What have we learned; what have we forgotten?

Like you, in my home, we’ve watched a lot of movies over the past three months of pandemic. In selecting what to watch after the dismal news of the day, my suggestions most often are met with the observation that “we’ve already seen it.” Impossible. I have no recollection. And yet halfway into the film, so it is—a family rerun. Why did I not remember?

I have the same issue with books I’ve read: I have imbibed them, even with relish, but I haven’t digested them. The past few days I’ve been re-reading the third volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. I had recalled the first reading as a tedious and tawdry account of Elena’s affair with Nino Sarratore. In this second reading, I’m halfway through what now appears a paean to her friendship with Lila; Nino is nowhere to be seen. How can my experiences be so divergent?

Plato in The School of Athens—Raphael

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates warns that the act of writing undermines memory. With a written record, we have no need to remember. Our memory is vested in an externalized account. That said, the internet age must not undermine but demolish human memory. I did have an internalized memory of Elena’s story. It just happened to be at odds with the actual book.

Faulty memory leads to mistakes, from incorrect “external” information to stereotyping to inappropriate behaviors. This weekend of protests against racism across the United States, I walked on the beach, where someone had sculpted a dozen faux graves, a memorial to recent deaths by racism. Is racism a problem of faulty memory—as from habitual faulty associations or from failing to learn what prior experience has revealed?

We surely remember that slavery did not work out well for the United States. It set the country against itself by contradicting its ideals: All men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights—except for black people who are only 3/5 equal.

Slavery: the saddest story in United States history. Launched in the 17th century, and outlawed in the 19th. Yet, as the 19th flowed into the 20th century, the subjugation of black people mutated into the Jim Crow era of different rules for black and white people. It seeped into the 21st century with unequal enforcement of law and inequitable exercise of justice. Ongoing racial degradation has brought us in 2020 the knee-jerk killing of Ahmed Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia, the mistaken identity and slaughter of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, his windpipe crushed under a policeman’s knee. Persistent erroneous associations pigeonhole black as different, unequal, and dangerous. What have we learned, and what have we forgotten?

At one of our kids’ college graduations in Chicago, the university president opened the ceremonies by memorializing a black woman graduate, killed the day before she was able to don her cap and gown. She was driving from downtown back to campus and was pulled over by police. She stopped and raised both hands in the air. Her cell phone was in her right hand. The officer thought it was a weapon and shot her.

Condoleeza Rice, 66th U.S. Secretary of State

We might say that to racially profile is to willfully forget. By 2020, white people across the United States cannot have escaped close encounters and intimate connections with black people. Consider your fellow students, your colleagues, your teammates, your parents’ caregivers. Before and during this century, US society has come to elevate black people to positions of prominence and power—from jazz singers to opera singers, from sports icons to Supreme Court justices, from mayors to Secretaries of State, from four-star generals to Attorney General, from Governor to President of the United States. Haven’t we transcended issues with black equality, humanity, worthiness, acceptance, intelligence, goodness, and competence?

I was lucky, I think, to have experienced a glimpse at racism at the age of four. Candy, my contemporary neighbor, told me one morning when we were playing on the sidewalk in front of our houses that her family had a colored lady working at their house. I was captivated by the mental image: a lady of many colors! I said I wanted to see her. We tip-toed down her basement stairs and peeked into her laundry room, where a gentle-faced woman was folding laundry. I asked where the colored lady was, but Candy pointed only to the lady doing laundry. I saw no colored lady and continued to look back and forth, perplexed by Candy’s mischievous expression. I gave up trying to figure it out, and we went back upstairs. The interchange left me uneasy. Was Candy telling me a joke I didn’t get? There might be something odd about her family, I felt inwardly. We remained sidewalk friends but not for long because my family moved to a different house, and Candy’s family moved to Minneapolis.

Last month a beautiful friend of mine passed away. She was a woman of warmth and smiles, and she was colorful: well traveled, a quilt maker, tastefully dressed, a mother of five, irrepressibly energetic. She was several years older than I, but we found commonality in hailing from different parts of Chicago and transplanting to the Pacific Northwest. We discovered that we had each at one time worked in the same school district, she as a principal, I as a student teacher. In our eventual west coast locale, we taught at the same college before she retired. The last times we saw each other were at a UPS outpost and at a piano recital this past March, just before the coronavirus lockdown. She and her husband were there for their grandson’s recital. I was there for my husband’s, as he had taken up piano over the past few years.

They say my friend died on Saturday of a cerebral hemorrhage the day before. She went, as they say, very quickly, before we knew she had been hospitalized. Some people wondered: was it COVID19 related? They didn’t treat it as such at the time, but having learned since then the relationship between coronavirus and blood clotting, could it be? We know that black people for whatever reasons—personal history? genetic predisposition? environmental chance?—are disproportionately stricken. In any case, my friend died. She happened to be a black woman, though I saw no black in her.

Body and spirit

For years I have accepted without question, that humans are a balance of spirit and body, though I think I have devoted more care to the body. As a child, I took both body and spirit for granted, I suppose, favoring bodily health over any concern for my daily dose of happiness. But this was because I had been given happiness by a wagon train of perpetual loving care around my circle of life.

January in Chicago

In January of my sixth grade year, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as 35th president. The following Friday night, my parents had a dramatic argument, admittedly not so dramatic by today’s entertainment standards. We ate dinner late on TV trays and watched the spookiest episode of Twilight Zone I have ever seen: The Hitchhiker (for those who care to follow up). The next morning, although my sisters and I were still a little shell-shocked, both from our parents’ emotions and the horrifying television show, Mom and Dad were all smiles. They had made up, and life went on.

New figure skates

It was a bitingly frigid Saturday in Chicago-land. The cold meant the ponds were frozen and our buoyant parents were taking us ice skating at Phillips Park. Coming of age in this era meant a pair of figure skates if you were a girl—hockey skates for boys— from Santa one Christmas. The perfect skating weather foretold a crowded rink, although this one was enormous, probably a good acre. Yet figure skaters and hockey skaters fought for turf, their styles hopelessly at odds: hockey skaters ramping up speed while figure skaters glided and scratched curlicues into the ice. This day, like a running back in football, there came a moment when in mid-twirl I tried to jig around a charging boy claiming right of way. My lower left leg folded underneath the rest of me—and I couldn’t get up.

Skating park

Mom and Dad skidded across twenty yards of ice to the rescue, each grabbing an arm. Mom said, “Stand up.”  I could not. “It’ll feel better if you walk on it.” But still my leg gave way with the slightest weight. They gave each other a look. Within five minutes my three sisters had circled back to our home bench. Grudgingly they changed into their boots and slung skates over their shoulders. We were headed for medical attention at Dreyer Clinic, about fifteen minutes away. My instructions from the doctor were ambiguous: go easy. They would call us by Monday, after someone took a look at the x-ray.

Two days later, I still struggled on crutches, unable to bear any pressure on my left leg and my mom still urging me to “walk on it.” The clinic called with a diagnosis. I’d suffered a fractured fibula. I would get a walking cast for six weeks. My more sedate and cautious 7th-grade sister burned with envy; my classmates would be able to sign my cast with doodles and cheery greetings. I failed to be inspired by her enthusiasm for my lame condition. I sat alone in our empty living room, stilled and dismayed, waiting to be cleared to return to school. On the third day, my favorite uncle, Uncle Bill, came to visit, that is, to visit me! Always ebullient, he blew in, dashed to my side, and with a flourish bent over my leg and kissed it, declaring that all would be well. Now encouraged and heart-warmed, I knew I could handle the weeks to come.

The next six weeks I could wear only skirts and shorts, in a Midwestern February and March, mind you. But I remember these winter days fondly, as a pleasant departure from the dreary slog of a long winter. Too soon the cast came off.  Spring was in the air, and I was free. On a Friday, precisely ten days later, a last blast of winter roared in mid-morning, scouring the streets with fresh drifting snow. As usual, we walked home for lunch, but begged Mom to drive us back for the afternoon session.

As we pleaded, the telephone in our kitchen rang. Mom answered cheerfully but immediately grew quiet. She thanked the caller (our family doctor, we learned) and whisked us into the living room to sit down. Puzzled, we held our collective breath while slowly, calmly, Mom explained. Our Uncle Bill, my dad’s brother and best friend, 39 years old, father of our four closest cousins, had collapsed and died suddenly of an aneurysm. I felt my heart too had stopped. I heard the echo of his assurance that all would be well. I had thought all had become well, but Spring had been overtaken by frigid cold and ice. We walked back to school. I was walking normally, but I would never see Uncle Bill again. 

Less than three years later, I was now a sophomore in high school. Our fall term choir class was interrupted by the public address system at just past noon. JFK, our handsome and inspiring President had been shot. Stunned, the forty or more rowdy teens in the choir sat speechless. Twenty minutes later, the PA crackled again and pronounced that the President was dead. These events strung together in my memory of the early 1960s, like a chain of clouds in an otherwise flawless sky.

Image

Decades later, strolling along a Northwest beach in January, a woman walked with a friend, not far from my path along the shoreline. She swung along on crutches, landing on her solitary leg. The beach stretched for miles, but on she swung, never pausing, apparently never flinching, in rapt conversation. I held back behind the two of them, thinking and wondering: eventually she would have to turn and walk back to her starting point. Such thoughts did not appear to deter her, as she kept pace, effortlessly it seemed. It struck me that this woman was whole, unified. She possessed the balance I forever lacked. As I walked on two legs in tennis shoes, I thought how brief and inconsequential my childhood incapacitation had been over a couple of winter months many years ago. For me the old struggles from emotional upheavals still mattered. Momentarily disruptive physical events had faded, all but blown away with the snow drifts. My body had a habit of healing, while the spirit held fast, frozen in its pain.