough. We were waiting until November to have our flu shots, and by November we were sick.

Once sick, however, we stayed home. We’re retired, so we could do that. Even when we were employed, we could do that, because we worked from home.

Technology allows many people to work from home when they are sick, if their employers allow it. I would argue that employers should revise their approach so that is widely possible. Even when the job must be done by a person on site, letting a sick person stay home for three days can pay off in reducing overall employee-hours lost to illness. It also protects the customer.

February doesn’t need to be as cruel as it has become. With foresight and consideration, it can be just another month, possessing its own versions of beauty and challenge. Challenge in the ice and cold that make outdoor activities less appealing; beauty in the romantic mists that lie upon pastures of brown and gold grasses, promising spring. Soon.

 


Monday, February 12, 2018

The Cost of Upkeep


Give, give, give. Money, time, enthusiasm. Every nonprofit in the county, and the country, wants it. Needs it. It’s hard sometimes, though, to understand where the money goes.

Take, for example, Winedale in northeastern Fayette County, owned by the University of Texas. This collection of mid-nineteenth century buildings and their contents is famed for its annual Shakespeare performances, Christmas Open House, craft demonstrations and tours. And the annual antique quilt exhibition, scheduled this year for February 22-25.

Winedale’s financial support resembles a web, whose strands are woven together by UT’s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History and its highly professional curatorial and managerial staff.

Funds come from the state legislature, several endowments established to benefit Winedale, the Briscoe Center’s own managerial budget, and fundraising from the Friends of Winedale (FOW). In 2015, FOW, a volunteer non-profit, raised $250,000 at a 45th anniversary celebration honoring Miss Hogg.

Those funds underwrote the recently completed Lewis-Wagner House renovation, as well as paying for all the architectural and engineering plans required for the upcoming rehabilitation of the McGregor House and two log cabins, one of which collapsed during the severe rain events of last spring and summer. Work on the McGregor House is scheduled to begin in mid-February.

Additional progress is evident, even to the casual passer-by.

The old one-room Winedale community schoolhouse has been restored with the assistance of a targeted grant. Arrivals to the Visitors’ Center are welcomed by the new pollinator garden and fence, a project accomplished with a hands-on effort from the Gideon Lincecum chapter of Master Naturalists. [see photo]

These knowledgeable volunteers have also restored a woodland and wildflower loop, part of the old Arboretum Trail that once wound through the property’s extensive wildlife preserve.

A new site manager has arrived. Toni Mason has extensive credentials in historic preservation and museum work, making her a perfect match to the challenges that await her, including expanded public programming.

FOW expected that the funds they raised in 2015 would go further. And that the work would go more rapidly. They didn’t fully understand how Winedale’s several designations of distinctive historical significance would impose complex requirements. Meeting those high standards requires time and effort much greater than you or I would experience, if by some lottery or other miracle we could pay for work on this scale ourselves.

But the standards are there for good reason. Winedale is like a family treasure, only bigger. Fayette County is rich in treasures relating to our history and culture. Think of the Painted Churches, the Wandke Organ at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Round Top.

Winedale, however, is the only place where we can feel the lives of those who came before us. Appreciate, admire and sympathize with the hardships they surmounted while we stand in front of the fireplace they used.

Why should that matter?

Because we are who we were. The dreams of our forefathers and mothers have become our reality, even as their realities endure today within our lives: The need for food, health, safety; our vulnerability to storms, disease; the love we feel for family.

And, even in our technological distraction, the longing for beauty they expressed in their enduring handwork—carved furniture, intricately stitched quilts, expressively painted ceiling decorations.

Imagine: everything you use made by hand—by you, your mother, your father, your siblings. No Walmart or HEB to run to. No plastic.

A visit to Winedale is time travel we actually experience. And all it requires from us is care.

On August 25 the FOW will hold a Sommerabend Fest, where, “With a Little Help From Our Friends,” they will endeavor to raise $300,000 to continue the renovations. To complete the McGregor House exterior. To restore the two log cabins, which were such a popular destination in years past. And to institute interior work on both McGregor and Wagner Houses.

How can we help? We can become Friends of Winedale (www.friendsofwinedale.org). We can volunteer. Become a docent. (Docent training begins soon.)

Volunteering at Winedale is fun.

And it’s different from most similar opportunities. Because it enrolls us in the ongoing story of a place where memory and time can be touched and felt. In our increasingly virtual, abstracted world, that is a rare opportunity, indeed.

---

Babette Fraser Hale is a board member and a former president of FOW.

On Beauty and Profit


What a couple of years it has been in Fayette County. Little Round Top blooms with new ventures, shops, restaurants, cottages visible from county roads. Four miles away the Winedale Complex shines with new polish—much needed restorative work on the stellar Lewis-Wagner House coupled with a new pollinator garden among other landscaping improvements, and more to come, topped by the Sommerabendfest fundraiser next August.

Look at the real estate activity, here. I’ve lost count of the number of realtors and associate realtors busy showing property to prospective buyers.

We, ourselves—LH and I—are beginning our thirty-third year on this small patch of woods and grass, thanking providence for every moment.

Why are we here? Why do the city people keep coming? Keep buying? What’s the attraction?

There is fantasy involved, of course. Some of us grew up in a gentler world of less densely populated cities and family farms. Recapturing a small part of one’s youth is a potent dream. A small town, rural environment, where community is real, tangible, accessible; where neighbors know each other, help each other—this seems more valuable to us every day.

Beauty, too. Our cities separate themselves from nature. Heavy traffic, floods, pollution. Trees die in the oldest neighborhoods, ruined by oversize houses. Finding beauty in the city takes work, effort, time.

Here, however, it’s a given. The rolling countryside between New Ulm and Highway 237, between LaGrange and Old Washington, once resembled places of fabled beauty like Bucks County, PA or the Berkshires of MA.

Every day, as I walk the length of our long, thin house from the bedroom to the kitchen, I see beauty through every window. Light slants through the trees, casts patterns, highlights a brilliant leaf, green or red, depending on the season. Sometimes it’s a sheaf of leaves, a streak of pale grasses in a pasture. Creatures appear, squirrels, rabbits, the occasional chicken snake. Deer move, gray and silent, across our front field.

It is why we’re here, this quiet communion with a place that has been inhabited by Europeans for almost two centuries. But lightly, still, as compared with larger towns, cities.

One thing is certain: None of us, new resident or old have been drawn here by the desire for a shopping mall to obliterate the small scale, neighborly feeling.

We know that the month-long Antique and junk extravaganza that overwhelms the area twice a year brings a welcome infusion of money. The profit to local business benefits all of us, even those who stay far away from Highway 237 while the festivities are underway. Because of it, we have better restaurants, a better selection of comestibles and necessities—even luxuries—in the markets, and so on.

Success, however, quickly slides into excess. Too many tents left behind, too many absentee landowners, too little care for the effect on year-long residents. I remember a conversation with the late Jack Finke, the stonemason/artist whose work contributes so much to the visual atmosphere of Festival Hill. The Finkes have been in our area a long time and Jack deplored the “junky” look along 237 north of the Round Top city limits. This was ten years ago.

He should see it now.

We’ve been lucky that much of the new permanent development has been carried out with understanding of vernacular style. Henkel Square Market, the Compound, Rummel Square—despite being somewhat overcrowded—each contributes to the appeal of the area. (If only some shops didn’t clutter their appeal with junked up porches…)

The gateway into Round Top, however—the much traveled highway 237 between 290 and FM 1291—has been less fortunate. Outside city limits, no entity offers standards and suggestions. Minus those understandings, the ugliness of urban sprawl proliferates.

The Friends of 237, a new local organization, hopes to improve the situation. They’re drawing on the better nature of the vendors who leave the ugliness behind when they go to their homes, often out-of-state, after the shows.

Cooperation, freely given, benefits everyone, because it contributes to keeping the Round Top-Warrenton-Carmine area appealing all year. Businesses cannot survive only on the Antique Show experience. There are ten more months during which people live and work, hoping to preserve the reasons they remain here.

We can help the Friends of 237 in their effort. We can join as a member, as a volunteer. We can contribute our skills, our support. In return, we can get credit for our community spirit, which creates the firm foundation for everything around us. For more information, contact info@friendsofhighway237.org.

Let’s keep our golden goose fat and happy and alive.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

A Random Gratitude


The neighborhood is a quiet one where everybody walks. Five minutes by foot to the office. Three blocks to school. Home is a multi-story building with a park on each side. Whole Foods has a store five blocks to the east. The walk back is only a little uphill.

In the afternoon, children throng the streets, heading by foot and bike to after school activities. Lessons, sports.

I love a particular stroll at dusk, past the playground where my grandson and granddaughter climb and swing, twenty feet from their front door.

It’s so peaceful. Even though when you lift your chin, you see Freedom Tower poking up six blocks distant, reminding everyone that peace is relative.

On Halloween, that tenuous peace was shattered by an Uzbeki terrorist. He did it in a van, mowing down eight tourists, and swerving into the area where a high school and two adjacent schools were letting out.

This happened three short blocks from where my grandchildren live. My son arrived ten minutes later at the apartment, on his way to the airport. His babies weren’t there. He couldn’t reach their mother. Very little was known about the extent of danger, that soon in the aftermath.

Before long he learned that they were, indeed, safe—a few blocks away from where evil blossomed, this time.

I was in Winedale, 1720 miles distant, but it felt like a near miss. The killer’s path of carnage ran along the Hudson River bike path toward Battery Park City. In June, my son, grandson and I had stood together on that bike trail, at the entrance to Pier 25, where many West Side residents take their children to play. There are tennis courts, a soccer field, beach volleyball, a miniature golf course, ice cream and hot dog stand, a marina, and so on. If the terrorist had made his foray ninety minutes later, he might have killed a great many more people, and their children.

We seize upon familiarities in the aftermath—a foreign terrorist, ISIS-connected, using a rental van similar to earlier disasters in Nice and London. The guns he waved weren’t real.

Five days after the van attack, peacefully worshipping residents of a tiny Texas town near San Antonio were slaughtered in their pews at the First Baptist Church. Twenty-six people died that morning for motives not fully confirmed at the time of this writing. The lone gunman was a Texan, a dishonorably discharged airman with a long record of trouble. Enraged at the time, possibly, over a domestic dispute.

The latter horror felt much too close for comfort, geographically and personally, for many of us in Fayette and surrounding counties. It was a town smaller than some of ours, a Sunday morning church service. Urgently, we want to know the why of it. A reason is required.

We want explanations because they give us the much needed opportunity to distance ourselves from the unthinkable. To make ourselves and the ones we love seem less at risk. The more details we learn that separate us, the safer we feel.

But we are not safe. We cannot be safe from random violence. Deranged minds may have motives, but motives don’t change the reality that for the victims, death came like a lightning strike, a falling meteor. Unexpected, undefended, random.

We human beings hate that. We’re hardwired to impose a pattern on chaos. And what lengths we go to in pursuit of those patterns.

What philosophies, what religions, what conspiracies we embrace in our desperate longing for order, for meaning. All of us do that in one way or another. It’s not limited by culture or nationality.

For some, even the most maleficent conspiracy is better than drifting among the vapors of randomness. Conspiracies imply a human cause. Cause implies the possibility of control.

As do guns. Why else do the most insecure, the most troubled among us, amass their arsenals? Their AR-15s and other assault-style rifles. Devices designed primarily to slaughter herds—of people, that is.

And so the bloody cycle of pain and loss continues, played out on our most personal screens, until—bless our bruised hearts—we are distracted from it once again.
 
 

A Power Thing

I was born into a world with clear boundaries, honored in the daily performance of chores. My mother, trained as a classical violinist, kept house. She did it well, too. She created a comfortable home for us, while caring for her aging parents who did not drive, and helping her uncle with his business.

She lived a family-centered life, directed by duty to others. The challenge lay in how to be happy and fulfilled within the restrictions that life required.
 
She had tricks for coping that she tried to share with me. Prayers played a large role. Count your blessings (of which there were many)…Her struggle would today be called a “first world” problem, a matter of “white privilege.”

Those descriptions, however, do not remove the sharp sense of wasted capability, as the years dwindled away. Perhaps that’s why she encouraged me to explore a wider world, despite her fear of the risks that entailed.

Today, working wives are the rule, rather than the exception. Women compete head to head with men. Work beside men.

And find, in every arena, that men remain the gatekeepers, the bosses to a large extent, the powers in government, entertainment, publishing, the churches.
We, as women, are still petitioners, needing their approval to rise in all fields outside the home.

Without this imbalance, we wouldn’t have Harvey Weinstein, FOX’s O’Reilly and Ailes, and the whole less well known army of unattractive older, powerful, men who sexually harass women who work for them.

“Me, too,” is the hashtag that peppered social media last week with support for the brave women who brought this common experience into the light of public attention.

People were shocked by the sheer number of women using the hashtag to express shared experiences of harassment, abuse or outright rape. Men were shocked.

Men have a hard time with this issue, I think. A hard time calibrating whether a joke will be sexist, whether friendly banter will sound to the woman like harassment. A friend, being prepped for a medical procedure, felt violated by the male doctor’s self-deprecating sex joke.

Why did he tell a sex joke at so vulnerable a moment?

Was he supposed to know that because he was a man, and she was a woman about to go under anesthesia, sex references were off limits? Personally, I have doubts. More likely, it never occurred to him how she would feel.
 
That’s not always true, however.
 
A restaurateur I once worked with referred several times in a discussion to whether I’d ever seen or eaten a particular pastry in the shape of a woman’s breast. It made me feel uncomfortable, but only now do I recognize that I had pushed him on a subject—unrelated to pastry or breasts—about which he felt far more uncomfortable. The sexual reference was intended as a warning: stay away. He cancelled the project soon thereafter.

When I was young and for a long time afterward, a boy, a man, was expected to be the suitor, the initiator of a date, a goodnight kiss. Rejection must have been dispiriting. Infuriating, often.
 
Perhaps those abusers whose transgressions have been plastered all over the news in recent months never recovered. Maybe their substantial egos were wounded so deeply they couldn’t forget.

Then, monetary success gave them the opportunity to retaliate. Beautiful, sexy young women who needed their approval and assistance would be made to pay for every painful rejection by a desirable woman in the far distant past.

When we dismiss sexual misconduct as an expression of disproportionate male sexual need--“boys will be boys,” after all--we miss the point completely. Utterly.
 
It’s a power thing, baby.