#MeToo: It’s Not About Sex. It’s Always About Power

Two years ago I advised a young researcher at Emory University to take down a FB post detailing the blatant harassment she was experiencing in her lab. In a private e-mail to her, I explained why, detailed my experiences reporting sexual harassment to the university’s HR department, and the repercussions — not for the perpetrator, but for me.

I’m sorry, J. I’m sorry I gave you that advice. I reacted as violently as I did out of fear, for you and for your career. My reputation at Emory was damaged beyond repair when I spoke out. I didn’t want you to experience the same reprisals.

Today I would give you different advice. I would tell you to share your story as widely as possible, and I would stand next to you with my own story* and support you until we found someone to hear and act.

Because no one should have to beg for things that should be basic rights as a human being: the integrity of their own body. The right to choose to have both a career and a family. The right to enough income to support that family. The right to an education. The right not to have to grovel and flatter and beg for these things like a starving dog slinking toward a morsel of food.

We keep silent because we cannot count on witnesses to back us up. They know the costs. The threat of being labeled “a troublemaker” or “not a team player.” The threat of losing our jobs and our careers.

I know that some women are quiet in this conversation because they take a radically different view: that women have long used sex transactionally, because it was all they had to bargain with.

This wasn’t easy for me to write.

I hope my words will make it easier for another to speak.

I maintain that certain things are inalienable rights: to live, not merely exist. To maintain the integrity of my body and to share it only with those I choose — and that sharing my body should not be an obligation to gain money, food, or employment.

Some will read this story and shrug it off as just another routine case of sexual harassment.

This wasn’t easy for me to write.

I hope my words make it easier for someone else to speak.

Many people know parts of the story I am going to tell; very few know all of it. I have been empowered to write this by Sara McClintock and Tish Jennings. Thanks, sisters.

I had an opportunity to do an internship at a prominent public health agency, working on mental health epidemiology, especially PTSD — a particular interest of mine. The woman who would be my supervisor had a reputation for being “prickly” to work with, and didn’t usually accept interns. I was thrilled with the placement, and though I was uncomfortable around my supervisor, I chose not to examine why. At first her actions could be interpreted as innocent: when the department would go out to lunch together, she would ask to ride in my car — with no one else — purportedly so that we could discuss work. When we met in her office, she would insist on closing the door, purportedly to avoid distractions. Later she would claim I had initiated sexual contact in these situations. She would also tell colleagues that I had “led her on” by going out on dates with her and by spending considerable time with her outside of work hours, though I never spent any time with her that I wasn’t required to. We weren’t even friends.

She began to attend the same religious institution I did. Two particular events stand out in my mind from that time. During one event she was seated in the front of the room and I was in the back. She spent two hours turned in her seat, staring at me, trying to catch my eye. On another occasion, I attended a ceremony with my boyfriend and had saved a seat for him. She took his seat next to me, even after I told her I was saving it for him. “He can sit somewhere else,” she said. I held a place in front of me; there wasn’t any room left for two people to sit together. He and I were more than irritated. She spent the entirety of the ceremony staring at my manicured toes. I was nauseated.

I talked up my relationship around her, making it sound much more significant than it was, thinking that might be a deterrent. In retrospect, I sound stupid and naive. I also thought that her own marriage might be a deterrent, especially since her wife witnessed some of her most egregious behavior. More stupidity and naïvety.

I TA’d and co-taught a two-day seminar with her at a university near the public health agency. We had invited a noted researcher from another university as a guest speaker he was someone whose work I greatly admired and I was grateful for the opportunity to meet him. He and I hit it off immediately, and were engaged in an animated conversation right up until the first session began. The faculty had staked out the back row of the classroom for our bags and such. I walked back and bent over to retrieve the handouts we needed. I hadn’t seen her follow me to the back of the room.

Suddenly, I felt hips pressed against mine, hands squeezing my breasts and sliding down to my crotch. No one else had seen it happen. She was smirking. When it was time for me to present my own research, I stumbled and faltered through materials where I would normally have been at ease and conversant.

 

Suddenly, I felt hips pressed against my rear, hands squeezing my breasts and sliding down to my crotch. I stood up and turned around and she walked away, smirking. She knew no one had seen her. I was speechless, shaking. I barely functioned the rest of the day. When I presented on my own research, I stumbled and faltered through my talk, tongue-tied with the material where I would normally have been conversant. But it wasn’t a normal day for me.

That night, about 10 of us went out to dinner. I was seated next to the guest, at the head of the table. Seats weren’t assigned; we just filled in the table as we arrived. My supervisor and her wife were at the other end of the table. (Her wife accompanied her to all of her business functions and on her travel, even when no one else had been invited to bring a spouse or partner.) Engaged in the conversation at my end of the table, I would occasional look down toward the other end. Every time, she was staring at me. I soon realized that she spent the entire evening staring at me. When we left the restaurant, her wife was openly crying.

That behavior would be repeated on a long, multi-city research trip. She tried to arrange for us to be alone together for a weekend in one city on the itinerary, a city I knew well and where I had many friends. I communicated clearly to her before the trip that I would be spending all of my free time with friends. When we arrived there I left the rental car with her and her wife (who had joined the trip at the last minute). I also gave them a list of fun and interesting things to do there, and the best restaurants. Later, it turned out they spent the entire weekend hanging out at the hotel, bored.

I returned to the hotel on Sunday afternoon with a friend and her daughter, so that the child could play on the pool slide and we could hang out at the hot tub and swim-up bar. My supervisor and her wife were sitting on lounge chairs at the edge of the pool. Behind large dark sunglasses, I could see out of the corner of my eye that she was staring at me, following everything I did, moving her chair when she had to. I was angry and disgusted, and I pitied her wife.

I hated going to work and even more, I hated the prospect of ever traveling with her again. I had begun to put on huge amounts of weight while I worked there, an effect of the constant stress. I was falsely accused of fomenting complaints about the work of another member of the group. I lost authorship on a paper I had written.

I wish I could tell you that I did all the right things and justice was served. Attempts to talk with her about her behavior were met with screaming, hysterical denials. Friends and peers were horrified and supportive of me, but there was nothing they could do. I went up the chain of command to her supervisor. There were budget cutbacks, and I was told that mine was one of the contracts that wouldn’t be renewed.

Some women had to sleep with Harvey Weinstein to get a job. I lost mine because I wouldn’t sleep with this bitch.

“It’s always about power.
Sex is merely the weapon,
perverted into an instrument of torture
rather than an expression of love.”
Teri Sivilli

It’s always about power. Sex is merely the weapon, perverted into an instrument of torture, rather than an expression of love.

* The topic of an upcoming blog post.

© 2017 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be reproduced in any manner without the express permission of the author.

Advertisements

Sketches #MeToo

I’ve spent quite a few hours over the past few days writing one of my particularly difficult #MeToo stories. I was going to start this series of posts with it, but I realized a little while ago that I need to ease into this. So I begin with three sketches. In a few days, perhaps, I will be able to let you know about the deeper wounds.


By the late 1980s I had moved out of New York City, over the river to gentrifying Jersey City. From my penthouse apartment in the renovated Baker Chocolate Factory building I had a wonderful view of the Statue of Liberty and lower Manhattan, including the World Trade Center, where I had once worked. The only real difficulty living out of the city was that it was sometimes hard to get a taxi home late at night. One night, after a party, I found a taxi. I was wearing a full-length evening dress, and had only a small evening bag with me. The driver wasn’t following my directions. I told him he was going the wrong way. Then I was screaming at him. He pulled off the road at an auto salvage yard where his friend was waiting. He unlocked the doors and the guy tried to get into the back seat. I was pulling on the door as hard as I could to keep it closed. I re-locked it. His friend had his face up against the window, licking it and swirling his tongue around. I was crying, screaming and swearing at the driver. Finally, he drove on and took me home. I refused to pay him. He got out of the car and came after me. I ended up throwing some money at him to get him to leave me alone.

The next morning, my boyfriend was angry at me for not being able to remember the medallion number of the taxi.


I worked for several years at a spiritual retreat center. One of the high-level managers there was unhappy in his marriage, and let every one of the single women know that. He was always willing to take us out for a drink, buy us lunch, give us IMG_2410rides. One other woman was a particular target of his attentions; she ended up quitting and has moved on to a much better position. On inumberable occasions I would beg another co-worker for a ride when I needed one; they would always refuse, because they knew I already had a ride. Guys, when a woman asks to ride with you instead of someone else, THERE IS A REASON SHE DOESN’T WANT TO BE ALONE IN A CAR WITH THAT OTHER PERSON. Say yes, even if it is out of your way.

 


I worked for Drexel Burnham Lambert before the firm went bankrupt. At one of the infamous “Predator’s Balls” in Beverly Hills, a senior vice president told me he believed it was his right to conduct meetings with his hand inside my blouse. I was only an assistant vice president at the time, and therefore not in a position to refuse.


There was a cute corner bar in Jersey City, the kind of place anyone could go, alone or on a date or with a group of friends. Sometimes I would stop in there on my way home from the PATH train if I didn’t feel like cooking; it was just down my street. One evening, while I was eating dinner, a group of very loud men came in and basically took over the place. Before I knew what was happening, hands were grabbing my breasts.

It would be a long time before I was able to go in there again by myself.


© 2017 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced in any manner without express permission from the author.

“Lions and Leos…”

We were invited to the Belize Lion’s Club dinner by our landlady and her husband. We didn’t know, until we arrived there, that she is the president of the club. From 16 clubs in Belize they’re down to four: Belmopan, Belize City, San Pedro, San Esteban. There’s been a convention all day, some of the discussions contentious, evidently.

While I managed to avoid having a Guinness in Northern Ireland, I’m not so lucky here, but I’m also grateful when I can find a lighter beer. I try the local brew, Belikin, for the first time and like it. It’s a warm, friendly crowd, and we’re served a delicious dinner. And introduced to the local custom of greeting people with the phrase, “Good night.”

Which works in Spanish but not in English. Yet there are strict rules for polite greetings in Belize, and they are observed even among strangers on the street: Good morning until noon; good afternoon until 3 or 4 pm; good evening after than; good night when it is dark.

Some people fudge the times a bit.

Each Lion’s Club has a queen, and the queen from the host club becomes the District 59 queen, so Miss Belize City will become the new queen. The girls are beautiful, and decked out in gorgeous gowns. They have each created fancy pins with their photographs, and the custom is to pin them on as many guests as possible by the end of the evening. T. and I are impartial, and accept pins from everyone who offers one, so we end up festooned with three of the four available pins.

Our collection of pins from the dinner.
Our collection of pins from the dinner.

The talent show starts out predictably enough, with a dance performance. Next comes a speech about the border conflict between Belize and Guatemala, and the conflicts and borders we create among ourselves — which links the decine in Lions membership and activity to petty conflicts and the inability to the members to communicate with one another. It was bold, I thought, and inspiring, that this young woman would confront her elders so openly.

A poetic, lyrical performance by a truly leonine woman followed, stalking the stage as if she herself were a caged lion, professing her commitment to the values of service, to this community within her country in which she had been brought up. Yet all of these are far too small to contain her power.

She talked about her hair, starting out with the statement, “My mother told me to fix my hair. By which she meant to straighten it.” She started with these words. And dissected the levels of meaning inherent in them, what her hair represents of her heritage, of the mixture of races, African slaves and Maya and Caucasian.

But what does that even mean, that hair texture and skin color have come to “mean” something, when we know that race is constructed? It means that she is encouraged to date lighter, not darker, to purify her blood, and I am taken back to a day when I am perhaps 14, my own hair long and curly and wild from a day outside in the sun and the pool and the humidity of the southern Arizona monsoon season, dressed in cut-off Levi’s 501s, and one of my father’s t-shirts, deeply tanned, very thin, a woman’s body hiding a girl who was afraid of the attention afforded to that body. And my mother’s bitter words when I entered the house: “Go do something with that nigger hair.”

A decade later and 2,000 miles away I am living with and engaged to an African-American man, a relationship my family would not accept. And so I ended the relationship, as I had straightened my hair, to please them. To conform.

And ended up alone.

I have only half the hair I once did; cancer treatments took the rest. But I revel in the days when my hair still curls wildly, am grateful for the effects of salt water and ocean breezes.

The final speech of the evening was delivered in the first person, in the form of a letter written after her own death by a dancer at a Belize club to her lover. To let him know why she had never come home, why she had simply disappeared. Telling how the bus had been late that night, and she had made the decision to walk home, the decision that had delivered her to her death. Sensing the presence behind her. Turning to meet the man who would chain her to an iron table, duct tape over her mouth, and begin to vivisect her body. Sliding in and out of consciousness. Understanding, in the moment when she realized she no longer had legs, that her life was over.

The duct tape off her mouth, warned not to scream as he began again to work with his knife, starting the incision at the side of her face. He told her he would kill her if she screamed. She could no longer stand the pain. The knife came toward her head, not to slit her throat, as she assumed, but to cut out her tongue. Her last memory would be drowning. She would die by drowning in her own blood.

I was older than her, at least 25, before I knew about snuff films and understood the more extreme forms of sadism and sexual violence in our world. The woman who delivered this speech is 19, dressed in an elegant white dress and rhinestone tiara. She is poised and graceful.

I wished so much that she did not know, did not have to know, of this violence against women in this world; that she did not have to know that this is the fate that awaits so many women in this world, to have their lives ripped open, sliced apart, that literally or figuratively they will end up in chains, their bodies and their spirits dissected, until they drown in their own feeble protests.

By all that is sacred in this world I wish she did not have to know that.

©2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be reproduced or used in any manner without permission of the author.

“…and my husband is in prison here…”

One afternoon, waiting for the bus, I walked over to the front doors of the Belize Central Prison to take a photograph of the wood carvings. A Caucasian woman was waiting on the visitor bench — the first Caucasian I had seen there. I suspect she is much younger than she looked; she had blue wool braided and woven into her blond hair and started to speak to me with the flat vowels of the Midwest as I was pointing my camera at the door.

What follows here is as close to verbatim as I could capture the conversation.

“It’s great that you appreciate the woodwork,” she said. “They all live with it all the time, so they don’t even notice it. My brother is in prison in the States in Minnesota and my husband is in prison here.”

“How long is he in for?” I asked.

“Maybe up to three years. Well, you know how nobody in this country claims their true identity until they absolutely need to? And see, he was applying for a passport and they ran his real name and found an old drug charge from 2008 and between Monday morning and Monday afternoon he was brought to the prison. But we’re hoping to appeal, because he wasn’t physically served, and I know the rules about that, because I’ve done lots of that kind of work. And he didn’t have any representation. So if his appeal goes through, he’ll only serve one year instead of three. I’m here today to pick up his baseball cap and shirt. I had the trip planned already, and there wasn’t any point in changing my plans because there wasn’t anything I could do for him by arriving a week earlier.

“My brother is going to parole soon but I don’t know if I am going to go up to receive him because he can’t parole to my house, because he paroled to my house last time, and you can’t parole to the same family home in 10 years. So he needs to go somewhere else, and he might have found someone else to receive him, but I don’t know if he can live there.”

“Why are you here?” she asked. I explained that we were teaching a course in the prison. I didn’t give a lot of details.

“I think the work you guys are doing is awesome, but I can’t do anything like that, because of this tatoo (a green shark on her neck), and when they see it they say I’m in a gang, and I say, yeah, a gang of one, but it’s a shark, and it’s above the collar, so I can’t teach in prison. It was supposed to be a larger tatoo, a small green shark with a larger pink shark curved around it but I had a horrible reaction to the green ink, it’s because of what they put in it, my neck swelled out to her (holding her hand about five inches from her neck, which was still well within the crown of her braids) and so I never had the other shark done. But I’m hoping to tutor some Belizeans in English, not to take away Belizean jobs, but American English, so they can compete for American jobs. I have an associate’s degree in sales and marketing so I’ve had all those English classes and such.”

At that point, the bus pulled up, and we boarded.

I never saw her again, and have no idea what happened to her husband. I do know she never receieved his baseball cap.

Below: Detail from the doors at the Belize

image

 

image

©2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be reproduced or used in any manner without permission of the author.

She taught me to drive

She taught me to drive, the summer I turned 15 and a half, which is when you could get a learner’s permit in Arizona. My parents tried. My first session, with my mother, ended with mom screaming and trying to grab the steering wheel from the passenger seat, even though I was only driving in circles in a shopping mall parking lot which, due to blue laws, was empty on a Sunday afternoon. The second teaching attempt, by my father, ended with him swearing at me for being hopelessly stupid. I had missed out on driver’s ed. That was offered the previous summer, when everyone else in my class at school had their learner’s permits. I was a year younger, and student-teaching during the week, and so I was on my own that summer for the driving.

Enter Donna, and an easy, graceful, generous offer to teach me to drive. Ten years older than me, the only girl of my five Tucson cousins, Donna was the first woman I had looked up to: tall, legs that went on forever, thick brown hair. And cool. I was not cool. She was a genuine hippie, who smoked and drank and partied and wore hot pants and high heels and tons of eyeliner. Except when she wore cut-off jeans and wild print blouses and went barefoot everywhere in her awesome Navajo and Hopi jewelry. I remember her babysitting me and my sisters one night while my parents were out to dinner. I was maybe eight; Donna was going to a party after my parents got home. The idea of a party that would begin that late was something I knew only from movies and television. I didn’t know anyone who would attend a party like that. Except Donna.

She showed up at our front door on a Saturday morning, dressed in cut-offs and a boho print blouse, and handed me the keys to her four-speed Datsun. I got in the driver’s seat; she explained the clutch and gears. And then she pulled a beer out of the six-pack in the bag on the floor on the passenger side, reclined her seat, flipped her sunglasses off the top of her head, and told me to start driving.

When you’re 15-and-a-half, and as awkward as it is possible to be at that age, your coolness factor goes way up when you’re cruising Tucson on a Saturday morning with your semi-drunk and much more beautiful cousin in the car. The only time she reached over was to honk at cute guys. I know I looked panicked the day that she was seriously willing to pick up a couple of totally built guys unloading a truck. The alcohol left her quite relaxed about my driving errors: left turns I never should have attempted; grinding the gears (“that’s not the best thing for the car, T.”); endless stalls because I would take my foot off the clutch at stop lights (all of the cars in my family were automatics).

Her attitude gave me the confidence that my parents’ panicked criticism couldn’t, and to this day I am a self-assured driver, and grateful that I learned on a manual transmission – never more so than on a business trip to Eastern Europe a few years ago, when a local colleague dangled a set of car keys in front of our group, and said that he couldn’t drive the two hours to our destination, as his license had been suspended. As the other members of our group looked at each other in horror, I took the keys, got in, engaged the clutch, and maneuvered out of the tight parallel parking space. Without stalling.

I was much older before I realized the implications of those beers. And her many car accidents. And the overt and sometimes misplaced sexuality. The arrests. And the stays at Betty Ford, Steps, and every other decent rehab place that existed at the time. And finally, her descent into a long illness that left her dead, far too young.

And I was far too young to understand some of the things she said to me. That there are things that happen to a person that cannot be undone. That people take things, as if they are on loan, things that can’t be returned.

I get it now, Donna. And I still look up to you. For your boldness and your spirit. I don’t know if I ever thanked you properly for teaching me to drive, but I am so very grateful. (I wish you could have seen me coming off the mesa in Telluride in the rain. You would have been so proud. The other people in the car said I had nerves of steel.) I remember you often.

Always, and most particularly, when I engage the clutch.

Donna
Donna Marie Sivilli 1949-2011

© 2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

Amazing Grace

Two weekends ago I celebrated my friend Abraham’s 50th birthday in Nashville. Family and friends converged on that city from various places around the US. His girlfriend (and now fiancée) Shannon arranged it, and the location was a surprise for him. I’d never been to Nashville before; I’ve only driven around it on my way to other places.

It turned out to be the weekend when I discovered that I know nothing about the country in which I was born and raised.

I have had hints of this before: stopping for gas in Wyoming on a cross country trip in 2012, I perused the books for sale in the gas station/Burger King/Subway/convenience store: testimonials about God’s power to turn around the most wretched life; advice for women about how to be a proper Christian wife. Nothing I would be willing to read.

Our Friday night plans were to go to dinner at an Indian fusion restaurant, and then to go to the Grand Ole Opry. We were having a good time at dinner, and Shannon called the Opry to find out if we would be seated if we were late. It turns out this is a much more casual venue than most concert halls, and it’s not a problem to show up late. The first thing that struck me, when we walked in, is that we were listening to music seated in church pews. And I realized that many of the mega-churches in the US have been built on the model of the Opry hall: a semi-circular bank of pews rising from the stage, where the preacher/performer can be seen from any seat in the house.

The second thing I noticed, as I looked around the audience, was color. Not the people. Their color was a given. White. As in Anglo-Saxon white. My olive complexion is the darkest in the house. (I had noticed this earlier. I’m in Tennessee, I’m only four hours from Atlanta, and everyone is white. This is puzzling to me. I know that African-American people live in Tennessee. I just can’t figure out where Nashville is hiding them.) No, the color was in the clothes. This wasn’t an edgy, rock-concert audience where people are dressed in denim and black. Nor a tie-dyed Deadhead audience. It’s white blouses and blue jeans on the women. And peroxide poured on their hair. Denim on the guys. White and blue were the predominant colors as I looked out across the audience, set off against the red seat cushions in the pews.

The Opry was launched on Novembe 28, 1925. There are performances on Friday and Saturday nights, and they are broadcast, live, on WSM 650. The broadcast can be heard in 38 states and parts of Canada, and it is streamed on their website. The Opry is on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, and a few other media I don’t even recognize.

One of the first songs we heard was Bubba Garcia. Abraham, an anthropologist by training and a professor of religious studies in Atlanta, leaned over and tapped my shoulder. “This is one for your paper,” he said. I looked at him wordlessly, my mouth open in shock. Thanks to his mother, Elaine, who figured out how to access the archives of Opry shows, I have the lyrics (appended here). I Googled the lyrics, but the ones I found online were nowhere near as offensive to me as they were sung that night. Why not bring back the old Frito Bandito TV ad?

No one outside of our group seems to be offended by this song. I realize this this is a song you can sing only when you are certain you are singing to people who think just like you.
Jonathan Jackson begins an emotive performance, mostly on his knees, with the comment that “some say the Psalms were the first Blues.” He sings “Love Rescue Me” (by U2!) beautifully, but I cannot focus on his lyrics, because I am caught by the cultural appropriation: with his opening, Jackson wiped out the entire connection of the Blues with slaves working Southern fields, and with the spiritualist tradition that fused with African music. One of the people to whom Jackson dedicates the song is Michael Stipe. As we leave the hall, we are concerned. Has something happened to Michael Stipe? A quick search on our phones tells us he is fine. Is this a reference to Stipes’s “Losing My Religion” – now 20 years old – or to his sexual orientation? It’s another thing we can’t quite understand.

This is the United States of America. This is the country that the rest of the world can’t figure out. And now I am truly beginning to understand why.

But there is something else going on. The music is awesome. Bluegrass. Mountain Music. Country Music. Played by artists so skilled they make it look easy, effortless. This is party of my cognitive dissonance. And it contributes to my cognitive dissonance that this music, with its roots in the hills and the plains, the swamps and the rivers, is authentic, the music that is embedded in this land.

There is authenticity, as well, in the appearance of the performers. None of them has had work done. Their faces show age, experience, emotion. Connie Smith lost her lead guitarist the previous week in a fatal automobile accident. Her grief is evident, not only on her face and in her voice, but also, in the black pantsuit she wears. I can’t imagine a Hollywood star allowing herself to be projected onto a Jumbotron looking so genuinely haggard and sad.

At the end of the show Ronnie Milsap sings a song from his new gospel album, the one he will be signing, and “shaking hands and saying howdy-do” in the gift shop after the performance. Ronnie is celebrating his 40th anniversary of being inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, and he is singing about knowing he will walk those streets of gold and he believes it: heaven is a physical place to him. He wears a black shirt, studded with rhinestones and embroidered with bright red flowers.

With my friends, who are white, and African-American, and Asian, and combinations of races, and Christian and Jewish and Buddhist and Muslim, and educated and open-minded and liberal and humanist, I have a forum for discussing the set and setting of this music, for discussing the alienation I am feeling. A framework to talk about the fact that I do not know the country in which I was born and brought up. At the Opry, I realized that I was in the company of the majority of the electorate in this country, the people who hold the values that will elect Donald Trump. So I am happy that I heard this concert, and experienced the Opry, in the company of some of these friends.

I do not respect the outlook of the people sitting in the Opry audience with their cans of beer and processed hair, and the Confederate flags on their cars in the parking lot, laughing hysterically at Bubba Garcia. I do not think that song is cute, or funny. I think Jackson needs to learn some music history. But I realize that these people came by their opinions honestly, if without self-reflection. And I know that if I had lived their lives I might think and act as they do. I do not assume malicious intent on their part (Except in the case of the flags. I can’t see anything but malice in a Confederate flag). I recognize that many of their attitudes are rooted in ignorance and fear and I know how powerfully ignorance drives fear, and how fear closes us in upon ourselves, makes us crave the familiar and fear that which is different.

I wrote most of this sitting in the lobby of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Everyone in line for the ticket office is staring at their phone while they wait in the interminable line. After you get your ticket, you have to stand in another line to get in. This is one thing I will remember about Nashville: the lines. We are in Mecca. And the Hajj goes on year ‘round, even in sub-freezing temperatures.

In this entire complex, there is only one recycling bin. A token, like the one African-American family in the complex that afternoon. Recycling is a symbol of an America that has to husband its resources, to care for the planet, and not exploit it indefinitely. And the America inhabited by the people around me possesses a God-given right to conquer, to subjugate, to live as they wish without regard for consequence. And because these people have accepted Jesus as Lord, they will walk the gold-paved streets of which Milsap sings. Literally.

But in the end, there is the music. Music that we can still feel when we walk this land, rather than pave over it with concrete.

Connie Smith closes the show with Amazing Grace. Vince Gill sits in on guitar. These people are family to each other. The notes of his haunting, heartfelt solo stay with me as I leave the hall.

In the end, as in the beginning, there is the music.


You can check out the lyrics to Bubba Garcia here: Bubba Garcia

 

 

© 2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved.

 

Occlusion

This post is about seeing. And blocks to seeing. In Buddhism, we speak of the fault of wrong view, of not perceiving reality correctly. This is the kind of seeing of which I write, here, on the second anniversary of Pete Seeger’s death. I was working in the Hudson Valley when he died, staying not far from his home in Beacon, NY. His loss was felt acutely there, for Seeger was a constant, loving, joyful presence in the area.

I missed my last opportunity to see him perform live. Chained to my desk trying to finish a project on a ludicrously unreasonable deadline, I had skipped the Clearwater Festival the previous summer. Sitting at the same desk where I had spent a hot and resentful 48 hours a few months prior, I wept for his loss, and also with gratitude for what he had given us. And comforted myself with his music. One recording, in particular, resonated with me in the days following his death: a duet with Joni Mitchell of Both Sides Now, with an added verse composed by Seeger, which you can watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wyYuFBj8PTU

Two years later, I am again sitting with sadness and grief, but not for a current loss. I am grieving the loss of my father, though I have lived more of my life without him than with him. Now I seek to learn how to honor this sacred space of grieving not only for the loss of my father but more so for my misunderstanding of his life, which led me to hold a cold and arid memory of him these many years. In this time I am reminded of the words of the fourth verse to Both Sides Now, the verse that Seeger penned:

Newborn me 3
Me, newly born.

Daughter, daughter, don’t you know
You’re not the first to feel just so?
So let me say, before I go,
It’s worth it any way.

Some day we all may be surprised,
We’ll wake, and open up our eyes
And then at last, we’ll realize
The whole world feels this way.

We’ve all been living upside down
And turned around, with love unfound
Until we turn and face the sun
Yes, all of us, everyone. 

I have always envied those of my friends whose lives fit into neat, orderly narratives, and especially those who had a photographic record to accompany those narratives.

I do not have a neat, orderly narrative, and far too few photographs—though, I recently learned, many more than I thought. Looking for a letter from my father, I found a treasure chest of old photographs.

Dad and me
Dad reading to me, early 1960s.

I will never have a complete picture of my life. Several important pieces of the puzzle are missing, and the people who hold them are dead. But this past week, I discovered a big, anchoring, important piece of the puzzle. I didn’t do it alone. And it didn’t magically drop from the sky in one day. It was, rather, the culmination of years of work, of questions, of anger, of frustration, of struggle with a hard, blocked place in my heart. When that place yielded, it gave way to space for grief. For softness. For forgiveness, and to nurture love’s tender tendrils. And yes, for many forgotten, sweet memories.

Jack Kerouac was on to something when he suggested we forgive everyone for our own sins, and tell everyone we love them. I pray I may I be forgiven for my sins, especially for the sin of not seeing. Of wrong view, of not seeing correctly. For focusing my lens on what would better have been forgotten, and for letting fade that which I should have treasured, which could have nourished me.

When I converted to Buddhism I created a small shrine in my home, crowded with pictures of my teachers. I added another one today, to honor a man who was not able to show his love to his family in a way we could understand. The man whose name I carry. A photo to remind me that sometimes I do not see what is obvious, right in front of me. In the same way that water is imperceptible to a fish, someone had to help me see the love that had nurtured me. I learned, as well, that fear and love can beget anger.

As I light candles and offer prayers today, I think also with gratitude of three people who supported me — and continue to support me — on this journey and who guided me to this place of understanding. They held me and my pain and my stories; pointed out the contours of this missing piece of the puzzle of my life; and showed me how it all could fit together, until at last I was able to clear the blocks and see.

Me2

© 2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved.